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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A Q&A with SURVIVAL SKILLS author Jean Ryan

Q&A with Jean Ryan, author of SURVIVAL SKILLS: STORIES

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and how long did it take you to write it?

A: These stories were written over a period of several years. As they began to gel into a collection, I was able to understand what interests me most as a writer: the natural world and the vulnerability and interdependency of all living things. I enjoy exploring the connections, the synchronicities, the quiet miracles underlying the world we see. Fear and the relative fragility of the human mind fascinate me in particular.

Most of the stories were inspired by something I had read or a show I had seen. “Migration” issued from the real story of a Toulouse goose that lived in a park in Los Angeles and became smitten with one of the visitors. “Looks for Life” also came from real events—a co-worker told me about a friend of his whose life changed after a plastic surgeon rebuilt his face. “Waiting for Annie” followed a special I had seen on coma, the “silent epidemic.” Improved emergency response techniques and sophisticated life support machines are keeping more and more lives in this eerie state of suspension. Especially intriguing to me is the mind’s ability to make connections by itself, to persist without the complement of consciousness. “Paradise” emerged from a program I had watched about intelligence in birds, parrots in particular. One bird had acquired a prodigious vocabulary and this stirred my imagination. I thought it would be fun to work this creature into a story, to use him in fact as a main character. In order to create conflict, the parrot in this tale is malicious as well as brilliant. The extravagance of Palm Springs, its artificial overlay, seemed an apt parallel to the various indulgences that Max enjoyed in his man-made abode.

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Q: Do you have a special routine or place in which you write?

A: I write in the mornings, in my living room, using a laptop computer. However, I think about my stories anywhere and everywhere, so you might say that I am always in the process of writing—either mulling over scenes in a particular story or absorbing ideas for future stories.

I usually start making notes for a story in longhand. After I have a few paragraphs down, I  switch to the computer. I love the ease with which text can be manipulated, and paper saved, using a computer. I edit as a I write. Manuals on writing will invariably instruct you otherwise, but my method is more like a stone mason’s: A sentence must be as strong as I can make it before layering on another. I am obsessive about finding the right word. Occasionally a word that perfectly defines an idea is not a word that fits rhythmically, so I will use a slightly different word in order to achieve the right sound. The rhythm of a sentence is very important to me, and I hear phrases as I write them.

Q: Do you prefer writing short stories over novels?

A: Yes. I love the immediacy of the short form, the way it pulls the reader into a situation quickly. I think the quality of writing in literary short fiction is superior to the writing in most novels. Novels often carry too much exposition and padding. Short pieces must get to the point quickly. This urgency requires distillation, a challenge I revel in—delivering a scene or idea as clearly as I can.

Q: What was the most difficult aspect of your book’s journey?

A: Finding a publisher. Despite shrinking attentions spans in this information age, people are still inclined to buy a novel over a book of short stories. Publishers know this, so few of them will consider buying short story collections. I would like to think that as more people embrace the various digital platforms available now, with single stories more widely available, the short form will have a revival.

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Q: Do you have a favorite story?

A: “Paradise” and “The Side Bar” are probably my favorites. I had fun with the humor in “Paradise,” and I enjoyed creating a parrot with an agenda—I love Max! “The Side Bar” is a more serious story, which actually began as a novel. As the story expanded, I saw that it was headed in a direction that didn’t ring true, so I focused back in on the bar itself and the troubled characters it contained. The desert is a compelling backdrop for human experience, and I admire those who can withstand its haunting openness.

Q: Which story did you feel was most challenging to write? And were there any that came so naturally they seemed to write themselves?

A: “Remediation” was probably my most challenging story, inspired by a woman I knew and respected. Writing about her was difficult at times; I miss her very much. The story that came most easily—and this is so rare—is “Survival Skills.” The tone of this piece presented itself to me, and the juxtaposition of plant and human felt natural. Having worked at a nursery for several years, I’ve had ample time to witness, and envy, the grace inherent in the plant world. While we blunder through our human lives, plagued with questions, stalled by indecision, plants steadily assert themselves, taking just what they need and giving more than they take. For even a moment or two, I would like to possess that certainty.

Q: Who are your own literary muses?

A: My own literary muses are writers whose talent takes my breath away: Virginia Woolf, Jean Thompson, Lorrie Moore, Antonya Nelson, Amy Hempel, Marisa Silver, Annie Proulx, Joan Didion, Stuart Dybek, James Lasdun, Rick Bass. In the genre of poetry, I am in constant awe of Mary Oliver. Reading the exceptional work of others gives me hope that I can achieve something close. I can at least try, can put forth my own ideas. There are countless writers in the world, and there is room for every one of us. No one can write your story but you.

Learn more about Jean (as well as ACP authors Mindy Mejia and Olivia Chadha) in the Book Divas Ask a New Author column, which began in January and runs until June. Find answers to such questions as how to keep the faith in your work, revision tips, and more. You can also ask your own questions by sending them to askanewauthor@bookdivas.com

Ask a New Author