On Monday I reviewed Sharona Muir’s imaginative debut novel, Invisible Beasts. Ms. Muir graciously agreed to be interviewed via email.
Many of the chapters in Invisible Beasts started out as short stories. How did you go about linking them to form a novel?
Author Photo (c) Tom Muir
SM: Actually, I thought of the entire work from the first as a bestiary – outside the “short story vs. novel” genre categories. As the question of point of view arose, not only for the action in the stories but also for the philosophical ideas behind them, I created the narrator, Sophie. In a medieval bestiary, the point of view is a given: it’s the anonymous voice of a medieval monk offering you all he knows about animals and their religious meanings. I needed some voice that had as much personality and authority, but updated. Sophie, like the good fictional character that she is, repaid me for her creation by providing all kinds of feelings, motivations, and insights that united the collection through her perspective.
For example, once I worked out her relationship with her biologist sister Evie – two brilliant sisters, one a straightforward scientist, the other endowed with a peculiar, poetic vision of living beings – the whole first section fell into place, followed by resonances of their back-and-forth throughout the book. Creating Sophie and Evie materialized the dialogue between imagination and science that is at the heart of the book, and makes it a cohesive novel.
That’s the long answer. The short answer is that as a longtime adorer of Italo Calvino’s work, in the back of my mind I had his novel, Cosmicomics, which is similar in structure and approach to Invisible Beasts: his narrator, the mysterious being called “old Qwfwq,” also unites a series of speculative tales.
Which of these invisible beasts first caught your eye (so to speak)? How would you describe the inception of the project?
SM: I decided to have fun. I’d been reading Lynn Margulis’ and Dorion Sagan’s wonderful book, What Is Life? in which, among many other delightful moments, Margulis at one point more or less says that life is about bacteria. This made me laugh. So I wrote a short story, long since filed in my wastebasket, about imaginary bacteria called “Bedcrumbs” that, through elaborate chemical means, induce people to crave snacks after making love – in order to ensure the reproduction of their human hosts, of course. I had so much fun writing this silly tale that I couldn’t resist trying a few others, and when it was clear that I was inventing imaginary animals on a weekly basis, I started showing them to my biologist friends, and from there on we developed a game in which I’d try to create a scientific plausible, yet utterly and truly nonexistent imaginary animal. (I came close only once, Mother Nature having been at this game longer than me.) Although the project didn’t seem at all salable, I felt that I was paying a tribute to whatever blessed accident and evolutionary history had put me here, and was having too much fun to quit.
Invisible Beasts is not only a novel, but also a bestiary. Were you inspired by any medieval or modern bestiaries? Are there any you’d recommend to readers who enjoyed Invisible Beasts?
SM: Oh yes. Calvino’s Cosmicomics is charming, and a first-class example of what E.O. Wilson calls consilience, that is, unifying the arts and sciences. E.O. Wilson’s novel Anthill, in describing the empire of an imaginary species of super-ant, is as magnificently compelling as Gibbon crossed with H.G. Wells (or rather, with Wilson, the great ant maven of our time.) I was tremendously excited when I read Wilson’s excerpt from his book in The New Yorker: it showed that bestiary writing, involving knowledge of science — at least in popular form — by creative writers, was an important new development in the culture of letters.
As for the old stuff, my training in Renaissance literature meant that for years I’d carried Ariosto’s hippogryph in the back of my mind: this lion-tailed Pegasus is the weird apparition that Sophie sees at the end of the chapter called “Grand Tour Butterflies.” I looked at medieval bestiaries, too, naturally, but my favorite is Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. There is something seductive about an era when it was possible to imagine all knowledge collected in a single book (or several scrolls), and the straightfaced way in which Pliny, bless his stout Roman heart, mingles perfectly sound observations with what sounds like insane fantasy was in every way a model for my book.
Readers might know that you teach creative writing at Bowling Green State University. How has teaching influenced your own writing?
SM: There are two rewards to being a teacher.
The first is when, through learning how to explain literary mechanics to your students, you find yourself focusing on very simple and obvious things, because the basics of the craft are in their way extremely profound. I love working with beginners. It reminds me of the way a karate teacher whom I knew would say that the first thing you needed to do, after earning a black belt, was to revisit all the exercises of a white belt. Teaching my students keeps me aware of the basics, and their really endless depth.
The second reward is that of seeing a student become aware that he or she has an imagination, and has made it do something. We’re so saturated in intellectual passivity and laziness – in the instant gratification provided by digital technologies – that students often aren’t aware of how hard it is to make art, and how wondrous it is that you can. When they find out that they can do something hard, and that thanks to their effort, their imaginations have put something new in the world, the expressions on their faces make me very happy and honored to be a teacher. That energy certainly feeds my work.
Do you have a favorite endangered species you’d like to draw readers’ attention to, or an environmental project that addresses the values embedded in Invisible Beasts?
SM: Yes, I’d like to mention Wolf Park, in Battleground, Indiana. This is a huge preserve for timber or gray wolves, which have been taken off the threatened and endangered species list. I’m no expert on the politics or biology of that issue, but my husband, who photographs wildlife, and I have greatly enjoyed our visits to this preserve, managed by ethologists. They keep a “tame” pack of wolves, meaning that the wolves will tolerate keepers under very specific conditions. After seeing and learning about the wolves — their great strength, big bony heads, shrewd eyes, and the complexity of interactions among themselves – my 100-lb. German shepherd looked to me like a delicate flower of civilization and felt like a cousin. This experience is very valuable for helping people understand wolves, and wildness generally, in concrete terms, with reference to the reality of the animals, and without romanticism.
At the same time, it’s clear that humans can’t resist making up stories of all sorts about animals, even ones as special and dangerous as wolves. Everyone who gets to know the park wolves wants to offer names for new pack members or puppies, and becomes intrigued with the personalities of the wolves, as if they and we were all in a Hans Anderson tale together. We can’t help being enchanted by other creatures. We want them in our imaginations. E.O. Wilson calls this “biophilia,” and it’s an aspect of human psychology that is central to my work.
What’s next on your writing horizon?
SM: Another bestiary! Thanks for the pleasure of chatting with you.
[The pleasure was mine! –CO]
My thanks again to Ms. Muir for her time and thoughtful answers.