Corinna Chong's new story in Room, "The Whole Animal," is a perfect example of what a short story can do with straightforward form and clarity (I'll post a link as soon as it's available online). It's a tale of bad would-be vegans who struggle with their relationship, and are nearly run down by bison in an ill-advised night trip to a national park. I swear Corinna's work flows from her in perfect shapes, but maybe that's just the effect of her calm demeanour. There's always much going on below her stories' glassy surfaces, so who knows what lurks in her?
Corinna, like Sean Johnston from last week's Storybrain, is an Okanagan College teaching colleague and workshop collaborator of mine. Her first novel Belinda's Rings (2014), named one of the year's best by Salty Ink, is a beautifully built book about a mother who goes off to study crop circles, leaving her young daughter to pick her her messes (Corinna is also a designer--indeed, she built this very site--and that acute visual skill is evident in her writing too). She's working on another novel now, and I've read parts that have me gritting my teeth waiting for more. Meanwhile, I'm fortunate to have been able to read subsequent drafts of this great short story, and to have been able to pick her brain more here.
1. Did you have any alternate titles for your story? What made you pick "The Whole Animal"? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
I always struggle with titles. At the start of the writing process I’m not overly concerned with getting the title right, since it often takes a few rounds of revisions for me to understand what my story is really about at its heart. In the early stages my titles are just jumping-off points, so they tend to be very literal or directly linked to the story’s main plotline or images. When I finished writing the first draft of this particular story, I slapped on the title “The Bison” because the eerie image of bison faces in the rain was the part of the story that popped the most when I thought about it as a whole. But this title seemed a bit off for a story that’s really about a woman who doesn’t know herself, and is slowly being subsumed by her overbearing partner. I also wanted the title to have a link to the protagonist’s reluctant decision to stop eating meat. I had a feeling that there was a good title embedded in an early part of the story, when the character of Ward makes a round shape with his hands and the protagonist calls this “The universal symbol for animal. Whole.” Luckily, I had the chance to workshop this story with another writer who happens to be
particularly astute and a magician with titles, and after a bit of joint brainstorming she came up with “The Whole Animal.” (Who says writing can’t be collaborative?)
The rawness of this title fit the story perfectly, and I love how it conjures up questions about the opposite – the whole animal, as opposed to the broken or separated animal?
2. How did you find the sense of an ending?
I’m a sucker for stories that can pull off a circular structure, and it seemed right to try it for this story, so I thought about how I could create symmetry when writing the ending. The story begins with a cinematic description of the opening scene of a documentary film, with the frame slowly zooming out on the image of a piece of meat. I wanted the ending to echo this zooming-out feeling, except this time on a human body rather than a piece of meat. My hope was that this kind of echo in tone and imagery would solidify the parallel between the protagonist’s struggle to be a true vegan and her struggle to find her own sense of wholeness.
3. Could you choose a piece of music to go with the story?
“Doll Parts” by Hole. It’s got dismembered body parts, a dark, gritty sound, and plenty of angst.
4. The story has a primal layer (hunger of all kinds) beneath the couple's everyday surface. Can you talk about how that works here?
I think some of this comes from my apparent obsession with writing about food and eating. I often lead my characters into situations where they are forced to engage with food, and it’s only in the revision process that I realize there they are, eating
once again. I think the reason I do this is because food is so visceral for me in my day-to-day life, and so it unavoidably becomes part of my writing, too. I find that playing with the characters’ relationships to their food is a really interesting way for me to explore their conflicts. In “The Whole Animal,” Ruby is insatiably hungry for meat, while Ward seems totally unfazed by cutting meat out of his diet entirely. Meat in this story is representative of something solid, primal, simple, and real, and thus stands for a kind of authenticity and truth that Ruby longs for. I see Ruby as always hungry for something real, both physically and metaphorically, although she can’t seem to pin down what that missing thing is. Ward, in contrast, is confident in the world he has created around himself, and oblivious to Ruby’s wants and needs, to the point where his body can shrink away and yet still hold an enormous power over Ruby.
5. Your novel Belinda's Rings is very different, but also deals with a character's fascination with animals. I'm interested in where that comes from.
I’m always interested in writing about characters who don’t understand themselves, and have trouble seeing their own problems objectively or even admitting to themselves that those problems exist. I think that people who repress their problems in this way often deal with them instead by externalizing them – applying them to some other person or thing that is entirely outside of them. To me, animals act as fascinating conduits for this; while we tend to humanize them, we also see them as necessarily separate from ourselves. In both my novel and this story, the characters use their obsession with animals as a way to work out their own problems while keeping a safe distance from them. Or, maybe the animal obsession has something to do with the fact that I have a
surrogate child named Joni Mitchell who happens to be a cat…
6. And I know your novel in progress is concerned with harsh landscapes, as this story is, with the nightmarish trip to the national park. Can you talk about this?
I really admire the stories of writers like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro that manage to make landscape so vivid and integral to their stories that it becomes another character in the drama. I’m drawn by harsh landscapes in particular, perhaps because I grew up in Calgary and have always loved the stark contrast between the gaping prairies and the craggy peaks of the Rockies. I think the
landscape that surrounds you can get into your bones, especially when it’s one that threatens you in some way.
7. Your style is very clean, contrasting the difficulties and conflicts your characters often suffer. Which writers helped build this in you, do you think?
I’m thrilled to hear it comes across as clean, because it usually feels like a giant overwritten mess as I’m writing. I hope I have learned something from Lorrie Moore, whose precision is just mind-blowing to me. The more I learn as a writer the more I focus on revising sentence by sentence, looking for the most economical and yet truthful way to convey what I want to say. Alice Munro (my hero!) and Katherine Mansfield are also masters of writing in a way that seems simple at first, but is actually so complex and carefully crafted below the surface.
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I'm the author of My Name is a Knife, All True Not a Lie In It, and The Old Familiar.