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I write science fiction and fantasy in an attempt to see the stars a few kilometers closer. I’ve also tried putting a “Have Space Suit: Will Travel” ad on Kijiji, wearing a space suit for over 100 days, and shooting things with giant lasers. I’m a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. By day I make laser-based gas detectors, and live in Edmonton, Alberta.
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/.
It’s been a hectic spring and summer, with a lot of activity from many of the contributors to Between the Shelves.
The first was the official launch at the Stanley Milner downtown EPL branch. Almost every single author made it out to do a reading. The audience had a grid puzzle which required them to listen intently to glean answers to the mystery that unfolded throughout the evening. With old newspaper slides hinting at the role of the library ghost haunting the EPL, the final revelation came: that there was once a library employee charged with going door to door of those who had grievously overdue books.
Those who managed to decode the ghost’s message (RETURN BOOKS) were given a mystery prize, varying from lightbulb keychains to ladybug dish brushes.
It was a very pleasant, warm evening despite the weather’s lack of cooperation. My frantic stress trying to get too much organized on my own seemed to pan out, though I will try to heed the advice to delegate more in the future.
A few weeks later, we had a book signing at the William S. Lutsky YMCA. A unique venue, to be sure, but the response and enthusiasm we received from community-minded families was an unexpected treat. The time passed quickly as we shared our thoughts on writing, politics, books, and life.
Almost every author has taken it upon themselves to sell the book, with the result that at the end of June right before the deadline to the Great Canadian Giving Challenge, we could donate over $700 to support the Edmonton Public Library. The Great Canadian Giving Challenge was an additional fundraising incentive where, for every dollar raised before June 30, a charity was entered into a draw to potentially win $10,000 for their particular cause. The money given to the EPL will support their Welcome Baby literacy program for newborns and their parents, described below:
EPL’s Welcome Baby program provides an early literacy kit for newborns and their parents. Literacy isn’t just about learning to read, it’s about preparing a child for reading. The kit’s books, music and early literacy resources help parents understand the vital connections between literacy & school success, higher wages, fewer health problems & less crime involvement.
Now as the book is put up on consignment in Chapters locations throughout Edmonton, the book will have increased public visibility. It is currently available in St. Albert (445 St. Albert Rd) and in the Northgate Mall Coles (9499-137 Ave NW), with more to come! If you’d like to help spread the word, you can share links to posts like this one, or contact me at hal.friesen[at]gmail[dot]com.
The contributors to Between the Shelves, after being peppered with my incessant queries, thought it only fair to ask some of me in return. Below are their questions, and my answers.
Brian Clarke: What is the biggest thing you have learned from this self-publishing experience?
Hal J. Friesen: I learned how achievable it is to put out a product of professional quality using readily-available tools. There were some frustrating moments getting the book formatted properly and tweaking cover blurbs, but on the whole it felt great to see a self-published book that could easily have come from a professional publishing house.
I also need to mention how pleasantly surprised I was at the scope and variety of stories submitted to the anthology. I thought I had a pretty good idea what I was going to get from the EWG group members, but they surprised me in a very good way.
Vivian Zenari: What is your educational background, and how has that influenced your writing?
HJF: I got my Bachelor’s Degree in Science from UNBC with a Joint Major in Chemistry and Physics, and a Minor in Mathematics. Basically for my undergraduate degree I was trying to refuse specialization, which in hindsight might not have been a good approach in terms of employability. I had knowledge in many fields but was missing snippets from each to prevent me from being completely proficient. My Master’s Degree in Science, focusing on Plasmas and Photonics, helped me tune my abilities and knowledge toward more practical applications – as ridiculous as that might sound after working on laser fusion experiments.
The breadth of theoretical and experimental science experience I’ve gleaned through the years helps me to appreciate how certain science fiction ideas might be implemented, the realities both pleasant and unpleasant of logistics that really help make a fantastical proposition seem real. When I wrote in high school I was thinking of sci-fi notions in a more detached and academic way. After academia, ironically, I think about them more in terms of what’s happening on the ground, what’s happening to the little guy who has to pull the levers, which helps make science fiction more meaningful to readers.
Brad OH Inc: Hal, your story is about a man (Albert Einstein), gaining great knowledge from libraries, but also experiencing stunning existential terror. Do you consider libraries to be places of hidden danger, or is learning in general a threat to our sense of being?
HJF: I used to read these time machine choose-your-own-adventure books, and they were like puzzles where you got stuck in time loops until you figured out the correct sequence of events to escape a grisly fate. There was one particular instance where I was trying to avoid being guillotined, but kept getting sent back over and over again, being chased, being caught, having the blade fall – to the extent that I fell asleep and had nightmares about it. Libraries taught me to be utterly terrified of the Spanish Inquisition.
I think in our age of ubiquitous fear-mongering, it’s important to recognize libraries and their potential role in contributing to the general fright that fits so well in a terror-state. In this story I wanted to show that even a brilliant Einstein can’t escape the spine-tingling horror of a nameless source of danger. His existential cataclysm in a place of learning draws close parallels to the dread during the discovery of a newly-christened terrorist cell, or the announcement of the construction of yet another totally-necessary prison. I felt that the role of books and libraries in general has been undervalued in terms of their capacity to inspire totally irrational fear, and wanted to emphasize how deeply they can touch our being versus other forms of media.
BOH: Why did you choose Einstein as your character? Do you have some arcane knowledge of his life the rest of us aren’t privy to? Is there any biographical truth to this tale?
HJF: I have a copy of Einstein’s original manuscript on Special Relativity, and if you go to the trouble of reading it you find very strange references in the margins, almost as if he was placating some unseen observer. With extensive and advanced calligraphic decoding I was able to parse some of the scribbles he had tried to hide after the fact, after whatever it was had stopped peering over him threateningly. It was clear he had communion with a library spirit, or as he named it, Wilfred, though exactly which library was unclear – I used artistic liberty in that aspect.
It’s amazing how much you can discover when you read the source material rather than just taking secondary sources at face value.
BOH: Your passion for libraries is clear in this story. Share with us some of your most formative memories of being in the library. Is there any encounter in particular that stands out as a moment where knowledge was so startlingly thrust upon you?
HJF: Guillotines were startlingly thrust upon my unsuspecting neck in that traumatizing time machine book…
When I was a child, there were summer reading challenges where you got to move your pawn along footsteps lining the library walls, taking a step for every book you read. The path took a circuitous route around the two-story Prince George Public Library, and I would take out piles of books in order to get to the end. And I did.
My prize? PTSD from an impossible and horrific Spanish Inquisition time machine loop. And a ribbon.
The library used to have person-shaped chairs in bright colors, and I would sit near the large windows and browse through Goosebumps books, Tintin comics, and fantasy books. I would sway back and forth in the S-shaped chairs, knocking them flat onto the back, or upright again with a satisfying thunk. The trips to the library were a fairly regular occasion – my mother would tiptoe off to the romance section, and my brothers and I would spin the carousels housing adventure and horror novels.
Getting my first library card was actually one of my happiest childhood experiences, because I felt like I had graduated from this semi-weekly family ritual and had become an adult. It was a lot better than any actual graduation, that’s for sure.
BOH: Your writing has historically been focused on some pretty heavy scientific concepts. What do you consider to be one of the most interesting unanswered questions in modern science? Do you have any possible ‘dream scenario’ solution to this quandary that strikes you as the most appealing?
HJF: Not to avoid the question, but I guess the more interesting questions are ones we haven’t thought of yet. The untapped potential and dark corners of our understanding are very exciting places, which is why I enjoy good hard science fiction so much. One recent discovery was that the brain might have a lymphatic system, which opens the door to all sorts of medical progress and better development of humanity.
The unanswered question of life beyond Earth is a continually fascinating one for me, and my dream scenario is that I live long enough to see contact happen. That would be a great privilege.
The unification of gravity and the other fundamental forces is another issue that fascinates me. I remember the exact place where I first read Maxwell’s derivation of electromagnetism and the intimate relationship between them. I literally got up and wanted to run around (but couldn’t in my cramped dorm-room) because I was so excited by the beauty of something so connected and intertwined. Connectedness, for lack of a better term, is something I explore a lot in my writing, and it interests me equally in the natural world.
Similarly, the unification of quantum mechanics and general relativity – the small with the very large – is also quite an interesting unanswered question. I’ve read a proposal that suggests the answer might be in our interpretation of time itself, which sent my head spinning in beautiful pirouettes.
I think some of the deeper philosophical-physics questions might go unanswered for a long time, but can make you experience some of the same existential schism Einstein does in the story. Questions like: what exactly is charge? What exactly is mass? We have equations that describe what they do but that’s different from knowing what something is. There’s a joke that if you want to drive a physicist crazy, ask him what charge is. Try it sometime.
BOH: As a follow-up to the former question, of the myriad scientific discoveries throughout history, which would you most like to have been a part of, and why?
HJF: I’ve developed an unlikely fondness for light and optics, so I think I would have loved to have been a part of Maxwell’s discoveries unifying electricity and magnetism. Any of the so-called Maxwell’s equations. Ampere, Gauss – to have been around any of those guys would have been gnarly and radical, and I’m sure my language wouldn’t drive them crazy. Gauss was a genius.
I would say quantum mechanics, but the results aren’t as easy to put your hands on or see with the eye. The laser would have been pretty amazing to discover. I got the chance to hear Charles Townes, one of the co-inventors of the laser, speak, and it was surreal to see him use a laser pointer to point at a slide of his original laser conception. He made lasers originally for astronomical purposes, and at the time of his talk (age over 90) he was still doing that. There’s a raw enthusiasm and electricity some scientists exude and I think to have been around any of those remarkable individuals would have been illuminating and inspiring outside of the discoveries themselves.
Trudie Aberdeen is a long-time language educator and social justice advocate. She is currently working on completing her PhD on the topic of heritage language acquisition. In addition, she teaches English to adult newcomers to Canada. Her academic interests include refugee education, multilingual literacy instructional practices, language conservation, action research, and language instruction for heritage language learners. Her research can be found in the following journals: The Manitoba TEAL, Multilingual Discourses, and the 9th Low Educated Second Language and Literacy Acquisition (LESLLA) Symposium. She also serves as the book review editor to the Canadian Journal of Action Research.
Hal J. Friesen: The passion for your work is clear in every aspect of your writing. How long has heritage language acquisition been a part of your life? What started it all?
Trudie Aberdeen: I was raised in a middle-class, English-speaking family in Alberta. My childhood was fairly normal. And when I was a little bit older, similarly to most rebellious teenagers, I took my teenage angst and raged against my parents. While others were sexing, drugging, rock-n-rolling and doing other “naughty things”, I inflicted on my father what I thought might have been one of the most painful childhood revolts I could think of: I went to Campus St. Jean and took university in French! On my personal journey to bilingualism, I learned about the power of language along the way.
Contrary to current popular belief, I’m not really a natural when it comes to language learning. I’m someone who learns with moderate aptitude and great effort. I was always fairly successful in school, so learning that language learning was hard was a shock for me. So despite by best enthusiasm, I wasn’t successful my first year and was put on academic probation. Because I struggled with the language I was in a place very few white, middle class, English-speaking women with average intelligence ever get to be: I wasn’t part of the mainstream. For me, this is when I realized how language (or lack thereof) can limit one’s chances of success. I finished my degree successfully, although it took me more than four years and I had to spend a year in language classes in Quebec, but I eventually triumphed.
I taught in Japan for several years in an international school. I was the English as a second language teacher to elementary school aged children whose parents moved temporarily to Japan for business or diplomatic missions. I saw how quickly many of my students learned English and how quickly many of them forgot their mother tongue. I saw the parents who were “trapped” because if they moved home they could no longer put their children in school because the children couldn’t read or write their “mother tongue”. I also worried a lot for my students who appeared to have learning disabilities. Parents, colleagues and I often asked, “What is this child’s issue? Is it a language learning inability or something bigger?” Often it is difficult to know.
When I started my doctoral studies, I began to take interest in adult literacy learners. In my field of English as a second language teaching and learning, literacy learners are adults who grew up never learning to read their mother tongue, mostly due to limited opportunities because of gender, poverty, or war. Their lack of first language education impacts on their opportunity to learn English. They often struggle with things that most of us take for granted: following instructions for over-the-counter medication, signing their children’s homework log, figuring out a map, and reading street signs. Despite all of their challenges, all of those I have worked with have an undeniable spirit, determined outlook, and an often overlooked sense of intelligence.
My dissertation, however, looks at heritage language learners. These are usually the children of immigrants who have to navigate cultures and languages, not being conventionally “Canadian” and first-language English speakers, but not being of the same language and culture as their parents, either. Most of these children struggle to keep the language of their parents and cannot without the help of a larger language community and school. My work is looking at how schools and communities can support these students.
Heritage language learners and adult literacy learners do not initially seem connected, but they share many commonalities. Both groups often are trying to learn language in an environment that is limited in exposure to language. Both are often trying to learn language without literacy. In many instances, these two groups can be within the same family. Some immigrant parents (especially those with limited literacy) can struggle to learn English and their children can struggle to maintain their first language. In my line of work I have met many people who are unable to have a basic conversation with their parents because they do not know enough of each other’s language to exchange more than limited small talk.
HJF: There seems to be a message or end goal with your writing / research. What is it you hope to achieve at the end of your dissertation?
TA: I hope to show the world exactly how much expertise exists in the field of heritage language education in Alberta. I wish politicians, educators, and scholars to know about the challenges and limitations that programs face so that they can receive better support in doing what they do best.
HJF: Who has inspired you as either a writer or researcher?
TA: My four favorite researchers are Dr. Olenka Bilash, Dr. Kenneth Schaeffer, Dr. Nick Ellis, and Dr. Elaine Tarone. All four are gifted scholars and educators. However, what I admire most about them is their compassion and vision for making the world better for others.
HJF: Would you be willing to share one or two stories from your experience as a language educator?
TA: In 2004, I had a beautiful kindergarten student from Sweden called Hedda. She was a dream child: polite, kind, energetic, brilliant, and friendly. She started school in September and by Christmas she was speaking English well. Her reading level was near the top of her class. At the parent-teacher interviews, I gave her parents “the talk.” I warned them about language loss and the importance of first language maintenance. I told them that they had better start planning for her Swedish or else it would be gone. I recommended that they find her a tutor and begin reading lessons as soon as possible.
While Hedda’s mother seemed convinced by my message, her father was less so. He responded firmly, but politely, that Hedda was a little girl. She had just made a huge adjustment, according to her father, by leaving her extended family behind in Sweden and moving to Japan, and furthermore, she needed to worry about enjoying herself, not planning for her future education. I responded that while I respected his point of view, he should at least consider my suggestion. He told me that he would think about it after his family returned from their holiday in Thailand.
Sadly, all four members of Hedda’s family were lost in the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 250,000 people on Boxing Day. I often think of her and her beautiful family. I often think of the advice I gave to her parents, and consider what her father responded to me. For language learning, we need to have long-term planning, and to prepare for what is coming ahead. At the same time, we need to remember that this moment might be all that we have.
HJF: Why do you personally think language is important?
TA: If you ask a brain researcher or a psychologist, they will tell you about all of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism. Of course, I believe all of these things are true such as bilingualism increasing intelligence and delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Still for me, the most important aspects of language learning are social in nature. Language connects people to opportunities and it connects us to one another.