When the alarm goes off, Roe’s in the otter nursery wearing a black smock, latex gloves, and a mirrored welding visor. This uniform aims to prevent the pups from bonding. If an otter has bonded with humans, it can’t be released back into the ocean. The pups are assigned numbers now instead of names, because the threat of bonding cuts both ways. Years before Roe started working here, a nursery tech smuggled home a pup. The woman kept the otter in her bathtub, where it swam among rubber dinosaurs and teething rings. By the time she was arrested, it was too late for the kidnapped otter, which was doomed to a life in captivity, performing underwater somersaults for human children.
The alarm brays in metallic bursts of three. Roe has been working a comb through Otter #32’s stiff coat. He came in last week, and is bigger than their usual intakes—fifteen pounds at two months old, and feisty. In her head, Roe has begun naming the otters. She calls this one Trevor. At the sound of the alarm, Trevor squirms out of Roe’s hands and back into his tank. The other pups swim in frenzied circles and claw the slick blue walls of their tanks. Roe wants to reassure them, but speaking is forbidden in the nursery. Though she assumes it’s only a drill, she wonders how long the pups would survive in a smoke-filled room, how many she could fit under her smock, and how badly they would scratch her if she tried.
Kate Folk’s work has appeared most recently in Gulf Coast, Granta, and Conjunctions, and is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner. She’s received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Vermont Studio Center, and is a 2016-18 Affiliate Artist at the the Headlands Center for the Arts. She has completed a story collection, Doe Eyes, and is currently at work on a novel about a technology that allows for the outsourcing of emotional labor, AI prosthetic limbs, and the perils of human intimacy. Originally from Iowa, she currently lives in San Francisco. More at www.katefolk.com.
Karen Friedman on “Pups”
Of the thousands of decisions we make every day a few are good, but most are meaningless. And then there are the bad ones—the decisions that haunt us, shaping our lives in ways we can’t foresee. At our best, we face the consequences of a bad choice head-on and try to minimize its impact. At our worst, we ignore what we have done.
One Story’s latest issue, “Pups” by Kate Folk, introduces us to Roe, a woman seemingly determined to allow life to happen to her without the responsibility and culpability that comes from making decisions. While Folk provides the reader with a sense of Roe’s potential, she also casts an unblinking eye at the effects of Roe’s passivity and the way it enables her to feign intimacy, even at the cost of her own happiness. Early in the story we learn Roe is pregnant, the result of a misguided and drunken one-night stand. Roe’s unplanned pregnancy raises questions that range from the practical to the political to the downright moral.
Over the past two years I’ve had the pleasure of reading a number of Kate’s stories, and I am thrilled to introduce her to our readers with “Pups.” Kate has an immense talent for creating flawed but sympathetic characters. Her women, in particular, defy easy labels and expand our understanding of what it means to be truly human. I hope you love this story of motherhood, agency, and otters as much as I do.
Q&A by Karen Friedman
- KF: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- KF: Four years ago, I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium with my parents over Thanksgiving. We saw the sea otters doing their show or whatever, and then watched a short film about the aquarium’s program to rescue, raise, and eventually release orphaned otter pups. I was struck by how the people working with the pups had to wear these amorphous smocks and mirrored helmets, like welding masks, and of course gloves, the idea being that the pups could not see their human faces or smell their human scent or feel their human skin as the workers fed and brushed and played with them. Because if they did, then they would imprint on humans generally, and this would mean they could never be released back into the ocean. So, if they formed an attachment to the source of nurturance, as any baby mammal does to its mother, they would be doomed to a life in captivity. I was fascinated by the idea of attachment as contagion—something to be defended against—and how this relates to human fears of intimacy and vulnerability.
- KF: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- KF: Having patience and seeing it through many, many drafts. It was originally a piece of flash fiction with most of the same basic elements: Roe working with otter pups in the aquarium, and being secretly pregnant, and there being a bomb threat. In the story’s first incarnation, there is no infidelity, her husband is more of a jerk, and she miscarries and doesn’t tell him. She confides in her coworker, an early version of Dan, about the miscarriage, and is then so embarrassed she avoids Dan whenever they share a shift in the nursery. Again, this idea of the hazards of intimacy and connection, but in a more watered-down way where the stakes are low, and the story kind of just ends and it’s like, so what? Of course, I thought it was great at the time and submitted it to many journals, and am now so glad no one wanted it in that early form.
- KF: Writers often talk about finding a character’s motivation, but Roe is almost pathologically indecisive. How did that effect the story’s trajectory?
- KF: Yes, this is Roe’s fatal flaw. The trajectory of the story is essentially two parallel tracks of indecision and looming peril. Roe’s indecision regarding her pregnancy is mirrored by the community’s indecision regarding the bomb threats. Both tracks hurtle toward catastrophe. Everyone ignores what they don’t want to look at and assimilates the discomfort of the threat into their daily lives, thus becoming victims of an outcome made inevitable by their failure to act decisively.
- KF: This story explores what it means for a married, financially stable woman to be unexpectedly and undesirably pregnant. I also can’t help noting her name, which could have various references. Can you talk a bit about how conscious you were of the political in telling this story?
- KF: It’s funny, because I wasn’t thinking about Roe v Wade when I first named her Roe. I wasn’t thinking about fish roe, either. It just felt like the right name for her. I probably had those associations working on an unconscious level, but it was not deliberate; weird how writing can work that way. There is also a detail in the story about Roe and her husband taking a road trip and walking on beaches strewn with decomposing kelp. I later did some research trying to find a more specific name for this type of kelp, which I’ve seen on many California beaches. It turns out that kelps belong to the genus laminaria, forms of which have traditionally been used to soften and dilate the cervix in preparation for an abortion. I had no idea and was shocked to stumble upon the connection. I’ve never thought of this story as overtly political. If anything I was worried I hadn’t given the option of abortion enough air time. Roe very briefly considers it, but her decision to not have one isn’t really a decision at all; it is another manifestation of her paralysis in the face of all consequential decisions. The longer she puts off deciding, the less agency she has, and her options are eliminated one by one, which is ironic because the reason she has such trouble deciding in the first place is the fear of losing something that she will later realize was what she wanted after all.
- KF: The main thrust of the story is Roe’s unplanned pregnancy, but there is an incredibly visceral scene when the aquarium is bombed. It’s striking the way that violence is subsumed into the main arc. Did you intend a larger comment about terrorism in modern life?
- KF: I intended for the terrorism in the story to be abstracted from the realities of terrorism in our world. This was why I wanted there to be no identified or even implied perpetrator of the threats and eventual bombing. I don’t know who did it, and I don’t want to know. I think of this violence as more akin to a meteorological event than a deliberate act by people with an ideological agenda. It’s like how after 9/11 the government created that color-coded threat barometer or whatever you call it, forecasting the probability of terrorism the way we forecast the probability of rain. The characters in the story regard the bomb threats with the equanimity and resignation with which we might discuss the possible occurrence of an extreme weather event. It’s like how schools now have “active shooter” drills, as we had tornado drills when I was growing up in Iowa. No meaningful solutions are attempted from the top down, and thus we are forced to accept the threat as a fact of our daily lives, inexorable as weather.
- KF: Confession: when we first accepted your story there were a lot of otter GIFs circulating around the office. Beyond the cuteness factor, otters feel maternal in a way that seems particularly human. I’m wondering if you tried other animals or if otter-ness was intrinsic to the story. And did you know anything about them before writing.
- KF: It had to be otters. The otters were the inspiration and nucleus of the story, as explained above. And yes, otters are very cute, they hold hands, etc. But they are also monstrous, like all animals, and particularly humans. It is documented that otters routinely, for example, rape baby seals to death, practice necrophilia, kidnap pups from their mothers and hold them hostage for a ransom of food, etc. So, it’s kind of a joke how Roe fetishizes the pups in a way that is totally unprofessional and potentially harmful to them. She has an idealized fantasy of otters, with no awareness of what they’re actually like. She sees only her own projection, which represents another failure to truly connect with something outside of herself.
- KF: What are you working on now?
- KF: I’m writing a novel about a fictional technology that allows people to outsource their emotional labor to actors called “scrims.” Also, about a Palo Alto startup that sells AI prosthetic limbs which, of course, eventually stage a violent rebellion. The book is in some ways thematically similar to this story, though it demonstrates how my writing has gotten progressively weirder.
- KF: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- KF: On a craft level, minimizing participles to the extreme, especially in dialogue, as well as limiting the use of fancy verbs in dialogue tags. Like, no “I would like to buy a new succulent today,” she declared, listening as a dog barked in the distance. “Didn’t we just buy you a new succulent last week?” he inquired, making himself a grilled cheese sandwich. “Yes, but I have already grown bored with last week’s succulent,” she attested, unfurling her yoga mat. Also, eliminating the word “just” wherever possible. Unchecked, I’m a “just” fiend. Regarding publishing, everything I was told related to forming a thick skin and, in the words of my MFA thesis advisor, “throwing a lot of pennies in a lot of wells.” The advice to submit a story to ten journals at a time. To expect to be rejected by most (very likely, all) of them. To encourage the wound of rejection to seal itself back up the way the body of the bad terminator in Terminator 2 (the T-1000) immediately gels back to perfect wholeness after being shot or cleaved in half or whatever. And then to submit the same story to ten more journals. BUT, before even thinking about getting it published, to continue revising or letting a piece of writing sit for awhile, until you are absolutely sure it’s ready to go out (as I failed to do, initially, with this story). Overall, to cultivate a healthy balance of patience, ambition, humility and tenacity.