The Pitfalls of Writing of the Animal/Other

It is many years since I read Brian Caswell’s Deucalion but I can still remember the shock of discovering the viewpoint character wasn’t human. Apart from a masterful piece of writing, it planted the seeds of my fascination with writing the Animal/Other. A few years later, I read Sonya Hartnett’s Forest, a story told through the viewpoint of cats. Probably Hartnett is one of the few writers with the skill to pull off such a tale while avoiding anthropomorphism and stumbling into sentimentalism.

Writing aliens effectively might actually be easier than writing of the animals we are already familiar with in their anthropomorphized forms, but none of it is easy given the limitations of our human consciousness.

The Cuteness of the Internet Creature

Children’s books are full of ‘mischievous’ rabbits, ‘gallant’ toads and ‘adventurous’ possums, stories that aim to charm and entertain, which of course, is absolutely fine. But it does add to the illusion that non-human animals are like humans, or rather, lesser versions of humans.

Likewise, the internet is full of pictures of dogs looking ‘guilty’ for destroying toilet rolls, cats ‘gleefully’ attacking Christmas trees, and bears ‘protecting’ fauns. In a similar vein we have race horses that ‘love’ to win, cows ‘grateful’ to be rescued from slaughter houses, and pigs ‘enjoying’ their release from factory farms.

 The Cultural Worth of Animals

The way (Western) culture depicts animals also sets up a hierarchy of worth. The extinction of certain insect species tends to elicit less anguish than the possible extinction of elephants or rhinoceroses, while in Australia, we are more likely to go into bat for a koala than a shark. While some animals have a better ‘PR system’ behind them (think panda), and some are more appealing to our mammalian human eye (particularly baby animals whose large eyes and foreheads, and rounded features resemble a human baby’s), all animals have worth, bestowed not by their attractiveness or usefulness to humans, but intrinsic to them by virtue of their animal selves.

 Human Consciousness and Writing the Animal/Other

The non-humaness of animals and the other (such as aliens), and the limitations of our human consciousness throws up all sorts of challenges to the writer. We can only ever operate within the limits of our humanity, but the Arts (almost by definition, I would argue), is about enlarging these limits and, in one way or another, throwing open doors to reveal strange, and sometimes confronting views of things we thought we knew. Thus writing about animals and/or the alien other requires the building of a narrative that is familiar enough for us to access and engage with, and one that provides new, fresh and enriching insights.

 Deep Fantasy and the Animal/Other

Writing the Animal or Other (such as aliens and mythical creatures) is a challenging task when the aim is to avoid anthropomorphism and sentimentality, and one well-suited to the aims of Deep Fantasy, namely to make the hero’s psychological journey explicit.  It is a task I’ve tackled in different ways in four of my novels.

The Physical and Psychological Spaces

In The Emerald Serpent https://www.amazon.com.au/Emerald-Serpent-Karen-Simpson-Nikakis-ebook/dp/B016GGTUXO the serpent might inhabit the physical realm, the psychological realm, or the spiritual realm, or all three. It might be in a specific place, or in all places. It might be in the present, or in all times.

The novel’s setting is spread between three planes: one of which is recognizably a physical landscape, and two that are most likely psychological or spiritual landscapes, but these settings can blend, or invade each other. Operating between and within the physical and psychological allows the serpent to remain sacred, amoral and powerful, but also accessible via its human-like demand for creation over destruction.

Bears (berian in the novel) are central to Heart Hunter https://www.amazon.com.au/Heart-Hunter-K-S-Nikakis-ebook/dp/B01M98H3HC. Fleet’s settlement is called Berian-tur (literally bear-home) and bears are a very real threat, as bears in the wild can be. One of her friends is killed by a bear and she adopts submissive behavior to escape a bear attack herself. Fleet’s people are respectful of bears, but do not worship or vilify them. Bears are simply a natural hazard of their environment.

But bears also merge into the psychological space. When Fleet is in a hypothermic state, in a blizzard, high in the frozen mountains, a bear appears. The air is so full of snow that land and sky blend and the bear seems to walk on air, merging and re-emerging from the snow. The dissolution of the physical landscape places Fleet in the liminal, and the bear might or might not be physically real, but desperate for any aid, Fleet follows it and plunges into a cavern (the unconscious) where she finds her way out by following bear scent (which is real). Thus, bears act according to their natures in both the physical and psychological spaces.

The Lefer, bird-human blends (in the Angel Caste series, Book 2 Angel Breath https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B06XFC4XMX), remain in the physical space and one (Roaith en-Leferen) is a view-point character. In creating the Lefer, I was very conscious of the intrinsic worth of non-human animals (including created ones) and of them behaving in accordance with their natures. I created a list of bird verbalizations (caws, cheeps, whistles, chirps, warbles and so on) and assigned each an emotional or situational context. I also ensured I knew the Lefers’ feeding, flocking and nesting habits; the rookery’s power structure; their human-like and bird-like attributes, and how they interacted. To ensure they didn’t merely end up as lesser humans, I gave them super-human attributes, such as the ability sense a tree’s sap-flows through the soles of their feet. The Lefer’s behavior is explicable within the bounds of their nature at all times.

 One of the initial ideas behind The Third Moon (https://www.amazon.com/Third-Moon-K-S-Nikakis-ebook/dp/B071F77KMX) was a love affair between Warrain, the human settler on the planet Imago, and one of the planet’s sentient life-forms, pejoratively called maggots. I quickly abandoned the idea. They would have to have some sort of psychological similarity (including shared notions of love) and a physical compatibility (if the partnering was to be consummated).

I didn’t want to replicate the sex scene between Jake and Neytiri (in James Cameron’s Avatar) which between kissing and the hinted at intercourse, seemed all too human, and which completely ignored the intimacy of tsahaylu, a neural connection achieved by connecting queues.

Again I wanted the planet’s sentient life-forms to be true to their natures, not behave like a degraded or enhanced form of human. I achieved this by making Warrain’s link to the female maggot empathetic, rather than physical. He fights for her because he is plagued by inherited memories of his own peoples’ dispossession on Earth thousands of years before, and because the maggots are now suffering the same fate.

At no time does the maggot thank him or acknowledge his aid, in keeping with the essence of her species, and nor does Warrain expect it, knowing what she is. But in aiding her to complete the physical cycle of transformation intrinsic to her species, he transforms himself psychologically, which of course, is the core of Deep Fantasy.

To explore Deep Fantasy further, visit my website at www.ksnikakis.com.    

  

 

 

Welcome to Newsletter #3

Hi everyone! Welcome to Newsletter #3! I’m working on an exciting new project and all my books are now wide which means if you love Deep Fantasy, you have a lot more choice on how you read it.

When I put out Newsletter #2, I was still in the middle of editing, augmenting and extending The Kira Chronicles trilogy into a six book series The Kira Chronicles series. I was also trying to sort out covers that reflected each book’s story and showed they were clearly part of a series. That job is all done now and I am thrilled with the result. The edit and extension of Kira’s story really improved it, making her and Tierken stronger and more engaging characters, and the covers are gorgeous. If you want to check them out go to the Amazon website and type in K S Nikakis. I won’t give you links because they are different depending on where you are.

One mistake I did make though was using the same name for Book 1 in both the trilogy and the series (The Whisper of Leaves). It really fitted and I wanted to keep it. Oh well, live and learn. I made it clear in the front matter of the series, that the trilogy is now only available as remnant paper books, but when you Google The Whisper of Leaves, it tends to bring up paper book (sigh).

More time was spent making all my 15 books available, not only on Amazon KDP, but through Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, Scribd, Tolino, 24 Symbols, Playster, OverDrive, Bibliotheca and Baker & Taylor. Phew!

Despite all this ‘publishing’ work, the creative part of my brain has been tick-ticking. I did mention in Newsletter #1 that I had another series brewing which I mysteriously called SOO. I even optimistically suggested I might be writing it and rewriting The Kira Chronicles in parallel. I was obviously wildly optimistic or naïve, or have a really bad memory because I discovered some years ago that, unlike some authors, I can’t write two different stories at once. I get so engaged with characters and what they are going through, that I only have enough emotional energy for one set at a time.

So, now The Kira Chronicles series is all done and dusted, am I writing SOO? Well no, because a book title popped into my head and refused to go away. Even worse, it dragged characters and scenes with it. I Heard The Wolf Call My Name (working title), a stand-alone Deep Fantasy, is now at the 8000 word mark of the first draft. I’m giving you a sneak peak in my Giveaways section. I am also giving you the YouTube links to clips that helped inspire two of the male protagonists: Tamati and Jax. See if you match the clip with the novel excerpt to work out which of the two is Tamati.

I am hoping to have I Heard The Wolf Call My Name out by April 2019, but lots of things happen over the festive season, so we will see.

To Plan or Not to Plan?

To plan or not to plan? That is the question! (With apologies to Shakespeare’s Hamlet). I spoke about planners and pantsers in Newsletter #1 and suggested that planning was probably more efficient. After all, surely it’s quicker to know what the story is before you start, and simply write it? But as I concluded then, writers are rarely purely one thing or another.

I’ve been tempted to switch from being a pantser to a planner since finishing my five book Angel Caste series, because as I also mentioned in Newsletter #1, writing the final book was very demanding. Actually it was exhausting and I feared I wouldn’t be able to pull the 300,000 words story-line together successfully and satisfyingly. I believe I did but it made me anxious about starting a series without a plan. Maybe it’s why I’ve delayed the decision by writing a stand-alone first; a stand-alone I have actually planned!

Yes! I completed 30 chapter summaries for I Heard The Wolf Call My Name before I started the novel but … I’ve rarely looked at them since! The eight thousand words I have written have already diverged significantly from the plan but does it matter? The summaries tell me there is a story and that it works, which is reassuring, but is it the story I really want to write?

The story I want to write has now taken on its own spark, and its own direction, as stories often do, and I get a big kick out of stories springing to life like this, and revealing exciting twists and turns. Of course, writing a plan, in whatever form, is also a way of thinking out a story and of exploring story possibilities, so it is never a waste.

For instance, I taught in China a lot when I was writing The Kira Chronicles trilogy, and after classes, would sit in my hotel room, with my feet on the window sill, enjoying the warm summer evenings and filling notebooks with hand-written notes on what Tierken would do, or Kira, or Caledon.

Sometimes I would scribble down that an idea was ridiculous, or that a particular action would never work. I never read the notes again but it was super helpful in sorting out the story that became the trilogy first, and later the series.

The other thing that indirectly helps my writing is travel. I was lucky enough to visit New Zealand early this year, one of my favorite places and the setting for Peter Jackson’s versions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and then more recently, Hong Kong, Japan and Hawaii. I always take a few phone pictures, but mainly I just sponge up what I am seeing. My husband was keen to see Kilauea erupting but it stopped two days before we got there. He was disappointed but our helicopter flight over the Big Island revealed deep emerald-green valleys, silver ribbon waterfalls, and sheer coastal cliffs that plunged straight into the sea.

Guess what inspired the landscape of I Heard The Wolf Call My Name? And Hawaiian, like Maori (the language of the First Nation peoples of New Zealand) is a member of the Polynesian language family. Tamati is a Maori name, as is Anahera,and there are other Polynesian words I’ve altered to make them my own.

 

Giveaways

Tamati or Jax? Check out the YouTube links to see if you can guess which singer helped inspire Tamati, and which one Jax.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e94dst20C9Y – You are the only one - Sergey Lazarev

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-msutN_OkU4 – Heroes - Måns Zelmerlöw 

Be the first to get a sneak peak of my work in progress: I Heard The Wolf Call My Name

Excerpt from Chapter 1

Far below Anahera’s cliff-side perch, the alpha strutted backwards and forwards, head low and then thrown back in challenge, its blue throat-feathers as brilliant as the lightning that danced across Moana’s waves in summer storms. The lesser birds followed the alpha’s lead, but she was barely aware of them. It no longer mattered whether the alpha was the shifted form of Tamati or Malo, or a shia in birth-form. Its beauty shone as brightly as Whetu, reducing the lesser birds to shadows as Tihi’s soaring majesty reduced Iolana’s smaller peaks to hills.

The shias’ music built to a crescendo, the drum-beats of calls like the great storm-waves Moana sent pounding into Iolana’s cliffs. Anahera’s blood pounded too as the alpha held its wing displays longer and longer, extended to their uttermost breadth and flashing with crimson and emerald green.

And then a throbbing staccato erupted overhead. It jarred Anahera from the dance’s all-consuming trance and for a moment she had no idea where she was. Her head swam and she lost her grip on the stone. Adrenaline speared through her, hot as fire, as she clutched at the cliff-face, and missed. And then she was falling, a scream of terror torn from her throat as she plunged into oblivion.

My Life in Pictures

Hot Hawaii and the helicopter ride that helped set the scene for my work in progress:

I heard the wolf call my name.