Getting Real: An Interview with Terese Svoboda by Jen Michalski

Terese Svoboda is the author of eight collections of poetry, seven novels, two collections of short fiction, a memoir, a biography and a book of translation. Svoboda’s writing has been featured in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the AtlanticSlateBOMBColumbiaYale Review, and the Paris Review. She lives in New York. Her latest novel, Dog on Fire, took decades from page to print, finding a home with University of Nebraska Press. “Every family is this normal,” insists the narrator. 

JM: For a book that I anticipated being about grief—a newly divorced mother returns to Nebraska to live with her parents and mourn the death of her estranged brother, as well as weather his larger-than-life (also literally) girlfriend Aphra—I didn’t feel overwhelmed by sadness. In fact, I enjoyed the relationships among the characters and also the wryness of their insights, the acceptance of life’s absurdity, of death. Is this a Midwestern trait, or specifically a Nebraskan one, or just a trait of yours?

TS: Midwesterners practice deadpan acceptance, no pun intended, no irony allowed. I find it hilarious and I’m glad to hear you get it too. Maybe it comes from having to keep your mouth shut while the dust blows, a life-saving understatement that is required with all that grit. You’ve got to laugh.

JM: I was really drawn to Aphra. I’m not sure we’d be friends if she actually existed, but I could understand her MO, as it were, even if I didn’t always agree with it. I think this is an overlooked part of character development in which you excel—authenticity. It’s not about liking or disliking a character, but how well they ring true. Was Aphra inspired by anyone (aside from her name, I imagine, which aptly means “dust” in Hebrew), or did you create her out of whole cloth?

TS: That’s a lot of cloth. People dear to me found large women irresistible and I couldn’t understand it. Such a lot of weight looked suicidal to me, socially and physically. Why do this to themselves? What did it mean in terms of a relationship? Authenticity is all. You will be drawn to the serial killer if his character is complex enough. Aphra had her name long before I realized its derivation. I’m a big fan of Aphra Behn, the 17th-century English playwright, spy, poet, prose writer, and all-around adventurer, and am delighted to remember her, however unflatteringly. According to Virginia Woolf, it was Aphra who earned for women the right to speak their minds.

Dog on Fire by Terese Svoboda

JM: It was interesting to find out that you used to produce films, because this book felt like a Robert Altman movie on the page, a big Three Women vibe, albeit two women. Is there any one thing from producing films that’s helped you as a writer?

TS: Producing is mostly about chutzpah, convincing people that these 100 pages will knock your socks off. To keep hustling a novel everyone says no to— Dog on Fire‘s first finished draft was 25 years ago—requires that kind of persistence. Producing is also budgets, which can be very creative, or at least force you to rethink those 100 pages the way a sonnet re-tailors your lines. Otherwise, no. Talking to a lot of people 24/7 is not writing.

JM: Going further on this theme, the introduction of the dog (that’s all I’ll say, because spoilers) felt much like a Chekhovian gun, and I was propelled through the novel to try and find where it would land. Was the dog always planned, or was it an element that surprised you?

TS: The title was always there, how the dog played in the story puzzled me for quite a while, but I so enjoyed working it out that I couldn’t give the dog up. I don’t want the title to mislead readers—I’m crazy about dogs, they show up in my writing all the time, Fred the moth-eared Papillion troubles my dawns. They’re creatures from another planet, in my opinion, all these weird breeds we’ve trained to trail behind us in bondage, trafficked and ruled by Stockholm syndrome. Cruelty to them is unthinkable, then it is.

JM: What you say about dogs is so poignant—and sad! I had to stop and give my own dog a hug. It’s equally interesting that the first finished draft of Dog on Fire was 25 years ago. In some ways, we change so much as writers—and people—over 25 years, but in other ways there are essential truths that remain, a distilled essence of us. What do you think is the essence of Dog on Fire—what about it has kept it relevant and powerful over the years that’s made you persist to see it to publication?

TS: What’s with death, anyway? The brother in the story is the only one who didn’t change over the 25 years while the positions of everyone else almost unrecognizably shifted in power and influence, and eventually a fable-like quality set in. Besides, I liked the book. Some, when they’re finished, feel deflated and useless. Not the Dog.

JM: So what are you working on now, or it here something, like Dog on Fire, that you’re still shepherding to publication?

TS: Ah, those wandering little lambs of manuscripts!Roxy and Coco, a book about two harpies-turned-social-workers who now and then off abusive parents, will be published by West Virginia University Press next spring—and I’ve just won a prize (I’m not supposed to say which for another month!) for a collection of stories called The Long Swim that will also be published next spring. My second memoir, Hitler and My Mother-in-Law is longlisted for possible publication as well. When it rains, as in NZ, it pours. I am particularly grateful to university presses, especially the University of Nebraska Press, which has published two of my novels and reprinted another two. Stand back! My drawers are deep—I have two more collections and three more novels needing homes, and I’m very excited about a new novel manuscript.

Jen Michalski is the author of three novels, The Tide King and Summer She Was Under Water (both Black Lawrence Press) and You’ll Be Fine (NineStar Press), a couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books), and three collections of fiction, her latest of which is The Company of Strangers, which was published January 2023 by Braddock Avenue Books. She’s also the editor in chief of jmww

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