Interview: Mary E. Lowd on Writing and Species as Allegories

Did you know that both National Dog Day and National Cat Day both occur in August? Before you think this is a weird way to start a post on the FWG blog, we promise the pieces to the puzzle will be arranged shortly.

Today we are sharing an interview with Mary E. Lowd who is not only a Furry Writers’ Guild member but has also recently had the novel “When a Cat Loves a Dog” published by Goal Publications. We sat down with Mary to discuss writing in general, her new book, and using species as allegories in stories. Enough with the introduction, let’s get to the interview!

FWG: For those that might not know you, please tell our readers a bit about yourself.

Mary: Hey, readers.  I’m a science-fiction and furry writer who lives in Oregon.  I grew up reading the Redwall books by Brian Jacques and watching Star Trek: The Next Generation — the combination of those pretty much established my aesthetic.  After college, I spent a period of time that felt like forever (but was apparently only seven years) trying to be a serious science-fiction writer whose stories centered on humans… and failing horribly, by way of writing Otters In Space. 

Then I discovered the furry fandom, joined the Furry Writers’ Guild, started writing for furry anthologies and furry publishers, and have somehow ended up a decade later editing my own furry fiction e-zine.

FWG: What do you think makes a good story?

Mary: For me?  Spaceships and talking animals.  Robots are also good, maybe some magic.  Seriously though, every reader will have a different answer, and those answers will vary depending on the day.  Right now, during a global pandemic, I’m probably more interested in escapist wish-fulfillment stories than hard-hitting incisive idea pieces.  And that’s okay.  Fiction fills many roles — some stories will change how you think about the world forever; other stories simply help you get through a hard day.

FWG: To say you are a prolific writer would be an understatement. You have won several awards (including our own Coyotl Awards), have over 150 published short stories, and even run your own e-zine. How do you manage balancing your life while maintaining so much writing output?

Mary: I… don’t.  I’ve been fighting with my husband about this very question a lot over the last month.  He’s incredibly supportive… but then, also… not.  Because come on, we live in a society that puts different pressures on women than on men, and even when he tries to do half of the work it ends up being a smaller half, and I can either pick up the slack or… let the house fill with trash and the children run wild.  So, looking forward to a year of, essentially, homeschooling due to the pandemic… well, I don’t know.  I’m exhausted, and every day, there’s another day tomorrow.  Somehow though, I’ll keep writing, because as far as I can tell, I became a writer because it soothes my intrinsic anxiety.

There was a time when I had to do my writing with a baby on my lap, a six-year-old next to me, and Blue’s Clues taking up half of my computer monitor.  So, I’ll manage somehow, but I don’t know how.  I do have a special cheat code though:  my mom is the most amazing, and she lives next door.  So, a great deal of the writing I get done is directly due to her support and willingness to watch my kids for big chunks of time.

FWG: We also have to ask, with so many published works, do you have any tips for our readers on how to get stories or books accepted by publishers?

Oh goodness, so much… But this question is really too broad, because the answer is entirely different for short stories vs. novels, and then again completely different depending on the type of novel publisher.  In every case, persistence is key.  Sadly, rejections are the cornerstone of most successful writing careers.  Get used to them.  Find ways to celebrate them.  The writing group I was in for a decade had everyone announce their rejections from the week at the beginning of every meeting and then be rewarded with chocolate. 

I like to think of my rejection total as an ever-growing high score.  Right now, it’s 1682, and that will likely be out of date by the time this interview is posted.  Because the rejections don’t stop; you don’t graduate out of them; you just learn to weather them and keep persisting.  And I promise, with practice, they do get easier.

FWG: So we have established you’re well published, but what is your favorite of all them that you have written?

Mary: This is always a hard question, because if I didn’t love a work enough to pour my time and energy into it, then I wouldn’t bother writing it.  However, I think I have to go with Nexus Nine.  When I was a kid watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Jadzia Dax was my favorite character.  She may still be my favorite character of all time. 

Anyway, my heart was broken when she died at the end of season six, but then when Ezri Dax showed up at the beginning of season seven, lost and confused by holding Jadzia Dax’s memories without actually being her… I can’t really explain the emotions I felt.  Her first scene is incredible.  She’s both Dax and not Dax, and I immediately loved her and felt for her plight, even while missing Jadzia and knowing they weren’t the same.

I wanted to write about that kind of character, and so I created Mazel Rheun, a calico cat with a computer chip in her head that carries the memories of dozens of previous individuals, most recently the dog who was her captain.  Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a big part of my heart and who I’ve become, and Nexus Nine is my love letter to it.

FWG: When a Cat Loves a Dog was recently published by Goal Publications. Can you tell us a little about the book?

Mary: When a Cat Loves a Dog originated with the character of Topher Brooke, a pug dog comedian who makes fun of cats ironically.  See, Stephen Colbert used to have this show called The Colbert Report where he presented the news while pretending to be a rightwing numbskull.  So, I was playing my standard game of “what kind of dog or cat would this person be?” and the idea for a story popped into my head about this pug dog comedian proposing to his cat girlfriend.  You can read the story, “A Real Stand-Up Guy,” on my personal archive site here:

When a Cat Loves a Dog follows Topher Brooke and Lashonda, the cat he proposed to, after they get married and decide to have a family.  In order to do their story justice, I had to read a bunch of books researching the history of in vitro fertilization and gene therapy which was completely fascinating.  I also read up about mixed-race adoption and sea steads. 

I don’t think I’ve ever researched another book more thoroughly.  Though there’s also a lot of personal touches lifted from my own life and experience of marriage.  The result is a novel that’s a mix between a tender love story between a cat and dog, an exploration of how their society reacts to their marriage, and some fun medical sci-fi.

FWG: In your previous stories in the Otters in Space trilogy, as well as more recently published works like When a Cat Loves a Dog, you use differing species as a lens to discuss a lot of real-world issues. What inspired you to do this?

Mary: Okay, so, literally, I had a dog who got really mad when cats were way up high.  Like if they were on the floor, they were friends; if they were on the top of a bookshelf, they were probably evil mountain lions planning to eat his sheep.  He was a Sheltie, so he was pretty sure he must have had some sheep somewhere.  When I wrote Otters In Space, focusing on a cat who was oppressed by a dog who wanted to outlaw cats traveling up the space elevator to the otter space station… that’s what I was writing about.  That’s it.

Yes, in the first few scenes, my tabby cat protagonist worries about how there’s no point in going to the cops, because they’re all dogs and won’t listen to her.  But… see, I was so sheltered, naive, and privileged that I thought I was writing about an interesting speculative concept.  I had no idea back then that the real world police were actually worse than the dogs in my book.  I was white and grew up watching Star Trek.  I thought sexism and racism were sad chapters in the past.  I’ve learned a lot over the last fifteen years.

FWG:  We’ve seen attempts to use species as allegories for race and racism in films like Zootopia in recent times. Do you think there are advantages to using animals for anthropomorphic characters instead of human characters to discuss these issues? Disadvantages? 

Mary: Using animal characters in place of humans is a little like someone in a sitcom telling a story about their “friend” who needs advice, when everyone knows they mean themself.  It gives you distance.  It gives you space.  It gives you plausible deniability.  But in the end, we know that stories we tell about animals are usually at a deeper level about ourselves.  Or even if they’re not — if say, it’s a story about a weird quirk of jellyfish biology that simply doesn’t apply to humans — then we’ll still find a way to make it about us anyway.  Humans are good at that.

There can be a sense of safety in using a funhouse mirror to look at yourself and see yourself reflected in a more comfortable, fuzzier way, before having to admit to yourself that, yes, that’s you.  But there’s also a danger that people will look at the twists and contortions of the mirror — for instance, intrinsic biological differences between predator and prey species — and try to map those features onto human differences in a way that magnifies them out of proportion.  This is why it’s sometimes important to strip those levels of obfuscation away.  There are some stories that need to be told straightforwardly with absolutely no misdirection, no space for misinterpretation, no way to wiggle out of what you’re seeing.

So, yes, there are both advantages and disadvantages for using furry characters; both furry and mainstream stories have their place, and both kinds of stories should be told with care.

FWG: Given the current political climate, and how this topic has recently been controversial in the mainstream writing space, has your approach to covering these kinds of topics shifted? Especially in a time where we are trying to center BIPOC voices in all areas.

Mary: My approach to thinking about the relationship between furry fiction and allegory began shifting years ago as I started becoming aware of how pervasive racism is in the United States and how much I’d been sold a lie back in the 90s about how sexism was over.  This was particularly driven home for me by two key aspects of writing Otters In Space 3.

The first two Otters In Space books were already published when I was writing the third, establishing certain facts as canon.  For instance, Emily the octopus chef on the otter spaceship talks in the first book about how octopuses die after laying their eggs — except her, making her an outcast.  In the third book, I wanted the characters to visit a big octopus city under the ocean, and I realized I was deeply uncomfortable with the idea of actually depicting the society implied by Emily’s speech. 

When I’d written the first book, I’d been fascinated by the real world fact that octopi die after laying their eggs, and I hadn’t been thinking about how I was essentially — in video game terms — making octopus women a largely unplayable race.  That made me really uneasy, so I needed a way to retcon what I’d already written.  I ended up settling on making Emily from a backwards cult, and so when Kipper (the tabby cat main character) gets to the octopus city, she’s surprised to discover octopi are generally fine after laying their eggs. 

When she expresses her surprise, the octopus woman guiding them through the city acknowledges that, yes, sadly there are still religious cults who expect women to die after laying eggs and thus enforce those expectations.  Similarly, Kipper discovers that there’s a lot about the world above sea level that she didn’t know, because the dogs printing the history books have a very particular, religiously skewed world view.  This is partly a retcon, but it partly simply reflects my experience of life.  I grew up thinking that sexism and racism were over, but as I experienced more of the world, I learned that what I’d been told was wrong.

The second key aspect of writing Otters In Space 3 that stopped me in my tracks was that I had outlined a plot arc for one of the cat characters that involved her driving around aimlessly to get her kittens to fall asleep, being pulled over by a police dog for no reason other than prejudice, and being wrongly arrested.  Between the time I outlined this plot arc and actually got to writing it… 

Look, I don’t know if it would be considered libelous under our complicated legal system to say that Sandra Bland was murdered by police, so…  I’ll just say that she was arrested in a way that was very similar to what I’d outlined.  And it hit me really hard that when you’re writing furry fiction, you will end up writing allegory, whether you plan to, intend to, or want to.  It’ll be there.  People will look at the animals in your stories, and they’ll see people.  The furry worlds that you create may or may not reflect your subconscious beliefs about race, gender identity, and sexual orientation, but it will look like they do. 

So be conscious about your choices.  Be aware of how your words will sound when seen through an allegorical light, because you can’t fully escape that light.  Stories about animals are, at their heart, stories about people, because they’re written and read by people.

FWG: When tackling difficult subjects like this, how important do you find sensitivity readers to be for your work, and how do you get them to check out your novels before publishing?

Mary: I haven’t actually used any sensitivity readers, but I’ve found it essential to seek out and read works — books, blog posts, tweet threads, etc. — by people who have lived experiences that I don’t.  There is absolutely no substitute for listening to other people and believing them about their own lives.

FWG: Any last words for our readers?

Mary:  Find the points of brightness in the world and hold on to them.  For me, that’s furry fiction — writing it, reading it, and right now, re-watching BoJack Horseman.  And if you can find the strength to make more points of brightness — believe that they mean something to someone else out there, even if you can’t see it.  Because we need more light.

We would like to thank Mary for sitting down to talk with us. Be sure to check out the e-zine she runs called Zooscape and to follow her on Twitter. We hope you found this interview informative and entertaining. Until next time, may your words flow like water.


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