The Next Chapter

Rachel Rose reflects on empathy, acceptance and redemption in The Octopus has Three Hearts

The Canadian American poet talks about writing her debut short story collection, which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
The Octopus Has Three Hearts is a short story collection by Rachel Rose. (Ayelet Tsabari)

This interview originally aired on April 16, 2022.

Rachel Rose is the Canadian American 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. 

The Octopus Has Three Hearts is a short story collection featuring a veritable ark of animals from cats, dogs, chickens and pigs to chameleons, parrots, rats and bats. Humans range in variety from victims to witnesses and perpetrators. No matter who they are, they all find connections with animals.

The collection is Rose's debut work of fiction and it was longlisted for the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Rose spoke to Shelagh Rogers about writing The Octopus Has Three Hearts.

Moving between genres

"Each genre has its charms and strengths, and I read widely. Of course, poetry was my first love. But the truth is I always wanted to write fiction. And it actually took me getting to midlife — what I hope is the midpoint of my life — and realizing, 'What do I have to lose?' I'm already failing by not doing what I most want to do, which is to write fiction. Why not try it and just see? So what if it's bad? Just do it. But even after that realization, it took me leaving the country for it to happen.

I was in this state of flow, magical flow, and everything just opened up after that.

"My wife is French, and the year before the pandemic — which is the last year we possibly could have done this — we took our two younger kids and our little dog, and we moved to France. We were mostly living in Toulouse, but we were in Corsica and Florence and Rome and traveling. Somehow I was able to write so freely while we were on the road and away from home. I was in this state of flow, magical flow, and everything just opened up after that." 

Unlikely companions

"The title is I guess a little tongue-in-cheek. I wanted it to have both the meaning of anyone who's ever found their companionship or their family with an animal, a non-human. But also the beasts in my stories are human. There are stories where a pig is a much better son than a biological child and is much more reliable and kinder, and stories where people who've been exiled have beasts in their lives support them when humans have rejected them.

I wanted it to be both — that you can love a human who acts in a beastly way, but you can also love the animals that provide you that solace and that companionship.

"I wanted it to be both — that you can love a human who acts in a beastly way, but you can also love the animals that provide you that solace and that companionship." 

Connecting with animals

"Animals can be super annoying. They can pee in your socks or steal the hamburger off your plate or even be dangerous — bite you or hurt you. But they can't have contempt. They can't betray. They don't have the same capacity for cruelty that human beings have toward one another.

Animals don't have the same capacity for cruelty that human beings have toward one another.

"I think that unconditional acceptance or unconditional love, only a few humans are capable of. The Dalai Lama, and maybe a few other experts who are working in another plane, is capable of that in the way that most animals are.

"Maybe we haven't evolved that far yet."

The paradox of empathy

"I think we should care, but empathy encourages us to find some way to relate to an animal because it's cute or to relate to a person because we can see something in them that we like or that reminds us of ourselves. And I think, paradoxically, empathy is divisive. It creates division and it forces us to choose sides. I know everybody's pushing empathy all the time now, but I hope my stories push back against that.

"Why do we need to like something or find it relatable to care what happens to it and why should we reduce reading to something that's good for you? Like, 'Oh, read a novel, it's full of vitamins and empathy.' Like broccoli or something, you know? Don't do that. Don't read a novel because someone tells you it's good for you. 

I think, paradoxically, empathy is divisive.

"What about joy? What about being transported to another world? What about learning a new way of thinking? What about grappling with deep issues? But don't read something because somebody tells you it's good for you."

Bouncing back

"I think all of the stories are about resilience because I don't want to make my characters likable. Most people can't empathize with these terrible things that some of them have done. So I wanted to move past that and take the reader right to where you're seeing how people who have done terrible things have to find resilience.

I think resilience is essential and it's fascinating to me how people manage to do that, despite everything being against them.

"They have to find a way to go on and have to find a way to create some meaning and structure for their lives. I think resilience is essential and it's fascinating to me how people manage to do that, despite everything being against them."

Rachel Rose's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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