Photo: Arnold Mesches
In her earlier novels, Jill Ciment conjured up characters ranging from a self-tattooing artist to a snake oil saleswoman. Her newest novel, Heroic Measures, set in New York right after 9/11, centers on a sweet elderly couple—and their dachshund—as they try to find a new home. O called Jill in Brooklyn, where she is just about to buy a new apartment, and discovered how her experience with New York real estate, canine cohabitation ("People are never dog owners since the dogs own us," she says), and one missing cat inspired a novel our reviewers praised for "its painterly depictions of a rattled city ... and its tender knowledge of the creaturely ties that bind."O: Oprah.com member Joan wants to know how you so aptly captured the emotions of this couple in the twilight of their lives. What inspired you to create Ruth and Alex?
Jill: Alex is based on my husband, Arnold, who is an artist. The project that Alex is working on in Heroic Measures is exactly what Arnold did with his own FBI files; he used them to create an exhibit that appeared in the Brooklyn Museum. But, other pieces of Ruth and Alex came from stalwart New Yorkers I knew when I lived in the East Village; they never really left the city and truly believed it to be one of the places where an intellectual life is possible. Then, as they aged, they found themselves priced out, lost.
O: Why did you place them in this time period—the months after 9/11?
Jill: It started with a "Lost Cat" poster I saw on a telephone pole within a few days of when the buildings came down. In the weeks that followed, people were still hopeful that their missing loved ones might be wandering the streets, and missing persons posters with pictures went up. At first, nobody covered up the lost cat. Then, they ran out of room. People broke down, and the cat was gone. I thought to myself, "This is an amazing story—not just how the tragedy affected humans, but all the living creatures in Manhattan."
O: Ruth tells us the name of the first section, "The Lady with the Pet Dog" is a line from a [Anton] Chekhov story, and she references his writing throughout the novel. What does a 19th-century Russian writer have to do with this story?
Jill: Chekhov is able to do this extraordinary thing that only fiction writers can do—he gives us access to another person's consciousness. Fiction is the only art in which you can really spy on the way a person thinks, and Chekhov is the most humane of all writers. That's what I strive to do. I want to write books that allow other people to see that basically the human character is tricky and selfish, but also really compassionate and highly complex.
O: And you also wanted them to be able to spy on the inner workings of a dog... How did you get inside little Dorothy's head?
Jill: When I first wrote from Dorothy's perspective—and this is true of all my characters—I didn't know who she was. I call it the Jane Goodall writing process. My first draft, I'm in a jungle, it's hot and I'm terrified, following these beasts around just writing down everything that they do. Then, my second draft is I go back to the shack, I take a shower, but I'm still wigged out because it's the jungle. ... But I start to think about motivation. I basically ask, "Why did one chimpanzee hit the other chimpanzee over the head?" After that, I put the book away. My third draft exists back at home. I have electricity, I'm relaxed, and I'm looking back as if I'm an old lady and retelling this story of what the chimpanzees did.
So, that's how I invented not just the two main characters but Dorothy too. At first they start off as blank names doing things, and it takes two, three, drafts before they become imbued with what is highly idiosyncratic human—and dog—personalities.
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!