Baby steps to a better world

Living a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle has its challenges. As Portia de Rossi (who, along with her wife, Ellen DeGeneres, is vegan) told VegNews, “I think it’s more difficult to be vegan than gay.” She noted that eating vegetarian meals among meat eaters is “kind of suggesting that what someone else is doing is bad or wrong, and it hits them on a more personal level … they’re thinking that you’re trying to preach to them or you’re trying to convert them in some way.”

This can certainly be true; even as many of us eat our veggie meals without any preaching at all, the choice not to eat animals is then present in the minds of those who still do. The issue has come up at the vast majority of meals I eat with non-veg folks, with the comments ranging from curious to interested to judgmental. And it’s always hard to know what to say, especially when the hope is to enlighten, not to aggravate.

So, if asked, I often I talk about how it took me many baby steps to become completely vegan — from clinging to the notion that I couldn’t live without cheese (especially brie) to being unaware that I used cosmetics produced by a company that tests on animals. It’s the everyday choices we make, and often the smallest ones, that make a difference. And most of the time, it’s a gradual process.

What many people don’t realize is that if every American ate just one vegetarian meal a week, it would be similar to taking five million cars off the road, not to mention saving countless animals from the unspeakable cruelty of factory farms. This is pretty doable for most folks.

But what people also may not realize is that it’s not all about food — there are so many (easy) ways to be conscious of cruelty and to make simple choices that make a huge difference. As Piper Hoffman points out in this article on Our Hen House, food is the largest source of animal cruelty (“over ten billion land animals are killed for food every year in the United States alone”), yet other industries do horrific damage as well (nearly “one billion animals are killed in U.S. laboratories, and around 50 million are killed for fur worldwide.” There are ample opportunities to prevent cruelty by making changes not only in what you eat, but what you wear and what you use every day. Piper offers six steps you can take toward living a cruelty-free life. And I thought Rory Freedman’s new book, Beg, did a great job of pointing out all the ways in which we can save animals from harm.

Everyday items, from toothpaste to lotions to shampoo, are things we don’t often think about — but we should. From the moment I read about rabbits who break their own spines trying to escape the torture inflicted upon them for beauty products (usually sprayed directly into their eyes), I make sure anything I buy has not been tested on animals. It’s a simple thing, easy to do, and doesn’t cost me anything more but a few extra moments of time.

Many people think that to buy cruelty-free, they need to shop at  Whole Foods or overpriced health-food stores — not true at all. Clearly, if you do go to places like this, you don’t have to shop around quite as much — most of these products are cruelty free because that is part of the store’s mission. Also, you’re more likely to find products that are completely vegan. If however, you’re in a Safeway or a Target, you can still make choices that count. How do you know which products are protecting animals or harming them? I keep this page bookmarked on my cell phone so that I can look it up if I have to. It takes only a few minutes — but why not buy Nivea (no animal testing) over Neutrogena (which does test on animals)?

And, for those of you who don’t like to buy your mascara at Whole Foods (not that there’s anything wrong with that), it takes no more than a few extra minutes to do a little research before heading for the cosmetics counter. For reasons that are clear, the companies that do conduct animal testing (from Johnson & Johnson to Procter & Gamble to Estee Lauder) don’t advertise it, so you do have to check. And checking is always worthwhile; for example, I learned that while Clarins isn’t on this list of companies that do not test on animals, its website states that it was the first French company to ban animal testing. Whatever your favorite product may, be check to see if what their values are — and if they don’t align with yours, make a switch.

You can begin with Piper’s six tips — or follow your own path. It’s not about changing overnight or making drastic sacrifices but about making the world a better place, one step at a time.

The Tourist Trail is the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Animal Book Club pick for May

I am thrilled to announce that John’s novel, The Tourist Trail, has been chosen by the Animal Legal Defense Fund‘s Animal Book Club as its May book club pick!

The ALDF is an amazing organization that has been fighting since 1979 to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system — and in addition to all its great work, the ALDF is encouraging readers to engage with these important issues through literature.

In its review, the Animal Book Club calls The Tourist Trail a “brave novel” that “demonstrates the importance of fighting for justice for animals within the bounds of the law in a moving show of compassion for all those who advocate for animals.”


Click here to read more — and don’t miss this Q&A with John in which he discusses penguins, activism, veganism, and animal advocacy in literature. You’ll also learn about the inspiration for the penguin character Diesel, whose identity has long been fiercely protected. (Kidding: Turbo actually has his own Facebook page.)


The Animal Book Club is also giving away three copies of The Tourist Trail to lucky readers — and you can qualify to win in two easy steps: visit the website and leave a comment, and join ALDF’s Animal Book Club by signing up here (it’s free, of course!). If you love animals, it’s well worth joining — the book club will features fiction, nonfiction, short stories, and films, not to mention author interviews and fantastic giveaways.

Happy reading!

Happy anniversary to Equamore sanctuary

It was such a delight to spend Saturday evening at the Equamore Foundation horse sanctuary in Ashland — the sanctuary is celebrating another year of rescuing and rehabilitating abused and abandoned horses, and a crowd of supporters gathered to drink champagne and visit with Equamore staff and the beautiful horses who are Equamore’s success stories.

Equamore party

Among Equamore’s recent success stories is Royal Crown (RC), who arrived at Equamore in February suffering from severe neglect and starvation, as you can see in the photo below.

RC before

The Jackson County Sheriff’s office stepped in, and RC was brought to Equamore. After only one night in a cozy stall, with a blanket and special food, RC became bright, curious and friendly. And he eagerly greeted visitors during the anniversary party — he loves affection, particularly scritches behind his beautiful ears. He now has a permanent home at Equamore.


Another new addition to Equamore is Jewel, a chestnut mare who was surrendered by her owner. Back in 2008, she bolted and fled after her rider fell off, which is not uncommon, and she didn’t receive veterinary care but was instead deemed “dangerous” and later advertised as free on Craigslist. An examination eventually revealed that Jewel had suffered injuries consistent with a major impact to her left side, most likely from all the way back in 2008.  The only way Jewel had been able to communicate her suffering was to react with “bad” behavior. Now she is at Equamore, where she will live the remainder of her life with people who understand her fear and who have the skill and patience to complete her recovery. Below is a photo of Jewel, safe and happy in her stall — and you can learn more about her story here.


It’s always so inspiring to visit Equamore — not only to see these formerly abused horses thriving and happy but to witness the passion and compassion of the people who care for them. If you’d like to learn more, visit Equamore’s website — and click here for information on how to donate. You can also sponsor an individual horse if you’d like — simply click on a horse’s page to learn more and to make a donation.

Celebrate Earth Day & win free books!

For Earth Day, Ashland Creek Press is offering an eco-fiction sampler and book giveaway.


Simply email Ashland Creek Press at editors [at] ashlandcreekpress [dot] com, on or before April 22, using the subject line EARTH DAY, and you’ll receive a copy of our Eco-Fiction Sampler, which features excerpts of six works of environmental fiction.

You’ll also be entered to win a copy of one of the six eco-fiction titles from the sampler — we’re giving away one environmentally friendly e-book and one paperback (printed on paper from Sustainable Forestry Initiative certified sourcing), so please mention your preference in your email.

When you enter the giveaway, you’ll be added to our mailing list, from which you can unsubscribe at any time (and your info will never be shared).

For more about Ashland Creek Press, click here. For more about our environmental literature, click here.

Happy Earth Day!

A Q&A with SURVIVAL SKILLS author Jean Ryan

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