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A parable about motherhood, 'Chouette' begins with a human birth to an owl baby


The new novel "Chouette" is a lots of things at once. It is by turns poetic, gory, heartbreaking and strange. Its author, Claire Oshetsky, calls it a parable about motherhood, and it is an engrossing, surreal portrayal of motherhood. Claire Oshetsky is here to tell us about it.

Claire, welcome to the show.

CLAIRE OSHETSKY: Thank you, Danielle.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, there may be no better way to introduce this book to our listeners than to just have you read the first few paragraphs. Would you do that for us?

OSHETSKY: Sure. (Reading) I dream I'm making tender love with an owl. The next morning, I see talon marks across my chest that trace the path of my owl lover's embrace. Two weeks later, I learn that I'm pregnant. You may wonder - how could such a thing come to pass between woman and owl? I, too, am astounded because my owl lover was a woman.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you for that. Like I said, it is a surreal book. The narrator, a woman called Tiny, gives birth to what she calls an owl baby, and the story proceeds from there. Tell our listeners what happens next. What conflicts arise from this?

OSHETSKY: Sure. I think that Tiny has a pretty good idea that her child is going to be different from the beginning, and she's not sure if she wants to go ahead with the pregnancy, first of all, because she's very aware that it's going to take everything to raise the baby the way it deserves to be raised. And on the other hand, her husband is very excited and doesn't really have an expectation of having any challenges with fatherhood.

The mom, Tiny, does go ahead and have the baby, and it is indeed an owl baby. It behaves in a way that's perfectly fine for an owl but not necessarily the way you want your baby to behave. It likes hunting small animals and eating them and has other anti-social behaviors that are a challenge for both parents.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, of all the animals you could have picked, why owls? As I understand it, chouette does mean owl in French, by the way.

OSHETSKY: Well, you know, I've gotten feedback about how surreal my book is, and I have to accept that, that you can't really...

KURTZLEBEN: Sure (laughter).

OSHETSKY: ...Have a baby with an owl, especially not a female owl. But, you know, I was really trying to capture what it was like to raise my daughter, who was not as easy a child as maybe I would have liked, very nonconforming, and she was like an owl. So to me, it was, like, closer to the truth to call this baby in the story an owl baby, closer to my experience. And I guess I think of owls as very solitary, independent. They don't care if you don't like it when they cough up owl pellets. And they just go on their way of being who they are.

And of course, that kind of behavior would not necessarily go down well in preschool or be something that other people would necessarily understand. And that was my experience with mothering my girl growing up, too; although she never spat up owl pellets. There were other things that were unusual about her behavior and that people didn't know what to expect from her, sometimes.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Well, and you've said that your daughter consulted on this book. How did her input help shape it?

OSHETSKY: Well, my daughter is Patricia Taxxon. And she's currently 21 and is a musician and has made a life of music that's been her lifeline and her passion. And she, first of all, gave me a lot of insight. There's a lot of music into - in the novel, and she was my primary consultant about music. And the other way she helped me was just reminiscing about what it was like for her to live through this shared experience of being a child that was deeply misunderstood and sometimes put in situations that were frightening, even in her school system or with therapists that we went with her to see.

Actually, there's some pretty - direct from my journals and from experience, from our shared memory - scenes in the book just slightly exaggerated. She's reading the book for the first time now. She knows what happens. We talked about it, but she just picked it up yesterday, actually.

KURTZLEBEN: Have you gotten positive feedback from her so far?

OSHETSKY: She told me it's breezy, so that's good, very readable, she said (laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: You know, a central struggle of this book is about whether to teach a child to fit in with everyone else or to just be herself. And that is such a conflict between the mother Tiny and the father. Can you tell our listeners more about how that plays out in the book?

OSHETSKY: I really took these parents to the extreme, where the mom is very much into let the baby be herself, and the dad is, oh, let's fix this child and take her to doctors, make sure that she has a normal life. Their conflict really reflects - usually, if you're parenting a child who's struggling in any way, you're going to have both those feelings, right? They're not going to be exclusively one or the other. But I think the book comes out in favor of the mom's point of view that you need to let your child be herself.

And actually, in my experience, parents have much less control or ability to shape that future than we think. For me, I was like, oh, this is easy. I'm going to have my babies, and I'm going to work full time. They were both born at home in the morning, and I was a freelance journalist when my kids were born. And I was back at work in the afternoon. I was, like, taking my babies on interviews. And I just was like, oh, yeah, power mom. But my kids had a different idea, and they needed a champion at home. And that was a surprise for me.

KURTZLEBEN: I don't want to map this narrator onto you too much, but she does say at one point, I prefer to speak in metaphor. And is it fair to say the same is true of you?

OSHETSKY: Yeah, I thought a lot about metaphor as was writing it, Danielle, because everyone thinks, including me that a metaphor's sort of like a simile. Like, this thing is like that thing. But to me, I started thinking of metaphors. Actually, you're defining something as it is. And to me, saying this child is an owl baby sounded closer to the truth of my experience as a parent than saying my baby was nonconforming or my child was disabled.

It just kind of captured to me the dilemma of having a child that is so completely different and so out of sorts with her environment and trying to cope with helping the child grow up. So I have a different feeling about metaphor now, that it's sort of a way of getting into what's true rather than making it fancier or literary. In fact, I said it twice. I wrote it twice in my original draft.

KURTZLEBEN: The line about preferring to speak in metaphor?

OSHETSKY: I prefer to speak in metaphor, yeah. I think it got edited out because...

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

OSHETSKY: I mean, it's - obviously, you don't need to hear twice, but it's sort of the crux of my artist statement that's sort of buried in the book itself.

KURTZLEBEN: Claire Oshetsky's new novel is titled "Chouette." Thank you so much for talking to us today.

OSHETSKY: Thank you, Danielle. I really enjoyed our conversation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.