Rachel Rose grapples with redemption and forgiveness in short story collection The Octopus Has Three Hearts
The Octopus Has Three Hearts is on the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist
From a goat farmer to a suburban adulterer, a violent child to a polyamorous marine biologist, the diverse characters in Rachel Rose's The Octopus Has Three Hearts have little in common except a life-sustaining connection to the animal world. The octopus, dogs, pigs, chameleons, bats, parrots, rats and sugar gliders in their lives extend a measure of compassion and solace that their human communities lack.
Rose is the author of four poetry collections and a memoir called The Dog Lover Unit. She is the poet laureate emerita of Vancouver and a poetry editor at Cascadia Magazine. Rose has won The Writers' Trust Bronwen Wallace Award and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award.
Starting with "what if?"
"I was writing these stories three years ago now. Before the pandemic. Each story appeared as 'what if'. So, what if somebody does this terrible thing? Or what if somebody loses their beloved daughter and it breaks something in her mind and she kind of loses her grip on reality and she loses her status in society? Or what if somebody takes on a fake identity that doesn't belong to them?
It's the fundamental question that I try to figure out as a writer: Why do we do these things to each other?- Rachel Rose
"Then the character would come to me. I would try to follow them as they developed on how they would live through this situation and how they would make their way out if they could make their way out. It was an interesting process. I became obsessed with each story.
"It's the fundamental question that I try to figure out as a writer: Why do we do these things to each other? All of the stories are asking that question in different ways. Of course my characters also do terrible things. Some of them are victims and some of them are perpetrators or doing immoral things to other animals and to people. Once they've done that, my question is, 'Where do you go from there? How do you keep going in your life once you've committed a terrible act where, basically, you've been cancelled?'"
Manifestation of rage
"We were living in Florence and then in Toulouse, and we were in Corsica. I was writing and grappling with these stories and trying to figure out what my characters would do when they were in this situation where they had done something unforgivable.
"I felt very free while I was there writing, even though we were living through the yellow vest riots. There were police coming in and people throwing bricks and tear gas into our apartment, we would have to go around them. There was a lot of anger and a lot of outpouring of violence.
"Because I was an outsider, I didn't understand the cause. But I could see it manifesting itself: people being enraged with each other and burning cars. I think some of that influenced my writing — seeing people unable to communicate, except by throwing bricks and setting things on fire and not knowing exactly why."
A great divide
"I think it's such a pressing social issue. Right now, we're living through a time of great divisiveness, whether it's for people on the right or people on the left. People who do something unforgivable, and there's not often a way to come back from it.
I'm concerned by a society in which there isn't the opportunity for redemption or forgiveness, or to be able to make amends.- Rachel Rose
"They're exiled or cancelled. I'm interested in what happens to them after. I'm concerned by a society in which there isn't the opportunity for redemption or forgiveness, or to be able to make amends."
The real beasts
"I was able to write so freely. These stories kept coming one after another, of these dysfunctional damaged people. For some reason they had different animals. Usually animals that people tend to be afraid of, like bats and chameleons and pigs and not the popular pet animals.
One of the questions that I want people to consider in this book is, 'Who are the real beasts?'- Rachel Rose
"One of the questions that I want people to consider in this book is, 'Who are the real beasts?' Are they the humans? Because the animals come across as morally superior in many ways to the human characters, these humans have so many flaws and failings and do so much harm and yet there's still love between them and for their animals, despite what they do."
Rachel Rose's comments have been edited for length and clarity.