First time novelist Steven Rowley has made a big splash with his novel, Lily and the Octopus, a moving and funny story of a dachshund Lily and her owner Ted. Ted is stuck in his life – he’s looking for the right guy with a little online dating and while he has some good friends, his ‘best friend’ is Lily, but there’s something wrong with Lily – she has an octopus on her head and it’s consuming her.
We spoke to Los Angeles writer Rowley about dogs, first novels and his surprise at having already impressed some of his favourite writers – including Graeme Simsion, Sara Gruen and Patrick Ness.
Better Reading: Congratulations on your beautiful book Lily and the Octopus. Each one of us at Better Reading is a dog owner and dog lover so it really moved us. Can you tell us a little about the real dog who inspired the character of Lily?
Steven Rowley: Thank you. Although the book is very much a novel, I did have a dog named Lily and I had her from the time she was twelve weeks-old until she succumbed to cancer in old age. She was a fascinating contradiction, as many dachshunds are: bold and timid; stubborn and sweet; playful and lazy. She loved walks, but a passing skateboard would send her cowering indoors for hours. She slept perpendicular to me, often pushing me to the very edge of the bed. I never once ate a meal in peace without her staring at me with her almond-shaped eyes. She drove me batty at times, but I was simply mad about her.
BR: In the novel you manage to combine utter sadness and poignancy, with laugh out loud humour. Is this something you intended?
SR: Absolutely. Laughing through pain, that’s survival. That’s life. My object in writing this book was to strive for the emotional truth no matter how offbeat the actual story became. To me – the humor, the absurdism – that’s what felt real.
BR: For many of us dogs are our best friends, and they can also teach us how to live – with their loyalty and unconditional love. What did your own Lily teach you and how much of this is in the story of Ted and Lily?
SR: Lily taught me everything about patience, kindness and unconditional love. When I got her, I was always in a hurry and she insisted we stop everything to play ball for an hour every night. She taught me to enjoy the simple pleasures, like a run on the beach or the way peanut butter tastes. It’s a privilege to care for a living being from very early in their life into old age. We experience maybe one or the other with our children or our parents, so it’s really only with our animals that we get this full spectrum of experience. Is Ted me? Not exactly. Is the Lily in the book much like the Lily she’s based on? Absolutely. So a lot of what she teaches Ted is similar to what she taught me.
BR: The ‘magical realism’ aspect of the book – Lily talking to Ted and playing Monopoly with him on a Friday night; the octopus invading Lily’s skull and Ted’s fight against it. What inspired you to take this approach?
SR: The first stage of grief in the famous Kubler-Ross grief model is denial. Denial, denial, denial. That’s where the magical realism was born. The need to take something without a real physical presence, like cancer, and turn it into something that you can do battle with, throttle, and perhaps kill. I think that’s a common fantasy for those fighting disease. So, why an octopus? I wanted to write about attachment and how difficult in can be to let go. Tentacles were perfect as a metaphor. But ultimately I chose an octopus because they are smart, wily, and slimy. They can learn, adapt, and even (according to numerous scientists) play. I needed a foe that would needle Ted, toy with him, study his weaknesses, and adjust, just as cancer mutates in the body. It helped the story that they are in many ways the physical opposite of dogs, especially dachshunds. A hairless invertebrate that lives in the sea is nothing like a furry dog that is all spine and lives on the land. Once I settled on an octopus it gave the book its shape; each of the book’s eight sections has an octopus theme.
BR: Obviously this is a book that will appeal to dog lovers but it transcends that to some extent – it’s about love, grief, loss? Perhaps it could appeal to any animal lover, even a cat person!?
SR: To me the book is really about a man who is stuck in his own life, and how often our biggest obstacles are – if not outright imagined – greatly exaggerated. It’s the backdrop for that story that appeals to dog lovers, and yes cat lovers. Patrick Ness offered a quote for the book’s cover. Because I follow him on Instagram I knew he had cats and so months later when I had the pleasure of meeting him in person at one of his own book signings, I asked him about reading Lily as a cat lover. He said “Steven, we don’t have to be a world divided.” I love that so much. Sara Gruen too said that the book is an exploration of what it means to love any mortal creature, and I think that’s true. Dog, cat, parakeet, hamster, or even if you’ve never had a pet at all. Love and loss are universal themes.
BR: With the overwhelming positive reception already – acclaim from Graeme Simsion, Sara Gruen, Patrick Ness – how are you feeling?
SR: When I finished the book I was proud of it as a piece of writing, but I didn’t really understand it had the power to connect the way that it has with readers. I thought maybe it was too small, too weird, too specific to my experiences and way of thinking. What has been so rewarding is seeing again and again the power this little book had to resonate so deeply with an audience. As a reader myself, I loved The Rosie Project, and Water for Elephants, and A Monster Calls. To have these writers not only read my work, but to offer their praise has been humbling as I still feel like a fan and an outsider!
BR: There’s already talk of a movie deal. Is that true?
SR: The film rights have yet to be sold, but there have been discussions! In fact, I have in the past worked as a screenwriter. When I decided to write Lily and the Octopus as a novel, I removed my screenwriter’s cap and threw myself into the medium entirely, and it was incredibly freeing. Not once did I have to think about something being too expensive to build, too hard to cast, or too impossible to film. My only limits were those imposed by my own imagination. Talking dog as a main character? Sure. Octopus stuck to dog’s head? Why not! Expansive battle at sea? Yes, please. I’ve always enjoyed writing dialogue, which lends itself to screenwriting. In the course of writing this book, I became really taken with crafting prose and the pace and depth at which you can really explore what’s going on inside a character’s head. Screenwriters have to externalize the internal, show what’s going on through action and dialogue, and that can be difficult. A film adaptation would have its challenges. But I would be excited to see how a creative director would take them on.
BR: Who are the writers /people who have influenced you?
SR Two Kipling quotes from “The Law of the Jungle” serve as the book’s epigraphs. They were quotes that I jotted down early in the writing process and referred back to throughout. I love thinking of Ted and Lily as a pack, and there’s something comforting about laws, even violent ones, providing structure in the vast jungle that is life; laws that are defined and understood from the outset. Death is a part of life. I am a huge fan of blurring lines between prose and poetry, building a rhythm and cadence through word choice, sentence length, repetition, and other literary devices that Kipling excels at. So it’s fair to say he’s a great influence.
Other writers who have inspired me include John Steinbeck, Michael Chabon, Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen, Richard Russo, Stephen King, Joan Didion, and Francesca Lia Block, whose book Weetzie Bat (another prose poem) was handed to me at a critical moment in my life.
BR: You’ve been a screenwriter and Lily and the Octopus is your first novel. What’s next?
SR: As a screenwriter, you’re part of a team—one of many people who bring a story to life. Novelist is a much more solitary occupation. Collaboration can be fruitful, but it is often not the writer’s vision that makes it to the screen. Likewise, a novel doesn’t make it to the shelves without a real team of people who believe in the story, but for me it has been so rewarding to create something that itself was the final work and have my vision honored. On top of that, publishing is being very, very kind to me right now. I’ve been hard at work on my second manuscript and hope to have news on that front soon.