Ted—a gay, single, struggling writer is stuck: unable to open himself up to intimacy except through the steadfast companionship of Lily, his elderly dachshund. When Lily’s health is compromised, Ted vows to save her by any means necessary. By turns hilarious and poignant, an adventure with spins into magic realism and beautifully evoked truths of loss and longing, Lily and the Octopus reminds us how it feels to love fiercely, how difficult it can be to let go, and how the fight for those we love is the greatest fight of all.
Introducing a dazzling and completely original new voice in fiction and an unforgettable hound that will break your heart—and put it back together again. Remember the last book you told someone they had to read? Lily and the Octopus is the next one. “Startlingly imaginative...this love story is sure to assert its place in the canine lit pack...Be prepared for outright laughs and searing or silly moments of canine and human recognition. And grab a tissue: “THERE! WILL! BE! EYE! RAIN!” (New York Newsday).
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster Audio|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 5.70(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Lily and the Octopus
It’s Thursday the first time I see it. I know that it’s Thursday because Thursday nights are the nights my dog, Lily, and I set aside to talk about boys we think are cute. She’s twelve in actual years, which is eighty-four in dog years. I’m forty-two, which is two hundred and ninety-four in dog years—but like a really young two hundred and ninety-four, because I’m in pretty good shape and a lot of people tell me I could pass for two hundred and thirty-eight, which is actually thirty-four. I say this about our ages because we’re both a little immature and tend to like younger guys. We get into long debates over the Ryans. I’m a Gosling man, whereas she’s a Reynolds gal, even though she can’t name a single movie of his that she would ever watch twice. (We dropped Phillipe years ago over a disagreement as to how to pronounce his name. FILL-a-pea? Fill-AH-pay? Also because he doesn’t work that much anymore.) Then there’s the Matts and the Toms. We go back and forth between Bomer and Damon and Brady and Hardy depending on what kind of week it has been. And finally the Bradleys, Cooper and Milton, the latter of whom is technically way older and long dead and I’m not sure why my dog keeps bringing him up other than she loves board games, which we usually play on Fridays.
Anyhow, this particular Thursday we are discussing the Chrises: Hemsworth and Evans and Pine. It’s when Lily suggests offhandedly we also include Chris Pratt that I notice the octopus. It’s not often you see an octopus up close, let alone in your living room, let alone perched on your dog’s head like a birthday party hat, so I’m immediately taken aback. I have a good view of it, as Lily and I are sitting on opposite sides of the couch, each with a pillow, me sitting Indian style, her perched more like the MGM lion.
“We don’t have to include Chris Pratt, it was just a suggestion,” she says.
“No—what’s that on your head?” I ask. Two of the octopus’s arms hang down her face like chin straps.
“What do you mean, where? There. Over your temple on the right side.”
Lily pauses. She looks at me for a moment, our eyes locked on each other. She breaks my gaze only to glance upward at the octopus. “Oh. That.”
I immediately lean in and grab her snout, the way I used to when she was a pup and would bark too much, so excited by the very existence of each new thing encountered that she had to sing her enthusiasm with sharp, staccato notes: LOOK! AT! THIS! IT! IS! THE! MOST! AMAZING! THING! I’VE! EVER! SEEN! IT’S! A! GREAT! TIME! TO! BE! ALIVE! Once, when we first lived together, in the time it took me to shower she managed to relocate all of my size-thirteen shoes to the top of the staircase three rooms away. When I asked her why, her reply was pure conviction: THESE! THINGS! YOU! PUT! ON! FEET! SHOULD! BE! CLOSER! TO! THE! STAIRS! So full of ebullience and ideas.
I pull her closer to me and turn her head to the side so I can get a good, long look. She gives me the most side-eye she can muster in annoyance, disgusted with both the molestation and unwanted attention, and my gaucheness as a big, stupid human man.
The octopus has a good grip and clings tightly over her eye. It takes me a minute, but I gather my nerve and poke it. It’s harder than I would have imagined. Less like a water balloon, more like . . . bone. It feels subcutaneous, yet there it is, out in the open for all to see. I count its arms, turning Lily’s head around to the back, and sure enough, there are eight. The octopus looks angry as much as out of place. Aggressive perhaps is a better word. Like it is announcing itself and would like the room. I’m not going to lie. It’s as frightening as it is confounding. I saw a video somewhere, sometime, of an octopus that camouflaged itself so perfectly along the ocean floor that it was completely undetectable until some unfortunate whelk or crab or snail came along and it emerged, striking with deadly precision. I remember going back and watching the video again and again, trying to locate the octopus in hiding. After countless viewings I could acknowledge its presence, sense its energy, its lurking, its intent to pounce, even if I couldn’t entirely make it out in form. Once you had seen it, you couldn’t really unsee it—even as you remained impressed with its ability to hide so perfectly in plain sight.
This is like that.
Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t unsee it, and the octopus transforms Lily’s entire face. A face that has always been so handsome to me, a noble and classic dog profile, betrayed only slightly by a dachshund’s ridiculous body. Still, that face! Perfect in its symmetry. When you pulled her ears back it was like a small bowling pin covered in the softest mahogany fur. But now she looks less like a bowling pin in shape and more like a worn-down bowling pin in occupation; her head sports a lump as if it had actually been the number-one pin in a ten-pin formation.
Lily snorts at me twice with flared nostrils and I realize I’m still holding her snout. I let go of her, knowing she is seething at the indignity of it all.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she says, tucking her head to gnaw at an itch on her stomach.
“Well, I do want to talk about it.”
Mostly I want to talk about how it could be possible that I’ve never seen it before. How I could be responsible for every aspect of her daily life and well-being—food, water, exercise, toys, chews, inside, outside, medication, elimination, entertainment, snuggling, affection, love—and not notice that one side of her head sports an octopus, alarmingly increasing it in size. The octopus is a master of disguise, I remind myself; its intent is to stay hidden. But even as I say this silently in my head I wonder why I’m letting myself so easily off the hook.
“Does it hurt?”
There’s a sigh. An exhale. When Lily was younger, in her sleep she would make a similar noise, usually right before her legs would start racing, the preamble to a beautiful dream about chasing squirrels or birds or pounding the warm sand on an endless golden beach. I don’t know why, but I think of Ethan Hawke answering the standard questionnaire inspired by Bernard Pivot that ended every episode of Inside the Actors Studio:
“What sound or noise do you love?”
Puppies sighing, Ethan had said.
Yes! Such a wonderful juxtaposition, sighing puppies. As if warm, sleeping puppies felt anything lamentable or had weariness or exasperations to sigh over. And yet they sighed all the time! Exhalations of sweet, innocent breath. But this sigh is different. Subtly. To the untrained ear it might not be noticeable, but I know Lily about as well as I think it’s possible to know another living thing, so I notice it. There’s a heaviness to it. A creakiness. There are cares in her world; there is weight on her shoulders.
I ask her again. “Does it hurt?”
Her answer comes slowly, after great pause and consideration. “Sometimes.”
The very best thing about dogs is how they just know when you need them most, and they’ll drop everything that they’re doing to sit with you awhile. I don’t need to press Lily further. I can do what she has done for me countless times, through heartbreak and illness and depression and days of general uneasiness and malaise. I can sit with her quietly, our bodies touching just enough to generate warmth, to share the vibrating energy of all living things, until our breathing slows and falls into the parallel rhythm it always does when we have our quietest sits.
I pinch the skin on the back of her neck as I imagine her mother once did to carry her when she was a pup.
“There’s a wind coming,” I tell her. Staring down the octopus as much as I dare, I fear there’s more truth to that statement than I’d like. Mostly I am setting Lily up to deliver her favorite line from Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Neither of us has actually seen the film, but they played this exchange endlessly in the commercials back when it was in theaters and we both would collapse in fits of laughter at the sound of Cate Blanchett bellowing and carrying on as the Virgin Queen. My dog does the best Cate Blanchett impression.
Lily perks up just a bit and delivers her response on cue: “I, too, can command the wind, sir! I have a hurricane in me that will strip Spain bare if you dare to try me! Let them come with the armies of hell; they will not pass!”
It’s a good effort, one she makes for me. But if I’m being honest, it isn’t her best. Instinctually she probably already knows what is fast becoming clear to me: she is the whelk; she is the crab; she is the snail.
The octopus is hungry.
And it is going to have her.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Lily and the Octopus includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Steven Rowley. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Ted agonizes over the fact that Lily’s octopus has gone unnoticed by both of them for so long. Discuss how he internalizes his grief, transforming it into guilt. How would you react in his shoes?
2. The book is divided into eight sections, each with an octopus-related theme. What other octopus imagery and symbolism did you find in the book?
3. Ted hates “living in the not knowing” (p. 31). How does this aversion to uncertainty affect his personal relationships? Do you think this attitude changes over the course of the novel?
4. There is a level of trust shared between Ted and Lily that does not seem to extend to the humans in his life. Discuss how trust requires a kind of courage that humans find difficult to muster. Is it possible to replicate the unconditional love of a dog? Why or why not?
5. Ted notes that Lily has been the closest witness to his life. Discuss why this is clarifying for him. How can new perspectives become powerful?
6. Throughout the novel, we learn that omens can be just as bad as they are good. What happens when Ted goes looking for more omens? Where do they lead him?
7. What role does forgiveness play in this novel? Who does Ted ultimately make peace with, and at what point?
8. Lily admits that she has not held onto a single bad memory. In fact, she does not have many memories at all. Still, she adores Ted’s stories. Discuss how memories can become their own forms of storytelling. What does Ted learn from distilling their shared history?
9. The vet has warned Ted that as she gets older, Lily may start to encounter Enclosed World Syndrome. How is this syndrome mirrored in Ted’s own life? Do you recognize the phenomenon?
10. Ted catches a glimpse of himself in the glass door by the pool and recognizes the octopus. Discuss the meaning of this scene. Why do you think this conflation of identity occurs in his mind’s eye?
11. The tattoo artist, Kal, claims to enjoy the permanence of his work. Ted is skeptical that permanence even exists. Did you see anything in the novel that you felt to be permanent? If so, what was it?
12. One idea that Ted is partial to is karma. Karma implies a sense of causality and order to the universe. Do you think that his opinion evolves as Lily gets sicker?
13. Discuss the scene in which Ted finally acknowledges that the octopus is, in fact, a tumor. What has changed? Did he kill the octopus? What is the significance of this semantic twist?
14. Lily loves her red ball. Ted even goes so far as to suggest that hers is not a life without it. Discuss the symbolism of the ball, especially in Ted’s dream when he loses Lily in a storm of them.
15. What does Ted see in Byron? Do you see a happy future for the two of them?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Ted takes solace in the J. M. Barrie quote “To die would be an awfully big adventure,” and the book calls upon Rudyard Kipling for its two epigraphs. Did you read Peter Pan or The Jungle Book? Discuss your memorable childhood reading experiences and whether you would go so far as to tattoo a favorite line on your body.
2. W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” is a beautiful poem of all-encompassing grief. Pull up a copy and read it aloud together. Compare and contrast the lines that resonate with each of you, sharing any memories that they evoke along the way.
3. In honor of Lily and Ted’s last great adventure, take a group trip to the local aquarium or science center to consider the octopus or any of its underwater friends in their natural habitat. (Take care to remember that they are not all evil!)
4. Everyone needs a good pep talk once in a while. Treat yourselves to an episode of Friday Night Lights and soak in Coach Taylor’s inspiring words.
A Conversation with Steven Rowley
Lily and the Octopus came about when you began jotting down memories of your own dear dachshund. Was this writing experience cathartic for you? Did it surprise you in any way?
It was indeed cathartic. Six months after my dog died of cancer, I wrote what became the first chapter of Lily and the Octopus as a short story to help process my grief. I didn’t expect it to go anywhere; I was just doing what writers often do—putting feelings down on paper to get them out of my heart and my head. I shared the story with my boyfriend, who encouraged me to keep writing. Still, I felt the story was so deeply personal (and disconcertingly weird) that I wasn’t sure it would connect with anyone who didn’t know me or didn’t know my dog. What has been surprising (and deeply humbling) is the way the book has resonated with so many readers—dog lovers and non-dog lovers alike. I tried to write Lily’s story with unflinching emotional honesty, and the connection that people seem to feel, despite the magical realism, is a testament to the power of the truth.
You have also worked as a screenwriter. What do you think are the main differences between the two mediums? Do you have a preference?
When I decided to write Lily and the Octopus as a novel, I removed my screenwriter’s cap and threw myself into the medium entirely, and it was incredibly freeing. Not once did I have to think about something being too expensive to build, too hard to cast, or too impossible to film. My only limits were those imposed by my own imagination. Talking dog as a main character? Sure. Octopus stuck to dog’s head? Why not! Expansive battle at sea? Yes, please. I’ve always enjoyed writing dialogue, which lends itself to screenwriting. In the course of writing this book, I became really taken with crafting prose and the pace and depth at which you can really explore what’s going on inside a character’s head. Screenwriters have to externalize the internal, show what’s going on through action and dialogue, and that can be difficult.
As a screenwriter, you’re part of a team—one of many people who bring a story to life. Novelist is a much more solitary occupation. Collaboration can be fruitful, but it is often not the writer’s vision that makes it to the screen. Likewise, a novel doesn’t make it to the shelves without a real team of people who believe in the story, but for me it has been so rewarding to create something that itself was the final work and have my vision honored.
If Lily and the Octopus were adapted for film, who would be your ideal cast?
There are particular actors I imagine in the role of Ted, actors who have an inherent sadness to them and can convey a lot by doing very little. A certain stillness is important. Ewan McGregor and Jake Gyllenhaal are two actors who I think are wildly underappreciated. Paul Rudd, I think, has untapped dramatic range. Jude Law. I keep naming incredibly handsome actors. Hmm. The voice of the octopus as I was writing was always Eddie Izzard’s—and I mean that as the highest compliment. I am a huge fan and cannot imagine a more polished, brilliant, or formidable foe. I don’t picture a film version where Lily actually speaks, as so many of her conversations with Ted are imagined. But I can’t imagine a happier process than sitting with a casting director in a room full of dachshunds of all ages.
The narrative puts a lot of weight on naming and nicknames. Lily has an abundance of them, while Ted is mainly relegated to “that guy.” There is also a poignant moment in which Ted and Jeffrey become only that to each other. Discuss the power of naming as it plays out in both the novel and real life.
One of my favorite moments in the book comes when Trent calls Ted Theodore, even though his full name is Edward. I think that one shorthand sums up their relationship perfectly and tells you everything you need to know about their friendship. Naming characters is hard for me, because I do indeed believe that names carry a lot of weight. Sometimes a name has the proper rhythm or length and it simply sounds right. I have three siblings whereas Ted has only one, so the three-syllable name given to Ted’s sister, Meredith, allowed me to honor them. Lily in real life stemmed from Little Weiner Dog, and Lily became its own term of endearment. I do think it feels formal and stilted when people who are very close call each other by name, particularly those in romantic relationships. Ted was the last to be named. For the longest time he was simply “The Narrator,” but people too often conflated him with me. I wanted him to have his own identity, and there is a huggable quality about the teddy bear that I hoped the reader would also feel for Ted. The last name I ripped straight from Melville. Flask was the third mate aboard the Pequod in Moby-Dick and was a man who seemed to regard the whale’s very existence as a personal affront.
Ted considers Lily to be his best friend, but he also has a very strong human support system—Trent, Meredith, his mother. Where did you get the inspiration for these characters? Do you think that Ted appreciates them in the same way that he appreciates Lily?
I wanted Ted to be as isolated from people as possible in order to enhance and spotlight the special relationship he has with Lily; he has one parent, one sibling, one friend. They are an excellent support system in that they will always be there for him, even if at times his first instinct is to keep them at arm’s length or to push them away. And I do think he appreciates the people in his life, but not in the same way as he does Lily—simply because she is there. Dogs don’t let you keep them at a distance. They will doggedly push their way into your life, like it or not. It’s also hard to craft a separate persona to present to a dog, the way humans often present somewhat different or edited personas to the various people in their lives. Dogs generally see the whole you and love unconditionally. I think there’s a part of Ted that thinks the love he has from people is somehow conditional, and that prevents him from fully letting go.
The book takes place in Ted’s early forties, a stereotypical time for midlife crises. Indeed, Ted muses that “this is the halftime of my life, and my team is losing.” Tell us how you would approach a “halftime” in your own life. What helps you get perspective after a fumble or two?
I thought it was important for Ted to be well-worn, a little weathered with a heartbreak or two under his belt, but too young to be pinned against the ropes or to tap out and not fight again. To me, that’s your early forties. Or maybe it’s as simple as I was in my early forties when I wrote the first draft of the book. In either case, turning forty is a bellwether moment for many people. My forties have been the first time I have fully felt like the person I was meant to be. It’s with that confidence and sense of self that I pick myself up after fumbles now. It’s so much easier to get back up and stand tall when you really know who you are.
The ocean—both the LA coast and the open sea—figures heavily throughout the novel. It is almost a character in its own right. Do you have a personal connection to the water? And—as a Maine native and California transplant—do you prefer the Atlantic or the Pacific?
The ocean has played a huge role in my life. I grew up in Portland, Maine, and have lived most of my adult life in Los Angeles. I’ve never lived far from the ocean, and I think I would panic if I had to. The word landlocked sends shivers down my spine. I’ve contemplated my life’s big decisions—moving across the country, coming out, ending relationships—while sitting on a beach or looking over a cliff staring at the sea. That said, I think everyone who loves the ocean also has a healthy fear of the ocean, or at least a respect for its sheer size, deep mysteries, intelligent life, and awesome power. The octopus is an octopus in part because I wanted the novel’s antagonist to come from the ocean. To be both of this world and not.
For everything but swimming—for its seafood, for its rocky shoreline, for its moody vistas—I prefer the Atlantic Ocean. There’s nothing like your first love.
You are clearly an avid Kipling fan. Who are your favorite literary beasts in (and out of) the canon? What do you think made them so memorable?
I love Kipling’s The Jungle Book, although I forget when I was introduced to his work. It may have been as a Cub Scout. I know that growing up I had a short story version of “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.” The Kipling quotes from “The Law of the Jungle” that serve as the book’s two epigraphs were quotes that I jotted down early in the writing process and referred back to throughout. I love thinking of Ted and Lily as a pack, and there’s something comforting about laws, even violent ones, providing structure in the vast jungle that is life; laws that are defined and understood from the outset. Death is a part of life. The earlier one understands this, the more fully one can live. Opening the book with a quote from The Jungle Book helps underscore the fable elements of Lily and the Octopus. I also am a huge fan of blurring lines between prose and poetry, building a rhythm and cadence through word choice, sentence length, repetition, and other literary devices that Kipling excels at.
Other writers who have inspired me include John Steinbeck, Michael Chabon, Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen, Richard Russo, Joan Didion, and Francesca Lia Block, whose book Weetzie Bat (another prose poem) was handed to me at a critical moment in my life.
Other than the uncanny physical similarities, why choose an octopus? What kind of research did you do on the species, and what is your favorite piece of trivia?
I chose an octopus because they are smart, wily, and slimy. They can learn, adapt, and even (according to numerous scientists) play. I needed a foe that would needle Ted, toy with him, study his weaknesses, and adjust, just as cancer mutates in the body. It helped the story that they are in many ways the physical opposite of dogs, especially dachshunds. A hairless invertebrate that lives in the sea is nothing like a furry dog that is all spine and lives on the land. I did an incredible amount of research on octopuses, and gave each of the book’s eight sections an octopus theme. There are so many fascinating facts about them it’s hard to pick a favorite; in writing the book it was hard to shake their having three hearts. Once I learned that piece of trivia, I knew the entire book would be driving toward that end.
While the octopus as villain fit the needs of this story, I want to be clear that they are magnificent creatures and are in no way inherently evil. I am quite in awe of them, really!
Do you think Ted and Byron will adopt another dog? Will it be a dachshund?
I do think that Ted and Byron will adopt a dog, but I don’t think it will be a dachshund. I think Lily is irreplaceable to Ted, and just as Byron is very different from Jeffrey, a new dog will be different from Lily. No judgment here toward others who feel differently, but limiting oneself to one breed always struck me as odd. As does the idea of there being another dachshund named Lily 2. I imagine that Ted and Jeffrey would adopt a dog from an area shelter—just as I would encourage readers of Lily and the Octopus in the market for a dog to do.