A Life of Books with Mary Kuryla, author of Away to Stay

Mary Kuryla is the author of the debut novel Away To Stay. She has previously published a story collection called Freak Weather in 2017. Her sMary Kuryla is the author of the novel Away to Stay and the story collection Freak Weather, which was selected by Amy Hempel for the AWP Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction. Her stories have received The Pushcart Prize and the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Prize and appeared in The Paris ReviewConjunctionsAgniEpoch, and elsewhere. She is a screenwriting and film studies professor in the School of Film and TV at Loyola Marymount University.

Debutiful asked her to answer the recurring “A Life of Books” questionnaire so readers could get to know her better.

Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?

The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle by Hugh Lofting was the book that encapsulated my view of the world as a kid. I was convinced I could talk to animals. After all, Lofting’s book proved it was possible to a young girl, who spent a lot of time with toads and turtles outdoors in Michigan. In some way, Lofting’s book series anticipated the identification of animal consciousness, which came into the mainstream thanks to Jane Goodall’s revelations of the workings of the chimp’s mind. Now, I suspect that animals do have the ability to talk to us in our language, but they choose not to. Maybe they consider human speech insufficiently humbled to the planet we all share.

Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?

I read The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle aloud to my sons. My oldest son now works for Fish and Wildlife and studies animal consciousness, with a lot more scientific rigor than I am capable of. So, yes, read away. Most kids are intrigued by the idea of languages at the rim of the accepted ways of knowing; kids know things and harbor unique languages in their childhood that get silenced in the push to be a functioning member of society. My philosophy on what kids should read is wide open; read anything that catches their imagination, from Manga comics to Mad Magazine to Popular Mechanics to Moby Dick.

Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?

I found J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to be insufferable in HS. Much later, when revising Away to Stay, I dug out Salinger’s book to get a better understanding of how to write a narrator that both tells the story and acts as the main character in it. Salinger’s novel was helpful in this regard, of course, but what deserved special awe was the powerful use of stance in the novel. Holden Caulfield is narrating the events of the story from a distance of about 9 months after they occurred. In other words, he has had very little time to process what happened, and he is still young, so his narration carries a thick veneer of toughness and cynicism as cover for the pain he has yet to confront. It’s precisely Holden’s veneer that generates such uneasy humor in the novel. Holden IS insufferable, and I guess for a HS student like me, it was simply too vivid of a mirror. 

What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?

The Iliad by Homer. For some reason, I was very into Achilles’ refusal to fight. Such audacity impressed me and seemed very touching, as well. I suppose reclusion appealed to me in my teens when it was often the only act of resistance I could take in a family as big and unruly as mine. Now, however, I love more the stories and plays that spun out of The Iliad, not least Anne Carson’s The Trojan Women: A Comic Hardcover.

I also loved Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier when I was a teen until I did not love it when I decided it was an unimpressive updating of Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece Jane Eyre. I then found further reason to loathe it when I came across the plagiarism controversy surrounding Rebecca. But all that seems to matter very little now as I have come to understand that Du Maurier was writing in the tradition of the gothic novel, which asks the question: Can a woman trust the man she has married not to be the end of her?

Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?

Heart of a Dog by Mikail Bulgakov and the short story “Kashtanka” by Anton Chekhov were works that I returned to while writing Away to Stay. Bulgakov and Chekhov had an uncanny ability to enter the point of view of a dog without burdening the four-legged with human qualities. Their protagonists are scrappy canines just trying to get by. While my novel was not from the dog’s perspective, I still got a lot of insight into portraying a dog’s unique way of inhabiting the world from these masterworks.

The novel Florida by Christine Schutt helped me to understand what I was not writing and what I was. My novel had things in common with Schutt’s Florida, not least a semi-orphaned and transient young female main character. But Schutt’s brilliant work is driven by the language of memory and impressions, while my novel occurs in a present-tense unfolding and spans a short period of time in Cousin Jack’s home. Anyway, who can compete with Schutt’s sentences?

Another book that helped shape my novel was the story collection The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones. The men that punch their way through Jones’s stories spoke to me and to what I was trying to get at with the character of Jack, an Afghanistan vet and former K-9 cop who’s abducted a working dog from the police. Jack is a guy always  in action; so much of what he does is instinctual and compensatory. It is as if he can outrun the pain that plagues his heart by just doing the first thing that comes to mind.

What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?

I wish I had the guts and vision to write the novel Sula by Toni Morrison, the story of young female friendship that defies accepted boundaries, and Sula, who becomes the lightning rod for everything people cannot tolerate in themselves and so project on her. But Sula withstands this, she has character to spare; she is a transgressive female heroine without match in literature. 

Gogol’s short story “Letter from a Madman” is pretty much everything I admire in writing: composed in a series of diary entries that soon can’t contain the growing madness of the diary writer, a glorious affront to the so-called obligations of the workplace, and finally a hilarious portrayal of a descent into madness that hinges on the plot device of two dogs exchanging love letters. 

What have you been reading / do you plan to read during your debut book tour?

I recently finished Harrow by Joy Williams, which kicks the knees out from under any remaining smugness we might have in being members of the human race. Currently, I’m reading Primeval and other Times by Olga Tokarczuk because her deployment of structure supplies narrative drive that makes for compulsive reading and because the novel employs multiple points of view and an odd brand of magical realism, not unlike the current novel I’m working on, called The Onawayans. The next book on my stack is the newest collection of stories by Brian Evenson, The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell.

And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.

Undead bear love.

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