Category: On writing

An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Claire Ibarra

By Midge Raymond,

An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Claire Ibarra about her story “Vivarium”

Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: I was living in South Florida at the time, and as common as cockroaches are there, I could never get used to them. I couldn’t help my reaction. I’d scream, dash across the room, climb onto furniture. The palmetto bug is especially hideous because it flies, and getting hit in the face by one is completely unnerving. In the spirit of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” I began to wonder about what humans might share in common with these bugs. In the story of Gregor Samsa, he wakes up a bug and becomes completely alienated, whereas Eva begins to connect with others and gain confidence through her solidarity with Chico.

Q: What was your writing/research process?

A: Once an idea for a story comes to me, I tend to dive in and try to get as much as I can down on paper, but of course, I get stuck with lots of questions. I didn’t know anything about cockroaches, and since Wikipedia was such a helpful, quick source, I decided to incorporate it into the story. Eva needed to do her own research, as well. That doesn’t mean that I normally recommend Wikipedia for research. Luckily it’s easy nowadays to access information – Google is such a gift to writers.

Q: Which writers inspire you the most?

A: That’s always a hard question to answer. There are so many inspirational works and authors. As I mentioned, Kafka inspired this story. But I just read My Antonia by Willa Cather for the first time, and I immediately wanted to visit Nebraska. I never thought I’d be inspired to visit Nebraska! Now it seems like to most magical and interesting place in the world.

Q: Why did you choose a cockroach as the animal that allows Eva to step beyond her fears?

A: I guess I was thinking about the most ugly creature imaginable, especially for a person struggling like Eva, juxtaposed with empowerment and transformation. I think I may have encountered a cockroach in my house that day, and it got me thinking about our human struggles, from the most profound to the mundane. What might be the outcome when we face our fears up close, and so intimately?

Q: Where do you see Eva in the weeks and years past the story’s ending?

A: I see Eva in a position to help people. She is on her way to becoming a clinical counselor or therapist. Her family’s dysfunction was her first classroom. She just needs to gain confidence, and maybe she’ll always struggle with OCD, but she’ll make a great therapist. I imagine that she’ll start having more fun!

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

A: I am continually struck by the intelligence of animals, and their ability to display compassion. Interspecies friendship – the actual affection and love between animals – is one of the most beautiful things to witness. I would like readers to consider the possibility that all living creatures are capable of such affection. Also, we must nurture that kind of compassion and caring within ourselves to make the world more tolerable.

 Q: What do you imagine will be Chico’s fate?

A: I think once Eva decides she doesn’t need his companionship anymore, she finds a creative way to set him free into the wilderness of the Miami streets, where more adventures are in store for him.


An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Laura Maylene Walter

By Midge Raymond,

An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Laura Maylene Walter (“Lost Pets”)

Q: What inspired you to write this story?
A: Several years ago, my husband was in the habit of photographing “Lost Pet” posters. Whenever he saw one of these posters while out walking or driving, he stopped whatever he was doing to photograph it. In the end, he amassed a fairly sizable digital collection of lost pets. I found these images touching but also distressing — I couldn’t shake how many people were out there seeking lost pets, not to mention the animals themselves. What had become of them? I could never know the fate of those pets, but I could create my own by writing a story. And thus “Lost Pets” was born.

Q: What was your writing/research process?
A:  I viewed my husband’s photographs of the posters and, in a few cases, tried to incorporate some of their language into my fictional posters. The lost pet posters my husband found in the wild exhibited a wide range of syntax, level of detail/description, grammar, and design. I tried to reflect some of that variation in the story, but ultimately, I had to let go of the real-life posters and allow my fictional pets to take on a life of their own. As far as the writing process is concerned, I wrote “Lost Pets” as I write most of my stories: by starting with a character and a premise and then just writing with few to no plans, allowing the story to take me where it may.

Q: Which writers inspire you the most?
A:  I love Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Elena Ferrante, Angela Carter, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and Ann Patchett, to name a few.

Q: What does the dog Starlight represent to Vicky in this story?
A: The home and past life Vicky can never return to.

Q: Where, and with whom, do you see Vicky ending up in the future?
A: I see her as remaining alone for a time. Not forever, but for a time. I don’t think she’s ready yet for anything else. But I do believe she’ll eventually find her way and become happier, no matter what form that will take in her life.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?
A: Not to steal dogs? Okay, I suppose the real answer is empathy for both animals and owners who have lost their way. (But seriously, don’t steal someone’s dog.)




An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Robyn Ryle

By Midge Raymond,

Learn more about Among Animals 2 contributor Robyn Ryle and her story, “How to Identify Birds in the Wild” in this Q&A … 

Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: Every year, a group of graduate students working with the Smithsonian arrives in my tiny town in southern Indiana to count the birds at Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge. Big Oaks is a “globally important bird area” because of its population of the state-endangered Henslow’s sparrow and other migratory birds. My neighbor rents her house out to the students, and it’s right across the street. Because I don’t teach in the summer, I’m home pretty much all day. I hear them get up early in the morning to start their count. I see them come home in the late afternoon. I wondered what that was like, spending your summer sharing a house in a small town and counting birds. That’s where the story started.


Q: What was your writing/research process?

A: I already had an early draft of the story when I took a master naturalist class at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge. The very first class was on bird-watching, so I had a lot of diagrams and terminology for identifying birds which found their way into the story. The line about birds always being smaller than you think comes from that class, too. As far as the writing process, this story was originally called “Bird People.” And then “People of the Bird.” In neither incarnation was it a particularly good story. Then over the summer, I read a blog post by Kathy Fish about segmented structure in flash fiction. “I’ll give that a try,” I thought. I really liked the way Leesa Cross-Smith used segmentation in her story, “What the Fireworks Are For.” There’s something very liberating about segmenting a story. Cutting it up into bits. There’s a kind of freedom there. The words need to say more and less. When I segmented this story, the images sharpened. The pieces of the narrative were already there. The scenes were laid out. Segmenting somehow allowed me to both fill them in and empty them out. It became a very different story.

Q: What are some of the parallels you see between the birders and the birds?

A: Both the birders and the birds are migratory. The graduate students settle down in Madison for the summer, and then by fall they’re gone. They’ve been doing it pretty much ever since I’ve lived in this house, so it’s become a way of marking the seasons for us — “It must be summer because the bird people are here.” I like that idea, that there’s a seamlessness to the way you use nature and the activities of people to mark time in a specific place. I think there’s also a parallel in not really being sure why you’re doing what you’re doing. I won’t say the birders are acting instinctively, but I’m not sure they have any more sense of their own motivations than the birds do.

Q: Which writers inspire you the most?

A: Wendell Berry for his exquisite sense of the conjunction between people, places and the natural world. Elizabeth Strout, who can do things with her writing that are just beyond magical. Kathy Fish, for her mastery of the short form. Leesa Cross-Smith with the amazing physicality and detail of her writing.

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

A: Some memory of what it’s like to be young and in love with the wrong person. The way that being in love can so erode your sense of who you are and sometimes it takes years to sift back through the pieces. You never return to the person you were before, and that’s okay. If you look at something long enough, even a failed relationship, you can see what’s beautiful there. You can take that with you.

Q: Who’s the woman in the tight T-shirt with flabby arms?

A: That’s me, watching Rose and Manuel from across the street. That’s an older version of me reaching out to the younger version, but they can’t much communicate with each other. Rose has only the vaguest sense that there might be something good happening inside that house across the street with the red couch and the TV on. She can’t see past the exquisite pain of what she feels for Manuel.


An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Nels Hanson

By Midge Raymond,

An interview with Nels Hanson, author of the magical story “Julia and the Sea Bear,” appearing in Among Animals 2.  

Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: Many years ago, when I was working on our family’s small farm in the San Joaquin Valley of California, my wife and I would save up for a two-day vacation on the Central Coast and rent a room in a little town called Cayucos. Twelve miles north on Highway 1, on the way to Cambria, we’d see a big billboard advertising the Sea Bear Inn. We never stayed there but the idea of a sea bear stuck with me. I imagined a lonely bear living cut off from other bears and people, by high cliffs surrounding his inaccessible beach. Did I identify with the sea bear? I had an image and a feeling but no plot for a story. And yet the picture of the bear going about his life in isolation remained with me, like a dream one keeps remembering.


Q: What was your writing/research process?

A: My wife and I have lived on the Pacific Coast for twenty-four years, and I know the terrain fairly well, the beaches and cliffs reaching from Shell Beach north to Ragged Point, a stretch of perhaps fifty miles. On each drive I’d remember my unwritten story of the sea bear as we passed hard-to-reach portions of the shoreline. Julia was the missing key to finally discovering a form for the sea bear’s story. Our friends’ young daughter was the inspiration – she’s a very bright and creative personality, an only child who spontaneously discovers odd connections and symmetries and identifies closely with all animals – she names all of her stuffed toys, and named two singing frogs in her backyard after my wife and me.


Q: Which writers inspire you the most?

A: Malcolm Lowry, who wrote Under the Volcano, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jack Kerouac.


Q: What does the sea bear represent? And what does Julia herself represent?

A: The sea bear is, like all of us, somewhat a victim of fate and circumstance who makes the best of the world he’s found himself in. He grows used to his loneliness, but he senses always that something is missing and in his dreams he finds an island and another bear as lonely as himself, his perfect other half who has shared his experience and his longing. Without quite knowing it, perhaps the sea bear is seeking unity, both in his inner and outer world, just as we all are. (Was it Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium who suggested that at birth we’re each divided down the middle and spend our lives looking for our parted double?) Julia is the innocent sensitive, a natural psychic with loads of empathy. Her ability to merely touch a concrete object and discern its owner’s history and future suggests that she’s able to step aside from her ego to feel and think what other people and animals do. She’s a modern-day shaman who mentally travels with ease across space and time to inhabit the souls of others.


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

A: I’d like readers to feel that the story is true, or should be or might be true, because the feelings of the sea bear are all of our feelings. I was gratified when two well-educated adults read the story and asked me if the sea bear was real, as if they could drive north along the coast and from the high cliffs view the sea bear. That was the strangest and best response I’ve ever had to any story I’ve written.


Q: Just how fanciful are Julia’s amazing powers?

A: In our “real” world, there are persons who seem to have a sixth sense, and are apparently able to transcend the borders of normal human perceptions. In our daily lives, how large a slice of existing reality do we encounter, and are there many other realms of experience we could potentially explore, as we sometimes do in dreams? Many American Indians believe that we live when we dream and dream when we wake. Was Chuang-Tzu – who 2,400 years ago flew across China and then woke uncertain of his identity – a butterfly or a man, or both?


An interview with Among Animals contributor Anne Elliott

By Midge Raymond,

Learn about Anne Elliott’s story “Strays” from Among Animals 2 in this interview below…and, offering a bit more insight into her writing process, Anne talks about her Cat Editors here


Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: My husband and I took care of a feral cat colony in Flatbush, Brooklyn, for several years. A big part of getting a colony “fixed” is taking care of them in traps before and after surgery. We caught one very pregnant female who was mean and wild outdoors, but in the safety of her cage, became downright cuddly. She inspired the character of Gladys. We called her Juno. And yes, her unborn kittens were euthanized, for which one of the other cat ladies congratulated me at the mobile clinic.

This struck me, this moment of congratulation. Anyone who cares for feral cats is an animal lover, yet this love often manifests itself in measures like euthanasia in order to keep the population in check. Something about that irony felt, to me, like the hot center of a story. The cat lady congratulated me, and in my heart I knew I was doing the right thing by not letting the kittens be born, but I did not feel like congratulating myself.

My husband used to work as a vet tech at a shelter, and one of his first tasks was euthanizing kitten fetuses after a spay. He described it to me; an image I cannot forget and had to include.

I feel strongly that people benefit from taking care of animals. It makes you feel needed when the world of humans can sometimes have the opposite effect. I think this is why I introduced the character of Dwayne Junior, who many see as a burden but Lou sees for his ability to contribute. He is based, in part, on a kid I saw having a freakout in Duane Reade pharmacy. His mother was very calm through the whole thing, just let him express himself in the corner. He seemed feral, like he could not be handled. And yet she walked right over to him and picked him up when it was time to leave the store. He was nearly as big as her. I felt great sympathy for them both.

Q: What was your writing/research process?

A: I did no research, other than living my animal-filled life, and looking up the names of Disney characters for the cats. I did get certified for feral cat trap-neuter-return (TNR), so I guess that is a kind of research. (I went to Neighborhood Cats in New York City, and they are a great resource if anyone wants to learn about TNR.)

The writing process for this story was interesting in a couple ways. It began as a NaNoWriMo that I used as a procrastination activity while avoiding another novel I was trying to revise. For those unfamiliar, NaNoWriMo is a goofy challenge writers of all levels give themselves to compose 50,000 words in the month of November. I did not hit the 50,000 word mark on this one.

It was a weird November for me to try it because I was also deeply involved in the study of writing with Gordon Lish. His classes were a unique format of interactive lecture. He would talk extemporaneously for about four hours, then go around the room and ask students to read sentences, one at a time, slowly, while he listened with his amazing ear for language. The goal was for him to let you continue reading. The opening sentences of this story were among those I read in class. When he heard a false note, he would shout, “Elliott! Stop!” then ask others in the class where I had gone wrong. It was nothing personal. He did the same thing to everyone in the room, even his pets. All we wanted to do was please him. And with good reason—many of his students have gone on to write great works.

Anyway, the Lish approach meant I wrote this story sentence by sentence, reading aloud, constantly aware of pattern in the language and its sounds. Each sentence needed to issue forth from the sentence preceding it. It made for a very slow writing process. It also showed me that the piece was meant to be a short story, not a novel. I wrote several stories this way while I studied with him, and they have all made it into print. My novels have not. The sentence-by-sentence approach has not taught me what I need to know about structure to accomplish a successful long work.

I had big plans for this story as a novel, involving a long plot with Occupy Wall Street and a hobo. Glad I abandoned that direction. That is not what “Strays” is about. And, had I not composed very slowly—had I managed to “win” NaNoWriMo, as they say—I would not have figured that out.

A: Lou is called a “crazy cat lady” by her neighbors. Why do you think people react to Lou’s compassion with disparagement?

A: Cat ladies are easy targets. I like to write about easy targets in a way that does not make fun of them. Perhaps that is my form of compassion for humans. I did feel I had to acknowledge that easy targetness of cat ladies. Did you know there is a crazy cat lady action figure? I have received them as gifts on multiple occasions.

So yes, I guess the bigger question is why do the majority of people find crazy cat ladies funny? Why does taking care of cats make you “crazy”? I’m not totally sure. There are all the stereotypes about social awkwardness and questionable fashion choices. They must be based on some kind of truth. And Lou, my protagonist, must seem “abnormal” to others, much like Dwayne Junior, the mentally disabled kid she hangs out with. People who are “abnormal” have to make their peace with how others react to them. That is why I included the tenant reactions to their activity in the basement. I believe that is an interesting moment in the life of the “abnormal” person, that moment when you accept the disparagement of others and continue to do what you feel is right for you.

But that does not quite answer your bigger question. I’ll ask another one. Why are these cat people not lauded as heroes? I think people who work in animal rescue are heroic. I aspire to be this heroic. You have to deal with blood and guts and mange and poop. You have to encounter the results of human cruelty and neglect. It is difficult to help animals who are in pain and may not ever trust humans. And there is the hard reality of euthanasia when a population is too large to feed and protect. Rescue is a complex thing. I know my limits. I can’t deal with the blood and death in person, but I suppose I can write about it.

Q: Which writers inspire you the most?

A: It may be obvious I love the stories of Amy Hempel. Her story “A Full Service Shelter” is an amazing piece about the emotional complexity of rescue. A must-read, especially if you love pit bulls. Her sentences are so full of turns and surprises, and her wit is never for wit’s sake. Hers is the kind of wit that makes the heart swell with recognition and humor and sadness. Her sense of economy is also amazing. And she is compassionate.

I may have been under the influence of Tobias Wolff when I wrote the last sentence. The repetition wasn’t necessary from an information standpoint, but I did want to create a literal echo or heartbeat at the end. So of course I think of his “Bullet in the Brain.”

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

A: Interestingly, the term “feral cats” has fallen out of use with the humane organizations. They are now called “community cats,” since they fall on a spectrum of friendliness. Similarly, the term “autistic” has fallen out of common use, and now people are “on the spectrum.” This is more than just linguistic evolution, I think. Individuals are hard to categorize. And there are so many different ways to relate to the world. “Normal” gets re-defined every day.

This is a feeling I hope to convey in the story. Whether a person or animal is “friendly” or “feral” is a matter of situation, the individual’s temperament, and whether those around them accept them as they are. Everyone has value.

Like Dwayne Junior, I’m sad about the loss of the kittens and his opportunity to raise them. I hope that sadness comes through. You have to turn off your childlike sympathetic side sometimes as you take care of others and make hard decisions on their behalf. I hope the sadness of that reality comes through too.

Q: Dwayne Senior is absent in this story. Where is he?

A: Somewhere as I wrote I decided that this would be a story about females and the creatures they take care of, reluctantly or not. So I decided to have the landlady blame her daughter for being a bad parent, almost as if the boy has no father at all. It is possible the father is alive, and should be stepping up to become a role model. It is also possible he is dead, or incarcerated. I just thought the story would work better if he were a notable absence, if the two women did not spend their hours talking about him. Yet the father’s absence is tacitly, constantly acknowledged, or the kid would just be Dwayne, not Dwayne Junior.

I am not a mother, so I am in no position to critique anyone’s mothering. I don’t necessarily agree with the landlady about her daughter’s inability to raise a child. I don’t necessarily agree with Lou about her mother’s cruel preference of a pedigreed cat over her own daughter. But I think these character perceptions are important to explore. Women often blame other women for the ills of the world. We are not wrong to do that, necessarily. It means that we have power that we may be misusing. It is a way of acknowledging our power.

I don’t think it’s a feminist story per se, but I am a feminist writer. And these are the things I ponder as I write.

Does feminism extend to the animal kingdom? I wonder. I do have extra sympathy for the female feral cats. Like Ceres in the story, the one who they have to keep letting go because she is lactating. All of her resources go to her offspring. There are parallels in the human world. Women in general have to figure out how to do more with less, and often carry the burden of rearing the young. But perhaps my sympathy for these female cats is a form of anthropomorphism. I often pay attention to the lives of female animals, whether as metaphor or not, I do not know.