Last October, Whitingham resident Kirsten Bakis got the sort of phone call most writers dream of. A representative of the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation informed her that she had been selected to receive the Whiting Writers' Award, a $35,000 grant awarded yearly to 10 "marvelously gifted writers in early career," in the words of Program Director Barbara Bristol.
"I was completely shocked," says Bakis, "because you don't know that you're being nominated. It's all very secret. It was really exciting."
Unlike some Whiting recipients, Bakis isn't an unknown or unpublished writer. Her first novel, Lives of the Monster Dogs, appeared in 1997 to considerable acclaim. Translated into eight languages, the book received the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel and a nomination for the U.K.'s Orange Prize.
Although Bakis wrote it in her twenties, Lives of the Monster Dogs bears no resemblance to the standard autobiographical first novel. It has a plot that reminds some readers of Mary Shelley, others of Kafka. In the first few chapters, Manhattan is invaded by a race of genetically engineered, super-intelligent dogs who stand 6 feet tall on their hind legs, speak through voice boxes, and favor Prussian military dress. They are the brainchildren of Augustus Rank, a 19th-century mad scientist who discovered early in life that vivisection lifted him to a higher plane of consciousness. Believing that dogs have a greater capacity for loyalty than do human beings, Rank decided it was his destiny to create an invincible canine army.
It sounds like the set-up for a horror movie, with echoes of the Nazis' eugenic experiments. But the monster dogs turn out to be more monstrous in conception than in action. Indeed, as they tell their history to Cleo Pira, the lonely New York University student who narrates the bulk of the novel, they come to seem profoundly human.
As I talk to Bakis on the phone, a chorus of deep woofs sounds appropriately in the background. "I have two mutts from Brooklyn and a rescued Greyhound we got after we moved up here," Bakis explains. Although she can't pinpoint any one inspiration for her novel, she remembers, "At the time I started writing, I was in college, and I had gotten a job walking somebody's Rottweiler. That led to other people asking if I would walk their dogs. I was thinking about dogs. There's something very moving to me about their relationship with humans. They have to be in the secondary, the subordinate position. They're completely at the mercy of people… can't live without them. Even normal dogs must have some sort of longing to belong to this species that their lives center around."
"It is a terrible thing to be a dog and know it," says a German shepherd named Ludwig in the novel. Bakis acknowledges that the well-spoken, limousine-riding, silk bustle-wearing creatures in her book are "not exactly dogs." She points out that a book would probably have to be "written in smells" to convey a dog's perspective. Still, like Kafka's cockroach, the monster dogs force us to reflect on the permeable boundary between animals and human beings.
Lives of the Monster Dogs is a book that provokes strong reactions -- the more than 100 Amazon.com reviews veer bizarrely between glowing and damning comments, sometimes pausing for a more balanced assessment. Some readers say the novel has changed their lives; others clearly came to it expecting something different. Because of the story's surreal elements, many readers assume it is an allegory. Scanning the Web, one finds a host of amateur critics interpreting Monster Dogs as a parable of almost every modern concern, from the dangers of science to fascism to AIDS to the transition from traditional to postmodern thought.
"I do understand why people see allegory and satire in the book," says Bakis. "Yet there's something about those categories that I'm fundamentally opposed to. When you write allegory, you seem to be writing one story, but you really are writing about something else. That's not what I set out to do. The book is full of resonances. But I really approached it with a genuine love for those characters and that story that I told. It wasn't a mask for telling another story."
Bakis also isn't entirely happy with classifications of the book as science fiction or fantasy. "I think [literary fiction and genres] can overlap," she says, "but I didn't set out specifically to write science fiction. The science [in Monster Dogs] is handled like the science in Frankenstein or H.G. Wells" -- that is, it's not explained -- "and by modern science-fiction standards, you would never do that." Still, she says, "it's so freeing when you don't have to stick to reality."
The fantastical set-up of Monster Dogs also gave Bakis a new angle on an old literary theme: remembrance of things past. Although the monster dogs are recent creations, their human masters raised them in a figurative time warp, a remote settlement that recreated Prussia in 1882. To gain their independence, the dogs had to destroy this world. But now, like many a human revolutionary, they wonder what they've lost in the process. Ludwig, the dog historian, sifts through old documents "for the history of my race, hoping to organize the information before it disintegrates into a chaos of dust."
"I don't know why," Bakis says, "but the idea that time passes is something that I find really sad and just fascinating. I want to understand what that means, that something was and isn't anymore. Or, in what sense does something still exist when it's remembered?"
Bakis' own life changed when Lives of the Monster Dogs was published. "I think in some ways I still haven't totally adjusted," she says, "because [the novel's success] was really a big surprise. It throws you off balance, because one day you're one kind of person -- I was a secretary when the book came out -- and the next day you're another, in the world's eyes. But in your own you're still the same."
Another change was the move to southern Vermont from New York City, where Bakis lived for 15 years and attended NYU. Though she loves New York and "wouldn't give up my years there for millions of dollars," Bakis, now 37, is happy to live at a more rural pace. "When you're young, it's not so hard to be living in a tiny apartment and worrying about the rent," she explains. "But when you're older, it's nice to have a separate room in your house for your writing, go to the grocery store in your car, have a yard to let your dogs out for their first pee. Life is easier."
Bakis and her husband, who are expecting a baby in April, will use the Whiting money "basically to live on" while she works on her new novel, she says. Declining to give any specifics, she describes the new book as "not something that exists yet in the real world. It only exists on my computer."