I Used to Be an Animal Lover – Conversation Rhys, Barbara & Mitchell – Part I

I Used to Be an Animal Lover is an anthology of short stories about animals edited by the Australian author D.A. Cairns who describes how he selected the stories for the collection:

 “The story had to be well written and engaging, but there was an X Factor component as well… I wanted different lengths, a variety of genres and styles, and a diverse collection of animals, and I got what I wanted. I’m proud of the book, which features both previously published and {first-time} published stories”

D.A. Cairns has worked hard on editing and publishing the book, but the collection is not only about that. The anthology has also created a community of writers who can now exchange ideas and even help one another. As the only Colombian in the group, I enjoy the privilege to interact with Australian writers, British and Canadians. As I read the book, I found myself asking questions, and that’s why I had the idea that some of the contributors could interview one another about their stories in the anthology. So here is the result of this effort that will be published in three parts.

Rhys Hughes interviews Barbara Reins

RH/ Your story is a humorous detective tale with unusual characterization, but despite the strangeness of the setting, it’s very much a serious crime fiction story. You clearly are able to capture the tone of noir-style writing. What is the history of your involvement with crime fiction?

BR/ I have no background in crime, never having committed one. (Okay, I soaped up a neighbor’s window one Halloween). The dastardly deeds I write about come from my nightmares. I write my night terrors to make the outcomes as I want, not as my subconscious dictates.

I’ve been attuned to dark side since childhood. My favored bedtime reads were fairytales. Not the happily-ever-after ones though. I gravitated to the macabre, stories like The Little Match Girl and The Red Shoes where the characters meet with untimely deaths. I loved those stories! I then became addicted to TV shows like Twilight Zone, Tales From the Crypt, Alfred Hitchcock Presents—strange stories completed in half hour time slots, ending with a twist. And that’s exactly how I write—short, odd and twisty.

RH/ What is the history of your involvement with humorous fantasy?

BR? My father loved to play with words. A local bakery, the L&L Bake Shop, became The Yell & Yell, which he then morphed again. So every Sunday my father and I would go to the Scream & Shout for fresh rye bread. My father’s legacy is my sense of humor.

Along with my weird short stories, I write humorous essays. I can’t call them personal essays. Though rooted in truth, they’re embellished for maximum laughs. Written during the pandemic when people were knocking each other over in the grocery aisles for that last package of bathroom tissue, “On A Roll: My Addiction to Toilet Paper” hit number one on Amazon’s short reads.

HR/ It is often said that an idea that works for a short story might not always work in a longer format such as a novel. Do you think that the quirky aspects that you have demonstrated in your tale would be possible at an epic length?

BR/ I am in awe of anyone who writes novels. Having been brainwashed by three-page fairytales and short TV shows, I think in soundbites. When I get an idea for a story, I immediately come up with a title and an ending. I just have to fill in the blanks. Kind of like MadLibs. (And wouldn’t it be great if writing was that easy!) I’m just not wired for a novel, a novella, or even a novelette. I’m happy with my shorts, although I usually wear capris.

HR/ Any sequels in the wings? If not, what are you working on at the moment?

BR/ It took me years to compile the assortment in my book, Tales from the Eerie Canal: 22 Stories of the Delightfully Dark and Creepy. “Swan Song at the Hotel Swank,” my story that appears in I Used To Be an Animal Lover, is just one from my book. It features a conniving and conceited dachshund who commits murder by toilet plunger. (Do you see a theme here? And did I mention I’m obsessed with the dachshund breed?)

It never occurred to me to publish until I moved to Florida from New York and was resoundingly encouraged to do so. Thank you, pushy people—the book was named 2021 “Best Book of the Year” by the Florida Writers Association. Now that I’ve gone and done the deed, I’m hooked. I’m working on another collection, Day Scares and Nightmares: 18 Stories in Search of a Spine to Tingle. I’m one third through and have no shortage of material—my nightmares keep me awake and writing. I also have a children’s book in me that’s throwing a tantrum to come out. One day I just might let it.

Barbara Reins interviews Mitchell Toews

BR/ What is your background that brings you to write about injustice? 

MT/ I was raised as a cultural (not religious) Mennonite in a predominantly (and profoundly religious!) Mennonite town on the Canadian prairies. Despite some well-known Mennonite pedigree in my ancestry, I was a square peg. This gave me an off-center perspective: I was OF my community; I loved and respected many of its members; I knew the town and the people well, but I lived my life within but apart. I sometimes witnessed or was the recipient of injustice that those more deeply embedded in the religion did not recognize or experience. In this way, shunning is the true topic of “I Am Otter.”

BR/ You have an eye for the details of nature—an artist’s eye. Are you a painter? A photographer? 

I am an artist by nature: drawing, painting, and graphic design. I declined the art path because it seemed so impossibly hard to make a living. As a young man, I was eager to marry, have kids, and build a life. Art did not seem like the best course for those objectives so I postponed the artistic side of life, as many do. I found employment—still not “easy” but a less resistant path—designing products and manufacturing them and later as a marketer and advertising professional. Painting with words. Today, I sometimes wonder if I made the right choice although an hour with my grandchildren eases all doubt.

BR/Your stories rely on the intricacies of introspection. Does that come easy for you? 

MT/ I rely on autofiction to create most of my stories. In this introspective process, I strive to “ambush” difficult or inflated personal memories by letting my characters take the story and reshape it. The story usually turns out in a different way than what exists in my memory. Of course, this is not “the characters” doing but rather the many deeply held, somewhat repressed thoughts I have on subjects of regret and joy. Fiction frees me to explore the story from a “what if…” angle and this is good for my mental and emotional state and often, good for the story.

About the authors

Rhys Hughes was born in Wales but has lived in many different countries and currently lives in India. He began writing at an early age and his first book, Worming the Harpy, was published in 1995. Since that time he has published more than fifty other books and his work has been translated into ten languages. He recently completed an ambitious project that involved writing exactly 1000 linked short stories. He is currently working on a novel and several new collections of prose and verse.
Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhys_Hughes
SFE: https://sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/hughes_rhys

Barbara Rein writes “horror-lite” short stories (goosebumps, not gore) reflecting a childhood addiction to macabre fairytales and endless episodes of Twilight Zone. Her book, Tales from the Eerie Canal: 22 Stories of the Delightfully Dark and Creepy, won the 2021 Royal Palm Literary Award for “Best Book of the Year.” She resides in Florida, USA, and is obsessed with dachshunds.

Mitchell Toews lives and writes lakeside in Manitoba. A frequent contributor to journals and anthologies, Mitch is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee whose debut collection of short stories, “Pinching Zwieback,” will be launched in October 2023 by Winnipeg’s At Bay Press. Find him online at mitchellaneous.com/ and www.facebook.com/mitch.toews/

Jhon Sánchez