Interviewed by Sarah Starr Murphy
Read Melissa Ostrom’s fiction piece, “Puppy” Rescued by Western New York Family Actually Full-Grown Woman
Sarah: I love the humor in this piece, both breezy and disturbing. “My first thought,” the father said, “was, like, who does this little minx belong to?” The story sings in unsettling language, tightly controlled. Do you write satire often? Any advice or resources you’d recommend?
Melissa: Thank you, Sarah. I don’t write satire often, though I enjoy reading it. Animal Farm, Dead Souls, and The Master and Margarita are a few of my favorites. But with this piece, I wasn’t setting out to fashion a satire as much as I was thinking about the news. So many news stories these last few years have focused on events and situations that seem improbable, even impossible, and feature headlines that sound satirical, finagled for a laugh. A lot of what’s happening lately would have struck me as unthinkable ten years ago.
These characters are obsessed with being saviors. Of puppies, of women, it doesn’t matter. The family believes they have completed a virtuous act despite all evidence to the contrary. Pastor John Thompson sees himself as a champion of lost women. Why do people always want to be the hero? What is it about being a savior that’s so dangerously seductive?
It must be seductive because it’s empowering, though I’m sure many heroic deeds spring from selflessness and empathy. But sometimes, among certain fanatically religious sects, for instance, “rescuing” can be a tidy way to legitimize exercising control over others. Implicit in the impulse to convert is the conviction of rightness and superiority. I suspect many acts of subjugation have been justified with the claim of wanting to “spread the word” and save others.
The world-building in this piece comes mostly at the end. This is a risky move, but here it ensures that the reader can fall straight into the absurdity without getting bogged down in detail. How do you find the line between withholding and giving readers enough to go on, especially in such a short piece?
Actually, the fact that this is a short piece probably helped me find that line. Most of the stories I write these days are flashes and therefore require a quality of leanness. Every word has to count, and the writer needs to trust the reader to notice what isn’t being said and then construct meaning from those vacancies.
When we say a person is treated “like an animal,” usually we mean the treatment is violent, horrific. Here, it’s the opposite. A person is treated as a beloved pet – coddled and petted. It’s this twist that makes the violence pop. How should we treat our animals? How should we treat each other? Does the treatment of one influence our treatment of the other?
Well, I treat my dog Mocha like she’s the love of my life (because she is), and she treats me likewise, but most animals probably don’t want to be pets and, if given the choice, would prefer their natural habitats over cages. Zoos and aquariums make me sad and uncomfortable. I believe wild animals would be better served if humans poured their resources into conservation efforts.
We can’t seem to leave wild animals alone. We can’t even leave one another alone! Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about people’s unwillingness to mind their own business and allow others the freedom to mind their own—and how this self-righteous busybody-ness is imperiling women’s reproductive rights and other civil liberties and jeopardizing our democracy.
What are you reading at the moment? Or, what was the last book you read that you really loved?
I’m enjoying a lucky streak of excellent books, having recently finished Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Blood Horses, and currently reading Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women and Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus.
Congratulations, and thank you for doing this interview!