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Book Review: Fragment

You may have read that in mid-July a massive iceberg broke off from Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf. Measuring about 2,000 square miles—nearly the size of Delaware—it is one of the largest icebergs ever to calve from the ice shelves ringing the continent. Scientists expect that it will eventually fracture, with some pieces remaining in the Weddell Sea and others moving into the Atlantic Ocean. They don’t expect the pieces will pose any danger nor do they anticipate sea level rise should they melt. But what if, rather than an iceberg splintering off an ice shelf, the continent’s largest ice shelf, itself, a land mass the size of France, were thrust into the ocean? How much global devastation might result from an event of that magnitude?

For the answer, look to Craig Russell’s fast-paced eco-thriller, Fragment. When the novel begins, a glacial avalanche severs the Ross Ice Shelf from the continent and creates a tsunami of ice that destroys two polar research stations, Scott Base and McMurdo Station. “The wave is not a perfect line,” writes Russell. “It is the product of four, falling, runaway glaciers, thrust like goring bulls into the Ice Shelf’s back…shards of surface ice are launched ahead of the onrushing swell. Launched like harpoons, catapulted forward at the speed of sound.” Only three people survive the onslaught: a polar climatologist, an astronomer, and a marine biologist.

Fragment is their story, but not theirs alone. The novel is driven by an ensemble cast that includes sailors aboard a U.S. atomic submarine, journalists, climate-change denying politicians, a self-promoting marketing director of a major cruise line, a Scottish sailor literate in the wild waters of Drake Passage, and a blue whale named Ring. All (of the human characters) are trying to make sense of what the ice shelf’s surge into the Atlantic could mean for coastal countries, and some are warning of the epic environmental and human carnage to come. It will be no surprise to readers that these warnings fall on proverbial deaf ears. Says a German scientist at a hastily-called European conference, “Such examples are imaginative, but we must not inflame the passions of the public…we must take a balanced view. We cannot simply adopt an alarmist view.”

In this climate change allegory, characters are somewhat thinly drawn in background, if not environmental outlook. Readers will quickly distinguish between those who are noble—who respect earth and all her inhabitants—and those who are selfish and scornful of nature. This lack of complexity in character development combined with short chapters that jump among settings, pitch the action of the story forward at a steady, page-turning clip. Fragment is hard to put down.

Perhaps the most compelling character in the novel—and certainly the purest of heart—is the blue whale, Ring. When the scientists who survive the Antarctic tsunami develop a language that makes communication with Ring possible, what follows is inter-species cooperation unlike the world has ever seen.

Fragment leaps so seamlessly from fact to fiction that it may drive readers to their computers or smart phones to find out where exactly fact ends and fiction begins. That’s how well-researched and executed I found Craig Russell’s eco-thriller.

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Announcing the winner & finalists of the 2016 Siskiyou Prize!

We are delighted to announce the winner of the 2016 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature: Katy Yocom, for her novel THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR.

Judge JoeAnn Hart writes, “THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR begins with a focused lens on the endangered Bengal tiger then expands its reach with every page to reveal the interconnectedness of the natural world and fragility of all life. Weaving together the worn threads of ecological balance, this ambitious and moving novel addresses scarcity, climate change, family dynamics, cultural conflict, human accountability, women’s economic autonomy, and most of all, love, in all its wondrous forms. This is a story not just about saving the tigers, but ourselves.”

Katy Yocom was born and raised in Atchison, Kansas. After graduating from the University of Kansas with a degree in journalism, she moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she has lived ever since. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and journalism have appeared in Salon.com, The Louisville Review, decomP magazinE, StyleSubstanceSoul, and Louisville Magazine, among other publications.

In conducting research for her novel, THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR, she traveled to India, funded by a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. She has also been awarded grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Kentucky Arts Council and has served as writer-in-residence at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Crosshatch Hill House, and Hopscotch House. Her short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her poetry has been translated into Bulgarian. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University.

She lives with her husband in Louisville, Kentucky, where she helps direct Spalding’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Learn more about Katy on her website and via Facebook.

As the Siskiyou Prize winner, Katy will receive a four-week residency at PLAYA and a $1,000 cash prize.

It was a very competitive contest this year, and we would also like to congratulate the finalists and semifinalists:

FINALISTS

Small Small Redemption: Essays by Sangamithra Iyer

The Heart of the Sound: A memoir by Marybeth Holleman (published by Bison Books)

Song of the Ghost Dog: A YA novel by Sharon Piuser

SEMIFINALISTS

Karstland: A novel by Caroline Manring

Rumors of Wolves: A novel by C.K. Adams

The Harp-Maker of Exmoor: A novel by Hazel Prior

Thanks to everyone who submitted and to everyone who writes with the goal of making this world a better place. And please stay tuned for announcements for the next Siskiyou Prize!

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New EcoLit Books: Fall 2016

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Here are some of the books that were submitted to us over the past few months that are recently published (or soon will be):

The After
Author: Melinda Mueller
Publisher: Entre Ríos Books
Book Description: An important new collaborative work by Northwest artists responding to the sixth extinction. The first book by Seattle poet, Melinda Mueller, since her award winning “What the Ice Gets”. “The After” is a single poem sorrowing the world we will alter and leave unseen. A meditation on extinction and the anthropocene, it blends science and poetry with an urgency of a heartbreak. Interspersed with the poem is the stunning sub Arctic art of Karinna Gomez, a printmaker currently teaching in Alaska, all presented in full color. The book ships with a CD with music by the Seattle experimental jazz duo, Syrinx Effect (Kate Olsen and Naomi Siegel), commissioned specifically for “The After”.

Sustainability at Work: Careers that make a difference
Author: Marilyn Waite
Publisher: Routledge
Book Description: Through inspiring narratives and a structured framework, Sustainability at Work illustrates how sustainability can be incorporated into every imaginable career to impact the quadruple bottom line: environment, economy, society, and future generations.

The Man Who Harvested Trees and Gifted Life
Author: Gabriel Hemery
Publisher: Sylva Press
Book Description: A remarkable true story sows a seed in a young girl’s mind which grows into a lifelong relationship with a forest and its trees, yet she develops an affinity richer than she could ever have imagined. The Man Who Harvested Trees And Gifted Life is a sequel to Jean Giono’s much-loved 1954 classic, The Man Who Planted Trees And Grew Happiness, and a compelling short story in its own right.

The Nocturnals: The Mysterious Abductions
Author: Stacey Ashton
Publisher: Fabled Films Press
Book Description: The Nocturnals is a middle grade series that features three unlikely friends: Dawn, a serious fox, Tobin, a sweet pangolin and Bismark, the loud mouthed, pint sized sugar glider. The stories all play out in the nighttime world with teamwork, friendship and humor in every adventure.

Law and Disorder
Author: Mike Papantonio
Book Description: In his new fast-paced legal thriller LAW AND DISORDER bestselling author Mike Papantonio skillfully examines issues that could be pulled from today’s newsfeed—billionaires funding litigation, partisan judges ruling personal politics instead of the law, a reckless media seeding innuendo-filled stories—in a suspenseful, highly entertaining read.

After the Texans
Author: Kate Appleton
Publisher: Clink Street Publishing
Book Description: Having exposed the corrupt plans of the disgraced former government in Papua New Guinea, the UN’s carbon market watchdog, the Global Carbon Markets Organisation, is basking in the limelight. Behind the scenes, however, all is not well. Emil Pfeffer, head of market integrity, is in meltdown. With a high-stakes legal battle taking place in Hong Kong – one that will decide the future of the carbon market and, with it, the last chance for a globally coordinated response to climate change – his girlfriend is suddenly snatched by those who hope to put a stop to his work.

Jesus and Magdalene
Author: João Cerqueira
Publisher: Lion Publications
Book Description: Jesus returns to earth and meets activist Magdalene who is fighting for a better world. He find an extremist ecological group, which is plotting to destroy a maize plantation it believes to be genetically modified.

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Book Review: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior does all that a great work of eco-fiction should, addressing the issues (climate change) without sacrificing the story (a woman whose small-town world is broken wide open by a mysterious act of nature).

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Dellarobia Turnbow, married at seventeen due to a pregnancy in which she lost the baby, is a decade later still married, tied to her two young children and husband’s family farm. She escapes emotionally through wild crushes on various men—and one day, planning to go through with an affair, she heads into the mountains for the rendezvous, only to find a “lake of fire” awaiting her. The sight of it, blurred because she’d left her glasses behind, brings her back to reality and she returns home, determined to accept her life as it is. Then, when she learns of her in-laws’ plans to log the forest from which she’s just returned, she tells her husband, “They can’t log that mountain.” When pressed for a reason, she can say only, “The world can surprise you…It could be something special up there.”

That “something special” turns out to be a vast population of monarch butterflies, whose arrival, to the locals, signifies a miracle of God; to the scientific community, it’s a sign of ecological disaster.

Soon Dellarobia’s Southern Appalachian town is filled with visitors—scientists and activists, the media and the curious. Dellarobia, who has been living restlessly in a home built by her in-laws while she raises her kids and her husband works the farm, becomes drawn into the wider world of the monarchs and the global implications for their sudden and unexplained arrival in her town.

While Dellarobia, smart and intellectually curious despite a limited education, is disturbed by the fate of the butterflies and what their detour means for the ecosystem, for most of the people in her town, “weather is the Lord’s business,” and denial reigns, as does the need for survival—like the promise of logging money “‘when there’s trees standing that could be trees laying down,’” as Dellarobia’s father-in-law says.

Dellarobia is the first among them to realize that what is happening is bigger than all of them. “Man against Nature. Of all the possible conflicts, that was the one that was hopeless. Even a slim education had taught her this much: Man loses.”

Yet paying attention to climate change is a luxury for the local population, as Dellarobia herself sees when an environmental activist reads from a pledge to lower one’s carbon footprint. Among the items on the list are bringing Tupperware to restaurants for leftovers (“I’ve not eaten in a restaurant in over two years,” Dellarobia says), carrying a bottle of tap water instead of buying bottled water (“Our well water is good. We wouldn’t pay for store-bought.”), eating less red meat (Dellarobia’s family practically lives on mac and cheese), and shopping at secondhand stores (the only stories at which Dellarobia can afford to shop).

Dellabrobia feels keenly the differences between her own life and that of the researchers, students about her own age who have no children, who “had ridden airplanes, moved among foreigners, walked on the ground of other countries. Dellarobia had been nowhere…she couldn’t even muster the strength for jealousy, given the size it would have to take.” While she recognizes that their presence is environmentally tragic, she also knows that what’s happening is presenting her with an opportunity, not only for herself but for her bright young son and her baby daughter.

As winter looms and the study of butterflies on the mountain continues, Dellarobia becomes more involved in the research, harboring feelings for the lead scientist while seeing her own family and her own future through new eyes. Using both page-turning tension and great empathy, Kingsolver portrays not only the implications of a changing planet but the reverberations of personal change upon an entire family, creating an unforgettable story.

 

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Karen Joy Fowler wins 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award

We are thrilled to hear the news that Karen Joy Fowler (our judge for this year’s Siskiyou Prize) is the winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for her amazing novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

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As the Washington Post writes, “With its disturbing portrayal of the abuse that chimps endure, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves … makes a strong argument against using these intelligent animals in academic and medical research. Fowler worked on the novel for more than a decade, but happily, just days after it was published, the federal government began the process of declaring chimpanzees an endangered species, a move that would prohibit their use in invasive medical testing.”

This novel exemplifies the type of work that inspires us most — beautiful, engaging, literary stories that flawlessly weave in issues that are vitally important. Congratulations to Karen for such well-deserved recognition!

Read more about the PEN/Faulkner Awards here.

Read a review of Karen’s novel here.

Read about the Siskiyou Prize here.

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Happy New Year from EcoLit Books

Happy new year, readers and writers! We are looking forward to a new year of eco-literature and already have a great lineup of new reviews coming soon.

For all of you who live in the Seattle area or who are attending AWP, we’d love to see you at our eco-lit panel on Saturday, March 1, at 12 noon: The Greening of Literature: Eco-fiction and poetry to enlighten and inspire. The panel will be moderated by John Yunker, who will be joined by eco-minded authors, essayists, and poets: JoeAnn Hart, Mindy Mejia, Ann Pancake, and Gretchen Primack. Authors on this panel discuss how their ecologically themed fiction and poetry engages readers in powerful ways that nonfiction can’t. Panelists discuss writing in these emerging sub-genres as well as their readers’ responses, and offer tips for writing about the environment in ways that are galvanizing and instructive without sacrificing creativity to polemics. Click here for full conference details.

If you’d like to start 2014 with a sample of Ashland Creek Press eco-lit, check out our newly updated Eco-Fiction Sampler.

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Wishing you a happy new year of reading!

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Announcing the Bear Deluxe Magazine Doug Fir Fiction Award

Calling all fiction writers: Save the date (September 3 deadline) for submissions to the Bear Deluxe Magazine Doug Fir Fiction Award, co-sponsored by the Sitka Center for Art & Ecology, Ashland Creek Press, and Hawthorne Books.

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Please see below for complete guidelines, and you can also click here for details and more info.

The Bear Deluxe Magazine welcomes submissions of previously unpublished short stories up to 5,000 words, relating to a sense of place or the natural world, interpreted as broadly or narrowly as the author defines.

Entry Fee: $15

Word limit: 5,000

Deadline: September 3, 2013

Grand Prize: $1,000, writer’s residency at Sitka Center for Art & Ecology, national publication, and manuscript review

Finalists: Manuscript review, recognition, publication consideration

Award Judge: Lidia Yuknavitch’s most recent books include Dora: A Headcase, a novel, and The Chronology of Water: A Memoir. She is also the author of three works of short fiction (Her Other Mouths, Liberty’s Excess, and Real to Reel) and as well as a book of literary criticism, Allegories of Violence.

Co-sponsor: Sitka Center for Art & Ecology

Associate sponsors: Ashland Creek Press and Hawthorne Books (Ashland Creek Press and Hawthorne Books will provide manuscript review for one story of the author’s choice from award winner and finalists).

For complete guidelines, visit www.orlo.org or email bear@orlo.org (website is under redesign).

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Writing for animals: Advice for writers of animal rights fiction

In mainstream fiction today, “normal” characters tend to be carnivores, or at least omnivores, and “fringe” characters tend to be vegetarian or vegan.

Naturally, I disagree with this distinction. But I also understand that most writers are simply following convention, simply writing about the world as they see it today.

But the world is changing. And fiction has a critical role in not only reflecting these changes but also in imagining the world as it can be.

Which is one reason I wrote The Tourist Trail and co-founded Ashland Creek Press — to help publish these works when we find them.

Writing a story that advances animal rights isn’t easy, particularly if you want to change hearts and minds.

And not every novel needs to have a theme that directly addresses animal suffering. It could simply feature vegan characters who are portrayed as normal human beings (as opposed to hemp-clad anarchists). J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello is one such character.

If you’re a writer with goals of changing the world, here are a few things I’ve learned over the years.

Tips for Writing Stories that Change Minds

1. Know your audience

If you’re writing for an already converted audience, then what you write will be vastly different than writing for minds you hope to change. At Ashland Creek Press, we aim to publish for a mainstream audience—this is where we see possibilities for positive change on a large scale. But it also means selecting works that both vegans and non-vegans will find realistic and compelling, and these can be the most challenging works of all. To create a work that accomplishes this goal, writers should include characters along a wide spectrum so that readers will have someone to identify with. Having characters with diverse lives and opinions offers something for every reader and also leads to great conflict, which brings me to the next tip.

2. Use relationships to get messages across

A good story avoids simply telling readers about the issues. Instead, let your characters work through the issues through conflict. Put a vegan into a relationship with a non-vegan, a Republican with a Democrat, a Prius driver with an SUV driver. And always keep in mind that some of the most interesting and enlightening animal rights discussions take place over dining room tables among family members. Elizabeth Costello, for example, is in conflict with her daughter-in-law who doesn’t want Elizabeth “infecting” the children with her ideas about animals. Your characters don’t have to be on the front lines of a protest to be “activists.” Sometimes it takes just as much bravery to confront a loved one over the dining room table.

3. Don’t lead with the issues

Get readers involved with the story first, so that they’re engrossed in the characters long before they realize there’s a certain issue at stake. Create mystery, conspiracy, and don’t be obvious with where you’re headed. For example, a novel about ag-gag laws can begin as a corporate conspiracy novel—a mainstream issue that could pull in a wide audience. Focus first on capturing the reader’s attention with complex characters and plots, then work in the animal rights themes in a way that fits the story.

4. Anthropomorphism can be a powerful device, used carefully

Taking readers inside the minds of animals can be a very effective way to elicit sympathy for animals. And it’s a literary device that many people were raised with—from The Rats of NIMH to Charlotte’s Web to Black Beauty. Cormac McCarthy used this device sparingly in his novel, The Crossing. Here’s an excerpt:

She carried a scabbedover wound on her hip where her mate had bitten her two weeks before somewhere in the mountains of Sonora. He’d bitten her because she would not leave him. Standing with one forefoot in the jaws of a steeltrap and snarling at her to drive her off where she lay just beyond the reach of the chain. She’d flattened her ears and whined and she would not leave. In the morning they came on horses. She watched from a slope a hundred yards away as he stood up to meet them.

This is a wolf’s point of view, but it reads as vividly as any human point of view, if not more so. And I think this is a key lesson. I always cringe when I read works from an animal’s point of view in which the animal has been “dumbed down.”

5. Empathy cuts both ways

Some vegans’ criticism of carnivores is that meat eaters have little or no empathy for animal suffering. But on the other hand, some vegans have little or no sympathy for the struggles that carnivores face as they consider giving up meat—or they may have forgotten their own struggle to become vegan. Diet is cultural, personal, and often carries with it family expectations and emotional baggage. To change one’s diet can, for some people, lead to strained or broken relationships. While going vegan may be an easy decision for one person, it could be an enormously difficult decision for another. Keep this in mind as you write, and have sympathy for all your characters.

6. Nobody is perfect

Everyone has a different view on what needs to be done to save the planet, to save the animals. And everybody works in different ways to make a difference. Just because someone doesn’t do all the things you do doesn’t mean they’re not making an impact in their own ways. To expect perfection from characters is no different than expecting perfection from your friends and family or yourself. It’s just not going to happen. In fact, I would argue that imperfection is far more important in creating authentic characters. The flaws are just as important as the features.

7. The journey is the thing

“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most commonly dispensed bits of writerly advice, and it is particularly relevant with eco-fiction. When trying to open the reader’s eyes to animal atrocities, one may feel the urge to dispense statistics and other important facts. But readers generally recoil if they feel they are being lectured to. It is far better to take the reader on a journey so he or she can see the atrocities firsthand. Don’t tell a reader how many factory farmed animals suffer; take them into a slaughterhouse. Also consider the value of including a character who begins the novel as a carnivore but becomes a vegan during the course of the book. What type of a journey will this character follow in order to make such a transformation? If you can create a character who can believably undergo such a transformation, enduring all the public and personal struggles along the way, you’ll be well on your way to developing a must-read novel.

What’s Next?

These are just a handful of suggestions, and I’d love to hear from other writers. Send me your questions and comments, and let me know what eco-lit books have made an impact on you.

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Q&A with Mindy Mejia, author of The Dragon Keeper

Q&A with Mindy Mejia, author of The Dragon Keeper

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Dragon Keeper, and how long did it take you to write it? Did you have a special routine or place in which you wrote?

 A: I was on a business trip in London in December of 2006 when I read an article in the paper about a Komodo dragon reproducing via parthenogenesis at the Chester Zoo. Since it was so close to Christmas, the article made a lot of overt comparisons to the Virgin Mary, and the tone of the entire piece was very light. It was clearly intended as entertainment. I immediately ripped the article out of the paper and read it obsessively in my hotel room over the next few days. I knew there was a much bigger story there, but I had no idea it could be a novel. A few weeks later, I was watching The Daily Show back at home when they aired a clip from the Chester Zoo. The dragons had hatched, and one of the zookeepers told the cameraman that it was the best day of her life. Jon Stewart made some joke about how pathetic this woman was, and in that moment I knew I had to write this story. I was fascinated by this woman, by the revelation that animals had begun reproducing without mates, and by the idea of a love story between a zookeeper and a dragon.

I wrote the book during my last two years in the Hamline MFA program, and it became my thesis. Since I have a full-time job, I wrote mostly during my lunch breaks and before classes at night. After I graduated, I revised the book two more times in the two years that followed, while working on other projects as well.

Q: Have you ever worked at a zoo?

 A: No, I never have. My zookeeper abilities don’t extend much beyond feeding a cat. My work life has been largely spent in corporations, and that’s the employer that ultimately came to the page. The Zoo of America is, of course, completely fictional, and I began thinking of it as corporate America, as in: “How would corporate America behave if it owned a zoo?” The actual zoos I was lucky enough to visit while researching the book were conscientious, humane institutions that bear little resemblance to the Zoo of America.

Q: Are you trying to say that zoos are a bad institution?

A: I didn’t want the book to be strictly pro-zoo or anti-zoo, but I did want to raise questions that we don’t always think about when we visit zoos. As the planet’s current conquering species, what is our responsibility to the other creatures who live here? We’ve come a long way from the roadside menageries, but do we have the right to capture and display animals for entertainment or education? What if, like Komodos, the species is losing its natural habitat? There are a lot of issues to consider, and I hope I’ve been able to introduce some of those questions for readers.

Q: What sort of research did you do to write the book?

A: Although I would have loved to travel to Indonesia, my budget dictated that most research had to be conducted through reading. Because Westerners first encountered the Komodo dragon relatively recently, there aren’t a great deal of academic studies available. I read the ones I could find, including Walter Auffenberg’s definitive 1981 book based on his research while living on Komodo Island.

I also wanted to get a sense of zoo life, without getting too focused on the habits of any one particular zoo. I visited the Memphis Zoo in 2007 and was fortunate enough to interview the curator of reptiles as well as both keepers who looked after their two Komodo dragons. At one point I mentioned Auffenberg’s comment that early expeditioners thought the dragons were deaf because they didn’t react to gunshots. The curator had never heard that and seemed incredulous of the fact. Later he showed me why. When we were behind the Komodo exhibit, he opened the top half of the door that led inside and said, “Jeff!” Jeff, the eight-foot-long Komodo, immediately turned 180 degrees and barreled for the door. The curator and I had to retract our heads and slam the door shut before Jeff could rear up over it into the hallway. “He can hear,” the curator said, grinning.

Q: Is parthenogenesis really possible?

A: Yes, it is, and there are documented cases of parthenogenesis in Komodo dragons. When I happened to find that article about Flora, the Komodo at the Chester Zoo who reproduced via parthenogenesis in 2006, I was immediately fascinated by the idea of sexual animals reproducing without mates. In the course of The Dragon Keeper, we learn that Jata’s offspring are even more unique than Flora’s. What happens with Jata specifically has never been known to occur in Komodos, but it seemed to me like the next logical evolutionary step, although I’m as much at a loss to explain it as Meg and everyone else in the book. To me, it’s still somewhat of a miracle.

Q: Are there really Komodo dragons like Jata?

A: Yes! It was very important to me to portray Komodo dragons as accurately as I possibly could. I researched the species extensively, and in several of the studies I found references to a Komodo dragon named Bubchen who lived in the Frankfurt Zoo in the early twentieth century. By all accounts, she was an extraordinary animal who became completely acclimated to living with humans. Many of Jata’s behaviors are based on what I could find out about Bubchen, and I couldn’t resist including a small tribute to her in the book as well.

Q: Would you describe The Dragon Keeper as a love story?

A: Certainly Meg is embroiled in a love triangle for much of the story, but ultimately I’ve always seen this as a love story between Meg and Jata. Sometimes the perception is that a human-animal bond is simpler than relationships between humans, but I’ve always thought it raises many compelling questions. Why does this person choose to give their affection to an animal instead of someone within their own species? And then you have to look at the animals’ side of the relationship. Are they even capable of returning affection? What are the circumstances of their lives that have brought them into close contact with humans instead of others of their own species? In Jata’s case, you also have to understand that she’s an alpha predator, and her instincts will always be at war with any attachment she is capable of developing on Meg.

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