Canids in Orbit: Kurt Caswell Interviewed by Taylor Larsen

The writer discusses what Laika, the first Soviet space dog, can teach us about companionship and loneliness. 

Sputnik Asm

A replica of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite in the world to be put into outer space: the replica is stored in the National Air and Space Museum. Courtesy of NASA.

I first heard Kurt Caswell read when we were both visiting writers at the River Pretty writer’s retreat in Missouri. I was blown away by his reading from Laika’s Window: The Legacy of a Soviet Space Dog (Trinity University Press), a powerful book about the first animal to orbit the earth. Caswell traces Laika’s short life in space, the speculation surrounding her death, the impact of her journey on human exploration, and the political implications of the experiment. Caswell is also the author of Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents, In the Sun’s House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation, and An Inside Passage, which won the 2008 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. Like his other nonfiction projects, Laika’s Window is meticulously researched, and brought to life with beautiful prose and philosophical insights that reveal a deep consideration for how other living things are asked to adapt to the world we humans have created. 

—Taylor Larsen

Taylor LarsenWhat drew you to Laika’s story and how did she become the catalyst for your exploration of loneliness and companionship?

Kurt CaswellI’ve always loved physics, and the science of the cosmos. And I’ve always loved dogs. I grew up with them. I’ve long been interested in canids—coyotes and wolves, especially. I find it a kind of miracle that wolves transformed themselves into dogs to live with humans. Then one of those wolves that transformed itself into a dog was the first animal in orbit. It’s astonishing, really.

So, in Laika, I immediately recognized a story to explore all of these elements together. And of course, Laika’s story is sad too, and anyone with a heart for animals, especially dogs, can’t help but feel for her. As for loneliness and companionship, I didn’t so much view Laika as a catalyst, but rather I discovered how deeply rooted loneliness and companionship are in Laika’s story. Those things were already there waiting for me. I didn’t have to do anything except look inside to find them.

Poet Barbara Ras, my editor at Trinity University Press (who recently retired from editing), introduced me to Laika’s story. She pulled me aside from the work I was doing and suggested I consider writing about Laika. She knew just a couple of details, and when she presented them to me, I could see how the story might come to life. You know you are on the right path as a writer when a story takes hold of you and inhabits a place in your imagination. When Barbara retired, Steffanie Mortis became my editor on the project. It’s essential for a writer and a book to have a good editor, and fortunately Laika had two of the best.
TL I have written two books and each one has transformed me; either I feel the character lives inside me now or a piece of me remains in the work. How has writing this book changed you or your perception of the world?

KC With Laika, I learned more fully how to see through the agency of another’s experience, in this case a dog, but also a number of historical figures that I came to know in writing this book. And so to write about Laika, and all these other animals and people, I had to imagine what it was like to be them.

We live in a time when writers, editors, and publishers, and also the reading public, are sensitive, and even afraid, to write about people from different traditions and cultures. A number of writers have been attacked for inhabiting characters who are rooted in a cultural or ethnic heritage other than their own. But inhabiting what academics like to call “the Other” is what writers do. This is the work of the imagination, and it’s a pathway to human empathy. So, if you are a novelist, for example—which you are, Taylor—you have to be able to inhabit other lives, people from different cultures, genders, ethnic heritages, sexual orientations, the list can go on. Or course, a writer must inhabit these other lives responsibly, with an eye toward the complexity of what it means to be human. But, if we say that a writer can write only from their own subject position, well then, literature is dead. Empathy is behind lock and key. And let’s wave goodbye to the imagination as well. It’s a form of artistic censorship that I think is doing more harm than good.

Laikas Window Front Cover Final 5 18 18

TL This passage from your book moved me: “The dog is an extension of the human animal, like a club is an extension of the hand to empower it. We cast a dog out beyond us to test the boundaries of our sight, to take us where we cannot go alone. We cast a dog out beyond us to scout. Dogs are scouts.” Is this one of the essential points you are making?

KC Yes, these sentences are an essential point in the book, I think. Through them, I no longer saw Laika as a lab animal. I saw her as a service dog, a working dog, a trained cosmonaut. Laika was a victim in some ways, but it’s limiting to stop with that characterization. I really wanted to discover the value in her life.

TL People disagree over whether or not animals should be used in research. What reception do you think your book will get looking at it from an animal rights point of view?

KC The book doesn’t make a case for or against using animals in research, but it does make the case that Laika, and the other space dogs, were not lab animals. They were working dogs. Working dogs do sometimes suffer, and even die, while working—as Laika did—but they are not victims. I think this is an important distinction. However, some animals that flew in space certainly were used purely for research. Fruit flies, for example. Mice. Frogs. Fish. The list is long.

I trust that readers will remain open to Laika’s story and try to understand her life and her death, as opposed to reacting to it. What I found in my research and writing is not the polarizing binary of right vs. wrong, but a nuanced continuum of the way in which human beings are in relationship with other animals. She, and all the other space dogs, are an extension of us, of our desire to know what is beyond the threshold of our world. And of course, we are an extension of dogs, too. We work together and we would each be limited without the other. I find this stunningly beautiful.
TL You did a ton of research for this book, which included a lot of travel. You covered hundreds of years of history, from the invention of the hot air balloon to the International Space Station. Can you share some stories about this process?

KC The most challenging part of the research was that I don’t speak or read Russian, and I had limited understanding of Russian culture. In the mid-1980s and through the 1990s, glasnost resulted in the English translation of many books, papers, and articles from the early days of the Space Race. So, I had that on my side. But I really had to rely on people who knew more and had access to information that I did not. Asif Siddiqi at Fordham University, for example, and Natasha Maximova in Moscow, were so generous with their time.

I knew that I could do a better job telling Laika’s story if I came to better understand what Russia is, so I traveled to Moscow with my old friend, Scott. Natasha made all kinds of arrangements so that I could visit a number of sites important to Russian space exploration. A book like this can’t happen unless a writer finds the right people to help him.

A moment that has stayed with me was seeing the replica of Sputnik II at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, and next to it, the stuffed space dogs, Belka and Strelka. Those two are the most famous space dogs after Laika, and here they were, the real dogs, stuffed and positioned inside glass cases. Seeing something like this with my own eyes is essential to the writing process.

Another story is that Natasha took us on a side-trip to visit some of her friends at their country home in Tula, south of Moscow. We visited Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate, where we stood before his burial mound. Then Russian television interviewed me because it happened to be the anniversary of the estate as a national monument. They asked me what Russians should do on this day, and I proclaimed: “Russians should drink vodka and read Tolstoy aloud to their friends and family.” I’d never been so eloquent in all my life. Then we went mushroom hunting in the forest, drank a bottle of something Natasha called “moonshine,” and after dinner, we stripped down, got into the sauna, and beat each other with wet birch branches.

Before we left for Russia, Scott had said: “I just want to drink some vodka, and challenge Putin to a wrestling match. I mean, is that so much to ask?” He didn’t get to challenge Putin, but I think Tolstoy, mushroom hunting, and the sauna were pretty good substitutes.

TL When I heard you read at River Pretty, you reminded me of the great Barry Lopez. He is one of my top three favorite writers of all time, so this is a high compliment. Little did I know that you are friends with this amazing man. I cannot help but want to know more about this literary friendship—has he been an inspiration to you? What is he like?

KC I grew up in rural Oregon on the river where Barry has lived for many years, though I didn’t know him at the time. When I was in the seventh grade, my dad (who worked for the US Forest Service), heard Barry give a talk, and brought home a copy of River Notes. He said something like: “Here’s a book written by some guy who lives here on the river. You might like it.” Well, it blew my head off. Reading that and then reading Hemingway in high school put me on the path to becoming a writer.
I found my way to Texas Tech University to teach in the Honors College where Barry is a distinguished visiting scholar. His papers are there too, and they anchor the Sowell Family Collection in Literature, Community, and the Natural World, a world-class archive.

I have listened closely to what Barry has long been saying about writers and writing, what he has been saying about Homo sapiens, about animals, about landscape, and about the human social systems that both plague us and elevate us. No one writes like Barry Lopez, and no one can stand in front of an audience and tell a story, or speak about the issues that affect us all, like Barry. But what I’ve tried to do as a writer is to go out into the world and try and understand, and then to write like myself. And yet, I am certainly one of the many writers working today who learned a great deal from him. His way of seeing is rooted deep in my own psychology, which would naturally manifest itself in my writing. It has always been the responsibility of acknowledged masters to give away what they know and what they have learned to younger generations, otherwise, civilization just can’t hold together. Barry has taken that charge to heart. He has been so generous to the students he’s worked with at Texas Tech, and to me and to a lot of other faculty.

A few years back, he and I took a group of students to a wildlife refuge to watch birds. At mid-day, he was sitting with the students while I was setting up lunch or something. He called over: “Hey Kurt. They want to know if you and I are having a Bromance. Are we?” I answered: “Yeah. We certainly are.”

TL This book feels relevant in today’s world, especially given the tensions between the US and Russia. Would you comment on this?

KC One of the stories I am telling in this book is that the scientists and engineers who sent Laika, and other space dogs, into space, were not cold, heartless servants of the Soviet machine. They were women and men who really cared for the dogs they were working with. As a species, we’re so good at drawing lines in the sand and vilifying our perceived enemies. OK, Russian and American interests were in conflict during the Cold War, and so they seem to be again today. But we do this to ourselves, squabble over power and influence, resources and money. It doesn’t have to be this way. Space exploration is one arena that works very hard to center itself on science for the good of all. Yes, politics and money are part of space programs, but since the Apollo-Soyuz test project in 1975, the Russian and American space programs have continued to work together, even as our governments are lobbing insults and sanctions at each other. While our governments can be paranoid, petty, and vindictive, scientists and engineers are empathetic, cooperative, and devoted to the common good. One of the claims I make in the book is that Laika was an ambassador of the cooperative spirit that took root in space exploration. Today, I hold out some hope that the common goal of a crewed mission to Mars might help bring nations and corporations together.

TL What do you hope people come away understanding after reading your book?

KC I hope readers arrive at a more thoughtful consideration of our relationship with other animals, especially dogs. I hope readers are grateful for what dogs give to and do for us. I hope readers consider both the benefits and consequences of science and exploration, especially in space. That they fine-tune, through the agency of empathy, their humanity as they look in through that window at Laika, and she looks out at them. I hope readers consider how lonely Homo sapiens are as a species. It’s impossible to know, but I think chronic loneliness at the species level arrives with the agricultural revolution when we transitioned from living in small, intimate bands where our lives were inseparable from other animals, to living in cities almost exclusively with people who are mostly strangers. While their lives were not easy, I bet our pre-agricultural ancestors felt at home in the world; they knew where they fit. I often wonder if our love for dogs isn’t an unconscious attempt to recover something we have lost. I mean, colonizing Mars is a crazy idea. What are we searching for out there?

And, I do hope readers celebrate Laika as much as they mourn for her. She was the first animal to orbit the Earth, and so I think of her, not Yuri Gagarin, as the first cosmonaut, the first space traveler. I think at the very least we owe Laika our respect for leading us to a place we feared to go.

Taylor Larsen is the author of Stranger, Father, Beloved, and her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, LARB, and other places. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program as well as a former fellow at The Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop.  She currently teaches novel writing at Catapult and fiction writing at Southern New Hampshire University.

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