Category: Eco-Fiction


Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Kipp Wessel

By Midge Raymond,

Kipp Wessel’s essay “Meeting the Wild Things Where They Are” appears in Writing for Animals.

Q: In what ways has your writing changed as your knowledge and awareness of animals has evolved?

A: I’m a fiction writer, and my strongest artistic instinct is to write solely from experience and imagination. But when it comes to wild things, I also incorporate disciplined research. I want the animal lives in my work to live and breathe and shape their own personality as much as anything else I write about — I want them to be just as complicated and messy and unpredictable. I don’t want to be a writer of test-tube wildlife. But I also want to make sure their presence and energy are grounded in the reality of how individual species cope and react. Also, when you start unraveling the layers of what animals are — that research expands narrative possibilities.

The other significant change stems from how animals have changed my life. I’ve never shared my life with an animal I haven’t fallen in love with. Completely and irreversibly. I don’t know if I’ve ever met one I haven’t fallen in love with. And when you fall all the way into that dynamic, when you love someone with your complete heart, no matter who it is, it changes you. The animals in my life are constantly teaching me about attachment, play and meaning — and those are themes and qualities infused in my creative work.

Q: What is the most important thing you feel writers should keep in mind as they write about animals?
A: Here’s the most important thing I try keep in mind — the act of emptying it. My preconceptions. It’s so easy to interpret the behaviors of other beings through the veil of our own instincts, drives and emotions. We’re hard-wired for that. I’m pretty sure all species share that myopia. But when we misinterpret wild things and places within our work, when we don’t do the hard work of setting our preconceptions aside, our work doesn’t just risk inauthenticity. It can also mute or miss the raw and untamed energy we could be tapping.

I remind myself to forget what I think I know, but also be suspect of what others think they know. About animals. Including biologists and scientists. Because science gets it wrong, too. We are constantly underestimating the intellectual, emotional and social lives of animals. When we wade into the lives of animals, it’s a deep pool. We have to be open minded about all that’s hiding in those waters.

Q: Which authors/books do you feel do a good job of realistically and compassionately portraying the lives of animals?
A: When I immersed myself in the subject of grizzly bears for my novel, I was moved by Doug Peacock’s Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness. I really admired how he used his own personal curiosity of grizzlies to fuel an intense and vital exploration of the animal. Rick Bass writes beautifully of wild things (and everything else). He has written several books on animals that unfold like mysteries. And his eloquence when writing about the wilderness where wild things thrive serves as inspiration and a nudge for us to make sure these unique places, and the animals within them, remain. Mary Oliver writes beautiful poems about our connection with animals. Jane Goodall demonstrates equal parts compassion, study, patience, and nothing short of sainthood. Those are a few I admire.

Q: In your essay, you write that animals are as sentient and multifaceted as humans, if not more so. What in your own experience with animals brought you to this realization?
A: Every experience. Every time an animal has stood or crouched or bounded in front of my eyes, I’ve only viewed them as fascinating worlds with their own complex emotional lives.

But I often wonder that question from the opposite direction. What is it within the human subconscious or ego that pushes us to subvert the sentient truth of animals? What inspires us to deny the emotional capacity of species separate from ours? For what purpose? Because it’s not our initial reaction. Watch a child observing an animal, before that child is verbal, and her entire being is locked in wonder. The child sees the animal as the individual being it is. She doesn’t question if the animal feels or is conscious, because both things are so obviously staring back at her. She doesn’t weigh the animal’s existence, abilities or merit on a scale against her own. Her sole response and interest is contained in the act of seeing the animal.

She asks: What are you? Who are you? Both questions.

When I was four years old, I came face to face with my first wild rabbit — a furry, piked-ear alien that vaulted and then froze in the tall grass of our backyard. The two of us, young child and rabbit, stumbled into that moment on equal footing. Between us, our astonishment was divided evenly. I stared into the rabbit’s wet, round eyes. My breath clutched in the hollow my chest. I watched her twitching, soft nose and the way her whiskers trembled the wristwatch drumming of her heart.

That’s the moment I try to experience every time I’m fortunate enough to find my way into the presence of an animal. It’s a bi-directional moment. We observe, contemplate and react to each other. Me to her — she to me. If she isn’t conscious, how can I be? It’s both of us or neither. We’re either in this together, or neither of us is.

Animals feel. They think. They play. They attach. They mourn. They are. Animals are sentient, fully conscious beings that demonstrate a tapestry of emotions, from the pronounced ones of joy and grief, to the more nuanced ones of empathy and worry. They feel pain. They suffer. They collaborate and compete. And those are just emotions and behaviors we have in common. Imagine the universe of others we don’t share or aren’t even aware of. They are individual nebulas of personalities, emotions, and perceptions.

And here’s the thing — the sentient ability of animals doesn’t confine or constrict the gravity of our own weight in this shared universe. Darwinism needn’t be garbled into interspecies cage match incoherence. Our continued understanding and appreciation of the complex and diverse beings sharing our homes, yards, and planet only amplifies the significance and possibility of our own experience and existence. It widens, not lessens it.

Maybe that viewpoint isn’t universally shared. I don’t know. It’s impossible for me to see it any other way.

Kipp Wessel’s debut novel, First, You Swallow the Moon, a novel of heartbreak and wilderness, was a BookLife Prize in Fiction finalist and earned a Writer’s Digest first-place award. His short stories have been published in a dozen commercial and literary magazines, and he’s taught fiction writing at the University of Montana (where he completed his MFA), the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, and regional community arts programs.

 

Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Joanna Lilley

By Midge Raymond,

Joanna Lilley’s essay “Do We Have the Right to Write About Animals?” appears in Writing for Animals.

Q: In what ways has your writing changed as your knowledge and awareness of animals has evolved?

A: I think animals have always been part of my writing or perhaps nature more broadly. I remember when I was a child I would write poems about my worries about squirrels and trees being unappreciated or mistreated. I wasn’t especially aware of this tendency, though, until I was on an Arvon writing course when I still lived in the UK and the tutor, author Patrick Neate, pointed out that there were references to animals in every sample he saw of my work. Indeed, Patrick Neate himself of course writes from the point of view of pigeons in his novel, Pigeon Wars. At that time, I was working on a fiction project about wildlife crime and that’s when I started writing more consciously about animals, doing research in my very non-academic way, and more consciously exploring humanity’s relationship with other species.

I hope to return to that project one day but, in the meantime, five years ago I started working on poems about extinct animals. That project is making me think and write much more deliberately about our planet companions. I’m reading far more about animals than I ever have, trying to sense their own experiences, explore my anthropomorphism and craft something new from that learning. I hope that my writing is becoming more respectful of animals, more of a listening sort of writing than my own bellowing. I hope I can continue to learn and let the animals change my writing.

 

Q: What is the most important thing you feel writers should keep in mind as they write about animals?

A: That humans are animals, too. We are not separate. We are a species just like everyone else. We share air, food, physiology. In Frans de Waal’s book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he quotes Werner Heisenberg as saying, “what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” Humans seem to have to start there before we can accept that animals are sentient, thinking creatures. It’s ridiculous, really, that it even has to be said. It’s as if sapien minds are dark, cramped rooms and we’re afraid of turning the light on for fear of seeing that not everyone looks the same as we do.

 

Q: Which authors/books do you feel do a good job of realistically and compassionately portraying the lives of animals?

A: I feel I’m not at all well-read and so the examples I’m going to give are very much based on my limitations. There are perhaps three categories for me. There are the novels I read as a child that helped me find and form the language that I still use for my relationships with animals, particularly Joyce Stranger’s wonderful books. She wrote accurately about animals without anthropomorphism, and I’m so glad I was introduced to her stories when I was young.

Then there are the non-fiction books I always mean to read more of but sometimes have trouble reading them because they can be so difficult emotionally and because I am not a very disciplined reader. For example, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, from the 1970s, and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, which was published just a few years ago.

And then there is the poetry. I so admire the many poets who are helping us articulate our existence in the anthropocene era and our complex relationships with nature and animals. For example, in Canada there’s Stephanie Bolster, Eric Cole, Basma Kavanagh, Alice Major, and Catherine Owen, and in Britain there’s Susan Richardson, Alice Oswald, and Helen Cole.

 

Q: You’ve studied endangered species for your work. How do you stay positive amid the depressing realities of disappearing wildlife?

A: I’m not sure I do stay positive, to be honest. That’s where the poetry helps me. I find that writing poetry helps me cope with life and am not sure what I’d do without it. In my writing, I’m trying to connect emotionally, spiritually, intellectually with the experiences of animals who are extinct, sometimes recently by human hand, sometimes long ago in one of the planet’s five mass extinctions. I’m trying to sense these animals and somehow, to me, that is a positive act, albeit minuscule in the context of the enormity of impacts on the planet. I also try to remember that extinction is natural. I mean that evolution is a constant shifting, not that I’m justifying human beings’ eradication of species such as the great auk, passenger pigeon, and western black rhinoceros. No species, including humans, will stay the same forever. Our own species will evolve, and our current forms will become extinct. It is possible that we’ll evolve in a way that will have a positive effect on the other species in this world. I don’t hold out a great deal of hope for that most of the time, but writing about extinct species as far back as trilobites and ammonites has helped me take a long-term view!

Joanna Lilley is the author of the poetry collections The Fleece Era (Brick Books), which was nominated for the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry, and If There Were Roads (Turnstone Press), and the short story collection The Birthday Books (Hagios Press). Her debut novel, Worry Stones, will be published in fall 2018 by Ronsdale Press. Joanna emigrated from the UK to Yukon in Canada twelve years ago. Find her at www.joannalilley.com.

Join us to meet the elephant seals of Patagonia

By Midge Raymond,

I adore elephant seals. They are among the most interesting creatures on the planet to watch (and we’ve traveled to a lot of continents to watch a lot of creatures).

For one, they really know how to enjoy life, as you can see in the video I took of this happy girl on a beach on South Georgia Island.

They are also hilariously disgusting, and visiting elephant seals during their molt is an extremely good time to see them at their most appalling. They lie on the beach — fat, lazy, grunting beasts who are tumbling all over each other, sometimes fighting and always bellowing —and you can smell them long before you catch sight of them. Here’s a video of a male calling out to all those near and far…

And perhaps my favorite image from our visit to Gold Harbour on South Georgia Island was this one — a skinny, post-molt gentoo penguin who is appearing to flee the wrath of this elephant seal. (The gentoo was in reality doing no such thing — he was only making his way to the beach — but when it comes to wildlife photography, timing is everything.)

For all those who are now convinced you must meet these incredible creatures yourself, join us and Adventures by the Book on our Penguins & Patagonia journey this October! We will be meeting the Magellanic penguins featured in My Last Continent and The Tourist Trail (and there’s an optional excursion to Antarctica), but we will also have a chance to spend quality time with elephant seals during their mating season. (You can imagine how entertaining that will be.) Click here to learn more about this upcoming adventure.

The Siskiyou Prize closes on December 31

By Midge Raymond,

If you’re planning to submit to our fourth annual Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, the window is closing fast … submissions close on December 31, 2017.

Our 2017 judge is New York Times bestselling author Jonathan Balcombe. Jonathan’s most recent book is What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of our Underwater Cousins, an extraordinary journey underwater that reveals the vast capabilities of fishes. He is also the author of the books The Exultant Ark, Second Nature, Pleasurable Kingdom, and The Use of Animals in Higher Education. Jonathan has three biology degrees, including a PhD in ethology (the study of animal behavior) from the University of Tennessee, and has published more than 50 scientific papers on animal behavior and animal protection. Learn more at jonathan-balcombe.com.

The 2017 prize is open to unpublished manuscripts and books published within the last five years. The winner will receive $1,000 and a four-week residency at PLAYAAll Siskiyou Prize submissions will be considered for publication from Ashland Creek Press. Visit the Siskiyou Prize website for complete details and to submit.

The deadline for submissions is December 31, 2017.

Please feel free to share this announcement with fellow writers! We look forward to reading your work.

New environmental literature refers to literary works that focus on the environment, animal protection, ecology, and wildlife. The prize seeks work that redefines our notions of environmentalism and sustainability, particularly when it comes to animal protection. The award isn’t for books about hunting, fishing, or eating animals — unless they are analogous to a good anti-war novel being all about war. Under these basic guidelines, however, the prize will be open to a wide range of fiction and nonfiction with environmental and animal themes.

For more information, visit the Siskiyou Prize website, and if you have any questions that aren’t covered in the guidelines or FAQ, feel free to contact us.

 

Join us for Penguins & Patagonia in October 2018!

By Midge Raymond,

Save the dates: October 29 to November 6, 2018!

Join us and Adventures by the Book on a journey through the majestic land of Patagonia and immerse yourself in the setting that helped inspire My Last Continent and The Tourist Trail.


When John and I volunteered at the Punta Tombo penguin colony in Argentina, helping with a penguin census of the largest Magellanic colony in the world, our experiences with the land, penguins, and dedicated scientists inspired our novels, The Tourist Trail and My Last Continent. Now you can join us for a chance to see this spectacular colony firsthand, learn about its incredible history, and find out how to help conservation efforts in this extraordinary part of the world.


You’ll also have the opportunity to see and experience wildlife in ways you never imagined as we travel from Buenos Aires to Punta Tombo to the UNESCO World Heritage site Peninsula Valdes, where penguins, rheas, guanacos, foxes, sea lions, elephant seals, orcas, and many more stunning creatures reside. We’ll have a uniquely intimate experience with nature based at the private estancia Rincon Chico, accompanied all the way by a team of experienced local guides. (Note: While we’ll experience a lot of wildlife, we won’t be “roughing it” — the activity level will be light to moderate, and the accommodations will be lovely!)

And if you’re up for a further adventure into the icy places of My Last Continent and The Tourist Trail, there is an optional add-on excursion to Antarctica!

This literary & wildlife adventure includes…

  • Welcome dinner & tour in arrival city Buenos Aires
  • Penguin & wildlife excursions, including whale watching, with local guides
  • Signed copies of My Last Continent and The Tourist Trail 
  • …and so, so, so much more!

Reserve your spot before January 31, 2018, for a $300 discount — reservations are limited as this will be an intimate, exclusive tour. Learn more here, and feel free to contact us or Susan McBeth (susan@adventuresbythebook.com) with any questions you have.