Sy Montgomery’s books crack open the interior lives of animals and provoke readers to look at their world from a new perspective, whether it’s The Good, Good Pig, a loving tribute to her pet pig Christopher Harwood, or The Soul of an Octopus, where she immersed herself into the world of octopi to explore their emotional intelligence. With her latest book, How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, she turns that remarkable focus onto herself. In wide-ranging essays marked by her matter-of-fact candor, she examines her relationship with thirteen very different animals and the myriad lessons they taught her. Publishers Weekly praised the book, stating, “Montgomery’s lyrical storytelling and resonant lessons on how animals can enhance our humanity result in a tender, intelligent literary memoir,” while Nick Jans raved that it “stands as a vivid reminder of the deep and necessary connection we share with all living things.” Brendan Dowling talked to Montgomery via telephone on September 26th, 2018. Photo credit: Nic Bishop.
You’ve spent your entire career writing about animals and different species of life, what was it like to focus on yourself?
It was icky. (laughs) Focusing on yourself is always unappealing. You don’t want to be self-absorbed. Compared to the life of an animal, my life is pretty boring. This book, as you probably know from reading the acknowledgements, was not my idea. It was the idea of one of the editors at Houghton-Mifflin. I never would have said, “Oh let me write a memoir.” The last time I wrote anything like a memoir was The Good, Good Pig, and that started out as a tribute to Christopher Hogwood, my pig, whose life was so great I could not let it pass without writing a book. I didn’t want to put a bunch of stuff in there about me. But for The Good, Good Pig, my editor said, “You’ve got to put stuff in about you.” I came to understand why that was true by viewing my life as the setting for the jewel that was Christopher. So I view this book in that way as well. This book is my personal thank you to these thirteen individuals who have given me so much. In order to thank them, I have to state what they did for me. Just what they do on their own is so valuable and important. Each animal’s life, whether I wrote about it or not, whether they even touched the life of a human or not, has great value. But I can say thank you to these animals for what they did for my life. Being a long lived animal myself, I carry forward the imprint of their grace.
Grace is such a beautiful way to describe it, because you see each of these animals exhibiting that quality in different ways. A big theme that runs through the book is, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Why was that saying so appropriate to talking about your relationship animals?
Well, because I recognize that teachers aren’t just in front of a classroom and they’re not just people. They don’t always have two legs. They can have four or six or eight or none. I’ve found in my life that some of my greatest teachers were animals. Some of my teachers were humans, but not humans that people would normally understand as a teacher. I learned in some of my earlier books that there was great wisdom from animals and from people whose knowledge, in the past, had been overlooked by the kinds of people who write books. People who live close to the earth, often their excellent natural history observations and wisdom is dismissed as silly superstition, but in fact is really valuable knowledge and really deep wisdom that often gets overlooked. and the same is true of animals.
The other thing is when you travel around the world and doing something as solitary-ish as writing a book, you often start out feeling alone and bewildered, and you wish you had a teacher, a mentor, or an inspiration there to guide you. Then you look up and there it is. That was something I really wanted to share with my readers, because it’s a huge comfort and it’s enormously exciting.
There must be a long list of other animals in your life who weren’t able to make it in the book.
It’s true! I feel kind of bad not mentioning some of these other animals, but the ones I chose, I chose in that they would tell the story most vividly to the readers of this book. Some of these animals I’ve written about elsewhere, but what those animals gave to me was so profound I could not fail to include them in this book. As I started to look back at my life, learning to negotiate the kinds of things that we all have to negotiate—finding your destiny, making a family, negotiating loss or disappointment, picking up when it seems that all is lost, the kinds of things that I knew that readers would be facing as well—I chose these stories because they just hit the nail right on the head. Some of the other animals may have told another story that wasn’t as succinct or wasn’t as obvious. I just tell these other stories because I thought they had the most relevance to the people who would be reading the book.
The thing that gave me the courage to go ahead and write this book, even though it’s personal and I don’t like to talk about my childhood even with my friends, was not only my affection for these animals but also my affection for the readers. There are so many kindred spirits out there. I don’t even have to meet them to know them enough to want to give them a present, and that present is to let them know that teachers are out there for them too.
You write in the book that you realized early in your career, you’d have to write not only with your mind, but also with your heart. Why was it so important for you to make that distinction?
When I graduated from college I worked on a newspaper and within a year I became a science, health, and environment writer. I knew that scientists, like journalists, were supposed to be objective. The way that we were taught about journalism and science is that you’re not supposed to put your feelings into stuff. I found that wasn’t true—at least it wasn’t true for me as a writer and for many scientists it’s not true either. That doesn’t mean they fake their results to come out to say what they wish were the case. But thinking about Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey, and Brudja Galdikoff—the three ape ladies who went into the field and transformed ethology forever—these three women fell deeply in love with their study subjects at a time when you weren’t supposed to. Jane’s first articles were rejected by scientific journals because she named her study animals instead of numbering them. With the emus, I found I enjoyed doing the science, it was intellectually interesting, but the most profound insight I got out of those six months with those three birds doing real science in the field was finding out how deeply I had fallen in love with them and how that love is a way towards understanding.
When you’ve fallen in love with these animals, how do you capture their interior lives, without, as you write in the book, resorting to anthropomorphism?
Well so much of even what people are feeling is not stuff that they say but stuff we can see. We show our feelings by what we do, right? Somebody can say, “I’m the greatest president that’s ever lived,” but let’s take a look at what actually happened. (laughs) It’s important to look at what they do. With animals, until we decode their actual languages, we have to look at what they do, and that’s how you can tell how they feel. Sometimes it’s just a mystery, but other times you start to learn. You just learn, “Your tail is in that position, oh that means I should back off. Your ears are in this position, that means you want to meet me Oh, you just turned all white, that’s the color of a relaxed octopus.” You become a student of body language. A lot of this is stuff that we are all born knowing, but it gets overlain with a bunch of other stuff. Maybe some stuff that overlays it is language, but language doesn’t always match what we’re really thinking and feeling.
Throughout the book we see you extend this magnanimous love to animals. At one point, an ermine kills one of your pet hens, and yet you write that you felt “no anger at all” towards the ermine. How were you able to do that?
I think I was just so dazzled by the animal’s purity and its abilities—its ferocity It was the last thing in the world I thought I’d ever see. It was a real wild animal. I’ve seen wild animals but you don’t get to see weasels a lot. Interestingly, we caught another weasel two years ago. When we went to release the weasel, who was not in his winter coat at that time, the animal was trying to kill us! It weighs as much as a handful of coins. Usually when someone is trying to kill you, you find that upsetting or irritating. It doesn’t make you like them more. To see someone so small and so incandescent with life, you can’t help—even when they’ve got the blood of your friend on their chin—but to admire them
That seems to be a big theme in the book, that the animals show you who they are and you accept them for that.
I may have learned some of that because I know what it feels like not to be accepted for what you are. I think we all do. In that chapter I talk about my mother. I understand that my mother, like a lot of mothers, wanted her single offspring to be a certain way. I learned early on that that’s not always a useful way to go into a relationship. It’s much more fruitful to see who that individual really is, because there’s going to be enough splendor to dazzle you. Maybe it’s not giving you the thing that you’re looking for, but there’ll be something else that will be just as thrilling or even more so.
I wanted to ask you about the beautiful illustrations with Rebecca Green. What was your collaboration like?
I never met her and I never spoke to her. I was going to get to meet her Sunday, but then she moved to Osaka, Japan. (laughs) My collaboration consisted of sending photographs. She’s a lovely human being. One day a few weeks ago, I got this package in the mail. I opened it up and it was the sketch book she used to sketch out all her ideas for this book. I was so floored. My God, what a generous person. I can’t even express to her how stunned I was by that generosity. I mean, what a soul. I think she and I really connected wordlessly without seeing each other or speaking to each other. We didn’t even email each other during this process! Kate O’Sullivan, my editor, who is just a goddess, had several really talented artists that she was considering for this book. I looked at the work of the several artists and Rebecca was exactly the right person for this. Boy, little did I know.
You give a reading list at the end of the book where you write that Gorillas in the Mist has your favorite book cover ever.
It was Uncle Bert. It was a beautiful portrait of Uncle Bert, this male gorilla. It was not a picture of Dian with the animal, it was him. The portrait was so compelling and then the back cover was the back of Uncle Bert. I just loved that. He was such a handsome fellow. He was portrayed with moisture glistening on his fur. You could see in that great domed head the quiet intelligence and gentleness as well as the power of the creature in that photograph. You could see his individuality. I just loved that. Of course I wrote that before I saw the cover that would go on my book, which is now my favorite cover of all time.
Now of course they don’t have that cover any more. I think the cover they have now is Sigourney Weaver playing Dian Fossey with a gorilla. I think Dian Fossey would be so unhappy about it. Sigourney Weaver is a terrific person and actress. I really have enormous respect for her. This is not to diss Sigourney Weaver at all. But If I have a choice to look at any given person and any given gorilla, I’m going for the gorilla. (laughs)
This interview has been edited and condensed.