Suburban Fiction and Sharing Words: Alice Kaltman On Writing “Dawg Towne”

Alice Kaltman

Dawg Towne, Alice Kaltman‘s latest and most multidimensional book to date, centers around a series of mysterious canine disappearances in no-name east coast suburbia. Told through the eyes of various eccentric townspeople, all of whom are searching not only for their dogs, but for some inner truth, it’s like The Affair meets American Beauty with a hefty helping of kibble, and all the signature Kaltman heart and humor.

Recently, Kaltman stopped by with her dog Ollie. While our rescue pups played beneath a weeping cherry tree, we discussed her wonderfully irresistible novel.

 Dawg Towne is your fourth published book and first adult novel. You’ve written for kids, teens, and adults. What’s it like to switch hats? Is there one genre in which you feel more comfortable? 

Well, since it takes a gazillion years to finish the first draft of one book, I find it relatively easy to slip from one headspace to another over a long period of time. I try to stay with whatever the authentic voice feels like for that person at that age. As for comfort, I’d say that right now I feel most comfortable writing literary fiction for adults. The grit and grime and complications attract me. 

How did the idea for this book come about?

I was walking around my neighborhood and noticed how many dogs were tied up outside cafes, or bodegas, or pharmacies. It struck me; aren’t people worried that someone might come by and snatch them? Thus my story “Gifted and Talented” was born, about Nell, a lost millennial who starts to believe she’s a dog savior, St. Francis for the canine set. It was published in Hobart. About a year later another lightbulb went off and I thought, what about all the people Nell stole from? That turned into Dawg Towne

Ollie — your own rescue pup — has an interesting backstory. Did it inform the book? 

Purely serendipitous. Though interestingly, Ollie was abandoned in our little urban front ‘yard’ very soon after I had finished the first draft. I think he was sent to me to make the book better in subsequent revisions. Or just to improve my life in general, which he does.  

The mosaic structure reminds me a bit of Girl, Woman, Other, which I loved, and makes me wonder if you wrote each POV straight through or did you keep switching?

I  kept switching as I went, which is something I do not necessarily recommend. With my other novels, I outlined. I had a clearer idea of beginning, middle, end. Dawg Towne was my first experience with just writing forward. And writing forward from six characters perspectives! It was good because it allowed me to keep a certain continuity between characters, but it was a bitch in terms of getting a feel for the pacing, plot development and overall arc. But at the time, I just wanted to write stories. The free form approach was a way of tricking myself into this longer project. It was enjoyable to work in short sections, to feel a sense of accomplishment in each chunk. So the structure came out of resistance to writing a novel which wound up being a novel.

The humor is smart, perceptive, sometimes vicious and always spot on. On every page there are lines like: “Nell had always thought pooch an obscene, offensive word. It made a dog sound like a flacid flabby genital not a regal respectable beast.” I know you’ve had a list of careers — dancer, therapist, surfer. Have you ever done stand up?

Ha. Smart, perceptive and sometimes vicious is probably how my family of origin would describe me when they were being kind. I think we all resemble our writing, like people say we resemble our dogs. Or visa versa…as for stand up: No way, Jose. I’d be a total pie and rotten tomato target. Or whatever they hurl at terrible stand up comedians these days.

What about your day job as a family therapist? In a book that hinges on characterization, that is driven so deftly by psychology and the choices people make, I can only imagine your experience as a full-time listener affords you that deeper window into the human condition. 

Here I can quote my pitch letter directly: “I guess you could call me a professional voyeur. After thirty years as a shrink, and twenty as a writer, I know how sloppy, changeable and unpredictable people can be. I’m more than a bit addicted to the messy mistakes and misguided heroic actions of my fellow humans.” So yeah, I guess my answer is that the day job helps.

Not to mention an ear from dialogue. As if you’ve been listening to them for years.

Way too many years.

I love when your washed up celebrity tries his hand at a screenplay. There is a cinematic quality to your prose that is irresistible. Do you ever think about writing for the screen?

I’d love to, at some point. I mean, how great a mini-series would Dawg Towne make? I’d even be happy to hand the whole project over to someone else more savvy at the form. I’d be happy to be the annoying visiting author who sits on the outside of the big table. I’d try really hard not to make obviously opinionated faces. I’d go get the coffees. 

You take anthropomorphism to a next level by giving the town a first person voice. How did you arrive at that choice?

I knew I needed to frame the book somehow. So the idea of four seasons, narrated by someone/something must’ve made sense to me? I can say though that it was so much fun trying to write from the perspective of a, I dunno, an environment? A geographical area? A sentient, but non-corporeal being, for sure. 

For all its humor and social commentary, Dawg Towne is a tender love story. Like Nell, I often feel like dogs are better than people. People — especially those we’re supposed to call family — can be a constant source of disappointment. They don’t see us. With dogs, we don’t need to prove anything. I would not have been able to make it through the pandemic without my rescue. I think of writers like Pam Houston — or  like Jo Ann Beard who share a similar affinity. 

I’ve always loved dogs. As a kid growing up in suburbia we had dogs. First a dachshund named Mimi, who seemed ancient by the time I was five and she was accidentally run over by the teenaged boy living next door. Then came Diablo, a black lab who was starved for affection and had lots of nervous energy.  He annoyed everyone, but me. He died while I was away at college and I had a dream about it the night he was put down without knowing he was even sick. Dogs appear in pretty much every short story I write. Sometimes as a main character, sometimes hovering and sniffing on the periphery of the action. I hadn’t realized it, until someone pointed it out to me. I guess I took the canine presence in life as a given. 

Everyone finds their way. The book is ultimately an affirmation of selfhood, of acceptance. And yet Nell. I still worry about Nell. Should I worry about Nell?

Yeah, I worry a little about Nell too. But who knows? Maybe she’s really what she thinks she is. And that’s all I’ll say without revealing too much! 

What is one thing you learned from the experience of writing Dawg Towne?

I really tapped back into my joy of sharing words. It became clear early on that Dawg Towne wasn’t conventional, that it might not be super commercial. But I loved it, and I love all the crackpots inside it, all the dogs, all the all the. I just wanted to share them. I also learned that what I ultimately care about as a writer is enjoyment and total immersion, even when I get distracted by all the publishing industry bullshit. 

Of course, once you finish writing a book, you’ve only really just begun. Describe your pathway to publication.

Since DT is a quirky beast, I took it upon myself to submit it to independent presses, where, let’s admit it, really the best stuff is published. When I got the offer letter from David Queen of word west press, publisher extraordinaire, who is himself an exceptional writer, I had to say yes. I mean, I have NEVER heard such lovely, and insightful things about my writing. I honestly have considered framing it and hanging it on my wall to remind myself that I know how to write when I’m convinced I’m a total hack/fraud/loser…you name it. I can’t say enough good things about word west and everyone involved with it. David, my editor Joshua Graber, Julia Alvarez who does the design work. And I mean, look at the other great books they’ve published or are about to publish. I feel very cool, which is something that at my advanced age is rare to feel. 

A meme recently took off on twitter — citing the literary parents of one’s book. What would your literary family tree look like for Dawg Towne?

I’d like to imagine that DT is a cross between say, The Friend by Sigrid Nunez and Mister Monkey by Francine Prose. Mister Monkey was definitely an inspiration in terms of multiple-character, loosely/closely related structure. And I love the tone of that book! The Friend came along after I’d started DT, but hey, it is the most recently beloved book out there that features a dog, and where the human/dog relationship is both what it is, and also a metaphor for connection/disconnection in general. I really liked The Friend. I was mostly in love with that giant Great Dane and what slobbery joy and grief he brought to the story. The unrequited love, and literary world mishegas was not as much my thing. 

The Friend made me weep. Of course, I was all about the unrequited love, the meta elements, the hard honest truths. The older I get the less precious I’ve become with my own writing. I’ve learned to steal time in ugly spurts, yet, I’m fascinated by writers’ rituals. Do you have a favorite hour? 

I’m best before lunchtime. I can edit in the afternoons or evenings, which is also a part of writing that I love, but I’m not super creative or sharp after, say 2 pm. I can fiddle, cut and paste, etc, but really I’m just waiting for a nap and cocktail hour.

What’s on your bookshelf that you’d recommend?

AK: I absolutely adored Amy Shearn’s Unseen City, Emily Schultz’s Little Threats, Karen Jones’s When It’s Not Called Making Love, and Jules Archer’s Little Feasts. And a shout out to my recent Audible love, Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry. He does the audio himself and holy shit, is he fantastic.

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