Robin McLean: I read a story of yours a long time ago (we were in graduate school together)—a scene at McDonald’s with a father and boy. I recognize the story in a new form in your debut novel How to Catch a Coyote. Can you talk about the first ideas or scenes that germinated the novel? How did the original idea develop over the course of writing?
Christy Crutchfield: This book started as a story I was never planning to turn into a book. It was from Daniel’s point of view as a little kid, talking to his sister before he left town. Years later, I dug up the characters and wrote a story from Hill’s perspective (the one you read) and realized I had a lot more I wanted to say about these characters and their story. I was in grad school at the time and decided I would sign up for a novel workshop, which gave me the deadline I needed to write 100 pages. The problem was I had no idea what I was doing, and it had all kinds of structural problems. I was stuck halfway between voice pieces and traditional narrative, and the two were fighting against each other. I ended up throwing the whole thing out, returning to stories, and reading a lot before I went back to the characters. I decided I would approach it as connected stories and see what happened. As I wrote it, it ended up becoming more cohesive and I found a structure that worked.
RM: The novel’s form is one of movement back and forth through time and between the character’s point of views. For the reader, there is remarkable precision and crystal-clear images chapter to chapter, while the construction of the book as a whole creates a wilder, almost dizzy, mosaic effect. How did you come to your decisions about form, both within chapters and for the whole book?
CC: Structure was the hardest part of this for me. Character is always where I start. I think I was fighting for a long time against what the story was trying to do. It felt like one of those “I’m not allowed to do this” problems. But the more I wrote, the more I realized that my story was interested in circling instead of driving forward linearly. The characters in the novel are all dealing with the decisions they’ve made, the lies they’ve been told, and the lies they’ve told themselves. And they’re all dealing with the daughter in the family, who is gone. So I guess in some ways, form followed function. We hear from different characters piecing together the story, reimagining it, always returning to Dakota.
RM: Speaking of time, this is a coming of age story for Daniel, (Dakota too). Daniel is growing up, maturing, over the course of the novel’s time frame. Can you talk about what interested you about a coming of age story, a boy’s shift from childhood to manhood?
CC: This whole novel started because I was thinking about the world of a child whose sibling is abused. What must it be like, what do parents tell you, what do you figure out for yourself, and what do you believe? I started writing Daniel much younger. But this novel is really about the aftermath, so Daniel had to grow up. The more I wrote, the more this became Daniel’s story instead of Dakota’s. What I became especially interested in was how Daniel would deal with his own sexuality after suspecting what happened to his sister. And if he believes it’s true, what that means about his father and by genetics, him.
I’m not sure I’d thought about this as a coming of age story for Dakota, though she certainly has to grow up fast. I think for Dakota, I was more interested in the effect on her and how her actions and reputation would be called into question when it came to who believed her story.
RM: The story explores the unspeakable, incest (or at least abuse) between father and daughter. The entire story centers around it, each character’s reaction to it, but actual incest is off stage. And there is mostly silence between the characters on the subject. All this creates a lot of tension in the book. How did you make this dramatic choice? And do you have any advice to writers trying to tackle taboo subjects?
CC: In earlier drafts, more happened onstage, but it wasn’t working. And when you look at how incidents of abuse are handled, they are often silenced, so it made more sense to have to family quiet on the subject, to have some of it unspeakable. Because once you say it, it becomes real. One of the other driving factors of this book is for there to be some ambiguity among the characters regarding whether Dakota was telling the truth. Hill denies it, Maryanne is skeptical, and Daniel (and the reader) is left to choose sides. I wanted the reader to hear from everyone involved except Dakota. If it were onstage, I think it would take away some of the reader’s participation in the story. As far as advice, I don’t know. I think you have to figure out what your story is doing and that will let you know how much should be on the page.
RM: I loved all the traps in this book: coyote traps, love traps, economic traps, class traps, marital traps, gender traps, family traps, sex traps. The structure of the book also enhances the feeling of entrapment, the inescapable. There are also lots of predators skulking about. Can you talk about traps (there’s one on the cover) and predators, and how you see the balance between them in the book?
CC: None of the tropes in the book were intentional, but the more I researched coyotes, the more they became the perfect glue for the novel. I thought you hunted coyotes with a gun, and while this certainly happens, the main method is trapping. You can’t set a story in a small, dead mill town without telling the story of being trapped by your class. It was only after I wrote a few scenes with the traps in Hill’s backyard that I realized they worked metaphorically too.
You also can’t tell the story of incest without an imbalance of power. But coyotes aren’t typically predators, though they fill that role sometimes. They’re really scavengers. While the stories I heard from my friends who had coyotes in their neighborhoods were about these predators lurking in the bushes waiting for their cats, the word I found most often when researching them was evasive. I was interested in the expanding coyote population when I started the book, but the more I learned about them, they became this perfect mirror to Daniel’s fear of his family and to the evasive sister he can’t stop thinking about.
RM: Ok, let’s get to the parents. It’s so easy for us outsiders to look at parents in an incest situation with some nasty judgment. We could easily hate Hill, the dad. We could easily blame Maryanne, the mom, for her failure to protect her kids, Dakota especially. But the novel treats both characters with compassion, even pity sometimes. Can you discuss how you arrived at your treatment of mom and dad? And maybe some thoughts on how to guard against too easy judgments from your readers?
CC: When I set out to write, I always start with the characters, and it’s important to me that they are real. I’ve always been interested in exploring the unreliable characters, the “bad” people. Part of it may be an effort to understand what scares me, to see something real behind actions I can’t justify. Part of it is because a layered and difficult character is always more intriguing than a 100% good character or an easy villain. For me, I just try to get into characters’ heads, try to surprise myself, and try to make them human.
RM: I love the 2nd person in the sections in Maryanne’s point of view. Tell me how and why you decided to use it. What you think 2nd person does for you as a writer? Why 2nd person for Maryanne?
CC: I was really hesitant about using 2nd person because I know it turns off a lot of readers. But I couldn’t stop. I actually started writing Hill in 2nd, but it felt like the wrong choice. With Maryanne, I thought it fit because she’s in this detached position because of the decisions she’s made. And she’s in a new position as single mother. I feel like 2nd person is best for either a character instructing another or for a character instructing herself. We often describe it as a POV that puts the reader in the character’s shoes, but when I read it, I feel like the character is talking to herself, trying to find a way (not always the right way) to deal with her situation.
RM: The book starts in college, and the main characters can be divided into those who went to college and those who did not go. The men go (though Hill did not finish) and the women do not. What do you think about this? The intersection of gender, education, and freedom? Or is the gender thing just a coincidence?
CC: I really like this connection you found. I never thought of it that way, but I wouldn’t say it’s a coincidence. It would be pretty unlikely for Maryanne to attend school. In my mind, no one expected her to go and so it wasn’t even on her radar until she encountered other girls that were in school. But by then, she would have believed the opportunity had passed. As for Dakota, I see her as someone who would have gone to college—she’s intelligent, her teachers would have probably pushed her in this direction—but she doesn’t have the support from her family that I think she would have if things had gone differently. And by her senior year, she just wants to get out, and that is the only thing her mother will offer her—moving money but not money for her education. Hill and Daniel have different luxuries afforded them, partly because of gender, but mostly because of situation.
RM: What was the biggest surprise in novel writing?
CC: Probably that I wrote a novel at all. I don’t think I ever pictured myself doing that. Now I think everything I start is accidentally the beginning of novel.
Otherwise, I think I learned some lessons about re-seeing work and about persistence that I will hopefully take with me the next time I get stuck.
RM: Could you write a blurb for the book in one sentence?
CC: Rather than telling the story of what happened, How to Catch a Coyote offers us characters who are piecing together their story and aching to live with it.
RM: Where to next? Which other authors or stories would you recommend?
CC: While I was writing the book, I was reading Bonnie Jo Campbell, Ander Monson, Faulkner, Julio Cortazar, Christine Schutt, Grace Paley, and so many more I can’t think of.
I just finished Ashley Farmer’s Beside Myself, which is a lovely study of flash and women. I’m super excited to start Lauren Foss Goodman’s A Heart Beating Hard, Ryan Ridge’s American Homes, and Gale Marie Thompson’s Soldier On.
Robin McLean was a lawyer then a potter for 15 years in the woods of Alaska before receiving her MFA at UMass Amherst. Her debut story collection Reptile House won the 2013 BOA Editions Short Fiction Prize and will released in spring 2015. She teaches at Clark University andsplits her time between Newfound Lake in New Hampshire and a 200-year-old farm in western Massachusetts.
Christy Crutchfield is the author of the novel How to Catch a Coyote (Publishing Genius, July 2014). Her work has appeared in Mississippi Review online, Salt Hill Journal, the Collagist, Newfound, and others. She is a contributor to the Small Press Book Review and a native of Atlanta. She writes and teaches in Western Massachusetts.