Notes on “You Would Set Your Jaws upon My Throat”

I will never come up with a better title for a story than “You Would Set Your Jaws upon My Throat.” Not just because it’s a bold, attention-grabbing title, but because it also helped me unlock the way this story needed to be told. Let me explain.

I’ve always been a bit of a space geek, and at some point, I stumbled upon an article about Laika, the first living creature to orbit the earth, and how the Soviet government had hidden some of the tragic details about her flight. As interested as I was in the space race, it was actually the idea of a cold, clinical scientist and the bond that must have formed with his subject that captured my imagination. The Wikipedia article about Laika states, “After placing Laika in the container and before closing the hatch, we kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight.” I wrote a scene based on this line that ultimately did not make the final draft, but one that did (and became the crux of the story) referred to a scientist who took Laika home to play with his children shortly before her flight. That conflict of this story was the one between scientific progress and humanity.

I’d long wanted to try to write a story in the objective third-person. It’s a voice that allows no insight into the internal machinations of any of the characters. In my initial draft, I thought it would be an interesting experiment in narrative voice to address emotional subject matter via two characters whose thought process would be either unknowable (the dog) or closed off (the scientist). So I wrote the entire first draft relying only on dialogue and actions to carry the sentiment of the story. This is an exercise I love recommending to my students, because it forces you to externalize your story. Too often a look or a small gesture only serves to reinforce an expressed thought, but when action and dialogue have to do all the heavy lifting, it tends to be more significant. That was certainly the case in my first pass at this story. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work. The framework of the story was ok, but the weight of it just didn’t land.

In the next draft, I tried another experiment, again around narrative distance. This time, the POV started with an entirely objective third person, but gradually shifted to a more internalized voice until the reader was privy to the scientist’s direct thoughts by the end. The idea was to mirror the bonding between Oleg and Laika—as they grew closer and began to understand each other, so too did the reader begin to develop an intimacy with the scientist through his thoughts. This worked better, but still felt too often like I was holding something back, and the story suffered for it.

At the time, the working title was going back and forth between “Laika” and “Rocket Dog,” neither of which I particularly cared for. As I often do when I’m looking for titles, I searched the story for a line that might jump out at me, and Oleg’s bit of dialogue to Laika near the end certainly fit the bill. However, since it was a spoken line, it dictated a first person POV (“She Would Set Her Jaws upon His Throat” just doesn’t have the same impact). That’s when I realized, though, that the emotional arc of this story centered on the push and pull between Oleg’s sense of scientific duty and his sense of humanity. One more swing at it, this time in first person, and I felt like I had finally gotten it right.

Those first two drafts were hardly wasted effort. There’s a quote by Daniel Handler I love: “What is hardest to cut are the parts I’ve worked hardest on, but I try to be merciless, because let’s face it: no reader cares how hard you’ve worked.” While that perhaps calls into question the utility of this blog post, I prefer to interpret it as another way of saying “the ends justify the means.” Those first two versions helped me discover the third. Without those failed efforts, there would have been no success.

Needless to say, I’m thrilled to see this story land in a venerable literary institution like the Southern Review. Many thanks to Sacha Idell and the rest of the editorial staff there for their generous treatment of this story. It also won 2nd place in the Zoetrope: All-Story 2019 Short Fiction Contest last year, so a tip of the cap to editor Michael Ray and guest judge Tommy Orange for selecting it. And thanks to Jason and Shannon for reading late drafts of this story and offering their valuable insights when I could no longer muster my own objectivity towards it. I’m grateful that this story has made it out into the world. I hope you get a chance to read it for yourself by ordering the Autumn 2020 issue of The Southern Review.

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