A chat with Steven Rowley

I was lucky enough to have Steven Rowley at my lunch table at Literary Orange in April. I asked him the title of his book and he said, “Lily and the Octopus” and I said, “That’s in my Amazon cart!” And he said, “Well, buy it already!” I do well with direct orders. I bought it and read it in 2 days. It was, in a word, amazing. Maybe it’s because I have such a strong attachment to my pets, but this book hit me…hard. I laughed, I cried, I wanted more. It’s been a while since a book stirred up this much emotion in me.

***The paperback comes out TODAY, so get on it***

I bombarded Steven with a bunch of questions. Here are his answers.

First of all, I have to ask, did you cry when you were writing this book? Because I cried like a baby reading it. I laughed too, but there were definitely tears and I’m not usually a crier.

I did. And then again when writing the second draft. And then again on the third and in copyediting and on first pass pages… But not always at the parts you’d expect. And sometimes I cried tears of real joy. As much as this is the story of a man and his dog, I see it as a story about a man who is stuck in his life, and the things he has to accept to break free. I suppose I felt that way myself for a stretch of time and the obstacles in my own path were, while not outright imagined, greatly exaggerated. So when I see Ted gain full acceptance of his circumstances and take the first steps to move forward to a better life, I can’t help but feel overcome.

I know you had a dog named Lily in real life. This book is such a tribute to her. Do you pull from your life a lot when you write? If so, how do your friends and family feel about that?

I did have a dog named Lily and the dog that I had is very much the dog that’s in the book. That said, I built a novel around real memories I had of our time together. It was important to me only that I stick to the emotional truth of the story, no matter how strange (or tentacular!) that story became. Because Lily was my dog and the book is written in the first person, a lot of readers assume Ted is me. And that’s okay. Even when I hear readers say they don’t like him. I did this to myself, I chose to write blend fact and fiction. I think it was probably harder for the people around me who did not choose this. And more so the ones who aren’t in the book. To elevate the central relationship, I stripped the book of as many other characters as I could. Ted has one parent, and one sister, one friend and one therapist, where in real life I have two parents and three siblings, many friends, and a team of mental health professionals. (That last part was a joke.) I’ve had friends approach me a bit miffed, saying “Hey, I was there for you during that time.” And I have to reassure them that I haven’t forgotten, that their support meant the world to me, that this is a novel and to look for their names in the acknowledgments.

As I told you, I was a little wary about the “octopus on the dog’s head” element of your book. But I quickly understood it and loved it. Were you worried about how readers would react to the octopus?

I wasn’t, because initially I wrote this just for me. I never imagined it would be published, let alone be a bestseller or translated into twenty languages. It was just me at my kitchen table, grieving the loss of a very special companion and writing so that I could heal. And it made such perfect sense to me. I was writing about attachment and how difficult it can be to let go. In that respect, having a metaphor with tentacles — something that could have a literal stranglehold on you — seemed apt. But I did make the conscious decision to introduce the octopus right on page 2, to steamroll right over readers before you could object or pause to say “Wait, what?” So there may have been part of me that knew on some level it was a stretch. But once I had the octopus, it gave the book a skeleton. (I always laugh saying that as octopuses are invertebrates.) I knew it would have to be written in eight parts and each part should have an octopus theme. Once I had the octopus, the whole book set sail.

Readers really love this book. How has the debut-book experience been for you?

The reaction to this book has been incredibly humbling. I wrote my truth, but I acknowledge it’s a weird little book. I think what I’ve learned is that everyone is weird in their own way — and I mean that as a compliment. We’re all weird and it’s a delight! So maybe you would not have seen an octopus in a similar situation, you might have had your own cipher — a hippopotamus or a giraffe. Ha. That’s human. Many readers have shared with me their experiences with illness, or cancer, or loss and what they saw their own struggle as and it’s made me feel really close to them. Zadie Smith had a wonderful line in an interview recently where she said (and I’m paraphrasing) that as writers we can say this is how we feel, maybe you feel this way too, and for a short time — over the course of the book — maybe we can feel this way together. I just love that. The idea of reading as fellowship.

How long did it take you to write this book? It’s your publishing debut, but did you have other books stuck in desk drawers before this one? What was the journey to publication like for you?

I wrote the first draft of this book in one hundred days. Insane. But I wrote every single day, terrified that if I stopped writing even once, that the story would dry up, that the octopus would take back his ink. I went through several more revisions and tinkered for the better part of a year. I do have two other manuscripts on a shelf that will never see the light of day, so I’m not sure that even when I decided to pursue publication, anything would come of it. In fact, when I contacted agents to say “Would you like to read my book about a dog with an octopus attached to its head?,” I heard absolutely nothing in return. It made me realize I had to get much smarter in how I talked about the book, as in fact, the dog and the octopus are almost secondary to the story of man’s emotional journey. Even then, I grew so frustrated in trying for a year to land an agent that I decided to self-publish. I hired a freelance editor in New York named Molly Lindley-Pisani (aspiring writers, I highly recommend working with a freelance editor before approaching agents and publishers) who helped me through one final draft and she was the one who really told me that I shouldn’t self publish. In fact, she was the one who recommended the book to an editor at Simon & Schuster and the rest is history.

The story really speaks to human loneliness and the attachment between pets and their people (aka their everything). What do you think it is about pet stories that strikes such a chord with readers?

Pet stories make great books because they are such deep love stories, and are usually explorations of loss. It’s just the sad truth, most animals don’t live as long as humans. Love and loss, so universal. But knowing this, knowing this is part of the deal, we don’t love our pets any less or keep them at an arm’s distance. There is so much unprocessed grief in the world, and some of that can be processed by reading books. And I really wanted to take pet grief seriously because the pain is very real and people often don’t treat it as seriously as it is. A glib poem is not going to comfort. Asking a grieving pet owner when they are getting another comes off as dismissive. People don’t have bad intentions, but as our relationships with our animals have changed, so must processing their loss. I had dogs as a kid and they were outdoor dogs that lived in our barn. Now dogs and pets have full-fledged family member status and we need to grieve them as such.

Can you say anything about your next book? Inquiring minds want to know…

I’m writing a story about mothers and sons and while there’s no octopus, there’s one slightly larger than life character that intersects with the story. More realism than magical realism, but still hopefully a sprinkle of magic.

Do you have any writing routines or rules that you swear by?

Write early — the day will throw every reason at you not to work at your craft, so get it done before the day can derail you. Also, if you have a hard time sitting down and getting straight to work — if you lose an hour checking the news and Facebook and Twitter — understand that that’s part of your process and build that hour into your writing time. Otherwise you’ll get discouraged and beat yourself up for it, losing even more valuable creative time. Also, we’re at an interesting moment in our history and there is a lot stress in our national psyche. Try to limit what breaks through, especially in these tough times. Don’t disconnect. Don’t care less. But it’s almost impossible to be in a creative headspace and be at RAGE 11 ALL THE TIME over current events. Protect that headspace. Make art. Carve out another time during your week to fight the good fight.

I ask this of everyone: What are 3 random things people would be surprised to know about you?

1.) I don’t have any tattoos. Ted gets a tattoo in the book which I decidedly do not have.

2.) I do have another dog, a rescue terrier named Tilda Swinton.

3.) Despite being known for writing a tearjerker — I’m surprisingly funny! Promise!

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