Katie Tobin

Phoebe Stuckes on her chilling debut, Dead Animals

Dead Animals by Phoebe Stuckes is published in hardback, audio and eBook by Sceptre, £16.99.

Speaking more broadly, I’d like to know what it’s been it’s been like making the jump from poetry to prose. Have you always written prose? 

I didn’t always. I wrote some prose during my master’s, but not a lot. Deciding to write the book was a very conscious decision, but it took a lot longer as there was an element of ‘Can I do this?’ involved.

I think when you’re writing a first novel, part of it is teaching yourself to write it as you’re writing it. In the process I picked apart other novels, looking at how things work and why they do. But I really enjoyed the process, as it felt like an entirely new challenge.

Dead Animals is quite poetically constructed in this kind of very short fragments, which I really liked. One of the things I wanted to talk to you about was Helene, who is really enigmatic and captivating, and I think that style lends itself well to her character. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the development of the character and her relationship with the protagonist.

I thought quite consciously about the point of view of the protagonist. It’s quite limited, in a lot of different ways. For one, she’s really tired all the time, and in some sense, her perspective on other people is quite closed in some ways. I thought a lot about somebody who would be excessively self-serving, and what that would look like.

I think that was something I came back to when researching true crime. I was reading about people who’d planned murders. It’s something that came up again – this idea that there isn’t sort of a mysterious evil at the heart of people, but then sometimes there are people whose entire world is themselves and what they want to do and taking that to an extreme case. Our world is quite self-validating at the moment, and not always for the right reasons.

What is it that you hope readers take away in terms of representation of queer experience from your work?

I was quite conscious about not trying to make any definitive political points. But also, I really enjoyed reading In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado about an abusive relationship between two women. I think it’s an element of it in my work – I wasn’t consciously trying to construct a narrative that said anything specific, but I was more interested in how those power dynamics played out. There are aspects of their relationship that are more important than the fact that there are two women in terms of how the dynamic plays out – their class disparity and the financial element create that power dynamic that might not otherwise have existed.

I’d agree with you there. I think there’s that sense of precarity with some work that you move through the world in a different way, whereas people with more money have more protection in a certain sense or things to fall back on.

I think that’s true in hospitality jobs. There are obviously laws and protections for people in that kind of work, but in reality, it’s not unlikely that those rules will be properly upheld in lots of different cases.

That leads me to my next question, about the geography of the book. A sense of place really shines through it, especially somewhere as diverse as London where different boroughs have completely different feels to them. I was wondering how that class element fed into your landscaping of the text.

I think London has become a very atomised place, where you have the place where you live in the place where you work, and so you wouldn’t necessarily go beyond that. With the narrator, there’s a very big wealth gap between where she works and where she lives. But then there’s also this other third space, which is where Helene lives, that’s extremely different from those two other places. I really wanted to capture the sense that London is a million different cities in one, and I think their relationship really draws that out.

I’d say that there’s something almost comical when it comes to how you write about this disparity in wealth between your narrator and the rest of her world. I was wondering how you approached kind of infusing humour and self-awareness amongst some of the darker bits of text as well. 

One of my favourite genres of storytelling is dark comedy, or things where there are stark tonal shifts, and you’re not sure where you’re supposed to laugh or cry, or how you’re supposed to respond. I find that quite an authentic way of portraying life. Jennifer L. Knox, who I really like, has a line, that says: ‘One moment, you’re sobbing in your living room, the next, remembering there’s a sale at the Gap.’ I try to embody that with my writing.

As a final question, I was going to talk about the place of the novella and shorter fiction. I feel like it’s having sort of a moment right now. Sentences feel so carefully constructed and intentional, which definitely come across in your work. I would love to hear why you chose to write a shorter novel.

When writing, it wasn’t in my mind that this has become a dominant mode of writing. It wasn’t until I had a conversation with my agent that she told me that the good news is people like short books now, which I hadn’t really even thought about. But I think there’s something to be said for that. Because, like you say, everything can be very intentional. It could also be due to the economy for writers, where it’s harder to spend a lot of time writing something that requires lots of research time.

But also, the popularity of shorter fiction could have to do with people’s attention spans – the fact that something is easier to read could mean that they’re more likely to pick it up. You can squeeze a short reading interval into pockets of time that you have around the rest of your obligations, so it might have something to do with that as well.

I will say, though, as a poet, I personally enjoy reading something that’s very well-contained.
Phoebe Stuckes is a writer and poet. Her work has appeared in The Poetry Review, The Rialto, The North and Ambit among others. Her debut pamphlet, Gin & Tonic was published by The Poetry Business and shortlisted for The Michael Marks Award. She has been awarded an Eric Gregory Award and The Geoffrey Dearmer Prize. Her first full-length collection, Platinum Blonde was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2020 and was highly commended by The Forward Prizes. Her most recent pamphlet The One Girl Gremlin was published by Verve Poetry Press in 2021.

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