Zibby welcomes bestselling author and repeat MDHTTRB author Chris Cander to discuss THE YOUNG OF OTHER ANIMALS, a deeply suspenseful and profoundly moving novel about the dark secrets and the shared trauma that threaten to destroy an already shaky bond between a mother and a daughter. Chris describes her own experience of a violent attack in Spain at the age of nineteen and reflects on the process of fictionalizing her trauma for this novel. She and Zibby also discuss the novel’s narrative structure, character development, and the themes of trauma, memory, family dynamics, and forgiveness. Finally, Chris touches on the evolution of her book’s title and gorgeous cover design and ends with valuable advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Chris. Thank you for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Young of Other Animals: A Novel. Congrats.

Chris Cander: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me back on.

Zibby: You’re welcome. And I blurbed this book, I’ll have you know.

Chris: Yes, you did. I’m so grateful for it. I’m so happy that you loved it.

Zibby: It was so neat reading it, too, after our last podcast where you talked about what had happened to you personally and then to be able to read how you fictionalized all the things that came after. Then I found myself wondering what had happened with you versus the characters. Maybe I should back up. Why don’t you tell listeners what The Young of Other Animals is about?

Chris: As you said, it was inspired by an event that happened to me when I was nineteen in Spain. It was something that I dealt with in my own way but never really talked about. I decided that I was ready to fictionalize it, not write it in a memoir because it was too close. I didn’t want to get as close to that flame as memoir would’ve required me to do. Fiction, I’m comfortable with. That was the inciting incident, a violent attack against a nineteen-year-old young woman. What came after that, what evolved from there was a much different story. Yes, that is the way that the book begins. What evolves is really a complicated relationship between a mother and a daughter. Mayree is the mom. Paula is the nineteen-year-old daughter, college student. It’s set in Austin, Texas, in 1989. They’re both dealing with the recent death of Paula’s father and Mayree’s husband Frank. They’re kind of lost in their own worlds of grief and bitterness. When Mayree finds out and Paula reluctantly admits that she had been attacked, it brings up a lot of discord between the two of them. What evolves is a revelation that Mayree has her own reasons for having reacted so strongly to that. The two of them, along with the other characters in the book, are forced to confront their relationship. It is that event and an ongoing threat of continued violence that forces the two to reconcile their relationship. Ultimately, it has a redemptive, happy ending in spite of the dark themes that the book tackles.

Zibby: Wow. I loved how you told the story from multiple perspectives and the mom and where she is in her life stage and then how she has to handle what comes next, her son in prison, also writing letters throughout the whole thing, and getting out of prison. What do you do with that?

Chris: One character is in prison, but it’s not Mayree’s son.

Zibby: It’s not Mayree’s son. Okay, I got it wrong.

Chris: I think you have read a thousand books since you read this one.

Zibby: I am so sorry.

Chris: That you didn’t get that one detail is completely fine.

Zibby: I am so sorry. His name is Will, right? His name is Will? No?

Chris: Will is the boyfriend.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Chris: There is a cast of characters.

Zibby: What not to do on a podcast. Will is the boyfriend. That’s right. Will is the boyfriend. Talk about the character in prison and the letter writing.

Chris: I don’t want to create any spoilers, but there is an anonymous letter writer who is in juvenile detention. He’s writing to his mother in these interstitial letters throughout the book. They are relevant, but if I tell you too much about them, it might give away an important spoiler. Readers should know that those letters are there for a purpose.

Zibby: Maybe what you unintentionally did was confuse the reader into thinking that maybe they were Mayree’s son.

Chris: They are intended to ask more questions than answer, propose more questions than answer.

Zibby: We’ll let that simmer. Oh, my goodness. Why write from multiple perspectives? Why was this not just the daughters? When you thought about taking this event and turning it into a novel, what happened then? How did you end up with this form and this story? Where did Mayree even come from?

Chris: You being a novelist now as well, you understand that a lot of these things just kind of evolve on their own. When I started with that very difficult premise of, I’m going to recreate the memory of an attack that I experienced, but I’m going to give it to someone so that I could examine it at a safer remove, that wasn’t enough to make a compelling story. It’s a compelling event, but not a story. I had to start asking interrogating questions. Who is this woman? Who is Paula? What is she doing at age nineteen in 1989? I wanted to set it in my home state of Texas so that I could examine it from a closer geographic perspective. What occurred to me was in Spain. I don’t know Spain well enough to write authoritatively about that setting in this situation. Just asking the questions about, what was she doing? What were her life circumstances? I realized that she, obviously, had to have parents. What was really interesting is that her mother, Mayree, spoke to me in my imagination. She announced that her name was Mayree. Not Mary. Mayree. Just her salt and sass came through in that moment. I thought, this is a challenging personality. I wanted her to be sort of a foil for Paula because I thought of Paula as being strong in her own way but also full of self-doubt. I wanted her to be a bit more of a follower than a leader. She’s got a best friend who is the stronger of the two in their relationship. Her mother being this strong, domineering, old Texas woman, though she’s not old, but old Texas, that personality evolved.

I realized that part of the reason that she’s so salty is that she’s been dealt a hand. What has she been dealt? That led me to imagine her marriage to Frank. I thought Frank had to have captured her heart in the beginning, but I don’t think that he stayed a romantic partner in the way that she imagined. It all just sort of fell into place with lots of imagination, not necessarily writing, but thinking about them and imagining their circumstances and backgrounds and the conflicts that would arise in a situation like this. Knowing that Paula didn’t want to tell anybody what happened, the same way that I didn’t tell anybody what happened to me — she told one person. That was her friend, just the same way I told one person. Yet her mother and the housekeeper that is practically a part of their family are the ones that discover the evidence that she had been attacked. That was something that Paula had to overcome. In order for that to be relevant or a problem, there needed to be some backstory in Mayree’s history that would cause sparks to fly when the truth of that attack was brought to light. It all just evolved out of creative necessity to create a compelling narrative that had some propulsion and dealt with things that I like to deal with. I like, in all my fiction, to deal with complex female characters, secrecy, family dynamics. All of that came out of this.

Zibby: Tell me more about — I know we talked about this last time. For listeners who don’t know, you had this horrible attack. You told a friend. What was the relationship like with your mother? What did you tell her? Did you cut your hair off in real life, or was that just a fictional thing?

Chris: That was just fictional. I was finishing up my semester abroad. This attack, which was a violent attempt on my life after I had willingly gotten in a car with a stranger — I was able to go home shortly thereafter. The program finished. I went back to Houston. I told no one. Not my mother. Not anyone. I buried it. I thought I could bury it even from myself. I think the reason I did that is because I felt a certain degree of shame for having gotten in a car against anyone’s better judgement. I wanted to make a phone call. I gave Paula that same justification for getting in the car with her perpetrator in the novel. Because I felt a sense of shame and responsibility for my own attack, I didn’t want anyone to know. I didn’t want to talk about it at all. I didn’t cut my hair, but I did just sort of go along in my life as though it didn’t happen. Here’s the twist. You can’t hide those things from yourself. They live deep in your psyche somewhere. The way that I responded was to become physically incredibly strong. I took up competitive bodybuilding and became a firefighter. I got my pilot’s license. I studied martial arts. I became a self-defense instructor.

It wasn’t until I had maturity and time to look back and realize that I was building a physical fortress around myself because I never wanted this thing that had happened to me at age nineteen to happen to me again. I also didn’t want it to happen to anyone else. If I could interrupt that by teaching self-defense classes to women and girls, then that might make my experience worthwhile. Then one really interesting thing that happened as a result of writing this novel the way that I did is, even though I teach my self-defense students that no attack is ever their fault, even if they do the things that you’re not supposed to do, like go out into the world very distracted or going into unsafe places on your own — it’s never their fault. Even though I can say that to other women, I don’t think I had ever really processed in my own mind that what happened to me wasn’t my fault. There was a really therapeutic element to finishing this book. I could look at it and give myself forgiveness for having gotten into a car with a stranger. I had always thought, if I just hadn’t done that, if I had been smart enough not to do that, this wouldn’t have happened. I don’t look at it like that anymore. I look at it as, well, clearly, I’ve turned it into something positive. Now I can forgive myself and move on from there.

Zibby: Think about how young you were. When I went through it, obviously, I felt like nineteen was so old. Now having twins who are sixteen, I’m like, they’re like babies. They’re not full-grown adults yet. They’re just still going out in the world. Everyone makes mistakes. Everybody makes split-second decisions. You don’t have to, necessarily, have your life threatened because of them. I’m glad you have found that forgiveness. I feel like in the book, there’s this recurring PTSD, almost playback, especially with the neck and the words that the perpetrator used that stick with her. Paula’s marinating and can’t escape them. You said you buried it. Did that not happen to you at all? You just somehow were able to stop any sort of intrusive thoughts about it, or that you buried it in that you tried not to let things happen? Do you know what I mean?

Chris: That’s a really good question. I think I’m very good at compartmentalizing things, and so even the memory of the memories is fallible. That was another thing that really interested me about writing this novel, is exploring the failure of memory, especially under duress and thinking about the way that the human mind does immediately engage in self-protection by shutting down certain physiological functions in order to focus on surviving. I was exploring that more through fiction than I remember experiencing in my own life, the idea that these intrusive thoughts would come back. I did a lot of reading about memory and trauma and know that that is kind of a typical response. Either through dreams or some strange, unexpected moment, a thought will pop into their minds that they have to deal with, or they don’t recognize it as a memory or a thought, but they feel a physical reaction to it. The best way in my thought process to display that in this book was to have it be intrusive thoughts. That’s why I gave them to Paula, especially because the words that the perpetrator used were so incredibly vile. Those were words that my perpetrator used against me.

Zibby: They were?

Chris: Ironically, years later, they did come back, but in the form of fiction.

Zibby: This must have been really emotional. Even if you feel like you’ve made peace with it, going down the darkest moments — maybe not the darkest, but a dark period and some very scary times. How do you just sit down and do that and then jump away from your computer and go off and do something else? What was it like to really be reliving that and also have the present to deal with with all of its demands?

Chris: The first thing I did was — I wanted to write this out. I had never written it out before. I thought, if I’m going to create this narrative, I have to put this scene on paper first just to test it out. I really created a specific set of conditions for doing that. I wanted to make sure my family was home, that they weren’t going to bother me. I wanted to, strangely, sit outside. I almost had this feeling like if I needed to run for my life, I could get up and run for my life, as illogical as that is. I had a cocktail. I wanted to make sure that I was just a little bit, not buzzed, but my fight-or-flight was suppressed just a tiny bit. Those three conditions, I created them. Then I sat down in an uninterrupted moment and wrote that whole scene. I ultimately broke it up. You, having read the book, know that there is a really intense opening scene that begins with Paula fleeing the scene of the attack, but the attack itself doesn’t appear in its entirety until midway through the book. I wrote that whole thing at one time. I survived writing it, obviously. I thought, okay, I can do this. Once it was down on paper, it was almost as though I had kind of expunged it on some level. Forcing myself to put it into words — you know this as a writer. Speaking words and writing words are different experiences. For whatever reason, it’s easier for me to talk about something than to write about it. It becomes more tangible in the written form. Once it was written, I was prepared to go forward with it. I did have a real life to go back to. I had to go back inside and cook dinner and let the cocktail wear off. Then I was able to proceed. It didn’t feel quite as intimidating. In fact, it felt pretty liberating from that point.

Zibby: What was the cocktail? This is the most important question.

Chris: Always. Vodka soda with a twist of lime.

Zibby: Amazing. Is there a Vodka that you like?

Chris: Eado, of course. I’m from Texas.

Zibby: Will you be offering those on your tour?

Chris: I should. I should just carry a handle around with me.

Zibby: I’ll try to smuggle one on the plane on my way down to see you in Texas.

Chris: I’ll get you some.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, or at the bookstore. Tell me about the title. Did you have any other titles? Was this always it? Tell me about that.

Chris: Some titles will draw you in immediately, and you kind of have an idea about what the book is about. This one, in fact, I had the idea almost as soon as I decided to write the book. Ironically, it had nothing to do with the book at the time. I was and am a dictionary nerd. I will flip open a dictionary just for fun and read. I was, believe it or not, flipping through the Oxford English Dictionary, the second edition, volume two. My last book that we talked about, A Gracious Neighbor, featured a parakeet. I was steeped in the bird world for a little bit. I opened the definition of the word bird. It was four pages long. There was one obsolete definition that caught my eye. It was from 1495. It was a translation of something from Middle English. An excerpt in the source text was, all fish feed and keep their byrdes, B-Y-R-D-E-S. The fact that Middle English speakers would refer to fish offspring as byrdes was interesting enough, but what was even more compelling was just the phrase itself, just the lyricism of the phrase.

Without the context, what it called to my mind was just this — first of all, I felt this shimmer of excitement about it because those five words conveyed a sense of danger or vulnerability. In the natural world, the young within a species are likely to be cared for and protected while the young of other animals are typically prey. I immediately thought about being preyed upon or being a predator and the myriad relationships that could form between the implied elder of one species and the young of another. I was so interested in it. I thought it could be predatory, but it could also be symbiotic or protective or possessive, even. I thought I really wanted to interrogate that more. Then as I started writing this book, I thought, wow, what makes certain animals, including humans, choose protection over predation? As you know because you read the book, the theme of predation and protection recurs throughout the story among lots of different characters in their myriad relationships. I fought for that title. Originally, my editor, whom you also have as an editor —

Zibby: — I love Carmen. Love. Love.

Chris: She questioned it, which is valid because it doesn’t immediately take you in and describe the story. I explained to her my reasoning behind it. She, fortunately, was so gracious and said, “I’m with you. I trust you,” and so we got to keep it. I’m happy that we did because I do feel like it has relevance to the story.

Zibby: It’s also so intriguing. You can’t listen to that and think, eh, whatever. If nothing else, you have to keep digging and figure it out versus something much more straightforward. Did you have input in your cover? I didn’t have much input in my cover, but I love it. Tell me about your experience.

Chris: I did. I love this cover. There were several versions of the mother and daughter. It is, ultimately, a mother-daughter story. What never changed was the text and the typeface, which I love. I love the handwritten. It echoes A Gracious Neighbor and also my book before that, The Weight of a Piano. I love the handwritten touch. There were some variations on how the two women were presented. The color scheme changed. Then so did the position, one in profile and one facing forward. Ultimately, I just fell in love with it. I love the pink. I think it’s really catching.

Zibby: It is.

Chris: I match it today. I think it turned out beautifully and is really, in addition to the title, an evocative image. If I were looking at it, I would pick it up and wonder, what was this about? The fact that there are two women of clearly different ages at a perpendicular stance to one another, what does that mean?

Zibby: Totally. It represents the intriguing nature of the interior and the story. It’s great when those align, but also gives you the chance to wear a lot of hot pink, which is lovely.

Chris: Exactly.

Zibby: Are you working on another book? I have to ask.

Chris: Yeah, vaguely. I feel like I kind of just blew through the last three novels in a fabulous way. Then I only get one idea at a time. The universe does not shower me with ideas. I’m still waiting for my lightning-bolt moment. I have a character and a setting and a vague premise and a ghost, but I don’t really have a whole lot more than that. I’m just going to let it marinate. I do keep getting little pop-up ideas, so I know it’s happening under the hood. I just haven’t really started actually writing it yet, but I’m excited.

Zibby: That’s okay. You have a lot on your plate. Book to launch. So exciting. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? Aside from vodka sodas.

Chris: Always. This is something that someone asked me recently. The typical advice is, read. Read broadly. Write. Don’t give up. Something that I as a writer now releasing my fifth novel have really thought a lot about is what it means to me when someone emails a note that tells me specifically how they connected with a book that I’ve written. You know, as all authors do, that there are these inevitable crises of confidence and moments where we wonder if the project that we’re working on is worth it, if it has a place in the world, if what we’re doing is meaningful. Then occasionally, an unexpected email will arrive that validates everything. It’s not to say that external validation is the goal because it’s not. It should be intrinsic. For the most part, it is. My advice to aspiring writers is, write to the authors that you love whose books affect you. Then when you become a published writer and someone sends you a note, write back.

Zibby: That is fantastic advice that I have not heard before and is so important and so true. It makes all the difference. It’s amazing that we have this direct access. When we grew up, it was not like that at all. I remember getting my first email back from Jill Santopolo. I finished her book. I DM’d her. She wrote me right back. I was like, oh, my gosh, this has blown my mind. I’m still crying from her book. It makes a huge difference.

Chris: It’s wonderful to connect to people anyway. Writing can be so solitary for most of us. I think that just those moments of connection are so worthwhile. It doesn’t have to be a long letter, but just, hey, this resonated with me. That is enough. That’s enough.

Zibby: I love that. Excellent advice. Chris, thank you so much. I’m so excited to see you soon.

Chris: I can’t wait to see you too.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, we’re going to have fun. Your book, congratulations, so great, so emotional. I just am so — this sounds hokey to say — proud of you. I’m so happy for you that you were able to get this out on paper and out of your body and into the world to officially move on in a new way.

Chris: Thank you. I will accept that you’re proud of me gratefully because it means a lot. I thank you for your support.

Zibby: Thank you, Chris.

Chris: Talk to you later.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



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