Eileen Myles’ Memoir Is Much More than Just a Dog Book
The author talks about ‘Afterglow,’ a memoir about a dog but also about death, grief, family, and spirituality
Eileen Myles’s Afterglow, a dog memoir, dazzles in unexpected ways. Myles weaves together seemingly disparate topics and personal vulnerabilities to advance their story to a sense of possibility. Their signature brand of rawness, delivered with their Boston vernacular and punk tenacity, renders their grief in a manner different from conventional memoir, yet the book has the same searing depth as the likes of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. Myles is in their most primal poetic state as they express tender intimacy through memories of bereavement. They reject chronology and use experimental hybrid text to bring together fragments, finding an idiosyncratic order in the untidiness. In other words, we’re witness to their unadulterated mourning process, one involving the loss of Rosie, their beloved 16-year-old pit bull.
We’re witness to their unadulterated mourning process.
While the core subject of Afterglow is Rosie, Myles also revisits themselves at eleven years old, witnessing the death of their father Terrence, a former mailman and alcoholic. Like Rosie, Terrence died while Eileen was in the room. When translated to the page, the sensory experience is a dualistic homage to Rosie and Myles’ father; the two figures are connected through Myles’ belief that Rosie is their father’s reincarnation. The subject matter asks a lot of the reader, but we also get the kind of humor you might find in, well, a dog book. Myles’ prize-winning literary enigmatologist skills make this memoir an unapologetic, frisky tapestry, robust with canine energy. The narrative threads jump around, get rowdy and growl, hide behind the couch, pee on the rug, want to play ball, bark to go outside and sleep across your lap.
I talked to Myles about form and how to upend it — whether that’s by intent and practice, or by following their instincts, writerly or otherwise.
Yvonne Conza: The memoir opens with a kind of fabulist investigation: an awkward, hand-addressed letter from Rosie’s lawyer who is interested in “getting the ball rolling on dogs’ rights.” Why did you choose this opening, a witty piece written years earlier, over the more sentimental dog-mortality chapter “Protect Me You” that begins with You’ve just fallen down on the grass — a gutting, heartbreaking moment that every dog owner recognizes and dreads.
Eileen Myles: I needed to establish the fantastic aspect of the book immediately. I don’t think if I started with “Protect Me You” I would be able to stretch the dimensions of the book to include invention. And I needed to place the letter in the book as quickly as possible. The front was the only place I could imagine it. And then I wrote around it to naturalize it.
YC: The book has a structure that invokes a tapestry. How did you decide on the arrangement? Had you envisioned that from the start?
EM: I kept shuffling them till they felt right. No, the tapestry idea came towards the end of the writing. But I had the xxx sections (Myles had thought to entitle those as “transcripts” or “Rosie at 15” or so Rosie can have her say) for a while and they seemed to reinforce the tapestry structure once it existed.
YC: Afterglow goes rogue on the memoir genre, there’s much less narration than one would usually see. Rosie’s life and death, the bond between pet and pet-owner, intimacy, spirituality, celebrity, politics, alcoholism and recovery, fathers and family history, and the myths built around grief are all covered, seem to froth together with subjects diverse as Kurt Cobain, Abu Ghraib and George W. Bush. How did you know when you got this foam-like form right?
EM: I realized that if I felt secure within each section as a whole, then I could search for the larger order and in some cases end things a little shorter here or there to reinforce the new (and final) ordering of the sections. And that feels foam like. Transitory and drifting. Any final order is a provisional place where I felt I could relax now like this. I could have kept persisting for perfection but finally felt like pretty good was enough like life to be as ideal as it got.
I realized that if I felt secure within each section as a whole, then I could search for the larger order
YC: Did Rosie’s dying give you permission, or new access, to explore your relationship with your Dad and to put his story on the page? What has that meant to you? Did it distill the grief, or provide final closure that, when you were eleven, might have been muddied with confusion and other emotions?
EM: Sure I think I wrote it to give myself that closure. Again there’s no end to mourning. It’s only provisional, but I used everything I had and got to the end of a lot of those feelings. But my mom died before the book came out and it’s dedicated to her so I think I finished that book (and my mourning for my dad and Rosie) so I could get going on the loss of the female parent.
YC: What poets and prose writers influenced your writing process with the book?
EM: Octavia Butler, Kafka, Bruno Schultz, Ursula LeGuin, James Schuyler and a number of travel adventure memoirs. Travel and sci-fi generally felt good.
YC: Chapters titled “x,” “FOAM,” and “The Dog’s Journey” push the narrative forward in unexpected ways. How did the lyricism and the landscape develop for these sections? Did you trust the pieces would home themselves, be woven in, as they came into existence?
EM: “Foam” came in pretty late. It already existed, but I saw that it could fit in the book. The “x” chapters were a whole and I had to figure out how to break it and position them throughout the book. The dog’s journey was written where it was as it was. It was meant for the end and maybe following it with the walk was a late thought. There was another ending chapter that didn’t work and that got jettisoned pretty late.
I think they are the lyric landscape. I mean the landscape comes into existence as these pieces find their harmony with each other. The order is kind of tonal.
YC: Do you write in parceled bursts? Or in fragments you weave and link together?
EM: Big bursts that I tighten and throw out passages to make it swifter, leaner.
YC: What’s your editing process like while working on a book like Afterglow? Do you hand-edit or do it on a computer?
EM: Both. Whatever makes me want to work. I enjoy printing out drafts and editing with a pencil but at various points doing it on the computer feels swift and dangerous though I always save drafts.
YC: Michael Silverblatt, Bookworm’s literary host of KCRW’s author interview program, asked you if you realized the extraordinary risks you took for this book and you mentioned: This was an opportunity to really betray my tribe. Can you talk further about taking risks in your work?
EM: In a way I have subject matter for the first time. It’s about a dog, truly. I gave myself a different question. How to make a book and honor a relationship. In many ways it’s truly a memoir. And I have no inherent respect for that form. That might’ve been the greatest betrayal. To write in a form I don’t admire, but then to figure out how to do it my way.
YC: While writing Afterglow, what was something that unexpectedly came up that you decided to run with?
EM: The puppets. (An early chapter in the book entitled “The Puppets Talk Show,” an imagined interview between Rosie and Myles’s childhood toy puppet.) The walk at the end was the memory of a recording but not the recording. I thought, oh I could write that walk by pretending I recorded it. I did but I never listened.
It’s about a dog, truly. I gave myself a different question. How to make a book and honor a relationship.
YC: Was there anything you cut in Afterglow that we will see in another book or poem? How did you determine that a cut section should be kept for future work?
EM: No. It was more like things from other places — foam, the rape of Rosie came into Afterglow.
YC: What current books are you reading? Who are the emerging writers that you are taking note of?
EM: Joy Williams. Just finished Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of a Fox. It’s in galley form.
YC: What writing habit has been most influential for you and has helped to advance your work?
EM: Write lots. Don’t fix as you go. Keep producing.