INTERVIEW: Rose McDonagh on zoomorphism, the Highlands and ‘The Dog Husband’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Rose McDonagh on the research process behind her collection The Dog Husband (Reflex Press, 2022).

I’d like to start with a quote from your story ‘Pipistrelle’, in which a fictional nature writer gives his thoughts on nature and life: ‘The plainer the bird, the prettier the song’ (p. 34). It strikes me that this quote might easily describe one of the core strengths of The Dog Husband, that of its commitment to the personal, the unadorned, the intimate, the domestic. I’m curious to know how you feel about this, and to what extent it might be fair to describe the collection as one that uncovers the sublime and the surreal in the lives of ‘normal’ people.

Yes, I think that’s really central to my writing. To me everyday life is woven through with the extraordinary and sublime. I think all people are strange and complicated in their own way. Being a counsellor and working for a number of charities over the years has brought home to me how much is hidden, how much is going on under the surface for everyone. Surprising experiences are there in the middle of ordinary life – you can witness something bizarre walking down a local street, or have an unexpectedly moving encounter with a stranger at a bus stop. The recent protest using Van Gogh’s Sunflowers reminded me of a time I started chatting to a woman at a bus stop and she told me she carries a picture of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers everywhere with her because her husband, now dead, had carried the same picture all through the Second World War. If I put that in a story, it would risk seeming contrived. I often find I have to tone down real life to fit it into fiction.

In the stories where something momentous is happening, such as ‘Dog’s Bone’, in which an unspecified global disaster has occurred, I found it particularly important to focus in on the small, ordinary details, to create a sense that this is how incredible events occur, in the middle of ordinary life. As a species, we have this amazing ability to reflect and reason and ask profound questions, and we are aware of events on a grand scale, but by necessity much of our lives happen on a small scale. We are mammals that need to eat and sleep and keep ourselves entertained. So in ‘Dog’s Bone’, I included everyday details like of the layout of the village shop, the Halloween sweets and dog toys, alongside a sense that something has gone very wrong on a national or international scale. I wrote that story before Covid but it was something that struck a lot people during lockdown – the mundanity of the little things like queuing outside the supermarket and trying to find pasta while this huge global event was happening. Life is such an odd mix of the profound and beautiful and silly and mundane. I wanted to bring that into the collection.

While I’ve alluded to the realism of your characters, a core entry point for many of those within the collection seems to be the moment when psychological pressure forces them out of their reality. Several stories, including ‘Verdict’, ‘The Dog Husband’ and ‘Wormholes’ describe characters who have lost touch with what others broadly agree as ‘what’s really happening’. Why is this motif so prevalent in The Dog Husband and what might these breaks from reality tell us about the human experience? Does this theme come from a personal place?

It partly comes from my sense of the deep strangeness of life. While I don’t believe in many of the things the characters think they are experiencing – I don’t believe that aliens are landing in supported living flats or that someone’s husband has come back as a border collie – I do think being alive is incredibly weird. Sometimes we don’t see the strangeness of it because we’re so used to living it. We live with so many unanswered questions about the nature of reality, the nature of consciousness, the nature of the universe, and we live with such uncertainty around our own and others’ mortality. Developing characters whose reality is more obviously strange allows a way into exploring the sensations of existential anxiety and uncertainty in a playful way. In that sense it’s personal – although the situations are quite strange and unique to the character, they explore what is to me a recognisable sense of existential unease that perhaps most people experience at times.

I’m also just generally fascinated by belief and the way in which human beings experience the world differently because they believe different things. There’s something in the title story about how hard we can find it to accept that someone has a different core belief from us. One of the inspirations for the story was meeting a man who believed that people can completely control their own physical health by their mental attitude – if you have the right attitude you’ll never get seriously ill. I don’t believe that and I found it really annoying but I was curious about why it irritated me so much. It’s quite an offensive belief towards people who are coping with a serious physical illness, but I also felt like there was some jealousy in there. This person wouldn’t worry about his physical health because he assumed he wouldn’t get ill. There’s something of that in ‘The Dog Husband’ – it annoys the main character that her friend is comforted by a belief she cannot share.

I’ve also always hugely enjoyed ghost stories and thrillers and I love mixing some of the structures and tropes of those genres into stories that are maybe more literary or reflective overall. That probably links back to the first point – these genres let us explore deep fears in an almost playful way.

Another theme that pulls the collection away from traditional realism is your use of animals. The animal world pervades every story in The Dog Husband, with animals often occupying the place of key images and even characters. There’s a particular tension, I found, in your dual uses of anthropomorphism and zoomorphism, alternating between animals acting as humans and humans acting as animals. What do you feel is the difference between utilising anthropomorphism and zoomorphism, and was that a conscious tension in your work?

It’s definitely in there though it wasn’t initially a conscious choice – it’s a theme I found and developed as I was putting the collection together. I’ve always loved animals so they tend to slip into most of my stories. Zoomorphism can be used to show those more instinctive, less culturally driven emotions and responses within us – desire, jealousy, fear – such as the character in ‘Pipistrelle’ becoming fox-like when he feels anxious in a crowded space. A person projecting human characteristics onto an animal is often showing up a need or fear within themselves. In ‘The Dog Husband’, the narrator begins to see judgement in the eyes of the dog as her own behaviour becomes stranger. In ‘Lily’, although the herd of cows pose a real threat, the characters are also projecting defensive or spiteful emotions onto them, which reflects the dynamics of their human relationship.

The tension between anthropomorphism and zoomorphism is something that is picked up directly by the main character in ‘Pipistrelle’ – his mentor disapproves of anthropomorphism but freely compares people to animals. To me, there’s a less of an absolute line between the two. We are animals and we do have some recognisably animal responses and desires. Certainly, anthropomorphism can be naïve, particularly when it’s related to what animals understand intellectually. But I also think there’s a naiveté to some accusations of anthropomorphism. I’ve heard people accused of anthropomorphism when they attribute any emotions to animals at all, but that accusation comes from a simplistic notion that human emotions are special. It ignores the fact that on some level our emotions evolved as we evolved as social animals.

Leading on from that, animals are also used in the collection as conduits or apparitions representing absent humans, which I feel (alongside other plot points, such as that tension between reality and fantasy) lends some of the stories an aspect of the fairy tale. Did you have fairy tales in mind when drafting these stories, and if so, what do fairy tales mean to you and your craft, if anything?

Yes, I think they are there in the background for most authors because they’re part of your reading DNA. They are the stories you encounter from earliest childhood. In the collection, ‘The Mute Swan’ was the story that was most directly influenced by fairy tale. I wanted to write a reverse fairy tale in which an animal becomes a human. I liked the idea of exploring which strange behaviours a person would exhibit if they had recently transformed from an animal. How would people around them react? With ‘The Mute Swan’, it ended up not being as overt as that – what’s really going on in the story is ambiguous – but it dances around the idea that a creature has turned into a human. One of the key features of fairy tales is that they are psychologically simple, the characters have very few subtle psychological motivations but are driven by big core emotions like love, hate and jealousy. It’s fun to take some of the central themes and ideas from within fairy tales and flesh them out into the grey areas and the more nuanced emotions of real life.

Marina Warner argues that a sense of wonder is a key component of fairy tales. Without thinking of fairy tales explicitly I knew that was something I wanted from each story in this collection. I started to feel more confidence in my short stories when I began to write around ideas that gave me that little thrill of wonder as soon as they arrived. When the narrator in ‘Pipistrelle’ says of the imaginary book, ‘I hope it brings you both pleasure and wonder,’ in my mind, that was a small nod to the reader about my hopes for the collection.

Finally, I’d like close by asking about Scotland and your use of setting. While representations of setting are not crucial to most of the stories (except perhaps ‘Black and Orange Caterpillars’), the spectre of rural Scotland remains pervasive throughout the collection. I wonder how your feelings about your native environment, and in particularly your childhood experiences of the Scottish countryside, worked into your designs for these stories. What does it mean, broadly, to write Scotland?

I’m aware that Scotland is a diverse country and my experience of it is only one person’s but Scottish settings are hugely important to my writing. There’s definitely a sense of being in the Scottish tradition of writing about the uncanny which encompasses Scottish authors such as James Hogg, Robert Louis Stevenson and Muriel Spark right up to Ali Smith, Iain Banks, James Robertson and other more modern writers. All the stories in the collection except ‘The King of France Wears a Hat’ are set in Scotland, and that story is very much about a Scottish high school though the children are visiting an unnamed continental city. Scottish towns, cities and suburbs are also present – ‘Verdict’ weaves between the city setting of the court and the leafy comfort of a suburb; ‘Wormholes’ is set in the city; ‘The Mute Swan’ moves between the city and country. I grew up in Edinburgh but I had family in the Highlands, my mum’s parents lived there, so both have a place my psyche.

I have really joyful memories of childhood holidays in the Highlands and I’ve visited there several times a year throughout my adult life. As a child I felt very emotionally attached to the landscapes there. The Highlands are often romanticised in fiction and I was aware of trying to avoid that whilst capturing the wildness of some of the landscapes in those stories. It was interesting to take places that have a sense of safety and familiarity for me, for example a caravan site – we had a lot of fun caravan holidays as a family – and give them a sinister undertone. There was a feeling of adventure and wonder in visiting the Highlands as a child – those remembered feelings can help to find the spark that a story starts from as an adult. I particularly remember my dad reading to my brother and me from a book of ghost stories in an old stone cottage that we stayed in. I remember being scared, being in this old, isolated house with all these very vivid images from the ghost stories in my head, but also being aware it was a playful fear. Having those experiences can be really useful to go back to as a writer – you can heighten the atmosphere into something darker. There’s always the potential for an isolated place to feel unsettling or unsafe and I enjoyed playing with that in stories such as ‘Nightjar’ and ‘Lily’.

Rose McDonagh was born in Edinburgh. Her stories have won the Bath Flash Fiction Award and been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, the London Magazine Short Story Competition, the Dinesh Allirajah Prize and the Bristol Prize. She lives in Scotland with her husband. She is trained as a counsellor and has several years’ experience working in trauma support and community health. Her first short story collection, The Dog Husband, was published by Reflex Press in 2022. Her debut novel, One Came Back, which has been longlisted for the Caledonia First Novel Award, and the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, will be published by Trapeze in 2024.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

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