IVY VS. DOGG: WITH A CAST OF THOUSANDS!
A Conversation with Brian Leung
by Laura Kendall
In his new novel Ivy Vs. Dogg: With a Cast of Thousands!, Brian Leung invites readers into the town of Mudlick, where a judgmental committee cannot seem to keep out of anyone’s business, and where two teenagers are about to change the status quo. Despite being about a pair of teenagers, this is not a YA novel; it’s a satirical exploration of the need to insert ourselves into other people’s lives.
Brian Leung is a Midwestern transplant originally from Southern California. He is the director of the MFA program in creative writing at Purdue University and the author of World Famous Love Acts (2005), a collection of short stories, and two novels, Lost Men (2007), and Take Me Home (2008). I first introduced myself to Brian about a year ago, and in the year I have known him I have learned that he is is an excellent party host, a constant supporter of independent bookstores, and a great friend to chat with over drinks. We recently sat down for afternoon cocktails and talked about his latest novel, Ivy Vs. Dogg: With a Cast of Thousands!, out now from C&R Press.
Laura Kendall: Can you start by describing your new book Ivy Vs. Dogg? How would you blurb it?
Brian Leung: I think it’s partially a satire of nanny culture and, shockingly, I think libertarian in that it surprises me that I have a narrative voice that is a community that is certain it knows what’s best for every one of its individual members. But if I were describing the story I would say it’s a story about two teenagers trying to figure out who they are and get out from under the thumb of their community, and a giant squid.
LK: Yes, the giant squid’s very important to the story. You said something about “nanny culture,” and I find that interesting because you’re not specifically a parent. Is there something that led you to that moment?
BL: Not only am I specifically not a parent, I am purposely not a parent. I can tell you the exact incident. It was eighteen years ago when I was heading up to a writer’s colony in the Hudson River Valley in upstate New York. I was driving, and I found a radio station that was coming in, and it was a conservative talk radio station. It was Memorial Day Weekend, and the talk show host was talking about, “This is the day that we honor our fallen veterans,” and they said they should have a memorial day for all the aborted babies. And I was yelling at the radio, “You idiot! We all agree that military people who have been killed are human beings. You’re missing the point!” Not everybody agrees that a fetus is a living person with a soul, so the confidence in his expression just irritated me because he clearly was in a space where he was willing to tell a woman what she should do with her body, and from a place of righteousness.
So I went to that writer’s colony, and I spent the first part of my residency just furiously writing what would become this novel, but because I was writing from such a place of anger it didn’t [work], but the idea developed then and it just percolated.
LK: So did the manuscript start with this committee as the narrator from the beginning?
BL: Yeah, the voice was the quickest decision. That voice was important to me. I actually didn’t know what the story was going to be, but I knew that I wanted this committee. I wanted the history of this committee that has made tons of bad decisions on behalf of the town and yet in their minds they have this glorious history. But also, if you notice in the novel I was curious about the other side of that, too: Why are all these people letting them? I think it’s kind of like people who don’t vote. They complain but they just let—
LK: They just let things happen without trying to do anything. One of my favorite things in the book was the advice—the pull quotes—from the committee. Where in the process did those appear? One of my favorites is, “Conceal seriously ill children—they dampen spirits.” Or, “A rose by any other name is better.” They did so much for the tone and humor of the novel, and if I was getting almost too irritated by the committee while I was reading, I would get to one of those quotes and be reminded that these people are ridiculous, and it was a nice tension breaker.
BL: Well I’m glad you say that because I recognized early on while I was writing that this narrative voice was irritating me. The personality of the committee was just driving me nuts, but I did have the detail there that in their daily lives they have post-it notes they would put on somebody’s mail box or on their front door. So [I wondered] how do I bring that in for the reader so they’re getting a similar experience? In my mind, production-wise, it was always going to appear kind of like post-it notes, but when I saw all the different versions of it, you couldn’t get it into to the text where it belonged.
LK: Like it was too interruptive?
BL: Right. I’m glad they functioned like that for you. Most of them are hyped in ridiculousness even beyond what’s in the main narrative.
LK: They’re extra, extra ridiculous. I would be laughing while I read and my husband would look at me and I’d just say, “You have to read it, this part is so funny!” This whole narrative and the tone is so different than your other novels, was it harder to get into that mindset for you?
BL: Yes, because there’s kind of a recognizable Brian Leung brand of sentence-making which is always pushing towards the landscape and imagery and attention to the sentence structure. With the committee, what I really had to imagine was what is the text they would write and how would they write it? So, but also it had to be compelling, too, right?
LK: This committee would never write something as…
BL: Sweeping and epic as Take Me Home. I had to give myself over in some cases to craft choices that they make that I wouldn’t make.
Where I could intercede was in heightening the satire of it, so that where [the committee] might not be very robust about use of imagery or plot, I knew that behind the scenes I could work in the satire so the reader has something to hold onto—like, for example, with the post-it notes.
LK: Was writing satirically something you had to train yourself a little bit to do?
BL: I don’t know that I trained myself. People who know me for better or worse know I’m constantly cracking jokes. When I’m responding to people on Facebook or any social media my first instinct is to say the wisecrack, and then I have to reread to make sure they’re not making some sad, serious point. My sense of humor doesn’t come across in my other books, and my friends and relatives have pointed that out to me, so this was an opportunity to ask myself as I was writing, “What is funny to you about this situation?” whereas with my other books I never asked that question. If you think about it there’s a lot that’s not funny in terms of the actual content. You have a teenage girl who’s pregnant being hounded by a community about what she should do with her body. And a gifted athlete boy who is cursed by the gifts that life has given him. I mean, there’s a racist dude who burns a racist image on somebody’s lawn.
LK: There’s a lot of terrible people. It’s like ninety percent terrible people in your novel.
BL: Well, it’s ninety percent terrible people who are in charge, but you imagine that the community just has complacent people. My favorite terrible thing in the novel is when there’s that poor little sick girl and the old lady backs her car out and bumps the cart and the cart hits this child and kills her, and the expression from the committee is that it “put her out of her misery.”
LK: It’s so terrible, but in the context, hilarious. So, I know this has taken eighteen years to come to fruition, essentially.
BL: I haven’t been working on it for eighteen years, because that would be frightening.
LK: How did you know that this was in idea worth keeping?
BL: My editor saw a version of this at the tail end of working on my first novel. It wasn’t what she had in mind for my second novel. Unfortunately they do think in terms of what is your brand, but she liked it—she just didn’t think it was the follow up novel.
But I was particularly compelled with Ivy as a character and also the anthropomorphizing of the topiaries. It’s not something I’ve seen written before; in one case they’re giving a topiary actual language. So in that first novel (Lost Men), part of the dedication is actually to the characters in this novel. I think it’s “to kids on the lam and giant squid” or something like that. That was me calling them into existence. In some ways the dedication in that novel was a challenge to me to remember to bring them back.
LK: To remember how passionate you were about that story at that moment.
BL: And what happened was my editor moved to a different publisher and started doing purely commercial stuff. And then I felt liberated; I said, “Oh, I can go back and just work on this novel and see it through.” And also, I didn’t necessarily want it to go to a big publisher. I talked to my agent even and said I’d rather just find a press that would care about these characters and not with the pressure that they need to make $200,000 dollars to support it.
LK: Can you talk a little bit about the difference of working with a small press and a big publisher?
BL: My first experience was with Sarabande Books with my short story collection. Then I was with Random House and HarperCollins. Now again with C&R which is an independent press. The nice thing about small presses is that the experience is intimate, not only in the editing but also in the production part of it. I had a really great editor for my two novels at the two big houses; I had a great relationship with my editor—in fact she’s still a good friend of mine, but after our editing relationship—then there’s marketing and all of that.
LK: And you have very little control over that?
BL: They might consult with me about the jacket. In fact that did happen with Take Me Home and [the jacket] made it sound like a romance novel. Well, I’m sure that will sell books, but when they read the book they’ll be disappointed.
Interviewer: That book is not exactly the romance formula with a happy ending.
BL: Coming back to C&R I’ve been reminded [of the benefits of a small press]. Like I saw maybe twenty cover options—because the first five were really, really good for somebody else’s book. They were professional and compelling but not for my book. And [C&R] could have just said, well, your contract says “in consultation,” but they got back with more options. I love my cover now, and I don’t think that could have happened with the big publishers.
I think maybe one benefit of being with a larger publisher—I know this is kind of contradicting myself—there’s a powerful infrastructure. There is going to be marketing. Things gets done on time. At a small press you have a small staff doing everything, and they have other people that they’re working with. But having been with a small press before I was kind of prepared.
LK: I’m curious because a lot has changed since you started writing this book. Do you think the changing public perception of abortion and same-sex relationships has made a difference in how you think the book will be perceived?
BL: Well first of all—there’s no abortion in this novel.
LK: Yes, I mean there’s discussion of abortion in the novel.
BL: Well it’s important that it’s only discussion because if there were an abortion I would resolve the dilemma, and it’s not my place. It’s clear right now that reproductive rights are under assault anew in really scary ways. You look at places like Texas that are finding ways to create huge distances to where reproductive health clinics are located. And in Oklahoma the state legislature just voted a religious liberty law into place which would allow adoption agencies not to allow gay and lesbian couples to adopt based on their religious objections. We’re in a political and cultural moment right now with our president and the extreme right and the extreme left who are battling this all out. I can’t feel comfortable that people are more open. I think we have evidence right now that there are plenty of people, and plenty of people in power (and maybe that’s the scary thing) who are turning us into some really dark areas. I think it might be the case that some of us feel like things are better now. Like, I’m married to a man and I’m not being beaten on the street. I get that, but also the internet and cable news have driven us to a place where we don’t interact with people who don’t have our best interest at heart. We only interact with the people mainly who have our best interest at heart. So we feel like “Oh, things are better.”
LK: Do you think that maybe publishers are more open to publishing things like your book now?
BL: Yes, I think that’s why I made the point about people in political power. If you look at film and television and pop culture in general, there is a prevailing progressivism, that is probably the majority of people, but that goes back again to the complacency. Just because you can see two queer people on TV kissing that doesn’t make it easier in law for people.
LK: I know this took you longer in between than your previous books. Why did it take you longer? I think people need to be realistic about having a writing life and how that varies.
BL: A bunch of forces came together; one was I got married. I’d had three books pretty fast—2004, 2007, 2010. And so, I told myself I wanted to prioritize my relationship, which was not something I had done for the previous ten years or so. I thought it was time to invest in this before my decrepitude. And then there was the fact that I became the director of creative writing, and it kind of uprooted us, and the program really needed my attention. The third force that intervened was that I wrote a novel that my agent was really enthusiastic about and seemed actually to have commercial possibilities, and it didn’t sell. I really know it belongs somewhere, and I’ll come back to it in two or three years. It wasn’t that I wasn’t writing; I actually produced a whole novel and also a novella that I’m putting together with a collection of short stories. There’s lots of unpublished work here.
LK: I feel like there are so many couples who are both writers and as someone who is also married to a non-writer, I’m curious if that ever causes tension for you?
BL: I think it’s preferable for me, because I don’t let any friends or relatives read my work until it’s published. I have three readers—one is a fiction writer, one is a professor who focuses on queer literature, and one is a historian.
I’m married to a chiropractor, and that’s great, because I talk about writing all day long because I teach fiction writing, and I write, and part of the writing is also reading. I don’t want to talk about it anymore when I come home. I never talk about my own writing [with him]. The first time that Brian (my husband) knew anything about what I was writing was when he opened the book—or I guess when he read the jacket cover.
One thing that is difficult is my schedule: I used to wake up in the morning and write pretty early and then go to teach, but now I don’t want to go hole myself away for the first three hours of the morning when my husband’s in the house. I love him and I want to have coffee with him, and if there’s something on the news I want to talk to him about that. But again, I’m happy. I get so much out of spending my morning with him, I don’t feel impoverished for not spending my first few hours with my current project.
LK: I don’t really think you can successfully keep churning out good writing if you’re not living a life also. So, the town of Mudlick in your novel is a small, gossipy place. Did you have any towns in mind when you were writing?
BL: Not the gossipy part, but my hometown of Lakeside, California, which when I was growing up (this was in San Diego county) the town motto was “a friendly place to live”—not very creative. But then there was a contest where we got a new motto which was “horse around in Lakeside,” because we had a rodeo and all my neighbors had horses. We had a quite famous lodge that rivaled the Hotel del Coronado where famous people would go to hunt, and there was the only natural lake in San Diego county. The town got into a fight with the hotel owner because he said he owned the lake and they said they owned the lake, so to spite the town he closed down the lodge. So, we had an opportunity to become a resort town and that all went to hell.
I go back now, and I see every lot that we used to play in is filled with apartment complexes. There was this dairy that was still in town, Rocky Home Dairy, that was plowed under and now there’s a grocery store and a CVS. All of those things seem like improvements, but it’s not as charming. And I used part of the actual town history—you remember in the novel there was a rainmaker in the history of the town? We had that happen; this guy said he was going to make rain in the middle of a drought, and I don’t know if he was responsible or not, but [the rain] did almost destroy the town. It washed out the railroad.
LK: How is that a real thing? I would not have thought that was a real thing.
BL: The people in my hometown, at least in my memory, were much kinder than the people in Mudlick, so that was partly an invention, but in junior high I had two mental breakdowns; now we call it bullying, but that wasn’t a term back then. Everybody knew I was the queer kid before I really understood I was the queer kid. So that part of it from Ivy Vs. Dogg I did kind of remember from that experience in my hometown.
LK: So, I’m thirty, and as far as my own writing, I often don’t feel as though I’ve accomplished much. But I know your first book came out in your mid-thirties. Did you ever feel like a failure when you were younger?
BL: No, well for one thing, I had those mental breakdowns in junior high and then following that in tenth grade I had a teacher who rescued me and taught me how to have self-confidence. So, going forward, I don’t think I ever had a sense that “Oh, when I have my first book, that will mean that I’m successful.” I started having a couple short story publications and that felt real to me. I never had an idea that a book would be the thing that defined me. Really what was defining me was going to school. I took seven years to do my undergraduate. Then I did a master’s. I started my MFA when I was thirty, so as far as I could tell I had momentum. Things were still happening in a positive direction.
LK: I feel like maybe it’s gotten harder because with social media you just see everything happening for everyone. I think it’s maybe the Facebook effect. People aren’t often sharing the terrible things online.
BL: Like “I just got my thirty-seventh novel rejection or something like that”? We don’t generally do that. We share the awful things about other people. There’s two things I want to say here. One is that in undergraduate I was so lucky to be taught be a writer named Kate Braverman, who was in the nineties a quite famous southern Californian writer, and just this year after a long hiatus she came out with a new book called A Good Day for Seppuku. She got to me early enough and identified my need to entertain people and said, “Cut that out—give a shit about your content; write about what matters.” That was when Annie Dillard was still in her heyday and she said, “Write as if you’re dying—that is after all the case.” Kate drove that into me. I was willing to invest and find out what it was I cared about. I was discovering the things I was passionate about that weren’t just about entertaining.
I have never minded project failure because I’m able to go “Okay, what did I learn from that?” I was just talking to a student about that. The student thought their work was crap. I was talking them off the ledge, but I told the story of how I recently had a short story called “Where Went Niola?” I think there’s some very successful writing in this story for me. It was a new structure for me to work in. It was largely based on personal experience, which is not something I usually do. At the same time, I wrote this story set in China in the Chiang Kai-shek era, which was quite well historically informed, but for some reason I decided to put a magic blue box in it, and it was terrible. I wrote a good story and a crappy story at the same time, but what I was able to do with the crappy story was ask, “What did I learn from this experience?”
LK: So how do you know when to give up on something—when it has failed?
BL: It is hard. For me, one sign is if I’m bored with it. Literally, I discover I’m writing it to finish it, not because I actually care about it. The other way that I’ve discovered this is that I will find myself drifting to other projects. That happened with Take Me Home—I had a whole other book in mind. I’d done some research [for Take Me Home] but I hadn’t done any writing on it, and it clicked in my mind, and I started writing some characters and pretty soon I’m working on that.
LK: Sometimes I feel like I’m drawn toward something else because I’m sabotaging myself.
BL: What I say to my students, particularly those who are working on novels: you won’t know if it’s any good until you get through it. I gave a lecture once on how to know when you’re done with something, which is a related topic, and in it I talk about the four fears, and one of the fears is the fear of finishing something, because that’s the moment when the world tests it. If you never finish then you still are a promising writer, so when you say sabotage that’s what comes to mind.
LK: You said earlier you had written an entire novel between Take me Home and Ivy Vs. Dogg. Are you still working on editing that?
BL: That is out for submission a couple places, and if it doesn’t go, it will go in a drawer and in a couple years I’ll come back to it. Right now what I’m excited about is a completed novella manuscript I want to put together with short stories and do a collection.
I have a fellowship for the fall which is going to remove me from my teaching and give me time to get that together, but I’m also excited about a novel idea, which is funny because I told myself I would be working on short stories. In Take Me Home, my gay readers, the throngs of them, many of them questioned me about how I handled the gay character, because at the end of that novel they thought I was a bit harsh with how his portion of the story ends, and I took that note to heart. I think it’s true the way I wrote his ending, because I couldn’t make him a nice person, but what I thought I could do for him is write his story starting in Finland in the copper mining towns that his family is from and show his early affection that he had—the love affair—and write his crossing with his family. I’m going to do some research in Michigan at Finlandia university. If that bears fruit I’ll go to Finland. It’s funny because we talked about me wanting to show my more humorous side.
LK: But this sounds serious—going back to serious Brian.
BL: I will say though that in the novella the main character is an alcoholic dog portraitist. He makes his living painting portraits of dogs.
LK: That’s amazing. I want to read it just knowing that.
BL: It takes place in a fictional Los Angeles that has built these huge corridors of nature through the center of town kind of restoring it to its natural form. I think it’s funny. But we’ll see.
LK: Anything else you’re chomping at the bit to say about Ivy vs. Dogg?
BL: I have a hope for it. One of the risks that the novel takes is that it has an unresolved ending. It’s kind of a counterintuitive move, and I hope people get why I did that. Most people will come through the novel with Ivy’s pregnancy and at some point start thinking what they think Ivy should do. So they’re sort of accidentally collaborating. I kind of leave it in the reader’s lap.
LK: I have one last question because I know you’re a master gardener, and I am not. What are some super low-key perennials I can plant?
BL: I recommend oak leaf hydrangeas, they’re winter hardy, they’re woody. They’re easy. There are Asiatic lilies you could plant that are hardy, and they’ll be like five feet tall. You leave them in the ground and they’ll come back year after year and they have a nice structure. It wouldn’t kill you to have some twice blooming irises. What I like to do is think of how can I get something blooming all year long, so that this dies back and then this comes back. You can orchestrate your yard like that.
LK: I have bleeding hearts blooming right now, but it’s only one plant that’s blooming, and everything else just looks sad right now.
Laura Kendall received her MFA from Butler University, where she was the nonfiction editor of the journal Booth. Her essays have appeared in Vela, Tahoma Literary Review, Creative Nonfiction, and others. She owns Second Flight Books in Lafayette, Indiana, and has never met a dog she didn't like.