Please welcome Sharona Muir to The Qwillery as part of the 2014 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Invisible Beasts was published on July 15, 2014 by Bellevue Literary Press.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Sharona: Thanks, it’s great to chat with The Qwillery. I started writing shortly after I stopped crawling, because it was a good excuse to hide under a table or piano, escaping the ruthless scrutiny that bipedalism had brought upon me. My first published poem, in high school, entitled “Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation,” was printed in a medical textbook of that name. Since then, science and the wonders it reveals have been my inspiration.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Sharona: Italo Calvino draws the distinction between two schools of creativity: the flame and the crystal. I tend to the crystalline, hoping to reach a point where structure and meaning are indissolubly wedded. But if there’s no flame—no transforming obsession that throws off casual smoke and hot light—there’s no point in writing.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Sharona: Working at a state school run on the “corporate model.” My writing gets left for when normal Americans take vacation, which I haven’t taken since the nineties. Otherwise I get up in the wee hours, recite a few psalms, and work till seven. But I fall asleep later, so I can only do this on the few days when prayer and art may present their claims without discomposing Mammon (the god of lucre.)
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Sharona: When I was fifteen, I wrote a long fan letter to Isaac Asimov, in which, inter alia, I complained about boys who called feminists like me “castrating women.” The great SF author replied that if guys said that, I should ask them what they had to castrate. I also love H.G. Wells for The Island of Dr. Moreau (“Are we not men?”), Mary Shelley, and ancient authors—Ariosto, who spent years on a lush fantasy epic in honor of his mistress; Erasmus of Rotterdam, for his book in which the Goddess of Folly tells all; Pliny the Elder, who died in an eruption of Vesuvius; and medieval bestiaries. But my guiding light is Italo Calvino, who perceived the common inspiration of scientists and poets, and gave it enduring contemporary form. Also, a lifelong love of Moby-Dick helps me to associate animals with learning, wisdom, mystery, and beauty.
TQ: Describe Invisible Beasts in 140 characters or less.
Sharona: Sophie, a naturalist who sees invisible beasts, tells playful tales mixing science with visions of love, truth, and a changing biosphere.
TQ: Tell us something about Invisible Beasts that is not in the book description.
Sharona: If you read carefully, you’ll realize that Evie, Sophie’s sister, is married to a big, mute, vegetarian, powerful, peaceful silverback gorilla, though he’s not named as such. I wanted Evie to be married to a gorilla—not a real one, but one capable of holding down a job at a psychology lab, and reading Nature magazine, turning the pages with his toes. He also reads something called “Off de Waal Comix,” which doesn’t exist but should; it’s my tribute to Frans de Waal, the primatologist whose ideas inspired the chapter in which Erik appears. I was worried that having a man-ape would put me into the ugly territory of racist imagery, so I made sure that Erik, Evie’s husband, is a Nordic gorilla, covered in white fur, who comes from an obscure whaling station in Greenland. Sophie describes him as “as apparition in the smokiest corner of a Viking hall, fists filled with icicles and thunderbolts.” No one seems to have noticed Erik’s species—who are people dating these days?
TQ: What inspired you to write Invisible Beasts? Are the 'beasts' that you have created for the novel based on real animals, etc.? Why did you have your main character create a bestiary?
Sharona: Invisible Beasts began as a game I played with biologist friends. I’d research some scientific facts about real animals, cells, or even molecules, then invent an imaginary animal based on them. My friends would say, “Oh yes, there’s a creature that does that.” Then I’d go try something weirder. As I live in a small forest, surrounded by wildlife (as I write, a phoebe is screaming from my porch, and earlier I found a chicken foot at the entrance to a fox den under my barn) inspiration was never far, and a bestiary was inevitable.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Invisible Beasts?
Sharona: Well, I’ve been thinking about animals, science, and imagination since childhood. My father, a freelance inventor, was also what is now known as a “biomimic”—he imitated nature’s solutions to technical engineering problems, for instance, the design of a snake’s fang to make a non-clotting hypodermic needle. This approach encouraged a view of nature and animals as teachers and equals.
Later, I wrote my Ph.D. thesis, at Stanford, on science fiction and American attitudes toward nature. This book showed how the myth of the Earthly Paradise lies at the root of science fiction as a genre—an historical connection between science, nature, and cultural imagination.
Recently, in many fields, researchers and scholars are replacing our old human-centered perspective with a view of life more like the biomimic’s. Reading new work in ethnography, neuroscience, philosophy, and literary theory has helped me focus the ideas behind Invisible Beasts. Especially helpful are the works of Frans de Waal, Marc Hauser, E.O. Wilson, Martha Nussbaum, Paul Churchland, Christof Koch, Janine Benyus, and Cary Wolfe. My experiences with the Humane Society were also useful.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Sharona: The two sisters: Sophie, the narrator who sees invisible beasts, and her sister, Evie, the biologist who tolerantly helps her to understand them, were easy. They just naturally went together, like right-and-left brain. Granduncle Erasmus was the most fun, playing off my favorite Victorian gentlemen oddballs. The hardest character was Nature herself, who is the protagonist of “The Golden Egg,” the chapter covering four hundred million years of evolution. It was hard because the technique I use, namely writing, was invented an hour ago by Sumerian accountants, and is barely up to the job.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from Invisible Beasts.
Sharona: There’s the epigraph: Animal life is mindful, and the mind’s life is animal. In early drafts this was attributed to one “Heraclitus of Eucyon.” But since the name means, roughly, “Heraclitus of Nice Doggie,” friends who objected to fake Greeks convinced me to dump the attribution. Also there’s the motto of my narrator, Sophie the naturalist: Human beings are the most invisible beasts, because we do not see ourselves as beasts. Think about it. Then there’s… “A night of passion is a hard thing to remember (no pun intended).”
TQ: What's next?
Sharona: I’m writing a novel based on the story of Oedipus, set in a genetics lab at Stanford University. Beyond that, I plan to write another bestiary. . . . Sssshh. Fates are listening!
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery!
Sharona: Thank you so much for the pleasure of sharing this work with you and your imagination-minded readers.
Bellevue Literary Press, July 15, 2014
Trade Paperback and eBook, 256 pages
Sophie is an amateur naturalist with a rare genetic gift: the ability to see a marvelous kingdom of invisible, sentient creatures that share a vital relationship with humankind. To record her observations, Sophie creates a personal bestiary and, as she relates the strange abilities of these endangered beings, her tales become extraordinary meditations on love, sex, evolution, extinction, truth, and self-knowledge.
In the tradition of E.O. Wilson’s Anthill, Invisible Beasts is inspiring, philosophical, and richly detailed fiction grounded by scientific fact and a profound insight into nature. The fantastic creations within its pages—an ancient animal that uses natural cold fusion for energy, a species of vampire bat that can hear when their human host is lying, a continent-sized sponge living under the ice of Antarctica—illuminate the role that all living creatures play in the environment and remind us of what we stand to lose if we fail to recognize our entwined destinies.
Sharona Muir’s writing has appeared in Granta, Orion magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She is a Professor of Creative Writing and English at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Invisible Beasts is her first novel.