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Words for Thought (Short Fiction Review)
Home » Interviews » Interview with Author Adam R. Shannon
Adam Shannon is a graduate of Clarion West, and his work has appeared in Compelling Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction, the anthology Behind the Mask, and elsewhere. He and his wife live in Virginia, where they and their dogs welcome visiting foster dogs. Adam is a firefighter and paramedic by day, and a fiction writer and aspiring cook by night, which means he’s a superhero twenty-four hours a day.
If you have already read “On the Day You Spend Forever with Your Dog,” these suggested instructions may not be of any use to you. Or perhaps they will be of some use.
Suggested instructions for reading “On the Day You Spend Forever with Your Dog.”
1. Do not read this story in public, unless you enjoy crying in public.
2. If possible, read this story with your pet cat or dog inside. Extra points if they are next to you or on your lap.
3. Plan for some extra time. This is one of those stories where after you finish reading it, you’ll need some time to come back to yourself, to settle back in to your life.
While you’re wondering what those instructions are all about, let’s talk about how time works for a few minutes. Does our view of time change as we travel through more of it? If we could go back in time, could we change it? Or are we doomed to repeat the same scenes over and over and over again? Is a “time machine” nothing but us, traveling through our own memories? Memory allows us to go back in time as many times as we want. We can’t change what happened, but maybe we can come to terms with what did.
Hurt can never be undone. Love can never be undone. We cannot change our own pasts. The thing about time is that every moment is a singular, unrepeatable moment. The only thing we are able to change is our distance from that moment, and sometimes that can be enough.
“On the Day You Spend Forever with Your Dog” is a story about processing grief, regret, and asking forgiveness from someone who has no ability to give it. Reading this story reminded me a little of the anime show, Steins;Gate. The show involves time travel and trying to save the lives of particular people. While trying to do the right thing, the main character travels through time and watches one of his best friends get killed over and over and over again. It seems like no matter what, he won’t be able to save her. What does that do to a person? Watching their friend die over and over and over? Do you stop traveling? Or do you keep time traveling, hoping that this time, you’ll be able to save her? Do you keep traveling because you simply don’t know what else to do? In the show, his friend has the ability to forgive him for failing to save her (I don’t actually remember if she does, but she could have if she wanted to. Yes, yes, I know, I am a terrible otaku). In real life, we surround ourselves with faithful, loyal, warm, and fluffy pets that don’t have the ability to forgive us.
While preparing for this interview, I read Adam’s blog, and came across a post where he says, “I think about characters and places in things I’m writing the same way I might worry about someone I care about.” That struck home for me because I, too, worry about characters I’m reading about the same way I worry about real people I care about! When I’m in the story, the crisis and the pain the character is going through is just as real for me as it is for that character. The stack of tissues I left on the floor while talking to my husband about this story is a testament to Adam Shannon’s uncanny ability to get a reader to invest in the crisis and pain of a character on page one. When I teased Jason Sizemore on Twitter, subtweeting that he made me cry, some of Adam’s writing friends figured out what we were talking about, and our tears of sadness became tears of “I know what you’re going through.” This was a story that we had all survived.
I don’t mean to make it sound like this is a hard story to read. It’s an easy story to read. Reading this story feels a little like talking to a friend over coffee. Written in second person, it feels intimate, like you’re walking through the park with your best friend, who has texted you and said, “I need someone to talk to, can you come over?” Or maybe the second person perspective makes it feel more like you are the one who needs to talk to a friend, you’re the one who needs someone to listen while you get something off your chest. Reading the story is the easy part! Getting through it is a little more difficult.
If you’re not familiar with LeVar Burton’s short story podcast, LeVar Burton Reads, you should absolutely check it out because it’s fantastic. It’s like Reading Rainbow, but for grown-ups! He’s featured a handful of Apex Magazine short stories so far. I challenge him to record this story without weeping into his microphone. Because this is the story that could break the internet.
Adam was kind enough to talk to me about his experiences at Clarion, the real Jane Dog, authors and artists who have influenced him, and more. Before I blabber even more about pain and time travel, let’s get to the interview!
APEX MAGAZINE: You are a firefighter and a paramedic, and you and your family care for foster dogs. So, I think I have some idea of what inspired this story. But just so I can cry some more, would you tell us what inspired this story?
ADAM R. SHANNON: I wrote this story while I was attending Clarion West in the summer of 2017. I had one story left to write in the workshop, and I was planning a light-hearted piece with a dog as one of the main characters. Then our dog Zeus’s health went into a steep decline, to the point that my wife and I had to euthanize him. He was a gentle, deaf German Shepherd, with whom we communicated in sign language. He liked to pretend he didn’t see us when he wanted to ignore what we were asking him to do.
I was absolutely crushed. I wrote about the only thing I could think about, and it became the first draft of this story. I was so certain I would fall apart during the critique session that I pre-printed two signs to hold up: one said, “I’m fine,” and the other one, “Please continue.” My friends there were amazingly supportive. It was a testament to their steadfastness that they not only helped me through those days, but also gave me meaningful feedback on the story.
I named the dog in this story after a real-life Jane Dog, who died a couple years ago. She came to us from a rescue organization, where she was infamous for having some behavioral problems. Like this dog, she needed patience and support. We did everything together, and we all became better people/dogs in the process.
Zeus in the river.
AM: I’m fascinated by stories told in second person, and you play with past, present, and future tense as well. Talk to us a little about your choice to tell the story in second person, and how you navigated moving from one tense to another. What challenges did writing in this manner present?
ARS: I’ve noticed that people often switch into second person while recounting intense, real-life experiences. I think it helps disassociate the narrator from trauma, and also serves as an appeal for the listener to place themselves in the narrator’s position. It’s a request for understanding. I’d wanted to try my hand at a story that used second person POV in a way that didn’t seem too intrusive.
I wish I could say I had this in mind when I wrote the first draft, but mostly I was just crying and writing and crying. The structure was kind of an accident, and these ideas percolated up without me really being aware of them. The jumps in time were an attempt to make it reflect the disjointed experience of grief, in which you revisit moments over and over, knowing you can never inhabit them again.
AM: When you were first writing this story and working through the details, when did you figure out how it was going to end? Because I have to tell you, I did not see that ending coming. If you left me clues, I missed them. When you realized how the story ended, did it change how you approached the rest of the scenes?
ARS: All I had when I started this story was the premise of a grief-stricken character who invents time travel to spend more time with their dog. I didn’t want them to be able to rewrite the past. For them, time travel was just a means of coming to terms with loss.
I realized as I was writing that I wanted an affirming ending. I needed it, actually. I’d spent too much time writing stories that channeled the suffering I see on the job. Those stories evoked horror but failed to address redemption. I wanted to write about the moments in which we commit to each other—no matter what the outcome—and the reasons we keep going when we feel hopeless. That moment doesn’t come at the end of the chronological events of this story, but the story ends on the moment that gave meaning to everything that came afterwards.
AM: The narrator revisits scenes from Jane’s life over and over. Not ready, or maybe not able, to let her go, the narrator wants to be with her forever. Is that healthy? Surely, I don’t expect anyone to get over the loss of a pet right away, but what would it do to someone to relive those moments over and over and over again, and never be in a mind-space where they can move on or forgive themselves?
ARS: When you’re suffering, it feels like it will last forever. I’ve never found an easy fix for it, except to recognize that it often gets better with the passage of time. For example, some days I come home from a shift having seen some deeply troubling things. “I’ve learned to give it space and allow the video to repeat for a while in my mind, knowing that it will eventually recede.
Of course, time isn’t enough to fix the effects of some experiences. That’s when I think it’s so important that we learn to rewrite our stories and change our relationship with the past.
AM: A friend of mine recently had to put a pet down. Will this story help them process the loss, or make it hurt all the worse? (or both? Maybe the pain is the process?)
ARS: I don’t know—this may be too much for someone who’s going through a loss like that. If you’re already crying, you probably don’t need to cry harder. I would hate to think that this story would add to someone’s grief.
The relationship we have with animals is so profound that their loss is a complex and agonizing experience. We love them, knowing we’ll likely outlive them. We guard over and nurture them, yet we may someday be the ones who decide when to end their lives. It wrecks me sometimes, playing with our dogs and knowing that day will eventually come. It comes for everyone, obviously, but in the lives of animals, we see time foreshortened in a way that can’t be denied or ignored.
I’d like this story to remind people that grief passes—mostly—and is replaced by something else. Hopefully, a sense of meaning fills in the gap created by loss. Sometimes the meaning doesn’t come easily, and we have to go looking for it.
AM: You attended Clarion West in 2017. How did that experience help shape you as a writer? How did the Adam R. Shannon who graduated from Clarion differ from the Adam R. Shannon who hadn’t yet been to Clarion?
ARS: I can praise Clarion West all day long. It changed my writing and my life. Before I attended, I mostly wrote in a bubble. Only a handful of my colleagues knew I went home and wrote speculative fiction. I had no idea how transformative it would be to connect with other writers and become part of a community. The workshop exposed me to other people’s narratives and experiences. It bonded me with a wildly talented group of writers, and it pushed me to move outside my comfort zone. The atmosphere was resoundingly supportive. We weren’t trying to impress each other or be the genius in the class. Many of us wrote outside our usual genres and explored our weaknesses. It started a process of change that’s still underway in my work.
I’m in awe of the people who run Clarion West and other workshops like it. A workshop doesn’t just churn out magical experiences, year after year like a juggernaut, running without earthly means of support. It’s the result of brilliant social engineering and a lot of hard work. Neile Graham, the director of Clarion West, is like some kind of wizard. She created a trusting, nurturing environment where writers could take risks. I’m so grateful that I was able to take part.
AM: What life experiences have you had that inform your writing? Are there ideas and themes you find yourself returning to frequently?
ARS: I return often to themes of grief—how it shapes us and what we do with it. I write a lot about time travel as a means of reconciliation with the past. Different models of time travel operate like mechanisms for coming to terms with past events. In this story, there’s only one timeline, and the character is able to find their way to the crucial moment within it. But I also like writing stories in which people can change the events that shaped them, or create new alternate timelines, and have to decide how to use that power.
On the job, I’m a passing figure in other people’s worst days, so I think a lot about the importance of compassion and our duty to help each other. I treat many patients for whom 911 and the emergency room provide their only access to healthcare. It makes me angry to see our system lining the pockets of plutocrats, while treating other human beings as if they’re disposable. So, I’ve been thinking about how we can resist structures that threaten marginalized people and communities.
AM: Who are some of your favorite authors and/or artists? Why is their work important to you?
ARS: I’ve loved Ursula LeGuin’s writing since I was a kid. It speaks to me in new ways at every age, and I expect to be still listening to it even when I’m much older. I sent her fan mail a few years ago, and she sent back a brief note, which made me feel like I was ten years old again. More recently, I’m a huge admirer of work by Rachel Swirsky, Carmen Maria Machado, and Sarah Pinsker. They take really interesting risks and create immersive narratives. The more I write, the more I look for the machinery behind other people’s stories. It can disrupt the experience as a reader, but those authors are among the ones whose work resonates for me both as a reader and a writer.
Despite the differences in our styles and themes, writers from my Clarion West class are also enormous influences on me. As much as I love learning from well-established writers, I learn a lot from peers, who are working through the same struggles as I am, or people who are just ahead of me in my development. Many of my classmates are attracting some notice in the speculative fiction world, and it gives me a huge thrill to see readers discovering them. They’re so freaking good.
Among visual artists, I love Mazatl’s prints, which confront climate change and extinction with haunting images. Dominik Mayer and Simon Stålenhag both paint stunning images that are like glimpses into alternate realities. One of my fantasies, as someone still working on a first book, is to imagine one of their paintings on the cover. I know the seasoned authors are probably out there thinking it doesn’t work that way, but just let me hold on to the dream until I finish the first draft.
AM: Thanks, Adam! We’ll be watching for that finished novel!
Andrea Johnson lives in Michigan with her husband and too many books. She blogs about science fiction and fantasy books, cooking, life in the midwest, and other random things at her blog, The Little Red Reviewer, and tweets about the same topics at @redhead5318. She was a contributor at SFSignal and is currently a contributor at Nerds of a Feather.
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Words for Thought (Short Fiction Review)