An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Robyn Ryle

By Midge Raymond,

Learn more about Among Animals 2 contributor Robyn Ryle and her story, “How to Identify Birds in the Wild” in this Q&A … 

Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: Every year, a group of graduate students working with the Smithsonian arrives in my tiny town in southern Indiana to count the birds at Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge. Big Oaks is a “globally important bird area” because of its population of the state-endangered Henslow’s sparrow and other migratory birds. My neighbor rents her house out to the students, and it’s right across the street. Because I don’t teach in the summer, I’m home pretty much all day. I hear them get up early in the morning to start their count. I see them come home in the late afternoon. I wondered what that was like, spending your summer sharing a house in a small town and counting birds. That’s where the story started.


Q: What was your writing/research process?

A: I already had an early draft of the story when I took a master naturalist class at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge. The very first class was on bird-watching, so I had a lot of diagrams and terminology for identifying birds which found their way into the story. The line about birds always being smaller than you think comes from that class, too. As far as the writing process, this story was originally called “Bird People.” And then “People of the Bird.” In neither incarnation was it a particularly good story. Then over the summer, I read a blog post by Kathy Fish about segmented structure in flash fiction. “I’ll give that a try,” I thought. I really liked the way Leesa Cross-Smith used segmentation in her story, “What the Fireworks Are For.” There’s something very liberating about segmenting a story. Cutting it up into bits. There’s a kind of freedom there. The words need to say more and less. When I segmented this story, the images sharpened. The pieces of the narrative were already there. The scenes were laid out. Segmenting somehow allowed me to both fill them in and empty them out. It became a very different story.

Q: What are some of the parallels you see between the birders and the birds?

A: Both the birders and the birds are migratory. The graduate students settle down in Madison for the summer, and then by fall they’re gone. They’ve been doing it pretty much ever since I’ve lived in this house, so it’s become a way of marking the seasons for us — “It must be summer because the bird people are here.” I like that idea, that there’s a seamlessness to the way you use nature and the activities of people to mark time in a specific place. I think there’s also a parallel in not really being sure why you’re doing what you’re doing. I won’t say the birders are acting instinctively, but I’m not sure they have any more sense of their own motivations than the birds do.

Q: Which writers inspire you the most?

A: Wendell Berry for his exquisite sense of the conjunction between people, places and the natural world. Elizabeth Strout, who can do things with her writing that are just beyond magical. Kathy Fish, for her mastery of the short form. Leesa Cross-Smith with the amazing physicality and detail of her writing.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?

A: Some memory of what it’s like to be young and in love with the wrong person. The way that being in love can so erode your sense of who you are and sometimes it takes years to sift back through the pieces. You never return to the person you were before, and that’s okay. If you look at something long enough, even a failed relationship, you can see what’s beautiful there. You can take that with you.

Q: Who’s the woman in the tight T-shirt with flabby arms?

A: That’s me, watching Rose and Manuel from across the street. That’s an older version of me reaching out to the younger version, but they can’t much communicate with each other. Rose has only the vaguest sense that there might be something good happening inside that house across the street with the red couch and the TV on. She can’t see past the exquisite pain of what she feels for Manuel.


An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Nels Hanson

By Midge Raymond,

An interview with Nels Hanson, author of the magical story “Julia and the Sea Bear,” appearing in Among Animals 2.  

Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: Many years ago, when I was working on our family’s small farm in the San Joaquin Valley of California, my wife and I would save up for a two-day vacation on the Central Coast and rent a room in a little town called Cayucos. Twelve miles north on Highway 1, on the way to Cambria, we’d see a big billboard advertising the Sea Bear Inn. We never stayed there but the idea of a sea bear stuck with me. I imagined a lonely bear living cut off from other bears and people, by high cliffs surrounding his inaccessible beach. Did I identify with the sea bear? I had an image and a feeling but no plot for a story. And yet the picture of the bear going about his life in isolation remained with me, like a dream one keeps remembering.


Q: What was your writing/research process?

A: My wife and I have lived on the Pacific Coast for twenty-four years, and I know the terrain fairly well, the beaches and cliffs reaching from Shell Beach north to Ragged Point, a stretch of perhaps fifty miles. On each drive I’d remember my unwritten story of the sea bear as we passed hard-to-reach portions of the shoreline. Julia was the missing key to finally discovering a form for the sea bear’s story. Our friends’ young daughter was the inspiration – she’s a very bright and creative personality, an only child who spontaneously discovers odd connections and symmetries and identifies closely with all animals – she names all of her stuffed toys, and named two singing frogs in her backyard after my wife and me.


Q: Which writers inspire you the most?

A: Malcolm Lowry, who wrote Under the Volcano, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jack Kerouac.


Q: What does the sea bear represent? And what does Julia herself represent?

A: The sea bear is, like all of us, somewhat a victim of fate and circumstance who makes the best of the world he’s found himself in. He grows used to his loneliness, but he senses always that something is missing and in his dreams he finds an island and another bear as lonely as himself, his perfect other half who has shared his experience and his longing. Without quite knowing it, perhaps the sea bear is seeking unity, both in his inner and outer world, just as we all are. (Was it Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium who suggested that at birth we’re each divided down the middle and spend our lives looking for our parted double?) Julia is the innocent sensitive, a natural psychic with loads of empathy. Her ability to merely touch a concrete object and discern its owner’s history and future suggests that she’s able to step aside from her ego to feel and think what other people and animals do. She’s a modern-day shaman who mentally travels with ease across space and time to inhabit the souls of others.


Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?

A: I’d like readers to feel that the story is true, or should be or might be true, because the feelings of the sea bear are all of our feelings. I was gratified when two well-educated adults read the story and asked me if the sea bear was real, as if they could drive north along the coast and from the high cliffs view the sea bear. That was the strangest and best response I’ve ever had to any story I’ve written.


Q: Just how fanciful are Julia’s amazing powers?

A: In our “real” world, there are persons who seem to have a sixth sense, and are apparently able to transcend the borders of normal human perceptions. In our daily lives, how large a slice of existing reality do we encounter, and are there many other realms of experience we could potentially explore, as we sometimes do in dreams? Many American Indians believe that we live when we dream and dream when we wake. Was Chuang-Tzu – who 2,400 years ago flew across China and then woke uncertain of his identity – a butterfly or a man, or both?


An interview with Among Animals contributor Anne Elliott

By Midge Raymond,

Learn about Anne Elliott’s story “Strays” from Among Animals 2 in this interview below…and, offering a bit more insight into her writing process, Anne talks about her Cat Editors here


Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: My husband and I took care of a feral cat colony in Flatbush, Brooklyn, for several years. A big part of getting a colony “fixed” is taking care of them in traps before and after surgery. We caught one very pregnant female who was mean and wild outdoors, but in the safety of her cage, became downright cuddly. She inspired the character of Gladys. We called her Juno. And yes, her unborn kittens were euthanized, for which one of the other cat ladies congratulated me at the mobile clinic.

This struck me, this moment of congratulation. Anyone who cares for feral cats is an animal lover, yet this love often manifests itself in measures like euthanasia in order to keep the population in check. Something about that irony felt, to me, like the hot center of a story. The cat lady congratulated me, and in my heart I knew I was doing the right thing by not letting the kittens be born, but I did not feel like congratulating myself.

My husband used to work as a vet tech at a shelter, and one of his first tasks was euthanizing kitten fetuses after a spay. He described it to me; an image I cannot forget and had to include.

I feel strongly that people benefit from taking care of animals. It makes you feel needed when the world of humans can sometimes have the opposite effect. I think this is why I introduced the character of Dwayne Junior, who many see as a burden but Lou sees for his ability to contribute. He is based, in part, on a kid I saw having a freakout in Duane Reade pharmacy. His mother was very calm through the whole thing, just let him express himself in the corner. He seemed feral, like he could not be handled. And yet she walked right over to him and picked him up when it was time to leave the store. He was nearly as big as her. I felt great sympathy for them both.

Q: What was your writing/research process?

A: I did no research, other than living my animal-filled life, and looking up the names of Disney characters for the cats. I did get certified for feral cat trap-neuter-return (TNR), so I guess that is a kind of research. (I went to Neighborhood Cats in New York City, and they are a great resource if anyone wants to learn about TNR.)

The writing process for this story was interesting in a couple ways. It began as a NaNoWriMo that I used as a procrastination activity while avoiding another novel I was trying to revise. For those unfamiliar, NaNoWriMo is a goofy challenge writers of all levels give themselves to compose 50,000 words in the month of November. I did not hit the 50,000 word mark on this one.

It was a weird November for me to try it because I was also deeply involved in the study of writing with Gordon Lish. His classes were a unique format of interactive lecture. He would talk extemporaneously for about four hours, then go around the room and ask students to read sentences, one at a time, slowly, while he listened with his amazing ear for language. The goal was for him to let you continue reading. The opening sentences of this story were among those I read in class. When he heard a false note, he would shout, “Elliott! Stop!” then ask others in the class where I had gone wrong. It was nothing personal. He did the same thing to everyone in the room, even his pets. All we wanted to do was please him. And with good reason—many of his students have gone on to write great works.

Anyway, the Lish approach meant I wrote this story sentence by sentence, reading aloud, constantly aware of pattern in the language and its sounds. Each sentence needed to issue forth from the sentence preceding it. It made for a very slow writing process. It also showed me that the piece was meant to be a short story, not a novel. I wrote several stories this way while I studied with him, and they have all made it into print. My novels have not. The sentence-by-sentence approach has not taught me what I need to know about structure to accomplish a successful long work.

I had big plans for this story as a novel, involving a long plot with Occupy Wall Street and a hobo. Glad I abandoned that direction. That is not what “Strays” is about. And, had I not composed very slowly—had I managed to “win” NaNoWriMo, as they say—I would not have figured that out.

A: Lou is called a “crazy cat lady” by her neighbors. Why do you think people react to Lou’s compassion with disparagement?

A: Cat ladies are easy targets. I like to write about easy targets in a way that does not make fun of them. Perhaps that is my form of compassion for humans. I did feel I had to acknowledge that easy targetness of cat ladies. Did you know there is a crazy cat lady action figure? I have received them as gifts on multiple occasions.

So yes, I guess the bigger question is why do the majority of people find crazy cat ladies funny? Why does taking care of cats make you “crazy”? I’m not totally sure. There are all the stereotypes about social awkwardness and questionable fashion choices. They must be based on some kind of truth. And Lou, my protagonist, must seem “abnormal” to others, much like Dwayne Junior, the mentally disabled kid she hangs out with. People who are “abnormal” have to make their peace with how others react to them. That is why I included the tenant reactions to their activity in the basement. I believe that is an interesting moment in the life of the “abnormal” person, that moment when you accept the disparagement of others and continue to do what you feel is right for you.

But that does not quite answer your bigger question. I’ll ask another one. Why are these cat people not lauded as heroes? I think people who work in animal rescue are heroic. I aspire to be this heroic. You have to deal with blood and guts and mange and poop. You have to encounter the results of human cruelty and neglect. It is difficult to help animals who are in pain and may not ever trust humans. And there is the hard reality of euthanasia when a population is too large to feed and protect. Rescue is a complex thing. I know my limits. I can’t deal with the blood and death in person, but I suppose I can write about it.

Q: Which writers inspire you the most?

A: It may be obvious I love the stories of Amy Hempel. Her story “A Full Service Shelter” is an amazing piece about the emotional complexity of rescue. A must-read, especially if you love pit bulls. Her sentences are so full of turns and surprises, and her wit is never for wit’s sake. Hers is the kind of wit that makes the heart swell with recognition and humor and sadness. Her sense of economy is also amazing. And she is compassionate.

I may have been under the influence of Tobias Wolff when I wrote the last sentence. The repetition wasn’t necessary from an information standpoint, but I did want to create a literal echo or heartbeat at the end. So of course I think of his “Bullet in the Brain.”

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?

A: Interestingly, the term “feral cats” has fallen out of use with the humane organizations. They are now called “community cats,” since they fall on a spectrum of friendliness. Similarly, the term “autistic” has fallen out of common use, and now people are “on the spectrum.” This is more than just linguistic evolution, I think. Individuals are hard to categorize. And there are so many different ways to relate to the world. “Normal” gets re-defined every day.

This is a feeling I hope to convey in the story. Whether a person or animal is “friendly” or “feral” is a matter of situation, the individual’s temperament, and whether those around them accept them as they are. Everyone has value.

Like Dwayne Junior, I’m sad about the loss of the kittens and his opportunity to raise them. I hope that sadness comes through. You have to turn off your childlike sympathetic side sometimes as you take care of others and make hard decisions on their behalf. I hope the sadness of that reality comes through too.

Q: Dwayne Senior is absent in this story. Where is he?

A: Somewhere as I wrote I decided that this would be a story about females and the creatures they take care of, reluctantly or not. So I decided to have the landlady blame her daughter for being a bad parent, almost as if the boy has no father at all. It is possible the father is alive, and should be stepping up to become a role model. It is also possible he is dead, or incarcerated. I just thought the story would work better if he were a notable absence, if the two women did not spend their hours talking about him. Yet the father’s absence is tacitly, constantly acknowledged, or the kid would just be Dwayne, not Dwayne Junior.

I am not a mother, so I am in no position to critique anyone’s mothering. I don’t necessarily agree with the landlady about her daughter’s inability to raise a child. I don’t necessarily agree with Lou about her mother’s cruel preference of a pedigreed cat over her own daughter. But I think these character perceptions are important to explore. Women often blame other women for the ills of the world. We are not wrong to do that, necessarily. It means that we have power that we may be misusing. It is a way of acknowledging our power.

I don’t think it’s a feminist story per se, but I am a feminist writer. And these are the things I ponder as I write.

Does feminism extend to the animal kingdom? I wonder. I do have extra sympathy for the female feral cats. Like Ceres in the story, the one who they have to keep letting go because she is lactating. All of her resources go to her offspring. There are parallels in the human world. Women in general have to figure out how to do more with less, and often carry the burden of rearing the young. But perhaps my sympathy for these female cats is a form of anthropomorphism. I often pay attention to the lives of female animals, whether as metaphor or not, I do not know.

An interview with Among Animals contributor Hunter Liguore

By Midge Raymond,

An interview with Among Animals contributor Hunter Liguore (“The Truth of Ten Thousand Things”)

Q: What inspired you to write this story?
A: I was interested in confronting extinction of a species. Historically, there are quite a few eyewitness accounts of those who experienced the extinction of the passenger pigeon. What would it look like to witness the death of the last polar bear? How would it change us, as a people, if at all, and how especially might the media “spin” the story?

Q: What was your writing/research process?
A: I looked into the idea that what we consider loss—in this case, the loss of a species—that it is part of the evolution of thought and action, collectively. That on a large scale, all our thoughts, as the human race, creates the future we see and experience. (E.g., “To know the past, observe the present consequence. To know the future, observe one’s present conduct” —Master Sheng Yen.) With regards to the story, I tried to consider that the passing of the last polar bear (like the passenger pigeon) was simply part of where, at this time, human thought evolved to and created. That it was neither good or bad, but simply, another experience, that we incorporate into our day.

Q: The “send-off” for Betty is mix of celebration and mourning. What do you think people today should be feeling as we face a future of endangered species like the polar bear?
A: I would never want to tell someone how to feel, but my own feeling is that we collectively can create a world with hope and nurturing, and more so, reciprocity with the natural world—plenty of people, communities, have stepped forward to make alliances with animals, trees, birds, endangered species, rocks, rivers. When we’re accountable for our own actions, and how it relates to the natural world, then we can shift perspective from placing blame on others and paying for our own debt, while creating solutions and a happy world. It’s amazing to me when I hear people complain about the world—if they are upset about litter, for instance, many don’t realize they can pick it up. When you suggest, “Pick it up if you see it,” it’s like a shift happens in them, and they’re given permission to do something about it rather than waiting for someone else to do it. So you didn’t drop the trash in your neighborhood, but walking by it is the same as neglecting responsibility. We have more power in one shift of thinking than we know. So start small. Find a small area in your community to nurture back, love it, give back in whatever way you can—be it praying/mediation over it, picking up trash, planting flowers (which will bring bugs, which will support birds, and continue to nurture all life); feed the earth in whatever way you can; be attentive to what you buy and use and how it effects the world at large; over time, small efforts create big results—you’ll discover how forgiving the natural world is, and how important we all are to the process.

Q: In what ways does Betty’s story allow for healing within Yunnan’s family?
A: The death of the last polar bear, in a way, parallels a shift within Yunnan’s family. We can say one is good and one is bad, but they are both different moments of experience, neither good or bad. The healing comes, I think, when we can experience from another person’s (or being’s) perspective. Yunnan can live from her father’s perspective, and child’s, and know forgiveness, just as her father can live from hers; equally, Cave Bear lives from the point-of-view of the polar bear; she remains awake to the bear’s death, with compassion, as opposed to turning from it. The pattern for each character is remaining awake to their experiences; thus, bringing forth healing to themselves and really, the world-at-large, since we’re all interconnected.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?
A: Whatever they feel and interpret. What I take away is that human existence is a struggle. We often hold so strongly to our own opinion, and it doesn’t help anyone to stay in conflict; for me, this is the essence of war but also the beginning of ending it. When we let go (of being right), we can foster love and understanding, bringing it into our relationships. It wasn’t too late for Yunnan and her father, though many years have been lost. While it is too late for the polar bear in the story, perhaps, recognizing our own contribution to pollution and degradation of the environment, we can alter the course of extinction. And if not, life continues.

Q: How can we save the last polar bear from extinction?
A: My thought: each person taking accountability for their debt in what they use and consume and generate that affects the rest of the living world. Small efforts create big changes.

Learn more about Hunter Liguore and her work at 


An interview with Among Animals contributor J. Bowers

By Midge Raymond,

An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor J. Bowers (“Shooting a Mule”) 

Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: An old college friend knows I like both horses and strange 19th-century ephemera, so she sent me an article about the exploding mule through social media. I think it may have been Scientific American‘s own blog. Everything about the idea haunted me, especially the 19th-century version of the magazine’s cold, clinical tone when discussing the event, like the photography experiment was the part that mattered, not the animal’s life. I needed to write that mule a friend.

Q: What was your writing/research process?

A: This is the rare story that was drafted in one sitting. As soon as I read the original articles about the incident (using C19: The Nineteenth Century Index, a historical fiction writer’s best friend), I was off to the races. The narrator’s voice came really easily because I’d been reading a lot of period novels for my grad school exams. I liked the idea of a bystander feeling this tension between military authority and empathy for a fellow creature.

Q: Which writers inspire you the most?

A: I love women who write weird short fiction about animals: Lydia Millet, Karen Russell, and Hannah Tinti are all heroes in constant rotation. John Haskell and Steven Millhauser are also fascinating to me in terms of form and spectacle, and how to write about the past without losing sight of plot. I also read a lot of cultural histories about the 19th century — the more obscure and bizarre, the better.

Q: Your story is set in the late nineteenth century. How has our treatment of animals evolved since then?

A: Readers of Scientific American in the late 19th century viewed this event as a curiosity, the product of industrial ingenuity. The mule’s life meant nothing, because a mule was by definition a tool, a thing to be used, not a sentient being, as we might view it now. By contrast, in the 21st-century blog about the photograph that I initially read, the tragic nature of the event was front and center. With the public megaphone of the Internet, I find it hard to imagine that the kind of “animal testing” that occurs in “Shooting A Mule” would go unprotested if it happened today. Now when an animal is hurt in a high-profile way, as this mule was, the story goes viral. Still, despite greater awareness of abuse, real legal protections for animals (especially domestic ones) in the United States have a long, long way to go.

Q: How does photography affect our view of animals? When you think of graphic photos like the one in your story, do you think it leads to greater empathy, or desensitization?

A: Human ideas about other animals are wholly informed by representation. Photos, films, and cartoons do so much to influence our thoughts about what animals are or should be. When it comes to graphic portrayals of violence against animals, seeing a barrage of images of animal abuse can be desensitizing. I think about how my composition students always laugh uncomfortably at the ASPCA’s Sarah McLachlan-soundtracked PSAs when I show them as an example of pathos in advertising. They do feel empathy watching the commercials. They care that animals are suffering. But there’s something about seeing those images so many times that has dulled the commercials’ impact, and turned it into this nervous joke. Save The Children ads have the same problem. I hemmed and hawed about whether or not to include such a shocking image in “Shooting A Mule,” but felt readers needed to see what these men were aiming for in the name of science: what the mule’s life amounted to in the end. Its power is in its singularity. It’s not something you see every day.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?

A: When people think about animals suffering for human inventions, they think of medical applications, mostly, wonder drugs and the like. I hope this story reminds them just how capricious humans can be about animal lives when science (any science) is used as an excuse. The victim being a mule just adds to that; it’s a creature that wouldn’t exist without human intervention.

Q: Is the mule based on anyone?

A: Yes, Wylie, a mare mule who was a beloved herd fixture at Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center in Columbia, MO, where I worked as barn manager for eight years. I borrowed a lot of her mannerisms and behavior, trying to do the animal justice through observation instead of relying on stereotypes. Miss Wylie taught me that mules get a bum rap.