Sunday, June 11, 2023

Q&A with Janice Deal


Photo by David Deal


Janice Deal is the author of the new novel The Sound of Rabbits. She also has written the story collection The Decline of Pigeons. She lives in the Chicago area.


Q: You describe the creation of your new novel as “a process that literally took years.” What inspired you to write The Sound of Rabbits, and how did you come up with your cast of characters?


A: The Sound of Rabbits began as a short story about a woman called home to help with a family crisis in the small Wisconsin town she thought she’d left behind. I was workshopping it in a short story class led by Fred Shafer, and the consensus was that there was just too much going on for a single story to contain.


I decided to take the leap and tell Ruby’s story in novel form. Once I knew that I was going to expand my reach in this way, I felt free to explore the story from multiple perspectives.


This decision was liberating! I’m interested in the subjectivity of experience, and I thought multiple perspectives could help me visualize/better understand Ruby, who I think of as the main protagonist.


The other characters’ perspectives—and also how Ruby views those individuals, and herself—became key to filling out who Ruby is and the different facets of her personality. I wanted to give readers an opportunity to draw their own conclusions about Ruby from these different points of view.


And so the cast of characters grew as I tried to think which people might respond to Ruby on her return home—and what axes they themselves might have to grind.


Ruby’s trajectory—heading home to a town she couldn’t wait to leave—gave me some interesting material to work with. She doesn’t want to be there, her sister has stayed there, and what does that mean to them both as they juggle work, family responsibilities, and self-fulfillment?

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The title comes from a scene in which Ruby and her niece, Dakota, go in search of a missing family cat. Dakota shares a secret with Ruby: a place in the woods where a local war vet keeps rabbits. This place, and the rabbits—the sounds they make—remind Dakota of the spectrum of experience any living creature might experience.


Her “knowingness” is a microcosm of the journey each of this book’s characters are on: to navigate those liminal moments when life shifts tone and presents one with challenge after joy, or vice versa. How do we react to those shifts? How do we make sense of them and, ultimately, peace with them?


Q: The writer Katherine Shonk called the book “A moving portrait of one family's hopes, disappointments, and sorrows in a voice that is unflinching, achingly poignant, and unforgettable.” What do you think of that description?


A: I am so touched by this description. Katie has known me—and my work—for decades, and she’s read The Sound of Rabbits more times than I can count.


Her words summarize what I was hoping to accomplish in the book: to explore the complicated relationships that can exist between people, the expectations we have of others or seek to meet, and the sometimes complex relationship one can have with oneself.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I did not know exactly how the novel would end when I began this book. I didn’t know what conclusions Ruby ultimately would draw from her experiences.


But one thing I did know fairly early on: although Ruby returns to her hometown because her mother, Barbara, is in ill health, I understood that she would spend much of the novel doing everything but connect with her mom.


The book is a Hero’s Journey of sorts, as Ruby avoids (or tries to avoid) the pain and guilt surrounding her inability to accept her mom’s failing health, and navigates a place, and the people, she thought she had left behind.


And so I knew on a visceral level that Ruby had to have some experiences and understand some things before she could, ultimately, be present for her mom. In some ways, Ruby finally grows up. And precisely what she learns, I discovered along the way, right along with Ruby.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have just finished a short hybrid novel, The Blue Door, that juxtaposes a “present-day story” with a fairy tale of my devising.


In the book, I explore themes of loss, redemption, identity, and transformation; the two story threads inform one another, and the line between the two becomes increasingly blurred as the book progresses.


I am envisioning a new project now: a linked collection of short/short stories called Whale Fall. Over the winter, I saw a diorama of a whale fall in an exhibit about death at the Field Museum in Chicago, and it blew my mind.


I had never heard of a whale fall before; for those who are, as I was, unfamiliar with this phenomenon, it’s the carcass of a whale, fallen onto the ocean floor, that creates a complex localized ecosystem providing sustenance to deep-sea organisms. A whale fall can only exist under certain circumstances: the carcass has to be at a certain depth, for example.


I’m envisioning linked stories exploring themes of death and resilience, what factors inform our experience of loss, and how death can shape or even sustain the living.


Also, in September, my collection of linked short stories, Strange Attractors, will be published by New Door Books.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I just read a powerful article about awe, which mentions the key role art plays in creating awe in our lives—and how fundamentally good awe is for our physical and emotional health.


I was so moved by this, as I have long believed art has the power to transform us, provide solace, and explore what it means to be human. I am thankful for the outlet of writing, and grateful for your interest in my work.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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