By Alexandra Murphy
This summer, I had the wonderful pleasure of reading Lara Ehrlich's debut book, Animal Wife, a collection of short stories about "women's transformation, from girls into wives, mothers, and monsters." Animal Wife is the winner of the Red Hen Press Fiction Award, chosen by New York Times best-selling author Ann Hood. In honor of it's release this past Tuesday, Lara Ehrlich met with me to discuss her process of putting this collection together, her experience as a 2019 Parent-Fellow with Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and how she balances between her own expected roles as mother, writer, wife, and employee!
Animal Wife is a brilliant collection of stories about characters seeking liberation from their expected roles and behaviors as women. Each story fits together seamlessly, and yet the stories first appeared in separate publications throughout the years such as Columbia Review, Fiction Southeast, StoryQuarterly, and F(r)iction. What can you tell us about writing these different stories and how the collection eventually came together?
Thank you! The seed for the collection was the first story, “Animal Wife,” which I started writing as a novel almost a decade ago. It never quite gelled as a novel, but I reworked the original seed into the story that kicks off the collection. As I continued writing short stories, a prevalent theme emerged: the transition from childhood to adulthood. I thought I’d construct the collection around that theme—but then my interest began to shift to the motherhood (which I was considering at the time) and the theme expanded to women’s transformations. That’s when the book really came together in my mind.
What has your journey as a writer been like up to this debut, and what role did MVICW play along that journey?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since fourth grade, when I wrote a fantasy “novel” about Zohara and her wolf companion, Blubluck. I never took creative writing classes and I didn’t go the MFA route; instead, I read as much as I could—of everything—kept writing, and attended workshops and conferences. I wrote a young adult novel that garnered some interest from publishers but ultimately didn’t sell. That’s when I started writing Animal Wife.
I attended MVICW last year, after Animal Wife had sold, when I was in the early stages of a new novel. The Parent-Writer Fellowship offered me the freedom to devote my every waking second to my work without interruption, to put my writing above all else. Thanks to those few days of intense concentration, I was able to hold my work-in-progress in my head long enough to complete a draft that I could then revisit in fits and starts when I returned home to my toddler.
My other goal for the MVICW was to finish an essay I’ve been laboring over for months about attending Siren Camp at Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs, where I learned to swim (and dance!) in a mermaid tail. I claimed an armchair in my cabin and barely moved until I had finished conducting interviews, transcribing, researching, and finally completing the essay—which will be published in Lit Hub this September.
You have an incredible ability to invoke empathy for your characters, even the ones I felt compelled to disagree with. For instance, while “Animal Wife” and “Animal Wife Revisited” are parts of the same story, I found myself connecting and sympathizing with different characters for each. What can you tell me about writing both of these and why you chose to separate them? What was your motivation to bookend the collection with each piece rather than have them follow one another?
“Animal Wife Revisited” was originally a fairy tale nested inside “Animal Wife,” the mother’s origin story that she would tell her daughter at night. I carved it out of the story because it was unnecessary in that context and diminished the mystery surrounding the mother. When I revisited it (no pun intended) later, I realized that it stood on its own as an independent story that spoke to—without detracting from—“Animal Wife,” and caused the reader to reflect on that first story in a new way.
I used these stories as bookends so that the collection would begin with a daughter whose mother had left her and end with a mother who had left her daughter, defining the book’s overarching thematic structure and its movement from focusing on girls to focusing on women and monsters—monstrous women.
Which of the characters in your collection did you relate to most? Did you find it difficult to write any of them? And how do you avoid the authorial fear that your characters’ emotions/actions might reflect back on you?
This is a cop out, but I really relate to all of the characters. They all contain elements of me—although none of them are actually wholly me. I took my own fears and secrets and worries and most vivid memories and pushed them into unrecognizable and often dark places.
Each of the girls and women in Animal Wife were difficult to write in some ways, but Diana, the woman who builds a deer suit to live in the woods in “The Vanishing Point,” was probably the trickiest. She had to be believable not only as a human—but as a human living in a fabricated deer body. I’ve never been in a fabricated deer body! That took some imagination (and research).
I can’t stop people from reading my characters’ emotions and actions into me and my life—so I’m going to try not to worry about it! If they do, then they’ll probably end up thinking I’m a lot more interesting than I am.
“Six Roses” is probably my favorite story in the entire collection. I see so much of my younger self in June, that those last two sentences—"At least he gave her roses. At least he knows her name"—destroyed me. What can you tell me about writing this piece and what do you hope women take away from it?
This was one of the first stories I wrote for this collection, and I was just starting to write about girls and women at that time. Before that, my stories were all about boys and men, probably because the narrative distance felt safer. Writing about women seemed too raw and revealing.
For “Six Roses,” I consciously dug into my most vulnerable self to dredge up the feeling of being an awkward preteen on the cusp of puberty, when adulthood seems simultaneously invasive and tantalizing. I hope women see themselves in June and her friends, like you did, and feel some solidarity in having survived this stretch of womanhood.
Many of your stories feature female characters who sacrifice themselves to “titles” such as: daughter, friend, employee, wife, mother. What can you tell us about the titles you’ve collected along your own journey and how do you maintain a balance between them all?
I shaped the collection around this theme; the stories are unified by girls and women seeking liberation from the perceived and societal limitations of the titles you mention. Of all my titles—and there are so many!—the four that demand the most from me are mother, writer, wife, and employee. It is so very hard to balance them all, and I’m coming to realize that I can’t. I can never be 100% at all four simultaneously (not to mention all the others!), so I try to be 100% at whichever one needs the most attention in a given moment. It’s a constant recalculation.
I noticed the collection is dedicated to your daughter. What do you hope it inspires in her, as well as the rest of your readers?
The collection is dedicated to my daughter and to my mother, because the stories are at their heart about mothers and daughters and the complexities of these roles and how they relate to one another. I hope that as my daughter grows up—and if she decides to become a mother, herself—she’ll see that we’ve shared common experiences and uncertainties and unexpected joys. I want readers to appreciate difficult women; women who are ambitious and ambivalent, scared and strong, weird and wild.
What is best writing advice you received during your time at MVICW? And a favorite memory?
The best writing advice I received was that it was my workshop, and I could use the time however I wanted. The organizers gave me permission to use the Parent-Writer Fellowship to write or attend sessions or explore the island—or catch up on sleep!
I loved that evening readings opened with a toast of elderberry wine for inspiration. It infused the community gatherings with a sense of magic and set the stage for writers to share their work. By the end of our time together, many writers even felt comfortable sharing rough drafts they’d written during the institute. It was a safe and supportive space.
Bonus memory: Every morning, I took a quick Lyft ride over to the Black Dog Tavern in Vineyard Haven, where I sat at a back table overlooking the ocean and drank a bottomless mug of coffee while writing. As a parent-writer, I rarely have the chance to enjoy a leisurely breakfast or sustained writing time, so this was my dream.
You can purchase a copy of Animal Wife from Red Hen Press.
Lara Ehrlich’s work been published in literary magazines, including F(r)iction, Hunger Mountain, and StoryQuarterly, and has been recognized with many awards and fellowships; most recently, Animal Wife received Red Hen Press’s Fiction Award, judged by New York Times-bestselling author, Ann Hood, who called the collection “sensual and intelligent, with gorgeous prose.” Animal Wife, which launched in Sept 2020, has been praised as “remarkable” by Lit Hub, who said “the collection is a standout in a season full of amazing new releases.” Lara lives in Connecticut with her husband and daughter.