From the Desk of Terese Svoboda: Not Settling

Terese Svoboda has published four of her books of fiction with the University of Nebraska Press: the recently released Dog on Fire, Bohemian Girl and the reprints Tin God and Trailer Girl and Other Stories. She has also published a memoir that won the Greywolf Nonfiction Prize, a biography of the radical poet Lola Ridge, a book of translation from the Nuer, eight books of poetry, and four more books of fiction. A Guggenheim recipient, she has won the Bobst Prize in fiction, the Iowa Poetry Prize, an NEH translation grant, the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, a Jerome Foundation and NEA media grants, the O. Henry Award for the short story, a Pushcart Prize for the essay, and three New York Foundation of the Arts fellowships. She has also taught at many colleges and universities including Columbia School of the Arts, her alma mater. Her opera WET premiered in L.A.’s Disney Hall. 

The first drafts of Dog on Fire were written twenty-five years ago, just after my brother’s death. The circumstances were strange, nothing quite fit together. In the diaries I kept back then everyone was puzzled by the lack of a cause, but there was no autopsy. Recently, when I asked my siblings why he died, they said grand mal seizure, didn’t I know? But how did they know? It’s only logical, they said, but who had decided? A seizure was a convenient answer, I’ll grant you that, it put the question to rest. But to me, the matter was still unsettling.

In the years after his death, with the aging of my parents, I’d spend three weeks at a time several visits a year in southwest Nebraska. Any time you immerse yourself in a small town – that’s all they have at that end of the state – you begin to notice its eccentricities. As a child, I’d never have noticed – it was all I knew. English writers have explored this territory thoroughly. While I’m grateful to be living in New York City, where nobody knows me on the street, the tradeoff is that it’s harder to understand what’s really going on. The result is that although I’ve published hundreds of stories, very few are set in New York City. There’s no mysterious Lake McConaughy, with huge fish swimming through the underwater town sitting at the bottom. Even the proper noun McConaughy has resonance for me – who was that Irishman who deserved to be remembered by water? The truism that being an exile brings you home is accurate.

I didn’t make massive changes in Dog on Fire for the press – except one. “From the second Aphra came on the page I wanted to know more about her,” wrote the anonymous reader for the UNP. I’ve heard novelists chafe over enduring the lengthy university press process of review with outside readers, which is in addition to 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. Books published by the trades don’t undergo that kind of scrutiny. The addition of Aphra’s voice enriched the story, increased tension, and became useful in revealing pieces of plot while paradoxically increasing the book’s mystery. I was delighted that I knew Aphra well enough that her inclusion came easily, and that I could make her complex in a reality most people don’t even want to contemplate.

Having written what is basically an elegy set in exotic dusty Nebraska, finding a publisher for Dog on Fire wasn’t easy. The book doesn’t fit into any particular genre. Not quite a ghost story, not an amateur detective story, not a roman à clef with the writer reliving her life for the reader’s edification, not even a story of redemption. I am extremely grateful that the University of Nebraska Press, Courtney Ochsner, my editor in particular, selected the book. While acknowledging the book’s genre slipperiness, one of the book’s early reviewers Brennie Shoup at Superstition Review, concludes that Dog on Fire is about “two women struggling to find themselves—and overcome their mistrust of each other—when someone they love has died and their worlds seem to be falling apart.”

That’s it!

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