Interview: Gene Stone, Co-Author of The Awareness

There are some people that know a little about everything and some who know a lot about a few things – but Gene Stone, co-author of The Awareness, defies the binary and knows a lot about most things. He’s published thirty-six books (many of them best-sellers), attended both Harvard and Stanford, and plunges into tackling societal dilemmas with gusto and artistry. Stone’s latest work, co-authored by Jon Doyle, illustrates a dramatic, dark and exciting quandary. But unlike George Orwell’s revolutionary farm animals, Margret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic vision of genetically-altered creatures, or Pierre Boulle’s apes, Stone and Doyle do much more than use the non-human world as a two-dimensional metaphor:

On a day like any other, all mammals suddenly gain human-level consciousness—and begin a systematic attack on humankind. Among the ranks of these animals are a bear in the Canadian Rockies, an elephant in a circus traveling through Texas, a pig on a hog farm in North Carolina, and a dog living with his beloved owner in New York. As these four contend with the realities of who they were before the awareness, and who they must now become after it, they are each called to battle. The animals must then fight two wars: the one outside between mammals and humans, and the one inside each of their minds.

I spoke with Gene about The Awareness. Here is our conversation:


Joshua Katcher: You’ve written many best-sellers. What led to The Awareness, and why did you choose to self-publish?
Gene Stone:
The Awareness is my 36th book, more or less. The others were all published by traditional publishers– many were New York Times bestsellers. But I couldn’t find a single agent willing to represent The Awareness although I tried n twenty-five of them. They all said basically the same thing: there’s no market for a novel about animals. And, one of them added, “Anyway, animals don’t talk.” Even coming out after the success of Forks Over Knives, which has 275,000 copies in print, they just didn’t see how a book that espouses the animal side of the equation could interest anyone. Meanwhile I knew that many authors had self-published with great success so I thought it was worth a try.

JK: While this is a work of fiction, The Awareness does have implications for our current society. What do you hope people consider while reading the book?
GS: The Awareness is a bit of a double-entendre. Ostensibly it’s about the “awareness” that all mammals get one day that gives them the same kind of consciousness as humans. But it’s also a hope that humans get awareness too–awareness of the plight of animals and just how poorly we treat them in this country. The book doesn’t have to be read as an activist’s book–I think it’s an adventure book as well. But if in the course of reading it, just one person changes his or her mind about animals, then it was all worthwhile.

JK: Many books about animals are quite two-dimensional and geared toward children, but The Awareness is quite chilling. In your opinion, what is the scariest thing about the book?
GS: These days books geared for the young adult audience are more than just chilling–they can be gruesome. My 18 year-old niece read it and said it was tame compared to The Hunger Games. (She also said that she had never thought about animals in this context before and added that she wanted to become a vegan–if I would give her some tips). But I suppose the idea that, if given awareness, even our dogs and cats would consider going to war against us is a pretty scary thought–although Cooper, the dog in the book, can’t make up his mind which side to fight for because he loves his human companion so much. And although there are some battle scenes, I’m way too soft-hearted to create any book where you have to read about cruelty to animals. So there really isn’t that much that would scare people off. I hope.

JK: Which character did you enjoy creating the most? What is your favorite thing they say or do?
GS: I wrote this book with my friend Jon Doyle and it was totally a joint effort. However, I would say that Nancy the elephant and Cooper the dog are a little more me, while the bear and the pig are maybe more Jon. I also worked more on Clio the cat, who is based on Minnie, my wildly intelligent and loving tortoiseshell rescue who was my wonderful friend for 18 years. I love the interaction between Cooper and Clio–those are the scenes I most enjoyed writing, I’ve always wondered what dogs and cats would say to each other if they had a chance to talk.
I think Jon’s favorite scene is the one in which 323, the pig, frees herself from the factory farm and ends up in the house of the farm’s owners. She sees the happy photos on the wall, the souvenirs of human lives, from births to marriages, and then imagines what it would have been like to have had the opportunity to raise her own family. Jon didn’t tell me much about what he was doing there, and when I read his first draft, I cried.


JK: Why is it important for you to tell this story?
GS: It’s vital that we all apply the Golden Rule not just to other people but to animals as well. Do onto every creature you come in contact with as you would do onto yourself. Humans have a way of thinking that somehow we need only be considerate to each other (not that everyone is, of course). Consideration to animals is, in my mind, the mark of a truly compassionate civilization. The hope is that readers of this book will come away with a greater sense of how animals might be feeling about the way we’ve been treating them–and how wonderful it would be if we changed the way we treat them.

JK: While writing this book, what did you learn about our relationship with animals that you may not have considered before?
GS: Jon and I spent some time researching the treatment of pigs at factory farms and we were horrified. We knew that they were treated abysmally, but actually watching videos and reading reports was sickening. Likewise, learning more about how elephants are treated at circuses was also repellant. It makes you admire organizations like Mercy for Animals that are willing to go undercover and expose the ongoing cruelty.

JK: What do you anticipate as criticisms of The Awareness, and how are you preparing to respond?
GS: I would assume that a lot of people won’t bother to read the book because they’ll assume it’s all pro-animal and anti-human. But that’s not the case at all. We were very careful to show that there’s good and bad everywhere–humans can be good, animals can be bad. One of the most heroic creatures in the book is a human. We are thinking of writing a sequel, in fact, which describes the war in more detail, but makes it clear that the sides begin to shift from human vs. animal to good mammals vs. bad ones. Also, some people might object that the book centers on mammals, and ignores the plight of birds, reptiles, etc. That wasn’t a philosophical distinction, it was just a matter of keeping the subject matter from becoming so broad we wouldn’t have been able to handle it.

JK: Some have compared your work to Planet of the Apes. Did this or anything else provide inspiration for your creative process?
GS: Several people have mentioned Planet of the Apes but actually more people have referenced Animal Farm (which, by the way, George Orwell could barely get published because, editors said, “there is no market for animal stories in the USA.” We’ve also heard a few comparisons to Watership Down. (Given the success of those books, we consider it quite a compliment.) But the biggest inspiration for these books was the work of all the tireless advocates for animal rights who we admire so much, and to whom we dedicate the book.

JK: The Awareness asks what if animals gained human-level consciousness? Some might argue that since they won’t, our treatment of animals is no dilemma. How would you respond to that?
GS: Consciousness isn’t the only reason to be compassionate toward other living creatures. And although it’s probably true, as you say, that animals’ minds aren’t like ours, perhaps their hearts are. Perhaps their souls are. Perhaps they’re more like us in many ways we don’t or can’t recognize. Regardless, the point is that being a kind person means being kind not just to your own kind.

JK: Do you foresee or hope for a future where humankind learns to communicate more effectively with the non-human world?
GS: That’s a great question and I think the answer is definitely yes. It seems that every week a new study comes out that shortens the distance between us and them. Just this week The Los Angeles Times published a piece showing that African elephants who hear human voices can distinguish from them the human’s sex, age, and even their ethnicity. Think how incredible that is for an animal that up until recently people thought of as simply a circus animal or a source of ivory. The more we learn about the non-human world, the more intelligent and human-like it seems. Or perhaps, the more we understand how mammal-like we humans are. One of the best books on the subject, Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, is already two decades old but even back in the early 1990s he was able to gather enough evidence to show how nearly all the traits we think of as just human are actually endemic to the rest of the living world. Compassion is one of those traits–but it seems to be in short supply in the human treatment of animals today.



Who are the beasts? A review of Kind

by D. R. Hildebrand

When I first opened Kind, the new anthology of poems by Gretchen Primack, I was no more than a dozen lines down the first page when I found myself sinking, slowly, into the chair behind me.

Peas snug in their sweet green
coats, tea snug in its thermos,
absolutely orange tomatoes. Mice
root and clack and fill
their little lungs, each eye bright
as a berry. It is easy to forget Hell
here, and that is what we talk about:
Hell, and forgetting it.

It’s called “Picnic” and before I finished it I had forgotten what I was doing just moments earlier and lost track of what I intended to do next. Line by line I drifted deeper into Primack’s world: gentle yet abrupt; focused yet aware; alarming yet kind. The words, like seamless figure skaters or synchronized swimmers, carry with them every bit as much artistry and elegance as they do purpose, calculation, and surprise. They float. They caress. And they unleash a sort of venom that simultaneously hurts and heals.

I relished you on my tongue, in my
teeth, pushing down my throat and then
churning warm, year after meal

after year. I loved you about to be
served, about to become me, rich
hell, and I’m sorry. You melted
your plush juice into my mouth

and that was my jaw working on
your body, working you into mine

To read, without pausing, without reflecting, is disturbingly difficult.

This is for their mama, who left them
the only way she would have: by

Poem after poem, Primack takes the reader through a series of unexpected, internal checkpoints. First, there is intrigue. Then, there is trust. Next, but only briefly, and too late, comes hesitation, followed by the immediate mixing of sadness and delight, and the confusion and embarrassment that accompany the unusual state of being enamored by a work of art that happens, also, to prod, jolt, and unhinge. At pace with the cadence and the placement of the poems the reader is forced to question not only humanity—in the greater sense of norms, customs, and steep moral codes—but also one’s own humanity, one’s own engagement—within this hell, this horror—and to ask, as Primack does, “Who are the beasts?”

Kind Cover

This is what I find most compelling about Kind. It isn’t complicated to answer these questions. The challenge lies in asking them, in inspiring audiences to ask the infuriating questions to which they already know the answers—yet will remain free to deny without the precursor of a question to anchor them—and Kind does precisely that: it inspires question after unavoidable question. Restrained and yet demanding, each poem calmly straps the reader down and waits. And waits. And continues, knowingly, to wait. “To make product from byproduct: / make use of the child, / kill and pack and truck him to plates.” By drawing out questions our contempt begins to build. This violence is insatiable? Does man never quit? Of course we’ve always known the answers. Finally asking the questions is what makes them real. In one haunting poem, “Factory Farm II,” Primack requires us to ask the hardest question of all: to what end? She conjures the scholarly work of Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka, in which he argues that violence begets violence, irrespective of the victimized species, and the result, as Primack presents it, is chilling.

We herd lambs into the chute
like Jews herded into
gas like cattle herded
into processing like Angolans
herded onto ships like pigs herded
into factories like Armenians
herded into marches
like calves herded into marches
like soldiers herded into
marches like pigs herded
like Cherokee herded
like cattle herded like Jews

In an unseeing society, when denial is en vogue and self-reflection shunned, Primack’s refined yet confrontational style shines like a daylong sunrise. Her words remain fixed on the horizon, neither rising nor falling but always alluring, reminding, and illuminating. I turn back to them for guidance. I turn back to them for understanding, for in their calmness there is clarity and in their resolve there is honesty, justice, compassion, and strength.

Review: Frankenstein’s Cat

by D. R. Hildebrand

Earlier this month I read a new book by science writer Emily Anthes called Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts.  The book, which appears to have garnered considerable praise, covers topics I’ve rarely considered and in some cases didn’t know existed, including the cloning, tracking, roboticizing, and genetically modifying of nonhuman animals, often in ways that are ethically suspect and that consistently beg the same elementary questions: Why are we doing this?  For whose benefit?  Can we be so hypocritical?  We call this science?

Ms. Anthes, who gave an interview last week on PBS NewsHour, in a tone far more somber and concerned than the one in which she wrote the book, is not exactly dismissive of these questions but rather unaware of them.  It is this fundamental difference—that my gut reactions aren’t even on her radar—that left me struggling to embrace, or even understand, her intentions.

Frankenstein's Cat

From the outset, Ms. Anthes appears determined to ease our innate discomfort with the concept of genetically modifying animals.  In chapter one, which looks at various sorts of transgenic fish, such as GloFish—actual fish that have been fixed fluorescent—and genetically modified salmon, the author comes as close as possible to equating our history of breeding to this latest pastime, genetic manipulation, ignoring a minimum of three critical facts: one, breeding, like modifying, is wrong, and two wrongs don’t make a right; two, breeding at least is reproductive, not mutant; and three, not in a million years would a jellyfish voluntarily mate with a worm, a rat, or a rabbit, the varying results of which scientists are envisioning.

Apparently, Ms. Anthes is not satisfied.  “We can have perfume, granola, and Nikes customized to our individual specifications,” she writes.  “Why not design our own pets?”  Oh I don’t know, maybe because each of these is an inanimate man-made object lacking a central nervous system whereas the creatures in discussion are alive, sentient, feeling, breathing, self-reliant individuals.  The author, however, is more interested in “animals that appeal to our aesthetic sensibilities” and in genetic altering that “shaves a year and a half off the time between when a salmon hatches and when it’s ready to garnish your bagel.”

Excuse me while I vomit.

She details the lengthy process of engineering goats built to produce milk with extra lysozyme, an enzyme that already occurs naturally in human milk.  She writes about both the successful and the nightmarish attempts at cloning sheep, cats, and dogs, and about what she calls the media’s “apocalyptic fanaticizing” of such experiments.  She highlights the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species, a noble-sounding initiative that does nothing to take into account why these animals have all died in the first place, or what would happen if the Jurassic Park scenario they’re gradually forming actually occurs.  She discusses tracking, a process by which scientists capture and cut open animals, insert satellite transmitters into their bodies, and then return them to their environment so that we can feed some useless quest for endless data all while ignoring little things like emotion and existence.  She absolutely marvels at prosthetics, at how “lucky” the dolphins are who get their tails mangled in crab traps and all the horses who have been raced into leg replacements.  “There has never been a better time for an animal to lose a body part.”  And of course she writes about everyone’s favorite: remote-controlled animal-machine hybrids.

Mutant and Genetically Modified Animals

Part of my irritation with this book has nothing to do with the author’s numerous interjections and moments of ignorance.  (“In all my years chowing down on spicy tuna rolls, I had never—not once—stopped to consider the animal on my plate.”)  It has to do with the content, the facts, these asinine things that “scientists” are “discovering.”  But it is amplified because the author does not just list the senseless realities and leave them for us to evaluate, but she defends them.  She defends them to such an extent that at one point in the margin I wrote, “Is someone paying this woman?”

Far too many glaring points are either downplayed or ignored.  Ms. Anthes ventures, unwisely, into ethical issues without genuinely examining them.  She never questions the monetary motives of the industries at work, whether it is entertainment, biotechnology, breeding, research, or food, but views them almost universally as altruistic, striving entirely for good.  She never addresses the colossal hypocrisies of any of the practices mentioned, or of the public’s general responses, including the author’s own appetite for animals and her history of buying pets from breeders—even as she writes about “improving their lives.”  She hardly even notes the most basic aspect involved here: autonomy!  What is this eagerness we exhibit to intrude on another being’s life?  What is this desire to quantify, to control, to immortalize every individual, and why do we insist it is good?  She asks none of the obvious questions.  The writing is littered with aloofness.

What perplexes me more than anything conveyed here is the lengths to which we go to obliterate certain billions of animals while doing everything in our power to save or even comfort just one.  We dedicate so much time and so much money to making things exactly the way we want them even when what we want is utterly incongruous and inexplicable.  We aim to catch and kill crabs yet a single dolphin injured as a bystander generates years of research, overwhelming sympathy, and not a moment of reflection.  We are experts at destroying cows but a single cat we will clone for tens of thousands of dollars, then watch while other cats suffer as experimental surrogates.

Near the end of the book Ms. Anthes contemplates the “troubled middle.”  The term was coined by the philosopher and bioethicist Strachan Donnelly and it refers to “a place where it’s possible to truly love animals and still accept their occasional role as resources, objects, and tools.”  I see two flaws here.  First, there is nothing “occasional” about 100 million animals writhing in labs, ten billion more killed annually for their flesh.  This is systematic.  It is constant.  And it is vile.  The second flaw is even sadder, though, and even greater than the first.  This thing we call love: it unequivocally is not.

Day in the Life, MLB Grub, Rip Returns & Make You Beg

• Have you guys checked out the incredible athlete video-series by The Discerning Brute contributor and RD Matt Ruscigno called Day in the Life? If not, sit back and prepare to get inspired and charged. Here’s episode 5 featuring ultramarathoner Donovan Jenkins:

• There is a comprehensive new resource for Major League Baseball fans who are looking to get their grub on. The Venue Vegetarian Guide on lists all MLB teams and what their stadiums offer, from veggie dogs and black bean burgers to salads, guacamole and corn on the cob. Also check out Peta’s top-10 veg friendly ballparks!

• Powerhouse authors Rory Freedman  (Skinny Bitch, Skinny Bastard) and Texas firefighter, Rip Esselstyn (Engine 2 Diet) have some new must-read books out. Beg is a battle-cry with a cover to drool over (yes we’re judging) that jujitsu’s the fascination and love we already have for our best-friend cats and dogs to help all animals. My Beef With Meat is an essential read to give to your dad, your brother – and even that obnoxious uncle who’s always poking fun at your kale chips. There’s a firefighter on the cover, ok? Who’s gonna argue with that?
My Beef with Meat 

Art & Animals: An Interview with Giovanni Aloi

-2In Giovanni Aloi’s groundbreaking book, Art & Animals, the reader is asked to look critically at the way in which animals – living, dead or in representation, have been and are increasingly used in contemporary art. Dealing with identity, “otherness” and down the roots of civilization itself, the book is insightful, inspiring and yet very worrying for anyone involved in the creative industries, or anyone who is concerned and fascinated by animals and the environment. Aloi’s honed analysis is informed by almost seven years of experience as Founder and Editor in Chief of Antennae, the Journal of Nature in Visual Culture. Giovanni and I spoke via email:


JOSHUA KATCHER: We deal a lot with masculinity on The Discerning Brute, mainly from a critical perspective regarding the illusion that exploiting animals is a reflection of strength and virility. In your book you refer to natural history dioramas as “a violent subjugation of nature, a typically masculine endeavor, manifestation of the deep desire to possess and control nature, arresting life in a three-dimensional photographic capture designed to educate and inspire while also demonstrating human supremacy over nature”.  Where else do you see conventions of patriarchy being sought out in the art world regarding our use of animals? In your book, Zang Huan’s muscle/meat suit seems to have avoided a machismo interpretation.

GIOVANNI ALOI: This is a very interesting question. That quote from my book is substantially informed by the writing of Donna Haraway, her famous essay on taxidermy titled ‘Teddy Bear Patriarchy’, and was needed within the main context in order to reflect the current predominantly negative, cultural approach to taxidermy. I still believe that statement to be very much true when considered with regards to the golden age of taxidermy (late Victorian period) which led to the expansion of natural history collections around the world. The synergic conflation of gun, camera, gaze and the desire to possess involved in taxidermy of the golden age predominantly was the resultant of traditionally masculine perceptions and attitudes towards the wider world, not just animals. As aptly pointed out by Hogart in the famous series of engravings titled The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751), what we do to animals, we are likely to do to other humans…in a literal or metaphorical sense, I would add.

Since the writing of the book I have been further developing my views on taxidermy (a project that will be published next) and most especially on its ambiguous presence in contemporary art. The current revival of taxidermy is a much more complex phenomenon that some claim. In my opinion it has less to do with a sense of guilt for colonialism, a reparational practice, and much more to do with where we are right now, culturally and historically. Read more…