Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Beth Lyons

Beth Lyons’s essay “Real Advocacy within Fantasy Worlds” appears in Writing for Animals.


Q: In what ways has your writing changed as your knowledge and awareness of animals has evolved?

A: I am primarily a genre writer — fantasy and science fiction — and my early work was pre-vegan. I didn’t always include meat eating or animal use in those stories; I didn’t  really think about it one way or another. As my understanding of veganism and its impact grew, I was able to use that knowledge to shape stories, and now I find it difficult to include meat-eating, hunting, and animal usage in my writing.

Genre lends itself splendidly to exploring all aspects of veganism, from the impact on the environment and on the human slaughterhouse workers to the sentience of animals, the physical impact to the body from eating animals, and the unsustainability of raising animals for food. My fantasy writing tends to focus more on the physical and emotional damage to humans and animals, my science fiction on the damage to the environment and impracticality of the current meat-based food system.

Q: What is the most important thing you feel writers should keep in mind as they write about animals?

A: “Tell a good story.” If you don’t write a compelling tale with memorable characters, no one will want to read it anyway, and your message and insights will be lost to the audience. This doesn’t mean that vegan values and information have to take a backseat, but the story and characters need room to become what they must. Character motivation, tension, and desire drive the story; all the vegan information you want to give your reader will come, and that illumination is the inevitable result of these characters and situations that you’ve created playing out in their own time and pace.

Q: Which authors/books do you feel do a good job of realistically and compassionately portraying the lives of animals?

A: I was riveted by Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The narrator, Rosemary, is human but we feel the depth of her love and loss. In addition, I have to mention Richard Adams. His books Watership Down and The Plague Dogs touched me deeply. He was a master storyteller.


Q: Your essay addresses the very essential aspect of what fictional characters eat and how to portray this authentically. What authors/books do you most admire for their portrayals of vegan characters?

A: First, there are not enough vegan characters out there! Many novels have vegetarian characters — the Eargon series by Christopher Paolini is a popular example. I also love Ruth Ozeki’s work. But E.D.E Bell’s Spireseeker is a great example of fantasy novel with a true vegan character — main character, even! Beryl is an elf, and in Bell’s universe, elves are vegan. Animal agency and sentience are explored as the novel unfolds, and because veganism is a core part of the elven culture and identity, it comes up again and again as Beryl navigates the world around her.

Beth Lyons is a former English literature teacher, award-winning poet, and traveler who now lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of three fantasy novels and three science fiction novellas, all available via Amazon Kindle. In addition, she is a fiction editor, teaches workshops on editing and creative writing, and currently moderates an online writing forum.

Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Hannah Sandoval

Hannah Sandoval’s essay “Rabies Bites: How Stephen King Made a Dog a Compelling Main Character” appears in Writing for Animals.


Q: In what ways has your writing changed as your knowledge and awareness of animals has evolved?

A: I feel my depictions of animals have become more realistic. In my first novel, the protagonist’s dog was highly involved in the plot, but he was a bit cartoonish. He fell into that stereotypical category of dogs that “practically speak English!” He barked at just the right moment, as if he was agreeing to plans. He understood complex commands with no training. That sort of thing. That’s cute, but it’s not really an accurate portrayal of dogs, and it does them a disservice in some ways. Dogs aren’t humans. They possess many traits that humans either don’t have or struggle hard to maintain, such as unconditional love and total appreciation of the present moment. They don’t speak like we do, but they do speak, and that is what I now try to capture when writing dogs or any animal into my stories.

Q: What is the most important thing you feel writers should keep in mind as they write about animals?

A: Writing them as they are, not as you need them to be to further a plot. Yes, as a writer you must always keep your plot in mind, but if an animal doesn’t fit naturally into it, don’t write it in. Shoehorning in an animal does nothing for the story and usually leads to an unbelievable and inaccurate portrayal.

Q: Which authors/books do you feel do a good job of realistically and compassionately portraying the lives of animals?

A: It is extremely difficult to find books in which animals are both a main character and realistically and compassionately portrayed. Often, if animals are main characters, they are anthropomorphized. For instance, I loved Brian Jaques’ Redwall series and Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows as a child, but though they are enthralling portrayals, they aren’t exactly realistic. King’s Cujo is unique, in my opinion, in its minimalistic, realistic portrayal of the workings of a dog’s mind. Cujo is certainly the main character; the readers feel great compassion for his plight, and he feels like a real dog. The only other book that I can think of that writes an animal in that same vein is Jack London’s Call of the Wild — another childhood favorite. London keeps the reader pretty much exclusively in Buck’s perspective, rather than showing him in an outside POV, like King does, which requires he stretch the boundaries of “realistic” a little bit. Still, I feel it, too, is a realistic, compassionate, and well-crafted portrayal of an animal character.


Q: In your essay, you write about Stephen King’s bestselling novel Cujo. In what ways to you think this popular novel both helps and hurts dogs and other animals?

A: As discussed in my essay, I think the actual novel is a very realistic, intuitive, and compelling portrayal of a dog in distress. The novel makes the reader feel for Cujo and see him as an individual undergoing an internal struggle as complex and difficult as that of any of the human characters. It portrays an animal not as a set piece but as a sentient being with feelings, desires, and fears. And it certainly helps raise awareness of the rabies virus and why it is so important to vaccinate your pets against deadly diseases.

However, King’s nuanced portrayal of a good dog battling a villain called rabies was lost in the film version of the novel. Cujo’s name has become synonymous with violence and terror for film lovers. In many people’s minds, he is a pop-culture monster. This is because there is a lot of violence portrayed in the novel, and Cujo ultimately meets a violent end. When stripped of the omniscient narration that is the strength of novels as a medium, one is left only with a dog who commits violence and has violence committed against him. While that violence fits in with King’s ultimate theme, and while Cujo is written with the same respect given to the human characters, thanks to the story being taken out of its original form, it has done damage in the minds of many people who haven’t actually read the book.

Hannah Sandoval is a full-time freelance manuscript editor and ghostwriter and the founder of PurpleInkPen. She has a BA in English and is a proud member of the International Association of Professional Book Editors. Her novel Arcamira is the Best Fantasy Series winner of the 2017 Channillo Awards. Her Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Vanellope, embodies more sass than her owner could ever hope to.

Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Paula MacKay

Paula MacKay’s essay “Rewilding Literature: Catalyzing Compassion for Wild Predators through Creative Nonfiction” appears in Writing for Animals.


Q: In what ways has your writing changed as your knowledge and awareness of animals has evolved?

A: I’ve come to recognize that creative storytelling about animals (and people) is key to wildlife conservation. Early in my career, my writing tended to be more journalistic and scientific: magazine and journal articles, newsletters, op-eds, and the like. But as I’ve become more knowledgeable about wildlife through my work in conservation and field biology, I’ve increasingly found myself trying to imagine life and landscapes through the eyes of the animals I study — and wanting to share this imaginative empathy in my nonfiction writing. A few years ago, I enrolled in the MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University to learn how to improve my craft so that I could inspire readers about wildlife in a more compelling and personal way. This is a work-in-progress, and I still very much value science and science-informed writing. But I hope my writing continues to evolve such that I can help inspire readers to love and care about our wild neighbors through their hearts as well as their minds.


Q: What is the most important thing you feel writers should keep in mind as they write about animals?

A: We shouldn’t be afraid to let our passion for animals shine through. Of course, we can never truly know what it’s like to inhabit an Other’s reality — and, in the case of nonhuman animals, we should take care not to project too much humanness on the animals we’re writing about (for example, my sense is that malevolence is mostly a human attribute). Nonetheless, I think it’s important to recognize the intelligence, social and family bonds, curiosity, personalities, and other remarkable traits of animals in our writing, and to reveal our own inner worlds as they relate to animals so that readers can emotionally connect with us, our stories, and the animals themselves.


Q: Which authors/books do you feel do a good job of realistically and compassionately portraying the lives of animals?

A: I’ve read numerous books in this category and I hope to read many more (and maybe even write one myself!). But here are a few off the top of my head:

Rick Bass, Ninemile Wolves
Marc Bekoff, Rewilding Our Hearts
Jane Goodall, Reason for Hope
Ted Kerasote, Merle’s Door
Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk
Ellen Meloy, Eating Stone
A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh (who doesn’t love Winnie-the-Pooh?)
Sy Montgomery, The Good Good Pig, The Soul of an Octopus
David Quammen, Monster of God
Carl Safina, Beyond Words
Eva Saulitis, Into Great Silence
John Vaillant, The Tiger
E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web, Essays of E.B. White
Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees (okay, trees aren’t animals—but they are living beings)

I’d also like to recommend Wild Hope magazine—a relatively new publication (to which I contribute) that does an excellent job of blending wildlife science and storytelling.


Q: In what ways can humans use nature to reconnect with animals, both on and off the page?

A: My time in nature — local forests and beaches, and especially wilderness — is key to reconnecting with other animals and myself. The human world is full of distractions and distressing events these days, which create so much inner noise that it can be difficult to hear ourselves think or to tune into the sounds of nature. When I walk through the woods or in the mountains, I’m reminded that there are many, many realities out there (imagine the life of a woodpecker or a wolverine!), not just the personal and political realities that tend to occupy my mind, and I find a sense of peace that escapes me on the streets of Seattle. With this quietude, I feel a deep communion with other animals and the inspiration to give them voice in my writing.

Paula MacKay completed her MFA in Creative Writing at Pacific Lutheran University in 2015. For the past seventeen years, she has surveyed bears, wolverines, wolves, and other wildlife with her husband, Robert Long, with whom she co-edited Noninvasive Survey Methods for Carnivores (Island Press, 2008). Paula has written about animals and conservation for numerous organizations, scientific books and journals, and magazines. Her essay “My Sister’s Shoes” was recently published in Siblings: Our First Macrocosm.

Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Kipp Wessel

Kipp Wessel’s essay “Meeting the Wild Things Where They Are” appears in Writing for Animals.

Q: In what ways has your writing changed as your knowledge and awareness of animals has evolved?

A: I’m a fiction writer, and my strongest artistic instinct is to write solely from experience and imagination. But when it comes to wild things, I also incorporate disciplined research. I want the animal lives in my work to live and breathe and shape their own personality as much as anything else I write about — I want them to be just as complicated and messy and unpredictable. I don’t want to be a writer of test-tube wildlife. But I also want to make sure their presence and energy are grounded in the reality of how individual species cope and react. Also, when you start unraveling the layers of what animals are — that research expands narrative possibilities.

The other significant change stems from how animals have changed my life. I’ve never shared my life with an animal I haven’t fallen in love with. Completely and irreversibly. I don’t know if I’ve ever met one I haven’t fallen in love with. And when you fall all the way into that dynamic, when you love someone with your complete heart, no matter who it is, it changes you. The animals in my life are constantly teaching me about attachment, play and meaning — and those are themes and qualities infused in my creative work.

Q: What is the most important thing you feel writers should keep in mind as they write about animals?
A: Here’s the most important thing I try keep in mind — the act of emptying it. My preconceptions. It’s so easy to interpret the behaviors of other beings through the veil of our own instincts, drives and emotions. We’re hard-wired for that. I’m pretty sure all species share that myopia. But when we misinterpret wild things and places within our work, when we don’t do the hard work of setting our preconceptions aside, our work doesn’t just risk inauthenticity. It can also mute or miss the raw and untamed energy we could be tapping.

I remind myself to forget what I think I know, but also be suspect of what others think they know. About animals. Including biologists and scientists. Because science gets it wrong, too. We are constantly underestimating the intellectual, emotional and social lives of animals. When we wade into the lives of animals, it’s a deep pool. We have to be open minded about all that’s hiding in those waters.

Q: Which authors/books do you feel do a good job of realistically and compassionately portraying the lives of animals?
A: When I immersed myself in the subject of grizzly bears for my novel, I was moved by Doug Peacock’s Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness. I really admired how he used his own personal curiosity of grizzlies to fuel an intense and vital exploration of the animal. Rick Bass writes beautifully of wild things (and everything else). He has written several books on animals that unfold like mysteries. And his eloquence when writing about the wilderness where wild things thrive serves as inspiration and a nudge for us to make sure these unique places, and the animals within them, remain. Mary Oliver writes beautiful poems about our connection with animals. Jane Goodall demonstrates equal parts compassion, study, patience, and nothing short of sainthood. Those are a few I admire.

Q: In your essay, you write that animals are as sentient and multifaceted as humans, if not more so. What in your own experience with animals brought you to this realization?
A: Every experience. Every time an animal has stood or crouched or bounded in front of my eyes, I’ve only viewed them as fascinating worlds with their own complex emotional lives.

But I often wonder that question from the opposite direction. What is it within the human subconscious or ego that pushes us to subvert the sentient truth of animals? What inspires us to deny the emotional capacity of species separate from ours? For what purpose? Because it’s not our initial reaction. Watch a child observing an animal, before that child is verbal, and her entire being is locked in wonder. The child sees the animal as the individual being it is. She doesn’t question if the animal feels or is conscious, because both things are so obviously staring back at her. She doesn’t weigh the animal’s existence, abilities or merit on a scale against her own. Her sole response and interest is contained in the act of seeing the animal.

She asks: What are you? Who are you? Both questions.

When I was four years old, I came face to face with my first wild rabbit — a furry, piked-ear alien that vaulted and then froze in the tall grass of our backyard. The two of us, young child and rabbit, stumbled into that moment on equal footing. Between us, our astonishment was divided evenly. I stared into the rabbit’s wet, round eyes. My breath clutched in the hollow my chest. I watched her twitching, soft nose and the way her whiskers trembled the wristwatch drumming of her heart.

That’s the moment I try to experience every time I’m fortunate enough to find my way into the presence of an animal. It’s a bi-directional moment. We observe, contemplate and react to each other. Me to her — she to me. If she isn’t conscious, how can I be? It’s both of us or neither. We’re either in this together, or neither of us is.

Animals feel. They think. They play. They attach. They mourn. They are. Animals are sentient, fully conscious beings that demonstrate a tapestry of emotions, from the pronounced ones of joy and grief, to the more nuanced ones of empathy and worry. They feel pain. They suffer. They collaborate and compete. And those are just emotions and behaviors we have in common. Imagine the universe of others we don’t share or aren’t even aware of. They are individual nebulas of personalities, emotions, and perceptions.

And here’s the thing — the sentient ability of animals doesn’t confine or constrict the gravity of our own weight in this shared universe. Darwinism needn’t be garbled into interspecies cage match incoherence. Our continued understanding and appreciation of the complex and diverse beings sharing our homes, yards, and planet only amplifies the significance and possibility of our own experience and existence. It widens, not lessens it.

Maybe that viewpoint isn’t universally shared. I don’t know. It’s impossible for me to see it any other way.

Kipp Wessel’s debut novel, First, You Swallow the Moon, a novel of heartbreak and wilderness, was a BookLife Prize in Fiction finalist and earned a Writer’s Digest first-place award. His short stories have been published in a dozen commercial and literary magazines, and he’s taught fiction writing at the University of Montana (where he completed his MFA), the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, and regional community arts programs.


Q&A with WRITING FOR ANIMALS contributor Rosemary Lombard

Rosemary Lombard’s essay “A Case for More Reality in Writing for Animals” appears in Writing for Animals.

Q: In what ways has your writing changed as your knowledge and awareness has evolved?
A: That is a long story with many bends. In grad school, except for a single nonfiction course, I was schooled in academic writing in musicology, a discipline far from animal interests. Only when a female box turtle, Diode, joined my pet male did I begin to write about animals. The description of her first days was as precise as I could make it, but I still had a few courses to take and classes to teach and soon dropped the writing. Yet the behaviors of those first turtles, not at all what I expected from reptiles, fascinated me far more than the dissertation staring me in the face; so, after courses were done, I started teaching in Chicago universities and, instead of the dissertation, began my own self-education about herpetology, animal behavior, and interspecies communication.

Eight years after Diode came, I started writing again. She surprised me — amazed me! She had apparently planned a charade to show she understood the concept of classifying objects, and she followed it up by demonstrating that she understood the meaning of a few spoken words.

I was hooked. An exploratory collaboration with Diode and three others began, and, with games and choices, they learned quickly and with high motivation. Daily I wrote about what was happening. Those descriptive journal entries, volumes of them from 1979 to the present, were my writing teachers. Again, precision and clarity about behaviors were paramount — both in content and syntax. They were data but written as gracefully as I could.

Then I decided to take courses to fill in my self-education: many courses in biology, natural history, animal behavior, and communication, from Bio 101 back to another grad school, with plenty of writing. A monograph came out of a Stanford linguistics course; then a book about the turtle research began to form, and eventually, when I decided on my trade book audience, I wrote many chapters based on the journals, now my external memory.

The next step began with two poetry workshops at a conference and, finally back in the Northwest, a month of memorial birthday readings honoring my old prof William Stafford. Suddenly, poetry was in my ear, and as I became a poet and wide reader in poetry and prose, I found literary skills that could enrich my prose writing. Now I write both poetry and creative nonfiction with the goal to build more respect and empathy for turtles and other animals, especially as related to my concern about wild animal trafficking and the pet trade.

Still, I keep working to notice more as an animal observer and reader-become-writer — I taught several classes on sketching from nature partly to discipline myself to notice details and behaviors — and I participate in writing workshops as well as offering lectures and lecture-demonstrations. Diode and the now thirteen others, mostly second generation, still inspire me. Learning just keeps going.

Q: What is the most important thing you feel writers should keep in mind as they write about animals?
A: My belief is that writers should attempt to learn enough about the real animals and their places and ways of life in order to acquire and select genuine characteristics and actions as a basis for creating believable characters, whether they’re walking or flying or swimming in the real world or, with added imaginings, in a world of their own.

Elena Passarello, in her Oregon Book Award winner Animals Strike Curious Poses, writes about famed sixteenth-century artist Albrecht Dürer and the photographic precision of his work, such as “the thousand-fold strands of watercolor fur on his Young Hare.” He admonished others to do the same, writing, “Don’t diverge from nature in your imaginings, thinking you want to find things for yourself.” Yet he could — and did — take details from life and produce wildly imaginative work. Yes, the details in our art too can transfer to fantasy and other styles.

Good writing about animals can be engaging and informative and go part of the way toward bringing an audience to take steps toward protecting them. However — and here is the bottom line — those of us who are intense about issues that benefit animals have another step available. Our writing, not only in nonfiction, needs — along with our empathy and skillful storytelling — enough reality that readers can respect and empathize with the characters and then be able to make the emotional transition to the real animals that need the readers’ help. As many have pointed out, we save what we love.

Q: Which authors/books do you feel do a good job of realistically and compassionately portraying the lives of animals? 
A: A catalog of books about animals would be daunting, and even my bookshelves are groaning. I’ll note a few that are both realistic and compassionate and have additional features worth study for the writer.

First, let’s consider a book, still beloved, from the mid-twentieth century, Nobelist Konrad Lorenz’s King Solomon’s Ring. The editors of the Time edition assigned to him qualities we’re looking for: “Every chapter of King Solomon’s Ring is enriched by the fruits of affectionate looking and hard reasoning.” And the author adds the necessity for real facts; he says, ” … I shall not aspire, in this little book, to improve on nature by taking any artistic liberties” — but we must say, not to the exclusion of charm. We must add his personal involvement in the stories of his investigations. Who could forget his account of the thickening naturalist — Konrad himself— “squatting and quacking” for hours on end through the meadow, followed by his adopted string of ducklings as he famously learns the details of imprinting on the “mother,” starting with the first quack they hear (and its continual instruction to follow the mom, whoever she or he may be).

A modern book I have recommended to many is University of Washington researcher John Marzluff’s Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart birds to Behave Like Humans, which includes fascinating accounts of research with wild-flying corvids and, a valuable bonus for some readers, elementary neurosci tech talk about the structure of the bird brain and how that structure has parts that are arranged differently from ours but has corresponding actions.

For perceptive and affectionate books by naturalists who lived with or worked closely with the animals described, I recommend Esther Woolfson’s Corvus: A Life with Birds; Benjamin Kilham’s straightforward accounts of raising orphan bears on his wild land and his discoveries about bear behavior; and Julie Zickefoose’s Letters from Eden: A Year at Home, in the Woods.

I’ll let Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog, by Ted Kerasote, represent the yowling multitude of dog books. I discuss it in my essay, pointing out that, though he translates the behaviors of the dog to language, that translation is based on keen observation of those behaviors and a close relationship with the independent Merle.

Books that include the elements of observation and story plus depth in the concerns of ethical philosophy and animal/environmental activism include Alison Hawthorne Deming’s Zoologies and a pair of books by philosopher/naturalist Kathleen Dean Moore. Moore’s exemplary novel, Piano Tide, integrates her keen knowledge of animals and the rest of southeast Alaska’s natural wonder into the story of the people of a coastal village and the ecoterrorist-in-hiding who has come to live with them. The book of essays paired with Piano Tide is Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change. As reviewer Scott Sanders writes, “No one thinks more rigorously about how we should live on this battered, beautiful planet, or how we should treat our fellow creatures.”

Notable anthologies of short animal pieces include those from Ashland Creek Press, Creative Nonfiction magazine, and Orion magazine. In the latter, Animals and People: A Selection of Essays from Orion Magazine, I point out and, further, suggest books by contributors Jane Goodall, David Gessner, Brian Doyle, Mary Oliver (her ecstatic poetry), and Craig Childs: such intense lovers of animals!

In The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild, Childs takes us skillfully on adventures with wild animals in ways armchair naturalists and writers would never venture. Charles Finn, in Wild Delicate Seconds: 29 Wildlife Encounters, provides a set of delightful miniatures: richly described, sometimes funny, always memorable.

Finally, I want to comment on a new book, so new that, so far, I’ve read only the sample provided online. What I read, though, does a fine job of pulling the sensibilities and skills illuminating all these books together into a package so appealing to the general reader that it has risen to best-seller status, a far-off star in the minds of the rest of us. The buzz is about Buzz, which is about bees. Author Thor Hanson (Feathers) uses all the techniques of creative nonfiction, including lively, conversational language; first person involved; informal and informational chats with experts, visits to sites, historical background; and the care with language and diction of fine fiction. His own powers of observation and scientific background show on the page, as well as the fascination and love he has for animals, clearly including the bees.

Animal behaviorist/writer Rosemary Douglas Lombard enjoyed roles as biomedical librarian, naturalist, and university teacher but cherishes decades exploring turtles’ cognitive potential. She won firsts in nonfiction and poetry and published in Bay Nature and Verseweavers, among others. Writings include Turtles All the Way (Finishing Line Press) and WIP Diode’s Experiment. You can find Rosemary online at https://ChelonianConnection.blogspot.com.