Animal Book Club: Five Questions with John Yunker

Posted by Jennifer Molidor, ALDF's Staff Writer on May 8, 2013

This week, John Yunker, author of the novel The Tourist Trail (Ashland Creek Press), sat down with the Animal Legal Defense Fund to discuss penguins, veganism, and animal advocacy in literature. Leave a comment below and join the Animal Book Club at aldf.org/bookcluband you may win one of three complimentary copies of John’s novel!

5. You’re a dedicated animal advocate. What led you to adopt a vegan diet?

Giving up seafood was the beginning for me. I had traveled to Antarctica about a decade ago and it was then I became acutely aware of overfishing and the ways we abuse our oceans and its creatures. I had always thought that seafood was “good for you” so I forced myself to eat it, even though I never particularly liked it. I went vegetarian not long after when I attended a FARM Animal Rights conference in Los Angeles. I was writing this book at the time and the first night I was there I remember calling my wife and telling her I was done with meat. Veganism followed after that. It’s a journey I never imagined I’d travel but I’m glad I did. And that experience colors my writing because I understand that everyone has their own journey and their own paceand that animal rights is an issue that most people are blind to, as I once was.

4. As both an animal rights and environmentally-focused thriller, the novel The Tourist Trail is unique—what drew you to this topic?

Several years ago, Dee Boersma, the founder of Penguin Sentinels invited a few supporters to volunteer as part of a 10-year penguin census at Punta Tombo. Punta Tombo is one of the largest Magellanic colonies in the world and is located in Patagonia on the coast of Argentina. (Watch Dee’s TED talk here). More than 25 years ago, the entire colony was nearly wiped out when the Argentine government struck a deal with a Japanese company to “harvest” the penguins for women’s gloves and oil. A handful of naturalists fought the plan and generated public support, which was no small feat at that point in history. Dee and her team began researching the colony to generate data on not only the size of the colony by its overall health.

Sadly, the colony has been decreasing in size over the years. Overfishing just off the coast is one reason. Penguins do get caught in fishing nets. And the food source has shifted further north, which makes for a particularly difficult commute as the penguins try to raise their young. The penguins spend nearly half a year on the coast and here too they are in danger. Foxes prey on them as well. While I was there I had a vision, if you will, of a man washing ashore: a man on the run from the law, and the penguin researcher who cares for him. I had been following Sea Shepherd at the time and wanted to write about their efforts. And that’s how The Tourist Trail came to be.

3. Who is Diesel, and how does he help readers identify with penguins?

Diesel is based on a real penguin known as Turbo. I changed his name to protect his privacy but now that Turbo has his own Facebook page, I suppose I’m free to talk publicly about him. Turbo has taken quite a liking to the researchers at Punta Tombo for reasons I don’t think anyone understands. He is not fed or encouraged to spend his days with the humans, but he seems to enjoy himself.

Every year, many penguins do not make it back to Punta Tombo. This we know because thousands of penguins are tagged. And every September I check up on Turbo’s Facebook page to make sure that he returns. On a larger level, I think the issue of numbering versus naming animals is profound. Numbers are practical. Names are personal. We don’t number our pets but we number cattle in stockyards. Clearly, the researchers at Punta Tombo all view penguins as equally valuable. But do the tourists who are there for a half hour? And do they make the connection with the seafood they eat later that evening?

As a writer, focusing on one animal can help to tell a larger story about a species. Through Angela’s eyes, we can’t help but want to defend Diesel. And the character Aeneas makes the point that every species deserves an Angela out defending them.

2. Is there a sequel in the works?

I’ve been slowly writing two novels over the past two years, one of which is a sequel. But I’ve been sidetracked by other projects. I recently finished a full-length play that focuses on what happens to a marriage when one spouse adopts a vegan lifestyle and the other does not. The play is called Sanctuary and I’m trying to find a home for it. I’m also making it available to organizations that may be interested in staging it to raise funds. As for the novels, stay tuned to Ashland Creek Press for announcements.

1. Can you tell us about Ashland Creek Press and its dedication to animal rights?

My wife, Midge Raymond, is a writer who has a great deal of publishing experience on the editorial side, and we share a love for animals and animal rights. We decided two years ago that since we could find no publisher devoted to animal rights and environmental fiction that we’d start our own: Ashland Creek Press.

It has been an exciting journey…Early next year we’ll be publishing Among Animals: an anthology of contemporary short fiction. We’ve also started a blog: EcoLit Books, to review and promote books with environmental and animal rights themes, from all publishers. And we also want this blog to encourage writers to pursue eco-literature.

Literature often reflects culture. But it can also change culture. Today, in most novels, it is the carnivore characters that are considered “normal” and the vegan characters who are considered “fringe.” This has to change. I want to see the people who devote their lives to protecting animals portrayed as the heroes they really are. Finally, I want to thank ALDF for the work you do. I’m sure many novels could (and will) be written about the battles you have fought and will continue to fight.

Watch the infamous and charming Book Trailer for The Tourist Trail.

To learn more about The Tourist Trail, visit www.thetouristtrail.com.


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