An interview with Among Animals contributor Mary Akers (“Beyond the Strandline”)
by Jennifer Doyle
Q: Mary, many of your works portray personal transformations reflected by the ocean. Does your advocacy for the ocean inspire most of your creative writing?
A: Thanks for this interview, Jennifer. I appreciate the chance to talk about my work. For my most recent book, Bones of an Inland Sea, all of the stories were inspired by the ocean. They were inspired equally by my great love of the ocean and by my great fear of it. And anyone who knows Mother Ocean well enough to love her, live near her, or make a living off her, also has a healthy respect for her capricious and brutal indifference to the whole of humankind. I do have another as-yet-unpublished book—a novel—that also has a great deal of ocean-advocacy at its core, but over the whole of my career, I would have to say I have mostly just written about the things that haunt me. Things that stay with me and won’t leave me alone. Writing is my way of processing and bringing order to the chaos in my mind. The big picture things, the things I just can’t seem to wrap my head around? Writing helps me find a calm place to stand in the middle of the thorniest moral debates.
Q: Do you have a formula for developing characters or themes, or do they develop themselves as you write?
A: I would have to say that I most often start with a voice. Even if I have a rough idea of how I want a story to unfold, of what events I want to occur and what emotions I want to explore, I still don’t really feel like I’m writing until I find a voice to tell the story. In “Beyond the Strandline” I knew early on that I wanted a cranky narrator—prickly enough that readers might not like him at first. I also wanted to explore some of the motivations behind animal stewardship and the various ways we interact with the natural world. Walt didn’t start out rescuing dolphins. He started out capturing them and training them. Only with time was he able to work his way around to understanding their needs and seeing them as individuals worthy of saving and of freedom.
Q: “Beyond the Strandline” exercises many themes; for example, control verses helplessness. Walt wavers between finding control in sexual relations and yearning to return to a time—prompted by the ocean—when he was with his wife. Can you explain his struggle between his animalistic needs and acting humane?
A: Actually, I spent the whole of this story trying to show Walt’s (and by extension OUR) struggles in an intrinsic, subtle way, so rather than answer your question directly, I’ll explain by way of a detour. I like for readers to come to their own conclusions about what they read in my work. When it comes to interpretation, I believe that what the reader brings to the table is just as important as what the writer brings and as a reader myself, I’m fairly put off by didactic writing in fiction. But…if I can use a story to slowly reshape a reader’s thoughts, to educate him and make him look at the world in a slightly different way, then I feel like I’ve succeeded at my job.
I’ve always admired the story as a subversive, subliminal, teaching tool. Parables, fairy tales, even neighborhood gossip—they are all just stories that teach us something about life and about living, without being too didactic. Stories are an organic way to explore the morals of various difficult situations and thereby influence thought. Storytelling has even helped us evolve as a species. “Don’t eat that!” “Be a good Samaritan.” “Fly too close to the sun and your feathers catch on fire.” What is Little Red Riding Hood, after all, but an admonition against talking to strangers? Or the Three Little Pigs but a story to tell us to be careful where and with whom we take shelter?
Q: Another theme suggests dolphin herders in Japan are comparable to human slavers. Can you give a little background on how you developed this connection?
A: Sure. The more I learned about the practice of capturing dolphins for swim-with programs, aquariums, educational purposes, and even therapeutic uses, the more appalled I became. The parallels came quite quickly, actually. Dolphins are extremely social, highly intelligent, playful mammals who live in tight-knit family groups. And we humans intrude into their world, violently rip them from their home and family, sell them (for great sums of money) into unpaid service against their will, keep them in appalling conditions (a tiny liquid box where they are fed dead fish) which reduce both their quality of life and life expectancy. This is done simply to serve, entertain, and (most of all) make money for us. Sure sounds like slavery to me.
Q: “Beyond the Strandline” also deals with end of life rights for both humans and non-humans. What can you tell us about Walt’s inner struggle with his wife’s condition and his dolphin counterparts?
A: The emotional turning point for me comes when Walt learns that the other two dolphins (who had been staying with Lulu, the younger dolphin) decide to swim away. Many times apparently healthy dolphins beach themselves and die and we don’t know why. Often they are staying with a more obviously sick or injured dolphin and the healthy appear to become casualties simply because they don’t want to leave their fellow pod members. In this case, when Walt sees those two still-healthy dolphins choosing life over death, it flips a switch in his brain and gives him permission not only to say good-bye to his wife, but to say hello to what will be the rest of his life without her in it.
Q: Your new collection, Bones of an Inland Sea, is comprised of many short stories close to your heart and professional work. Do you find it helpful to establish a certain distance from your stories—perhaps when writing from a male perspective or a devastating tsunami in Thailand?
A: A degree of distance is always good for me, and I suspect it is for most authors. If we’re too close to something we want to write about, it runs the risk of becoming preachy, or overly sentimental, or a cranky rant, or just simply boring. I enjoy doing research about a place I’ve never been or writing from a male point-of-view. It forces me to look at the world in a different way—to “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” if I am allowed to quote Emily Dickinson. It’s good to get out of one’s own head, and for me, writing from a very different point-of-view is rather like the excitement I feel when hanging around with toddlers. Everything in their world is new and if I look at it through their eyes, I get a fresh, exciting perspective on, say, a purple-striped lizard threading his way through the ivy on a cinderblock wall. Everything is magical to a child…and what a gift if we can soak up a little bit of that magic just by entering their world for a spell.