Category: The writing life


An interview with Among Animals contributor C.S. Malerich

By Midge Raymond,

Charlotte Malerich, whose story “Meat” appeared in the first edition of AMONG ANIMALS, is back with another amazing story, “Phoenix Cross,” in AMONG ANIMALS 2And join Charlotte in person at The Potter’s House in Washington, D.C., on Friday, October 14, at 7 p.m., for a reading and a discussion about the relationships among humans and animals.   

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Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: The life of food animals is a constant source of inspiration and horror. I went vegetarian and finally vegan in my teens, after I became aware that literally billions of animals are living out short, miserable, crowded lives in the meat and dairy industry every moment. It’s an awareness that sits in the back of my mind constantly, and writing about that, fictionalizing it, is like an exorcism. It’s a way to handle the despair I’d feel otherwise, and I suppose it’s also a way to force my readers to take on that awareness. Perhaps that’s a nasty thing to do, from the readers’ perspective. But from the animals’ perspective, the more awareness the better.

This story in particular came about because chickens get so little empathy and respect. In the culture I live in, people seem to have an easier time feeling for mammals than for birds. Birds are even exempt from the federal U.S. regulations for humane slaughter — so legally you can kill a duck without desensitizing them, but not a pig. And I think most vegans can relate to the experience I’ve had, of people telling you that they don’t eat “red meat,” only chicken(s), as if this is somehow progressive. In reality, Americans kill more animals than ever because of this trend, so where’s the progress? I grew up in the suburbs, but my neighbors kept chickens; as an adult, I’ve visited sanctuaries and met rescued chickens. They aren’t any less interesting or alive or individual than a rabbit or a horse. They aren’t less deserving of full lives. So with this story, I really wanted to push that button and give birds their due.

Q: What was your writing/research process?

A: I had this idea that an immortal creature would make the perfect object of exploitation, because it keeps regenerating itself, no matter what you do to it. I love taking elements of mythology and folklore and putting them in a mundane context–like how would a phoenix fit into a modern capitalist society? So I started writing from the perspective of a phoenix in a factory farm, more as an exercise for myself than anything else. Trying to capture that very non-human perspective forced me to figure out what it is that I, as a human, share with a bird, i.e., what really makes this creature relatable to me? It came down to very basic, physical experiences: hunger, thirst, heat and cold, desire for space and freedom of movement. Then the cycle of this mythological creature’s life — birth, life, death — became a natural metaphor for the fact that in the real world, it isn’t just a single animal who is confined, maimed, and killed; it’s billions, over and over again. The suffering doesn’t end with the individual animal’s death, because it’s repeated and multiplied, so long as the industry continues and grows.

But that wasn’t a story; it was just a cycle of experiences. So I put it aside for a long time, and it wasn’t until years later that I picked it up again, after I’d read a short story by Nalo Hopkinson which also involved an egg and the magical bird (which was very, very different from mine). This time, I tried writing the experience of the creatures on the other side: the human farmers who were maintaining the system that’s oppressing the birds — humans who are also being oppressed by the same system. Then I had a story! There was conflict, but more importantly there was also hope for intervention and change. I went through a lot of revisions, partly because I had very specific ideas about including the human and avian perspectives, and a lot of it just didn’t work for my readers — who are all human, after all. I had to trim the story down and find ways to lead human readers into the bird’s experience.

I was also doing a lot of research to make sure I got the details right. I looked at the investigations of groups like Mercy for Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, and United Poultry Concerns; but most importantly for my human protagonist Joe and his family’s predicament, I read The Meat Racket by Christopher Leonard. Leonard’s a free-market, anti-regulation guy, yet his observations about life for these farmers who contract with the big agriculture companies like Tyson match what you’d find in more liberal sources like Food Inc. or Michael Pollan. I’m not a farmer myself. I don’t claim to speak for farmers. But, without minimizing the suffering that non-human animals’ experience, I tried to tell a story that was honest about the stresses and the changes in the industry that human farmers are coping with.

Q: Many farms are family businesses, and in this story Joe begins to empathize with the animals, while the rest of his family continues to see them as a commodity. Do you feel it’s possible for empathy to grow even when one’s livelihood depends on raising animals for food?

A: It’s definitely possible. There’s Howard Lyman, for example, who was a fourth-generation rancher and ultimately became a vigorous animal rights and environmental activist. He may be the most prominent, but he’s not unique. I’ve heard other vegans’ stories that began when they encountered animals with whom they connected on a farm — sometimes their family’s. It’s very natural to feel empathy for another sentient creature, and horror when they are treated as nothing more than a commodity. Farm workers absolutely experience it.

In most cases, though, I do think this empathy gets stifled by the immediate demands of the job, and the consequences for the workers and their families if they don’t do it. The threat of bankruptcy, of losing homes, of not being able to pay medical bills — these are very real. I don’t want to ignore them. There’s also a social and cultural cost to changing a way of life that might have been in your family for generations, and tied up in ideas about heritage and independence (even though you may be completely beholden to a vast corporation now). Under that kind of stress, I don’t expect human beings to be compassionate and far-sighted. I’m not. Often the most we can do is slack off and surreptitiously look for a way out — but that just removes us personally from the process, it doesn’t put an end to the exploitation as a whole. If one farmer decides they don’t want to kill chickens anymore, the industry can hire another. And that’s a recipe to feeling powerless.

So ultimately, I think we need an analysis that doesn’t pit human interests against the interests of other species, but sees us all (chicken, human, fish, whatever) as victims of the same oppressive system. What makes Joe the protagonist of the story and not another member of the family is his consistent animosity toward the company: in other words, his enemy is the same as the birds’, even if the nature of the relationship differs. He’s also unique in his family in that he never made a choice about his profession, but has this role laid out for him from childhood. Even if we’re vegan today, most of us grew up eating meat (and sometimes killing animals for other people to eat) simply because it’s what our parents did and what they expected us to do. As Joe is growing more aware of the birds’ situation, he’s also growing more aware — and more angry — about his own.

Analogies like this are always a little crass, but I’m going to go ahead, and I’ll take the criticism if it comes: Let’s compare this to the national movement against mass incarceration. More and more people understand that the American justice system is biased against black, brown, and working-class people. We incarcerate far too many people, for too long. Yet attempts to end this always meet opposition, and not just from private prison corporations or the industries that use prison labor. It comes from prison guard unions, too, and it’s pretty clear why. It isn’t as if the average corrections officer is making six figures, living high, but they are able to provide for their family, get health insurance, and save for retirement. They have stability, and they’re going to fight to keep it. So if we really care about humans or any other animals locked up in cages, we have to fight for the kind of economy that’s going to give workers — en masse — an option to walk away from the slaughterhouse or the detention center. I’m encouraged by the transitional approach that’s happening in parts of the renewable energy movement, like the agreement made around the closing of Diablo Canyon, the last nuclear power plant in California. Friends of the Earth was able to organize with the utility workers, so that the ultimate agreement with the company includes retraining and retention for those workers, so they can move on to other jobs and aren’t going to just get laid off.

Q: In your story, technology helps corporations make more money from animals. What role do you think technology can play in favor of the rights of animals?

A: I view science and the expansion of human knowledge generally as a force for good — or at least not a force for bad. And technology is just the application of knowledge to solve a practical problem. Once something new is invented, or new areas of knowledge are open, there are a whole range of possible applications. Drones can be used for dropping bombs or expanding a corporate delivery empire, or drones can be used to investigate factory farms and show people what is really going on there, as Will Potter is doing. Lots of other people are using their ingenuity to answer questions other than how to increase profits. The fact that we can grow human tissues and actually simulate whole body systems now makes the animal testing industry look pretty backward. I’d also include green technologies as a net gain for animals: if we are serious about the rights of other species, we have to preserve the planet that we are all living on, and a major overhaul of our energy sources has to be part of that. (So does changing our diet.)

Overall though, I’m not too optimistic that technology itself is the answer to animal exploitation because in many areas, it isn’t as if animal industries are just waiting around to be shown a better way. In movies, of course, I’m pleased when a director uses CGI animals on screen instead of live animals, but the ability to tell stories about animals without animals has been around for generations — in clay or hand-drawn animation, in puppets, in costumes, in other media like music or text. Bambi came out in 1942, and the book was published in 1923. I haven’t seen it, but I find it hard to believe that Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is a better piece of environmental fiction — though, yes, good for him for using only CGI animals. I’m also leery of turning animal rights into a marketing tool, the way Wayne Pacelle of HSUS suggests. His appeal is really to corporate capitalists: “Hey! Be animal friendly and you’ll make more money!” I’m skeptical that that approach is going to pay off in the larger scheme of things.

What I’d really like to challenge people who care about animals to do is to be part of a larger movement for social justice, so that we all can focus our time, energy, and skills on solving problems where the bottom line isn’t what kind of profit we’re going to get, but how we are going to insure a basic, decent standard of living for all human beings that also puts us in an ecological balance with other species and with the planet. The major deficit in that struggle isn’t cool new technologies; I think it’s political and economic freedom.

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Q: What are you writing now?

A: Thank you for asking! My main project is an urban fantasy novel, that is currently morphing into something closer to New Weird. I also have shorter pieces that I am polishing: a novelette about witchcraft and a group of striking textile workers in the 1830s and several different short stories. One of my co-workers and I have an ongoing zine project about life in a public library. I have more ideas for stories than I have time to write, which I suppose is a better problem to have than the opposite.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?

A: Lots of love for chickens, a little compassion for farmers, and burning hatred for capitalism.

Less flippantly: I’m very curious where readers’ sympathies will lie at the end of this story. First, the story draws us into Joe and his family’s situation, and then, along with Joe, we’re drawn even further out of our own experience, into the birds’ situation. It’s like a nesting box. And I hope we identify with and ultimately respect how these creatures — the birds as well the human beings — endure and struggle to control their own bodies and live decent lives. If readers come away with multiple levels of awareness and solidarity, then I’ve accomplished my goal.

An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Rachel King

By Midge Raymond,

Thanks to Among Animals 2 contributor Rachel King for answering our questions about her story, “A Normal Rabbit.” And save the date: Rachel will be appearing with Catherine Evleshin at Annie Bloom’s in Portland, Oregon, on Thursday, October 13, at 7 p.m. for a reading from Among Animals 2. 

Q: What inspired you to write this story?
A: My friend works with special needs kids, and I showed rabbits in 4-H when I was a kid. Both areas of knowledge inspired this story.

Q: What was your writing/research process?
A: I challenged myself to write a story that happened in one day, and this story flowed from there.

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Q:  How does using animals in 4-H clubs (putting them in shows, raising them as food) affect the children in your story? How do you think such clubs affect children in general?
A: When her pet rabbit kills its offspring, Allie becomes scared of rabbits, their violence and foreignness. She opens back up to them while showing her rabbit at the fair. Drew has a connection with the rabbit Camper that he doesn’t yet have with human beings. Children in general can have similar reactions to animals in 4-H: They can think them strange before they accept them and/or their interactions with animals can bring out aspects of their personalities–gentleness, maybe, or caring–that they don’t show as much among their human friends.

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Q: Which writers inspire you the most?
A: Carson McCullers, Jim Shepard, Mary Gaitskill, Robert Hass

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?
A: I want readers to enjoy following Allie around for the day; seeing the fair, her brother, and the 4-H event through her eyes.

Q: Why did you pick a child narrator?
A: Allie’s point of view allows the reader to work through the story’s situations slowly, without the immediate assumptions adults often bring. She perceives facts before she makes judgments, something younger children do more often than adults.

An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor JoeAnn Hart

By Midge Raymond,

Many thanks to JoeAnn Hart for sharing her insights on the writing of “It Won’t Be Long Now,” included in Among Animals 2

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Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: I was driving along a highway and saw a black plastic trash bag in the middle of the road that must have blown out of a truck. Before I realized it was just more trash in the wrong place, my first thought was, What is a seal doing so far from shore? So the story that came out of this moment was “It Won’t Be Long Now,” where a seal is washed onshore in an estuary, far from where it should be.

Q: What was your writing/research process?

A: I started with the image of the washed up seal, and a woman seeing it from a window in her house, thinking at first it was a black plastic bag. While originally I thought I might write the story as magical realism, where the seal was found hundreds of miles from water, it evolved into a piece of realism. I wanted the reader to understand the problems that real-life sea mammals have with plastic debris in the oceans, since the seal is where it is because it is all wrapped up in fishing line, dying. At that point, I had to do a little research on harbor seals. Even though it is fiction, you can’t play fast and loose with science. To seem real on the page, it has to be real with the facts.

Q: Which writers inspire you?

A: For non-fiction, I’d like to write as beautifully as Annie Dillard and as smart as Rebecca Solnit, both of whom do a better job with the natural world than almost anybody else. For fictional inspiration I return to Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Q: The story involves a sick child who must limit her access to the outdoors. How does this need to distance herself from nature affect her?

A: We are all so distanced from nature these days, to our detriment if not our lives. Children, especially, need to have hands-on experience with the outdoors or they won’t know what there is to lose. The child in the story yearns for animals, but she knows them only through stuffed toys. When the seal arrives in her backyard her mom won’t even let her stay to observe it for fear of an asthma attack. She is literally allergic to the outdoors. She’s sent to the mall with her grandparents, but that comes with its own health risks. There’s no escaping what we do to the environment.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?

A: I want people to think before they throw anything away, since it all goes downstream and into the oceans, where even something as thin as filament becomes a lethal weapon to sea mammals. Any damage to the ocean is damage to us.

Q: What are you writing now?

A: I’ve been working on a full-length play about hoarding with strong environmental themes.

Q: How familiar are you with harbor seals?

A: In the winter, all sorts of seals hang out in Gloucester’s harbor (they summer in Maine). I see them on my walk and call to them as they sun themselves on the rocks. They always look. They probably think I’m crazy.

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Announcing the 2016 Siskiyou Prize

By Midge Raymond,

We are thrilled to announce that the third annual Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature is now open for submissions!

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It’s been wonderful to see so many fine writers tackling the issues of the environment and animal protection through great stories, novels, memoirs, and essays — and we are pleased to be offering this prize for a third year. This year, we have one exciting change to announce: In addition to unpublished work (all of which will be considered for publication by Ashland Creek Press), we are also accepting published book submissions for the Siskiyou Prize. Please click here for full details.

This year, we’re delighted to have JoeAnn Hart as our final judge. JoeAnn is the author of two novels, Addled (Little Brown, 2007) and Float (Ashland Creek Press, 2013). JoeAnn’s essays, articles, and short fiction have appeared in a wide variety of literary journals and national publications, including Orion, NewfoundTerrain.org, and the Boston Globe Magazine. Her work has won a number of awards, including the PEN New England Discovery Award in Fiction. To learn more about JoeAnn, click here.

The 2016 prize winner will receive $1,000 and a four-week residency at PLAYA. All Siskiyou Prize submissions will be considered for publication from Ashland Creek Press. Visit the Siskiyou Prize website for complete details and to submit.

The deadline for submissions is December 31, 2016. Also, please note that we will be closed to regular book submissions until further notice in order to focus on prize submissions.

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We look forward to reading your work!

An interview with publicist and media specialist Jen Coburn

By Midge Raymond,

A book launch can be a daunting process, and many authors wonder how hiring a publicist can help the process. Learn more in this interview with author, publicist, and media specialist Jen Coburn — and see below for Jen’s contact info.

 

Q: What value can a publicist bring to an author and his/her book?

A: A good publicist lets authors get back to doing what they love — writing. There are very few authors who enjoy developing media pitches and social media strategies to promote their books, and yet they know it is critical to their success. The equation is very simple: The more people know about a book, the more will read it. A publicist helps get a book in front of as many prospective readers as possible through social media, traditional media, and events.

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Q: How much can an author expect to spend when working with a publicist?

A: It really depends on how much of the heavy lifting a writer wants to take on. I’ve had authors do a simple two-hour consultation for $250, where we discuss good traditional media angles and social media strategies that they develop and execute. I also work with authors who have me manage their social media for them on a daily basis, which is a more substantial investment. When I do a prepublication media campaign, it typically runs $2,500 to $3,500.

 
Q: Ideally, when should an author approach a publicist for help with his/her book?

A: Ideally six months prior, though that rarely happens. I’ve had authors contact me three months prior to publication, which is good. One called me two weeks before her book came out. It was a mad rush, but we made it work and got her on TV and in several newspapers.

 
Q: How can publicists help authors when their books have been out for a year or more?

A: Great question. There are still many ways an author can promote his or her book after it’s been out on the market for a while. Writing op-eds and essays that include the name of their book in the byline is one way. Another way to boost sales is by offering a special price break then promoting like crazy on social media.

 
Q: What is the author’s role when working with a publicist?

A: Authors need to be open to new approaches while also remaining true to their own style. I’m very flexible to work with, but my one hard and fast rule is that I never let an author go on TV without my doing a media training with me beforehand. I’ve been working with producers for more than 20 years, and I can blow those relationships in a moment if I put someone on camera who hasn’t been adequately prepped.

 
Q: What questions should an author ask a publicist he/she is considering working with?

A: What type of coverage they believe they can realistically get for an author. I once had an author ask me if I’ve ever declined to work with anyone, which I thought was an interesting question that led to a great conversation. I have turned down authors because I don’t feel we’d be a good match. If I don’t love their book, or I honestly don’t think there’s a good news angle to be developed, I will pass on a project. Basically, I’d recommend choosing a publicist the same way you’d hire anyone — share your priorities, listen to their approach, and keep your BS radar on. There are lots of great publicists to work with. Choose the one who seems genuinely excited about the success of his or her clients.

 

Q: Do you have any success stories you’d like to share?

A: Just last week, an author I work with jumped to the #1 spot on the Amazon bestseller list for historical fiction 10 months after initial publication. She called me a few weeks earlier to brainstorm ideas on promotion and we developed a social media campaign around a price reduction. She is a great client — always willing to try new things and good about pushing back when a suggestion doesn’t feel right to her. I adore working with this author and couldn’t be happier for her success.

 

Jennifer Coburn has been a media relations specialist for more than 20 years and recently started working with authors to help them promote their work on social media and through traditional media. She has partnered with authors who publish with Random House, Simon & Schuster, Sonoma Press, and independently. Jennifer enjoys developing media pitches and crafting strategies to heighten awareness of books and authors. She got her start working with authors after her own books generated press attention that got colleagues asking for advice. Jennifer says she never asks authors to adopt a strategy she has not (or would not) do herself.

Check out Jen’s author website here, and for inquiries about her publicity and media work, you can reach out to her via LinkedIn.