Unleashed: An Interview with Pushcart Prize Winner Susan Perabo

Sara Kosch

The Story

"Twenty dollars is all I ask as payment, enough to buy a couple more bags of the store-brand food for the ones left behind. Some people give me more. One time a lady from Hanover wrote me a check for five hundred dollars. She said I was doing the Lord's work. I thought to myself that maybe the Lord had more important things to worry about than a kennel full of slobbering dogs, but I wasn't about to say so, standing there with her check in my hand. The truth was, I didn't really know why I did what I did, and I didn't see any reason to spend a whole lot of time thinking about it. It was just the way it was."

So says the narrator of "Shelter," a woman who keeps her distance from people and would rather focus on finding homes for stray dogs than seek treatment for the cancer she knows is growing inside her. However, her personal space is severely punctured when a man named Jerry calls her about a dog. Although the narrator has dealt with plenty of odd people during her nearly ten years of taking in strays, Jerry's arrival in her fast-fading life calls into question her view of the world as being simple enough to dismiss as "just the way it was."

The Author Susan Perabo, the author of "Shelter," has also written a short story collection, Who I Was Supposed to Be, published in 1999 and named Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald, and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Her novel The Broken Place was published in 2001. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville and is currently the Writer in Residence and Associate Professor of English at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Her short stories have been published in Story, Glimmer Train, TriQuarterly, The Black Warrior Review, and New Stories from the South.

"Shelter" appeared in the Spring 2009 edition of The Iowa Review and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize by David Hamilton and the staff of TIR. The Pushcart Prize is a series of distinguished work of small presses and magazines published once a year since 1976. “Shelter” will be featured in The Pushcart Prize XXXV (The 2011 Edition).

The Interview

Sarah Kosch: How does it feel to be awarded the Pushcart Prize? Did it come as a surprise, or did you have any sort of intuition that "Shelter" had the potential to go far?

Susan Perabo: I had no idea that "Shelter" had been nominated for a Pushcart, so it was a pleasant surprise when I got word that it had received one. I got an e-mail from Lynne at the magazine, asking if it was okay for the story to be re-printed in the Pushcart anthology. (This is like when someone approaches you, holding your book, and asks if you'd be "willing" to sign it.) Anyway, it was thrilling. I'd been so excited to place the story at The Iowa Review to begin with—it's a magazine I've admired since I began writing—so to have the additional honor of a Pushcart was really gratifying.

Sarah Kosch: I tend to write my short stories based on people, places, and experiences that I've actually been affected by, and I was curious about your inspiration for "Shelter." Of course in fiction even true experiences are transformed and expanded, but is there a particular experience that made you want to sit down and write the story that became "Shelter?"

Susan Perabo: "Shelter" is a story I worked on for years. It grew (as my stories often do) from the collision of two separate stories that had been knocking around in my head for some time—the story of a lonely woman doing "home visits" to place stray dogs, and the story of the strange old man in Cornish. Even after I realized these two stories were actually one, it took me probably three years to complete the piece, and I gave up on it numerous times. The last time I gave up on it I sent it to my sister and said "I can't do anything else with it" and she wrote back "You don't need to. It's done."

Sarah Kosch: Would you consider yourself a dog person, and did you own or know any dogs that you used as a mold for the dogs in the story?

Susan Perabo: I do consider myself a dog person, yes, but I do not consider this a dog story. I have several stories where dogs are really characters, parts of the family, with unique personalities. But I worked hard to keep the dogs in this story as dull and interchangeable as possible. I did not want there to be a single sentimental moment with a dog in this story, because neither character would tolerate such a thing. This was one of the elements that gave me trouble with the story. The narrator, though she has devoted her life to these animals, has no great affection for them individually. I knew this about her from the beginning, and I always loved it about her, but it was hard to remain rooted in that myself.

Sarah Kosch: How does winning awards affect your motivation to write? Are you encouraged to start new projects or do the high standards of your work make it daunting to begin working on something else?

Susan Perabo: Winning an award like this definitely motivates me to find more time for writing stories. Winning it for a story like "Shelter," which was so long in coming, confirms my belief that the stories you really care about -- even when you give them up for dead, and abandon them for months and years at a time -- are always worth returning to.