Weaving in and out of the magic and mystery of everyday lives, Corinna Chong’s new collection The Whole Animal (Arsenal Pulp Press) is a startling and satisfying read.
Author Lynn Coady praises the collection, saying, "These irresistible stories are so compellingly drawn you'll find yourself devouring them, one after the other, like chapters of a page-turning mystery novel. Corinna Chong's vivid, seamless style draws you in and leaves you wanting more."
Corinna Chong's short fiction has appeared in magazines including Grain, Room, and Riddle Fence. She won the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize for "Kids in Kindergarten." Corinna’s first novel, Belinda's Rings, was published by NeWest Press in 2013. She lives in Kelowna, BC, where she is an English and Fine Arts Professor at Okanagan College.
The Whole Animal is such a wild and engaging debut collection. How long did it take you to put together? Do you have a personal favourite among the stories?
Thank you! I’m glad you found it so! This collection has been in the works for about fifteen years, though I wrote each of the stories independently without thinking about the possibility that they might be published together. Several of the stories were previously published in Canadian literary magazines. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I realized I’d completed a decent number of stories I felt proud of—enough to fill a book—and The Whole Animal evolved from there.
There were so many great moments in these stories, and I was impressed with the range of narrative voices—older and younger characters, characters from all different backgrounds and genders and sexualities. How do you approach writing from the perspective of characters whose lived experiences might be different from your own?
I’m really fascinated by people: their idiosyncrasies, histories, and the deep-seated internal conflicts that drive them to make decisions, good and bad. I think this interest in exploring how intriguingly complicated people are is the starting point for everything I write! When I’m working with a character whose experiences differ from my own, that character is often based on someone I know or have met who has piqued my curiosity, and the writing becomes a way of trying to inhabit and more deeply understand that person in some way. At the same time, while I make a conscious effort to explore a range of perspectives, I think all my central characters inevitably contain something of me. Finding that point of connection with people whose lives seem on the surface to be so different from mine is also an aspect of writing that I find quite exhilarating.
One of the stories that haunted me most was “Kevin Bombardo,” in which a former Starbucks employee, now many years older, looks back with regret at how he treated a co-worker. How did this particular story come to life?
“Kevin Bombardo” is the last story in the collection and also the last one I wrote. I thought it was fitting for it to appear at the end of the collection because it deals with themes that are top of mind for me at this stage in my life. I’m turning thirty-nine this year, and I think there’s something about approaching a new decade of life that compels you to look back on how much you’ve changed. Thirty feels so distant now, and looking back to twenty is like seeing shadows of someone else’s life. Along with that reflection comes a sense of regret over certain actions and decisions you now see in a different light. How foolish of me, you think to yourself, to have thought I had it all figured out. I’m gripped by the worry that with each passing decade, this might continue to happen; at fifty I’ll be chagrined by my forty-year-old self, and on and on. At the same time, I’m heartened by this awareness that I should resist ever getting too comfortable, too static. Maybe continuing to question ourselves is part of what makes us become better people, in the end.
I’m heartened by this awareness that I should resist ever getting too comfortable, too static. Maybe continuing to question ourselves is part of what makes us become better people, in the end.
I wanted to explore these ideas in “Kevin Bombardo,” and I was particularly interested in using a character as a kind of catalyst for the protagonist to repeatedly confront these questions about himself. The inspiration for Kevin Bombardo, the enigmatic character who plays the role of catalyst, came from a friend who told me an anecdote about a Kevin he once knew.
Whenever my friend ran into this Kevin, he’d ask, “How’s life treating you?” and Kevin would respond, “Like a dirty diaper.” This single detail was so gloriously strange to me that I began immediately to imagine the person behind the words, and consider how that person might move through the world, affecting others in profound ways through brief and seemingly inconsequential interactions.
If you could take a road trip with just one character from your collection, where would you go and what would you learn from each other?
Great question! I think I’d choose Saturday from “Wolf-Boy Saturday” and take him somewhere full of natural wonder, like the redwood forest or the northern pacific coast. There’s nothing more life-affirming than seeing the beauty of the world through the eyes of a child, especially one who hasn’t been privileged enough to have had awe-inspiring experiences up until that point. I think I’m also drawn to Saturday because he’s the most mysterious of all the characters in the book, and I’m eager to understand more about him and his dark past. The unpredictability inherent in taking a road trip with him is pretty intriguing to me! Admittedly, though, I’m a sucker for the heartfelt “unlikely-kid-and-adult-duo-become-BFFs-and-learn-the- true-meaning-of-love” trope and have a (perhaps vain) hope that our story would follow suit.
In an alternate version of the world, one in which you are not a writer, what superpower would you like to wield?
Super climber! I’m not at all athletic and have always admired premier athletes whose skill in their sport is a different kind of artistry. I took up climbing a few years ago and have developed a deep appreciation for the physical and mental strength, technique, strategy, and sheer bravery that’s required to excel in the sport (all of which I’m sorely lacking). I think some of the top-level climbers are as close to real-life superheroes as you can get!
Excerpt from The Whole Animal
We used to joke that we’d all gotten fat after only a few months of working at the Belleville Mall Starbucks. “The Frappuccino fifteen,” we called it. My drink of choice eventually became an iced quadruple-venti two-pump-valencia non-fat light-ice Americano Misto. I had many reasons to hate myself.
One of them was a guy named Guy. We’d work tandem on bar during the rushes after movies, him steaming and me pulling shots and calling out drinks like tongue twisters, the two of us gliding around each other to pump syrups, drizzle caramel, hip check the fridge door, wipe the steaming wands, blow out the old milk with a sharp hiss of air. It was sexy, in a way, to work so seamlessly together, anticipating the movements of each other’s bodies. Nothing was sexy, however, about Guy. Picture him cinched in that green apron, pear-shaped, nasal-voiced, and perpetually sweaty, in contrast to the aloof, tortoiseshell-framed faces of the university student hipsters that dominated our branch. Guy was the oldest of us all, somewhere in his mid-thirties.
But he and I were the only two men at the branch, and we bonded over our love of The Simpsons, throwing out quotations and references like inside jokes, at which the other baristas would roll their eyes. “Kippers for breakfast, Aunt Helga?” I’d say, and Guy would return with, “Is it St. Swithin’s Day already?” echoing my bad cockney accent.
He mistook it all for flirting. I don’t know, maybe it was, but I was twenty-two and therefore oblivious to my ability to control the things I said and did for the sake of others.
Somehow, I’d seen Guy as asexual, devoid of human desire, simply because I found him in no way attractive.
When do we stop regretting the people we once were?
Another reason was Kevin Bombardo. I can still picture him perfectly, his sandy bowl cut and dusty coveralls, pushing his custodian’s cart across the food court, the wheels thrumming against the tiles. I’d watch him roll on past as I waited in line at the Pita Pit for my spicy Greek.
“How’s life treating you today, Kevin?” I’d say.
“Like a dirty diaper,” he’d groan every time, without fail.
“I hear ya,” I’d reply, as if he and I shared the same life.
Truth: Kevin was a daily source of amusement among the baristas. I wasn’t the only one who sought him out during my breaks so that I’d have the funniest story to tell about what crazy thing Kevin did today. He ate a crust from someone’s abandoned sandwich! He chased after an escaped toy poodle and caught it in an empty mayo tub! He rolled over the toes of a lady’s shoes with his cart and then tried to polish them with his Windex! Our revelling led to the rumour that Kevin was an “idiot savant,” though no one really seemed to know what his gift was. Claire guessed he was a numbers whiz, like Rain Man. Heather said he was a chess grandmaster. Everyone seemed to agree that he was homeless, or at least a drifter of sorts.
Why? Maybe it was something about his face, the deep lines carved in his forehead, the shoe- shine of his skin, or the way he moved as though dragging an invisible weight behind him that made him seem time worn and battered, even though he was not old. Or maybe it was simply his imperviousness to judgment that forced us to classify him in a realm of society that was the furthest from our own we could imagine.
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