Thursday, February 27
Julian Hoffman, contributor to Among Animals and author of The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World, winner of the 2012 AWP Award Series for creative nonfiction, will be signing books from 11 a.m. to 12 noon. (ACP booth #1207)
Jean Ryan, author of the “captivating” (Publishers Weekly) short story collection Survival Skills and contributor to Among Animals, will be signing books at the booth from 1 to 2 p.m. (ACP booth #1207)
Friday, February 28
Mindy Mejia, author of the “beautiful” (Twin Cities Pioneer Press) novel The Dragon Keeper will be signing books from 9 to 11 a.m. (ACP booth #1207)
JoeAnn Hart, author of the eco-novel Float (“a stellar model of eco-literature”—Cape Ann Beacon) will be signing books from 4 to 5 p.m. (ACP booth #1207)
And at 4:30 p.m., I’ll be leading a panel on Book Marketing — From Finding Your Muse to Finding Your Readers: Book promotion in the twenty-first century, with Kelli Russell Agodon, Wendy Call, Janna Cawrse Esarey, and Susan Rich. Panelists from a variety of genres—poetry, fiction, narrative nonfiction, and memoir—will discuss the unique challenges and opportunities of transitioning from writer to published book author. Through specific experiences and using real-world examples, panelists will offer tips for finding one’s natural niche and audience, and how to reach out to readers authentically and generously. Topics include book promotion through conferences, book clubs, social media, awards, blogs, events, and salons. (Room 608, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6)
Saturday, March 1
On Saturday, the Bookfair is free and open to the public!
At 12 noon, join John Yunker for a panel on The Greening of Literature: Eco-Fiction and Poetry to Enlighten and Inspire, with authors JoeAnn Hart, Mindy Mejia, Ann Pancake, and Gretchen Primack. From mountaintop removal to ocean plastic to endangered species, ecological issues are increasingly on writers’ minds. Authors on this panel discuss how their ecologically themed fiction and poetry engages readers in powerful ways that nonfiction can’t. Panelists discuss writing in these emerging sub-genres as well as their readers’ responses and offer tips for writing about the environment in ways that are galvanizing and instructive without sacrificing creativity to polemics. (Aspen Room, Sheraton Seattle, 2nd Floor)
And for anyone heading south after AWP, please join me and Gretchen Primack for an afternoon of eco-fiction and poetry at Portland’s Central Library on Sunday, March 2, at 2 p.m. — click here for details.
An interview with Among Animals contributor Jean Ryan (“Greyhound”) by Jennifer Hartsock
Q: Jean, many of your short works are inspired by real life events—ranging from media, friends, or your expertise in the food industry. Do they offer many unexpected sources of inspiration?
A: Considered in a certain light, at a certain time, anything can be material for a story. If we are attentive and receptive, everything becomes an offering. There is a box of ashes on my dresser, the remains of my beloved cat. I had intended to scatter these ashes over an area in my backyard where my cat used to nap, but I have not been able to do this, not in fifteen years. The other day while dusting the dresser, I lifted this box and suddenly thought of the character in my latest story, a woman who, stranded by injury, ruminates on some incriminating evidence she has left behind. I slipped the box of ashes into the story, and this detail served to round out the woman’s character and make her more sympathetic, while also providing an evocative visual. Details are crucial, the right ones at the right time; as a writer I love rummaging through my options and finding the jewels. Sometimes, as in this instance, the jewels find me.
Q: You’ve stated in previous interviews that you enjoy how the mind makes unconscious connections. In “Greyhound,” our narrator adopts a rescued greyhound hoping to heal her partner, Holly. But, when Fawn bestows a reserved attitude, our narrator abandons the idea. Does our narrator’s new detachment unconsciously allow Holly and Fawn to heal?
A: Yes, I think so. Eczema is a chronic condition punctuated by flare-ups. There is only so much we can control in life; with illnesses like these, the less we worry and try to master them, the better. When the narrator brought Fawn home, she had high hopes that the dog would be just the tonic Holly needed. Fawn’s diffidence, her continuing unwillingness to run, was initially discouraging. The narrator was compelled to accept this and step back, allowing the dog and Holly to heal in their own time. Compassion is a wonderful thing, but we can sometimes hinder our loved ones with our concern over them.
Q: When Holly and Fawn appear to be on the mend, our narrator dismisses how long their “state of grace” might last. Does this suggest Fawn is a tool for distraction rather than potential growth between her owners?
A: I don’t believe Fawn serves as a distraction in this story as much as an example, a demonstration of the power of patience and forbearance. The narrator’s not needing to know how long Holly’s latest reprieve will last shows that she has become more comfortable with uncertainty, as well as the transitory nature of life in general. Holding on tightly, expecting too much, has not proved useful, and so she has adopted a more tolerant view. Nothing is guaranteed, nothing is forever, and this is knowledge she can live with.
Q: There is a strong primitive theme in “Greyhound,” from an Egyptian dog breed to Holly’s passion for creating dioramas of the Mesozoic era. What significance does ancient history have in your narrative? For example, are Holly and Fawn’s reserved and secretive natures (shown through Holly’s eczema and Fawn’s resistance to touch) connected to ancient history? Is Will’s resemblance to Christ similarly a historical reference?
A: This is interesting. I had not considered the historical references and their thematic contribution until now. Writing is a mysterious process, calling on both the conscious and subconscious mind, and the symbols that work their way into stories are often unintentional. I can tell you that I have been mesmerized by ancient history since I was a child—dinosaurs, pyramids, the Colosseum. I was hunting for fossils at the age of seven, and I still shiver when I look at the specimens I collected, some of them over 400 million years old. I also have remnants of human history, potshards and arrowheads. There is a calming quality to these treasures. It comforts me to know that the earth has been here such a long time, that creatures and people have come and gone, and my fate will be no different. This knowledge puts things in perspective and makes my one little life feel less urgent. Perhaps this big-picture perspective is what helps the characters in “Greyhound” become more peaceful and accepting. I can’t say for certain, but it’s an intriguing idea. I’m glad you raised the question.
Q: The narrator compares Fawn to a child with autism or a person who is paralyzed. What reaction did you anticipate this would have?
A: Comparing these maladies to Fawn’s condition was automatic. This dog was limited by her circumstances. As a race dog, she was not allowed a natural life, and she was consequently cautious and remote—effectively unreachable, at least for a time. Her refusal to run was another reflection of her dysfunction, and it seems plausible to me that in her dreams she would be running, doing what her body was made for. Animals have robust dreams—we can tell by their whimpers and movements—and why wouldn’t they?
Writers are cautioned against anthropomorphism, but I think there is a far greater danger in assuming that animals do not feel or exhibit a range of emotions. It is obvious that the way an animal is treated contributes to its behavior: whether it is friendly or cowed, aggressive or submissive. Like people, some animals are slow learners, others can’t relax; some are asocial, while others need constant attention. It takes no special talent to see these things. It only takes interest and empathy. I don’t know why everyone does not possess these qualities. I don’t know why decency needs to be legislated.
Q: Therapy dogs often accompany their owners on visits to regional hospitals, memory care facilities, assisted living centers, the local library, among other places. How do therapy dogs assist people with difficulties? Are certain facilities more therapy-pet friendly than others?
A: I am not familiar with access restrictions regarding therapy animals. I imagine that more and more places are opening their doors, understanding the importance of this practice. For the visually impaired, the value of guide dogs and miniature horses cannot be overestimated. Equally valuable are the animals that are brought into hospitals and other facilities for the solace they bring to the lonely and the fearful. People and animals co-habit this planet, and we are designed to share our joys and help each other through our difficulties.
An interview with Among Animals contributor Diane Lefer (“Alas, Falada!”)
Q: What inspired you to write this story?
A: As you know, I’ve been a volunteer at the Los Angeles Zoo for over sixteen years in the research department. I should make it clear there’s no invasive, nasty research. It’s all about behavioral observation and providing data to improve their housing and conditions so that the animals can live in the most natural and psychologically satisfying way possible in captivity. Over the years I’ve seen the creation of wonderful natural habitats. I’ve seen the bonds between animals and each other and with the zookeepers. I’ve been involved in some conservation efforts for endangered species. I’ve also seen how some of the animals are as curious about us, humans, as we are about them. Several years ago, before the gorillas had the Campo Gorilla Reserve (their new environment complete with high grasses and trees, climbing rocks, a waterfall, and places to hide), people used to sit on a bench across from the small exhibit and blow kisses at the big primates. One day, Evie escaped. What did she do? She went to the bench, sat, and blew kisses at her fellow gorillas. And when a baby was born in the Campo Gorilla Reserve, I remember the new mother carrying it in her arms up to the glass and showing it off to the gathered humans.
But it still breaks my heart to see any living creature in captivity. So I have very conflicted emotions about the life and death of zoo animals. I also get annoyed when I come across animals being used in fiction as symbols. I wanted to write about them—at least try to—in a way that respected their integrity as fully realized living creatures.
Q: At one point in the story, the narrator reflects, “If I could shed my humanness, I would.” What do you think are among the most important things humans can learn from animals?
A: From my cat, Desi, I learned a healthy way to trust. She showed every day that she loved me and trusted me with her life. At the same time she never hesitated to let me know when she disagreed with what I wanted. She showed me you can trust without relinquishing your own better judgment. If you express questions or objections or doubts, it doesn’t make you a suspicious, mean-spirited person. Blind obedience is not the same thing as trust.
There’s a lot more: I think as kids, we identify with animals and are always curious about them. Kids seem eager to find out all they can about animals, and that curiosity can open the door at an early age to enthusiasm about learning. I’ve written a bit about this for Wildlife Nation, which is a new initiative of the National Wildlife Federation. Its goal is to inspire kids to care about wildlife conservation while encouraging parents to get their children away from the on-screen virtual world and out into the natural world.
And we like to think animals are ruled by instinct, but when you’re around them, it’s clear there’s a wide range of temperament and behavior. Yet when it comes to human beings, we live at a time of standardized testing and one-size-fits-all. Animals are happy and well adjusted when their environment lets them develop and use their abilities. I wish our schools and the economic system that consigns millions of human kids to deprivation and poverty could understand that.
Q: How did your work at the Los Angeles Zoo influence this story?
A: Most of the time at the zoo, I’m observing the animals and have very little contact with people. But a couple of people did very much influence the story: Ruthie Yakushiji, a keeper who was transferred to research and told me stories; Anne La Rose, who invited me up to the Animal Health Center back in the days when she worked there. I should also acknowledge Tom Jacobson, a playwright who is also a senior vice president at the Natural Science Museum and told me about drawers full of beetles. I’m not fond of insects and would rather hear about them than be around them.
Q: Fairy tales such as the one you reference in “Alas, Falada!” can seem a bit scary to the children for whom they’re written. What effect did such stories have on you and how do you think they may have influenced your writing?
A: In fairy tales, for me, the princes and princesses and cobblers and swineherds were exotic. Only the animals were real. And in those stories, talking animals often befriend and help people in danger or facing some difficult challenge or quest.
I think it’s hard for children to relinquish the idea that animals—not just parrots—can use human speech. As a writer, I rely on words all the time, and I think anything you do all the time can get you into a rut so I love the change that occurs when you have to communicate nonverbally. As adults, we’re still seeking ways to do just that with the animal kingdom. We’re fascinated with nonhuman primates who communicate through sign language and pictograms. And studying animal behavior, you learn to interpret (the best you can) behavioral cues in zoos or in the wild. People who live with cats or dogs are always trying to interpret their nonverbal communication just as they try to understand us. There is something magical about that.
PBS’s documentary Parrot Confidential is a must-see for all bird lovers — and especially for those who may be thinking of a parrot as a pet. The film takes a close look at these amazing birds and shows why they should remain wild instead of in cages. (For a sneak preview, watch the trailer.)
We’ve taken a keen interest in parrots lately in part due to Gwyn Hyman Rubio’s stunning new novel LOVE AND ORDINARY CREATURES (forthcoming this fall), which is about a cockatoo named Caruso who is very much in love with his human caretaker, Clarissa, and also very jealous of the new man in Clarissa’s life. Snatched from the wild as a chick, Caruso is one of the most endearing fictional characters we’ve ever met — and Gwyn’s meticulously researched novel beautifully portrays all of the issues surrounding parrots in captivity.
Parrot Confidential is a fascinating and eye-opening film documenting how parrots are hardwired for the wild — yet an estimated 10-40 million live in captivity in the United States. Because they make such challenging pets, thousands are surrendered to sanctuaries each year. But what happens to the others?
We meet several of them in Parrot Confidential.
We meet Lou, a cockatoo who was left alone in a cage in a foreclosed home in Massachusetts. Lou was discovered after four days in an empty house, when a neighbor called animal control; Lou had a little water left but no food. The animal control officer described Lou’s situation as “utter heartbreak.” Lou is now home in a sanctuary with Foster Parrots.
We also meet Fagan, who was in a such a stressful home that he arrived at the Feathered Friends of Michigan sanctuary with most of his feathers plucked out and a big belly wound from self-mutilation. He was physically addicted to nicotine from living with smokers.
Most people have no idea what it means to care for a parrot. Parrots live up to 80 years and have never been domesticated. Their voices, meant to reach across forests, are too loud for the average home. Without the chance to have a mate, parrots bond strongly with their owners, usually one member of the household, and upon reaching sexual maturity can behave aggressively toward others. Parrots are seldom alone in the wild — even in flight, their mates are nearby — and the solitude of being a single bird in a cage is very stressful.
In 1992, the U.S. banned importation of wild birds — but people still capture and breed them here; there are no regulations. The message of this documentary, which features many former parrot breeders and buyers who now give them sanctuary, is loud and clear: Do not buy birds as pets.
Captive birds lead a horrible and unnatural life — humans clip their wings, put them in cages, and don’t allow these social birds to be with others of their species. Worse, parrots raised in captivity can’t be released in the wild. They have nothing but sanctuaries, most of which are all full.
Marc Johnson of Foster Parrots sums it up best. He often gets asked such questions as what the right-sized cage for a macaw is. His reply: “There is no right-sized cage for a macaw. It’s 35 square miles. It’s the sky.”