Summer Reading Special: A Conversation with Jill Ciment
O: Oprah.com member Daniel asks: How was the process for writing chapters about Dorothy's perspective different than for the human chapters?
Jill: It would be so easy to cheat and allow the dog to have human thoughts. I tried desperately to imagine my own dachshund Sadie's consciousness. However, I don't think canines are more simpleminded than human beings, so I also kept the language complex. Not in the sense of using giant words, but with metaphors—Dorothy saw the orderly in the hospital and thought he was Death. When she was finally able to eat her first meal after her operation, I wrote that with her face in the bowl, "The circumference of the bowl would be like the whole world, and nothing else would matter." That line made me so proud because it seemed like a truth about a dog that a human could understand.
O: What else surprised you in that way?
Jill: The first draft didn't even have the real estate element in it. When that popped in, I was really pleased.
O: That seems like a crucial element. What made you add it?
Jill: I thought about my husband, who was turning 80 at the time and couldn't do our five-flight walk-up anymore, and how we sold our apartment in this kind of real estate frenzy after 9/11. Without that element, the story was just terrorism and the dog, and I thought, "There's no drama." I wanted a deep moral dilemma.
O: And that was real estate?
Jill: People need a sanctuary no matter where they live, and real estate is a symbol of that basic need. I remember watching a woodpecker on one of the nature shows, and it had knocked a hole in a tree. It had raised its family and was about to let the last little bird fly away. And, I would say 300 animals were hanging on to the branches trying to be the first one in that hole when it was abandoned. That's what real estate really is.
O: Many Oprah.com readers want to know why you didn't tell us who Ruth decides to sell to. Did she take the offer from Yellow Rubbers, or did Harold's Ladies win out even though they put less money on the table?
Jill: Ruth's conflict about whether she would take money over helping people who needed an apartment was actually missing from my very final draft. I still needed her to have a major moral dilemma. So, I thought about how much money would need to be at stake for her to question her instincts. She would give up $5,000, I thought, but keep $100,000. In the end, I chose $10,000 because that would be the number that would put me over the edge. And, I still don't know exactly what I'd do.
O: What are you reading this summer?
Jill: I''m reading The Emotional Lives of Animals by Marc Bekoff and Jane Goodall and 1491 by Charles C. Mann, which is the history of the United States before the Europeans came in. But I plan to go back to my fiction reading soon as this book tour is over—fiction is my absolute favorite. When I find a good novel, nothing makes me happier.
Heroic Measures is one of the 25 Books of Summer—get the list!