May 28, 2008

Ecofiction: An Interview with Lee Barwood

LeeBarwoodJuly2007.jpgEcofiction writer Lee Barwood talks a little about publishing in ebook format, her dog Tribby, and some easy ways to help animals and the environment. Her novels can be found at Double Dragon Publishing, or visit her website.

Grasping for the Wind: Your books are published almost entirely in electronic or POD (Publish on Demand) format. You are also environmentally conscious. Are the two related?

Lee BarwoodThey’re definitely related. While I was happy to have the option of a paperback that I could hold in my hands, that I could sign for people, I was even happier that unsold copies wouldn’t be ending up in a landfill somewhere. While many people do know that unsold paperbacks have the covers stripped off and returned, with the books themselves being trashed, lots more don’t – and I didn’t want to be contributing to the problem if my books didn’t sell. And the absolute best thing about the e-book version of Klassic Koalas: Ancient Aboriginal Tales in New Retellings is that 100% of the proceeds goes to the Australian Wildlife Hospital – something you really can’t do with a physical book unless you’ve got very deep pockets and can underwrite the cost of paper, printing, binding, shipping, etc.

GFTW: Your science fiction novel A Dream of Drowned Hollow has been called an "environmental thriller". What does that mean, and how do you respond to critics who might use that definition to say that you are letting your message overtake the story, becoming preachy rather than simply telling a good tale?

LB: An environmental thriller takes its plot, and its action, from some environmental concern – which can be anything from the concept of peak oil to global warming to a hunting story about a guy who’s determined to bag the last polar bear living to someone who’s convinced that environmentalists are out to destroy the political structure of the country. It’s a very broad umbrella, and can even encompass such topics as horseracing (with the current debate over the stamina and structural soundness of the current “crop,” and I use that word deliberately, of racehorses – because that’s more or less how they’re treated) and arguments over whether schools should accept funding from vending machines provided by food corporations (which generally use far more processed ingredients and GMOs than freshly prepared snacks in the school cafeteria might provide). So in a way it’s hard to pin down just what makes an “environmental thriller” – except to say that it still has to thrill the reader, or it’s failed in its mission.

And that’s how I’d answer critics. While it’s fine to have a message in a book – heaven knows, writers have been doing that since Lysistrata, and probably before – if the characters and the action and the plot aren’t compelling, then the whole exercise has been a waste of time and paper (or electrons). And there are some really good stories out there, just waiting to be told. Readers can’t assume, either, that the story will be told only from one point of view. A writer can take the opposite point of view from the public’s perception, whatever it is, and craft a powerful and moving story that can change minds because the images are so compelling. In fact, if the writer doesn’t get into the heads of both protagonist and antagonist, whoever they are and whichever side of the issue they’re on, the story will fall flat.

GFTW: Klassic Koalas, your most recent book, is a retelling of aboriginal tales from Australia about the Koala. Was it difficult to capture tales that were primarily from the oral tradition? What sacrifices did you have to make to get the stories to follow a path, since oral stories often meander or take rabbit trails on their way to a conclusion?

LB: In a way it wasn’t difficult at all, since I think I tend to tell stories more in an old-fashioned, oral way. Certainly I grew up with such stories – one of my sisters made up stories to tell me, and my brother would translate fairy tales from German to tell me; I’d gotten a book of fairy tales, in German, as a gift, and my brother spoke German, so he would translate on the fly from the book. It made for a looser, less structured tale, I think, but it certainly preserved the spirit that went into it. And, of course, I was working from versions that had been written down or recorded – so I more or less went on from there, using the original as a point of departure.

And as far as having to make sacrifices to get a story to follow a path, I’m not entirely sure that I had to do any of that, either. Those rabbit trails can be part of the experience. Anyone who’s ever listened to a person tell a story knows that most people meander as they set out from point A to arrive at point B. While the story always ended up at the proper – that is to say, the traditional – conclusion, if it meandered, I generally let it do so. In fact, sometimes I wandered a bit farther along the path than the traditional tale went, because I saw that it had a point to make. That’s one thing about the oral tradition: stories change in the telling, sometimes subtly and sometimes greatly. And stories are different from history in that the tellers in the oral tradition – for instance, the Celtic bards – were very careful about making sure that their memory of an event was sure. Words have power – whether the power of a fixed-in-the-memory event, or the power of a retelling that draws on everything from the story to be told to the teller’s history to the audience’s needs or wants – or the teller’s purpose.

LeeBarwoodandTrib.jpgGFTW: Tell us a little bit about your dog Tribby. What's her story?

LB: Tribby, whom I lost just after she reached her seventeenth birthday, was the only dog my late husband and I ever actually bought – we got her from a woman who was selling puppies and kittens out of the back of her station wagon in a Wal-Mart parking lot. All our other dogs were strays that either came from the local pound or were picked up off the street with no tags, no collars, and no owners we could find. So they stayed with us.

Tribby was different, though. Here was this little tiny puppy, who was really nothing but a ball of fluff – my husband named her Tribble, because that’s what she looked like – and she was covered with fleas. We were afraid she wouldn’t survive if we left her there, so we got her and brought her home; we gave her a bath right away, and then gave her another one because we hadn’t gotten rid of all the fleas. But she was smart as a whip, and funny, and had a personality that won over anyone who ever met her. She was very independent, with a very strong will of her own, and she was the most loyal, devoted companion anyone could ask for. Her best friend was our big black lab, Raven, who “adopted” her as if he were her mother – he played with her, and groomed her, and protected her. She, and all my dogs, taught me an awful lot about animals, about the way we humans treat them, and about how they should be treated.

GFTW: You are a harpist, and harps are a big part of many of your short stories. How did you become a harpist, and why do you include music in your storytelling?

ILB: had been interested in harps since I was small, but when I asked for one as a very young child I got a gold plastic one with fishline strings that didn’t make music – so I lost interest in that one immediately. Pedal harps were definitely not in my family’s budget, and we hadn’t heard about Celtic harps then except in the most general way (like the harp on the Irish flag). I ended up taking up guitar instead when I was a bit older.

Fast forward about forty-some years, and one day I went into the local health food store to do the shopping and who should be there but a woman who played Celtic harp! She was set up to play but I couldn’t stay until her scheduled start; I had other errands to run. But I looked longingly at those harps before I left the store.

Fast forward again to the following St. Patrick’s Day, and the local library was having a free program of Irish music. We went, and who should be there but the woman from the health food store – harps in tow! She let me pick out “Danny Boy” on the harp, and said she gave lessons – so I was off and running. I’d broken my foot a few years before and gotten carpal tunnel syndrome from the crutches, so I’d had to give up guitar (I’d just taken it back up after many years of hiatus), and I was desperate for music. It was very surprising to me that playing the harp did not hurt my hands – in fact, I can now play guitar again, which I credit to the harp’s different actions for the hand muscles, healing what was wrong.

Music has always been important in my storytelling because music has always been important to me, and to most people. The sound of a song can bring back memories that were long buried; it can make you laugh or weep or get up and move. It has a very strong effect on us, and because of that I often weave it into my stories. It’s also a mnemonic device; you can remember something set to music more easily than just plan words. And poetry has its own music, or cadence, that allows its sentiments to linger in the brain. So the music of language and the music of notes work well together.

Besides, people usually find musicians fascinating. There’s something very special about being able to evoke the sorts of reactions that musicians can; why wouldn’t that have a place in a story? Often, it’s musician’s magic that helps advance the plots of some of my stories.

GFTW: What story or novel did you most enjoy writing?

LB: Probably my all-time favorite is a short story I did many years ago called “The Minstrel.” It was a classic takeoff on a fairy tale – a musician in love with a lady who barely notices him goes to a witch for a love potion. But there are some twists and turns, and the musician ends up bespelled so that only the kiss of one who truly loves him can set him free. And while he’s under the spell, he learns an awful lot about love, and human nature, and his own failings. It was a popular story when it first came out in Space & Time magazine and it was reissued as part of the Double Dragon anthology Illuminated Manuscripts – which is yet another e-book.

My favorite novel, at the moment, is one that’s not finished yet; it’s a paranormal mystery that tackles two very serious issues – domestic abuse and the pet industry. Animals are characters in the book, and have very important roles to play, right along with the humans – as they do in a couple of other favorite stories of mine, “Grow Old Along with Me” and “A Woman of Her Word” (stories in two of Martin Greenberg and Andre Norton’s Catfantastic anthologies). Animals think and act independently, and it’s an exploration as a writer that’s a real challenge to bring off in a way that readers can accept as normal and even welcome. But I’m also very fond of A Dream of Drowned Hollow, since it was a chance to show readers the beautiful Ozarks in which I made my home for several years – and to try to make them understand that we need to protect the creatures and growing things around us; when the natural world is gone, it’s gone. Extinction, as they say, is forever.

GFTW:What fantasy or scifi novels would you recommend that encompass a similar theme to your own, the environment and its preservation?

LB: Animal Heart, by Brenda Peterson, is an outstanding novel that talks about animals used in testing, medical research, and as suppliers of “replacement parts” for ill human beings. It will make you look at animals in a way you may not have considered. Then there’s Ecotopia, by Ernest Callenbach (on my TBR list). Carl Hiassen’s Hoot might surprise some folks. Malevil, by Robert Merle, is an oldie but goodie. The Last Whales, by Lloyd Abbey, addresses the dying of the oceans. And readers can find more listings of books at www.ecofiction.net/resources.html.

GFTW: Klassic Koalas was work you penned in order to help a non-profit organization raise funds. I'm not a writer, but I am an animal lover and environmentally conscious, what are some things I could do to help?

LB: Everyone can help animals by lessening the amount of meat they eat. This may sound like just a pitch for vegetarianism (and in the spirit of full disclosure, I’m a vegan), but when you consider the amount of natural resources used to produce one pound of beef, you can see how our fixation on a meat-based diet reduces the amount of water and land for habitat – not to mention all the other factors, such as feedlot-raised animals that are less healthy and that add to everything from water pollution (manure pools at CAFOs, or factory farms) to air pollution (methane from gases produced by their digestive tracts on a grain diet – which is not natural to them).

Then there are habitat issues. If you live in a house rather than an apartment, plant food for bees. Flowering bushes, honeysuckle, things that produce lots of pollen – and things that flower in succession, so that there’s always something for them to eat. Don’t use pesticides or fertilizers in your yard; some theories tie Colony Collapse Disorder to the products used on lawns. And consider ripping up your lawn in favor of a vegetable garden. It’s less maintenance, healthier for you and your family, and a more efficient use of water and sunlight.

If you live in a neighborhood with foreclosed houses, keep an eye out for signs that people have moved away and abandoned their pets – many people are just leaving their animals inside their houses to starve to death. If you miss seeing a familiar dog in the neighborhood, if you see dogs or cats running loose, if you hear animals inside houses that look empty – call the local SPCA.

If you want to raise money for specific causes, like the Australian Wildlife Hospital or a local shelter or rescue organization, you can do anything from holding a garage sale to a bake sale to having a charity auction on eBay. Write letters to your local papers and politicians for improvements in living standards for everything from farm animals to lab animals to zoo animals. Petition your town for more green space and community gardens. Don’t go to the circus, unless it’s animal-free. Maybe pay a vet bill for someone who really can’t afford it – or donate money to your own vet to cover the care of shelter animals, pets of the unemployed, or emergency cases brought in without an owner. And volunteer at your local shelter.

There are as many ways to help as there are people, so everyone can do something.

GFTW: Thanks for all the great suggestions.

LB: Thank you so much for the opportunity to be here! I really appreciate it.

Posted by John on May 28, 2008 01:27 PM | Posted to Interviews
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