We are delighted to announce our 2016 Siskiyou Prize judge: JoeAnn Hart.
JoeAnn Hart is the author of two novels, Addled (Little Brown, 2007) and Float (Ashland Creek Press, 2013). Her essays, articles, and short fiction have appeared in a wide variety of literary journals and national publications, including Orion, Newfound, Terrain.org, and the Boston Globe Magazine. JoeAnn’s work has won a number of awards, including the PEN New England Discovery Award in Fiction.
JoeAnn’s work has been praised as “witty, profound, and beautifully observed” (Margot Livesey), “joyful and troubling, hilarious and somber, evocative, and introspective” (Necessary Fiction), and “very funny and very moving” (Booklist). Her novel Float, writes the Cape Ann Beacon, is “a stellar model of eco-literature.” JoeAnn is currently working on a play with strong environmental themes, and she is a contributor to EcoLit 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in captivity, and an encounter I’d had as a boy with a very old man who’d apprenticed as a blacksmith before horses had been replaced by cars.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.
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.