You write movingly about the interconnectedness of people and animals. Were you always an animal lover?
I’ve always had a deep interest in legal issues relating to animals, but I would not say I was always an “animal lover”. It wasn’t until I met the woman who would become my wife—a veterinarian—and began to see the wonder of animals through her eyes that I really allowed myself to be open to that connection. But then there was no going back and I can no longer imagine a life without them.
How do you create the finely drawn characters in your novel? Are they inspired by real people?
Most of my characters are loose composites of people I have known—some more so than others. Father Gabriel, for example, was inspired by a real member of the clergy who shattered every preconceived stereotype I had acquired over the years of how a “just” man or woman is supposed to behave.
Your debut novel, Unsaid, struck a real chord with readers, especially those who love animals. How would you say Just Life is different?
Like Unsaid, it’s about the power of our relationships with animals. But in Unsaid, I wanted to explore these human-animal relationships in the face of debilitating grief. Just Life examines those relationships when confronted by paralyzing fear. Fear, like grief, is one of the great equalizers.
There are so many interesting characters that we meet in Just Life, and you focus on four of them throughout the book. Which of these characters do you identify with the most?
I feel a little like all of them because, even though the characters are so different, they are all looking for the same thing—a little sanctuary in an otherwise unsafe and threatening but fundamentally beautiful world.
Just Life touches on the intersection among public safety, politics, and widespread panic during a public health crisis. Why did you choose that subject matter?
I had wanted to write about zoonotic illnesses—those diseases that pass from animals to humans—for some time because viruses like SARS, Swine Flu and Avian Flu are an almost perfect metaphor for our relationships with animals. As much as we would like to draw distinctions between ourselves and animals, the reality is that we are so closely tied together that what we do to them we ultimately do to ourselves. Too often we only examine one side of that equation. Add to that mix our ever-growing ambient level of anxiety from threats known and unknown and you start to see the real risk our fear poses to the most vulnerable of us.
In Just Life, you write about the government’s potential response to a new zoonotic virus. In the wake of the Ebola scare and now the Zika virus, how worried should we be about the scenario in the novel?
As recent events have demonstrated, there is significant cause for concern. You don’t need to be an alarmist to see that emerging zoonotic viruses—those that pass from animals to humans — pose a serious threat to our well-being. Those types of viruses pose a unique health threat because they often present themselves quickly and can mutate with such speed that even the brightest medical minds are left scratching their heads. In these circumstances the politically expedient solution— which usually involves resort to the “QCK” response for the suspected animal (short for “quarantine, cull and kill”)—is often either premature or hugely overboard. World and American history is filled with millions upon millions of animals that have been killed in politically misguided or ineffective attempts to stop the spread of zoonotic diseases.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of writing?
After Unsaid I heard from so many people about their own experiences with their companion animals. That has been extraordinary. So many of those stories will remain with me forever. I always tell people that they must not let their stories end with them. Tell me about it on my Facebook page or in an email or, if not me, then someone else. By sharing these stories, we will be able to continue the gift that our animals have brought to our lives. And who knows, maybe someone who never thought about opening their home to an animal will hear one of these stories and take that first step, and one more animal will know the depth of the human heart.