Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Thomas Boos’ fiction piece, The Owl
John: One of the compelling things in the story is the subtext of abandonment—that everything that can leave this place does. What is the psychic toll of living in this way, of being the one left behind?
Thomas: I think there are a couple common reactions. The first is anger and bitterness. The abandoned will ask questions like, “How could they?” The second is more forlorn: “What could I have done better?”
Those who react with resentment are more likely to close themselves off. They don’t let people in because they’ve lost trust and believe that attachment will lead only to pain. Those who blame themselves are likely to put up with potentially unhealthy relationships because they don’t want to be left behind again.
There is a long trend in human history of externalized suffering—we are so miserable that the only way we feel we can bear it is to inflict pain on the world around us. Is this an inevitability? Are there alternatives?
The motivation for violence is often the need for a sense of control. Suffering destroys our sense of agency. We externalize suffering because we need to know that we can effect change. We might not be able to make ourselves feel better, but at least we can make someone (or something else) feel weak as well.
The need to feel control over our lives is basic and universal. As long as people suffer, suffering will spread.
Of course, the sense of control that comes from violence is an illusion. It’s a quick fix that does nothing to really solve the issue. In some ways, I think that ended up being one of the story’s main points. The destruction and consumption of the owl lead to nothing. And now, later in life, the narrator can’t come to terms with the meaninglessness of his efforts.
It’s hard to talk about alternatives. Some people just don’t have any. If you grow up poor, isolated, and mistreated there’s not a whole lot you can do—especially when you’re young. Some situations just can’t be righted. And in those cases, the only option might be abandoning the thing entirely.
The narrator displays a conflicted relationship with nature—he perceives the forest as layers of death and rot, but still yearns for a canopy of leaves to offer some closeness. Mankind’s relationship toward nature is similarly diverse and conflicted. How do you view it?
Death and violence are certainly a part of the natural world. Somethings must be destroyed so that others can thrive. But there’s nothing really random about that kind of violence. In fact, there’s a kind of cyclic steadiness. So yes: forests are layers and layers of death and rot, but there’s no malice in it. It’s productive, is what I’m really trying get at. The violence present in the natural world is productive. The violence we inflict upon each other adds up to nothing.
Do you think the traumas of a rural childhood are, in some way, qualitatively different than those of urban children, or is trauma just trauma?
Growing up in a small place makes it hard not feel small yourself. It’s easy to feel embarrassed about where you’re from. You feel dismissed by the rest of the world, and so you begin to dismiss yourself. You feel like your problems aren’t worth caring about because they exist in a small place, too.
I can’t really speak to how different that may be from a more urban childhood, but the internalized smallness of rural life has always felt particular to me.