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Interview: Judith Moffett on “Ten Lights and Darks”

Tell us a bit about “Ten Lights and Darks.”

The story is told from the POV of a fortyish reporter, Mike Ward, who is assigned to do a feature story about pet communicators.  He hates the assignment, considers the subject preposterous, but can’t wiggle out of it.  His workaround is to turn the feature into an exposé.  During the research process he meets a woman called Charlie, whom he’s very attracted to, but whose take on the subject of pet communication is more open-minded than Mike’s.  Besides these two characters we also have Hortensia Feely, the local pet psychic Mike picks out to interview, and Charlie’s scaredy-cat Labradoodle, Raven.  The treatment is lighter than is usual for me, but the subject seemed to demand to be treated humorously (mostly).

 

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

In 2010 my younger standard poodle, Feste, was diagnosed with immune mediated hemolytic anemia.  After three months of treatment, during nearly all of which it was unclear whether he would survive or succumb, he finally died.  He was a delightful dog, and only seven, and I took it very hard.  So did my surviving older poodle, Fleece.  They were very bonded.  At first she had seemed all right, but she gradually slipped into depression, virtually stopped eating, lost weight, and appeared to take pleasure in nothing.  While I was worrying about her to my massage therapist one day, she mentioned that there was a pet communicator right in town–we’re talking about a small town here, a wide place in the road–and she didn’t know whether I was open to this but would I want to consider calling her?

I didn’t know whether I was open to it either, but I was worried and stressed enough that I went to the communicator’s website to see what I could see.  What I read there was far from encouraging, and if I’d had to go to any trouble I wouldn’t have pursued it, but the woman was right there in town, didn’t cost that much, and made house calls.  So I phoned her and she came out.

The details in my story of how Mike’s pet communicator behaves and what she says about Raven’s problems are lifted directly from the notes I took after my communicator left.  (Nobody could make that stuff up!)  I won’t mention her name here, for fear that Google might alert her if I do, but trust me, it’s every bit as weird and outlandish a name as Hortensia Feely.

 

What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

Beside my true-life adventure into the field (see answer to previous question), I did what Mike did:  looked at websites and perused Amazon’s list of books on the subject of pet communication.  For later in the story I revisited my CD of Jane Goodall’s When Animals Talk, to refresh my memory of what Goodall actually says there.  I also consulted Rupert Sheldrake’s website, where there’s a lot of relevant information.

 

What are you working on now?

For this coming spring and summer I’ll be wearing a different literary hat to revise my book-length memoir-in-manuscript of the poet James Merrill, who died in 1995.  If I finish in good time I have an idea for an alternate-history story set on my hundred-acre recovering farm in Kentucky.

 

Anything else you’d like to add?

Only that without planning or anticipating this, I seem to be writing hybrid stories that are essentially science fiction but with elements of fantasy woven in, as in “Space Ballet” (forthcoming from Tor.com) and my 2008 novel The Bird Shaman, or in the present case a fantasy story with elements of sf worked into it.  I know this weakening of genre boundaries is disapproved of in some quarters; but, as with most authors, the story is driving the bus when I’m writing it, and that seems to be where the bus has usually wanted to go in recent times.

Incidentally, Rupert Sheldrake is a dream source for this kind of hybrid science/fantasy fiction.  He turns up in “Space Ballet” too, a very different sort of tale.

A final note.  The main question I wanted to put to my pet communicator was:  Did Fleece want us to get her another dog?  The answer, predictably, was yes.  Feste, said the PC, had already taken care of that from heaven and we would find the dog he had picked out for us when the time was right.  She described this dog:  he would be older, 7 or 8, and silver-gray.  She also recounted what Fleece was telling her about how Fleece herself would die (none of that dragged-out shit for Fleece, she would be fine one day and gone the next, after having taught the new dog how to take care of me).  Not one word of what’s verifiable in all this turned out to be true.  Getting another dog was the cure for Fleece’s depression–she did a 180 almost as soon as we got him–but I shouldn’t have needed a psychic to tell me that.  She died of cancer this past December, aged 13 years 5 months, seemingly without having taught Corbie thing one about how to take care of me.  What she did, and she did a great job of it, was teach me how to take care of Corbie and herself.  We miss her terribly.

“Ten Lights and Darks” appears in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of F&SF.

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