On Koalas, Dogs, and Writing: An Interview with Author Lee Barwood

I’ve interviewed a couple of authors now. Besides the fact that many base animal characters on their own pets, or that animals influence their writing as a career choice in some way, they all have something else in common too: a deep sense of reverence, tenderness, and love for their pets that only an animal can elicit.

Lee Barwood is no exception. And perhaps she sums it up best in her answer to my question about whether animals factor into her fiction writing. “I think we’ve gotten too far removed from animals in modern life,” she says. “and if we can understand them better, we can not only be kinder to them but also kinder to ourselves –-and wiser in general about the world as a whole.”

In an effort to conjure up that better understanding, she’s written a new book, Klassic Koalas: Ancient Aboriginal Tales in New Retellings. It’s set for release on May 1, 2007, and the royalties will help fund the Australian Wildlife Hospital. Ms. Barwood graciously answered questions about that and a few other things…

Courtney Mroch: In your newest book, Klassic Koalas: Ancient Aboriginal Tales in New Retellings, koalas feature prominently. So much so you are going to donate royalties to help fund the Australian Wildlife Hospital. Why this organization?

Lee Barwood: The publisher actually set this one up, but I’ve loved koalas all my life. She loves koalas, and wanted to help one of the Australian groups that helps koalas. After Steve Irwin’s death, this seemed like the perfect fit –-the hospital was founded in memory of Steve’s mother, and cares for koalas as well as other Australian wildlife.

CM: Some of us favor certain animals over others. I have a friend who’s nuts for pandas. Why koalas for you? What is it about them that captivates your heart?

LB: The koala was my earliest “teddy bear,” and is the creature who was there with me to bring comfort through all the traumas of childhood. Now that’s a little atypical for an American child, but it happened because my dad served in Australia during World War II.

While he was there, he “met” koalas –-had pictures taken of himself holding them (somewhere we used to have a photo of him with a koala clinging to each shoulder, and he was just grinning from ear to ear), and he sent toy koalas and books back to my older sisters. When I came along (I was a late arrival {grin}), I was fascinated by those koalas from the very beginning, and can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what they were and didn’t love them. One of my sisters gave me her koala when I was maybe a year old (probably because I wouldn’t leave it alone {smile}), and the rest is history. My dad even sent to Australia to get me my own koala, and I still have it –-although I still have my sister’s, too.

CM: What other animals feature in the book?

LB: All kinds of Australian animals, from kangaroos to marsupial mice, wallabies, lizards, wombats, and lots of the amazing birds of Australia. Even some creatures that may or may not have been real, like the Tasmanian tiger and the bunyip, but that are presences in Aboriginal lore. I tried to include as many as possible, since there are so many unique species that lots of people outside of Australia have never heard of.

CM: What led you to write this book?

LB: My publisher had wanted to do a book of Australian Aboriginal stories, again to help the koala, and we talked about it and I volunteered. It isn’t often that a writer gets a chance to volunteer to do a book she really wants to do, and I was thrilled to have the chance to do something for koalas.

CM: You also write fiction. Do animals factor in to that at all?

LB: Tons. I always seem to be writing about animals these days. One of my earliest stories with an animal was “The Skin and Knife Game,” coauthored with Canadian author Charles de Lint, which originally appeared in the fourth Liavek anthology. The small dog in the story was modeled after my Shih Tzu. I love dogs.

Then over the last several years I’ve had cat stories in two of Andre Norton’s Catfantastic anthologies (in the first one, I managed to work in a puppy); a horse story in Horsefantastic, and a mystery in Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine in December of 2005 that had to do with rescued horses, although the horses weren’t actually “on stage,” so to speak. I love horses. And dogs. And cats. And probably just about all animals. Did I mention that I love dogs? {grin}

But in a more specific answer to your question, I really do always seem to have prominent animal characters in what I’m working on. Currently I’m at work on not one, but two paranormal mysteries, unrelated, in which dogs are some of the main characters. And I have some other projects planned in which animals will be major players, including a story with a koala.

I think we’ve gotten too far removed from animals in modern life, and if we can understand them better, we can not only be kinder to them but also kinder to ourselves –-and wiser in general about the world as a whole. Animals have a lot to teach us, and we need to start learning again. I know that my dogs were some of my best and most patient teachers. (I’ve had seven dogs in my life, five at one time, but sadly, they’ve long since gone to the Rainbow Bridge –-one really sad thing about animals is that we have their company for such a short time.)

CM: I know you recently lost your dog companion of 17 years, Tribby. What kind of dog was she? Do you think you’ll keep her alive by crafting her into any of your fiction as a character?

Lee Barwood and Tribby, photo courtesy of Ms. Barwood and used with her permission

LB: Tribby was half-Pomeranian, half-Poodle. She was the smartest, funniest dog I think I’ve ever had, and she had a great sense of humor, too. And so full of joy! I will definitely be using her wonderful personality in future books. She would have appreciated that, I think; she always wanted to “help” with whatever I was doing.

Christmas Tribby! Photo courtesy of Ms. Barwood and used with her permission