The nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: How have growing up on a farm and experiencing death more than the average child shaped your feelings towards death and dying?
L.B. Thomas: I was comfortable around dead animals because my parents expected me to be. The only time I remember my dad acknowledging that something was disgusting or disturbing was when he asked me to watch him skin an elk head. For some reason, my parents wanted me to develop an interest in taxidermy. I watched my dad slowly scrap and pull skin from the skull for about an hour, then I excused myself. I came back with a peanut butter sandwich and continued watching. At some point as I was chewing away, my Dad stopped and asked, “How can you eat while you’re watching this?” I didn’t think I was supposed to be grossed out, so I wasn’t. As an adult, I don’t like watching gory slaughter movies like Saw, so maybe my childhood experiences took away some of the allure of watching death and violence.
RR: In your piece “Dead Animal Farm” I really enjoyed the mention of your Great Dane and am curious on a question you touch on following your dog’s introduction. If today you had to kill an animal, could you? Has the distance from farm life to the city life changed your perspective on death at all?
LBT: I’ve been thinking about that recently because my dog had a medical emergency. It turned out he just threw out his back hiking, but by the way he was acting, you would think he was dying. In rural Montana, when your dog has a terminal condition, you take him into the woods and reenact the final scene of Old Yeller. I’m not sure if I’d be able to do that. I could probably do it if he was in pain and it was the only option. And I‘d be fine hunting deer or elk again. But I don’t own a gun anymore, so it would only happen if I were back visiting family.
RR: How did your parents’ transition from animal farming to tree farming affect you?
LBT: Technically, it’s a nursery with trees, I think. Not sure on the distinction. The transition happened slowly while I was in college; there’d be fewer and fewer animals around each time I’d come back to visit. In a lot of ways, I associate animals, at least farm animals like sheep and horses, with chores – It was always my job to feed them their hay and alfalfa in the morning. I don’t miss doing that in negative twenty-degree weather. But the derelict chicken coop is a sorry sight. A neighbor has peacocks that hang around near my parents’ property, so there are still animals to be seen. Another neighbor has an obnoxiously loud mule.
RR: Your essay was organized into segments, each focusing on an individual animal. Did one animal death really drive this piece’s inception, or did you know from the start that this piece would be about many animals?
LBT: I was working from a series of prompts where I chose a category (in this case, Animals) and wrote a flash fiction story based on a random example in the category every day (Shark, Wolf, Horse). Most of the stories were bad, but Every Day Fiction published the one I wrote for the prompt Tiger under the title “Claws”. One day I used the prompt Rabbit, and recalled killing the rabbits when I was young, so I wrote that. I liked how it turned out, so I continued writing non-fiction flash pieces based on the animal prompts. I selected the best ones and collected them together for “Dead Animal Farm”.
RR: You have published works in both fiction and nonfiction. How would you characterize the differences between writing the two genres? Do these differences have an impact on your writing process as you shift from one genre to another?
LBT: What worked for me with “Dead Animal Farm” was writing in my natural voice instead of my normal writer’s voice. I included all the “unnecessary” words the experts tell you to cut from your prose. I wanted it to sound like I pulled a bar stool up next to reader and started telling them my stories.