A Q&A with Love & Ordinary Creatures author Gwyn Hyman Rubio
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book?
A: Fifteen years ago, the idea for this book materialized while my husband and I were traveling in Australia. We were eating lunch in a delicatessen at Airlie Beach, waiting for the pontoon that would take us to the Great Barrier Reef. Suddenly, a young Australian woman with long, tanned legs and tousled blond hair pedaled up and stopped in front of the deli window. A Sulphur-crested Cockatoo was perched on the handlebars of her bike. Dismounting, she walked over to the parrot and learned toward him with puckered lips. Simultaneously, he lengthened his neck and raised his beak. Much to my amazement, they kissed—after which she came inside to pick up her order. While she was gone, the cockatoo kept his eyes on her. Not once did he look away. Not once did he try to fly off, even though his legs, I noticed, were untethered. A few minutes later, food in hand, the young woman left the deli, the cockatoo fluttering his wings and squawking with delight as she approached. “Now, that’s a bird in love,” I said to my husband when the two of them cycled off.
Q: How did you deal with the the challenges of writing from a cockatoo’s point of view?
A: Caruso is a caged cockatoo, living in exile, which limits what he can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Therefore, I had to invent ways to enlarge his world so that the novel would not become too claustrophobic. One of these ways was to give Caruso memories of his life before he was captured. Years ago, my husband and I traveled in Australia and became acquainted with the raucous birds there. Cockatoos thrive in the Australian bush, and I will never forget the day we watched huge clouds of them flying over us to land in the gum trees on the opposite bank of the Murray River. Having visited this beautiful, wild continent, I decided to make it Caruso’s birthplace. He would be able to recall his early years, thereby allowing me to use poetic license to write about birds and animals from areas of Australia and other places that he couldn’t possibly have seen. Furthermore, it prompted me to pick Ocracoke Island as the setting for the novel in that I would be able to compare and contrast the large island/continent of Australia with the tiny island of Ocracoke. Crab Cakes, the restaurant where Clarissa cooks, is directly behind their cozy cottage, which makes it possible, when she doesn’t take him to work with her, for Caruso to watch her through the sunroom windows as she cooks in the light-filled kitchen
In addition, I felt that including a second storyline would be a good idea because it would open Caruso’s universe even more. To that end, I created Theodore Pinter, who lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, and whose whole life has revolved around the woman he loved and lost, much as Caruso’s current life revolves around Clarissa. Using poetic license, I took liberties with much of the latest research that shows parrots have remarkable intellects, crave attention, tend to bond with one human in particular, experience and express jealousy, and have some understanding of language, in order to broaden Caruso’s life beyond his bars.
Q: What sort of special research did you do to write Love & Ordinary Creatures?
A: I read many nonfiction books about birds before I ever put pen to paper. David Attenborough’s The Life of Birds, based on the ten-part program of the same name that aired on PBS, was one of them. I loved the book so much that I ordered the series and watched all ten parts, taking meticulous notes throughout. After reading books about birds in general, I began to focus my attention on parrots, then specifically on cockatoos. Beyond reading, I spoke to parrot owners and several times to an older couple who had bred cockatoos. From them I heard a funny story. One of their favorite cockatoos would torment their dog daily. Mimicking the woman’s voice, he would call the dog to supper from his perch on the screen porch, and then laugh gleefully when the dog would come running, only to find the door locked and no one there to let him in. Over and over, the cockatoo would do this until the dog was ragged and out of breath.
One day, I went to a trade show where breeders of parrots sold their birds, but the whole experience was so demoralizing that I swore I would never go to another one again. Many of the bird owners with whom I’ve spoken also feel this same way: They think that parrots are exotic creatures, difficult to domesticate, and hence should not be caged. So they rescue parrots from intolerable conditions and give them the attention, love, and self-discipline they crave in order to thrive in captivity. For, having never lived in the wild, they would not survive if set free.
Originally, my novel was to take place in the twenty-first century; however, as I researched my subject, I realized that this timeframe would not work. Restrictions on the importation of exotic birds were tightened in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Soon thereafter, catching birds with nets in the wild became illegal. I wanted Caruso to be conflicted, to suffer from loss and longing. In order for him to have memories of his life in Australia, it was imperative that he be caught as a young chick in the wild. Also I wanted him to reach sexual maturity during his years with Clarissa, which, I felt, would illuminate his confused feelings toward her. This meant that he had to be at least four or five years old. For these reasons, I changed the timeline of the book to take place in the early 1990s.
Q: What is your writing process like?
A: I like to write every day. My rule is: four pages or four hours, whatever comes first. Nevertheless, if the words are flowing easily and the characters are speaking clearly to me, I can work for nine or ten hours straight. I write the first draft of my novels on yellow-lined legal pads in pencil because the tactile sensation of pencil against paper slows me down and nurtures the creative process; however, I alternate between pencil and computer as I compose. I wear my creative hat when I’m writing in longhand, my critical hat when I’m typing on the computer. I try to complete four or five handwritten pages before I stop for the day. The day after, I type and edit these pages on the computer. Then, ready to be creative again, I pick up my pencil and pad. If I wear both hats, the creative and the critical, at once, I can become blocked, so I avoid this way of working. My first draft is written on a sofa upstairs in our bedroom; my second is typed at my desk in my study downstairs.
As I grow older, I’m less driven than I once was. Writing is a lonely, solitary profession, and before I die, I’d like to spend more time with real people than I do with my imaginary friends. I have written and shelved so many books that I find it harder and harder to spend years on a work of fiction, only to shelve it later. Writing is a tough profession, made tougher by the merger of independent houses into corporations that value only the bottom line and the opinions of the bean counters. Hopefully smaller, independent presses like Ashland Creek Press will become more and more visible over time and be able to fill the void (which the big corporate houses have created) with well-written, imaginative, risky books, valued not for their huge sales potential but for their literary quality.
Q: There is an underlying environmental message in your novel. Was this deliberate on your part?
A: Everything in life is political. So the politics of any book—I feel—will surface naturally. I want my political views to grow organically from the characters in my novels and not to be imposed by me. Should readers empathize with my characters, they might be more open to ideas quite different from their own, or, at least, be more motivated to examine the pros and cons of their own ideas.
Q: Caruso is on a spiritual journey in the book. Can you elaborate on this?
A: I am a spiritual person, not a religious one, yet the instant I finished reading the classic The Dairy of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos, I knew how my novel would end. At his greatest moment of suffering, Caruso would turn to the Great Mother and ask Her to help him, and grace would be his. The miraculous power of love would give him the courage to bear his suffering and would save him.
Q: The Woodsman’s Daughter is a total departure from Icy Sparks. Now you’ve written Love & Ordinary Creatures, which, in many ways, is quite unlike your other two books. Why are your books so different from one another? Doesn’t this diversity of theme, tone, and subject confuse your readership’s expectations?
A: I become bored very easily and hate to repeat myself. In some ways, this trait of mine does make it confusing for my readers, but the thought of writing a sequel to Icy Sparks, which many readers asked of me, was never an option. I had to let Icy go when the book came out and suffered from a bad case of empty-nest syndrome afterward. But as soon as I recovered, I was ready to move on to something else—something totally different—because I didn’t want to bring Icy back home and then have to let her go a second time.
Instead, I wrote The Woodsman’s Daughter, a historical novel, which is loosely based on my great-grandmother’s life. It’s a long—somewhat dark—book, and the process of writing it was both wonderful and grueling. After it was published, I decided to return to humor but wasn’t feeling very funny at the time. And so the novel that followed—written in a rush to meet a deadline—was a mess and not in the least bit humorous. Hating it, I shelved it, then took a long hiatus from writing, which I sorely needed.
Soon thereafter, I decided to write Love & Ordinary Creatures, which I’d been thinking about for years. In tone and humor, it is much like Icy Sparks, but in other ways it is quite dissimilar. From the outset, I wanted to write the narrative from a cockatoo’s point of view and knew that this would be challenging. Readers, I feared, might find the voice off-putting, and I wasn’t certain that I’d be able to sustain it, but, in order for me and the reader to get inside Caruso’s head, I felt that it was necessary for him to tell his story. I hadn’t worked long on the novel before Caruso took over completely and filled me with his words. Oh, he was both delightful and annoying, and I adored him, and I’ll probably suffer a slight depression, as I did with Icy, when I have to let him go.
Right now, I’m trying my hand at essays—a collection about food and art. My father was a writer who ate only to live. Neither food nor the creative process gave him much pleasure. He blocked after his first novel was published to critical and commercial success and didn’t write another word before his death nine years later. Did his inability to enjoy food somehow foreshadow the writer’s block that would engulf him later? Did his relationship with food have anything to do with his inability to derive pleasure from the creative process? Did genetics limit his capacity to enjoy life, or was this behavior learned from his parents? These are some of the ideas I’m exploring—ideas certainly not present in my other books.
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 (“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.
Q: 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 Suzanne Kamata (“Blue Murder”)
Q: As an American writer living in Japan, what are the similarities and differences in the ways animals are perceived and treated in each country?
A: Animals are generally treated with reverence in Japan, probably due to the Buddhist belief that every life is sacred. There is a large pharmaceutical company headquartered in the prefecture where I live. Although the company sometimes uses animals to test products, there is a shrine on the premises dedicated to the creatures who were sacrificed to the cause of human health.
Conversely, as far as I know, there is nothing like the Society for the Protection of Animals in this country, although there are activists here and there. You may have heard of the proliferation of animal cafés in Japan. Because most Japanese people are too busy to take care of pets, or because they live in small spaces in the city, cafés featuring cats, rabbits, and even owls have become popular. The idea is that people can relax and enjoy being with animals, or experience nature in the midst of the city, but it’s rather unkind to keep owls in a coffee shop, I think.
Q: In “Blue Murder,” Keita loathes one type of bird while falling in love with another. In what ways do you feel this informs humans’ relationships with animals?
A: We are always drawn to the elusive, aren’t we? We don’t like the animals that we can’t get rid of, the ones that cause problems, like squirrels in the attic or rabbits in the vegetable garden or gophers tunneling under the lawn. But we’ll get out our cameras for the rarer beings. We’ll pay lots of money to go on safari to get a look at a lion, or spend hours whale-watching, for example
Q: What does the kingfisher represent to Keita?
A: For Keita, it represents another life. Freedom. He’s having a hard time seeing the good things right under his nose. He feels unappreciated by his family, assaulted by crows, jealous of his sister who doesn’t have the heavy responsibilities that he has.