Mystic author Lara Ehrlich debuts her 'Animal Wife' story collection
In method acting, the thespian tries to fully inhabit the character she or he is portraying — and in extreme cases, the person's original personality completely vanishes as the role consumes reality for the duration of the job.
Writers, of course, have a different gig. And while some have been known to go to great lengths in pursuit of research, "method writing," particularly in fiction, isn't always practical.
Take Mystic author Lara Ehrlich, for example. Her first book, a short story collection called "Animal Wife," is an extraordinary processional of imagination. Any attempts by Ehrlich to work the "method writing" approach could have required her to, depending on the story, invite a bear into her home for the hibernation months; craft a biologically correct and functional deer suit and then, wearing the contraption, head into the wild; grow swan feathers; convince scientists to develop a magic elixir so accurate in its ability to foretell outcomes that it becomes debilitating (and possibly disrupt the writing process!); or — most difficult of all — travel back to childhood to then renegotiate the path to adulthood.
"Animal Wife" will be published Tuesday from the independent Red Hen Press, and a virtual book tour kicks off that day with a launch party taking place in partnership with Bank Square Books. The event includes music from Kat and Brad and, if you're thirsty, refreshment from the "Animal Wife Cocktail Kit" that can be pre-ordered from the Engine Room in Mystic. Ehrlich will discuss the book with author Joy Baglio.
If "Animal Wife" sounds fantastical, much of it is. There are also tales more rooted in realism, but all the work has a dreamy, slightly dark quality delivered through confetti-shower prose and a roll call of richly creative characters in narratives that would do Kelly Link and Italo Calvino proud.
"Part of the appeal of the short story is that you can create a whole world in a short space," Ehrlich says, speaking by phone from the Mystic home she shares with her husband Douglas Riggs, who works at Bank Square Books, and daughter Imogen.
"Some of my earliest and biggest influences were Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allen Poe, and I learned from them that it's possible to mix elements of the supernatural or fantastic or even science fiction inside stories of very human issues. After that, I moved to Nabokov, Joyce and Hemingway, and then discovered women authors, and that became revelatory. Angela Carter, Joan Didion, Maggie Nelson, Aimee Bender, Karen Russell, Katherine Dunn, and on and on. I'm inspired by women writers who cross boundaries and explore darkness."
Stages on life's way
Ehrlich, 39, consciously structured "Animal Wife" to represent three distinct stages in a woman's life: the terrifying but tempting transition from childhood through adolescence; early adulthood and the issues of independence and a career and/or a relationship and possibly children; and then mothers with children who perhaps have sacrificed or redefined great dreams for family.
It's no coincidence Ehrlich mostly wrote the collection in chronological order.
"The early stories, which comprise the first half of the book, were written when I was looking back at childhood and young adulthood," Ehrlich says. "I was a relative newlywed and we were thinking of having children, and so I was thinking back on my own childhood. There's an intentional nostalgia there. But as that consideration to have our own children became serious, and then we did have a daughter, the stories became transitional through young motherhood to the final third of the book, when children are grown. There were a lot of feelings to explore about a lot of identities."
Ehrlich didn't mess around when it came to her writerly ambition. Her debut "novel," penned in the fourth grade, was about Zohara and her wolf companion, Blubluck. ("I still have those notebooks!" Ehrlich says.) In middle school, she'd send Edgar Allen Poe-inspired short stories to The New Yorker in manilla envelopes decorated with her own illustrations. In high school, she attended the Bread Loaf Young Writers' Conference. An unpublished satirical novel was her senior thesis at Boston University, and in grad school at the University of Chicago, she wrote an (unperformed) play.
After grad school, Ehrlich worked as a staff writer for the BU alumni magazine. Eariler this year, she started a new job as director of marketing for New Haven's International Festival of Arts & Ideas — just in time for the pandemic and a mad, improvisatory rush to transform the popular, 250-event schedule into a virtual gathering.
Along the way, she continued to write fiction. In 2005, she wrote an exorcising Young Adult novel based on an indelible and haunting incident in her youth.
At the same time, she says, "I started applying to workshops and retreats to develop my craft and learn about the business side of publishing, which seemed so daunting at the time — and still is, honestly. (Attending) the Midwest Writers Workshop and Story Studio Chicago were instrumental in that education and made me feel as though it was possible not only to write a book, but to publish it."
The YA novel she wrote and submitted was turned down by dozens of editors, so Ehrlich started a new novel based on the swan maiden folktale. She loved the idea but says, "it was just NOT working." Eventually, she scrapped about 500 pages and distilled it into what is now the title story in "Animal Wife."
"That sparked the collection," Ehrlich says. She wrote more stories that fit in the general theme and, one by one, would send them off to literary journals, contests and small presses. Over five years, she says, "I built up momentum until I had a book-length collection that felt connected and complete."
Next, Ehrlich started querying literary agents in the hopes of securing representation to land the collection with a major publishing house. There was one major problem: big name publishers rarely print short story collections by first-time authors.
"I kept getting the same rejections that said, 'Good stuff, come back in five years when you have a novel,'" Ehrlich says. At the same time, the praise in the rejections was encouraging and made her more determined than ever. "Ours is one of few businesses I can think of where you celebrate rejection. If you get even a politely worded or encouraging rejection, it's cause for celebration."
In the darkest hours of the night
Then came the late-night message on their answering machine from the editor at Red Hen Press, asking her to call.
"She didn't say what she wanted, and then I had to wait several hours before I could call back and find out," Ehrlich laughs. "To be honest, I had so many queries and submissions out that it took me a minute to remember the query. Red Hen Press had a fiction contest that was being judged by (New York Times bestselling writer) Ann Hood."
It turns out Hood had selected Ehrlich's work as winner of the competition, and Red Hen was offering to print the debut collection. "What an amazing surprise," Ehrlich says. "Suddenly, I had a book offer AND the validation that Ann Hood judged the work."
By email, Hood writes, "'Animal Wife' is such a gorgeous book. From the first sentence, it grabbed me and never let go. Sensual and intelligent, with gorgeous prose, it made me dizzy with its exploration and illumination of the inner and outer lives of girls and women."
And now "Animal Wife" debuts. Though the coronavirus precludes the original author tour in support of the book, Ehrlich and Bank Square Books have, with Tuesday's launch party — which includes the custom-designed Engine Room cocktails and live music — demonstrated a crafty twist on the virtual book event.
"I have to acknowledge that working at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas during this pandemic gave me some valuable training in terms of putting stuff together for my own manifest," Ehrlich says. "We had to start from scratch and learn completely about visual production and marketing and somehow making it all work. And it seemed natural and fun for the book to partner with local businesses and make it a community event."
As for new writing projects, it's true Ehrlich still doesn't have the "novel" insisted on by so many agents. But the Red Hen publication gave her the status to secure representation, and now she's finished the first draft of a novel. It's about a mermaid who becomes human and creates a burlesque show with a mermaid theme.
Ehrlich says, "There's a fantasy about your body becoming something other than yourself to escape your limitations. But the reality is it's hard to live in a fake body, and it all spins back on itself."
And if you think this is an idea that might preclude the idea of "method writing," you'd be wrong. In preparation for the new novel, Ehrlich spent two days in Florida at the state park department's Sirens of the Deep Mermaid Camp in Weeki Wachee.
"It was a completely fun, amazing experience," Ehrlich says. "You learn how to wear a fake tail and swim underwater and be graceful doing so."
Presumably, she can also write wearing a fake tail.
If you watch
Who: Mystic author Lara Ehrlich in conversation with writer Joy Baglio
What: A virtual launch party for Ehrlich's debut short story collection, "Animal Wife"
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
More fun: In addition to the discussion, Mystic's Engine Room restaurant is taking day-of-event orders for custom-curated Animal Wife Cocktail Kits to be enjoyed during the event. Also, the musical duo Kat and Brad will perform at interludes.
How much: Free, signed copies of "Animal Wife" can be pre-ordered for $14.95. The "Animal Wife Cocktail Kit is $25 and can be picked up 15-20 minutes after ordering at https://app.upserve.com/s/engine-room-mystic-1
Registration and more information: The event takes place via Crowdcast and registration is required via www.banksquarebooks.com