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Many Strange Depths: An Interview with Ted Sanders

Philip Graham talks with his former student, Ted Sanders, about Sanders's debut collection No Animals We Could Name, the transcendence of the ordinary, the role animals play in his fiction, and his forthcoming middle-grade reader fantasy series, The Keepers, which will debut from HarperCollins next year with its first volume: The Box and the Dragonfly.


Ted SandersSometimes, when you read a student’s first story you know that he or she could carve a life as a writer—if they so chose.  Even on those occasions when the story may be rough or unformed, the essential power shines through. This was certainly my impression when I first read the work of Ted Sanders, who at the time was an older student in one of my undergraduate fiction workshops at the University of Illinois. He continued on to our MFA in writing program, where the other students would nod with appreciation and say, “Ted Sanders, oh yeah, he’s the one.”

So no one was surprised when Ted’s stories began appearing in Confrontation, the Southern Review, Gettysburg Review, and the 2010 O. Henry Prize Stories anthology. His first collection, No Animals We Could Name (Graywolf, 2012), won the 2011 Bakeless Prize for Fiction and in 2013 was longlisted for The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The collection has garnered praise from the New Yorker, Village Voice, Bookslut and elsewhere, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune gets it right with this observation: “He makes us see everything anew.”

The life of a writer Ted Sanders has, indeed, built. He’s also the recipient of a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and has just recently hit the publishing world’s big time: in 2014 The Box and the Dragonfly (the first volume of his middle-grade fantasy series, The Keepers, part of a four-book deal) will be published by HarperCollins. He teaches fiction writing at the University of Illinois and lives with his family in Urbana.

Interview:

Philip Graham: The title of your debut collection, No Animals We Could Name, really seems to bind the many threads of the stories together—so many animals appear, some front and center, others lurking about the periphery: the halibut and octopus in “Flounder” are arrestingly present, while the deer in “Deer in the Road” is the off-stage cause of a car accident. After a while I became attuned to any animal’s appearance. When I read of distant barking in the first section of “Airbag,” I suspected that dog would become important much later. When did the accumulation of animals in your stories give you a sense that you had something interesting to work with?

Ted Sanders: Truthfully, I was pretty slow to catch on to the animal thing. I think I had written maybe eight or ten stories before I realized almost every one had an animal in it. I guess my fascination with animals (with nature in general, with evolution and all the sciences) just finds its way into the stories. It’s still happening in the stuff I’m writing now, maybe because animals seem like such a natural extension of our humanness, in all these perfectly human but also utterly foreign and fascinating ways. And I just like to talk about creatures in general, the way they are, the way they live their lives.

The various animals are so vibrant as living creatures in your book that they sometimes rival the human characters. And at the same time, they heighten, by their repeated presence, the place they hold in our imaginations, and perhaps our own animal nature. Is that what the title, No Animals We Could Name, refers to in some way?

I haven’t really told the story of how the title came about, so let me try that. I wrote most of the book during a period when a very intense and complicated marriage was falling apart in a very protracted and painful way. That relationship, and its aftermath, is really at the center of all these stories. And my wife at the time, she would always have these long vivid dreams, and she would tell me about them, and one of these dreams was—as I remember it—this lovely manifestation of the uncertain territory of separation we were both struggling through. I don’t remember the entirety of it, but I do know that our dog was in this dream, in the shady driveway of this house that neither of us really owned anymore but that we had both by then lived in alone. He was eating something, she said, or maybe he was sick, and when she tried to open his mouth she saw that instead of teeth his mouth was full of tiny little animals. I picture them writhing around in there, this menagerie, though I’m not sure she said that. But she did say that they were strange animals, not any kind of animals that had a name. And that’s where the title came from. The book could never have been called anything else, not after that.

So yeah, it just seems like there are these beasts operating in our lives, doing these mysterious and magical and horrible things, and not only can we not know their names but we can’t even know to what degree we create them or they create us or who walks who. And we share them, or think we do, and they roam between us. Maybe it’s my way of thinking of us as machine-like, and thinking of human nature as our attempt to either blame or control or deny all these machinations that drive us forward and back, together and apart. It’s definitely true that for me the animals in the collection don’t really feel symbolic, per se, but that they feel like markers along a continuum that stretches out from the individuals we each are, and into the world from which we’ve each risen, and then up onto the living islands of other human beings. In the stories, those creatures are the entities that erode our edges but also populate—and mappishly plot—the expanses between us.

There’s a lovely description of the halibut in the story “Flounder”:

The halibut is so good at camouflage that he can imitate the patterns of textured rock, or the striped silt rippled by currents, or of a checkerboard. The feat is a willful act that involves the eyes, an understanding of one’s surroundings, and the learned discovery of the chemical endeavors of the skin—though of course the halibut does not know these things about himself. It does not occur to the fish to wonder how he knows to alter himself this way, even now on the seafloor, far below the man, as he begins to make himself go dark against the dusky silt.

This passage, which comes early in the collection, tipped me off to the mirror-like qualities of the animals reflecting the various human characters. We, too, don’t often know “things about ourselves,” we struggle through our impulses and behavior as if in contact with an intimate interior stranger. I’m thinking in particular of James, the fellow in “Momentary,” who disfigures himself almost as a quick impulse.

Yeah, that guy. He’s tapped into something he can’t quite put into words, and most of the story is his protracted effort to do so. A lot of the collection is concerned with the impossibility of putting things fully into words, into touch, into any act of sharing. Trying to leap across those gaps between us.

Which reminds me of the language James uses to describe his maiming:

I could tell her how it seems to me now that exposing the hidden strings and meats of my hand was akin to dragging a gelatinous deep-sea creature to the surface of the ocean, into a deadly and blinding alien light, a shape-killing near vacuum.

I think that’s why I tend to regard the book animals as populating some of that in-between terrain. I would say it’s not so much that the animals reflect, but that they provide another aspect of humanness to turn the camera towards. They are another rich and telling signal of our selves. I like that phrase, “intimate interior stranger.” I think I tend to have high hopes for that stranger. A lot of the energy that went into the book certainly came from a lot of self-examination. Of my self and those close to me. Why we do things. How we do them. How the larger patterns of our deeds could maybe be read, and maybe turned into some kind of schematic of causality and reactivity and blame—and therefore also, if you’re like me, of prediction and navigation and absolution. These mechanisms are the beasts I was talking about, and I guess this is what I mean when I say machine-like, this search for patterns or rules. But of course there is no schematic. Maybe the stranger has the schematic, or pretends to. Or maybe that’s the need we have—the need to believe in the stranger in the first place. But if he does exist, and if he does have a schematic, I reckon it’s written in shapes we could never discern anyway.

Concerning the search for patterns, there’s the creepy, haunting story, “The Lion,” which I have read several versions of—initially when you first workshopped it as an undergraduate, and then as a graduate student, at the University of Illinois. A woman creates a strange plush toy-like creature, a lion, beginning with the act of sewing him out of her daughter’s bedsheets. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the woman’s daughter has died, and that this is an elaborate form of mourning, both mute and eloquent. She pulls a whisker from her live cat to transfer to the soft lion, makes it teeth from chicken bones, even loosens the stitches of the lion and drips some of her husband’s sperm into the creature’s open belly. It’s a heartbreaking story—the graphic details of the toy animal are in contrast to the unspoken details of the child’s life, and death. In a way, the more we see of this grief-filled lion, the more mysterious it becomes.

No Animals We Could Name High ResI think the fact that the daughter’s death isn’t mentioned explicitly contributes to the cloudiness and the claustrophobia of the story, and hopefully to the oppressive prowliness of the lion. That’s one of the more overt animal elements in the book, the lion being this manifestation of grief. I was really taken with the idea of grief being like a pet that you would nurture, but not any species of pet a human should really keep, because it could get too unmanageable, too autonomously wild. I liked the idea of grief as a creature, with all the implicit meaning of the word attached. And then of course the creature does get too big, too well-tended, and for this woman it ends up becoming, in a way, disloyal, which I think is sort of the fascinating thing about grief, or maybe any depressive emotion. The fact that such emotions can betray us is a hint at our devotion to them, even though we tend not to think of them that way.

This story, by the way, is maybe the only thing I’ve ever written which was directly inspired by another short story—Elizabeth Graver’s “The Mourning Door,” which for my money is just about as exquisite a story as can be.

I remember teaching that when it came out in the Best American Stories anthology, a haunting story that is, at its core, about the desire to give birth. If Graver’s story gave imaginative birth to “The Lion,” then that should be added to its long list of awards and honors.

I’d like to talk a little about the intensity of your writing, which I think is an aspect of the stories that many readers have connected with. Your narrators are deeply observant, even when they are rather confused about their motivations. And especially when under deep stress: I’m thinking of “Deer in the Road,” which places the reader in the present-tense mind of a man who, having swerved off the road to avoid hitting a deer, is plummeting down to a concrete creek bed and certain doom. Rather than scrolling through his past, he’s absolutely in the moment: “Memory struggles here against such a lavish experience as this.” Yet many of the stories in this collection brilliantly announce the “lavish experience” of living in the world, offer the reader a way to see the transcendence of the ordinary.

For better or for worse, that’s just my natural way at looking at the world. The ordinary really is pretty transcendent, if you look at it hard enough. And it’s not that I’m hyper-observant, really, but I do tend to want to get to the bottom of everything—or at least (because there never is a bottom) to that point where I can’t discern or even imagine any further.  I’ll see a mileage sign on the highway saying 242 miles to Memphis, and I will wonder how that got figured—did someone drive it? If so, what did they drive and was the decision to put the sign in that exact spot preordained, so that the measurer would know when to stop? Or did they just calculate the distance on paper, or maybe using the mileage markers on the side of the road—but if so, who put the mile markers up in the first place, and how was it done? How big was the truck holding all those mile markers, and were they in order? Did they know in advance how many they’d need?

I feel like part of my head is always tuned to a station like that. And so I do have this tendency to get caught up by the gravity of minutiae, to be thinking my way through and around all the little elements of the world. I think if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s thinking of things in many different ways, from many different perspectives, to many strange depths. And that bleeds heavily into my writing, no question.

In some sense, your writing seems to preserve, in an adult’s voice, a child’s deep curiosity. So I wasn’t entirely surprised when I first heard that you were working on a batch of novels for younger readers, an urban fantasy adventure series for HarperCollins. I’m guessing that the transition from your more formal literary work to books for the reading demographic labeled “juveniles” isn’t that much of a leap, that the quality of wonder in your writer’s vision will remain intact.

Interestingly, I never really thought about it being a leap or not. I wrote the first book of the series—it’s called The Keepers—a couple of years ago, around the time No Animals won the Bakeless Prize. Last fall we sold the series to HarperCollins in a four-book deal, with the first book coming out next year. It’s fair to say that I am child-like in a lot of ways, and I used to work in the children’s department of a local bookstore, so I suppose it was only natural for me to give writing for kids a try. The Keepers falls into the middle-grade crossover category, meaning there’s a target audience of say 8-12 years old, but with adult appeal too.

Because of that crossover aspect, the books certainly have some literary sensibilities. Less focus on language—or, maybe I should say a different kind of focus—and I think I’d have to say more focus on characters. More focus on plot, of course. But careful construction, slow moments of interaction, a devotion to subtlety that I hope survives the editorial process. And my interest in science and natural processes has absolutely bled over.

I will say this: I’m more passionate about The Keepers than I am about my literary stuff. I mean, they’re serious books, despite the target age.  Probably that sounds preemptively defensive, but I always feel the need to explain because so many in the literary scene don’t take juvenile literature seriously. So when I tell literary people I’ve devoted more time to writing this middle grade series than I have to all my literary stuff combined, maybe I’m agreeing with what you’re suggesting, which is that the leap hasn’t been all that big. It’s hard work, still. It’s daily hours of writing. It’s living with the characters and the world and the moments, day in and day out, even when I’m not at the keyboard. But it’s an absolute blast, and I’m terribly fortunate that somebody now wants to pay me to keep writing them.

Since you brought up the subject of being paid, you really have hit the jackpot. A six-figure sale for the first four books, and that’s just North American rights, right? And the foreign rights and Hollywood have yet to weigh in. So, you’ve managed to garner the kind of payday that most writers covet in their secret dreams. And with that kind of publishing house support, your series will be getting a huge amount of attention when the time comes.  How do you feel about this?

Oh, all over the place. The book deal is obviously great, a literal childhood-dream-come-true kind of situation. There’s not much I could imagine happening to me, professionally, that would be better than what seems to be happening right now. It’s amazing in about a hundred different ways, and I’m incredibly lucky.

Having said that, there is a lot of worry that comes along with a deal like that. It’s a big investment for the publisher, so you feel beholden to them. There’s some pressure to quit my teaching gig at the University of Illinois, which I don’t really want to do at this point. And you worry that, creatively, things won’t turn out the way you intended—with a series in particular. There’s a lot more exposure coming, more travel, more virtual persona maintenance—which I suck at. And while it seems like it would be purely cool to be talking to your editor about your book and have her tell you to “think of the movie,” the reality is a little different. It’s sort of like you’ve been driving your car, doing fine, and then somebody rips the road out from under you and you’re flying. Some folks would probably slap on their goggles and let it rip, but I’m sort of clenching the wheel at this point, trying to enjoy the ride while I’m choking down my lunch.

Hmmm, that imagery sounds a bit like your story “Deer in the Road.” I hope the unfolding of your book series is far more positive!

Maybe all that nervousness I’m feeling is just a statement about how much these books mean to me. I love them, love writing them, and think maybe I’ve found the thing I’m actually best at. I’m looking forward to having kids read the series and to talking to them about it. I just so much want things to go well and to be able to keep writing these books for young readers—or hopefully, readers of all ages. It’s absolutely the greatest.

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