An interview with Among Animals contributor Philip Armstrong

An interview with Among Animals contributor Philip Armstrong (“Litter”)

Q: Why did you choose a dog’s point of view for this story? In what ways was it challenging, and was there any special research you did?

A: Whenever we write about animals (or whenever we think about them or engage with them in any way, in fact), we’re unavoidably projecting onto them our own ideas about what they’re like and how they experience the world. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing—in some ways it’s the same thing we do with other humans, too—but I do think we have an obligation to try and remember how different other species are from us, and how different their worlds must be, while at the same time recognizing likely areas of common experience (senses, emotions, perceptions). Pretending to be an animal is one of the best ways of doing this: children do it, and lots of cultural activities find ways of letting adults do it, too (I’m thinking of shamanism, carnival, wildlife documentaries, even certain sports). Fiction, because it can create the impression of being inside another mind, offers amazing potential for undertaking this experiment. But it also poses massive challenges. For example, how does a writer go about representing a dog’s experience of the world through smell? What is the best narrative point of view to create the impression of a dog’s inner world? In the end, I decided to write my story in the second person (“you”) as a way of inviting the reader to try out my idea of what a canine world might be like, while at the same time—because use of the second person tends to remind us we’re engaging in something invented—remaining aware that it’s nothing but a human guess about that world.

Two items of “special research” helped shape the way I wrote the story. One was reading Alexandra Horowitz’s book Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know, which is full of fascinating theories about how dogs experience the world. The second, and most important, was observing and having adventures with Lola, who was my beloved dog friend for sixteen years. She passed away in February of 2013, not long after I completed the story.

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Q: As the co-director of the New Zealand Center for Human-Animal Studies at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, what role do you think fiction has in the world of animal studies?

A: To me, the main thing that written fiction can do, better than any other form, is create the sustained and deep illusion of being inside another mind. It’s the nearest thing we have to mind-reading or telepathy. That makes it a fantastically rich way of exploring how humans think and feel about other animals, and even speculating on how other animals might think and feel about us. The second thing I’d say is that really well-written fiction has the capacity to allow the reader to experience forms of feeling and perception that are radically new and unusual, outside of the normal conventions—which means it can help expand our repertoire of feelings and perceptions about other animals, and about being animals ourselves. A novel like J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace is a wonderful contemporary example of this.

Q: What advice might you offer to creative writers who hope to write about animals? That is, what is important to keep in mind as well as to avoid?

A: I suspect that the same things apply in writing creatively about animals as in writing about anything else. First, the golden rule: keep your reader in mind, and think all the time about how she or he will experience what you’re writing. Second, the very best way (perhaps the only way) to learn how to write well is by reading—read a lot, read many different things, and read attentively. And third, find a voice that suits the way you write, as well as the perspective you’re writing from. That last one’s the trickiest, I think, and it takes some experimentation with different styles and different tones to get it right.

Q: What else could readers turn to if they like the idea of experiencing the world from a dog’s perspective?

A: I’d strongly recommend Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, which is about a child growing up as part of a pack of feral dogs in Russia (partly based on a true story); Paul Auster’s wonderful Timbuktu, which is written from the point of view of a dog who is the companion of a homeless man; and the poetry collection Unleashed, edited by Amy Hempel and Jim Shepherd, which contains many wonderful poems by famous writers, written from the point of view of their dogs.

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An interview with Among Animals contributor Jean Ryan

An interview with Among Animals contributor Jean Ryan (“Greyhound”)
by Jennifer Hartsock

Q: Jean, many of your short works are inspired by real life events—ranging from media, friends, or your expertise in the food industry. Do they offer many unexpected sources of inspiration?

A: Considered in a certain light, at a certain time, anything can be material for a story. If we are attentive and receptive, everything becomes an offering. There is a box of ashes on my dresser, the remains of my beloved cat. I had intended to scatter these ashes over an area in my backyard where my cat used to nap, but I have not been able to do this, not in fifteen years. The other day while dusting the dresser, I lifted this box and suddenly thought of the character in my latest story, a woman who, stranded by injury, ruminates on some incriminating evidence she has left behind. I slipped the box of ashes into the story, and this detail served to round out the woman’s character and make her more sympathetic, while also providing an evocative visual. Details are crucial, the right ones at the right time; as a writer I love rummaging through my options and finding the jewels. Sometimes, as in this instance, the jewels find me.

jean_ryan Q: You’ve stated in previous interviews that you enjoy how the mind makes unconscious connections. In “Greyhound,” our narrator adopts a rescued greyhound hoping to heal her partner, Holly. But, when Fawn bestows a reserved attitude, our narrator abandons the idea. Does our narrator’s new detachment unconsciously allow Holly and Fawn to heal?

A: Yes, I think so. Eczema is a chronic condition punctuated by flare-ups. There is only so much we can control in life; with illnesses like these, the less we worry and try to master them, the better. When the narrator brought Fawn home, she had high hopes that the dog would be just the tonic Holly needed. Fawn’s diffidence, her continuing unwillingness to run, was initially discouraging. The narrator was compelled to accept this and step back, allowing the dog and Holly to heal in their own time. Compassion is a wonderful thing, but we can sometimes hinder our loved ones with our concern over them.

Q: When Holly and Fawn appear to be on the mend, our narrator dismisses how long their “state of grace” might last. Does this suggest Fawn is a tool for distraction rather than potential growth between her owners?

A: I don’t believe Fawn serves as a distraction in this story as much as an example, a demonstration of the power of patience and forbearance. The narrator’s not needing to know how long Holly’s latest reprieve will last shows that she has become more comfortable with uncertainty, as well as the transitory nature of life in general. Holding on tightly, expecting too much, has not proved useful, and so she has adopted a more tolerant view. Nothing is guaranteed, nothing is forever, and this is knowledge she can live with.

Q: There is a strong primitive theme in “Greyhound,” from an Egyptian dog breed to Holly’s passion for creating dioramas of the Mesozoic era. What significance does ancient history have in your narrative? For example, are Holly and Fawn’s reserved and secretive natures (shown through Holly’s eczema and Fawn’s resistance to touch) connected to ancient history? Is Will’s resemblance to Christ similarly a historical reference?

A: This is interesting. I had not considered the historical references and their thematic contribution until now. Writing is a mysterious process, calling on both the conscious and subconscious mind, and the symbols that work their way into stories are often unintentional. I can tell you that I have been mesmerized by ancient history since I was a child—dinosaurs, pyramids, the Colosseum. I was hunting for fossils at the age of seven, and I still shiver when I look at the specimens I collected, some of them over 400 million years old. I also have remnants of human history, potshards and arrowheads. There is a calming quality to these treasures. It comforts me to know that the earth has been here such a long time, that creatures and people have come and gone, and my fate will be no different. This knowledge puts things in perspective and makes my one little life feel less urgent. Perhaps this big-picture perspective is what helps the characters in “Greyhound” become more peaceful and accepting. I can’t say for certain, but it’s an intriguing idea. I’m glad you raised the question.

Q: The narrator compares Fawn to a child with autism or a person who is paralyzed. What reaction did you anticipate this would have?

A: Comparing these maladies to Fawn’s condition was automatic. This dog was limited by her circumstances. As a race dog, she was not allowed a natural life, and she was consequently cautious and remote—effectively unreachable, at least for a time. Her refusal to run was another reflection of her dysfunction, and it seems plausible to me that in her dreams she would be running, doing what her body was made for. Animals have robust dreams—we can tell by their whimpers and movements—and why wouldn’t they?

Writers are cautioned against anthropomorphism, but I think there is a far greater danger in assuming that animals do not feel or exhibit a range of emotions. It is obvious that the way an animal is treated contributes to its behavior: whether it is friendly or cowed, aggressive or submissive. Like people, some animals are slow learners, others can’t relax; some are asocial, while others need constant attention. It takes no special talent to see these things. It only takes interest and empathy. I don’t know why everyone does not possess these qualities. I don’t know why decency needs to be legislated.

Q: Therapy dogs often accompany their owners on visits to regional hospitals, memory care facilities, assisted living centers, the local library, among other places. How do therapy dogs assist people with difficulties? Are certain facilities more therapy-pet friendly than others?

A: I am not familiar with access restrictions regarding therapy animals. I imagine that more and more places are opening their doors, understanding the importance of this practice. For the visually impaired, the value of guide dogs and miniature horses cannot be overestimated. Equally valuable are the animals that are brought into hospitals and other facilities for the solace they bring to the lonely and the fearful. People and animals co-habit this planet, and we are designed to share our joys and help each other through our difficulties.

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