An interview with Among Animals contributor Ray Keifetz

An interview with Among Animals contributor Ray Keifetz (“Miriam’s Lantern”)

Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: “Miriam’s Lantern” began as a series of prose poems called “Last Things.” I spent a melancholy night enumerating extinctions—creatures, cultures, trees, languages …  “Where to begin?” was my epigram; it could have as easily been “There’s no end.” The poems that burned most brightly were a meditation on the last passenger pigeon, which died in captivity, and an encounter I’d had as a boy with a very old man who’d apprenticed as a blacksmith before horses had been replaced by cars. And almost immediately I sensed there was a story and that story was the connection, somehow, between that bird and that man. Both were on display. The habitats of both had been destroyed. The bird, however, had been hunted to extinction by men. A year later it came to me what if . . .? What if the man had killed the bird, one of the last? Instantly I had the bones of a story. The historic events were there in one lifetime—the introduction of the automobile, the chestnut blight, the killing of the last wild passenger pigeon in 1900, the death of the very last in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. All that remained, which took years, was for me to develop the two main characters—my almost-a-journeyman blacksmith and my small bluish bird with eyes the color of flame.


Q: What was your writing/research process?

A: Apart from verifying a few dates to see whether my time frame was plausible, I did no actual research; I never do—I would hate to let a fact get in the way of a good story. The subject matter, the details of “Miriam’s Lantern,” grew out of my reading, my interest in history, in animals, and my travels. My writing is a weaving of what I know with what I don’t know (which is where, I think, fiction begins), of what I remember with what I don’t remember (the place where poetry begins for me). For example, the town of Praywell in the story is based on the restored, early nineteenth century town of Hopewell, which I stumbled upon by accident. It was there that I met the blacksmith who told me how he forged by the colors of fire and held me like Coleridge’s mesmerized wedding guest for hours. The strange urgency, the need out of which he spoke has stayed with me ever since and shaped my story as much as the fire shaped his iron. If I was the wedding guest, the blacksmith was the mariner, and so I named the narrator of “Miriam’s Lantern” Marner. For me the concrete, the “actual” are the places I leave behind. I doubt if I could find Hopewell again, but the road to Praywell is marked by numerous well lit signs.

Q: By juxtaposing the extinction of a human profession with the extinction of an animal, you create a story feels both futuristic and historical at the same time—how did you work toward finding the right balance?

A: To achieve the balance you mention, the narrator’s voice was everything. I can’t tell you how many times I rewrote “Miriam’s Lantern,” groping for just the right tone. While the events clearly occur in the past, it is Marner’s diction—formal, quaint, at times stilted, at times almost Biblical—that takes us into the future as if hearing a prophesy. Marner describes actual events, but he does so employing archetypes. His blighted forest could be our forest, the growing darkness as forge after forge flickers out our own growing darkness. But while the story is set in the past, the open-ended ending allows us, if we will, to follow Marner with his bagful of bright red berries into a future where those berries, against the odds, may yet be received.

Q: In “Miriam’s Lantern,” Marner is undergoing an apprenticeship—in what ways do you feel this reflects our relationship with animals and the natural world?

A: From the moment he kills the small, round bird, Marner’s apprenticeship assumes a wider, darker compass than what is normally required by blacksmithing. For much of the story he wanders through a dying world like a stranger, vainly trying to resume an apprenticeship no longer possible. Miriam offers him an alternative vision—a world where the pursuit of craft is still possible and points as evidence to the lives of animals, an association Marner resists. Ironically it is his estrangement from the natural world that lands him a job “among animals.” For the second time in his life he stares into the eyes of the bird that has both haunted him and informed his apprenticeship, but this time he sees another creature “unrelated but closely connected . . .” inhabiting “separate but closely related cages . . .”—the two of them prisoners, the existence of the bird as dependent on Marner as his existence is dependent on the bird. It is the small, solitary bird that in the end saves Marner, and it is now up to Marner as he returns to the natural world outside the zoo to repay the debt. That is his apprenticeship, and, I believe, ours as well.


An interview with Among Animals contributor Melodie Edwards

An interview with Among Animals contributor Melodie Edwards (“Bad Berry Season”)

Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: When I was working for the Forest Service, a bear started raiding some Dumpsters in the small mountain town where I was living, and I thought a lot about the employees who had to problem-solve that situation. I’m interested in the relationship between people and wilderness in such places, where the line between is blurred. I think there’s some part of us that wants back in to our wild selves.

melodie_edwards_200Q: The narrator in this story is struggling to solve two mysteries, one human and one animal—how do the two disappearances and her quest to resolve them reflect her worldview?

A: The narrator is a woman, like most of us, tending to the day to day, blind to what’s taking place inside her all the time. That alienation we all face, from each other, from the present moment, from the big picture. She can’t see that the two mysteries are one. She’s like me—I can’t look at those images where you let your eyes cross and the fuzz turns into a picture. In her mind, the two mysteries are compartmentalized. She would never get around to connecting them, never. It takes a sledgehammer to get her to see.

Q: The narrator’s job in “Bad Berry Season” is to keep humans and animals apart, and the story features a surprising twist on this. What do you hope readers come away with after reading your story?

A: I hope readers come away asking themselves what lengths they will go to in attempting to re-embody their animal selves. We all remember our long lineages in the fiber of our beings that trace us back to the beginning of creation. We remember what it feels like to live the short, manic lives of ants. Or to migrate the globe as terns. That’s information we can access. But how—that’s the question. This is the story of how one man chooses to do so.


An interview with Among Animals contributor Sara Dupree

An interview with Among Animals contributor Sara Dupree (“The Weight of Things Unsaid”)

Q: What was the inspiration for your story?

A: Many of the elements of my story are autobiographical. I lost my sweet, happy dog when he hopped through a hole in the ice at a time in my life I was dealing with several other losses. A few years later, as I was grieving over a miscarriage, my family and I found newly hatched turtles and released them into the river near the place where my dog was swept away. Writing the story was an exploration of how those events could be connected.



Q: “The Weight of Things Unsaid” is a lovely, domestic story in which animal life intertwines with human life in several different aspects. In what ways do you feel these worlds intersect?

A: This is a difficult question for me to answer because I don’t think of the human and animal worlds as being separate from each other. We inhabit the same space—humans are just usually more adept at taking it over—and rely on the same resources. The narrator of my story might be more open than most people to acknowledging the lack of separation by considering how turtles and fish parent and beginning to admit, to herself anyway, the space her dog occupied in her family life.

Q: The narrator mourns the loss of both human and non-human animals in this story—and in fact, she mourns one loss even more than the other, which she feels she must keep to herself. What are you hoping to awaken, inspire, and/or provoke in readers by showing that such losses are felt just as strongly or even more so?

A: The story is an exploration of how those losses are entwined in the narrator’s life. I’ve realized at several points in my life that loving and mourning the loss of non-human animals feels the same to me loving and grieving over humans. For me the intensity of the emotion depends more on the intensity of the connection than the type of species. I suspect this is universal to human and non-humans alike; however, at least among most humans, acknowledging this truth is frowned upon. How many companies offer bereavement leave to their employees for the death of an animal? I hope this story will encourage readers to look their own reactions to love and loss—of humans and non-humans—with greater understanding and compassion.


An interview with Among Animals contributors Carol Guess and Kelly Magee

An interview with Among Animals contributors Carol Guess and Kelly Magee (“With Sheep”)

Q: As co-authors of this story, what was your writing process like?

Carol: Kelly and I had so much fun writing “With Sheep.” It’s part of a book-length collection titled With Animal; each short story focuses on a human who becomes pregnant with an animal baby. Our writing process was simple: we each wrote half a story, then exchanged halves. Starting and finishing stories presented different challenges. This story was difficult for me because the voice Kelly created seemed so confident and strong; I wasn’t sure how to add to it. So I switched characters and point of view, not wanting to add to Kelly’s fabulous narrative but to provide an alternative perspective. Ultimately, I think “With Sheep” feels like part of a larger story, maybe the beginning or end of a novel. Perhaps Kelly and I will return to it some day.

Carol Guess
Carol Guess

Kelly: This story began with voice: the narrator who is witnessing the birth of this animal baby, and the breathlessness of the character and the situation. From there, the world of the story began to come alive, and it was so much fun to think of the details that might be possible in such a world. Once I read Carol’s ending and point-of-view switch, I was thrilled. It’s one of my all-time favorite endings of all the stories we’ve collaborated on. I loved that in this world where animals and people were being commodified, what triumphed was the instinct to parent, to empathize, to care for each other.

Kelly Magee
Kelly Magee

Q: What inspired you to fuse animals and humans together with motherhood?

Carol: Our original idea for a collaboration was to write twisted fairy tales. But that had been done many times before; we wanted to add something unique to the fairy tale feeling. I remember sending Kelly a long list of possible topics, including something to do with humans and animal babies. (Another topic was bikini baristas, so maybe that can be our next project.) Kelly picked up on the idea of animal babies right away, and brought so much knowledge about motherhood, childbirth, and science to our project. What made me happiest, though, was discovering that we have compatible imaginations: neither one of us is easily shocked, and we don’t play it safe. We both write by placing trust in our readers: we trust they will follow us wherever we go.

Kelly: I’m a nontraditional mother myself, so it wasn’t such a stretch to imagine other kinds of nontraditional mothers. I’m also fascinated by pregnancy and childbirth as times when the body goes through a kind of shape-shifting that, at times, seems magical. Many of the stories in the larger collection, With Animal, are exaggerations of things that really happen during pregnancy. Women typically lose hair more slowly during pregnancy, for example, so their hair seems thicker; in “With Sheep,” I expanded that idea to give my character fur. I love times when real life pushes our suspension of disbelief, and motherhood seems to me to be one of those times. But one of the most compelling parts of working on this project was the chance to flip conventions about humans and animals. In many of the stories—this one included—the lines between human/animal, body/mind, and language/behavior were collapsed. It was fascinating to explore the animalistic side of the human characters and the rich interior life and language of the animal characters.

Q: In general, how does your creative work reflect your relationships with animals?

Carol: I’m deeply committed to nonhuman animal rights. I don’t eat animals or engage in violence toward animals, and I’ve worked for animal welfare most of my adult life by volunteering in shelters and engaging in animal rescue. But this project was the first time I felt that passion coming together with my passion for writing. I don’t know why I never connected the two before; after all, I’m involved in Queer activism, and I connect that to my writing. From now on I suspect all of my writing will engage with nonhuman animal lives in some way. It was great writing with Kelly, because she’s similarly passionate about animal welfare. I knew that our representations of animals would always start with the assumption that animals are deserving of respect, dignity, and meaningful lives.

Kelly: I’m always seeking to understand more about human/animal relationships, and writing “With Sheep” (as well as other stories in the collection) gave me a chance to think through some of the questions I still have. I am interested, for example, in how to honor and respect the place of the animal in the human world. I am suspicious of attempts to infantilize animals, something which was very interesting to explore in the context of this story. I love thinking about the successes and failures of different kinds of language, human and non-human, and the blur between the two. Often my characters led me in directions I didn’t expect, and the direction Carol took the story definitely kept me thinking about new possibilities and new questions, which fosters more new work. For me, the exciting part of writing is when I’m heading somewhere entirely new and I’m not sure how I’m going to get out of it. “With Sheep” definitely did that.


An interview with Among Animals contributor Jessica Zbeida

An interview with Among Animals contributor Jessica Zbeida (“Emu”)

 Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

 A: This story was inspired by true events. My grandmother lives in rural east Texas, and one day an emu showed up at her house. She fed it for a few days, but then it became aggressive. My grandfather called a man that he knew, who shot and ate the emu.  I couldn’t pass up fictionalizing such a strange series of events.


Q: The emu’s appearance in the story affects the narrator in a way she’s never experienced before. Do you see a connection between being a mother and her hope to protect the creature who appears near her home?

A: I do see a connection. At the same time, I would say that the narrator finds the emu much more interesting and rewarding than most of the other tasks she faces as a mother.

Q: You do a wonderful job of juxtaposing the ordinary with the exotic in this piece—in what ways do you think this reflects our relationship with animals?

A: I often wanted to develop a “happy” ending in which the emu runs away or the narrator and her family wind up keeping it, but they all felt false. This ending seemed to fit the characters, setting, and the situation.