Steven Rowley’s debut book, Lily and the Octopus is a quirky and heartfelt read that on the surface tells the story of a man’s love for his dying dog, but surprisingly delves so much deeper. The book is laugh out loud funny, and is also likely to make you cry by the end. The book is now available in paperback, and is definitely a gem worth spending your time to read.
What are the most common questions you get about the book?
The number one question I get is “why and octopus?” The number two question I get is “am I going to cry?” I think people are nervous, there is some trepidation there. When a book resonates with me that I have such an emotional connection to it, I think it’s a good thing, but I think people are a little bit afraid of it.
Why do you think that is? We’re drawn to this material, and yet we’re afraid of it at the same time.
I think partly because it involves a dog, but I try to tell people that “I don’t know if you will cry, but I promise that you will laugh!” Even if you do cry some, I hope to bring you back before the end.
I noticed pretty quickly that it’s a story about a man and his dog, but it is also very clearly a much deeper story about this character dealing with his own personal issues. When you first decided that this was going to be more than just the short story that this book started at, did you approach it by intending the story to have such levels of depth?
I had to really stop and think, “what is this going to be about,” if I was going to expand it what was I really going to stay. I wish I could remember the exact moment that the octopus appeared, but I knew almost form the beginning that I was writing about attachment and how difficult it can be to let go. A tentacular metaphor that could get an actual stranglehold on you made sense to me, but it’s also about how we get stuck in our lives and how the obstacles that we often see in our way are often, if not made up entirely, are sometimes greatly exaggerated. I was really interested in the way that, our brains make these elaborate constructs that help keep us from dealing with what we are not quite ready to see and in Ted’s case, he really had to work through that in order to rejoin humanity.
With the limited cast of characters to create the sense of isolation Ted feels, did you find that made the book easier or more of a challenge to write?
It’s a challenge to populate a novel. Originally, I thought that to elevate the central relationship, the friendship between a man and his dog, that I would strip out the other human characters, which I think serves that purpose, but then I thought “goodness, what do I do with this limited cast of characters?” I realized that, and I think this was in reaction to my having a background as a screenwriter, because when you’re screenwriting everything is very external – dialogue and action – and here I realized I could write something that was very internal. A lot of it takes place inside of Ted’s head, and I discovered that there was a whole world there in which I didn’t have to rely on these characters or feel a need to give them a greater role to fit the story. So, once I had the freedom to get inside Ted’s denial, then I had a whole new world to explore!
Was your fascination with octopuses something that you had prior to writing, or was it something that developed over the course of writing the novel?
No! I settled on the octopus for the book, but I didn’t have a particular fascination, or know that much about them. In doing all the research, in terms of the octopus being the foil, they’re incredibly smart creatures, they can learn and many studies show they can play a little bit and use tools, so they can adapt and learn to needle Ted in the way that a good antagonist should. I’ve actually become quite fond of them in a way, and someone asked “how can that be!” given what the octopus is in this book, and I carry a little guilt about villainizing them because they are quite magnificent creatures.
Having an octopus in the book was a real gift on several levels. For example, what’s more opposite than a dachshund, a creature that’s all spine and furry, and one that has no spine, is slimy, and lives in the sea? Secondly, I had this image of this octopus gifting me ink to tell the story, and that was very helpful for me as a writer. Thirdly, despite them being invertebrates, the octopus gave me a skeleton for the framework of the book. “Let’s think about this, the book should be written in eight parts, and each part will have an octopus theme,” and then I could start laying out thematically what goes in what section and the book took shape from there.
So, this wasn’t the case of the book being written in a chronological order, you ended up more piecemeal.
Yeah, I settled on what the sections should be and then thought about the section. I didn’t write the sections sequentially either, and I had a rough outline, but I like to leave room for surprise because it keeps me engaged. If I have the whole thing written out and all I have to add is the detail, I get bored, but if something can happen unexpectedly it makes it easier to sit down at the computer. In fact, there’s a whole section that takes place at sea, that I didn’t know was going to happen until I started writing it! It’s turned out to be either people’s favorite, or least favorite part of the book.
In the interview in the back of the paperback publication, you mention that the voice you had in mind for the octopus was Eddie Izzard, have you given any thought to who you would like to have voice Lily?
You mean if there were to be some movie adaptation or the voice I hear in my head? Well, there is an incredible audiobook by the actor Michael Urie, and I listened to it enough to know the book was in good hands, but Lily’s voice was wholly mine for so long, that it was jarring to listen to. Lily talks in two voices, a translation of her staccato barking, and conversationally, which is all happening in Ted’s head. When I hear it, it was a squeaky voice that I would hear to have her answer back. If I were to see it visually, and I haven’t announced this widely yet, but the film rights have been optioned by Amazon studios so we’ll see what happens! I did say, quite firmly, that I don’t want to see moving lips, and I think there may be another way to do it, maybe with subtitles or a voiceover.
Because writing about things such as loss and grief are incredibly difficult to process them when you’re going through them yourself, what advice would you have to writers trying to tackle such difficult topics, even if it is something they themselves haven’t experienced?
Well, obviously, this is a novel, but I did have a dog named Lily, and the dog that is in the book is very much the dog that I had. I sat down and starting writing this about six months after she died, and I started writing a list of memories and stories, and if I’d started off going, “I’m going to write a novel about this,” it would have been emotionally overwhelming for me on top of the grief I was still processing. Originally, I wrote to process what I was feeling, and then eventually I thought that it might be more the way for me to explore a bit, and give myself a bit of distance and analytically, was for me to do something like, add an octopus! As long as I kept as emotionally true to what it felt like while it was happening, it gave me the creative freedom to process.
I’ve learned that everyone is a little weird, and while not everyone will call it an octopus, I’ve talked to other people surviving tumors and they’d say they called it a golf ball, or anything else really than tumor. I think the impulse is there to process grief in our own unique way, so I was OK to be weird, so long as I was still truthful about it.
Hopefully this resonates beyond pet grief, that it could speak to all sorts of loss and healing, because I think the process we go through is similar.
Was there anything that you ended up editing out of the book during the process that you were either happy to leave out, or wish you could have left in?
Originally, I was thinking about self-publishing, and I learned that I had to be smarter about how I talked about it. I called the book “The Octopus Love Story” because I liked the play of something sweet and something slimy, and they weren’t quite sold on it, so we ended up with Lily and the Octopus, which has a similar feeling. The narrator also didn’t have a name, and I kind of liked him living in the sort of not-world, between living in me, and not me. Partly, for marketing purposes it’s difficult to talk about a man dealing with… so that was a concession I agreed to, because I thought, “maybe it would be better to have an arm’s length between Ted and myself.” More so to protect the other people in my life, because I didn’t want people to draw parallels where I had fictionalized the rest of the cast. Although, I couldn’t bear to change Lily’s name, so that probably muddies the water a bit!
Your book points out that humans are inevitably creatures of habit. Are there any habits you wish you did or didn’t have?
Oh goodness, sure! I am a horrible procrastinator, I wish I didn’t have that happen. I am a social creature that makes it hard that I’ve chosen a very solitary occupation. But, I’m getting better. There’s some good lessons that I learned in this. I used to, if I had a limited time to write, I used to waste the first hour on Facebook, or whatever, and then spend an equal amount of time punishing myself for wasting my first hour, and then I’ve lost a second hour. So, I’ve learned to understand that procrastinating, at least a little bit, is part of my process, and to add in time to accommodate that rather than fight it.
Readers often talk about books that changed them, or greatly affected them. How did writing Lily and the Octopus change you?
I’ve always thought, that the books that stay with them, are the books that aren’t only the right book, but that find them at the right moment in their life. Writing this was sort of similar. I wrote it at the right moment in my life, and I think it’s profoundly changed the direction of what I want to do creatively. I also started writing this a little bit before I was intellectually ready to, so I think there is a bit of rawness to it that helped me, and now it’s a wonderful reminder. I have a catalog of memories of our time together, and I reviewed the paperback before its release, and I thought, “oh my god, I’d forgotten that.” It’s challenged me to work on things that I would have put off, so hopefully it’s pushed me as a writer.
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Steven Rowley has worked as a freelance writer, newspaper columnist, and screenwriter. Originally from Portland, Maine, he is a graduate of Emerson College. He currently resides in Los Angeles with his boyfriend and their dog. Lily and the Octopus is his first novel. Follow him on social media @MrStevenRowley.