An interview with AMONG ANIMALS 3 contributor Helia S. Rethmann

This interview was conducted and edited by Ashland Creek Press intern Rachel Harris. 

Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: To be honest, I often write to explore questions that nag at me. In this case, the question was: At what point can good intentions backfire and become no longer helpful to the intended recipients? When my wife and I first moved to the country, we delighted in our ability to provide a loving home for all the neglected and starving critters in our rural neighborhood. Once our neighbors caught on, we were quickly overrun with litters of unwanted kittens and puppies and a few unsound horses, abandoned at our property. To this day, we spend all our resources caring for them, and none of them get enough attention. The difference between being a saint and a sucker can be very thin, indeed.

Q: What was your writing/research process?

A: This story started years ago in a very different version, focused on an abandoned calico cat. In spite of being terrible, it was accepted by a kindly publisher under condition of rewriting the ending. I never did the rewrite, and the story sat in my computer drawer until I decided to rework some old duds for writing practice. At this point, Covid had hit, and with it, an unprecedented amount of pet adoptions. Uh-oh, I thought. What will happen to all of men’s best friends once people travel again? If I know one thing about us (the human race), it is that we are selfish and careless about the detritus we leave behind. So I created some characters who cared and made them deal with the situation.

Among Animals 3 contributor Helia S. Rethmann

Q: Which writers inspire you the most?

A: Too many to list. When it comes to reading, I’m omnivorous. But I’m most attracted to misfits and visionaries, and loners who care. I adore Octavia Butler and Barbara Kingsolver, as well as Richard Powers’s The Overstory. I also admire sprawling epics by David Mitchell, Anthony Doerr, and Honorée F. Jeffers. Your own publisher, Midge Raymond’s, novel My Last Continent left a lasting impression. I think I write because I long to be part of the conversation.

Q: Why did you focus on animal rescue for this piece?

A: Because “rescuing” animals is such a double-edged sword. Animals wouldn’t need rescuing if it weren’t for us changing their environment and using, exploiting, and changing them. Today’s Chihuahua may be descended from wolves but is now entirely dependent on our goodwill to care of her. I think about this a lot. What is our responsibility towards the pets we domesticated?

Q: The story displays both optimism and pessimism regarding the community response to Molly and Kate’s work. Do either of these angles align with your own views on the ways in which humans do and don’t take responsibility for the animals in their communities? What was your aim in striking this balance?

A: Striking any kind of balance is hard! Like many of us, I veer from hope to despair and back in a single day. Many people try to do “good” only to cause damage in the process. The opposite may be true also (although I can’t think of any examples). All a writer can do is present a question in the form of a story, and if she’s lucky, some reader will be engaged enough to examine her/his/their feelings as a result.

Q: Amanda and her news story are a key element of this piece. What do you consider to be the role of the media in shaping how people think about and act towards animals?

A: Here I have to admit to feeling jaded about the media. Having worked as a journalist in my native Germany, ages ago, I learned firsthand about the media’s power to shape and shift narratives. Beginning with which stories we deem worth telling and in what order … it’s all so very subjective. Too often, journalism is about ratings and getting “likes.” (I’m obviously excepting NPR and PBS here!) Amanda is a stand-in for everything I loathe about the local, for-profit news.

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

A: Any writing endeavor is a give-and-take between writer and reader. If my story doesn’t move you, the connection stops right there and the writing is irrelevant. But if a narrative moves you to feel/think/do something (anything) you haven’t felt/thought about/thought to do something about before, the writing has done its job. I’m not in control of how you are going to react to my story. The meaning of any story is up to the reader.

Helia S. Rethmann’s story, “The Pet Project,” appears in Among Animals 3. Helia grew up in Germany. Her fiction has appeared in River and South, Breakwater Review, and others, as well as in anthologies published by Pure Slush, Virgins, Between the Lines, and Two Sisters. Helia lives on a farm near Nashville, Tennessee, with her wife and too many animals.