On Writing the Apocalypse Through a Crow’s Perspective
Reading Women in Conversation with Kira Jane Buxton
For September’s theme, Reading Women are discussing books by Indigenous women from around the world. Today, Kendra and Autumn are speak to Kira Jane Buxton about her new book Hollow Kingdom, now out from Grand Central Publishing.
From the episode:
Kendra Winchester: So before we get ahead of ourselves, for our listeners who aren’t familiar with Hollow Kingdom could you describe it for them.
Kira Jane Buxton: Absolutely yeah. It’s a little bit of a challenge but I’ll try. I’ve been describing it as a humorous, literary, dystopian novel with some horror elements and a lot of nature writing in it. Really, it’s the story of S.T., who is this sort of domesticated, snarky American Crow who’s been raised by a human, an electrician named Big Jim who lives in the Ribena neighborhood of Seattle. And S.T. sort of doesn’t really associate with being a crow. He really sort of firmly believes in his little heart that he’s human and he loves our species and he’s sort of been raised on this steady diet of TV. You know a lot of pop culture like Bravo TV and he loves National Geographic and he loves the Discovery Channel and of course he loves the greatest food that man has invented the Cheeto.
And so S.T. lives in this home with Big Jim, the human, and Big Jim’s bloodhound, Dennis, and he’s quite happy living this sort of airy anthropocentric existence. And then one day something happens to Big Jim. His eyeball falls out of his head and that’s when S.T. sorta thinks, something’s a little off here and he goes out to try and find a cure for Big Jim. He gets him some beer and various medications that he thinks might work. And then when he realizes the problem is not something he can fix and it’s a little bit more widespread, S.T. and Dennis have to sort of go out into the natural world, which is a world that S.T.’s never believed in, to try and find a cure and to ultimately try and save humanity. So it’s a little unusual.
Autumn Privett: Oh, but it’s like the best kind of unusual. Which made us wonder, where did the inspiration for this book come from?
KJB: It’s so funny because you know, I thought about it a lot recently. I think if somebody had told me four years ago, I wrote it three years ago and if somebody told me four years ago that I’d be writing this book, this crazy wild book from the perspective of a crow who tries to save the world, I wouldn’t have believed it. But when I look back I think well, there’s so many things in my life and things I’ve been inspired by that have sort of culminated in this. I grew up abroad. I grew up in Asia and the Middle East and I grew up . . . .
My parents were big animal lovers and big into rescuing. We always rescued things wherever we went and people would sort of hand us animals and go here deal with this. And when we lived in Dubai, we used to get camels that used to come into the yard and you know I was very enamored by the camels. They would come into the yard and I’d be like these are my camels, you know. And my mom, my poor long-suffering mom was like no these are not our camels. And once a one-eyed goat that came into our yard, also in Dubai, and I was like, look at him he’s perfect this is my goat. And she’s like no this is not your goat and no he’s not perfect. And so there’s always been the animal thing, and also you know I was lucky I went to some really good schools that sort of instilled a conservation ethic sort of in me very early on. I used to do these projects about you know tourism in the Thousand Islands and the impact of it environmentally or I would do great big projects on sea turtles or wolves and so ultimately all of that . . my first job was at a zoo. I was a volunteer and I used to run around have these great animal encounters.
And then when we moved to Seattle, you know many, many years later, my husband and I, we moved to Seattle because of the trees. And we saw them and fell in love with them and it was this sort of how do we live around these beautiful evergreens?
Douglas firs and the Western Red Cedars and just absolutely love these trees. And we moved here and then I started to have crow encounters. I’d always been fascinated by them. I had this one encounter where I was walking my dog and this poor crow was sort of lying in the street and his wing was sort of almost backwards, it was really, really broken. And up in the trees all around were probably around 60 crows, 60 of its family members.
And they were all just, I mean it was deafening, they were screaming. And I thought, “Oh no, I’ve got to do something!” So I got a little box and I went up to this crow, and I thought, “Oh no, I’m going to get dive bombed, like this is gonna be 100 percent my Tippi Hedren moment. You know like it’s gonna be very Hitchcockian. Instead of dive bomb bombing me they sort of all went silent and watched me. And I looked at this little crow and this little crow looked at me and I just I knew the crow understood that I was there to help. And so I did manage to get the crow to a wildlife rehabilitation center and very sadly the crow didn’t make it, which is terrible. But after that, my relationship with the crows really changed.
Everywhere I went they were sort of following me and I started chatting to them and I started reading all about them. So I was sort of fascinated by how intelligent they are and sort of being able to experience it and see empirical evidence of that. And then I moved to a different part of town and ended up befriending two wild crows who have basically become like family members to me. They visit me every day and they leave me little gifts and it’s very, very special. So all of those things I think kind of led to the writing of this crazy, wild book.
AP: That’s the best story ever.
KW: It really is.
AP: So as we’ve talked about a little bit, this is definitely a quirky book. It’s narrated by animals. It’s from this crow’s point of view. It’s, as you mentioned, it covers like lots of different genres and different topics. So what was the publishing journey like? Like how did Hollow Kingdom end up finding a home at Grand Central Publishing?
KJP: Yeah, it’s, you know honestly, it’s the whole process with this book has been this tremendous joy. It really has. But it’s not my first novel and I always really think it’s so important to say that. This is my first published novel but it’s not the first novel I’ve written. There are three novels and a memoir that I have written before this that didn’t find a home. And I think for good reason. Like there was some very strange things going on, especially with the first book—which was a lot of fun, and would be unsurprising to you that there is a rhino in it and there’s a tiger and there’s actually a bloodhound in it. So apparently I’m a little obsessed with bloodhounds.Nobody told me that I couldn’t have a funny literary novel with horror elements and other elements.
But I had come very close to landing an agent with one of the novels. And I sort of went back and forth with this really wonderful agent, for I think it was maybe close to over a period of maybe close to two years where it was sort of like me tweaking and bringing it back and changing it. And I hired some great editors and I worked with them but ultimately what happened was I actually over edited it and I couldn’t see it anymore. And it was so heartbreaking to have this book that I’d spend a lot of time on and put a lot of love into and and other people had helped me with it. And I would open up the document to look at it and I couldn’t see it. It was just like a nebulous sort of blur of letters.
So I fell into a little bit of a funk over that. I felt very sorry for myself. I sort of, you know, did a lot of rolling around on the floor and drinking wine out of a salad bowl. And ultimately my poor, long-suffering husband said, “You know, why don’t you go and write the thing about the crows?” So it took me a while to figure out that premise and once I had, I was kind of off to the races. Once I realized like, OK well what if a crow is telling our story about you know our species? What if a crow is talking about our extinction? And once I had that piece, I really wrote that first chapter really very, very quickly and ended up writing the whole book chapter by chapter and reading each chapter to my husband. Then the whole thing took a little under, I think it was about 3 1/2 or just under 4 months. So I really, in a way, binge wrote this novel. Joyously. Happy, happy frenzy. And I gave it, I sort of read a sample chapter to my writing group. One of my dear, dear writer friends said to me, “You know I think you really have something here and you should share it with an editor.” So I gave it to a local author whose name is Waverly Fitzgerald. She’s fabulous.
And I was very nervous to give it to her. She said, “Pitch it to me.” So I pitched and she said, “Wow! That’s weird.” And I said, “Yes, this is weird.” And she said “Well, send me a few chapters.” And then there was kind of a silence while I waited. And she e-mailed me back and she said, “Well, I think we need to meet in person.” And I was so nervous, I thought, “Oh no, I’m going to . . . somehow I would be in the doghouse for writing this. I’m going to be like excommunicated from the Seattle writing community.” And I saw her and she said, “You know I think this is so unusual.”
Nobody told me that I couldn’t have a funny literary novel with horror elements and other elements. Nobody said that I couldn’t. And I had, I think because I had gone through the rejection already, it was like well . . . and also this also came on the heels of . . . I was acting acting in L.A. for 10 years and really nothing came of that. I call myself a failed actress. So I had you know I’d racked up a lot of rejection over a long period of time and sort of got to the point where it was like, “Well I don’t have anything to lose. Why don’t I just really enjoy myself and really enjoy the writing process and explore the things I want to?” You know?
KW: I definitely feel like you harness that love for animals. And you know since it’s narrated by an animal, it’s narrated by a crow named S.T. There aren’t many books, especially adult books, narrated by animals. I think I could think of so many books for children narrated by animals. But I feel like oftentimes adult fiction thinks that, “Oh, that’s too childish or whatever it doesn’t work.” But with your book I feel like it really works. As someone who loved books by like Walter Farley, you know writing about this amazing horse or the story of a grizzly or a snapping turtle moving from Canada to the Mississippi Delta. I love those stories narrated and from the perspective of animals.
So since you are writing for adults, were there any particular challenges that you found while writing from S.T.’s perspective and from the perspective of all these other animals?It was very tempting not to say how many teeth an animal had because it was so cool or it just not go too overboard.
KJP: That’s such a good question. I feel the same way you do. I feel like that’s something I missed from my childhood is you know being able to explore the experience of another. I think in storytelling it used to be more that way. I think you know it’s our storytelling has changed so it’s mostly just this very you know human experience. And I feel like, I’ll read a book and if I’m reading a murder mystery and there’s a dog in the scene, I always I want to know, I know the dog knows what happened and I want to know.
And I just feel that once I finally found a way to write about crows and very directly from the perspective of one, I think the main challenge was in not going too overboard with real world animal facts because I had a tremendous time researching for the novel. You know it’s grounded in a lot of real animal behavior. I mean I got so excited about a lot of it it was very tempting not to say how many teeth an animal had because it was so cool or it just not go too overboard with it. S.T. was not difficult to write from his perspective because I think you know in spending a lot of time with my crows . . .
My crow T., my friend crow . . . She really did inspire a lot of his sort of antics, antics and behaviors. Things I got to see up close, but I did find challenges with some of the other characters in particular the polar bear. There’s a chapter narrated by a polar bear and I think when I came . . . I knew wanted to do a polar bear but they’re . . . the polar bear as the poster child for climate change and I didn’t want it to be glib or trite or heavy handed. I wanted it to really feel authentic to what a polar bear might experience.
And you know I didn’t want it to be didactic or depressing or to too heavy. So that was tricky. And then there were some that were just real surprises to me. I had actually been trying to voice a hummingbird when the Angus, this Highland cow, exploded onto the page—a very narcissistic Highland cow. So there were surprises along the way too. But mostly, I would say that mostly it was just a pure joy to explore with absolute freedom and less of a challenge.
AP: And I think all the different animal voices and you mentioned a cow and a polar bear . . . there’s dogs and cats and sparrows and I don’t know, there’s all kinds of animals in this book and you mentioned climate change too. And that’s one of the things about this book that really struck me was like you know I think we see a lot of like post apocalyptic or similar kind of books that talk about it from the human perspective. But seeing it from the animal perspective really does change it because of their relationship to the earth and how connected they are to the earth.I had these really incredible animal encounters and, I mean, I hand fed a Sumatran rhino.
Which I thought was a really interesting way to approach it and very thought provoking way to approach it. Were there any guidelines you had, any thought about how the animals experience the world or how their voices express themselves or what did that look like?
KJP: No guidelines at all. Zero. Mostly me. You know, honestly, I think a lot of it was about reverence and wanting to get it right and wanting it to feel as authentically like each character as I have been so lucky as to experience in my lifetime. You know I mentioned that my first job was at a zoo. I was 12 and I was a volunteer. And I had this little job where I’m supposed to pick out, they’d give you these buckets of meal worms and I had to pick out the beetles that had gone through this metamorphosis. And the worms were to feed the babies in the nursery, all the baby animals. Well, I did for about two days. I was really good and I did the meal worm job but then you know I was like 12. So I just decided like no, I’m going to go adventure. And so I did and I sort of met these wonderful keepers and befriended them and showed them that I could be responsible. And so I had these really incredible animal encounters and so I mean I hand fed a Sumatran rhino. We used to hand feed the hippos, which was incredible. You know lob whole watermelon and corn husks into their mouths and then they crush them. It’s just brilliant. I held snakes and I held a cobra once, all of these experiences.
So I’ve been around them and I think to be around animals and to really experience them and to be raised like I was with this idea that they’re not lesser beings, you know, we share the planet with them. And I think we forget that sometimes. I think it’s easy to forget, because we are caught up in this sort of very human you know anthropocentric world we’ve created. You know we’re online where we’re as connected, in a cyber way . . .
You know, we were more connected than we’ve ever been and I think in some ways we’re more disconnected from nature than we’ve ever been. And I think to be around animals kind of breaks that spell and reminds us that we’re really part of this wonderful, wonderful world of nature. You know we’re not, it’s not nature and us, we are part of it. So when I had these experiences, and you know basically my whole life has just been finding excuses to be around animals. I’ve always felt like I could experience each one having a personality and having emotional complexity. I mean you know, you shared with me that you have cats and a Corgi. I mean, goodness, I’m sure you could tell me a million things about their personalities and what they’re like and you know what human you know that they’re most like, or who would play them in a movie or their particular moods and . . . my dog certainly has the most feelings of any being I’ve ever met. It’s a very emotively flex animal. So I just sometimes I feel like that’s something that gets overlooked. You know when we start caring. We see and experience the complexity of an animal then I think we can start caring more about them and be moved to, emotionally moved to help them.
KW: I really appreciate what you’re talking about because you meet animals. And you know, growing up in rural Appalachia, it was very much like you were part of this ecosystem and you had removed like the top dog as it were, like you were at the top of the food chain. And so you had to be respectful of the rest of the food chain as well—learning deer tracks and animal tracks and your impact on the environment was very much part of that.
So Autumn and I were talking about this book and a lot about how the end message, which I won’t talk about too much because of spoilers, and how it seemed to us that the story is a lot about those kind of relationships—animal/animal relationships, animal/human relationships and human/earth relationships. You know everyone has something to give and everyone has something to learn. So what advice do you think that S.T. would give to us about how to better relate to the world around us and and be really good citizens of the Earth that we’re on right now?
KJP: S.T. is a work in progress so I wonder if he would get distracted from that message and veer off on something else. But I think ultimately, you know perhaps not in the beginning of the novel, but later in the novel, I think S.T. would talk about certainly exactly what you were just saying, the interconnectedness of life and all of life and respecting what’s around us. And realizing too that one that even I think that once I read a
. . . there’s a good op-ed in The New York Times. It was about feeling this panic about what’s happening with the environment and you know the IPCC report you know where we stand to lose a million species and this . . . And I remember when that report came out I was really paralyzed. I felt very depressed and you know and the facts are so important but they’re not motivating necessarily. I think of that. Remember that Sarah McLaughlin, ASPCA I think it is, the commercial? It’s become kind of very iconic but it’s it’s hard, it’s hard to look at, and it’s hard to watch. So in writing this I was trying to find ways with some levity to shine a light on the issues. You know using humor to handle the idea of an apocalypse just to make us think you know from the safety of where we are now looking through fiction to imagine it and think about what we could be moved to do to help. And I think in terms of relating to the environment around us you know this op-ed was talking about the fact that she was saying that she’s doing good things for the birds in her yard.
You know she’s planted a pollinator yard and she’s doing this and all of this counts is what basically this op-ed is talking about. That even a small act is a step in the right direction.
I found that to be true for myself and I’ve started spending a lot of time with the birds in my yard and I encourage other people to do that. I have hummingbirds that I now hand feed and I have a couple of Juncos, I have Earl the squirrel who comes by, Stellar’s Jays, and the crows. And I’m watching these behaviors and when we start thinking of them as as family and caring about them and learning their behaviors, that sort of can be extended outward. Whereas it’s so hard to relate to the plight of a polar bear.
When we start caring about the environment and doing good things for the environment around us, that can sort of end up being you know extended out I think. But I think it can start at home and that might be something S.T. would be a proponent of, is being kind to the animals around and planting a pollinator yard something I cannot recommend highly enough. I now have several types of bees that come to the yard and the hummingbirds come. It’s been a real real treat to watch that flourish.