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!)
True to her calico nature, Camille is a one-person cat. When I write at my standing desk, she’s draped over my feet; if the Mac is propped up in my lap, Camille competes for space on my legs or wends herself around my shoulders to chew on my hair. My 13-pound muse.
Julie Christine Johnson is the author of The Crows of Beara, out this month from Ashland Creek Press, as well as In Another Life (Sourcebooks, 2016). Learn more about Julie & The Crows of Bearahere.
A: I first traveled to Ireland in 2002 to hike the Beara Way. The peninsula, and the experience, turned my soul inside out. Never have I been more homesick for a place I couldn’t actually call home. Many hikes in Ireland later and I knew I’d be writing about it someday.
When I began sketching out characters and ideas for a novel in January 2014, I knew it would be set in Ireland and have an Irish legend or some element of magical realism woven through it. I just didn’t know where in Ireland or which legend.
I happened upon the poetry of Leanne O’Sullivan, who was raised on the Beara Peninsula and teaches poetry at University College Cork. Her collections, An Chailleach Bheara, which tells the story of the legend of the Hag of Beara, and The Mining Road, which was inspired by the late 18th century copper mining industry and the miners who toiled there, brought me, almost overnight, to my novel.
I knew before I began that my central character, Annie, would be an addict trying to put her life back together. Once I had my themes of environment vs. economic growth, an Irish legend based on the strength and resiliency of women, and of the Irish culture, and the healing power of art, the words poured out of me. I wrote the first draft in ten weeks.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? How did that lead to where you are today?
A: I read Louise Fitzhugh’s classic Harriet the Spy when I was six years old and that was it: I knew I’d be a writer someday. That someday took another thirty-five years to come around. I took my first writing workshop in October 2010 and the floodgates opened. After all the years of dreaming about writing, I finally found the courage to set my words free.
Q: Where do you find inspiration for your plots and characters? Are you inspired initially by the plot or do the characters come to you first?
A: I believe that story comes from character. Characters are why we read, why we are changed by what we read. Plot is a means to move them through their lives, to tell their story.
Each of my novels and short stories has a different genesis. In Another Life came from an image of Lia and Raoul that rose in my mind during a stay in Languedoc; researching the history of the region opened the door to their story.
I wanted to set my second novel, The Crows of Beara, in Ireland, but when I began sketching out characters, that’s all I knew. The characters led me to themes of addiction and the healing power of art. A chance encounter with a book of poetry gave me the exact location in Ireland, and that led me to construct a plot around copper mining and animal conservation, with a thread of magical realism woven through. Last summer I studied with that poet—Leanne O’Sullivan—in the very spot where my novel is set (Beara Peninsula). A dream come true!
Two characters led the way into my third novel, UPSIDE-DOWN GIRL: an American woman dealing with child loss and a little girl in New Zealand who is living on the edge of society. The plot is how those two souls come together.
Q: What is your writing process like? Do you write an outline and do you write every day?
A: When I began my first novel, In Another Life, I had a beginning, a handful of characters, but I had no middle or end; I wrote scenes out of order. About two-thirds into a first draft, I had 140,000 words and no sense of where I was going or how it would ever end. I stopped in my tracks, started from the beginning, cleaning up as I went along, putting things in order.
I’m still a pantser at heart. I don’t start with an outline, I don’t edit as I draft, I let it all pour out. But I began The Crows of Beara, as I do all my novels since the first, with character sketches. Characters bring me to my themes, my story and eventually, the plt.
Once I’ve got a solid first draft in hand, I use Michael Hague’s brilliant Six Stage Plot structure to discover and refine my character arcs. And I keep a process notebook for each novel, working out plot holes, asking myself questions, tracking key details. I draft in Scrivener, but I have to solve problems and plug plot holes in longhand.
I do write every day, but I have several projects going on at once. What I work on any given day is a matter of balancing writing with non-writing life, my energy level, scheduled commitments, and deadlines!
Q: Do you have a particular method or approach to research and writing? Generally how long does the process take per book?
A: There’s usually an idea whispering away at me—an image, snippet of overheard conversation, something I read in the paper, a place I’ve visited. Holding that idea loosely in my mind, I begin to work on character sketches and follow where those lead. Whom am I writing about and how do they relate to the idea I can’t seem to let go of? I’ll research enough to get a sense of the place, issues, and time as it relates to the plot, but research for me is an ongoing process as the story develops. I try not to set things out too far in advance, preferring to layer in details as I discover where the story is taking me.
The amount of time has varied wildly. It took me eighteen months to finish a first draft of In Another Life; ten weeks for The Crows of Beara; nine months for UPSIDE-DOWN GIRL. I revised and edited the first two novels while writing the third!
Q: What is the hardest or the least favorite part of the writing process for you?
A: The hardest part is coming to the end of the first draft. It’s a very emotional experience for me. The characters and story are so raw, so open and beautiful in their natural state. Although I can’t wait to shape and mold the story in subsequent revisions, there is something pure and deeply personal about the first draft that I hate to let go.
Q: What are some of your favorite books or authors to read? Which books or authors have influenced your writing?
A: Hilary Mantel, Kate Mosse, Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, Mary Doria Russell, Elizabeth Gilbert, Lily King, Dani Shapiro, Tim Winton, Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Jess Walter. I tend to binge on authors. Last year it was Elena Ferrante and Francesca Marciano. This year I’ve joined an online group reading a Virginia Woolf work each month. I’m not a writer of historical fiction per se, so my influences cross a broad spectrum of styles. Many of my favorite historical novels are written by authors whose work spans categories and genres. Hilary Mantel blows my mind. In Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, set in 16th-century England, she opens up her world, sets a tone, and gets on with it. The “historical fiction” aspect of her work never dominates the characters and their stories. David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars showed me how creating a sense of place can be poetic, and how to connect readers viscerally with an era through the emotional power of character. Mary Doria Russell. Shoot. There’s nothing she can’t do. Ditto Margaret Atwood!
Reading is not only my escape, I consider it an essential part of my job description as a writer. I have at least two books going at any one time, a novel, a volume of poetry, and some sort of writing guide as inspiration and motivation.
Q: What one piece of advice would you share with aspiring authors?
A: It takes a village to publish a book. No matter which path to publishing you take, traditional or independent, you cannot do it alone. Find mentors—writers at different stages of their careers—and listen, watch, learn. Ask questions, be humble, and don’t wait—reach out now. Writers’ blogs, Facebook groups, Twitter chats are all great resources for connecting with writers and finding your tribe. Reach out in both directions—up and back. Always be willing to help someone right behind you.
And always, always be working on your next story. Don’t sit hitting refresh on your e-mail when you begin sending out queries or your novel is on submission with editors. The process can take months, a couple of years, even. Always be writing the next book. The first thing my now-agent asked me after reading and expressing enthusiasm for In Another Life was, “What else do you have?” I sent her a draft of my second novel and I had an offer of representation by the end of the week.
The Crows of Beara is “a captivating tale of our yearning to belong and the importance of following this ancient call” (award-winning author Kathryn Craft), and “like Ireland itself, The Crows of Beara pulls at something deep inside the reader and won’t let go” (USA Today bestselling author Kelli Estes).
Learn more about Julie and The Crows of Bearahere.
Jonathan’s most recent book is the New York Times bestseller 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. Formerly department chair for Animal Studies with the Humane Society University and senior research scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Jonathan is currently Director of Animal Sentience with the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy in Washington, DC. Learn more at jonathan-balcombe.com.
This year marks our fourth annual Siskiyou Prize, and we are delighted to be offering a $1,000 prize and a four-week writing residency thanks to the generosity of our amazing prize partner PLAYA. All manuscripts submitted for the prize will be considered for publication by Ashland Creek Press.
Please visit the Siskiyou Prize website for complete details about the prize — submissions open September 1, 2017. We look forward to reading your work!
Recently I watched a program on strange animal partnerships. The first story featured an old blind horse and the goat that adopted him. Each morning the goat would lead the horse out to graze, skirting any obstacles, and all day they would stay close together. In the evening the horse would follow the goat back to the barn. This was the pattern for several years, until the horse died, and the goat, seemingly bereft, died soon after. There were other odd companions: a deer and a cat, a cheetah and an impala, and most famously, Tara the elephant and Bella the dog. And there were all sorts of unlikely mothers, animals willing to nurse just about anything. My favorite was a calico cat diligently raising a litter of skunks.
One scientist, Temple Grandin, posited that caretaking is an attribute specific to mammals, that our warm-bloodedness keeps us connected on profound levels. However, another story in this program focused on a goose smitten with a tortoise. Not only did this goose bring food to the tortoise, it attacked any other animal that came too close. There was also a story about a barn owl that cavorted with a black cat, and a crow that assumed the care of a kitten.
Maybe it’s not so odd that creatures raised together, even mortal enemies, will overcome their natural instincts and bond instead of fight. But what about animals that link in the wild? In the last segment of the program, a dog chanced upon an abandoned fawn, and they became immediate, playful friends. This alliance lasted for years, the dog waiting patiently for the deer’s inevitable return.
The central questions raised in this documentary were: Do animals feel compassion? Are they empathetic? The answer is fairly obvious, based on the evidence presented, but it invites a deeper question: what, from an animal’s point of view, does compassion feel like? Of course we can never know this, cannot enter the mind of a crow or cheetah, can never leave the frustrating confines of our own consciousness, which is why we must leave room for staggering possibilities.
From what I’ve seen, there is no limit to a dog’s ability to forgive; dogs are actually inclined to forgive: our oversights, our neglect, even our abuse. Dogs always want and expect the best from us. There is no love more unconditional than a dog’s love. Even cats, in their own haughty way, forgive us our humanness when they bunt our heads or settle on our laps. And the unions we enjoy with non-domestic animals are no less rewarding, and often more powerful, on account of their strangeness, as evidenced in that tender video many of us saw of an elephant seal cuddling with a young woman.
There is another video, a more recent one, of a spider monkey showing a person how to crush leaves. Certain plants have insecticidal properties, and monkeys in their canny, unfathomable way, will crush the leaves of these plants and rub them on their fur. In this video, the monkey seems to be trying to teach this method, placing leaves in a human’s hand and then pushing the fingers closed. The monkey seems quite adamant that the human needs to learn this. It’s one of the most touching videos I’ve ever seen because it shows how little we know of the animals we have come to depend on, for companionship, for service, even for help with psychological disorders.
There are three categories in fact, three ways we classify the animals we employ for our own needs: service animals, like seeing eye dogs and miniature horses; comfort animals, like those brought into hospitals and assisted-living facilities; and therapy animals, a group comprised of animals that help calm our demons. Any sort of creature can be considered a therapy animal. There is a parrot, for instance, that accompanies a schizophrenic man named Jim on his daily excursions. Jim adopted this bird after it had been dropped off, in bad shape, at a pet store. Jim nursed the bird back to health, and the bird apparently reciprocated. You see, whenever Jim experienced a psychotic episode coming on, he would pace his apartment, smacking his head with his hands. “Calm down,” he would tell himself. “Be good, Jim. You’re okay, Jim. You’re fine.” The parrot, hearing these words, began to utter them, and Jim found that the words, coming from another source, had a far more calming effect. The parrot also began to nurture Jim in other ways, sensing a psychotic break at the onset and tucking itself under Jim’s neck. We are warned against anthropomorphism, and I do think we are presumptuous in attributing human emotions to animals, in limiting them to the paltry depths of own feelings.
Compassion must be a far different thing in the animal kingdom, some primal, boundless urge we will never fathom.
I do know this: If I had the forgiveness of a dog, the intuition of a parrot and the kindness of a monkey, I would be one very special human.
Jean Ryan is the author of the short story collection Survival Skills and the essay collection Strange Company. Learn more about Survival Skills here, and visit Jean’s website to find other publications and posts.