WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) -
As well as the video interview I conducted a more traditional Ask the Artist interview with R.A. Conroy – Information, Insight and Inspiration.
Shelter will be available in traditional print form as well as an e-book on October 29, order your copy now by linking to Ms. Conroy’s author page at R.A. Conroy Author Page
QUESTION # 1: Shelter feels to me, a highly original work. It has elements of fairytale, thriller, mystery, even documentary - yet it seems to mix these genres seamlessly. Can you talk a bit about cross-genres, or if you even feel this is an accurate description.
RA CONROY: Thank you so much! It’s funny you should mention it, because every one of my readers has mentioned all of these elements as part of why they love SHELTER.
I am truly honored that SHELTER is considered to be a double ‘cross-over’ book: the cross-genre and the cross-over in demographics. SHELTER appeals to readers of multiple genres: animal lovers, mystery lovers, readers of historical drama, those who crave gritty realism, character-driven stories, stories that embrace the human comedy, romance lovers, happy-ending story books, even those looking for a self-help book!
The publishers have told me SHELTER is also a cross over book in age, race and gender demographics. The heroine is a runaway teen, there is a charming warden, a young vet, African American characters, feisty senior characters, Irish, English, and the poor and wealthy play important roles in the story, too. Of course the story is brimming with animals.
I’m embarrassed to say that I never once think of genres or when creating anything, let alone when I wrote SHELTER. I know that’s counter to every marketing course and rule book on the shelf. But, I’m simply not a schooled writer in the academic sense. I began writing and drawing when I was three years old…scribbling down the whispers and ideas pouring into me from who knows where, until coalescing into a story and a message that expands inside with such an urgency that I simply have to express and purge it, or I’ll explode.
I see you reaching for the panic button and straight jacket there. Wait a second, you’re a playwright, you understand!
The most important aspect of this cross-genre phenomenon of SHELTER is that the story’s message will reach that many more diverse corners of our society.. It’s why I wrote SHELTER.
QUESTION # 2: As well the book is laugh out loud funny and heart wrenchingly sad...it has a richness and complexity that seems to mimic real life. Why was that important to you?
RA CONROY: Well, the story mimics real life because it was and is based on real life. This is important to me because there are so many hurting souls who think they’re all alone in this human dramedy we call life. They’re not. Although each of us has to make our own way through the maze, it’s important to hear this over and over again, especially for those feeling hurt, lost, confused and scared. Others are walking the same path, right now, all around us, just as thousands have walked it before us, and as countless will follow in our footsteps.
Seeing ourselves reflected through the story in someone else’s eyes, helps us remember, or perhaps realize for the first time, that we are all more alike than we are different. We all juggle foibles, quirks, fears, frustrations, sorrows, foolishness - and carry around the same hopes and dreams in our hearts for belonging, acceptance and love. All 31 flavors. My favorite is orange cream, but I digress...ultimately, sharing this mirror of life is a crucial element of my work because I know first hand how, when one realizes that they are not alone on this crazy merry-go-round, it can offer priceless comfort, guidance, and at its best inspire courage...and change.
QUESTION # 3: The book tackles very difficult subjects, including abuse-perpetrated on both humans and animals. The damage of abuse never leaves, and for the victims it seems a life long struggle to just keep their heads above water. Why was writing about abuse so important to you and how did the experience of writing about it, change or affect you?
RA CONROY: Writing about the subject of abuse was as important to me as it was difficult, on numerous levels. First, you’re right, the damage done, the emotional scars, never fully disappear. We learn first to hide them and if we survive beyond the inevitable self-loathing, we must learn how to cope with the ever constant re-scabbing over of wounds we reopen ourselves, ad nauseum, until we accept & forgive ourselves and realize that none of it was our fault. That’s the moment when we halt the festering within...and with help, can rise above it to create a life beyond what I consider to be the limiting, ill defining label of “survivor”.
Writing about abuse can be a kind of therapy; one’s adult self counseling the frightened, hurting child that we were and in some respects, will always be. But by re-parenting ourselves, procuring professional counseling we can learn that...like the color of our eyes, hair or skin, these scars do not define who we are...nor do they limit who we can become.
But, it can also be tricky, tackling so personal and loaded subject. How honest can we be about ourselves when peeling back the layers of the onion...how clear can our eyes be through the veil of angry, stinging tears...how are we to protect ourselves from further hurt and abuse when stepping into the public eye and revealing the scars for all to see? How are we to translate a very personal story into an intelligent, relatable tale that will supersede our own selfish need for revenge and justice, a story that will live on, grow and inspire social outcry demanding change?
Writing SHELTER was more than just a cathartic purge. At the time I began jotting down notes and writing stories while still working at the animal shelter, I had not the faintest inkling that it was going to be this kind of story. My first draft was AWFUL! Worse than the most boring diary, from the most boring, self-righteous, pontificating clueless person you’d never want to meet even if on a desert island with only a deflated soccer ball to talk to!
Like many who’ve experienced trauma, I moved through life unconscious, numb. It wasn’t until that relentless expanding story and message that I described earlier, busted open the cellar door, tracked me down to my hiding place and hounded me so relentlessly, did I begin to unravel first, why I needed to write this story.
Two years of Jungian therapy and twenty pounds later, thank you dark-chocolate M&Ms, I was ready to swan dive into the writing. Rather than just a treatise for change in animal shelters, it became the symbol of something much bigger. I wrote it for all the unheard voices, both animal and human, who were, are and may be cowering in “the cellar” somewhere. I wrote SHELTER to root out a truth that our society still cannot bear to look at and address. In every single case, bar none, animal abuse can be traced back to child abuse.
The third reason I wrote SHELTER was as a testament to hope. I am living proof that, no matter the trauma, tragedy, loss and sorrow one may have faced in life, we can unlock the shackles around our ankles and our hearts, unlock the cellar door, climb the stairs up out of the darkness, into the light and become the person we were meant to be.
QUESTION # 4: Although the book, or rather the story in the book, isn’t autobiographical, there are autobiographical elements in it. Can you talk about working in an animal shelter in New Jersey and the challenges involved as well as the inspiration it provided?
RA CONROY: SHELTER is based on the time I spent working in an urban animal shelter in New Jersey, and although Peggy’s story, and that of the other characters isn’t a literal, autobiographical account of that time, it is based on real people, animals, places and events.
Each one of the characters is an amalgam of at least three different people I know or have known. The protagonist, runaway teen Peggy Dillan, is influenced by my own personality and childhood trauma, of course, however, the details of her homeless background is based on two very close friends who fled serious childhood abuse. Living on the streets for years, yet they both grew up to be very successful - and one of the two is a guy!
In SHELTER I draw on the first half of my life that was spent in animal welfare. I wanted to be a wildlife veterinarian. So I worked in a pet shop, as a guide, public lecturer and keeper in two AZA accredited zoos, as a nurse for two animal hospitals and an AAHA emergency veterinary clinic, a groom and trainer for a standard bred mare at the Meadowlands Race Track, as well as rehabbing orphan wildlife.
But, it was the day I walked into that struggling animal shelter that turned my perception of animal welfare upside down. Hired on the spot as a warden and Officer of The Court, I helped to manage the privately run, municipal shelter. It was the 1970s under an already 150 year old, fractured SPCA system in New Jersey. The parallels between the trashed economy, social unrest and political upheaval of those times, events and culture mirror todays' headlines in ways that even startle me.
The realities of animal welfare back then were overwhelming and shocking. Every day, I witnessed the absolute worst that humanity is capable of...and I also witnessed the absolute best of humanity, too. I began writing and sketching about my experiences from day one, just as a way to cope. Although people are more aware of animal welfare issues today, even though we have made tremendous strides in legal and humane advocacy for animals, the challenges and issues that plagued animal and child welfare back then, remain constant to this day.
QUESTION # 5: Your original illustrations are detailed and fabulous and such a great surprise in a lengthy book of fiction. They enhance the story telling so brilliantly and effectively. As a former filmmaker and illustrator for feature animated film, you obviously appreciate visual story telling. How did your love of visual storytelling and previous experience inform the writing of the novel, not just specifically with the illustrations, but thematically, structurally?
RA CONROY: Thank you again for your kind words. They mean a great deal to me, because I’m also an unschooled artist. My love affair with both art and animals began the day my father took me to see the Disney film Bambi, when I was three years old. That film set the course to my life, indelibly imprinting on my soul the marriage of words, art, music and film as one of the most powerful vehicles for story telling.
People often comment that reading SHELTER is like being thrust into a movie. It’s the best of compliments, because I intended that the reader experience this world viscerally, like I did, like the crew did, like the animals and all unsung heroes of animal welfare do every day.
So, I knew early on I wanted illustrations, because images capture characters, emotions and moments in time more powerfully than words. My time as both a filmmaker and a story artist in animation helped immensely in this regard, as we’re trained to tell a story visually.
The very first sketch I jotted down was the cover image, even before the story was half-written. The sketch was born when I was still working at the shelter, while turning my notes into stories. The second illustration of Peggy vaulting up the subway stairs into the light, escaping her past, came to me much later as I re-read my second draft. The moment I visualized it, before I’d even scribbled it down on paper as a rough sketch, I knew what the last image in the story had to be; the cellar door open just a crack, the padlock hanging open. Those two images informed me where Peggy’s story really began, where it needed to go and how it had to end, It also meant that I needed to go back into the novel to rewrite major passages.
Two movies that I made, filmed on location at the shelter had a lot to do with how I rewrote the story of SHELTER. One of the films was a short documentary on the plight of unwanted animals in urban metropolitan areas. The second was a half hour film called SHELTER, a work of fiction, based on an event I’d written about at the time, shot in documentary style for a gritty, raw feel of reality. The films also influenced how I approached the illustrations, in keeping with that realistic point of view.
The execution of the drawings is always the most difficult, frustrating and confidence shattering part of the process for me. Readers see the finished illustrations, but not me pulling my hair out at midnight, unable to capture on paper what I so smugly thought was genius in my mind’s eye just days before. Every sketch begins the same way, too...with my absolute certainty that I cannot draw to save my life. Illustrations are redrawn over and over until it begins to resemble the image in my head - or until the publisher yanks the pen out of my hand.
This is a humble reminder that it’s all 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration start to finish!
QUESTION # 6: The book has gained quite a following, and many of the readers have taken different things away from the book. It’s emotional complexity yet fairytale feel packs a wallop. What has been the most common response or popular reaction you have had to the book?
RA CONROY: Everyone who has read SHELTER has said that they couldn’t put it down, many readers admitting to binge-reading it, and all have commented that they didn’t want the story to end, hoping that there would be a sequel.
Many people sent me emails or letters telling me that they sat and sobbed at the end, not out of sadness, because it’s a bittersweet happy ending, but because it touched a part of them they hadn’t ever acknowledged.
One of the most meaningful comments came from a stranger at an event I attended at a table with copies of my books. A woman came up and said she wanted to let me know how much she loved SHELTER. So much so, she gave it to her best friend, an animal lover, to read. Her best friend loved it so much she gave it to her neighbor to read. Her neighbor loved it so much, she gave it to her twenty year old daughter to read. The twenty year old daughter loved it so much, she volunteered that entire summer at an animal shelter.
This is why I wrote SHELTER - Lost and Found.
QUESTION # 7: Has anyone read it and gleaned something so different from your conscious intention that you had to sit up and take notice?
RA CONROY: Yes. On a cross-country train, I met the steward of a wildlife sanctuary in Wisconsin. I’d given him a copy of SHELTER as a thank you for his work in saving habitat for wildlife by converting his family lands into a wildlife refuge.
A month later, I received a review of SHELTER from him, along with a thank you note. He compared SHELTER to “To Kill a Mockingbird” by the late Harper Lee, citing SHELTER’s compelling characters, the social, moral and legal issues concerning abuse, drawing a comparison between society’s historical treatment of race relations with its continued mistreatment of animals. He closed by saying that “SHELTER will open your eyes and heart.”
I am humbled and deeply honored to have SHELTER raised to such a level of comparison.
QUESTION # 8: What is the future for the book?
RA CONROY: I’m hoping it’s a long and influential one! Two publishers, including countless readers have told me that they can see it as a TV series and a feature film. I’ve always imagined it that way...from the moment I began jotting down my notes in the shelter, wanting to somehow get the message out to the world, then later winding up filming the documentary and short film there eight years later while in film school, then later still, publishing the novel...what an uncanny “coming full circle” bookend that would be, a TV series and feature film, wouldn’t it?
QUESTION # 10: Is there a sequel or prequel or any other story involving SHELTER or Peggy in the works?
RA CONROY: Yes! My readers will be very happy to know that I’m working on the sequel that they have been asking me for, with plans for two more books in its wake, continuing the adventures of our heroes at the SHELTER!