Imaginative Rebels: A Conversation Between Terese Svoboda and Jim Ruland
Dog on Fire by Terese Svoboda
Make It Stop by Jim Ruland
Little did I know—though I would soon find out—that Terese had written about bohemians; it just wasn’t the focus of that particular novel. I discovered that my new friend had written novels about pirates, collections of poetry, biographies of poets, and memoirs about her family. There’s nothing she can’t do, and the Guggenheim she received in 2013 reflects her wide-ranging passions.
Terese’s new novel, Dog on Fire, is an uncanny family drama with a mystery at its core that flickers at the edge of Midwestern noir. My new novel, Make It Stop, is grittier and more urban but unconventional in other ways. Perhaps it’s best to think of this conversation as a panel of two seemingly mismatched writers discovering that their new books have a great deal in common.
TERESE SVOBODA: At first, Make It Stop reads like a fast-paced action adventure with a superhero, but the mission fails, people die. Imagine that in a Bond film! So, while the reader’s gliding along in the narrative, lots of plot builds up, people struggle with sadness and what it’s like to be a hero, particularly an unknown super-ish hero. I love the term “powerless to unfuck” that you use to underscore their struggle. More and more of these heroes in media are presented with complex personalities. Were you influenced by that trend?
JIM RULAND: I don’t think so. You see a lot of that stuff in superhero movies, and before the pandemic I’d go see them with my daughter, but I read those comic books when I was her age in the ’80s. I knew from the very beginning that the vigilante group that my character Melanie was a part of would be highly dysfunctional, but I didn’t want it to be superficial. In blockbuster movies, there’s a scene or two where the main character is allowed to be sad and then it’s time to save the world again. Melanie’s world has been ripped apart—much like the narrator of Dog on Fire. What forces shaped your novel?
TS: This is the influencer question. Of course, there’s the formative 175 Nancy Drew novels I read in the town’s tiny library in which the heroine is just going on with her life—an oh, darn, what’s going on here? layered with Willa Cather gesturing, in her modernist way, toward the seemingly empty landscape. Although the book was written long before George Saunders’s 1998 story “Sea Oak,” his audacious use of the undead confirmed that I was on the right track. I love Dame Muriel Spark’s novel Memento Mori (1959), where the elderly have such a mordant response to the threat of death. Grief with wings.
JR: I love Nancy Drew! In the sixth grade, I suffered from a mysterious malady that resulted in bleeding in my hip socket, and I was laid up for weeks. A neighbor brought a cardboard box of Nancy Drew mysteries. I read them all. To this day, seeing those yellow spines fills me with nostalgia tinged with dread.
TS: Although Make It Stop is an action-oriented story about vigilantes who free hospitalized addicts kept against their will, a lot of grief gets processed. The book is a particularly sympathetic look at substance dependents and their emotional attachments, and feels as if it comes out of a deep dive into the subject. Did you do a lot of research?
JR: In the parlance of recovery, someone who relapses is referred to as “doing more research”—i.e., they’re not convinced that they suffer from the disease of alcoholism and need to gather more data. Although I’ve never relapsed, the gap between when I knew I had a problem and when I finally did something about it was about 20 years. So, yeah, lots of research was involved in the writing of Make It Stop. I struggled with the mechanics of the novel for many years. I’d put it aside and work on other projects, but I kept coming back to it. I probably would have scrapped it if the story at the center of the book—Melanie’s struggle with sobriety—wasn’t so close to my own. Addicts and alcoholics have a very cut-and-dry way of dealing with the past, a “that was then, this is now” approach to living, which is great for making it through the day sober but not for dealing with the death of a loved one. Was the grief at the heart of Dog on Fire something that was lived or imagined?
TS: Okay, well, my epileptic brother did die mysteriously 25 years ago, and having grown up in a small town, many of the details in Dog on Fire are not imagined. Or, rather, all the details are reimagined with memory standing by, tapping its foot. The grief was buried under the unimaginable context of death, so deep I kept having to shovel it out. Shovels are very important in this book. And a botched seance. My father did have a meteorite hole on his property, and he always, to the day he died, maintained that cigar-shaped UFOs soared over his field, despite his being a Jesuit-educated district judge.
JR: The truth is out there!
TS: Make It Stop’s mantra is “no feelings, only choices.” Actions speak louder than the equivocations of the characters and these actions pile up—yet Melanie hopes for feeling: “She doesn’t know what happiness is anymore. She has a tendency to mix up happiness with the mindlessness of intoxication. Why can’t she find satisfaction in the simple pleasures normal people seem to enjoy? What’s wrong with her? What is she missing?” So, what is she missing, Mr. Author?
JR: Like a lot of substance abusers, Melanie never learned to deal with her issues and problems without drugs and alcohol. She used intoxicants as a kind of escape hatch. That’s the slippery side of sobriety. For many people, quitting is easy. It’s dealing with the aggravation of everyday life that’s challenging. Many addicts replace one compulsive behavior with another. We fixate on sex, food, work. It’s so much easier to feel our way through the world than to choose what we know is right. In Make It Stop, we meet Melanie at a time when this strategy stops working because her role as a member of an underground vigilante organization has suddenly become very dangerous.
In Dog on Fire, your protagonist is at a similar point in her life where the roles that have defined her—wife, mother, daughter, and sister—are suddenly in flux. What’s not working for her anymore?
TS: No husband, the son about to drive into another life, the father and mother rejecting her, and, of course, her brother dead. At first, she uses grief to avoid acting but learns that she can’t just go on keeping house for the dysfunctional and immature; she’s got to redefine her role. A night in a graveyard with Aphra, her heavyset co-narrator, does the trick. A debate about Jell-O as a murder weapon is also key. A dog on fire!
What gives you cojones to come up with a woman protagonist? “‘The best way to get ignored in a hospital,’ Melanie says, ‘is to be a woman in pain.’” Do you have any real-life models, or was it a hard slog, always having to check your sources?
JR: In my previous novel, the main protagonist is a man, but the other points of view are from women. I leaned pretty heavily into the autobiographical aspects of the male character in that book, and I didn’t want to do that in Make It Stop. I really wasn’t interested in writing a sobriety story that had anything to do with my own experience.
In Dog on Fire, the narrator is part of a big messy family with autobiographical elements. When you wrote it, were you worried about members of your own family reading into it?
TS: Eight years of litigation exploded our big messy family, all due to a demented parent and a greedy sibling. So no, I don’t think any of them will ever even read it. But that’s been true for most of my work. I think they fear they might find out about what lies beneath this shared familial facade, or have to come to grips with my suppositions. When my first book of poetry came out, my mother complained that I had suggested she was fat, putting her in a heavy sweater in one poem—and not a peep about the more difficult aspects of her mothering. The point is, if they do read it, the likelihood that they will object to what you may think is objectionable is low.
JR: One of the most important characters in Dog on Fire is Aphra, girlfriend of the mysteriously deceased brother. She’s the kind of character who typically doesn’t have a voice: she’s from a small town, has a bad reputation, and is physically very large. Not only does she play an important role in the story, but she has a voice. Why did you make Aphra the co-narrator?
TS: “From the second Aphra came on the page I wanted to know more about her,” wrote the anonymous reader for University of Nebraska Press. I am indebted to them for suggesting that Aphra’s inclusion would enrich the story and increase tension. She also ended up being useful in revealing missing pieces of plot while, paradoxically, increasing the book’s mystery. I’ve heard novelists chafe over enduring the cumbersome and lengthy university process of review with outside readers—along with having an editor. It’s a system in place primarily for academic texts, but I’ve found that the readers are usually well chosen and offer independent insights I’m grateful for, insights that books published by the trade presses lack. I was delighted to learn that I knew Aphra well enough that her inclusion came easily, and that I could make her complex in a reality most of us don’t even want to contemplate (hail, Dostoevsky!), let alone acknowledge that their lives impact our reality too.
Aphra exists in the near past as opposed to your near future. While I have to remember whether characters had cell phones, you were tasked with inventing the future. What kind of fun did you have making it up? “Bubbles through his tab” comes to mind, and the characters live in a world where you can be charged with hate crimes against a corporation. It can be difficult to balance describing a new world and staying with the emotion—but hey, why did you leave out the jetpack?
JR: Actually, it wasn’t very much fun at all. The problem with setting a story in the near future is if you take too long writing it, the actual future will catch up with you. In Make It Stop, everyone carries a tab, which is basically a smartphone that seldom needs to be charged. I put them everywhere, including the dashboards of cars. When the Teslas rolled out with iPads for dashboards, my near future suddenly seemed not-so-futuristic. I had a bit more fun with the political aspects of the novel. Make It Stop isn’t the only vigilante group operating in the United States, and the novel imagines a world where people are sick of having their lives ruined by corporations. Can you imagine?
TS: I’ll close my eyes! (Like so many other people!) As a last question, how did our Irish heritage—my mother was a Walsh—make us into imaginative rebels?
JR: I’ve heard it said that the Irish gift of gab goes hand in hand with an irreverence for the colonizer’s mother tongue. Because English was forced down our ancestors’ throats, they didn’t feel compelled to respect its rules and made it their own. Having been a fan of your work for many years, I think one rebellious trait we both share is that we hop from genre to genre, and our books aren’t always the easiest to classify. In other words, we do what we damn well please!
Jim Ruland is the author of the novels Forest of Fortune (2014) and Make it Stop (2023), as well as the short story collection Big Lonesome (2005). He has been writing for punk zines such as Flipside and Razorcake for more than 25 years, and his work has received awards from Reader’s Digest and the National Endowment for the Arts.
New York/Victoria writer Terese Svoboda has a body of work that includes poetry, novels, memoirs, translation, biography, and over 100 published short stories. Her eighth novel, Dog on Fire, was published in 2023.
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