By Leslie Lindsay
Haunting and lyrical, magical and yet melancholy, about traumas and art, imagination, a meditation on nature, nurture, even medicine.
THE BOBCAT (Skyhorse/Arcade Publishing, June 18 2019) is one of those quiet, insidious debuts that will grab you by the scruff of your neck and won’t let you go. It’s such a deliberate and descriptive read (don’t be fooled by the slim size), and so well done, you’ll find yourself almost hallucinating as you read. That’s a good thing.
Laurelie is a young art student at a college in Vermont. She’s bright and yet scarred by a violent sexual attack leaving her unwilling and unable to trust. She retreats to a cottage in the woods where she explores her world through art and nature, where she is the most comfortable in the comfort of a little boy she babysits. I absolutely loved her cottage—but I’m such a connoisseur of homes. While out along the river banks, Laurelie and the boy come across a pregnant–and injured–bobcat, and the hiker who has been following it for miles.
Both the hiker and Laurelie are struggling with past traumas. Their stories intersect and weave, bringing them both closer to recovery and reconnection under the guidance of a very skilled and gifted writer.
THE BOBCAT is lyrical and unique with touches of the classics like THE BELL JAR (Sylvia Plath) meets Shirley Jackson’s THE HANGSMAN with maybe some touches of Margaret Atwood.
Mood and atmosphere reign prominent in THE BOBCAT, which really should be savored, despite its slim packaging. The prose is gorgeous, glimmering on the page, making you feel as if reading in a sun-dappled dream. THE BOBCAT is alluring and literary, about art, imagination, the powerful bonds of humanity, science, and magical realism.
Please join me in welcoming the excellent Katherine Riley Forbes to the author interview series:
Kate, it’s such a pleasure. THIS BOOK! Wow. It’s atmospherically picturesque and such an evocative, intimate read and startingly original. I don’t think I’ve read anything like it. Have you always been a writer? And why this book, why now?
Katherine Riley Forbes:
I love writing and reading. They’re what I do best. I saw a picture of Anaïs Nin once, leaning against a tall pile of her journals, and it very much reminded me of me. I journaled for much of my life. But what made me actually start writing THE BOBCAT was having my first child. That really broke me open— metaphorically and physically—in a number of strange and amazing ways. For this, my first novel, I drew from the subjects that came most easily. My low hanging fruit, as it were. My own childhood was difficult. I didn’t think I’d ever have a child of my own. But then I left home and fell in love, and love helped me become more than the sum of things that happened to me. And when that child came out of me, I wanted to ensure he had a different experience than me. But to do that I had to do some reliving of my own, and that began to feel like pressure, like something more had to come out of me. Writing a novel became that outlet. To me, fiction is high art. It embodies a linguistic perfection that each writer tries to seek and channel. And so that became the task for me, to take the subjects I knew best and mask them and craft them into a fiction that strived towards a deeper universality. I really wanted that for THE BOBCAT. It took six years to get it right.
I love how this book is equally about nature and trauma. Nature and art. Science and creativity. Yet, taken in just pieces, those elements seem to be at odds with one another. Can you talk about that, please?
Katherine Forbes Riley:
So many of us have experienced trauma of some kind. It’s popular in fiction to represent that sense of universality through graphic images of a single violent event. But in reality many traumas are amorphous, harder to grasp and bind in space and time. Think of divorce, illness, abuse, death, and how they linger. Traumas also tend to take on a symbolic quality that repeats. I think the struggle to expand beyond them is equally profound and universal, and I wanted to explore that idea in this book using elements that connect us to the outside world, such as love and nature and art. What made it challenging but also interesting as a writer is that much of the struggle to overcome trauma is non-verbal. It’s embodied. The aftermath is inside our body, our language, our mind. A wounded animal hides. People hide in their bodies and minds. They shut down their channels of communication. The hiker reaches Laurelie through her senses. He doesn’t rely on words because love and trust are physical and emotional and most of what’s communicated is coming through the eyes and ears and nose and mouth and skin.
But also it takes a kind of magic. Given only the logic of the existing premises, it would be impossible to move on. A leap is necessary. And viewing the world in a creative way enables that for Laurelie. She has run from the urban scene of her trauma, but she hasn’t escaped, for it still lives in her mind, and so it’s painted upon the landscape, embodied in the forest and the river and the threat of the bobcat. It’s embodied in her art as well, in the subjects she chooses to draw and the way she draws them, for all that comes from her mind too. But at the same time nature and art are static; they can reflect back her fear but lack intention and so can’t hurt her. They’re also, along with the boy, her only remaining connections to the world, and so in this way become symbolic of the world to her. Later, as she heals, her art and environment change too, and as symbols they also take on different and more complex—and more scientifically accurate—dimensionalities. They become spaces in which to face her demons, and release them. To me as a linguist this reads as symbolism, but also as realism. For I’d argue this is how we all understand the world—through the symbols we create.
The bobcat—she’s wounded and pregnant. That brings to mind an animal who is both fierce but also vulnerable. She can’t den down because she’s injured. She needs to hunt to feed herself, the babies she’s carrying. She’s on the run, but how does she survive? She’s a bit like Laurelie, isn’t she?
Katherine Forbes Riley:
The bobcat. The angry, beautiful, wounded bobcat. I love her. She represents all sorts of things to me. There are lots of ways the bobcat’s story mirrors Laurelie’s, i.e. both being preyed upon and then running, both recovering through the actions of the hiker’s gentle hands. But the bobcat and hiker’s relationship is also a symbol for Laurelie. If the hiker had been walking alone in the woods that first day, Laurelie would never have stayed around long enough to see him up close or recognize the wounds he bore. That day and all throughout the rest of the book, the bobcat and hiker’s relationship is both a mirror and also a future projection for Laurelie, in that she can see in it a step ahead and so know it is safe to move forwards.
I have to say—that cottage! Loved it. Was it based on a place you’re familiar with or purely imagination?
Katherine Forbes Riley:
What a great question. And the answer is: both. When I was small, I lived in a very old house. It wasn’t stone but it had a secret staircase and hidden rooms and many other strange and compelling crevices. I really loved it and when I was lonely it felt quite like a magical friend. But also I find stone structures very interesting in general. In Vermont, with its rocky soil, farmers unearthed many stones over the centuries and stacked them along property lines, creating kind of accidental boundaries since their purpose wasn’t to keep anything out but simply a tidy way of getting the rocks out of their farm plots. Hiking through the woods today, one often comes across these old stone walls threading through land that’s otherwise gone wild again. Old stone houses can also survive for centuries, as has Laurelie’s stone cottage, and there is an accumulation that comes with all that age, the creaks and cracks and places the sun bleaches all taking on a kind of personality that comforts in its sturdiness and interacts as a kind of companion. In my mind her cottage nestled in the woods looks like a fairy house that a child might build with stones and bits of twigs and flowers.
You’re a computational linguist and a novelist. I understand ‘novelist,’ but can you explain what a computational linguist does? And how does your love for art fit in?
Katherine Forbes Riley:
Linguistics study language’s underlying scientific structures, the rules governing how sounds and words and paragraphs and dialogues all connect to achieve communication. Computational linguists focus on how to implement those rules in computers so they can interact more “naturally” with humans, i.e. pass the Turing Test. In my younger days I perceived language as a great mystery, and found the idea of solving it extremely compelling. Over the last decade, however, I’ve been exploring the magic of language too, not just studying its internal logic but also leaping forward and inventing new things with it. Still, linguistics is ever fascinating, and each time it’s an epiphany while I’m writing or reading to perceive a linguistic theory being supported or contradicted. There are just so many interesting ones, and they help improve my writing as well. For example, Grice’s theory of conversational implicature—how we never really say what we mean, but rather don’t in very deliberate ways—can be very helpful to think about while writing dialogue. Theories of how interpersonal power dynamics govern turn-taking can be as well. Linguists aren’t the stodgy grammarians from high school. They perceive language as hot and alive. I can invent a word right now – “it organifies” – and given the context you might even know what I mean. It’s amazing.
“Teeming with lush imagery and mystical settings, and brimming with alluring magical realism, Riley’s tale is a beguiling journey of discovery and recovery.”
As a first time author, can you tell us a little about what you did ‘right’ and what you wished you had done better? What was your path to publication like?
Katherine Forbes Riley:
I’ll start with some advice: Don’t give up. But don’t stop editing either. I did not get THE BOBCAT right on the first or even hundredth try. The first draft had to flow out without correction, but after that I had to learn to be rigorous, ruthless. Six years is a long time to work on one book. Some writers I’ve talked to tell me they shelved their first novels and wrote a better one, but I kept working on mine. I put it down a lot and wrote short stories, and as those got published that encouraged me to go back to THE BOBCAT. And each time I did, I still liked it, and more importantly I could see how to make it better. And eventually doing it that way, we got there. Still, even after it was ready, THE BOBCAT took time to find a home. Literary fiction is generally a hard sell and this novel’s short length made it even more difficult. Marketing departments really care about page count, it turns out. It’s a hard lesson as a first-time author to learn, that you’re working within a very large and fixed system that won’t bend the rules for you. I wish I’d known this going in and had somehow found a way to make THE BOBCAT just a little longer, so that what to me is such a superficial obstacle hadn’t been a factor.
What’s obsessing you nowadays? It doesn’t have to be literary.
Katherine Forbes Riley:
Definitely the second novel. I’ve published one. Do I have another in me? Will I feel as proud of it as I do of THE BOBCAT? Will anyone else want to read it? (Can I do it any faster?) It’s amazing to me that creative writing doesn’t get easier; it’s the same deep life’s bleed all over again. It must come from personal experience and yet it must be highly crafted. The best fictions feel so real, but what makes them that way? It really does seem like magic to me. I think when you’re writing a first draft especially, things around you start to glow; you’ll be standing there, anywhere, and things will start to glow and suddenly you’ll know how to write about them.
Kate, it’s been such a delight. Thank you for making the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Katherine Forbes Riley:
Thank you so much for the dialogue, Leslie!
A topic I always love to hear discussed by an author I’ve enjoyed is the books they’ve recently read that they’ve enjoyed. Maybe this is because I’m a book devourer. I read very quickly, get immersed in the pages and stay up reading late into the night. Growing up I was one of those people who read everything, from the sides of cereal boxes to tiny printed signs on walls. Over the course of my lifetime I’ve burned through every genre, but recently I’ve been very drawn to novels with strong internal female voices. As a writer, The Friend was intensely and paradoxically stirring. The depth of inward-facing detail in Milkman blew my mind. The highly nuanced lovers’ dialogue in Normal People floored me, and Wild Game hit hard and close to home (I was lucky to read an advance copy). And then there’s Naamah—so strong, so powerful (I know you loved her too, Leslie!) But there are also some male authored books that have moved me deeply recently, such as the self-skewering Less, and the poetic tragedy of Edinburgh, and The Underground Railroad, the first 50 pages of which should be required reading for every citizen of America. And There, There, which should be too, and is burning me up right now.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE BOBCAT, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Katherine Forbes Riley is an award-winning writer and computational linguist. Her writing appears in many literary magazines, most recently the Wigleaf 2018 top 50 list. She received her BA from Dartmouth College and her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, and has published many academic articles in peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings. For the 2016-17 academic year she was a fellow traveler at the American Academy in Rome, where she finished The Bobcat; her husband, painter Enrico Riley, was a Rome Prize recipient. She lives in Norwich, VT with her husband and two children.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of author and used with permission. Artistic photo of cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. For more like this, follow on Instagram]