CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH
The fiction editors, Rappahannock Review: What led you to write about this particular illness?
Jon Michaud: I began working on this story several years ago when an uncanny number of female friends and relatives—including my mother—were either receiving treatment for cancer or in the process of being diagnosed with the disease. Every week, it seemed, my wife and I would get a call or an email from a friend telling us that irregularities had shown up in her mammogram or that she was waiting for the results of a biopsy. My habitual means of dealing with bad news on this scale—aside from opening a bottle of whiskey—is to find a way to work it into my fiction. Reflexively, I started to think about writing a story that featured cancer.
RR: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that various people in your life inspire the characters in your work, even yourself. Is this the case in “Walking the Dog”?
JM: One of the friends who was diagnosed with cancer at that time was a neighbor of ours in Maplewood, New Jersey. She was part of the tightly-knit and supportive circle of families we belonged to there. When her chemotherapy began, a rotation was put in place to cook for her on the days when she was debilitated by her treatment. My wife and I joined the rotation and prepared meals for her once or twice a month. Every time I drove the food over to her house, I found myself thinking that the situation would be a good starting point for a short story. To that basic premise I added a lot of fictional elements: Walter’s unrequited love for the cancer patient; the economic disparity between the two families; Tina’s aloof, self-centered husband, etc. That’s often the process for me. I begin with something drawn from my life and then move it away from the source by adding fictional details until the story takes on a life of its own.
I spent months on “Walking the Dog,” but was unable to finish it while my friend was receiving chemotherapy. I could not resolve the question of whether Tina would live or die. I know this is irrational, but I didn’t want to have even the tiniest karmic influence on the outcome of my friend’s treatment. After a couple of years of battling breast cancer, she died quite suddenly—or at least it felt sudden to me. After her death, I went back to work on the story and finished it quickly and without guilt. Though my friend was nothing like Tina, I did feel a vicarious, posthumous connection to her while completing “Walking the Dog,” which made it hard to let the story go.
RR: Unrequited or long-denied love seems to be another theme in your work. Do you think that this theme makes it easier for readers to identify with your characters?
JM: Robert Olen Butler wrote a useful book, “From Where You Dream,” about yearning being the key to creating successful characters in fiction. I think about that idea a lot during the early stages of a story or novel. What does this or that character want? Often what my characters want is to be close to someone or something that is unavailable or inaccessible to them. Who hasn’t felt that? Most of us aren’t really human until we’ve had our hearts broken. I’m not talking exclusively about romance, either. A failed business can break your heart. The untimely death of an actor you revered. The destruction of a local park by a storm. A playoff loss by your sports team. The death of a favorite uncle. Longing is a condition of adulthood. Even if you are rich, like Tina, you have already lost things you can’t buy back: youth, innocence, and an unbroken heart. I hope readers can identify with that.
RR: Many of your other works feature characters and storylines based around being an outsider in a foreign culture. Would you say that there is an “outsider” culture going on in your piece displayed in the isolation of Tina’s cancer?
JM: Illness is isolating. Potentially lethal diseases scare others away. People suffering from life-threatening conditions often feel embarrassed or vulnerable. They are exiled from the lives of the healthy, for whom death remains only an abstract eventuality far in the future. I don’t think Tina is an outsider, but she is alone, alone with the knowledge of her grim diagnosis. Used to being in control—particularly in her relationship with Walter—she is forced to reckon with her own powerlessness.
RR: How would you compare writing short stories to novels, and do you have a preference between the two?
JM: I have a mostly unrequited love affair with the short story. I adore the short story, but the short story refuses to adore me back. I’ve been hitting on the short story for decades, begging it to go steady, but the short story puts my flowers in the trash, turns down my dinner invitations, and pooh-poohs my sweet nothings. Meanwhile, I have to beat the novel off with a stick. The novel pounces on me like a dog who’s waited all day for me to come home, licking my face and begging me to take it out for a walk. I wish it were otherwise, but I have come to accept that this is the way it is. Every now and then, though, the short story remembers who I am. It discovers my phone number at the bottom of a recyclable grocery-store bag or comes across a mention of me on social media and rings me up for a little tryst. “Walking the Dog” is the product of one of those rare meetings.
Jon Michaud’s work in Issue 1.4:
Jon Michaud is the author of the novel When Tito Loved Clara (Algonquin, 2011). His work has appeared in Tin House, North American Review, Denver Quarterly, and South Dakota Review. From 2003 to 2012, Michaud was head librarian at The New Yorker and he still writes regularly for the magazine’s Page-Turner blog. Michaud now lives in Bethesda, Maryland with his wife and children.