Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Kipp Wessel

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.

 

What’s new with ACP authors…

We are always thrilled to receive updates on what’s new with our brilliant and talented Ashland Creek Press authors, and we are long overdue in officially sharing some of the good news. (If you don’t already follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram, come find us there, where you can stay up-to-date on all the news.)

Among the fun news we have to share…

Mindy Mejia, author of the The Dragon Keeper, published Everything You Want Me to Be (Emily Bestler Books) last year to rave reviews (from a Booklist starred review to People magazine) and international acclaim (click here to see the international editions). Her new novel, Leave No Trace, is forthcoming in September.

Ray Keifetz, a contributor to the first edition of Among Animals, won the Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Award for 2017 for his poetry collection Night Farming in Bosnia. To learn more about Ray and his new book, check out his interview with Literary North.

Jennifer Caloyeras, author of the YA novel Strays, is also the author of a critically acclaimed short story collection, Unruly Creatures, published last year by West Virginia University Press.

If you love the stories in Jean Ryan‘s collection Survival Skills as much as we do, don’t miss her new collection, Lovers and Loners, as well as her nature-infused essay collection, Strange Company.

JoeAnn Hart, author of the award-winning novel Float, has a new book forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in September of 2019: a non-fiction crime memoir, currently titled Old Scofieldtown Road, A 70’s Tale of Race, Death, Love, and Real Estate. Stay tuned!

We congratulate our wonderful authors on their successes and hope you’ll check out their new books (and their ACP books, if you haven’t already!). We look forward to bringing you more news on what’s new and forthcoming from the authors of the ACP books you love.

On book returns & book tours

Most people outside of publishing don’t know anything about the concept of book returns, but for those of us in the industry, it’s a constant topic of conversation. Either we’re bemoaning the number of books that are returned (usually not in salable condition), or we’re wondering whether we’re missing opportunities by not allowing returns.

So, what does the term “returns” actually mean in publishing?

Thanks to a Depression-era tradition that encouraged booksellers to take books on credit and return any unsold copies, books can still be returned to publishers by booksellers, unlike nearly every other consumer product out there. Despite the fact that we’re no longer in the midst of the Great Depression, the tradition continues. For the booksellers, it means they can take a chance on books without having to sell them; if they don’t sell, they can simply return the books and not have to pay for them.

For publishers, particularly small presses, it’s a bit more complicated. While the Big Five publishers are better able to absorb the losses incurred by book returns, it’s not as easy for the little guys. Publishers are expected to cover the return shipping, and books often arrive in damaged, unsalable condition, which means not only a tremendous amount of waste but losses for both publisher and author. It’s especially difficult for small presses to stay in business with such losses, which is why so many small presses (like us) can’t afford to take returns.

Yet we’ve found ways to work with both authors and booksellers to make sure that our titles are visible and available to readers. Sometimes it means offering free shipping; sometimes it means asking authors to take extra copies because the bookseller prefers to under-order; sometimes it means selling our books to bookstores one book at a time. While most booksellers initially do balk at the idea of no returns, we’ve found that many are also happily willing to work within our parameters to support the authors in their communities.

As more authors publish with small presses (as well as self-publish), there are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to bookstore events. After all, the goal for both author and bookseller is to sell out — so whether you’re with a small press, a Big Five publisher, or self-published, these are good tips for authors to keep in mind.

  • Work with indie bookstores to gauge the number of books you’ll need for an event. Ask the events manager to collect names for a free registration, and sent out e-invitations with RSVPs so that the bookseller can try to order just the right amount (studies have shown that one in four attendees buy books at author events). Always bring extras of your own in case.
  • Promote your event! Many authors are under the mistaken notion that it’s a bookstore’s job to bring in the crowds — yet many booksellers don’t do as much promotion as a new author may need (also, they can simply return any unsold stock without losing a penny). So if you want to avoid returns — and especially if you want to avoid facing an empty room — be sure to go the extra mile to promote the event: in addition to alerting friends and family and sharing it on all your social networks, send announcements to local media, get your event into community calendar listings, create a flyer that the bookstore can post — and most important, ask the bookstore how you can work with them to make the event as big and successful as possible.
  • Hold your events in cities in which you’re confident you can draw a crowd, either via friends, family, and colleagues or by the topic of your presentation.
  • If the bookseller over-orders your book, offer to sign them and ask if the store will hold onto those extra copies and work on selling them rather than packing them up and shipping them back the next day (which is often exactly what happens). If your publisher doesn’t take returns, you can buy back the books at the publisher’s discount and sell them at another event.

Managing returns is helpful for everyone involved — not only does it behoove authors and publishers, but it limits the vast amount of waste in publishing (the carbon footprint involved in shipping books back and forth, the destroying of unsalable copies) is good for the planet, and it’s worth everyone’s time in the long run.

Your Author Website: Build or Rent?

Your author website is your virtual home on the Internet.

Every author should have one, even if you also have homes on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.

That’s because you need a home that is truly your own. A home that Google can index and make easily findable. A home that you control separate from platforms like Facebook or Twitter.

You might be thinking: “But Facebook makes it so easy to make yourself at home! Why bother with a website?”

It’s not an easy question to answer because so much depends on the author. The path you take is going to be largely determined by the following:

  • Your technical ability (or desire to learn)
  • Your budget
  • Your desire to go beyond website templates to create a completely customized author website

With these criteria in mind, I find that there are two general paths one can take regarding their website: Building vs. Renting.

Building a custom home (website)

When you build your home, you will probably need to hire an architect (web designer) to create the home according to your needs. The designer can often also host your website and manage it on an ongoing basis, charging an ongoing fee. This is a perfectly reasonable way to proceed, particularly if you have no technical ability and no desire to bother with web pages and HTML code. But you also need a budget — some web designers will charge $3,000 to $5,000 to create a website. And you’ll also need to pay an hourly rate for text changes down the road. If you want to have your own blog, for example, you will need to think about whether or not you want to pay someone to do this for you instead of you learning how to use WordPress and doing it yourself (it’s not as difficult as it may seem).

What does a custom website look like? Check out this one.

I should stress that even custom websites are often built on standard templates or design frameworks. So a web designer is still often using an underlying template, even though you may not notice it.

Renting a semi-customized home (website)

Now let’s say you don’t want to spend a lot of money. I first urge you to see what’s available for you to use cheaply. You would rely on a web hosting company that provides a template for you to use. You might want to check out:

SquareSpace
SquareSpace offers templates. Here is one that I think can work as an author website. You can start a free trail with no credit card.

Wix
You can create a free account on Wix as well — I’m not a huge fan of the templates.

My advice, whichever way you go:

  • Use photos selectively. Keep the focus on text; photos can add to download times.
  • Make sure the design is “responsive” — so it will adapt to mobile phone screens easily.
  • You’ll probably want a blog included, so you can easily add “news/events.” You could even have your news/event links simply go to the blog. This is a big question: How active do you want to update the site?
  • Finally, if you hire a designer, make sure it’s “work for hire.” You want to own that website so you’re able to update it, change it, etc. Designers sometimes will charge quite a lot for minimal updates or changes.

Join us to meet the elephant seals of Patagonia

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.