John Morano is a professor of journalism at Monmouth University in New Jersey. He has written four novels in his Eco-Adventure Series, as well as a textbook for film critics, Don’t Tell Me the Ending! He is currently working on his fifth novel, a story about endangered wolves.
What motivated your transition from journalism to creative writing?
I don’t really feel as though I’ve transitioned from journalism. I’m still a journalism professor, but more importantly, I feel that my eco-series is built solidly upon several journalistic ethics and skills. For example, I regularly say to students, “Tell me something I don’t know. Show me something I haven’t seen.” I hope that my books do that for the readers. And while the writing is creative, I try to present real stories, real endangered creatures, real habitats, real environmental concerns that are well researched, in the tradition of investigative journalism. The old adage, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” is one that I often subscribe to.
What was the inspiration for the Eco-Adventure Series?
The series, indeed the first book, was inspired by a single news story that I saw as a grad student on vacation. A woman reporter stood beside a cage. She explained that in the cage was an obscure hamster species. It was a male, the last of its kind and when the hamster ultimately perished, as it surely would one day, the planet would never see this creature again. That was the moment I knew I would write about extinction. What could possibly be more dramatic than that? It was real. It was happening. And, it was happening to both creatures that we knew and that we’ve never heard of. I decided to write those stories.
What is your greatest hope for your novels?
My greatest hope for my novels is that people read them. You write a book so that it will be read. Beyond that, I suspect the rest will take care of itself.
I’m just trying to identify what’s happening, to increase, or speak to their ecological consciousness. My hope is that readers will decide for themselves what they can do, what they’re willing to do, and how to do it.
I received a note from a friend who had read the series. He told me that while he had attended college some twenty years earlier, he had never actually graduated. Now, after reading the series, he was going back to school with the intention of getting both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in marine science. It’s certainly not something I told the reader to do, but what a wonderful result. It was his result, as it should be.
Recently, I’ve begun hosting environmental discussions for the public. I just did one at a Barnes & Noble where the director of The Urban Coast Institute from Monmouth University and the director of Clean Ocean Action joined me in a discussion with the audience about environmental issues on the Jersey Shore. It’s quite rewarding to see that my books can serve as a centerpiece to create environmental dialogue between the public and those who direct major environmental organizations.
Climatologist Judith Curry has stated that “fiction is an untapped way of…smuggling some serious topics into the consciousness of readers.” Your novels not only tackle ecological issues, but also explore other topics such as race relations and feminism. How do you achieve this without having your writing shift into the realm of “eco-propaganda”?
I think eco-propaganda would have a definite viewpoint, an agenda, one that might cherry pick facts and employ sins of omission. It’s essentially manipulation. I have no desire to participate in that.
My intention is not to tell people what to think. I just want to present a variety of characters, settings, practices, and beliefs that they might want to think about. The rest is up to them.
To me, that is, again, a very journalistic approach. Give reasonable people very good information and they will likely come to reasonable conclusions.
People are typically said to identify more easily with animals that exhibit human traits, animals such as orangutans, elephants, or dolphins. Yet you’ve chosen to write about more unusual animals—the octopus Binti, from book 2, comes to mind. Was this a conscious decision? If so, why these species?
I do make a concerted effort to cover species that are less well known. It gets back to showing the reader something they haven’t seen. And it reminds us that just because it’s not happening in our backyards, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
I also try to cover creatures that we think we know: the owl, the hummingbird, the woodpecker, the turtle for instance. I’m trying to illustrate that even when we think we know something, there are often incredible things we might not be aware of.
I find it fascinating that we tend to be so interested in superheroes. I love Superman, Batman, X-men, etc., but for me, I’ll take an octopus, a hummingbird, a coelacanth any day of the week. They are superheroes. They absolutely have super powers. And the difference between my superheroes and the others, is that mine actually exist. If we really look deeply into the natural would, we will find superheroes galore. Why create a new world when we are often largely ignorant of the one we already inhabit? I prefer to build my novels around species that inhabit the same world we do.
And, of course, their stories need to be told.
One of the goals of your writing is to give “a voice to the voiceless…imperiled creatures and habitats that can’t speak for themselves.” How do you navigate the line between anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism in your work?
This is a great question. I find it’s actually easy to avoid absurd anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. I mean, really, what are basic human motivations, ultimately? To survive, first and foremost. That seems to be a pretty similar motivation for an endangered species. It would be ridiculous for humans to claim that motivation as exclusively their own.
In pursuit of survival, humans are driven to reproduce. It would seem that that motivation is also not humankind’s exclusive domain. One needs sustenance and shelter. Those are also needed in the animal kingdom.
Depending on the animal, there may be gender roles, leadership roles, societal arrangements. Homo sapiens do not have a monopoly on these things.
My hope is that my stories might suggest that many things we tend to view as human are actually realities and concerns other lifeforms also share—that perhaps, we are not as different from each other as some might think.
It’s been 25 years since the first novel in the series, A Wing and A Prayer, was first published. What do you think has changed in those 25 years? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
I am nervous about the future. How can one not be? I’m optimistic in the sense that humans can make positive differences. Habitats have been reinvigorated. Species have been reintroduced. When I see the efforts of people, like those associated with The Rachel Carson Center, for instance, make a difference, it does make me feel optimistic. And, I try to write about these efforts.
Yet, it’s difficult not to be pessimistic when one sees good science being ignored in a host of ways and when one sees people continually put short-term gain ahead of future devastation.
If there’s one thing that should unite all people, you would think a healthy planet would be first and foremost. So, to be truthful, rather than optimistic or pessimistic, I would say that I’m concerned, deeply.
But if you read my stories, I think you will find a more optimistic approach. There is no shortage of humor. Successes are celebrated. The resiliency of characters and settings is highlighted. These are actually fun tales, but the environmental imperatives are never too far from the surface.
I would like to add that to be able to speak to the members of The Rachel Carson Center both in this interview and through my books, is a great honor. Rachel Carson was truly inspirational to me. Her groundbreaking work cleared a path for writers concerned with the environment to follow. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you. I hope my Eco-Adventure Series might speak to you in some of the ways Rachel Carson’s work has spoken to me.