Carolyn Parkhurst‘s debut novel, The Dogs of Babel (Little, Brown, and Co., June 2003), is the story of Paul Iverson, a linguistics professor whose wife, Lexy, has died mysteriously by falling (or jumping?) from a tree. Since the only witness to his wife’s death is the couple’s dog, the bereaved professor tries to teach their dog to speak in order to unveil the truth behind Lexy’s demise.
Carolyn has an MFA in Creative Writing from American University and lives in Washington, DC with her husband and their son, who was born shortly after she completed this book.
You gave birth to your first child the day after you finished The Dogs of Babel. How did your pregnancy affect your writing?
Well, it provided me with a much-needed deadline, for one thing; I knew I’d better do my best to finish the book before the baby was born, or it might be months before I’d get back to it. But I think it also informed the way I wrote about my characters’ feelings about having children. My narrator, Paul, very much wants a child, and his wife, Lexy, is very ambivalent about the idea, which creates some conflict between them, and interestingly, I think both of those reactions grew out of my feelings about being pregnant. When Paul fantasizes about setting his baby down on a blanket on the grass or pushing her through the neighborhood in a carriage, those images reflect the great excitement I felt about having a child of my own. And when Lexy wonders if she’s cut out to be a mother, that reflects the kind of fears I had about becoming a parent.
Was it difficult to write your first novel from the perspective of a different gender? Did you consider telling the story from Lexy’s (posthumous) viewpoint? Or maybe the dog’s?
I don’t think I ever considered writing the book from anyone’s perspective besides Paul’s. Really, his viewpoint was the one that seemed most intriguing to me; he’s a man who’s led a fairly ordinary life up till this point, and now, in his grief, he’s made this totally outlandish decision to try to teach his dog to talk. I was interested in seeing how far he would take it, and how exactly he was going to manage to get through his grief and get to a point where he could move on with his life. I never really considered having Lexy tell the story from beyond the grave, although I did do some writing from her perspective, just as an exercise, to get to know her a little better. I never intended to use the resulting material in the book, but I liked the way it came out, and I found a way to put it in, in slightly modified form.
What sort of strategy did you use in framing this story — are you an outliner, or did you let it develop as you wrote it?
I don’t usually have much of the plot figured out when I begin. I start with the characters, and with a basic premise, and then I just start writing and see where it goes. It made me a little nervous, actually, that I didn’t know where the story was going, and I did try a few times to outline the plot, using a big roll of paper and lots of different-colored magic markers, but it never actually went anywhere.
You’ve said that "Every writer should have a dog." How did your own dog help you mold this book?
My dog, Chelsea, who died during the time I was writing the book, was certainly an inspiration to me; I think that the experience of living with such a sweet dog is probably what made me want to write about dogs in the first place. He helped me with my research, too; when Paul was doing intelligence tests with Lorelei, I did the same thing with Chelsea, and it gave me some interesting material.
For those of us who haven’t put much thought into the subject, have there ever been any organizations like the one in TDOB that try gruesome techniques to get dogs to speak? What’s the closest thing to a talking dog we’ve had on this planet? Do you see this ever being a potential goal for some wacky genetic engineer of the future?
I certainly hope there have never been any organizations like the one I describe in the book. I don’t know of any real cases where anyone’s truly made a concerted effort to teach a dog to talk, although I think it’s a fantasy that’s been entertained by anyone who’s ever had a dog. I did read that the daughter of Thomas Mann actually taught her dog to type, which inspired me to have Paul try the same thing. One of the books I used for my research published one of the poems this dog had supposedly composed, which was a little nonsensical, but pretty good for a dog. As for the genetic engineering question, that’s something I’d never even considered. I don’t know if it’s a great idea, ethically speaking, but it certainly would be interesting to see what they’d have to say. I suspect my dog Chelsea would have spent all his time talking about this one time he found half an Egg McMuffin on the sidewalk.
You covered a lot of esoteric material in TDOB — from animal communication to tarot-card reading to square eggs. What is the weirdest thing you encountered in your research that didn’t make it into the book?
I did a lot of research on service dogs, in an effort to figure out what dogs’ physical and intellectual capabilities are, and I learned a lot of interesting tidbits that didn’t make it into the book. For example, there are some dogs who can predict when an epileptic person is about to have a seizure, up to an hour ahead of time, and can warn the person, so that they’ll be in a safe place when it happens. And there are cases of dogs recognizing illness in an owner; I read an anecdote about a dog who repeatedly nipped at an arbitrary spot on his owner’s leg, I think, and it turned out the owner had a cancerous skin lesion there that he’d never noticed. Dogs perceive a lot of things that humans aren’t even aware of.
Considering the linguistic content of your book (and being that you are, after all, a writer), it seems appropriate to steal a question from the great James Lipton (host of Bravo’s "Inside the Actor’s Studio"): What is your favorite word?
Wow, that’s a tough one. There are so many good choices (effervescent? toboggan? gloomy?), but if I have to choose just one, I’ll go with "yearning." It has such a mournful sound to it; it’s almost onomatopoetic. And when you say it out loud, it feels like a longer word than it is; it seems to take an extra beat to pronounce it. It’s like there’s an extra syllable of sadness in there.
For a story that heavily involves the power of words and masks, your book is impressively non-political. As a writer living in DC, is there an added temptation to politicize your work? Do you consider yourself to be a politically active/convicted person?
Actually, while I’ve lived in DC for a total of 7 years (in two different stretches), nearly all of this book was written while I was living in San Francisco for three years. I don’t know that it would have been a different book had I written it in Washington; the interesting thing about Washington is that, even though it’s the seat of American government, it’s also just a city where people live. Because the only government-related job I’ve had was a summer internship at the National Endowment for the Arts, most of my friends are from the writing program at American University, or from working in a bookstore, so they’re more literary than political. There are certainly issues I’m passionate about, but my political activism is mostly limited to supporting various advocacy groups, rather than being directly involved in causes.
And the final question on all our minds is of course, what’s next for you?
I’m working on a new novel, but it’s only in the very early stages, so I’m hesitant to say anything specific about it, and I’m also working on a short story. I’m enjoying working on the story, because there’s so clearly an end in sight, which is not always the case with a novel. And I feel like I can do things in a story that I couldn’t necessarily sustain for a whole novel; this story, for example, has a very nasty, unlikable narrator, which I’m having a lot of fun with, but I wouldn’t want to try writing a whole book that way.