When I was in grad school with Christy Crutchfield, I alternately envied and pitied my fellow writers who had already decided to give themselves over to ambitious novels. While the rest of us knocked out 1,400-word short stories in a week and then casually tried them out on each other—”What do you think? Could this be cool?”—writers like Crutchfield were undertaking the noble work of creating a place, getting to know characters, and letting a book reveal itself to them over months and years. When a story of mine didn’t work, I threw it out. But Crutchfield was playing a higher-stakes game.
And it seems to me she won. Her novel, How to Catch a Coyote, inspects a quietly tragic family through the lens of friends, lovers, teachers, and the family’s own members with a sharp novelist’s eye that seems to take in everything. Mary Miller, author of The Last Days of California, says of the book:
Welcome to Lafayette, North Carolina, where the coyotes are moving around at an alarming rate, where a sister simply needs “to move somewhere even as big as Raleigh to realize she’s not as special as they’re all encouraging her to be,” where a brother can’t make sense of his own life till he figures out what’s happened to his family. At once epic and spare, beautiful and ugly, Christy Crutchfield’s How to Catch a Coyote will make you question whether you ever knew the difference between a scavenger and a predator.
Over pizza and then email, I got to pick the Crutchfield’s brain about world building, inspiration, icky fiction, the role of mystery, and the marathon of novel writing.
The Rumpus: This isn’t an especially long novel, but something about the way it patiently unfolds, alluding often to events in this family’s history that are both dramatized and not, makes the world of this family feel quite large. As you created this family, how did you pick what to portray in scene and what to merely reference? And how much book didn’t make it into the book?
Christy Crutchfield: It took a while for me to figure out what this book was trying to be. I don’t write with a plan—I usually start with characters or a “what if” and then have to clean up the mess. I wrote myself into a big mess with this one. It was the nonlinear story of what happened to the family with these “artifacts” from the past spliced in between more traditional chapters. But the artifacts felt more like writing exercises, and the chapters felt more like me figuring out what was going on in the story. I had no idea where it was going. I ended up scrapping the original half-draft, got pretty beaten down, and then got over it. I had a great housesitting gig in a big-windowed place that summer, and I spent those months writing every day to see what happened. After a lot of stepping back, I realized I wasn’t as interested in telling the story of what happened, but in the story of the family’s questions and denial of it. I was more interested in their disconnection. So I guess, what I decided to keep off the page was the incident that broke the family. I also chose to keep Dakota’s POV off the page for the same reason. I wanted instead to get into detail with the family’s lives before and after: what was in their heads, what they knew that other characters didn’t, and those things that came back to them in daily life that they kept trying to re-see.
Rumpus: You’ve said before that Ander Monson’s Other Electricities was instructive as you were writing this book. What did lessons did you take from Monson? Were other novels/stories particularly useful?
Crutchfield: Right as I was giving up on the original manuscript, I decided to take a fiction workshop and just write stories for a while. In that class we read Other Electricities and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage. I think both were perfect for me to read at that time, Monson’s especially because what I was struggling with the most was the structure of the book. It was one of those “Wait, I can do that?” moments. Other Electricities is a collection of connected stories, and we hear from members of an entire (very sad) Michigan community. We keep returning to certain tragedies, most importantly the death of a teenage girl. I realized I had been trying to do something similar with my book, but I was holding myself back because I didn’t think it was something I was “allowed” to do. American Salvage was important because Campbell develops characters the way I always aim to. She writes men really well. She writes about characters who are trapped and who are disconnected. These books gave me the energy to try rewriting. I think I read everything Bonnie Jo Campbell had published that summer too.
Rumpus: In an interview in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, you said, “I guess what I was most concerned about when it came to the reader was what she took away in the end. Did she side with certain characters? Did she believe certain characters and not trust others?” It made me think of the play-turned-movie Doubt, which famously hinges on the did-he-or-didn’t-he of a Catholic priest’s potential sexual predation of a young boy. But I can tell you that this reader never seriously questioned that what happened between Dakota and Hill is exactly what Dakota said happened. The fact that she is otherwise unreliable only for me underscored her truth on this point. So I’m really curious: Have responses been very different from one another? Are some readers much less inclined to believe her than I was?
Crutchfield: I heard that the play version of Doubt was written to point the reader in one direction, and the movie was pointed to lead you in other. I have nothing to add to that other than, hey! Cool! As I was writing, I knew what happened between Dakota and Hill, and I tried to lead my reader in that direction. Most readers I’ve talked to seem to believe what I was hoping they would, but a couple have seen some ambiguities. It’s hard to know how much to say here without giving something away so, [spoiler alert]: I’m very interested in how our culture responds to sexual assault cases, especially in recent stories like Steubenville and Dylan Farrow. Someone’s reputation suddenly becomes important in a way that it doesn’t in cases of, say, theft. One of the reasons I made Dakota such a difficult character is because, well, who wouldn’t be in this situation—she’s hasn’t figured out how to deal with her anger, and she’s trying to find her own source of power. But I also chose to make her unreliable so characters in the book could use this as proof that she was a liar all along and I figured some readers might do the same. I wanted to lead my readers to one side, for sure, but I wanted that choice to be theirs.
Rumpus: For me, one of the most affecting scenes is where Hill is fantasizing about a reconciliation with his daughter in which they sleep in his bed together but he never touches her. It’s a fantasy about proving to Dakota how capable he is of caring for her while respecting her boundaries, and yet it’s also a realistically icky fantasy. This is one of the great things a novel can do—offering compassion or at least understanding of people who have (allegedly) done monstrous things. How do complicated scenes like this reflect your tendencies and/or goals as a fiction writer?
Crutchfield: Icky is the perfect word here! That’s exactly how I felt every time I worked on this chapter. I think Hill represents what I try to do in most of my fiction. The day I realized that I could write unreliable narrators and characters was a big day. For me, the most important thing in fiction will always be the characters, and I want them to be human. I especially want my darker characters to be—not necessarily likable or “good,” but human. I think part of this is an exercise in finding some explanation for a difficult world and the people who scare me. If I can make them human, I can’t necessarily excuse what they’ve done, but I can find some peace with it. Also, the bad guy is more interesting to read. I always hate the 100 percent good guy (I’m looking at you, Leonardo from the Ninja Turtles). Someone needs to be torn about something for selfish reasons. Someone needs the opportunity to make the wrong choice.
Rumpus: What would be on a reading list of books/authors that do a good job of occupying the icky space? (ENG 401: The Ick Within)
Crutchfield: Ooh! Good question, fun class. I see I’m teaching upperclassmen here. I think a good starting point (and for most questions about writing) is Flannery O’Connor. She does such a good job with selfish and delusional people. She writes racist and classist characters really well but redeems them just enough at the end, especially in “Revelation” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Faulkner’s work for the same reason: A Light in August, As I Lay Dying, and anything where Jason or Caroline Compton show up. David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men might make it onto the syllabus. Maybe some of Aimee Bender’s stories. The ickiest book I’ve read in a long time, maybe ever, is Tampa by Alyssa Nutting. I felt guilty reading it, and couldn’t stop reading it, which is exactly what you want in that kind of book. Great read.
Rumpus: I had read three of these chapters as short stories well before the book came out. “Old Penny” I remember best for how comfortably it stood alone outside of its context, though I think it’s even stronger here in the middle of the book. How much did you conceive of these chapters as individual “stories” while you were writing them?
Crutchfield: In my second draft, I didn’t know what I was writing. I thought it might end up as connected stories. I had no idea how to write a novel when I started (I’m still learning how to write a novel) so I ended up writing chapters that felt more like stories, which was great because I could send them out to journals. After I started to get a base of different character’s voices and plot details, I took some time to figure out what I needed to connect them and what I needed to give these fragmented chapters some kind of arc. I think those chapters are often the ones that can’t stand alone.
Rumpus: Likewise, I’d love to hear about how you approached the arrangement of these chapters—the balance of characters, eras, etc. combined with the logistical concerns of what I, reader, ought to learn about when. Was it a headache?
Crutchfield: It actually didn’t end up being as much of a headache as I thought it would be. I wrote each chapter as a separate document, so it was easier to reorganize. Before I pasted it all together, I wrote out the title of every chapter and looked at a couple things: who’s POV, what tone, and what important information is revealed. As I said in a previous interview, Chris Bachelder suggested I make a first chapter serve as a kind of key for the reader. And after I wrote this chapter, where Daniel decides to write his Freshman Comp paper as “The Encyclopedia of Coyotes,” I decided snippets of that paper would be a good way to break up the heavier stuff (and a way to pepper in some fun facts about coyotes). After more workshopping, I added and re-arranged a few chapters. Then I sent it out, cold and alone, to find a home.
Rumpus: What are you working on now? Anything you’ve got clearance to talk about?
Crutchfield: Oh, this question. I’ve mostly been writing shorter stuff since I finished the book. It’s nice to write something complete that takes months instead of years. But I think I may have accidentally started two longer projects. They’re both in the zygote phase right now, but I’m sort of spread between writing those and working on short stories. I’m a slow writer so it might be a while before I’m ready to show the longer projects to the world (especially one), but we’ll see. Eek, we’ll see.