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Powell’s Q&A: Lauren Slater

Describe your latest book.
Right now I have my hands in several pots, so to speak. I have just finished a nonfictional autobiographical work called The $60,000 Dog, a book about the critical role animals play in my life, in all our lives, even though we give it scant thought. The book traces my trajectory from a nine-year-old girl who finds a mysterious egg in the forest to a middle-aged woman contemplating crepuscular bats during bouts of insomnia. While the book tells the tales of swans, raccoons, horses, and more, its focus is on the relationship between humans and dogs, specifically my relationship to my own dogs who present me with many a moral and emotional quandary along the way. What does it mean, for instance, if my affection for my dogs is as deep as my affection for my family, my children? Does that make me psychologically warped, constricted? Or does it suggest a more elastic humanity, capable of embracing and loving life in its myriad forms? The book tussles with this question, and several others.

I'm also in the process of gathering and ordering almost all the autobiographical magazine pieces I've written in the past 12 years and collecting them into a book, which will be called Playing House and will also be published by Beacon Press. Despite the fact that the 20 or 30 essays in the book were written at vastly different times and under vastly different circumstances over the decade or so, there does indeed seem to be an arc to them, a narrative thread that starts with essays about deciding to marry (ambivalently), then deciding to have a child (also ambivalently, although that ambivalence disappeared with the appearance of my first, then second child), and then muddling my way through the trials and tribulations of domesticity, with more or less success.

In addition, I continue to write for National Geographic and many other magazines, along with the New York Times, while also penning a series of fictional short stories. I have no plans for these stories, at least not right now. I published a book of short stories several years ago, and at some point in the future, I might like to publish another one, but I'm not there yet.

If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
The title, clearly, would be my name. As for the subtitle, that's trickier. Actually, perhaps the word "tricky" would be in the subtitle. Lauren Slater: A Writer's Tricky Career. I don't like that. Lauren Slater: An Accidental Rebel. I like that much better.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I have written extensively about the strangest, most interesting job I've ever had in my first book, Welcome to My Country. I have a doctorate in psychology and for 10 years or more I worked in an inner-city mental-health clinic. I spent a portion of that time running a group for schizophrenic men with the acronym SPMI, which stands for "severe and persistent mental illness." These men were severely ill and spoke about worlds stranger than those that come in dreams. They also lived with a bravery, even a heroism, that you rarely see in life. Every day these men got up to face a world which swerved and skidded and lobbed into their laps horrifying images, and yet every day they showed up, for breakfast, for group, for therapy.Every day these men got up to face a world which swerved and skidded and lobbed into their laps horrifying images, and yet every day they showed up, for breakfast, for group, for therapy. They agreed to try new medications when a whole line of old ones had not only failed to treat their symptoms but also left them with neurological side effects that could never be corrected.

These men lived in a perpetual twilight nightmare, and it was my job to somehow "straighten them out" — an impossible feat, of course. What I did do was listen closely to the characters who tormented them, acquaint myself intimately with the horrifying voices, and try to teach them to either talk back or realize that the things haunting them weren't real but rather the result of an illness of the brain. I was blessed to be allowed access to their unique and painful worlds, and these men taught me a lot about bravery and persistence in the face of very poor odds.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Janet Frame is a writer more people should read. She's from New Zealand and she's really a genius of sorts. An Angel at My Table would be a good book to begin with; also, Faces in the Water.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why or why not?
False. Writers are not better liars than other people. Writing is not about telling lies. It's just the opposite. It's about getting to some core, some nugget of truth that the words lead you to, if you are lucky. Writers, if they're any good, care passionately about the truth. The best liars I've ever met are active drug abusers.

How do you relax?
I don't like to relax. Relaxing makes me anxious. I am almost always involved in some venture or another. When I'm not writing, I'm usually doing stuff around our small farm in Harvard, Massachusetts. There are gardens to tend to, forests to thin, coops to build, hens to feed. There is no end to the activities, and of course I have my kids to care for.

What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
My favorite pair of shoes is a pair of rubber clogs I bought for two dollars in the bargain bin at the CVS. I've had them for three years. They were an extremely good deal. They fit me perfectly, and you can spill any amount of slop on them and all you need to do is hose them down. Because I am frequently trekking through mud or wetlands on our farm, these shoes have become indispensable to me. A few nights ago I noticed a small tear in the left heel. This is an ominous sign, a suggestion that my bargain-bin clogs are succumbing to wind and weather. I'm sure I can find another pair of rubber clogs, but for two dollars? No way.

÷ ÷ ÷

Lauren Slater is the author of six books, including Welcome to My Country, Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, Opening Skinner's Box, the short-story collection Blue Beyond Blue, and Love Works Like This, which chronicled the agonizing decisions she made relating to her psychiatric illness and her pregnancy. Slater has been the recipient of numerous awards, including a 2004 National Endowments for the Arts Award, multiple inclusions in Best American volumes, and a Knight Science Journalism fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Slater lives and writes in Harvard, Massachusetts.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Welcome to My Country
    New Trade Paper $15.00
  2. Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  3. Opening Skinner's Box: Great... Used Trade Paper $7.50
  4. Blue Beyond Blue: Extraordinary... New Trade Paper $13.95
  5. Love Works Like This: Opening One's... Used Hardcover $3.50
  6. The $60,000 Dog: My Life with Animals Used Hardcover $17.50

  7. Faces in the Water Used Trade Paper $6.50

Lauren Slater is the author of The $60,000 Dog: My Life with Animals

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