Category: Books


The amazing Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

By Midge Raymond,

When we were in Australia this fall, we were thrilled to encounter this pair of Sulphur-crested cockatoos while walking around in Manly.

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We were especially happy to see these birds in the wild after having previously met them only in fiction in Love and Ordinary Creatures, Gwyn Hyman Rubio’s gorgeous novel about a Sulphur-crested cockatoo named Caruso. In Gwyn’s novel, Caruso had been captured from the wild and sold as a pet (fortunately, this is no longer legal; the novel is set in the early 1990s when this was still happening to exotic birds); having the opportunity in Australia to watch them in their natural habitat, foraging for food, staying close to their mates, and cawing loudly wherever they go, was wonderful.

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It also reminded us what an important book Love and Ordinary Creatures is, for giving voice to a species of animal that is so often misunderstood. Gwyn captures this helplessness, longing, and angst so well in this novel, a love story that transcends species.

Love and Ordinary Creatures was inspired by Gwyn’s own journey to Australia with her husband more than fifteen years ago.

We were eating lunch in a delicatessen when a young Australian woman with long, tanned legs and tousled blond hair pedaled up and stopped in front of the deli window. A Sulphur-crested Cockatoo was perched on the handlebars of her bike. Dismounting, she walked over to the parrot and learned toward him with puckered lips. Simultaneously, he lengthened his neck and raised his beak. Much to my amazement, they kissed— after which she came inside to pick up her order. While she was gone, the cockatoo kept his eyes on her. Not once did he look away. Not once did he try to fly off, even though his legs, I noticed, were untethered. A few minutes later, food in hand, the young woman left the deli, the cockatoo fluttering his wings and squawking with delight as she approached. “Now, that’s a bird in love,” I said to my husband when the two of them cycled off.

Learn more about Love and Ordinary Creatures here, and check out the novel’s book club kit for more insights.

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An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Claire Ibarra

By Midge Raymond,

An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Claire Ibarra about her story “Vivarium”

Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: I was living in South Florida at the time, and as common as cockroaches are there, I could never get used to them. I couldn’t help my reaction. I’d scream, dash across the room, climb onto furniture. The palmetto bug is especially hideous because it flies, and getting hit in the face by one is completely unnerving. In the spirit of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” I began to wonder about what humans might share in common with these bugs. In the story of Gregor Samsa, he wakes up a bug and becomes completely alienated, whereas Eva begins to connect with others and gain confidence through her solidarity with Chico.

Q: What was your writing/research process?

A: Once an idea for a story comes to me, I tend to dive in and try to get as much as I can down on paper, but of course, I get stuck with lots of questions. I didn’t know anything about cockroaches, and since Wikipedia was such a helpful, quick source, I decided to incorporate it into the story. Eva needed to do her own research, as well. That doesn’t mean that I normally recommend Wikipedia for research. Luckily it’s easy nowadays to access information – Google is such a gift to writers.

Q: Which writers inspire you the most?

A: That’s always a hard question to answer. There are so many inspirational works and authors. As I mentioned, Kafka inspired this story. But I just read My Antonia by Willa Cather for the first time, and I immediately wanted to visit Nebraska. I never thought I’d be inspired to visit Nebraska! Now it seems like to most magical and interesting place in the world.

Q: Why did you choose a cockroach as the animal that allows Eva to step beyond her fears?

A: I guess I was thinking about the most ugly creature imaginable, especially for a person struggling like Eva, juxtaposed with empowerment and transformation. I think I may have encountered a cockroach in my house that day, and it got me thinking about our human struggles, from the most profound to the mundane. What might be the outcome when we face our fears up close, and so intimately?

Q: Where do you see Eva in the weeks and years past the story’s ending?

A: I see Eva in a position to help people. She is on her way to becoming a clinical counselor or therapist. Her family’s dysfunction was her first classroom. She just needs to gain confidence, and maybe she’ll always struggle with OCD, but she’ll make a great therapist. I imagine that she’ll start having more fun!

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

A: I am continually struck by the intelligence of animals, and their ability to display compassion. Interspecies friendship – the actual affection and love between animals – is one of the most beautiful things to witness. I would like readers to consider the possibility that all living creatures are capable of such affection. Also, we must nurture that kind of compassion and caring within ourselves to make the world more tolerable.

 Q: What do you imagine will be Chico’s fate?

A: I think once Eva decides she doesn’t need his companionship anymore, she finds a creative way to set him free into the wilderness of the Miami streets, where more adventures are in store for him.

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An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Carmen Marcus

By Midge Raymond,

An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Carmen Marcus about her story “Bight, Tomcat, and the Moon”

Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: The story was inspired by a prompt by a British writers’ organization called “Word Factory.” They’d asked Neil Gaiman for a story starter for a modern fable that went, “Long ago, in the days when there were still fish in the oceans and cars on the road, there lived a woman who was not afraid of governments…” So I treated the starter as a puzzle – what if the oceans were gone and the roads were the only place left for the fish, and what kind of woman could survive there? Never underestimate the power of a good story starter to invite you beyond your comfort zone.

Q: This story, set in a future world, contains language and settings that are exotic in their novelty. What was your writing process like?

A: This story involved a wondrous research phase, my favorite part of story creation. First, I researched the form and scope of fable to understand the conventions I was about to play with. Fables often involve animals as characters, and this opened up opportunities for me to create the Purrman and creatures with personality. The language for Bight and her world came from free-writing exercises which were prompted by questions about her world and her desires. For me, detail is everything, so I researched sailing and nautical language, Bight didn’t have a name until I was researching knot making – then I discovered the word bight. It means the loop before the knot is made – it is pure potential, just like her. Finding the right name informed her character, her trajectory, and her world.

Q: Which writers inspire you the most?

A: So many, but for this piece I read and re-read Lucy Wood’s Diving Belles. Wood took Cornish myths and made them into contemporary stories, perfect for modelling modern fables. I read Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves – Russell effortlessly weaves the real and fantastical, disorientating her readers. Orkney by Amy Sackville is an intense story set in the wilds of Orkney, a brilliantly and darkly narrated tale of obsession. Finally, I turned back to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to understand more about nascent identities and sumptuous sentences. Each of these writers consciously creates a voice within their stories for the environment to speak; it’s that luscious breathing world that draws me.

Q: What relationship do you envision in the future among humans and animals?

A: As a fisherman’s daughter, my relationship with animals has always been complex. The sea provided food, but the pursuit of that food became a sacred act in its own right, with rules which restricted excesses and exploitation. My father told me a story when I was a child – that my great grandfather pulled up a sea god in his nets and, realizing what it was, cut the net and lost the catch to set it free. From that moment our family was protected at sea – so the story goes. This relationship of mutual protection is founded upon wonder at something unknown, and because it was unknown it was possible for a deeper form of communication than spoken language to emerge – a sacred connection. We seem to live in a world that abounds with “knowledge” about animals, but little wonder. The more knowledge we have of animals, the more potential for exploitation. But wonder is the foundation of respect and that sacred connection which invites compassion. It is my hope that we allow for a greater sense of wonder about those we share the planet with and that we learn that knowledge isn’t the boundary at which true understanding lies.

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Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?
A: I would like readers to experience how hard it is to protect what is precious to us, even when it seems futile and without hope but to still want to endeavour to do so.

An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Laura Maylene Walter

By Midge Raymond,

An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Laura Maylene Walter (“Lost Pets”)

Q: What inspired you to write this story?
A: Several years ago, my husband was in the habit of photographing “Lost Pet” posters. Whenever he saw one of these posters while out walking or driving, he stopped whatever he was doing to photograph it. In the end, he amassed a fairly sizable digital collection of lost pets. I found these images touching but also distressing — I couldn’t shake how many people were out there seeking lost pets, not to mention the animals themselves. What had become of them? I could never know the fate of those pets, but I could create my own by writing a story. And thus “Lost Pets” was born.

Q: What was your writing/research process?
A:  I viewed my husband’s photographs of the posters and, in a few cases, tried to incorporate some of their language into my fictional posters. The lost pet posters my husband found in the wild exhibited a wide range of syntax, level of detail/description, grammar, and design. I tried to reflect some of that variation in the story, but ultimately, I had to let go of the real-life posters and allow my fictional pets to take on a life of their own. As far as the writing process is concerned, I wrote “Lost Pets” as I write most of my stories: by starting with a character and a premise and then just writing with few to no plans, allowing the story to take me where it may.

Q: Which writers inspire you the most?
A:  I love Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Elena Ferrante, Angela Carter, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and Ann Patchett, to name a few.

Q: What does the dog Starlight represent to Vicky in this story?
A: The home and past life Vicky can never return to.

Q: Where, and with whom, do you see Vicky ending up in the future?
A: I see her as remaining alone for a time. Not forever, but for a time. I don’t think she’s ready yet for anything else. But I do believe she’ll eventually find her way and become happier, no matter what form that will take in her life.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?
A: Not to steal dogs? Okay, I suppose the real answer is empathy for both animals and owners who have lost their way. (But seriously, don’t steal someone’s dog.)

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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.

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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.

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