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. http://theawarenessnovel.com/
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.