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5 Questions For Chris Cander

The Young of Other Animals author talks about the parallels between her real life and her art.

In Houston, Texas, author Chris Cander’s latest novel, Mayree and Paula are a mother and daughter drifting apart. After the death of her husband, Mayree faces a future with no income, career or social life. Even ties with her best friend have been severed. Paula, feeling abandoned by the father she loved, is left with only a bitter mother. When Paula reveals that she narrowly escaped a violent assault, Mayree’s initial reaction is dismissal and disbelief. But as details unfold, it’s clear that it was real and not just one random night gone horribly wrong.

The Young of Other Animals is a fictional story, but it’s very much inspired by a traumatic event that happened to Cander 30 years ago. It took her a long time to put the experience down on paper, but, in doing so, she was able to portray women who come out the other side of violence and trauma as the victors, not the victims. We interviewed Cander by email to find out more about the inspiration behind this book, the meaning of the title and whether she’s sticking with suspense or not from now on.

Several dark and twisty rivers run through Chris Cander’s latest engrossing novel―a compelling crime mystery, a deft exploration of flawed mother-daughter relationships, and an intimate view of violent childhood trauma. The Young of Other Animals delivers as a suspense novel and as an homage to the resilience of female relationships.” ―Julia Heaberlin, Black Eyed Susans

Erin Z. Bass: This novel is quite personal for you and was inspired by something that happened to you as a young girl. Can you tell us more about that?

Chris Cander: In 1989, when I was 19 and attending a study abroad program in Spain through the University of Houston, a stranger unsuccessfully attempted to rape and murder me. I’d been at a restaurant with a large group of friends and acquaintances, whining about not being able to call my boyfriend back in Texas. Someone I hadn’t noticed before leaned toward me and said, ‘I know where you can make a phone call.’ The young man who would become my assailant was smiling. I gratefully accepted his offer and followed him outside. Moments later, as he was driving us too fast and too far out of the city, I knew I’d made what would be the worst mistake of my life. When he finally stopped the car, he pressed a knife to my throat. Calm, hissing, he told me how he planned to kill and rape me—in that order. What happened next was a blur fueled by my determination not to die. I kicked, slapped, hit, screamed. Somehow, I got away.

When I was finally ready to write about it more than 30 years later, I gave the awfulness to a girl named Paula. All she and I share is a similar name (my middle name is Paige,) a birthday, a home state and a horrible night in 1989. Her mother, on the other hand, sprang from my imagination fully formed and told me in her Texas accent that her name was Mayree. ‘Not Mary,’ she said. ‘May-REE.’ I heard her salt and sass in that clear, admonishing declaration and it carried me all the way through to the end of the story. Her name is perfect for her; she carries a burden that—if you squint through Scripture—calls to mind the tragedy of the Virgin Mary, but she most definitely is not the kind of mother one would think to pray to.

EZB: The Young of Other Animals is also a mother-daughter story. Some scenes between Mayree and her daughter Paula were hard to read because, as a mother myself, I wanted Mayree to respond differently. What inspired that aspect of the story and was that relationship tough for you to write? 

CC: The spring of 2021, my daughter was 19 and preparing to drive cross-country to come home for the summer. For many years, I’d been able to suppress the emotional aspects of what happened to me, but thinking about how strong and capable, and yet how vulnerable and exposed my precious girl would be during her trip, brought it all to the surface.

I hadn’t told anyone about that night. Not the police, the university, nobody. I didn’t even tell my mother until the novel was about to be released. Because I’d carried that burden alone and for so long, I could identify both with Paula, who was suffering the immediate aftermath of a brutal attack, and Mayree, who’d carried her own secret for so long. It was almost like I was parenting my younger self by writing from both points of view. [SPOILER ALERT] It wasn’t until I finished the novel that I discovered a strange parallel between my life and my art. I started writing The Young of Other Animals 31 years and 10 months after my assault. And in the story, Paula’s attack was 31 years and 10 months after Mayree’s. I swear it was totally unintentional—but my subconscious would likely disagree.

EZB: Family secrets are, of course, a requirement in a Southern novel. Have you experienced secrets in your own family that either destroyed or united relationships? 

CC: I could tell you, but then I’d have to put you in a novel and kill you.

EZB: Can you explain what the title means and how you chose it? 

CC: I came across the phrase ‘The young of other animals’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, volume II as the obsolete definition of ‘bird.’ It quoted John de Trevisa’s translation of Bartholomew de Glanville’s De Proprietatibus Rerum (c. 1495): ‘All fysshe…fede and kepe theyr byrdes.’ That speakers of Middle English would refer to fish offspring as birds was interesting, but more compelling to me was the phrase itself, without the context provided by the quotation. It demanded to be lifted out and examined. I felt a shimmer of electricity at how those five simple words so forcefully conveyed a sense of danger or vulnerability: in the natural world, the young within a species are generally protected and provided for, while the young of other animals are likely prey. 
Then, I thought about the myriad relationships that could form between the implied elder of one kind of animal and the young of another. It could be predatory, certainly, but could also be symbiotic or protective or possessive. What kind of challenges might force an unexpected dynamic between unrelated animals? What makes certain animals—including humans—choose protection over predation, and how does that decision impact those involved? Those are precisely the concerns at the heart of this novel, and the dynamic plays out in both expected and unexpected ways throughout.

EZB: Your last novel A Gracious Neighbor is also a mystery and has some great suspenseful scenes. Do you feel like you’re leaning more toward domestic suspense in your writing or do you have something different planned for your next project? 

CC: I didn’t intend for these last two books to lean so hard into suspense. In fact, I don’t ever intend to write anything specific; I wait until the universe delivers my next idea. I have a vague idea about my next project, but I haven’t fully committed to it. I’ll just say this: I continue to be fascinated by strong, interesting, flawed women. I want to know their secrets and desires and aches. I like writing them through violence and trauma and love, especially when they emerge victorious. It’s a chance to tilt the axis in our favor, if just on paper, even as we still gift young women with rape whistles and pepper sprays before sending them out into the real world.

The Young of Other Animals is one of our 12 Book Picks for Spring 2024.

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