Some find inspiration in the wilderness. Others find themselves hopelessly lost.

Monthly Archives: September 2013

ImageHenry David Thoreau and I are now Facebook friends. How awesome is that? I even received a message from him.  Well, okay, the message was from the person administering the Thoreau facebook page. Still, seeing his name and image in the corner of my screen, I couldn’t help but smile.

The moment screamed for a blog post, not just because it was fun, but also because it struck me as a little bit ridiculous. Henry David Thoreau, the man who “went to the woods to live deliberately” and “front only the essential facts of life” would abhor facebook. This is the man who famously urged, “Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!” Hard to imagine him scrolling down facebook posts on his smartphone instead of attending to the wonders around him.

But then, as I prepared to type this post, I began to wonder: Would Henry David Thoreau actually eschew Facebook if he were alive today, or would he be addicted? The opportunity for such a large platform might be hard to resist. And, even if he didn’t use Facebook, wouldn’t he want access to other internet resources? Freecycle, for example. What better place to find materials to build a cabin in the woods?

Perhaps, instead of toiling over his writing for years, with internet access Thoreau would have self-published early, set up a blogger site, gained a wide fan base, and saved himself a lot of frustration.

ImageThink about all that lovely prose describing his life at Walden, his travels to Cape Cod, Katahdin, and the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Recall his wonderful descriptions of moments in nature both small and grand. He could have saved himself the trouble and used instagram to capture and send photos instead.

I have no doubt that Thoreau would have loved an e-reader. He read widely.  Sanskrit in translation. The classics. His friends’ speeches and manuscripts.  With a Kindle, he could have bypassed the Harvard library system entirely (and Harvard College tuition).  Talk about a money saver!

Yes, with the Internet, Thoreau might have been a happier, more successful man.

In fact, instead of dying a bachelor, if he’d had wifi in the woods and an OKCupid subscription, I bet he’d have met a like-minded partner to shack up with. Sure, he claimed he “never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude,” but had the right vegan hemp-wearer given him a wink, the kind of girl (or boy) he couldn’t find in Concord, he might have changed his stance.

Thoreau was a trail blazer, advocating civil disobedience, speaking out for abolition of slavery, and sowing the seeds of the modern environmental movement.  His writings have had an enduring impact, but just think how many more people he could have reached had he been able to harness the power of social media. Imagine a viral Youtube video of Thoreau in jail for refusing to pay his taxes. Visualize Walden, the reality TV series. In HD. Better yet, 3D.

Yes, in the modern age, the possibilities for sharing ideas and connecting with like-minded people would surely be irresistible, even to Thoreau. In fact, I bet he’d be so busy blogging about his musings, he’d hardly get any work done on his book projects.

Hmmmm . . .  Sounds familiar.


Truly scary scarecrows.

Truly scary scarecrows.

I just watched the Chipotle video game ad. It’s a scary and very well done take on factory farming. The video ends with an upbeat moment (No need for a spoiler alert for an advertisement, right?), but the whole thing is incredibly disquieting.

The ad shows chickens plumped up via injections and cows boxed into milking machines in the dark, all behind city building facades painted with murals of rolling farmland and familiar slogans like, “All Natural.”

It’s just a video game ad, part of an elaborate marketing scheme for Chipotle, but, wait a minute… is the reality of our food production system all that different from this video?

This ad is part of a trend, one of many dystopian videos, movies and books examining our food production system. Why are they so popular? Maybe it’s because they reveal a troubling truth. Then again, maybe they allow us to dismiss worrying food trends as remote fiction.

Slow food. Locavores. Farm markets. They’re all trendy at the moment, but the reality is that most of us (myself included) still get the bulk of our food from corporate sources, rather than small farms. I don’t see that changing.

Growing your own food, joining a CSA, shopping at a farm stand — Those are all great options, but they can be time consuming and/or expensive. For most of us, the effects of factory farming aren’t close to hand or immediately apparent. It’s all too easy to ignore them. If you worry about the environment, human health, the survival of small farms, or animal welfare, though, you should probably look very closely at your food purchasing choices. Look past the advertising. Well, except for this Chipotle ad, I guess. Face that one square on and absorb it’s frightening message.

I think about this stuff even without spooky Fiona Apple covers of the Willy Wonka soundtrack running through my head but I haven’t fully changed my eating and shopping habits to reflect my concerns. It’s easier to look away. This video was a much-needed reminder to keep my eyes open and redouble my efforts to buy ethically.

I’m exactly the consumer ad designers have in mind when they stamp “All Natural,” “Farm Fresh” and a portrait of a flower-crowned cow on their package. I’m embarrassed to admit how many half eaten boxes of tasteless but attractively packaged granola I’ve got lined up in my cupboard. I am smack-dab in the center of Chipotle’s target audience. Thank goodness I just ate lunch, otherwise I’d probably be off looking for a burrito right this minute.

The power of advertising is amazing. In this care, an ad convinced me to look more closely at packaging and marketing. Thanks, Chipotle.

Oh, and kind comptrollers at Chipotle, before you send me that “good for one free burrito/thanks for writing about us” certificate, be warned that my readers are probably smarter than I am, and they are reading this with appropriate skepticism thinking, “but wait, isn’t Chipotle a big corporate fast-food restaurant?” No doubt, they’ll watch your ad closely, but they’ll scrutinize your food purchasing choices with even more care.


Is anyone else baffled by J.K.Rowling? For those who don’t follow literary news, Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, published a novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pen name Robert Galbraith. The book sold a few thousand copies before her authorship was leaked. Ostensibly, Rowling wanted a chance to see how her book would be received without her famous name on the cover.Image

Huh? What, exactly, did she want to experience with this secret publication? Failure? Some existential insight into the insignificance of her words? I’ve contemplated this for a little while and come up with a few likely scenarios:

  1. It was all an evil plot to hog media attention. Rowling and her publicist planned the “secret” release and the leak of her authorship. Okay, this one probably isn’t true, but if it were, she’d be a genius. This book got far more attention than it would have had she not first kept her authorship secret. Suing the firm that leaked the information added fuel to the press fire. Donating funds from the book only extended the story. But maybe we should put that kind of paranoid conspiracy theory aside, and give Rowling the benefit of the doubt.
  2. J.K. Rowling is deeply insecure.  Sure, her books have all been bestsellers.  And, yes, she’s made millions. She did, indeed, climb to fame and fortune from humble beginnings based on the merit of her work. Children and adults around the world adore her books. Nevertheless, it’s a well known fact that writers need praise like pandas need bamboo. Still, this one seems like a stretch for J.K. of all people.
  3. She’s writing a book about a struggling writer, doing character research. She just had to find out what it felt like for a book release to come and go without fanfare.  Again, this theory seems unlikely.  Rowling must know that the world doesn’t want to read a book about unsuccessful, low-achieving writers. Where’s the heroism in that story? Where’s the quidditch?
  4. The Cuckoo’s Calling is a lousy book and she didn’t want her name anywhere near it. Maybe she went to all the trouble of printing it out, using a whole batch of paper and a good portion of her ink cartridge. She didn’t want to just recycle the manuscript after sinking all those resources into it, so she submitted the thing, but kept her name off it. But, no. The Cuckoo’s Calling received positive reviews even before her name was attached to the title.
  5. She simply wanted a chance to be featured on this blog. A psychic told her: Write a book, but don’t put your name on it. Burn a candle at both ends while picturing your name on carrierussellbooks.wordpress.com. It worked!

Hmmm…. Somehow, I suspect I haven’t quite solved this one.


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I am excited to host John Yunker today. John is the author of the novel The Tourist Trail, and co-founder of Ashland Creek Press, a publishing house devoted to eco-fiction.

Since I am an author of eco-fiction, I was excited to discover John and his work. While writing on environmental themes is hardly a new phenomenon, John is bringing greater attention to this particular niche of literature while increasing opportunities for eco-writers.

John, thanks for joining us.

John Yunker. Author of The Tourist Trail and co-founder of Ashland Creek Press.

John Yunker. Author of The Tourist Trail and co-founder of Ashland Creek Press.

To start, in your own words, could you explain what exactly eco-fiction includes?

Eco-fiction includes short stories and novels, and it uses the power of imagined narrative to raise awareness of environmental and animal rights issues and, ultimately, to inspire change.

Why did you decide to start Ashland Creek Press?

My wife Midge Raymond and I have experience in publishing, both as writers as well as in various roles within publishing houses. We’re also both passionate about animal rights and the environment.

A few years ago I had an agent for my novel – an eco-thriller called The Tourist Trail. The agent was unable to find a home for it at a major publisher, in part because it was a challenging book to sell. After all, there’s no “eco-fiction” category in bookstores or on Amazon. Not yet, at least.

So I decided to self-publish, and the process of publishing The Tourist Trail made both Midge and me realize that there had to be other writers facing similar challenges. So we started Ashland Creek Press. We aim to draw attention to this field of writing – which crosses many genres – and help writers find readers, and vice versa.

A hundred years ago, the heroes of literature were the explorers. Today, I believe the heroes are protectors – of animals and of the planet.

In our correspondence, you’ve described feeling “optimistic about literature’s role in helping us navigate and cope with the environmental issues we all face.”  Can literature, and especially fiction, really make a difference?

Environmentally speaking, these are dark times we live in. Nonfiction books have a role to play in telling us what’s wrong and how to fix it. But novels have the power to inspire, to imagine a better world, and to redefine what it means to be a heroic character. A hundred years ago, the heroes of literature were the explorers. Today, I believe the heroes are protectors – of animals and of the planet. It’s often said that fiction reflects culture, but it also can influence culture.

My own book is eco-themed but heavy on humor.  Given the current state of environmental affairs, and the many challenges facing our planet, are you focused on serious eco-fiction or do you see a role for lighter works as well?

Humor has an essential role in eco-literature. That’s not say these issues are inherently funny but that humor, used effectively, can open people’s eyes to more serious issues. The Monkey Wrench Gang, one of the great early eco-thrillers, used humor to great effect. We published JoeAnn Hart’s novel Float earlier this year – it deals with plastics in the oceans with a satirical eye. Satire is an excellent device for delivering sober themes without losing your readers.

Does Ashland Creek Press have any exciting releases you’d like to tell my readers about?

Ashland Creek Press: small, independent publisher of books with a world view. "Read like you give a damn."

Ashland Creek Press: small, independent publisher of books with a world view. “Read like you give a damn.”

We have two forthcoming books that I’d love to mention. The first is Among Animals, an anthology of contemporary short fiction. Coming in February 2014, this is a very unique collection of works that reflect and redefine the relationships between humans and animals.

In the summer of 2014 we’ll be publishing a novel about an unlikely romance between a carnivore and a vegetarian. It’s called The Green and the Red and is by the French author Armand Chauvel and translated by Elisabeth Lyman. French publishers have not (yet) embraced this book so we are thrilled to be introducing it to the world first in English.

Name some of your favorite eco-fiction classics.

Not surprisingly, the eco-fiction books we’ve published make onto my favorites list.

Also at the top of my list would be Moby-Dick. This book has been interpreted to mean many different things, but I feel the book portended the collapse of not only of the whaling industry but of fishing stocks in general. It signaled an alarm about our habit of treating our oceans as an all-you-can-eat buffet.  

I’m particularly drawn to works that connect animal rights with the environment, and I have to admit there are few books that do this. I used to prioritize one animal species over others – wanting to save the bald eagle, for example, while still eating meat. Today, I view all animals equally. And I believe the way we treat our animals is intrinsically related to the health of our planet.

The writer J.M. Coetzee deals with animal rights issues in a number of his books, such as Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello.  And the first third of The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy is heartbreaking portrayal of our dysfunctional relationship with wolves.

As a child, the books that most stuck with me were Watership Down, The Rats of NIMH, and My Side of the Mountain. So perhaps I was destined to be doing what I’m doing now.

There is also a growing Goodreads list of eco-fiction works here: http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/582.Eco_Fiction

Thank you, John.  We look forward to seeing what comes next for Ashland Creek Press and from your own pen!


Book clubs: Good for even more than gossip and wine.

Book clubs: Good for even more than gossip and wine.

Last week, I was invited to join a new book club. I also heard three different book clubs will be reading my novel. I’m over the moon.

I’m so excited that people are actually reading my book and talking about it together. I’m probably even more excited, though, to be in a new book club of my own. I’ve been in a number of them over the years and, truly, book clubs have completely changed my perspective on books and reading.

Everyone knows that reading is a subjective experience, but I didn’t fully understand the extent of this until I started attending book club meetings. I’d find a book absolutely captivating and others—intelligent, thoughtful people– would hate every page. Not only that. They’d have a completely different idea about what a main character’s intentions had been, a completely different sense of the significance of a symbol, even a different memory of basic plot points.

I found the divergence of our reading experiences pretty jarring for a while. Reading is intensely personal. Different, I think, from many other ways one might experience a story. Movies, television and plays are shared. Reading is typically an independent activity. Books give their audience a chance to create their own version of a story, their own images and sense memories. There’s a lot of room for creativity and individual expression between the letters on a printed page. Thus, everyone’s experience of a book can be unique.

When I read a book, I feel that I know the story and the characters, as if they are people that I’ve met. Usually I like them.

For a while, I really disliked subjecting my pristine reading memories to book club scrutiny. But I got over it because, well, I love getting new suggestions for books to read, I’m always eager for the chance to chat and drink wine with friends in the evenings, and, perhaps most importantly, I had the good sense that I could learn something by listening to others’ interpretations.

What did I learn? Writers should be humble.

Writers supply one part of a story, but, ultimately, the reader controls the experience. Readers don’t just interpret writers’ words. They play a vital role in creating characters, plot and meaning. So writers everywhere need to loosen up and let go a bit.

A book club is also a great reminder that successes and failures should be taken in stride. One reaction to your writing doesn’t amount to a definitive statement about its merits. For every person who loves your book, you will almost certainly encounter one who thinks its worthless sludge, and vice versa. Don’t get too caught up in reviews or rejection letters. Readers are fickle and varied. Some are discerning, some have no taste, and some, like me, tend to adore every single thing they read, whether it’s the charming slogan on their granola box or the challenging novel they pulled from the shelf in the library.

I think every writer should be in a book club. A book club is a very different animal from a writing group and serves a different, perhaps equally important function. Both will take you down a notch.  The book club will probably serve up the humble pie with other baked goods and a glass of wine.

I am certain the book clubs reading my book will have their own good ideas about discussion topics, but, since a few people have asked, you can now find a Reader’s Guide to Drowning Cactus on this website, here, and below the description of Drowning Cactus on the BUY MY BOOK page of this website.

Since I’m not even slightly famous, thus far I’ve been able to oblige every book club that has asked me to make a virtual appearance to answer questions. Interested in hosting me at your next book club meeting via skype?  Just ask.



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