Sunday, May 20, 2018

A Dose of Reality

Sometimes things just fall into place while you remain totally unaware. Fate is too strong a word here but it does feel a bit whimsical. Here's what I mean.

A month ago I came across a veterinarian on Twitter: Emma Milne from England. After reading her thoughts on various animal welfare issues and seeing that she's written a few books, I reached out to ask if she'd be interested in participating in this blog. After she agreed, upon more research I found she'd been one of the vets featured on a British reality TV show called Vets in Practice from 1996 to 2003.

Here's where it gets interesting:

I lived in England from 1998 to 2001. When my family moved there I was in high school and watched Vets in Practice religiously, wanting to be a veterinarian and all. I soaked it up. I remember a blonde vet. . . and squinting at Emma's photo now, twenty years later, I remember her from the show. My teenage years have come full circle.

Folks, I am star-struck by a veterinarian.

When I told Emma this, in self-deprecation she laughed and called herself a "proper z-lister" these days. No matter. It's all about personal connections, right?

So that's my introduction to Emma Milne, veterinarian, author, speaker, and champion for animal welfare. Let's get to know her a little better, shall we?
Emma Milne
As a new veterinary graduate, Emma entered the work force in front of the entire UK while appearing on VIP, which followed a handful of vets in their daily lives, showcasing events ranging from treating animals to personal issues. The US (and the UK) has more of its share of reality TV now, including some vet shows like The Incredible Dr. Pol, which come with their own controversies. I asked Emma about her time on TV.

"In general I loved my time on VIP," she says. "It gave me opportunities that I never would have had.  Also in the sphere of welfare, it has let me reach many more animals and owners than I perhaps might have in practice. At the time, the show was very different to anything we'd had. We were all new graduates so of course we made mistakes and there were older vets who felt the show was detrimental and that it 'demystified' the profession. I am a huge fan of honesty and vets are only human. I think any show that shows the strains and stresses placed on us is good. My main problem was that the show didn't tackle the gritty subjects I wanted to tackle like tail docking, hunting, farm issues, and pedigree health issues. It was a bit too fluffy. In fact to this day I think there is a huge scope for some really hard hitting veterinary shows." 

"I am a huge fan of honesty and vets are only human. Any show that shows the strains and stresses placed on us is good."

Subsequent to her time on VIP, Emma has been able to take advantage of numerous media outlets as co-presenter on various TV specials, doing guest appearances, and as a guest expert, judge, and columnist. Emma says this has helped enormously in getting the word out about animal welfare. 

"I think VIP has been incredible for my welfare opportunities and I always think people in the media should do their utmost to use it for the biggest positive impact they can, be it for animals or humans," she says. "The pros are huge, like the satisfaction of changing perceptions and meeting incredible and inspiring people. The cons are that it's never easy to get across everything you want to, especially in short, live TV slots. Even the written word is hard to disseminate unless you have a huge, rich publisher that can market you. The biggest con is probably the hate and vitriol that I get for things like my stance on hunting with dogs and now my views on pedigree health issues. The lovers of our most extremely diseased breeds can be unbelievably hurtful and I've had all manner of threats and comments. Most of the time I'm OK and I know I'm doing the right thing but I am human, too, and sometimes I hit some real lows and my friends and family see the impact of that."

She adds, "As for resonating with the public, I think that being down to earth and honest helps. I had to work very hard to get to vet school. My family was not at all well off and it was all done on sweat and tears. I think (and hope) that many people view me as someone they can trust."

Emma is steadily growing her list of book by-lines along with her media experience. Her first published book, The Truth about Cats and Dogs (2008), tackled pedigree health issues. She followed it with Tales from the Tail End (2013) which was more a veterinary memoir.

"TFTTE came about purely by accident," she says. "I had written The Truth about Cats and Dogs before and as an author and a vet, I had been approached to give a pre-publication quote for another book. During the discussions around that the publisher asked me if I would be interested in writing a book for them and suggested a compilation of humorous/emotional stories from my time on TV and as a vet. I loved the idea. I've done so much serious, sad stuff it was actually a really welcome relief to do something light-hearted. All vets have plenty of such stories so it was just a matter of sitting down and trying to remember all the ridiculous, happy, funny, mad, and sad things that had happened. It was the easiest book to write by miles!"

"Children can change the world and I really mean it. They have the power to change how future animals are kept."

Emma has another series out for children, called The Pet Detective Series which she says she dearly loves. This series teaches kids about the five basic welfare needs of pets. "I was a trustee of a charity called the Animal Welfare Foundation for a long time and helped write some of their client leaflets, all using the five welfare needs as a template," she explains. "I have long believed that happiness is just as important for our pets as healthiness and the social and behavioral needs of pets are so often neglected. I’ve also worked with incredible charities in poorer countries and have seen how they use education and children to change long-standing traditions. I decided that teaching children the five basic welfare needs and trying to get them to empathize with animals was the way forward. Children have a natural affinity for animals and the books try to get children to think about how a rabbit might feel lonely in a hutch or a cat might feel threatened by other cats or a dog might feel sad being alone all day. I say at the end that children can change the world and I really mean it. They have the power to change how future animals are kept much more than we vets do."

"After twenty years as a vet and twelve years in practice I am, frankly, outraged."
Most importantly, perhaps, is Emma's work on animal welfare issues. Most recently her work has had a strong focus on pedigree dog health issues, specifically brachycephalic breeds. "I think the arrogance of humans and our treatment of animals is often appalling," she says. "As for pedigree health I am absolutely mortified. The fact that we have got to a point where some people feel it is acceptable to deliberately select for deformity and disease in the name of the breed standard absolutely beggars belief. That may sound unbelievable to many people but it’s true and it’s why, ten years after my first book on the subject, I have decided to re-write it. If anything the health issues have become worse, especially with the exploding popularity of flat-faced dogs and quirky cat breeds. Breeding animals that are likely to suffer because of their body shape is fundamentally wrong. Even at uni when we had exam questions on breed-predispositions I thought it was odd that everyone just seemed to accept it as normal. After twenty years as a vet and twelve years in practice I am, frankly, outraged." 
"The fact that we have got to a point where some people feel it is acceptable to deliberately select for deformity and disease in the name of the breed standard absolutely beggars belief."

Emma's next book, Picking a Pedigree? How to Choose a Healthy Puppy or Kitten, is scheduled for publication in September of this year. As far as how the UK is moving in terms of animal welfare issues, Emma mostly admits it's a mixed bag. "Some good things are happening in the UK with welfare like the banning of wild animals in circuses, compulsory CCTV in slaughterhouses and the like but we also had the utterly ridiculous backward step in Scotland of the reversal of the ban on tail-docking," she says. "The fact that money not welfare and expert opinion drives these political decisions is a constant disappointment. Rumor has it though that we are about to see a huge overhaul of breeding and puppy sales laws which may include the equivalent of the Qualzucht or torture breeding laws. This would mean that you could prosecute individuals for producing litters that are likely to suffer due to extreme conformation. This could be absolutely huge as our laws have never covered future offspring. A test case would be very interesting indeed. 

"I'd love the western world to stop being so obsessed with breeds and start thinking about dogs as a species. Dogs are such wonderful animals. They should be healthy, proportioned, and happy. Health and temperament should be way above looks on the breeding priority list."  

"Dogs are such wonderful animals. They should be healthy, proportioned, and happy."

For someone who has worked diligently to be an animal welfare advocate, it was only natural for me to ask Emma how others can try to make positive impacts as well. 

"The biggest thing I would say is stick to your guns," she says. "Don’t lose your ideals and don’t be afraid to take some flak to stand up for what you really believe. And finally if any of you feel so inclined please join the global voice of We have 53 countries represented now, many organizations and practices, and almost one thousand individuals signed up. It is a standing open letter to show the global level of expert opinion that extreme brachycephaly is wrong on welfare grounds. Have a read of the homepage and sign up if you agree."

On that note, we'll see you soon, dear readers. Happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

Small Fiction, Small Truths

Over the past several years, short stories have become my fiction outlet de jour, both for reading and writing. The stack of to-read books on my nightstand (ever-growing and ever-threatening my safety as the tower sways) has noticeably switched from predominantly novels to half novel and half short story anthologies and dammit, who can blame me? Short stories are so good: a captivating chunk of creativity, just enough to sate the appetite without the commitment to full-out novel-length development. Plus, the language has to be water tight. What a challenge to write, for sure. And what a delight to read.

Imagine my excitement when I recently came across Dr. Ray Morrison. Ray is a small animal vet practicing in North Carolina and in his spare time, he writes. He writes short stories. In fact, in 2012, he had his first collection published: In a World of Small Truths by Press 53. Naturally, I asked him some questions and happily, he answered.

Ray says his writing has had two distinct phases split apart--not surprisingly--by his endeavor to become a vet. "As a young teenager in the early 1970s I loved to read science fiction and horror," he says. "Yet at the same time I'd also spend hours reading classic short stories. In high school I discovered creative writing and although by that time I'd known I wanted to become a veterinarian, I would write short stories and poems for fun. In college, I read a lot of Raymond Carver and Flannery O'Connor so my affection for short fiction solidified."

Although running the pre-vet gauntlet as an undergraduate offers little time to explore interests other than science, Ray says any time he had an elective opportunity he'd take a creative writing class. However, once vet school began in earnest, followed by graduation and marriage, the first stressful and tumultuous years of practice, then buying and managing his own clinic (with his wife who is also a veterinarian) created a gap in creative production. Happens to the best of us.

"Writing was the farthest thing from my mind in those days," Ray says. However, as their practice grew, Ray and his wife were able to hire associates. This meant a bit more breathing room for the practice owners. This is where Ray's second writing phase began.

"I penned a dreadful novel that I will always love because it served to get me writing again."

"One evening, while having dinner with some friends, one of them mentioned he was writing a novel. It was literally like something snapped in me when he said that. I want to write a novel, too! I thought. Which I did. Over the next two years, I penned a dreadful novel that I will always love because it served to get me writing again. Upon completing this massive endeavor, though, I was slightly intimidated by the thought of spending another two-plus years on another novel. Another friend said one day, 'Why not just write a short story?' And that was that. I found what I loved and have to date written more than a hundred short stories, nearly half of which have been published."

Ray has since taken serious steps in his writing career, starting with attending writing workshops and fiction classes. After winning first place in a short story contest held by the publishing company Press 53 in 2011, Ray was asked--by the same publishing house--if he had enough stories for a collection and, by golly, he sure did. In November of 2012, In a World of Small Truths was published by Press 53.
Ray Morrison, DVM

There's a wonderful interview of Ray done by TSP, the blog of the Story Prize (read here) where Ray talks about how his writing focuses on everyday truths. This sort of writing about everyday things--but somehow making them incredibly rich--reminds me a bit of Elizabeth Strout and her book Olive Kitteridge (which is lovely, go read it). I asked Ray how he does this.

"The most important thing I have learned about writing is that, as the famous saying goes, 'writing is rewriting.' Are some people naturally better writers than others? I think so. But it is, at the end of the day, a craft; one that requires learning and practice. If there is any aspect of my ability to create vibrant descriptions, it is my knack for observing people and translating what I see into words. But rarely, I think, do I get it right the first time. That takes revision."

"Animals often find their way into my stories but I am not another James Herriot."

I'm always curious about how writers (or artists or musicians) balance their veterinary profession with their creative calling and how, if at all, one might influence the other. Ray elaborated on his own balance. "I would say the biggest impact that spending thirty years as a veterinarian has had on my writing is that when I write it is my escape from that side of my life," he says. "People, especially my veterinary clients, when they find out I write short stories, nearly always ask if I write 'animal stories.' I answer that animals often find their way into my stories, but I am not another James Herriot. On the other hand, everything I've learned as a vet has accumulated in the well of experiences I draw on when I write. My career in veterinary medicine, and the thousands of people I've met during it, can't help but influence how I create characters, even if the stories themselves are not specifically about veterinary things. I have written exactly three stories, all unpublished at this point, with veterinarians as protagonists or main characters. I struggle with them, however, because I think I end up writing about me and not the fictional character. I like to stay out of my stories--bad things usually happen to my characters."

Ray has a second collection of short stories coming out in May this year, so keep your eyes peeled. I asked about any novels in the pipeline. Here's how he responded: "I rarely get the bug to write a novel, but once in a blue moon I toy with the idea. Who knows? I'd like to think I could write a (good) novel. But for now I still am too much in love with short stories."

Until next month, dear readers: happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting. 


Monday, February 5, 2018

Poetry for Pets

Poetry is . . . what is poetry? High school English class taught us it doesn't have to rhyme and the work continually featured in literary and poetry magazines shows us poetry can almost be damn well anything as long as someone believes in it. OK, maybe that's getting a bit too Disney but in all seriousness, poetry is still a bit of a mystery to me yet I find myself continually drawn to it, trying to understand, trying to learn, and in the process of it all, collecting more and more pieces that I like. It's like broadening one's palate. On that note, I was delighted to snag Dr. Marjorie McMillan to ask her about a recent book of poetry she's published. Marge, owner of the Windover Veterinary Center in Walpole, MA, and board-certified veterinary radiologist, has recently published Cold Wet Noses, Whiskers and Tweets, a book of poems for and about animals. Here's what she had to say. 

"I have been seriously writing poetry for about five years," said Marge. "I belong to a poetry writing group and we meet to encourage each other and critique each others' work. Much of my poetry is about nature and animals and I finally had enough poems to publish a collection. I also wanted to be able to convey to my clients and the general public some of the emotions that go along with being a veterinarian."

"I wanted to convey to my clients and the general public some of the emotions that go along with being a veterinarian." 

Most people have an inclination toward a particular breed of pet for a plethora of reasons. I wondered if a certain favoritism found its way into Marge's poems, but she emphasized the individual. "It's not so much a particular species or breed," she said, "but what inspires me as a poet is a certain animal or situation or emotion that I want to express in powerful language." Evoking emotions in those who read her poems is the aim. 

Tackling the subject of rhyme in poetry, Marge said she's in it for the challenge. "I like to write in rhyme and meter; it's harder than open style, so I like the challenge, but not all topics lend themselves to rhyme and meter. It's hard to get it really right like the great poets. Most people who are not serious readers of poetry seem to prefer poems that rhyme."

Given the intricate, intimate, and sensitive nature of most poems, it seemed to me there must be a certain level of empathy required to write poetry. Herein lies my connection between the creative arts and veterinary medicine because to truly connect with patients and clients, a veterinarian (this also applies to physicians and others in the wide spectrum of medical sciences) should also be highly empathetic. I asked Marge if she thought attributes of poetry writing crossed over into the successful practice of veterinary medicine and vise versa.

"Poetry allows me to connect on a deeper level with clients and it also gives them insight into the depth of my feelings. It creates a stronger veterinarian-client bond." 
"There has been much published lately about the mental health of veterinarians and the suicide rate," she said. "Poetry allows me to process the very difficult emotions around ending animals' lives, the difficulty of dealing with angry and sometimes impossible clients, and the joyful experiences. It allows me to connect on a deeper level with clients, especially around the loss of their pets, and it also gives them insight into the depth of my feelings. It creates a stronger veterinarian-client bond." 

This connection between the sciences and arts is occasionally nurtured at graduate school; see the elective course at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine featuring writing, reading, and discussing poetry, short stories, and novel excerpts in order to "help engender empathy for clients, encourage moral reflection, and sustain the joy of being a veterinarian." See VetWrite's interview with Dr. Elizabeth Stone for more on that. Another example is the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities, and History of Medicine at Duke University. 

What's more is Marge's fulfillment from having others read her work. "A poem isn't a poem until it is read by someone else," she said. "Writing poetry has allowed me to connect in a deeper and more spiritual way with animals and nature."

What's extra special about Marge's clinic, Windover Veterinary Center, is that the creativity does not stop with her. Cathy Symons, a certified veterinary technician and certified canine rehabilitation professional is an associated specialist with the clinic and has written a book titled Blind Devotion: Enhancing the Lives of Blind and Visually Impaired Dogs. Joan Powers, Windover's hospital manager, was the photographer for Cathy's book. "I have a wonderful staff of creative women," said Marge. "The writing is a way of helping clients and animals in a right brain way. It allows us to step out of our usual medical roles and left brains and relate to clients in a different way. I also think it allows us to listen differently and hear beyond the factual medical history." 

Marge has a second collection of poetry in the works as well as a book half finished about her lawsuit for gender discrimination. She also confirms that her favorite poet is indeed the wonderful Mary Oliver

Until next time, dear readers: happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Expounding Inspiration

There's quite a story behind the creation of a newly published children's book series on being a veterinarian and I recently talked with the author, Dr. Rebekah Hartfield, to get the scoop. Rebekah's ambition and desire to inspire the younger generation to go forth and conquer (and while they're at it, maybe try their hands at rural veterinary practice) is brimming with sage positivity and it's my pleasure to share it with you.

Rebekah's "Doctor Hartfield Veterinary Book Series" is a series of six books pitched for fourth graders and under. "Fourth graders understand it," Rebekah says. "And for pre-K and kindergartners, they just enjoy the story. I've read to pre-K through fourth grade and they all seem to enjoy the book." The first book in the series, Rosie the Pig, was published in August of this year. The book tells the story of how a young girl named Abby and Dr. Hartfield diagnose and treat a pig named Rosie with respiratory disease. It's based on a true story. But, we're getting ahead of things.

"I want to encourage kids to want to learn about all the different species and hopefully inspire them to want to practice in those areas."

Rosie the Pig started when Rebekah was in her fourth year of vet school. "At the time, my younger sister was in graphic design school and she had to do a senior project," says Rebekah. "We had talked about how I wanted to do something more with my platform when I graduated as a veterinarian." Coming from a creative family, Rebekah also paints and is a photographer and was looking for ways to weave creativity into her new profession.
Rebekah Hartfield, DVM
"It just so happened that a couple of things occurred at the same time," Rebekah continues. "A friend had called me up and needed a good book recommendation for her daughter who was 10 and wanted to go to vet school." Rebekah did some research and came up nearly empty handed. "Most of the books were way over a ten-year-old's head," she says. "They were too wordy and not very creative." That got her thinking. Rebekah identified a need in the market for books on being a veterinarian that were pitched for a younger audience. So she brought the idea to her sister. "That's kind of how it started," she says.

But the origin story isn't over yet. That Thanksgiving, Rebekah's niece visited and one of Rebekah's pigs -- named Rosie (you guessed it) -- was sick. "We went to the barn and I showed my niece how to do an exam and what went into diagnosing and treated Rosie. Rosie got better and I called my sister and said: I've got my story."

Pistol the Horse is the second book in the series, with a release date planned for May 2018. Each book in the series will be about an actual case in a different species. Rebekah says the dog story might be about heartworm, since she encounters that disease frequently in her Oklahoma practice. The other books will be about cases in a cat, a cow, and a goat.

One of the unique aspects of Rebekah's book is that in addition to the story, there are interactive puzzles which makes the book visually stimulating on many levels. Rebekah's sister was the illustrator. With pronunciation guides, Rosie the Pig teaches kids about anti-inflammatories and antibiotics, rounding out the spectrum of an entertaining yet highly informative guide to vet med aimed at young kids.

One of the other goals Rebekah hopes to accomplish from her book series is to encourage kids to go into rural veterinary practice. "We just don't have a lot of rural veterinarians," she says. "In Oklahoma there's a pretty big shortage of vets serving these areas. I want to encourage kids to want to learn about all the different species and hopefully inspire them to want to practice in those areas."

Ambitious and busy, Rebekah has many more irons in the fire. She says she has a whole list of goals. "I want to have this children's book series but I really want to create a series of books for each age group leading up to college," she says. "I have a current page on my website about how to prep to be a vet but I'm also working on another page about college, talking about the GRE and the entrance essay." Rebekah mentions when she decided to apply for vet school, she was unaware of all the different requirements. "I had to scramble around and get my credits -- I didn't even know you had to take the GRE." 

"Don't let a "no" stop you from achieving your goals."

"Another part of my platform is about inspiring kids. I want let them know: don't let a "no" stop you from achieving your goals." Rebekah says she encountered a lot of no's in her life as she attempted to get into vet school, and once she got in, it wasn't easy, either. "But I made it through," she emphasizes. "And through all of that, it made me a better veterinarian and it gives me a story to tell other people who are maybe going through the same thing and struggling themselves."

Rebekah's Rosie the Pig is available on her website, which is where you'll also find her blog and other resources.

And until next month, dear reads: happy reading, happy writing, and happy vetting.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Becoming a Writer.... via The Beach Boys

One aspect of writing that people, including writers themselves, often don't realize or appreciate is that the art takes time. Sure, there are writers (and journalists of course) who work to a tight deadline, turning out excellent copy like a riverboat chopping at the Mississippi. But many writers, whether fiction or nonfiction, need weeks, months, years (dare I say decades--Donna Tartt, I'm looking at you) to piece together the bits of a puzzle that inevitably will make the final product. 

To that point, on a much smaller scale, I first read about veterinarian-author Dr. Jim Murphy in an article from Veterinary Practice News late last fall. Jim had just published his first book, Becoming the Beach Boys, 1961 - 1963. It wasn't until late spring of this year that I took the opportunity to talk with Jim about his writing and it wasn't until right now that you're seeing the fruition of our conversation. 

So it goes.

On a much grander scale, it took Jim eight years to write this book, which has been described by the author as " academic look at the band's origin," including over 80 interviews, twelve appendices, and 1,100 foot notes. 

Aren't you curious how and why Jim did this, while still finding time to practice veterinary medicine in DC? I was. So I asked him.

"I was still practicing part-time," Jim says. "On days off I would try to write as much as I could." On work days, he would write at night. "I had charts on my wall, Post-It notes all over the place--where should I start, where did this person or that person enter the story. You know, writing is really about solving problems. I had three dogs while I was writing the book. Sometimes, before writing, I'd take them for a walk in the park. It was so relaxing and I would think about the problems I was having and more often than not the solution would just come to me."

"I loved it because you learn so much when you write a book, especially that first book." 

Jim was candid about how much time the sometimes-tedious research process took. "Writing non-fiction is a lot of research, involving digging into the Library of Congress, making phone calls, finding people, going through old high school year books," he says. "That part is really time consuming, really taxing. You spend hours and hours and hours which is ultimately productive but can be a drain. You've got to really love that sort of detective work. Then doing the interviews and figuring out what part of it can I use, then writing it up, transcribing--all of that. It's really a different type of writing than fiction."
Dr. Jim Murphy
As Jim continued to write, his draft grew. And grew. Then grew some more. At one point, it clocked in at 180,000 words. "It was crazy," he says. "I had all kinds of side stories. I culled a lot of that stuff, saved it and included it on the website for supplemental reading for diehard fans. But I loved it because you learn so much when you write a book, especially that first book. And I looked at it like, OK, this is cool, I'm learning and I'll forgive myself for making these mistakes. And if I write another one, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, I will have learned a tremendous amount about this process and I won't make these same mistakes again." 

"Life is short, time is finite, you never know how much more time you have so there is nothing, in my opinion, that is more important than doing something that brings you joy."

Dear readers, I cannot fathom working on a single project for eight years. Maybe I have a fear of literary commitment. A copy of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest waits, unread, on my bookshelf. And that's just reading. But when Jim explained his reasoning behind keeping his nose to the grindstone, it made sense. "The thing about The Beach Boys book, in everything that's ever been written about them in dozens and dozens of books over the last 55 years, no one had gotten the origin story correct," he says. "And I felt like, I can do this. I think I can find some of these people. That's what kept me going. There were times when the structure was all messed up and I was moving things around, backing up every night, frantic I was going to lose something because the document was so big and the only thing that really kept me going was: I think I can do this. I think I can see the light at the end of the tunnel."

"[Writing is] frustrating, it's difficult, but it's so fulfilling when you get the words right."

At the end of the day, Jim says it comes down to doing what you enjoy. "That's something important in writing," he says. "Life is short, time is finite, you never know how much more time you have so there is nothing, in my opinion that is more important than doing something that brings you joy. When I was writing The Beach Boys book, there was not a day when I could not wait to sit down, turn on the computer, crack my fingers, have a cup of coffee, and tackle it. I was like a kid on Christmas morning. It's frustrating, it's difficult, but it's so fulfilling when you get the words right."

So what's on Jim's to-do list now? Fiction. He's working on a novel. "It's animal related," he says. "It's inspired by the [veterinary] profession. And it's so different. I don't have to interview anybody, and I'm free to create whatever I want to create. What I'm finding now, I kind of like this [fiction writing] because you can be as creative as you want. It's an open world. It's liberating. You can go anywhere with it."

Dear readers, I hope you're going where you want to go in your own reading and writing. Until next time, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.  

Monday, September 4, 2017

Write What You Will, Write What You Want

Let's start a debate. Many of you are probably familiar with the adage "write what you know." To an extent, I get it. If you're not a veterinary orthopedic surgeon, you probably shouldn't write an article on the latest hardware for TPLO surgery for the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. But when we're talking fiction, things change. As far as I'm concerned, this rule goes out the window. I mean, it doesn't apply to writers within the fantasy or speculative fiction genres. Who has experience with dragons? Talking toasters? Self-aware pirate ships? Orcs? If I want to write a novel about kraken, I shouldn't be discouraged simply because I don't have a doctorate in krakenology. Likewise, it's fun to research and learn about something new in order to write about it. Everyone knows that.

My bottom line is this: don't ever think that just because you're not already an expert in something that you can't or shouldn't write about it, at least in a fictitious sense.

Ahem. Excuse me. Let me step off my soapbox.

Now then. Let me introduce you all to this month's VetWrite feature. Trust me, this ties in with my mini-diatribe. Back in late spring of this year, I had the opportunity to talk with author Michael Kula whose first novel, titled The Good Doctor, came out this year. A piece of historical fiction, The Good Doctor is about Dr. David Roberts, a veterinarian in Wisconsin at the turn of the 20th century. We chatted about the book, the writing process, and the challenge of writing about a veterinarian while not being a veterinarian.

An associate professor in the Writing Studies program at the University of Washington-Tacoma, Michael's story line started somewhat fortuitously when he stumbled upon a sensational love scandal involving a veterinarian at the turn of the century in small town Wisconsin. As he dug deeper into historical records, the story grew into what Michael describes as quite "sensational stuff" given the time period.

After further research, Michael reached out to a local historian. "I was guarded about my idea," he says. As it happens, however, the historian of this small Wisconsin town had his own personal historical museum in his basement. [In another universe, this would totally be the setup for a horror story.]
Courtesy Michael Kula
At first, Michael describes the basement as filled with standard collector's paraphernalia from resort hotels circa early 1900s. "Then," says Michael, "I turned the corner. There was a big shelf display that said 'Dr. Roberts'. It was floor-to-ceiling full of this man's commercial goods and I said: this is want I want to write about."

Michael calls Dr. Roberts the "Martha Stewart of the veterinary profession"; a man who made and sold his own veterinary products. "He really did brand himself," he says. "He had a huge line of products under his name: Dr. Roberts' Veterinary Company."

"He was the Martha Stewart of the veterinary profession."

But it got even better: in this basement museum, the historian pulled out a copy of Dr. Roberts' memoir. "At the time," says Michael, "I didn't know this guy had written a memoir late in his life."

It turns out ol' Dr. Roberts had a reputation of being a womanizer. "After his first wife died, he was married three more times," explains Michael. "In 1955, when he was about 80 years old, he was married to a 24 year old who was working for him at the time. He had written his memoir with this young woman. Local legend has it that when he passed away, apparently he had a room full of these books that he had published but didn't distribute. When he died, the young woman burned them all. Apparently, there are only four copies of this thing in existence."

One of the copies was owned by our now beloved hero, the local historian.
Courtesy Michael Kula
Suffice it to say, Michael had stumbled upon the holy grail of writer's research. Now it was time to craft the story between the lines recorded by history.

"The story is based on historical facts," he says, "but it's not factual. It was a journey of trying to humanize this guy. While he was kind of a scoundrel, he was, by all accounts, incredibly caring and generous. There was a good guy in there somewhere and I hoped to capture that in the book."

"How would you put down a cow in 1917?"

Because Dr. Roberts was a veterinarian, animals and veterinary work factor heavily in this book, which was a challenge as Michael strove to capture these actions accurately. "Some of the veterinary-specific aspects were hard," he says. Michael notes how easily he could interview today's veterinarians, but quickly found they lacked insight into what vet med was like one hundred years ago. The closest thing Michael could grasp in terms of early 20th century medicine was a veterinary instruction manual from 1905. Then he turned to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Veterinary Hospital.
Courtesy Michael Kula
"I talked to a professor at the school and asked him: how would you put down a cow in 1917? We ended up having a really nice conversation about ethics." Herd health also come into play in the novel, as Dr. Roberts was a renowned and frankly innovative dairy expert. "In one scene, the doctor is called out to an overcrowded barn where lots of the animals are sick," Michael says. "I had to figure this scene out in terms of what could cause this--what could wipe out a bunch of animals in an overcrowded barn in a relatively short period of time?" Spoiler alert: Michael aptly decided on coccidiosis. This vet approves.

"I had to figure this scene out: what could wipe out a bunch of animals in an overcrowded barn in a relatively short period of time?"

The book's narrative is driven by three different characters: Dr. Roberts, his wife, and the woman who becomes his mistress. "The love triangle that develops comes in part from the characters' connections with animals," says Michael. Social stratification in the early 1900s also plays an important role. In real life, as in the book, Dr. Roberts comes from rural Wisconsin but Michael explains that he lacked historical evidence regarding the veterinarian's wife's roots. "This is where I took some liberties," he says. "In the book, I had her come from big city money. Part of her character is drawn to her husband because of the sensitivity she saw in him in his occupation. But she had no background or interest in rural life, agriculture, or animals." Enter the woman who eventually becomes Dr. Roberts' mistress who does have a rural background. Do you feel the heat rising, or is it just me?

"Why would anyone read historical fiction? I just didn't get it."

Some of my constant readers may be aware that in the end, I like to know why a writer (or artist or musician, etc.) does the thing they do and how it makes them feel. Michael's answer was satisfactorily revealing. "The funny thing was, when I was in grad school, I wrote very literary, straight fiction. I remember thinking: why would anyone read historical fiction? I just didn't get it. Then I fell into this project. I've since realized I can't imagine doing anything else. It just fits me." What more could you ask for?

Until next month, dear readers, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.