Story and Interview on Writing with Melody Breyer-Grell
An interview about the writing process, her love of animals, and a nonfiction story about a dog named Nora.
1. Does writing energize or exhaust you?
It depends on the subject, format or genre. An interview is tiring. A bit a fiction can be energizing if I let it takes me where it wants to do.
2. What is your writing Kryptonite?
Lack of deadlines. I am very fast, but like to have specific assignments. It's hard to produce if you don't have some sense of urgency.
3. Why the topic of animals? And specifically, why your pets?
I have not written about animals in general. But when I left the workplace I found myself hanging out mainly with my dog and I was increasingly intrigued by figuring out the lens in which she saw things. Also, hilarious things come your way when you are a dog owner in the city. I try to write mostly about my own dogs so I don't get sued by a litigious poodle.
4. Do you read other writes who write about their pets? If so, who?
Not much. I think Marley and Me was tedious. I could not get into The Call of the Wild. But there was a character in Camus' The Stranger (Salamano) who had a complex relationship with his dog. Although the man expressed dislike toward the animal, he was devastated when the dog passed.
A fascinating portion of Coetzees' Disgraced portrays the distasteful professor and his relationship with one individual dog. It begs the question if he will be returned to "grace." But I won't give a spoiler, in case you have not read it.
5. Do you think someone could be a writer if they don't feel emotions strongly.
Yes, creative talent comes in all packages, and some writers do come across emotional, yet are successful (Philip Roth, perhaps?) I am not one of those, though. Emotions inform my work, even though I take many dry asides, and I use rationality even in madness. Balance and structure are important to me, once I blurt out the first hysterical draft.
6. Do you want each piece to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a connected body of work?
I often work modularly. I have a memoir in which many of the pieces can stand-alone with very minor editing. I am flexible.
7. What does literary success look like to you?
Finding and reaching a readership of like minded folks whose deepest emotions and sense of life and humor are aroused. True success would be the permission to tell stories and write books with my true aesthetic and not being edited into oblivion. Luckily most of my work stands as is. Growing readership and even some coin would be an indication of a certain types of success that I would not be adverse to.
8. How do you market your work?
Contact with friends, literary types, and readings are practical starts. Posting links on Facebook is basic. Do ads work? I am not sure. Most of my earlier work was for magazines, both print and on-line and did not require personal marketing. I am open to new ideas.
9. Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
10. What is the most difficult thing about writing about animals? Can you compare it to writing about people?
The most difficult thing about writing about animals is the necessity of including their bodily functions in the narrative without coming across obscene. There are many ways of writing animals--some closer to human and others with more mystery. Writing from a dog's animal's point of view can be fun, as long as it is not cloying. I fail to see how my dog is not a person, ha.
11. Which do you prefer, fiction or nonfiction?
Fiction is a great way to relax, and expand. It's like cheating on non-fiction. Bring it on. That said, nonfiction is important for discipline. You have to tell the truth I know, I did not state a reference... I don't have one.
12. If you were only allowed to write one thing in life, what would you write?
Since I began my performing life as a singer, I would want to write a musical version of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I have to check if it has been done. How could it not have been?
Dogs Are Not Magnanimous
My sweet blue Rat-Terrier, Nora, was kicking up a fuss with my dog hatin’ neighbor, Sally. The retired woman was a bit older but well preserved, not that that has anything to do with this short “tail.”
“Nora, get back in here, you idiot! Sorry Sally, I know you are scared of dogs. Nora, shut up!” The dog continued running up and down the hallway, oblivious to my firm commands. So much for the hundreds of dollars of training I had spent to tame the child over the years.
Once again, I told my neighbor how sorry I was, as my now middle-aged brat had charged towards her and started barking loudly by the elevator. Nora did gave the Sally the personal space of three feet—because she just wanted to show the hate—not hurt the woman. Surprisingly, Sally told me not to worry about it; she had other problems at the moment. We had a “confidential girly” chat, and I then I returned to my place to further chastised my dog.
Not long after we’d picked up the eight-week Nora from the farm, I came across Sally, who often visited her senior mother. Of course, I thought she would be delighted with the tiny Nora, but the woman cringed with fear and anger.
“Oh come on, Sally, look how cute she is, you just have to like her,” I said.
“No, I don’t have to like anything at this point of my life!”
My New York housing complex, Stuyvesant town had just permitted dogs after a sixty-year ban, and I was one of the first tenants to run out and procure a new best friend. Sally was one of those Stuytown lifers, a singular breed of folk, many of whom are not flexible towards change. And as much I don’t in actuality blame the old-timers for their sentiment, I just couldn’t grasp how anyone could not love the enchanted blue Nora, even if the little dog did represent new times coming in. Yes, much of the transformation at ST was undesirable, with the raucous student population, and the management’s campaign to portray our utilitarian apartments as “luxury” units. I got it. But Nora? She transcended all the negatives.
For years I successfully kept Nora out of Sally’s way, and I believe that the woman has respected my efforts. We are mostly pleasant, even friendly towards each other, as we both have an interest in musical theater of the most intense kind. So, when I finally lost control over Nora, I was angry and embarrassed. Why would Nora have to menace her after all these years? Couldn’t she just be magnanimous and realize that not everyone was charmed by her? I told my husband, Andy, of the incident and went on about it for an hour, not yelling or abusing the dog, but trying to drive home that just because someone does not love you does not mean that you are allowed to be so punitive.
Andy was home that day, feeling sick with a “productive,” hacking cough. I was a bit itchy too, and I noticed that my bedding smelled like ammonia, although I did not launder it that day--and even if I did--I only use hypo-allergenic soaps. What had happened? I had my hair dyed the previous night, and the smell was noxious.
“Hey Andy, I think I poisoned you. This shit that the nail salon put in my hair is toxic. Why do I keep going a nail salon to get my hair dyed? They must have used some mix left over from the ‘70’s.”
I don’t know if I convinced him, but I was sure that was why he had gotten so violently ill so fast; only an allergy works that quickly.
“Well, your theory is as good as any other. I’m gonna to finish off the soup, if that’s all right with you.” he said. Since he was sick, I ordered a quart of chicken noodle soup from one of the few remaining Polish restaurants in the East Village.
Although I didn’t have any soup that night, when I went to sit down on the couch, it was warm and wet, as if I had spilled some broth on my seat.
“Hey sweetie, I know I didn’t have any soup tonight, so why is my seat wet? Am I losing my mind? Do you remember me taking any soup? Wait! Shit, I think Nora peed on the couch, what the fuck?”
We had taken a long gentle walk that afternoon, so I knew she did not have to pee, in fact, with the record seventy-nine-degree spring weather, and Nora’s stopping to mark every ten seconds; it seemed impossible for her to have anything left in her. And she never had accidents unless she was sick or very mad. I looked at her, and she was staring dully at the wall. It was the time of evening when she usually was nagging me wildly for treats.
“Hey, Andy!” He was listening to the news with his husband deafness having overcome him. “Hey! I think she might be sick. She peed, and now she is not asking me for treats! HEY listen to ME, we might have to bring her to the vet!”
Andy was the first person to worry if Nora was sick, but he was not as responsive as he usually was. Maybe it was because I had so poisoned him with my hair dye that he temporarily did not care about Nora that much as a result.
I thought some more about my reaction to Nora’s behavior towards Sally. Nora wasn’t sick; she was upset that I had lectured her after she barked at the woman. Was that possible? Was she punishing me for not taking her side? I could understand her peeing out of anger, but the loss of appetite, the complete non-responsiveness? Why would she do that to herself?
The only thing I could do was communicate in dog language. She was a truly gifted singer; it was the hound blood in her breed. I looked at her blank face, raised my head, and howled like a wolf. She jerked up as if electrocuted and starting howling back at me with her head straight up in the air, like the pictures you see on high-quality dog food bags. This was not a sick dog, in fact, she sounded much better than most of the sopranos at the Metropolitan Opera these days.
“Howuuu,” I went and, “Howuuuuoooooooow,” she cried back, almost involuntarily.
Her eyes went bright, and she jumped on the carpet to eat the lamb lung treat I had offered her while she was in her trance.
“Hey Bun! She’s eating, and now she wants more! She was mad at me for lecturing her, but it was worse than being mad. She was severely traumatized!”
Andy answered me by hacking up more phlegm in the bathroom, and then having a cigarette to see if he could still breathe. He was very conscientious about checking out his lung function. While Andy was smoking and expectorating, Nora stood firmly on the carpet looking at me with hungry, challenging eyes. She was back to normal. The howling was sort of a control-alt-delete. She was entirely reset, like an old IBM.
Yes, dogs are not magnanimous. They do not stand on ceremony, and even when they are acting slyly, there is always a reason. What we call instinct might be intelligence mixed in with a high-precision bullshit meter. Nora knew the woman hated her, so what was the value of being nice to her? Even more important, perhaps, Nora thought that the woman, in her distaste for her was sick, and was putting ME in danger, as she believes all sick people do. When I didn’t let her perform her God-given job of hating that woman—protecting me—Nora became confused and disoriented, not knowing what she should do. Maybe, when she peed on my seat, it was not out of anger, but out of a feeling of helplessness, of confusion. Dogs are action oriented. When we take this away from them, they are left with nothing, not even an appetite.
My job, as Nora's host, is to allow her some natural pleasures such as playing, exercising and exhibiting affection towards those who crave it. Although it is essential that she doesn't have the opportunity to be aggressive, I cant' blame her for being aware of the enemy. After all, it is yet another part of her job description.