Editor’s Note: Chloe Shaw grew up in Brooklyn Heights as Chloe Bland. Her first book, What Is a Dog?, debuted in July and has received widespread critical acclaim. She will be interviewed on a live Zoom program with Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn in August. She worked as a longtime assistant to novelist John Irving before turning her own literary efforts to what seems a primeval, dear and enduring relationship between dogs and humans.
Q: In your poetic, meditative, and absorbing debut memoir WHAT IS A DOG?, you return to the canines of your past and present in order to imagine the human you hope to become in the future. How did the idea for this book originate?
As I started to come to terms with the fact that our beloved dog, Booker (age 15), was ailing and would, not too far into the future, die, I started a website called Bye, Beast (no longer active) in honor of him. Animal loss is such tricky grief. It’s just a dog. All grief is lonely, and like all grief, grief over an animal is lonely in its own way. It can feel childish and embarrassing, like we’re not supposed to talk about it. We’re just supposed to get over it and get another dog. At Bye, Beast, people were welcome to submit remembrances of animals loved and lost in a safe space that they could share with the world. But when Booker finally died in June of 2015, I couldn’t begin to write about him. It was all too big and booming. It would take the next couple of years for me to process what that dog’s life and death had done to—and for—me. In the winter of 2018, I was finally able to sit still and write about him, an exercise that brought me back to the dogs of my childhood, what they each represented at different times of my life, and encouraged me to consider more broadly what a dog is anyway.
Once I’d written the essay, I shared it with my friend, the poet Christian Wiman, who put me in touch with Sudip Bose at The American Scholar, where it was accepted for publication in March of 2018.
About two months later, I got a notification that someone had left a comment at Bye, Beast. The comment said, “I think Chloe Shaw’s essay in The American Scholaris beautiful. I would like to speak to her about turning it into a book. This is Bob Miller, President of Flatiron Books.” At first, I thought it was spam or some kind of prank, but when I told my husband, he just hugged me. Within a week, Bob and I had our first conversation on the phone and within two weeks my book (that didn’t exist yet) was sold.
In truth, this book wasn’t my idea, but with Bob’s vision and the encouragement and expertise I received from him and my agent, Meredith, and my editor, Lauren, I came to realize that even though I’d been writing fiction for decades, this is the book I was meant to write, the book I’d been writing my entire life.
Q: What is it about animal death that is so painful? As you said, some people say, “It was just an animal.” Especially now, during a year when hundreds of thousands of people have died and are still dying, why do we mourn animals the way we do?
I’ve thought about this a lot, especially, as you say, over the last year, for that very reason. I wondered if this was even the wrong moment for this book. But as I wrote, I also realized that this book is not just about grief, it’s about love, motherhood, girlhood, womanhood, anxiety, dementia, friendship, and, briefly, wild turkeys. Suddenly it did seem that the book might actually be more timeless than timely. I would never compare the grief over a dog to the grief over a human. You can’t. They are not the same. But they are parallel. They are both real, both painful, both persistent. Both have a place in this life. I do think that while grief over human lives is only understandable, grief over animal lives is murkier. Losing an animal can feel so lonely merely because some might say, it was just an animal. It’s less socially acceptable to take a few personal days from work when your cat dies than when your mother dies. But both feel valid to me. My dogs were the portals through which I found a more emotional world, a world I’d been craving. So their loss has always felt enormous and penetrating, like my emotional center was suddenly gone. I think there also might be a hint to this answer in the fact that “pandemic dogs” are such a thing. A friend who’s currently looking for a dog recently said, “New York City has run out of dogs!” Which, of course, isn’t true, but it certainly seems that an inordinate number of dogs have found homes during this past Covid year. Why is that? Here’s a universal thread for you: humans turn to animals for comfort because there’s nothing else that can comfort with such basic, pure instincts. The first few words of the chapter called “How to Banish Melancholy,” in Abigail Thomas’s exquisite memoir, A Three Dog Life, are, “You will need three dogs….” She writes this as she’s enduring the excruciating aftermath of her husband’s traumatic brain injury, which he suffered when getting hit by a car after darting into Manhattan traffic in pursuit of their dog, Henry, who’d slipped out of his collar, and yet she knows. And in this time of no hugging, you can always hug a dog. God knows mine have been taking on a heavier load.
Q: While Booker’s death may have been the impetus for writing WHAT IS A DOG?, your childhood Scottish Terrier, Agatha 2, was the dog in your life that lodged in your heart, the dog that buried its bones between your bones. In fact, you write, there were days you embodied her so fully that adults seemed to look at you with a pity that suggested you dreamed her up. Can you talk about growing up an only child in Brooklyn, your relationship with Agatha 2, and what you learned from each other?
As with all circumstances during childhood, whatever yours is, is your normal. I didn’t know many other only children, but I didn’t really think about it all that much. Being one was simply my reality. As a child, I spent a lot more time with adults (my parents, their friends, family), than many of my friends who had siblings. In some senses, I became more comfortable in that world than in the world of children. I didn’t really understand teasing and thought an argument meant that relationship was over … for good. I had no practice! In addition, my household was also a fairly quiet one, by which I mean a kind of silenced one. My parents both came from kind, generous families who seemed genetically pre-disposed to looking the other way when conflict or discomfort arose. This felt confusing to me as a child because although I was a quieter, “good girl,” I could feel bigger, more complicated emotions lurking inside. But I felt the pressure to behave, to be fine. So I found other outlets for my emotions. Eventually, that would be writing, but first, it was my Scottish Terrier, Agatha. I certainly didn’t have to be fine around her. I could be anything. I would sing Cyndi Lauper to her and cry and tell her all the things I loved and loathed and feared and hoped. She was the perfect offset for what a tricky number three can be. When the ups and downs of life and marriage in my home did arise, was I on my mom’s side, my dad’s side, or, the riskiest of all (at least it felt that way to me), did I stand alone as Me? Though my Little Me would never have used this word at the time, it was a very lonely feeling. Until I lodged hearts and bones with Agatha. Just having another life in the house to care for and to disappear into my room with, diffused that tricky threesome for me. We were no longer three, but two and two. My mom was married to my dad and I was married to Agatha. I’d like to think that, in addition to teaching her how to jump over my outstretched leg like a little urban show pony, she learned love and trust from me, and that, just like we humans are all born not knowing what a dog is, dogs are born not knowing what humans are, but when the blurry pre-world of infanthood begins to come into to focus, we humans and dogs exist in a shared world, and it works — not out of magic, but out of real and true communication, trust, and loyalty.
Q: What you now recognize as the obsessive whip of anxiety, during adolescence you became aware of a growing discomfort within your body, which you write was “an agonizing body to be in, to want to be in, to want to stay in.” You came to understand that a dog was the predisposed portal away from any kind of human anguish. Emotionally speaking, you learned to become dog. Please talk about the anxiety and loneliness you experienced growing up and how being the dog helped you cope with these feelings.
Growing up in a culture and community that tended toward stiff lips and alcohol over transparency and self-reflection leaves a child with much to figure out on her own. Without siblings with whom to compare notes and with parents who loved and cared for me deeply, but didn’t specialize in emotional truth, I walked around observing, caught up inside my head, inventing possible scenarios about what was really going on when we weren’t all “fine.” When you aren’t always given answers to what might be causing tension or despair, when you’re not always ushered through the inevitable pains and traumas of life with a clear compass, the possibilities are terrifying and endless. I became a hypervigilant spy. So even while still fully functioning as a daughter, friend, girlfriend, student, I was also always half inside my racing worries of what might be. That was the agonizing body. The racing thoughts, the nervous stomach, the horribly ravaged fingernails. I remember lying on Agatha’s pillow with her under the piano one 7th grade morning — the year everything started feeling socially more insistent and consequential and the year I was groped by a fellow classmate on the street — before school and saying aloud to her, “Why can’t I be you today?” Her life just looked so easy and lovely to me. So simple. Not as risky or mysterious as us upright and uptight and totally unpredictable humans. I just wanted to be Agatha. I wanted to be the dog as a way of escaping all that is human. When we were together, I didn’t have to think of us as dog or human. It’s probably best described that I felt like we met in the middle somewhere and that whatever we were didn’t matter. We were the same. That feeling was the greatest comfort and relief I knew.
Q: In adulthood, you became a wife and a mother. And while you had your own human pack, in marriage and motherhood you faced some of your most human struggles yet. Five years into married life and nearly four years into motherhood, you came to realize that your adaptive attachment of being the dog had finally caught up to you. How did you come to this realization and how did you breakthrough, becoming the person you and your family needed to be?
Marriage brought about such a steady comfort as well as an up-close and constant dance between solitude and couplehood, both of which I need and crave. Emotionally speaking, I’d learned from an early age to take care of myself, to be private and self-contained. The writer in me also learned to be as I felt: internal. If I was going through a crisis, I tended to curl in, endure it, figure it out, and then greet the world again when I was “fine.” That’s a tricky practice within a marriage. Especially when you marry a psychoanalyst! Though what a blessing. My husband has certainly helped me appreciate the emotional benefits of talking as opposed to being the dog, curling in. But it was a very gradual process for me to be willing to see that, to participate, to more fully embody me as a human. And it’s still a work in progress, as I guess we all are. Speaking from the only-child perspective, though, I think my hardest challenge came when I had my second child. Parenting two when you only know the experience of being one felt unexpectedly complicated. Navigating the inevitable conflicts between siblings and all the feelings that were then directed at me as Mom proved particularly challenging because I never learned those skills, and over the years I only became more steadfast in my tendency to avoid conflict. Then — POW! — there I was in the thick of marriage and child rearing! And, unlike me as a kid, my children are happy to let me know how they’re feeling, whatever it is. A wonderful thing! But a hard thing for a mom whose tendency is to slip back into the dogs and avoid conflict. So I turned back into therapy. I had much more work to do processing my own childhood and challenges and growth in order to learn how to be the best mother I could be, which, of course, starts with feeling more grounded in myself – as Me, not as a Dog. As a valid, thriving voice in the world. Because how do you raise valid, thriving voices in the world when you don’t feel like one yourself? It’s a life-long project, but I am eternally grateful to my husband and children and therapist for guiding me toward a more fully inhabited Me. And the dogs, of course. After all, even though being the dog became a less helpful survival tool in the adult worlds of marriage and motherhood, dogs have always been my translators as I’ve approached both. Through my relationship with these other-worldy yet wholly of-this-world beasts, I have learned how to need and accept love, how to bear and maneuver through conflict, and how to better recognize where the dog ends and I begin.
Q: What has a lifetime of caring for dogs taught you about caring for your son and daughter?
I love this question and have never really thought about that connection before. It makes me think of how often children learn about empathy from and with animals. I believe all children should have the opportunity to experience animals from an early age — even if pets aren’t possible in certain households, exposure to them, say, in the wild, at an animal shelter, or a nearby farm. I’ve always loved Mahatma Ghandi’s quote, “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If kids can learn to care for and about animals I think it bodes well for their care toward each other (humans). I was a born animal lover. I was never into dolls, only had stuffed animals. They were utterly real to me. My parents love animals, which I am sure I observed from the beginning. Their first “baby” was their afghan hound, Easy. She tolerated me, was never unkind, but I don’t think she was thrilled by my arrival … maybe even making her more like a real sibling! She died when I was four, dramatically collapsing in our kitchen from what we would soon find out was a tumor. Even though we weren’t terribly close, suddenly all I could see was the dog-shaped hole in the house. Her presence had already penetrated me, shifted some human part of me into something more dog. What was I now without her? A couple of years later my parents got me a Scottish Terrier puppy for Christmas. We named her Agatha, but, devastatingly, she had parvo and had to be euthanized only a few days later. Six months after that, we finally got Agatha 2 (another Scottie), who would become the heart-dog of my entire childhood. Outside of school hours or squash tournament hours or boyfriend hours or best-friend hours, she and I were rarely apart. I relished caring for her and making sure she was as happy as possible. But when I think of my transition into motherhood, Booker is definitely the dog who ushered me through. My husband, Matt, had Booker when I met them. In fact, I met them at the same moment, on a hike with our mutual friend, Cyd. It was seven months after that hike when I moved in with Matt and Booker and I became Booker’s main caretaker. The last time I had taken care of a dog, I was eighteen; now I was thirty-four. It had a whole different feeling to it, probably enhanced because I knew Matt was the person I wanted to marry and have a family with. In caring for anyone or anything it becomes so much about understanding compromise and that you don’t always come first – but that you’re not to neglect yourself either. I have a friend who taught me that octopus mothers wither and die soon after having babies. When her girls were little, she told herself, “Don’t be an octopus mother,” which I’ve always loved. That applies to mothering dogs and humans, of course. It’s not about being perfect, but present. But, I’ve also learned that the difference between “mothering” dogs and children are two very different animals!
Q: This is a story of your life. How did you decide what to include and what not to include in the book?
As I said, I never planned on writing a memoir, so this task was especially challenging. On the topic of writing about family, my college mentor, Jim Shepard, once told me, “Well, you can just not do it, hope they don’t read it, or wait until they’re dead.” What helped me most in the case of this particular book was that this was always meant to be a personal meditation on dogs. The first few drafts included way more personal detail about my family, my childhood, my marriage, but with each one—I think six in all—my editor just kept saying, “More dogs.” So there was a little pressure off me to tell all the secrets, say all the things because often those pieces led the story too far from the dogs. The family secrets I carry (as we all do) certainly informed my writing of this book, but I realized, draft after draft, that that didn’t mean they belonged in this book. Where I finally landed feels like the right balance of having done the emotional work to re-create the worlds around me at the different stages of my life while also staying true to the dogs of my life, who’ve always been there, whether still in body or not. I hope readers agree.
Q: What made writing nonfiction different about the writing process for you, as opposed to fiction?
In my particular experience, I think I was hiding in my fiction. That’s not always a bad thing. Imagination can be a good friend in hard times, as it has been for me. But even in my fiction, I felt a bit trapped, like I couldn’t go all the way even in a world of my own making. When Booker died, something inside of me cracked open. My voice, you might say. My heart. His death was the first death I was front row, center for. I carried out all the vet visits, helped dig his grave, kissed him between the eyes when he was dead. This is not to say I haven’t lost anyone beloved (human and dog) before. But I’d always nimbly avoided that up-close role. It felt too hard. I preferred not to look to closely in fear I’d fall apart. When I finally sat down to write about Booker, the words came so easily, like they’d always been there. I was able to speak more honestly and embody the words because suddenly — and finally — they felt like they were me. I was speaking from me as me. It felt exhilarating and relieving. It feels important to note that during this period I was diving deeper into therapy, a process which had also been breaking me down, breaking me open, and ever so slowly, building me back together. I don’t think I would have been able to write this book without that simultaneous mental work.
Q: How old do you have to be to write a memoir?
A friend who teaches high school English recently told me that her students had asked her this question and now because of my book she has an answer: 45! Of course, that’s not true. Everyone has a story to tell, it’s just a matter of when any one person is ready to tell it. Though I’ve been writing for most of my life, I never dreamed I’d write a memoir. It never even occurred to me that a memoir would not only be possible, but it would be my debut. After my essay “What Is A Dog?” was published, and I was saying real things about real me for maybe the first time, I heard from so many people that the pain of losing a beloved animal, the pain of losing, the pain of loneliness and girlhood, womanhood, motherhood, resonated. In sharing my story, I’d made them feel less alone, but what they didn’t realize is that in reading — witnessing — my story, they’d made me feel less alone. I recently read a quote from the writer and Family Secrets podcast host, Dani Shapiro, that said, “Writers of memoir are often thanked for ‘sharing’ our stories. I know people mean well but it misses the point of what literary memoir is: an interrogation of one’s own memory in an attempt to make meaning and find the universal thread.” With that terrific description in mind, I think you can be any age to write a memoir, as long as you’re willing and able to self-interrogate and find the universal thread.
Q: You say you’ve been writing since you were in middle school. You’re now 45. Where have you been?
I’ll say the same thing to you that I said to Bob Miller at Flatiron when we first spoke and he asked me something similar: I’ve been practicing. Writing. Agonizing. Writing some more. Living. Writing. Practicing. My first job out of college was as assistant to the novelist John Irving. Among many others, perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from him was the athleticism of writing. He was a wrestler; I was a squash player. The squash player in me watched the wrestler in him train every day at his desk for seven or eight hours before actually heading to the gym to work out. And in those days, his writing practice was even more of a workout as he only used a typewriter back then. More than I had ever imagined, I observed that writing is about training, staying in shape, never giving up, celebrating victories, accepting defeats. So, while it’s taken me longer than I might have wished to get here, 45 is nothing for a life’s dream. This makes me think of something I heard Amy Pohler say once. She was talking about how often she’s been asked by interviewers, “Can you BELIEVE you made it here? Can you BELIEVE how far you’ve come?!” Her response was always, “Well, YEAH I can! Do you know how hard I’ve been working all this time? Yes, I can believe it! I’ve been working for decades to get here!” When I think of my age and how hard I’ve worked, I definitely feel happily in touch with my inner Amy Pohler. I believe it because I’ve lived it.
Q: What do you do when you’re stuck?
I take a long hot shower. Not a bath. I love baths, but baths are for before or after the work is done. Baths are decadent. Showers are for working, getting clean, but working. The water feels like it enters my head and comes out my toes and clears the way for what’s next. My friend Cyd took those really advanced math courses in college, the ones whose names I couldn’t even make sense of, and she shared with me that one of her professors used to assign “shower problems,” meaning problems that would take at least one shower to solve. I’ve never liked math, but I’ve always loved that idea and practice. I also walk my dogs. It’s more productive than walking alone. There’s a conversation that happens through the leash that allows me to interact as I think, bump up against something, rather than just the re-playing of things alone in my head. Interactions with dogs, or what Barbara Smuts call “nonhuman persons,” always help. But I’ve also learned that even when I feel stuck, even when I am in the middle of a household-heavy week of helping my kids with remote-learning, taking them to doctor’s appointments, taking the build-up of recycling to the transfer station so that no one gets crushed when they open our garage — because I am a writer, but I am also a mother and primary home parent — things are still happening in my head. I’ve learned to do what some people call multi-task but I’ve come to think of more as split-brain. I can write sentences and work out book structure while reading aloud to my kids. My writer’s mind is still operating even when at the dump. So I panic less about those types of weeks these days. I try to relax into the idea that it’s simply a different mode of the writing work that will render me more prepared when I next get to sit down and actually write.
Q: How do you balance writing (your artistic life) and motherhood/home life (your more practical one)?
I want to start by pointing out that men are seldom asked this question. It feels important to say that. But I want to answer it because this task has been one of the great challenges and works-in-progress and also triumphs of my life. (Though you should ask my kids if they would call it a “balance.”) The way it worked out, my husband and I met at a time in our lives when we were ready to get married and start a family while also pursuing our individual careers — he in psychoanalysis, me in writing. Because we hit it off so immediately, we kind of hit the ground running and have been running ever since. And I’ll point out that I happily took on the role of home parent. The newborn stage was especially enchanting for me. But eventually I remembered how enchanted I am by writing, too. I wrote two novels (one of which landed me my amazing agent), and published four essays and one memoir written mostly in the “off-hours,” while my kids were sleeping or at school, though when things got more serious with deadlines for What Is A Dog?, my husband would take my kids away for a week or so here and there to give me much-needed uninterrupted time. I have many women artist friends in the same boat and I marvel at their accomplishments, and share their frustrations about, well, no time. I am also very lucky to have a great support system. Though he has a full-time private practice and works long hours, my husband is a very willing and involved partner in all things. My parents are nearby and, especially during the early child-rearing years, would pitch in to give me some writing (or sleeping) time. Even though they’re not nearby, my parents-in-law are very involved parents and grandparents. We also have an incredible network of friends. So I’m not sure I would say it’s ever felt balanced, more piecemeal, but somehow I’m here. Sometimes I don’t really know how it’s all happened, except that, again, as Amy Pohler would say, I’ve worked hard. My husband has worked hard. Our kids have worked hard. Our people have worked hard. It’s true what they say. It takes a village. I’ve been awfully lucky to have mine.
Q: What are your favorite/most inspirational things?
Oh, good. You didn’t ask me what my favorite books are. So I’ll start with books. Rather than favorites, even though these are some of mine, I prefer to call them my most influential. The first book that made me want to be a writer and kept me up late in high school just marveling at words, was Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. In fact, the dedication in my book, “To the Dogs,” was directly inspired by her dedication in that book, “To the Women.” Two other high school favorites were Crime and Punishment and John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Then came Amy Hempel’s Reasons to Live. Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Jim Shepard’s Love and Hydrogen — specifically his stories “Krakatau” and “Love and Hydrogen.” Amy Fusselman’s The Pharmacist’s Mate. Rick Moody’s Demonology. J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. And poetry (which I came to late): Nancy White, Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Jane Kenyon, Donald Hall, Christian Wiman, Danielle Chapman, Tim Seibles, Amy Gerstler (especially “The New Dog”), just to name a quick few. Most recently, it’s Abigail Thomas’s memoir A Three Dog Life, which I can’t recommend highly enough. I was banned by my editor from reading any “dog books” while writing my own and what a good idea that was. If I’d read this any earlier, I would have given up. It’s that good.
Outside of books, a few things I love are: inclement weather. And, just weather. I simply love the words Doppler Radar. I love ginger ale and artichokes. That first spring sun on bare legs. I love when wild animals show up in our yard like divine visitations. The word crepuscular. Birds of prey and giant squid — though really any cephalopods. When my daughter talks to herself while she’s painting. When my son nostril-laughs. My very funny husband. Purring cats. The smell of new sneakers and basements and (some) garages. Lapsang Souchong tea. When my dog, Otter, howls along with fire trucks. My otter tape-dispenser. The glass dog paperweight my husband’s uncle Bob and late aunt Margo gave us for our engagement. Wolves. Higgins Lake in Michigan. My women friends. Women. The My Favorite Murderpodcast. The Terrible, Thanks for Asking podcast. Dimmed lighting. Baths. Rock walls. The Black Stallion. Blasting music in my car when I’m alone on the way home from the supermarket. Whales. My gym, Tuff Girl Fitness. Cleaning the lint from the drier. Winter. Dim sum. Kindness. Summer nights, or what Raymond Carver called “the best time of the day.” When my dog, Safari, comes and boops his nose on my arm when I’m working and how then I always have to end up on the floor with him. Sufjan Stevens’s album Carrie and Lowell. Those sponges that come all dried up and you have to expand them in water. My childhood room. School supplies. Horses. Specifically, horse noses. Temporary tattoos. Watching birds make nests. The end of the dock on Keuka Lake. Friendship bracelets from the ‘80s. Photographs taken from behind subjects. Cursive. Cursing. Dogs.
Q: So did you ever find out what a dog is?
Yes. But you’ll have to read the book to find out.