In the past few months, World Weaver Press has released the next two installments in Rhonda Parrish’s Magical Menagerie anthologies: Corvidae and Scarecrow. In Corvidae, “birds are born of blood and pain, trickster ravens live up to their names, magpies take human form, blue jays battle evil forces, and choughs become prisoners of war.” In Scarecrow, “ancient enemies join together to destroy a mad mommet, a scarecrow who is a crow protects solar fields and stores long-lost family secrets, a woman falls in love with a scarecrow, and another becomes one.” These two fascinating works feature many bright authors, and I had the opportunity to interview some of them.
The first is Laura VanArendonk Baugh, who writes captivating epic and urban fantasy, historical fiction, and mystery, and as well as non-fiction on animal training & behavior. Her stories “Sanctuary” and “Judge and Jury” are in Corvidae and Scarecrow, respectively.
Hal J. Friesen: Your expertise in animal training clearly showed in “Sanctuary”. Do you have any personal experience particularly with corvids that inspired you?
Laura VanArendonk Baugh: I haven’t worked with corvids in particular, but the idea for this story definitely grew out of my training experience. I was speaking at Clicker Expo, a training and behavior conference, where Ken Ramirez shared with us his progress on teaching dogs to count. We sat down to dinner that night, and I had the seat beside Ken, and I leaned over to him and said, “You’ve given me the idea for a story.” That was a pretty different story idea, but the concept of a counting animal as a pivotal plot point remained.
HJF: What is the most unusual animal you’ve ever trained? What sorts of lessons have you learned from working with animals?
LVAB: People ask that a lot, and I usually answer, Chickens. Because people think chickens are dumb – we eat them, how smart can they be? – and it’s surprising to learn that chickens can recognize cues and identify colors and shapes and all kinds of stuff.
Bob and Marian Breland Bailey came up with the idea of chickens as an ideal subject to teach training skills, because we tend to come to chickens with less emotional baggage and cultural superstition (unlike, say, “My dog should obey me because he loves me and knows that I am boss”) and because chickens require such a precise level of skill and accurate feedback (you can get away with a lot of sloppy technique with a dog – it takes longer and the results aren’t quite as good, but it works). In 2004 I spent several weeks training with Bob and made a music video of some of our exercises. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CYHh7iivPU
HJF: Have you ever worked with Phasianids? Why or why not?
LVAB: Hey, that family includes chickens! So yes.
HJF: Your story “Sanctuary” features two characters who seem to deal with trauma by serving others, or finding a way to offer something to the world. What do you think drives people to keep going, to heal after suffering through such traumatic experiences or injuries?
LVAB: Huh. I hadn’t thought about them in that way, but you’re right. And I think that ultimately comes from my spiritual beliefs, if we root down far enough. I am Christian and I believe that while terrible things happen, and humans sometimes make bad decisions which affect ourselves or innocent others, there is always a beyond. We can either sit and wallow in how unfair life is, or we can use those experiences to grow stronger ourselves or to help others through tough times of their own. And that’s a choice we make, consciously or not.
HJF: Your written work appears to draw from a lot of mythology. Is that a strong source of inspiration for you? If so, why?
LVAB: Myth says a lot about who we are. Myth reveals what’s important to us, and the stories we tell as a culture are a fantastic mirror about what we want and value. And that’s not just ancient myth, that includes our pop culture today. (Can you imagine anthropologists of the future evaluating our present society by reality television schedules?)
Myth lets us get closer to the truth than reality does. We are never so honest as when we jest, and we can explore the most delicate questions when they aren’t really our questions. (“I’m just asking for a friend….!”)
And just as importantly, myths and legends are fun! There’s a reason these stories have endured for centuries or millennia. Let them do what they were intended to do, to educate and entertain.
HJF: Did the ideas for your two stories in Corvidae and Scarecrow, respectively, come at once, or did you write one then extrapolate into the second?
LVAB: As I answer obliquely to avoid spoilers, I will say that the premise of “Sanctuary” (Corvidae) came first, and “Judge and Jury” (Scarecrow) was a very natural outgrowth. I wrote them together, knowing I would have to break them apart in such a way that each could be read independently.
HJF: Why do you think stories of the magical, the fantastic, are relevant to readers today?
LVAB: Oh, I could go on about this at length! But the short version is as I said above, an imagined distance lets us get closer. By talking about hobbits and orcs and the Shire, we don’t have to think about Nazis and a tiny sceptered isle, even though we desperately need to think about that. We can work out a lot of hypothetical situations and test various beliefs and approaches in a safer arena, where we can pretend it’s about something else entirely.
And we live in a very rational age, where we want to quantify and depersonalize everything. Science is my day job, and it’s best practice to track data instead of imagining what might be going on in an animal’s head. That’s all good for science! But I think we can lose touch with the qualitative world if we never leave that mode. It’s all right to take a walk on the fantastic side once in a while and stick your toes in the grass, read something less scientific and more… holistically human.
And sometimes it’s just fun to put things in a different perspective. Say, my favorite character just faced down a fierce dragon in the Earth’s heart, so surely I can handle middle management on a Monday morning, right?
HJF: Do you have any advice for budding authors? Budding animal trainers?
LVAB: There’s a science and an art to both pursuits. Learn the science first, because you shouldn’t break the rules until you know why you’re doing it and what effect it will have. And once you’ve really internalized the science, the art will come, telling you when you can “cheat” and how you can do better by coloring outside the lines. And you’ll be able to see that each time you supposedly break a rule, you’re really still adhering to the principle behind it.
That sounds pretentious, but it’s really true.
HJF: Can you tell us anything about the next project you’re working on? Are you planning on submitting to the Sirens anthology?
LVAB: I am! I don’t want to jinx it, because it has yet to go through submissions, but the Sirens story is in revisions right now. I think it falls under science fantasy, my first, so I’m pretty excited about it.
There are definitely some other irons in the fire, too, because I’m very bad at working linearly on one project at a time. Watch for an epic fantasy series launching sometime soon, which I’m very excited about, and then I have a story in World Weaver Press’s Specter Spectacular II this fall which is part of my Kitsune Tales series; it stands alone, but readers of the series will catch some extra tidbits not immediately apparent to others.
Thank you for the insightful answers, Laura! Check out her stories “Sanctuary” and “Judge and Jury” in Corvidae and Scarecrow, available now from World Weaver Press! You can also visit Laura at www.lauravanarendonkbaugh.com/.