C Pam Zhang is an author whose debut novel, How Much of These Hills is Gold, was long-listed for the 2020 Booker Prize and chosen as one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2020. The Ink Factory is currently adapting the book for television. The Beijing-born writer recently moved to Brooklyn from San Francisco with her Corgi, Kitsune, and considers herself a cat person (!). We spoke to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumna about her favorite works of literature about dogs, involving Kitsuné in her writing life, and being an Asian dog mom.
Were you a dog person growing up?
I did not grow up with dogs—I wasn’t allowed to have any pets. Growing up, there was one incident in high school when my friends conspired to get me a pet rat that my mom then made me return. But I’ve always loved dogs and cats from a distance!
I do feel like there was a cultural divide to cross. My parents grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China and they had far less sentimental relationships with pets. I definitely have times when I want to fall into this very American way of fawning over Kitsune and thinking of her as my little fur child. But sometimes, this other part of me kicks in, like, this is ridiculous. We love our pets, but they’re also not people. Have I taken it to the extreme?
“I’m grateful to have somebody in my life that reminds me at my base level that I am a warmblooded creature.”
So, tell us about your journey to getting Kitsune.
She was an accident! My partner and I had a cat back then, and we’d been talking about getting dogs for a while. But I had decided that I was a cat person and I probably am still a cat person.
We were at a friend’s wedding in Florida a couple years ago, and we had this free half-day. We ended up driving past this stretch of road in Florida that was just puppy store after puppy store. We thought it was absurd. But my partner had left his wrist brace at a restaurant, so we had to drive down the road again. The second time, we were like, why don’t we pet some puppies just for kicks? So, we met Kitsune and she was the runt of her litter. I wanted to see this other Corgi but he was literally stepping on her, and then she fell asleep in my arms, and that was it.
How did you end up calling her Kitsune? Obviously that means “fox” in Japanese and she looks like a fox, but…
For me, writing the sound of a word is really important. It has to fit sound-wise and meaning-wise. We looked at her coloring. She’s technically a red-and-white Corgi, but she has this burnt brown color. We tried out French words like Choux and Croquette, but they just didn’t feel right. We tried the Hindi and Tamil words for fox and the Chinese word for fox, and they just didn’t sound right. So, we landed on Kitsune.
How does Kitsune fit into your writing life?
She forces me to leave the house, makes me a better person—if not necessarily a better writer. She is a reminder that there are needs outside of my writing world. When I’m deep in the process, I forget to eat. I forget to go to the bathroom. I won’t change my clothes. She actually needs attention and the reminder of the needs of her body is also a reminder of the needs of my own body. There are definitely times when I resent that, but ultimately I’m grateful to have somebody in my life that reminds me at my base level that I am a warmblooded creature.
When you were writing How Much of These Hills is Gold, did you ever look at dogs in Westerns?
I did, and there are a couple dogs that make side appearances in the book. Because the world of the book is gritty and harsh, the role of dogs in the book is more akin to that unsentimental view that my immigrant family had. Interestingly enough, I hadn’t thought of that, but I think that’s maybe another way that sort of immigrant nature sneaks into that trope of the Western.
Tell us about Kitsune’s personality.
She thinks that the world is filled with love for her. I mean, everyone says their dog is the best, but she has the most engaging personality where she just loves people. Even though she only weighs 16 pounds, she will still tug me across the street to meet people. We sometimes joke that she is like a little white girl, by which I mean that she just has this confidence that the world loves her and will love her back. As someone who grew up always questioning where I belonged in a room, I love that for her. And am sometimes jealous of her.
You’ve had an incredible past few years, from your debut novel to your book tour to your cross-country move. Do you feel like Kitsune grounds you in any way?
She is the simplest and maybe purest thing in my life. In the last year of having gone from my writing being private to public, I’ve had to contend with this sort of change in my life where I have a public image. The public image of me is so focused on the intellectual and technical, and it’s easy to fall into this trap: This is who you are. This is how you define your self worth and your worth to other people as a floating brain. When I spend time with Kitsune, it’s a reminder that you’re worthy of being loved whether or not you have something to say.
Have you written anything about Kitsune yet?
For me, any topic that comes from my personal life takes a few years for me to digest before it emerges on the page. I unfortunately had two cats that passed away in the last couple of years and they’ve only started making it onto the page. I do think that she will eventually somewhere into my work, but it’s going to take awhile.
What are your favorite works of literature involving dogs?
I’m going to give you three that are all across the spectrum. The first one is Nate the Great. It’s a children’s book series about a child detective who solves crimes with his dog. Very formative to me. Next, I’m sure you hear this a lot, but The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. I think it’s a great way of using pet writing that’s unsentimental. I do think there is this danger of being overly sentimental. Finally, there’s this incredible essay by Jo Ann Beard called “The Fourth State of Matter.” I reread this essay every two or three years. It’s this touchstone of humanity and greed and humor. I won’t give it away, but some truly awful things happen in the writer’s life.
How has Kitsune deepened your relationship with your partner?
Getting a dog has definitely unlocked different parts of our personalities. We’ve talked about having children as a possibility in the not-near future. Having her has given me more faith and insight into my partner as a caretaker. And me as a caretaker, too! As a woman artist, you’ve always afraid of domestic chores taking away from your art—that they will diminish that important part of you. Kitsune actually has a lot of health issues and we’ve spent a lot of our new lives in New York ferrying her from one vet to another. It’s a reminder that you can spend energy and time caretaking and on domestic responsibilities and that doesn’t take away from your artistic identity.
Poor girl! Could you tell us about some of Kitsune’s ailments?
Because we picked the runt of the litter, she comes with a lot of problems. She has an autoimmune disease that is in remission right now, but we have to monitor it. She has a shoulder injury. She’s had digestive issues. It’s been our real lesson in learning to deal with the dailies of mortality. We talked a little bit about grieving pets earlier, and I do think that kind of greed cuts deeper because our pets can’t talk back to us, and that leaves the love of a pet, in a way, purer and deeper. I do think that in American culture, we often are afraid to face the reality of death and decline. Facing that kind of reality makes me more open to the lives of my aging relatives, my aging friends, my own age—it’s something we live with and have to have a sense of humor about. We often joke about how we need to get a second dog to bridge the gap.
Does Kitsune have a grooming or wellness routine?
We’re very DIY about baths. Kitsune actually loves baths. She’s incredibly well behaved with me. It’s the cutest and most trusting thing that she’ll let me just pour soapy water straight over her face. When my partner has tried to give her a bath, she freaks out. Once in a while, her butt will get shaggy and my partner will shave her butt using the same razor uses for his beard. We’re very rustic about grooming. We use Buddy Wash Original Lavender & Mint Dog Shampoo & Conditioner and it smells really good.
She is vegetarian. Not by choice! It’s a vet diet for her digestive issues. We try to brush her teeth every day with a chicken-flavored toothpaste though. She’s currently limited in her walks because of her shoulder injury, but we installed a ramp to help her get on the couch and she runs up and down 20 times a day on it.
I have a low-rider dog and she has joint issues too.
I’ve never heard anyone describe them as low-rider before and I love it.
What does a day in the life look like for you and Kitsune?
She sleeps in bed with us. Ever her latest health incident, I think we just wanted to hold her closer. She used to be a difficult bed sleeper because even though she’s very small, she would sleep horizontally. But she’s learned to put her head where our heads go and put her body under the cover. I usually wake up and turn around and she’s right there snoozing. She’s looking at me ’cause she can tell we’re talking about her. My partner is the morning walker, so I’ll stay in bed while he takes her out and feeds her breakfast. By the time I emerge from the bedroom, she’s jumping around like she hasn’t seen me for eight weeks. During the day, while we’re working, one of us will take her into our workspace. She has little day beds all throughout the house. She just chills. She’s a very cat-like dog in that way. She also likes to watch TV with us, and she loves when we have people over for dinner. That’s her favorite thing because she finds a way to physically center herself. She’s usually sitting in someone’s lap in a chair by the end of the meal. I take her for a little nighttime stroll around her neighborhood. When we first moved to New York, she had a lot of trouble adjusting. She was very prissy about where to pee. She declined to pee where 50 other dogs had peed that day. But she’s turned into a city dog and I think she actually likes these nighttime walks because it’s more peaceful.
How do you show Kitsune your love?
Like a true Asian mom, I cut her fruit. On her birthday, we did a picnic in the park with a plate of cut fruit. I especially like feeding her carrots and peaches. She was so happy. We were so happy.
Photography by Tayler Smith