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L.A. author Kathryn Scanlan on whether we’re still ‘The Dominant Animal’

Kathryn Scanlan is the author of "The Dominant Animal."
Kathryn Scanlan is the author of “The Dominant Animal.”
(Melanie Schiff)

The stories in Kathryn Scanlan’s collection, “The Dominant Animal,” published today, will probably be described as “flash fiction.” They are short, but their mood and imagery are lasting, and reflective of brutal truths of the commerce of human civilization. Revolving around the dynamics between animals and humans, men and women, parents and children, they collectively ask the uncomfortable question, “Who is the dominant animal?” In the midst of a pandemic these chilling, finely tuned pieces on power and survival feel further and further from fantasy as COVID-19 overwhelms us. Scanlan and I spoke about the role of animals, folklore, Los Angeles and the suspension of time and place in her work amid a global emergency.

Where does the influence of folklore come from in your work?

I don’t have a specific answer for that and the influence is probably mostly subconscious — the style and structure and themes of the fables and fairy tales I read as a child were probably very formative in a way I’m not fully aware of. There’s a style of storytelling in folktales and fables that I love — straightforward but peculiar at the same time.

Some of the stories in “The Dominant Animal” feel very contemporary, but most of them really could take place anytime. Is this sort of timelessness purposeful?

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Yes, and it’s probably related to my admiration for folktales. I like to write about the physical world with physical detail, which is probably one of the reasons I’m not drawn to writing about technology. I’ve only very recently started bringing a phone into some of my stories.

This sense of a place being two things at once, both modern and sort of magical, reminds me a bit of Los Angeles, where you live now. Undoubtedly it’s a modern city, but it’s also classic Americana: the diners, the golden age of Hollywood, Forest Lawn. It’s both modern and classic at the same time.

I really like that description and I think you’re right. I love Los Angeles. It’s a very creative city, but not just because of the entertainment industry. It’s large and strange and diverse and in some ways very mysterious. I love the feeling I get hiking in the city’s parks, of being in what feels like an ancient landscape, then rounding a corner and getting a vantage of the skyscrapers downtown. There’s also a curious lack of historicity that feels freeing. There are layers of history and art you can see if you’re looking for them, but it also feels like a fictional city — like you can write onto it whatever you want.

A book jacket for "The Dominant Animal," by Kathryn Scanlan.
(MCD x FSG)

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You grew up in Iowa. How do you think living in Los Angeles has affected your work?

A lot of what I’m writing is still informed by the place I grew up, but one benefit of moving to Los Angeles is … the remove allows me to think about it in a different way. It’s enabled me to transform my work. And it’s impossible to overstate the mental benefits I receive from strong, dependable sunlight and daily encounters with plants and trees and animals.

People react more viscerally to stories about animals than humans. I have a project about cemeteries, and it’s always surprising to me how people react to a photo of a pet cemetery compared to a photo of a person’s grave.

I grew up around a lot of animals. My mother comes from a family of farmers and my father comes from a family of racehorse trainers. In a basic way, I enjoy writing and reading stories about animals, but I suppose they also appear in many of these stories because they can become a way to parse power relationships.

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These stories are so compact. Do you start out with the intention to write as perfect a sentence as possible?

It varies from story to story but I’m never writing a long draft. I work sentence by sentence, and each sentence is informed by what comes before. I’m incapable of moving forward if I don’t like what I’ve already written.

I’m obsessed with your first book, “Aug 9—Fog,” which is a pastiche of a real diary that you found by an 86-year-old woman living in a small town. In the introduction you write that it took 15 years for you to publish it in this form. What took so long?

During those 15 years I was working on a lot of other things as well, including “The Dominant Animal.” I would set the diary aside and then come back to it. I loved the object and I wanted to find a way to make a work about it, but it took years to figure out, conceptually.

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In an interview with the Believer, you said what struck you about the diarist was her language, how she was straddling two eras.

She was born in the late 1800s and she died in the 1970s. Where she was born, people were commuting by horse. The massive societal changes that happened during her lifetime are at least partly reflected in her use of language, I think — or her diary is a document of the vernacular of a particular time and place.

We are undergoing a massive change right now, though who knows what will come of it. How has this current nightmare affected your work?

I have the same amount of time as I did before, but my focus feels fractured now, and the financial pressure has increased. Today I worked all day but the last few days were pretty dark. I tend to worry about the future, to do a lot of projection and hypothetical problem-solving, but I’m recognizing more and more how that holds me back, so I’m trying to use this extreme time to break that habit. There’s no point in making myself sick about things I can’t control. We don’t know what will happen.

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Ferri is a writer based in Berkeley. Her first book, “Silent Cities: New York,” will be published in May.


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