How did you become a writer?
For my first two decades in academia, I wrote journal articles and books based on my research with monkeys and apes. I did then as I do now: read widely and voraciously, particularly science intended for a wide audience and literary fiction. Gradually, I experienced an awakening of sorts about my own work, and craved to write in a more engaging, less-jargon-ridden style. One day I submitted “cold” a book-review essay to Jessa Crispin’s wonderful Bookslut, and started writing for Jessa regularly, then soon for the Times Literary Supplement too, about the books I loved (or once in a while, didn’t love). It all snowballed from there. Lining up my books on a shelf, I can arrange them now from more to less technical, from an evident distance from animals’ lives to an explicit thrilling to animals’ ways of being, thinking, and feeling: that pleases me. When I joined the small team at National Public Radio’s 13.7 Cosmos & Culture blog six years ago, I learned something also about how to write a snappy 900 words a week, 50 weeks a year, and make those words count. Then, in a marvelous series of ever-more-exciting moments in 2015, I took the plunge and left academia altogether. Now I’m a full-time freelance writer.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Jane Goodall’s refusal to buy into the academic insistence that animals must be reduced to statistics, and her insistence on describing individual chimpanzees’ behavior with both love and scientific rigor, made a great impression on me early on. Writers who illuminate the natural world like Goodall, Bernd Heinrich, Brandon Keim, Sy Montgomery, and Carl Safina educate and delight me. I’m extraordinarily drawn also to reading memoirs in the grief genre, and what I suppose could be called the dying genre, maybe because I’ve spent many hours researching and writing about grief and mourning in nonhuman animals. These memoirs— Beyond the High Blue Air by Lu Spinney, The Iceberg by Marian Coutts, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates, The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke, The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs—are devastating at times but even more, they burn with resilience, with love and life. In science fiction, fierce books like Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Mars Trilogy coax me to try, just try, to think big.
When and where do you write?
On the walls of my study are photographs of wild bison, and on the study’s bed there usually can be found a cat or two, and it is there that I write. Even when I had a campus office, I’ve always written best at home. Energizing conversations with my husband, bouts of exercise, and chocolate breaks fuel the process. I read every day, but I try to take weekends off from writing (during which, of course, the writing carries on in my brain anyway).
What are you working on now?
I’m just venturing again into the wild unkempt territory where I corral first thoughts towards a new book about animals. At the same time, it’s great fun to write “spin off” essays about the lives of pigs, chickens, cows, octopuses and other farmed animals: my Personalities on the Plate has only been out since the spring, so I’m still riding that wave. Writing both short- and long-form at more or less the same time is the optimal mix for me, plus those weekly adrenaline shots of 900 words.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not really. I’ve suffered from producing some quite bad writing that I couldn’t figure out for a while how to fix! But I always just write, then clean up by revising as many times as I need to (and often beyond that, thanks to the superb editors with whom I work). It’s like being out for a walk in nature, where I’m sometimes not completely sure I’m on the right path: I always just keep moving.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Read aloud works-in-progress, or parts of them. I do this in full for my shorter pieces, with an audience of my husband or a cat, and never fail to amaze at how my ears hear when my eyes don’t see. I can’t always do this for long pieces or book chapters, but even in that case, I’ll select the thorniest bits to read aloud.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Connect on Twitter! Twitter has a bad rap as the black hole where civility goes to die, but that’s not been my experience. I connect with writers, scientists, artists, and animal people: overlapping categories to be sure. My goal (@bjkingape) is to be a generous presence there, sharing others’ work, and at the same time, not caving in to the view that to share one’s own work is “self-promotion.” What a term! It codes for “excessively self-focused,” and it took me some work to break its spell. We write to be read, after all. Done well, Twitter offers a community in balance, sharing what each of us loves most.
Barbara J. King is emerita professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and a full-time freelance science writer. Her latest book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives & Minds of Animals We Eat (2017). Her book How Animals Grieve (2013) has been translated into Japanese, Portuguese, French (winning a book prize), and Hebrew. She writes regularly for National Public Radio's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog and for the Times Literary Supplement, and has been published in Scientific American, Aeon Magazine, The Atlantic, Undark Magazine, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Barbara is active on Twitter @bjkingape, and her website is www.barbarajking.com.
How did you become a writer?