Excerpted from Dogwalker by Arthur Bradford. Copyright © 2001 by Arthur Bradford. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with
Q: Your stories have appeared in McSweeney's and Esquire, but this is your first published collection. How long have you been working on this project, and what was it like to gather your stories together? Did you write new stories specifically for this collection?
A: Some of the stories in Dogwalker were written as long as four years ago, but I wouldn't say I've been working on this collection for four years. I have always been a little unsure of whether I could make it as a writer so I've held other jobs and worked on other projects this whole time. I've also written a lot more stories than this, but these were the ones which I thought might work as a collection. I wanted to do a collection where the narrator is constant throughout, so that there's a little unity. About six months ago I went through all my stories and sorted out the ones which might fit into this category and this is pretty much what I came up with. The first story I wrote with this type of narrator was "Catface" which was later selected for The O. Henry Collection, so that gave me some confidence to try some more. Gathering these stories together was fun, but I realized when I read them that I have certain mental preoccupations and they keep recurring in my stories.
Q: Throughout your stories we meet outcasts, misfits, and mutants whose disabilities range from physical to emotional to economic. What inspires you to write about bizarre--and often unlikely--circumstances?
A: I'm trying to write stories that are interesting and enjoyable. I want people to read them and enjoy the experience and feel entertained. A lot of the best stories revolve around strange people, people whose decisions and logic and circumstances are not easily understood. Likewise, I want the situations and plots to be surprising and unusual. I know that some of the things which happen in these stories are not likely, but sometimes I wonder if they are not possible in some way.
Q: All of your stories are told in first-person narrative by nameless, male characters who could be read as the same narrator throughout the collection. Why do you use this common voice, and how autobiographical is the way he lives in, and reacts to, the world?
A: When I think about the narrator of these stories, I think of someone a little bit (or maybe a lot) like myself who is strangely fascinated by weird people and animals, and is also not very judgmental about it all. He is very open to these situations. Personally, I've found that I seek out oddballs; I like strange and eccentric people a lot. The narrator is a little different in each story, but he's always a basic variation of the same form, which is in a lot of ways based on me and probably also some of my other favorite narrators in fiction and non-fiction (William Burrough's Junky, Hemmingway's narrator in The Sun Also Rises). Sometimes the autobiographical link in each story is very literal, like I did work at The Texas School for the Blind, and I did once lose a mattress out of the back of a friend's truck. Other times it's more of just a feeling-- like with "Dogs" I was living in a house with 11 dogs and all I thought about was dogs. I never had sex with any of them though. I chose the title Dogwalker because that describes me pretty well. I spend a lot of time walking around with my dogs. I'd say the narrator is me in an alternate universe.
Q: You've worked with people with Downs Syndrome and other disabilities for more than eight years. How has this experience influenced your writing?
A: This experience has definitely influenced me a lot. Like I said before, I like people who lead unusual lives, and very often a person with a disability fits into that category. Although I've worked in several different places, most of my experience comes from spending eight summers at a camp for adults with a wide range of disabilities. For six years I spent every summer living in a small cabin with five men with Downes Syndrome. It was just me and these five guys, all in their forties and fifties. We had such a great time. Sometimes living in that cabin was like living in a sort of separate universe and I think I picked up some unusual speech patterns from those guys. I would often stay up late writing in that cabin until one of them would wake up and tell me to shut off the light.
Q: Do you think people with disabilities might take offense to some of your fiction?
A: What I hope comes across most of all in my writing is a real appreciation and love for the characters. I think it does people with disabilities a disservice to portray them in a sappy or sentimental fashion, or for that matter, to avoid portraying them at all. I make films about people with disabilities as well and I think this question is more relevant in regards to these documentaries where the actual person appears on film. I know these people are proud of who they are and what they are doing with their lives. It seems to me that to hide them away, avoid portraying them in fiction, or to represent them as sentimental objects of pity, that is the real offense.
Dogwalker is a book of fiction, with characters based on the types of people who truly exist in the world. I've seen them and know them--some of them I know really well. Although the stories are sometimes gritty and unsettling, my hope is that in the end they hit a positive note.
Q: Describe your writing process.
A: Well, I'm not very disciplined. I tend to write late at night because I get distracted during the day. I write most of my first drafts on an old manual typewriter, a really old one. It's a big black metal "Woodstock" from about 1920. I try to write everything down at once, in one sitting. The longer stories in this collection are divided up into sections. Each section represents a different sitting, a different idea for the same story. After I type it out I look it over with a pen and decide if it's worth re-typing into the computer. I have many stories which don't make it to the computer. When I put it into the computer I make some changes and often add a few sentences here and there. I like the typewriter for first drafts because it means you can't change anything right away, you just have to put it all down.
Q: Did you do any research for these stories?
A: I never really set out to research any of these stories. I try to lead an interesting life though. I guess the closest I came to research was when I applied to work at the state mental institution in Austin, TX. I wanted to work the night shift like Ken Kesey did when he wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I thought that might inspire me to write a book that great. They turned me down at the institution, but suggested that I apply at The Texas School for the Blind because of my previous experience. I did work there for a while, and there are two stories in this collection that involve blind people.
Q: Almost every story in this collection involves a dog of some kind--whether it has three legs, flippers, the power of speech, or is biologically average. So why dogs? Why not cats, or frogs, or a mongoose or something?
A: As I guess you can tell, I'm just a dog person. I love dogs very much, especially big ones, hounds, and retrievers. I think they are funny and often have good senses of humor. Plus, they give unconditional love. It's so beautiful. And sad too sometimes because we humans often betray them. I have two dogs myself and they are always around when I write, so they tend to creep in there. I'm interested in other animals too though. There's the slug in "Mollusks", and I wrote a story about bees and one about a cat which got thrown out a window by mistake, but those never made it into the collection. It's funny you mention frogs because I've been interested in the recent reports of high rates of mutation amongst wild pond-dwelling frogs. I've tried a couple of times to write something along those lines.
Q: Who are some of the writers who have influenced you, and what advice would you offer to young writers?
A: I've always liked the classic "young adult" writers like Mark Twain, Jack London, Roald Dahl, Charles Dickens. They write so clearly, and they know how to entertain. Like I said before William Burroughs’ Junky, Denis Johnson’s Jesus Son, Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises, Charles Portis' The Dog of the South, Lars Eighner’s Travels with Lizbeth, Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, Jim Carrol’s The Basketball Diaries. Those are some great books written in first person which I have read over and over.
Advice for young writers? Yes, lots of it. But I guess I'd just like to point out that almost all of these stories in this collection were rejected by some publication at one time or another, some of them have been rejected a lot, in fact. Find people you trust and listen to them.
Q: What is next for you?
A: Right now I’m working on a couple of new stories, one which I'm recording for the new McSweeney's (it comes with a CD), and one which I'd like to add to the collection, if it works out. After that I will set out to write a novel. I've wanted to do that for a long time. I also want to make another movie, but I think I'll try to finish the novel first.
Arthur Bradford's desktop includes an animated version of the story "Roslyn's Dog" from Dogwalker, drawn by his mother, and some favorite pictures of the dogs he knows. Also featured are pics from "How's Your News?" -- a documentary movie filmed with people he met at the summer camp where he's worked for nine years.