Category: On animals

A Q&A with SURVIVAL SKILLS author Jean Ryan

By Midge Raymond,

Q&A with Jean Ryan, author of SURVIVAL SKILLS: STORIES

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and how long did it take you to write it?

A: These stories were written over a period of several years. As they began to gel into a collection, I was able to understand what interests me most as a writer: the natural world and the vulnerability and interdependency of all living things. I enjoy exploring the connections, the synchronicities, the quiet miracles underlying the world we see. Fear and the relative fragility of the human mind fascinate me in particular.

Most of the stories were inspired by something I had read or a show I had seen. “Migration” issued from the real story of a Toulouse goose that lived in a park in Los Angeles and became smitten with one of the visitors. “Looks for Life” also came from real events—a co-worker told me about a friend of his whose life changed after a plastic surgeon rebuilt his face. “Waiting for Annie” followed a special I had seen on coma, the “silent epidemic.” Improved emergency response techniques and sophisticated life support machines are keeping more and more lives in this eerie state of suspension. Especially intriguing to me is the mind’s ability to make connections by itself, to persist without the complement of consciousness. “Paradise” emerged from a program I had watched about intelligence in birds, parrots in particular. One bird had acquired a prodigious vocabulary and this stirred my imagination. I thought it would be fun to work this creature into a story, to use him in fact as a main character. In order to create conflict, the parrot in this tale is malicious as well as brilliant. The extravagance of Palm Springs, its artificial overlay, seemed an apt parallel to the various indulgences that Max enjoyed in his man-made abode.


Q: Do you have a special routine or place in which you write?

A: I write in the mornings, in my living room, using a laptop computer. However, I think about my stories anywhere and everywhere, so you might say that I am always in the process of writing—either mulling over scenes in a particular story or absorbing ideas for future stories.

I usually start making notes for a story in longhand. After I have a few paragraphs down, I  switch to the computer. I love the ease with which text can be manipulated, and paper saved, using a computer. I edit as a I write. Manuals on writing will invariably instruct you otherwise, but my method is more like a stone mason’s: A sentence must be as strong as I can make it before layering on another. I am obsessive about finding the right word. Occasionally a word that perfectly defines an idea is not a word that fits rhythmically, so I will use a slightly different word in order to achieve the right sound. The rhythm of a sentence is very important to me, and I hear phrases as I write them.

Q: Do you prefer writing short stories over novels?

A: Yes. I love the immediacy of the short form, the way it pulls the reader into a situation quickly. I think the quality of writing in literary short fiction is superior to the writing in most novels. Novels often carry too much exposition and padding. Short pieces must get to the point quickly. This urgency requires distillation, a challenge I revel in—delivering a scene or idea as clearly as I can.

Q: What was the most difficult aspect of your book’s journey?

A: Finding a publisher. Despite shrinking attentions spans in this information age, people are still inclined to buy a novel over a book of short stories. Publishers know this, so few of them will consider buying short story collections. I would like to think that as more people embrace the various digital platforms available now, with single stories more widely available, the short form will have a revival.


Q: Do you have a favorite story?

A: “Paradise” and “The Side Bar” are probably my favorites. I had fun with the humor in “Paradise,” and I enjoyed creating a parrot with an agenda—I love Max! “The Side Bar” is a more serious story, which actually began as a novel. As the story expanded, I saw that it was headed in a direction that didn’t ring true, so I focused back in on the bar itself and the troubled characters it contained. The desert is a compelling backdrop for human experience, and I admire those who can withstand its haunting openness.

Q: Which story did you feel was most challenging to write? And were there any that came so naturally they seemed to write themselves?

A: “Remediation” was probably my most challenging story, inspired by a woman I knew and respected. Writing about her was difficult at times; I miss her very much. The story that came most easily—and this is so rare—is “Survival Skills.” The tone of this piece presented itself to me, and the juxtaposition of plant and human felt natural. Having worked at a nursery for several years, I’ve had ample time to witness, and envy, the grace inherent in the plant world. While we blunder through our human lives, plagued with questions, stalled by indecision, plants steadily assert themselves, taking just what they need and giving more than they take. For even a moment or two, I would like to possess that certainty.

Q: Who are your own literary muses?

A: My own literary muses are writers whose talent takes my breath away: Virginia Woolf, Jean Thompson, Lorrie Moore, Antonya Nelson, Amy Hempel, Marisa Silver, Annie Proulx, Joan Didion, Stuart Dybek, James Lasdun, Rick Bass. In the genre of poetry, I am in constant awe of Mary Oliver. Reading the exceptional work of others gives me hope that I can achieve something close. I can at least try, can put forth my own ideas. There are countless writers in the world, and there is room for every one of us. No one can write your story but you.

Learn more about Jean (as well as ACP authors Mindy Mejia and Olivia Chadha) in the Book Divas Ask a New Author column, which began in January and runs until June. Find answers to such questions as how to keep the faith in your work, revision tips, and more. You can also ask your own questions by sending them to

Ask a New Author


Protecting the environment is, for some, a life and death battle

By John Yunker,

In the US, we see our share of environmental battles. But more often than not these battles are waged in courtrooms and in the media.

In poorer countries, these battles are waged on the land itself, with few witnesses, and they are increasingly fatal.

According to the group Global Witness, activists and locals who are simply trying to protect their land are being killed in growing numbers.

Says the report:

The briefing, A Hidden Crisis?, finds that over 711 people appear to have been killed in the last decade – more than one a week. In 2011 the toll was 106 people, almost doubling over the past three years.

Here’s the PDF report.

I recently read about a horrible incident at a sanctuary at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Poachers armed with AK47s killed seven members of the organization, burned every building down, and killed 15 okapi.

The poachers weren’t there for the okapi. They were searching for ivory tusks.

The naturalists and the okapi they had fought so hard to protect — they were merely bycatch.

The ivory market is thriving, thanks in large part to China. According to this article:

Last year, some 24 tons of ivory was seized around the world — the product of an estimated 2,500 elephants — making it the worst year for elephant poaching since an international ban on commercial ivory trading began in 1989, according to Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network.

Eight of 10 elephants that die are killed by poachers.

And as this incident so brutally illustrates, elephants are not the only living creatures who suffer.

The Okapi Wildlife Reserve is rebuilding. And they need donations. If you’ve got a few dollars to spare, you can donate here.

Vegan dining in Boston

By Midge Raymond,

When I was in Boston last week for AWP, I ventured from downtown Boston over to Somerville to try the vegan restaurant True Bistro, which was well worth the rush-hour T ride and the windy, sleety 10-minute walk.

Boston is one of my favorite cities ever (I lived there for 10 years and still miss it), but if you’re downtown, you’ll find lots of meat on restaurant menus (not just the usual but boar, rabbit, duck, and other animals I don’t like to ponder being on my plate), and often vegans have to make a few off-menu adjustments. So I was thrilled, of course, to find a place where I could order anything off the menu without asking a lot of questions about it.

True Bistro is a lovely, peaceful little place; it was quiet when my friend and I arrived, and had filled up with a pleasant hum by the time we left.


They have a nice wine list and make a kick-ass martini — and this, naturally, is where we began. Next: my friend had the house-made ravioli (with sweet potato and galangal filling and lemongrass coconut cream) to start, and I had the soup du jour, which was a creamy mushroom bisque with cashew cream drizzled on top. I’d post photos, but alas, we both polished our appetizers off too quickly…they were absolutely delicious.

Dinner was even more delicious, which we didn’t think was possible. My friend had the phyllo triangles with caramelized onions, swiss chard, seasoned tofu, and sorrel cream.


And I had the red curry with tofu, baby bok choy, winter squash, king oyster mushrooms, and grilled rice cake (it was between that and the Vietnamese crepe, and our server recommended the curry). I was not disappointed…it tasted as beautiful as it looks.


Every bite was amazing, and I can’t recommend True Bistro highly enough. My friend, a non-vegan, was as impressed as I was — it’s the perfect restaurant for anyone who appreciates the importance of taking care of one’s health, the world’s animals, and the planet (as the restaurant’s mission states: “Of particular concern to many vegans are the inhumane practices inherent in factory farming and the intensive use of land and other resources for animal farming that creates widespread air and water pollution.”).

My only regret is that we didn’t have room for the desserts…I really wanted to try (among others) the death-by-chocolate cake, featuring whipped coconut cream and crunchy shattered caramel. Next time, I’ll start with that.

To Celebrate the Human-Animal Bond, a Museum is Born

By John Yunker,

Animal History Museum

Since awakening to animal rights issues I’ve been steadily reading books that document the evolving (and too often tragic) relationships between humans and animals. And while books have a role to play in opening our eyes, there are so many other avenues to explore. Which is why I was thrilled to discover the Animal History Museum, a relatively new initiative based in Los Angeles.

Executive Director Amy Breyer was kind enough to answer a few of my questions. Here they are…

Q: What is the mission of the Animal History Museum?

The Animal History Museum is the first museum dedicated to understanding and celebrating the human-animal bond. Its purpose is to serve and educate the public through the creation of a museum in Los Angeles County, California, for the collection, preservation, and exploration of the history, culture, science, and law relating to the relationship between human and non-human animals, and by presenting exhibitions, lectures, and other activities that are consistent with, and supportive of, the museum’s educational goals and purpose.

Our goal is to create a place for the thoughtful exploration of one of the most complex and enduring – but historically trivialized – aspects of civilization: the human’s relationship with (non-human) animals. We plan to examine the various issues surrounding the human-animal bond; the history of animals in society, in art and literature, animal welfare, rights and law; as well as various other cultural topics in a way that will hopefully raise awareness and provide the opportunity for visitors to think more carefully about society’s – and their own – interactions with, and treatment of, animals.

Q: What have been your most popular exhibits so far?

Our online exhibit: Breaking Stereotypes: America’s Pit Bull Rescues and the Human-Animal Bond

This exhibit was crowd-sourced from a Facebook event we ran during spring 2012. We received more than 100 entries, and hundreds of people voted for the winning entry that’s going to become one of the human interest stories that will help illustrate our human-animal bond exhibit.

Q: And what exhibits do you have planned?

We have an online exhibit planned for later this spring examining the complex relationship between people and yaks in the Tibetan highlands. Yaks fill many roles in this desolate region of the earth, from a source of companionship to wool to food. This exhibit is not yet titled.

Q: How you came to be involved with the museum?

The museum was really the evolution of my work as an animal law attorney in Chicago. It became painfully clear after a number of years that no matter how solid a case I had, judges and juries just weren’t ready to “go there” when it came to recognizing that non-human lives had value. By the time someone is sitting on the bench or in a jury box, the perspectives and experiences they bring with them will shape the outcome of any matter. When I moved to California for personal reasons in 2010, I started to think about how to engage the public in a non-confrontational exploration of animal issues to help inform those perspectives. Whether someone is serving as a juror or doing anything else, they should be able to have a frame of reference for the important roles that animals play in our lives and societies that includes more than just the trivializing stereotypes rooted in our past. The museum format was a natural fit.

Q: How can people help support the museum?

Please donate! Visit and look to the “Join Us” tab to purchase a membership or make a donation. There are also opportunities to volunteer time, skills (i.e., construction) or equipment (exhibit technology) or donate a collection of art or artifacts. Have something to share not mentioned here? Email us at and let’s talk!

Q: Where do you see the museum five years from now?

We hope to have our brick-and-mortar space long since open and be part of the landscape of L.A. museums for residents and tourists to enjoy!

  Category: On animals
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In conversation with FLOAT author JoeAnn Hart & cover artist Karen Ristuben

By Midge Raymond,

In conversation with Float author JoeAnn Hart and  cover artist Karen Ristuben

JoeAnn Hart is the author of Float, a “witty, profound, and beautifully observed” (Margot Livesey) novel about family, the environment, and life in a hardscrabble seaside town in Maine. Karen Ristuben is an award-winning artist and educator whose work is environmental advocacy at its core.

JoeAnn and Karen, who both live in Gloucester, Massachusetts, recently talked about their work and their passion for environmental awareness.

Q, from KAREN RISTUBEN: JoeAnn, when did you become aware of the problem of marine plastics, and how did you get inspired to write about it?

A: JOEANN HART: Living in Gloucester, where I have lived for over thirty years, you can’t not be aware that the beaches are lousy with plastic washed up from the sea. During the summer, beach crews arrive at dawn to groom the sand, taking away the plastic debris with the seaweed, so tourists are spared the unsightly mess. For those of us who are here year-round, we watch marine plastics wash up, and we watch them wash back out, twice a day with the tides. So when I started writing Float, I realized that if I was going to write about life in a coastal town, plastics were going to play a part, because they’re all around us in increasingly menacing ways. Float begins when the protagonist, Duncan, rescues a seagull choking on a plastic six-pack holder that the bird tried to eat, mistaking it for food. Plastics are not just an issue of unsightly litter on the shoreline, they’re a killer.


 Q, from JOEANN: Karen, how long have you been focused on plastics and the ocean? What was the moment when you said to yourself, I want to follow this thread of ocean pollution in my art and my life? 

A: KAREN: In 2010 I was in graduate school and, in the midst of a tough critique, one of my very wise professors said, “If indeed we are interested in nature, we need to seriously consider what that means today. The illusion is that we have access to unspoiled, unpolluted ocean. But our relationship with nature is so tenuous. When we romanticize nature, we re-inscribe the illusion that everything is fine, that nature is a contemplative space, a nurturing space. But we can’t undermine the urgency of the moment. So be careful, he said. Ask what the community needs. Ask: What is at risk? What is at stake? What is urgent?”


This was a watershed moment for me, as I’d been using the ocean as an aesthetic subject rather than considering what it needed from me. When I started picking plastic off the beach and researching the complex, global issue of marine plastic pollution I realized that I could try to do something about it.

Q, from KAREN: How did you go about researching the plastics issue for Float, and were you surprised by anything you learned?

A: JOEANN: Once I began to explore the issue of marine plastics in books and articles, online and off, I was stunned by the enormity of the problem. Not just the sheer amount of plastics in the oceans, estimated at billions of tons annually, but the toxicity of it. There is no such thing as biodegradable plastic. It never goes anywhere; it just continues to break down into smaller bits, eventually to the size of plankton. The fish eat the plastic and incorporate the toxic chemicals into their flesh, including endocrine disrupters. Then we eat the fish. Or we feed fishmeal to our livestock. Plastics are so new—the soda bottle was only invented in 1977— that it is only in the past few years that the scientific evidence has emerged about their danger to human health, including infertility and a host of other problems, even obesity.

Q, from JOEANN: Tell me about your art before you became interested in environmental themes. For example, what was your medium and subject matter? 

A: KAREN: I worked in glass for a long time, combining it with other materials, like rusted metal, into sculptural forms. Then I began to look at the properties of glass—reflectivity and transparency—and thought about those properties coexisting and interchanging as the light source changes. And I realized that water does the same thing, so with photography and video I studied the refractions and reflections generated when water and glass meet.  Living on the ocean, I had a constant visual source for wave patterns and shifting light.

The cover of Float came from that body of work. I have a collection of car windows, and I would take them out into the watery places of our environment here on Cape Ann—vernal pools, ice patches, ponds, the beach—and photograph how they reflected, distorted, and inverted the surrounding landscape. Multiple windows would produce multiple dimensions of sky, water, whatever. And sometimes a breeze would move the water surface so the photograph would catch that one moment of a manmade object obstructing a wave or a ripple.

Q, from KAREN: The phrase “God Help Us” is forever stuck in my brain now that I’ve read Float.  Do you hope for the book to inspire change and if so, how?

A: JOEANN: There are all different ways to inspire change. I have been to your program, “Just, One Word …,” where you share what you discovered firsthand on a research vessel in the Pacific Gyre. You make it visual and personal. You tell your story, and people connect and are able to better understand the problem. I tell a story, too, in Float, only mine comes from the imagination in fictional form. Having said that, in fiction, it is death to proselytize. All a writer can do is tell a good story, bringing in environmental challenges, and let the characters wrestle with the issues. It would be great if readers were then inspired to change their behavior and use less plastic. It would be even better if they lobbied for funding to invent a truly biodegradable plastic. Recycling is good, but it’s a drop in the bucket. We can try to use less plastic, but in the modern world, it is almost impossible to live without it. The computer I’m writing on is mostly plastic. New cars have 300 pounds of plastic in them. We need safe alternatives to what we use now.  When I realized that, invention became the moving force in Float (think plastic made out of jellyfish). Now we just need smart science to make it come true.

Q, from JOEANN: I know you’ve developed a presentation called “Just, One Word …” to bring attention to the Pacific Gyre, where you travelled to see the mess we’ve made of the oceans. Where do you bring “Just, One Word …,” and what’s been the reception?

A: KAREN: I’ve presented “Just, One Word …” to a few thousand people over the last two years and yes, many of the images and information came from my voyage across the North Pacific Gyre with Algalita Marine/5 Gyres scientists in 2011. The presentation covers the issue of marine plastic pollution through the lenses of industry, science, politics, and economics. I’ve presented it in colleges, high schools, middle schools, art venues, community centers, and marine science conferences all over the country. The reception has been incredibly positive, I think, in part because it presents the issues clearly, in lay terms, and based on an accessible narrative. Also, its multimedia components of video, photography, sound, music, charts, and diagrams are presented as a performance/lecture rather than a straight didactic lecture.

Q, from KAREN: Can you talk about the role of humor and irony in your writing? It’s a great window into the gritty subjects you tackle! 


A: JOEANN: While characters are wrestling with the dangers of marine plastics, readers must be entertained and totally involved if they are going to keep on reading. Humor is one way of doing this. It helps us deal with our own absurdity. Laughter is often the result of a sudden truth about ourselves, whether individually or as a species. Here we are, big-brained humans in the twenty-first century, supposedly the smartest animals who ever walked the earth, and we are killing ourselves and our world with our own cleverness. What else can you do but laugh? The saving grace in all this is that I believe that the cleverness that got us into this environmental mess will get us out of it. If that doesn’t happen before it’s too late, well then, the joke will be on us.

Q, from JOEANN: What do you see in the future, in terms of how your art will evolve, and what are you working on now?

A: KAREN: I believe that art is a representation of our human response to the world, so I expect that my art will continue to evolve as I respond to events affecting our natural world. I’m currently working on the Synergy Project, where eight artists are linked with eight marine scientists from MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. We are making work that will be exhibited at Boston’s Museum of Science from February to June 2013.

I’ve collaborated with Sophie Chu, a marine chemist studying how the ocean’s changing chemistry is affecting the ability of pteropods—shell-bearing plankton—to survive. One-third of the excessive carbon dioxide we dump into our atmosphere—coal-burning power plants, industrial emissions, cars, air conditioners—is absorbed by the ocean. This causes a chemical reaction resulting in lower pH, which means that the ocean is becoming more acidic and causing shellfish to corrode.

I’ve acidified 350 white eggshells and will show them in a large sculptural installation with a video component. The work demonstrates the effects of ocean acidification of calcium carbonate structures (eggs and shellfish). And there are 350 to signify the 350 parts per million in atmospheric carbon that most scientists agree we need to strive for so as not to face a major marine extinction. We are now at 390 ppm and rising.