Last year, I began a blog series called Cat Editors, after noticing that I am not the only writer with a feline companion who is always in the middle of the writing action. (Below is my editor and our General Manager, Theo.)
Several of our beloved Ashland Creek Press authors also have cat editors — among them Mindy Mejia, author of The Dragon Keeper and the mystery novel EVERYTHING YOU WANT ME TO BE, forthcoming this November from Emily Bestler Books; and Jean Ryan, author of the story collection Survival Skills.
Click here to learn more about Mindy and and her hardworking editor Dusty:
And click here to learn more about Jean and her devoted editor Tango:
And, if you’re a writer with a cat editor in your life and you’d like to share the joy, feel free to send me a note!
We are delighted to announce Jennifer Boyden has won the 2015 Siskiyou Prize for her novel THE CHIEF OF RALLY TREE.
Of THE CHIEF OF RALLY TREE, judge Ann Pancake writes: “Inventive, smart, and often hilariously funny, The Chief of Rally Tree delivers a social critique both searing and sly.”
Jennifer Boyden is the author of two books of poetry, The Declarable Future (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013), winner of The Four Lakes Prize in Poetry; and The Mouths of Grazing Things (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010), winner of The Brittingham Prize in Poetry. She is a recipient of the PEN Northwest Wilderness Writing Residency and has taught writing and literature courses at a variety of places, including Suzhou University in China, The Sitka Center for Arts and Ecology, Whitman College, and at various workshops. On the faculty of Eastern Oregon University’s low-residency MFA program, Jennifer also works for an environmental nonprofit in the San Juan Islands. She lives in Friday Harbor, Washington.
The two prize finalists are the novel THE PLACE WITH NO NAME, by José María Merino, translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Polli, and the essay collection THE SHAPE OF MERCY: ESSAYING THE GEOGRAPHY OF HOME by Alison Townsend.
The semifinalists are NOT TILL WE ARE LOST: REFLECTIONS ON EDUCATION, COMMUNICATION, AND SPIRITUAL TRANSFORMATION by William Homestead and THE PTEROPOD GANG by Nancy Lord.
The Siskiyou Prize is named for the Klamath-Siskiyou region of northern California and southern Oregon, one of the most diverse eco-regions in the world. The annual award is open to unpublished, full-length prose manuscripts, including novels, memoirs, short story collections, and essay collections. The winner receives a cash award of $1,000, a residency at PLAYA, and an offer of publication by Ashland Creek Press.
Thanks to all who submitted to the prize for your support of environmental literature. For more information, and to learn about next year’s prize, visit SiskiyouPrize.com.
I’m pleased to say that we’re on the home stretch toward choosing stories for the next edition of Among Animals.
To give you a preview of what’s to come, we’ve got stories that feature cats and dogs and chickens and fish. And a mule. A kangaroo. A sea bear. A polar bear.
And, of course, humans.
We’re still looking for a few more great stories and are setting a deadline of December 15th. So if you’ve got something you think might fit, please send it today! And please feel free to check out our first edition, which will tell you what the anthology is all about.
And thanks to everyone who shared their work with us. We appreciate the opportunity to read your submissions.
The Ashland Book & Author Festival will take place at Southern Oregon University’s fabulous Hannon Library on Saturday, October 3, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Events include readings, workshops, panels, a book fair, children’s events — and raffles and drawings to win great prizes (i.e., books!).
Among the highlights…
At 11 a.m…
The SOU Women’s Resource Center and Alma Rosa Alvarez, Amanda Singh Bans, Marianne Golding, and Precious Yamaguchi present The Worlds of Women, a panel discussion exploring women’s narratives from multicultural perspectives.
Tod Davies presents Truths of Imagination: The Importance of Story.
The Southern Oregon Literary Alliance will make its debut appearance in the Rogue Valley literary scene. In this presentation, SOLA members will introduce the organization, take questions and suggestions from the community, and invite participation in a raffle to win books from local publishers.
At 11:30 a.m…
I’m presenting Writing About Place: A Journey for Readers & Writers, featuring readings and writing tips for turning journeys into compelling stories.
Evan Morgan Williams presents Publishing Your Story Collection with a Small Press, his strategy and tactics for winning a small-press book prize.
At 12:30 p.m….
Molly Tinsley presents Behind the Waterfall/Behind the Scenes, a reading from her debut middle-grade novel featuring twins, along with a talk about its crafting in consultation with twins.
The panel discussion Killer Crime includes Carol Beers, Sharon Dean, Michael Niemann, Clive Rosengren, and Tim Wohlforth.
At 1 p.m….
John Yunker presents Environmental Activism in Fiction — a reading from his novel The Tourist Trail, with a question-and -nswer session about environmental fiction in the age of climate change.
Ed Battistella presents Sorry About That, a short reading and question-and-answer session on Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology, and a preview of new material in the paperback edition.
At 2 p.m….
Local indie publishers present Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Publishing But Were Afraid To Ask (So Ask!). Speakers include Tod Davies, Midge Raymond, Molly Tinsley, and John Yunker. Moderated by Ed Battistella.
Michael Niemann presents Legitimate Business, a short reading and a discussion of gun smuggling.
A few weeks ago a building near my office was overrun by police cars and media vans. I didn’t know what was going on until someone told me, complete with a meaningful look in one of the spare cubicles, “That’s where the dentist’s office is.”
I didn’t need to be told which dentist, because in the prior three days “dentist” had become the country’s newest dirty word. That’s all we knew about Walter Palmer. He was a dentist who enjoyed traveling the world and killing magnificent animals, that is, until he killed the wrong one.
As a vegetarian I’ve had mixed feelings about the Cecil backlash. Obviously it was a horrific, completely unjustifiable crime committed by a total asshat. Cecil’s death was senseless, cruel, and exacerbated by the likely slaughter of his twenty-four cubs as a new male takes over his pride. On the other hand, I live in the Midwest, where a bird flu epidemic has forced the extermination of forty-eight million chickens in the last several months. Let me say that again. Forty-eight million chickens. That’s the total human population of California, Oregon, and Washington combined, and other than a few brief clips of some poultry barns on the news, who even heard about these deaths, let alone cared? Personally, I can’t wrap my head around a scale that weighs the lives of twenty-five lions as greater than the lives of forty-eight million birds. As a writer, however, that scale—like everything else illogical about our species—fascinates me.
There are insights here for anyone writing about animals, but especially those who are working within an environmental theme. Cecil’s death showed us that people care. They are willing to become invested and even help spur social change if their sympathies are triggered. But what is the trigger? How can a writer tap into that amazing human-animal connection?
First, let me be clear that I’m no expert. I possess no degrees that end in -ology. I’m just a writer who has spent some time examining the relationship between people and the other species who live on this planet. In my opinion, the catalyst for the public reaction to Cecil’s death distills down to three main components: the Rarity factor, the Apex Predator factor, and the Charismatic Mega Vertebrate factor. Let’s break them down, one by one.
Rare Suburban Hosta Cat
Why is gold worth more than water? Why do we value a lion’s life more than a chicken’s? After all, most of us directly depend on chickens as part of our food chain while lions have comparatively little impact on our survival. So why care about some lion halfway across the world? The answer is partly psychological—we are drawn to the rare and exotic—but also partly legislative. Cecil’s life was protected within the borders of his refuge and that law was the only thing that made his killing a crime. In the U.S. the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973 and it mandated that the lives of threatened animals must be protected. Scarcity has become a kind of virtue; it makes certain animal’s lives more precious. To see this effect in reverse, look at the Obama administration’s decision to remove gray wolves in the Great Lakes region from the list. Almost immediately Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan created hunting seasons to “manage their wolf populations” and fifteen hundred wolves were killed as a result. Less scarcity? Less value.
Of course, it’s easy to highlight an animal’s rarity when writing about an endangered species, but what if you’re not? The principle can still work even if your character is a more common animal, as C.S. Malerich demonstrates in her short story “Meat.” In the story, the protagonist’s father decides to raise an animal for slaughter to provide ethically-minded food for his family. Malerich never reveals the animal’s species and it becomes a guessing game for the reader. Could the animal be a cow? Certain scenes seem to suggest it at first, but as the story progresses, the narrator gives the animal increasingly sophisticated behaviors and counterintuitive physical characteristics. Is it a monkey? An emu? The reader’s imagination races to the exotic, almost in defiance of the undeniably human-like character that is emerging.
“Meat” taps into the rarity factor by refusing to tell us if the animal is rare or not. We are unbalanced by not knowing the societal worth that has already been placed on this life and seek desperately to recover that label so we can apply the pre-determined value and move on. When we realize Meat’s species will not be revealed, the real question emerges: why do we value some animals more than others?
Danger raises the stakes
Aside from his almost-endangered status, Cecil was also the king of the jungle and, let’s be honest, we love our kings. Humans are the ultimate predators on planet Earth, at least for the time being, and our imaginations gravitate toward other apex predators—animals that preside over the top of their food chains. Look at Shark Week. Grizzly Man. Tyrannosaurus Rex. Yes, a predator can be dead for sixty-six million years and we still happily break box office records to watch their re-creations strut and slaughter on the big screen.
Whenever I talk to readers about The Dragon Keeper, my novel about a Komodo dragon’s virgin birth, their questions usually always cycle around to the species’ rumored poisonous bite. Sure, dragons can spontaneously reproduce, but they can really kill you, right? As writers we want to explore the animal behind the diet, but don’t ignore your animal’s predatory instincts; they’ll do wonders to heighten suspense. In every scene I wrote with Jata, the book’s Komodo, I knew she had the power to wreak havoc. She could have bitten her zookeeper’s hand off during feeding scenes or ambushed her in the exhibit. I used real-life accounts of Komodo attacks from the headlines to add tension to the friendship that developed between the woman and the dragon, to remind the reader that, at any moment, their delicate relationship could shatter.
Perhaps the biggest reason Cecil’s death caused such an outcry was because he was Cecil, not some random lion unacquainted with the human world. He had a name, a radio collar, and an unofficial fan club, and he’d attracted this human following because he was a charismatic mega vertebrate.
This is the term used by zoos to describe their poster exhibits. Lions, tigers, and bears, yes, but don’t forget gorillas, elephants, and dolphins. These species, through their larger-than-life personalities, human-like characteristics, or sheer vitality, are why visitors pay the price of admission. Simply put, they keep their zoo’s lights on. Knut the polar bear was responsible for a thirty percent increase in attendance the year he was born at the Berlin zoo. On the flip side, the Copenhagen zoo caused a worldwide controversy when they killed Marius the giraffe. The lesson? Charisma counts.
The good news here is that a writer can employ these characterization techniques to turn any vertebrate into a charismatic one. (Sorry, nonvertebrates. I’ll need to see a really compelling jellyfish or worm story before I can be convinced this strategy works for you.) An animal should be approached just like any other character in your book. Build their backstory, their mannerisms, their quirks, and then give their actions weight in the narrative. Make them integral to and capable of changing the world you’ve created. Don’t be afraid of anthropomorphizing. We naturally humanize animals in order to feel closer to them, so let your human characters forge those connections and your readers will follow suit. To learn characterization from masters on both ends of the spectrum, grab a copy of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Charlotte’s Web. These books are courses onto themselves.
Lastly, give your animal a great name, a name that endears and endures, that shines a spotlight on this individual character and lets them climb, trot, or swim into their rightful place in your readers’ hearts.* It won’t help Cecil—or those forty-eight million chickens—but the more readers your book reaches, the greater the odds that a future animal’s life could be safeguarded as something worth preserving.
*Note that Wilbur and Fern are already taken. For alternative popular names from the year 1912, try Albert, Mildred, or Frances.