Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Jeff Campbell

Posted on: October 9, 2014

Jeff CampbellJeff Campbell is a freelance writer and book editor. For twelve years he wrote about travel for Lonely Planet, coauthoring guidebooks on various destinations within the United States. In his current position of editor, one he has held for twenty years, Campbell specializes in animal intelligence and emotions. In particular, he has worked with Dr. Marc Bekoff on several books such as the The Emotional Lives of Animals. He has also written a book called Daisy to the Rescue which, as part of Zest tours, I will have opportunity to review tomorrow. Save the date: October 10!

ALLISON: As the author of Daisy to the Rescue, a book that celebrates the noble deeds and actions of animals, you must have an affinity with animals! What animal best describes your personality?

JEFF: I’m not sure I have a special affinity with animals, or not any more than anyone else does. That’s one of the points of my book, actually, or at least a running theme: the power of the human-animal bond. To me, I believe we all have a natural affinity or connection with animals. I think this bond is what motivates people to want to have animals in our lives to begin with, and it certainly seems to be what motivates dogs, cats, and other domestic animals to save someone’s life. Animals are part of every aspect of our society: in our homes as family members, as trained animals who work for us (like search-and-rescue and police dogs), and as therapy animals who help heal us. I tell rescue stories involving all these kinds of animals. I think our natural connection to other animals is profound, and it’s something we all possess. Some scientists even think our evolution of this connection helps define human beings as a species.

In a way, life-saving rescues demonstrate the power of this connection most dramatically: they show animals fighting to save people they love, even at risk to themselves. We can’t always know what the animal is thinking, but it’s pretty clear that this bond must be what often inspires them to act.

But what animal best describes me? Hmm. I don’t know. When I was young, I always wanted to be an otter. I thought they were funny, fun-loving, and smart. Like them, I wouldn’t mind eating lunch while floating on my back in the ocean. After writing this book, though, I’d like to be a dolphin. They may be the smartest, most compassionate animals on the planet–and certainly the most fun-loving.

ALLISON: How did you discover the stories for Daisy to the Rescue?

JEFF: I did a tremendous amount of research. I scoured books about animals and animal intelligence, and I of course used the Internet. But I wanted to make sure that every rescue story I told was verified and accurate, so I always had multiple sources for every story. In the end, I found well over a hundred life-saving rescue stories, most within the last 10-15 years, and I chose the 50 best to highlight.

In selecting the stories, though, I also wanted to have as many different types of animals as possible. This isn’t just a dog book. I include about 15 different species, which includes gorillas, dolphins, monkeys, seals, beluga whales, a parrot, a pot-bellied pig, horses, rabbits, cats, and kangaroos.

ALLISON: What is your most memorable personal experience with animals?

JEFF: Two encounters with wild animals come to mind. One was many years ago, at a dolphin research center in Florida. After the presentation, which involved the dolphins performing some learned tricks (but NOT like a SeaWorld show), I went down to speak to one of the trainers. As we talked, one of the dolphins threw seaweed at us, wanting to play. The trainer told me to throw it back, and the dolphin and I played “catch” for the next five minutes. It was the first time I’d interacted with a wild animal like that, and my first window into just how aware and smart animals can be.

The other was just a few years ago. I went snorkeling with manta rays at night in Hawaii. It was an awesome experience to be in the ocean with such enormous creatures, with wingspans from 16 to 30 feet. I don’t know what they made of us hovering over them as they did cartwheels in the ocean, feeding on plankton. But it was humbling and beautiful to witness.

ALLISON: Kirkus Reviews writes that one of the strengths of Daisy to the Rescue is “the way events are evaluated in comparison to typical behavior or within the context of the emerging field of the study of animal minds”. What inspired you to include insights on the science of animal behavior?

JEFF: I definitely wrote the book to celebrate animal heroes for their pure courage alone, but I am also fascinated by the question why. Why would an animal save someone’s life, and what does that tell us about the mind and heart of that individual and that species?

For this, I owe a huge debt to Dr. Marc Bekoff, who graciously wrote the foreword to my book. As a book editor, I’ve worked with Dr. Bekoff on four of his own books, all of which focus on ethology, or the science of animal minds. Dr. Bekoff is a passionate animal advocate, and his work sparked my own interest. Dr. Bekoff believes that animals think and know and feel much more than we usually give them credit for, but proving what animals know is very hard.

So, I very much wanted to look at life-saving rescues for what they might reveal about animal intelligence. Almost by definition, a life-saving rescue involves all of the “higher emotions” that we tend to think only humans possess: empathy, compassion, self-awareness, and altruism. If an animal saves a person, does that mean they possess all these attributes, or are they only acting blindly or unknowingly, perhaps out of instinct? Two famous stories I tell are of Jambo and Binti Jua, two captive gorillas who saved little boys who fell into their enclosures. When these gorillas showed compassion and caring for these injured boys, it changed our view of gorillas. King Kong, it turned out, could also be kind.

ALLISON: What do you most want readers to gain from Daisy to the Rescue?

JEFF: I hope it sparks the curiosity to ask these types of questions and know more about animals. I hope readers come away with a new appreciation of our connection to animals, how important and vital it is. We don’t care for animals so that, just in case, they might one day save our lives. We care for them because they make our lives better by their mere presence, and from what these stories tell us, animals can feel the same way. Hopefully, knowing that many species are capable of compassion, and have shown that they would indeed do something as incredible as save a human life, would lead us to care for animals as best as we possibly can.

ALLISON: Who most influenced your love of books and writing?

JEFF: I gotta give a huge shout-out to my mom. She is a huge reader, and as a kid I became one too as a result. I started writing my own stuff in middle school–poems and short stories–and I’ve been writing ever since in one way or another. What’s interesting is that, growing up, I only read fiction and hated nonfiction. But as I got older, that switched. I still love fiction, but now I’m just as eager to read nonfiction. There’s nothing like a well-written book to open your eyes to the world. One recent book I highly recommend is The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. Scary but important.

ALLISON: You teach creative writing to grade-school students. What has been the most successful lesson you have taught? The biggest failure?

JEFF: I love teaching writing to kids, but I don’t really think in stark, success-or-failure terms. What I’ve found is that we are each inspired by something different. Maybe it’s the topic, or the activity, or our mood that day. For every creative writing exercise I do, there are invariably a few kids who struggle with what to say, and others who fly across the page, unable to get words down fast enough. The next exercise, that could switch. Even when we struggle, there is almost always some nugget that’s worth saving. I guess, that would be my only criteria: if a writing exercise fails to spark anyone’s imagination, that’s failure. It hasn’t happened yet.

ALLISON: When did you know that you wanted to become a writer? Do you have advice for young people interested in pursuing writing careers?

JEFF: As I say, I started writing when I was in middle school. In college, I studied journalism, and that’s the first time I seriously thought I could make a living as a writer. In the end, I realized that being a daily reporter wasn’t my cup of tea, and I moved into book publishing, where I became an editor. After a decade or so editing books, I returned to writing when I became a part-time travel guide writer for Lonely Planet. I coauthored over a dozen guidebooks on the US, and loved it. Now, I do both. I write books and I edit books, and somehow scrape together a living.

As for advice, based on my own experience, I would say: Keep writing. Never stop, because you never know what may happen or where you’ll end up. Don’t expect a straight path in any career, but especially in a writing career. In terms of writing, I think the main things are to write regularly and to write passionately. You only get better through practice. And the best writing you’ll ever do is when you are sharing what moves you, what you care about, communicating what you feel is important. When you write with passion, a lot of writing issues tend to take care of themselves.

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Spring Reviews

Almost a year after I announced that it was time to take a step back from this blog, Allison's Book Bag is still here. I'm slowly working back up to weekly reviews again. Each week, there will be one under any of these categories: Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, religious books, or diversity books. Some will come in the form of single reviews and others in the form of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Freddy the Frogcaster and the Terrible Tornado by Janice Dean
  • The Distance Between Us by Reya Grande
  • Hearts of Fire from The Voice of Matyrs

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