An Interview with John Yunker: Writer, Publisher, & Activist

One decade ago John Yunker co-founded Ashland Creek Press, an independent, vegan-owned publisher of environmental and animal rights literature, with his partner Midge Raymond. Yunker has authored two novels, The Tourist Trail and Where the Oceans Hide Their Dead; edited three anthologies, Among Animals, Among Animals 2, and Writing for Animals; and written several plays and short stories. Additionally, Yunker’s first novel, and one of my personal favorite eco-lit books, The Tourist Trail, was recently selected as a Vegan Book Club pick.

You’ve written and published two novels: The Tourist Trail and Where the Oceans Hide Their Dead. How long did you work on these books? 

John Yunker: The Tourist Trail began as a short story that I wrote back in 2008. It won the Phoebe Fiction Prize and this inspired me to keep going because I had a feeling that there was a novel there. The novel came out in 2010 and [Where the Oceans Hide Their Dead] came out about eight years later. 

What is your writing process like? 

JY: Sporadic. I tend to write in bursts, which is probably better suited for short stories and short plays. Novels are brutal, particularly the rewriting stage, which I am awful at. I walked away from [Where the Oceans Hide Their Dead] several times over the years, but finally saw it through, thanks in great part to my partner Midge Raymond who edited the book. She’s an amazing editor and writer and has also written an amazing novel inspired by penguin research: My Last Continent

The Tourist Trail includes several incredibly detailed passages regarding penguin research in Patagonia. What sort of research did you do on this topic while writing the book? 

JY: Midge and I were fortunate to have spent time volunteering at a Magellanic penguin research station down in Argentina. Spending time with the researchers was invaluable and inspiring. If I had not made that trip there would be no Tourist Trail. I remember we took a lunch break and were seated on a sand berm overlooking the Atlantic. And that’s when the idea of an anti-whaling activist washing ashore came to me (as I had been following Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Society). To learn more about the penguin research these folks are doing, check out the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels

But I will add that you don’t necessarily have to travel the world to write about the world. For instance, in [Where the Oceans Hide Their Dead] I write about activists who are defending the seals in Namibia and I’ve never set foot there. But I have spent years following the people who have devoted their lives to the effort, as well as poring over news reports, email conversations, scientific papers, Wikipedia searches and Google Maps. Don’t let limited travel stop you from writing about issues and animals you are passionate about!

Are you working on any new novels currently? 

JY: I am working on book 3 in this series, though very, very slowly. I am working on other books and stories. Midge and I also write books together, a lot more quickly I might add, and I hope to have announcements about these books in the next year.

You’ve also written several plays and short stories. How do you determine in what format a story will be told? 

JY: Great question and I wish I had an easy answer. Because I’ve found myself trying to rewrite plays as novels and vice versa. But by going through this process of writing and rewriting, I generally figure out which format is best suited to the story. I love to read and write all formats and I encourage writers to try to tell the same story through different mediums; it’s a great way to better understand your characters, setting and what you’re trying to say.

You co-founded Ashland Creek Press in 2011. Why did you decide to begin this company? 

JY: Ashland Creek Press came about shortly after self-publishing The Tourist Trail. I had an agent for The Tourist Trail but she was unable to find a home for it. There wasn’t exactly an “eco-thriller” category at the time and I’m not entirely sure if there is one now. Big publishers like books that cleanly fit into categories and this book did not. Midge and I had both worked in publishing so we had some idea of what we were getting into. We had a feeling there were other writers out there facing similar obstacles. 

As time went on we began to focus more explicitly on animal rights  as well as connecting animal protection with environmentalism. We launched a book prize, The Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, with this goal in mind. It’s been an uphill battle because conventional environmental literature treats animals as food, objects for hunting and/or set pieces. It’s time for a new wave of environmental literature and Ashland Creek Press is on the leading edge of this movement.

What has your experience been like co-founding and operating a boutique publishing company? 

JY: This year marks 10 years of publishing, which is hard to believe as it still feels like we’re just getting started. I love introducing these books to the world. Absolutely love it. And I encourage everyone to visit our website where you can download free PDF samples of all of our books.

The only thing challenging about being a small press is that, well, we’re small. Everything we make goes back into the press and we have to be creative about book publicity. And we ask our authors to do the same – and never give up on promoting their books. We have books that are several years old and are selling better now than they did during year one. And I think much of this is because these books are tackling issues that most readers are only now becoming aware of. 

Any advice for fellow vegan writers? 

JY: Find other vegan writers and read their books, see their plays. Ask your library to stock their books. Just as vegans will request vegan food from restaurants and grocery stories, we all need to do the same with our publishers and bookstores. And don’t just demand cookbooks!

Check out our book Writing for Animals (we also teach a program around it). There are some great words of wisdom and inspiration from the contributors to this book.

And subscribe to our newsletter at AshlandCreekPress.com and our sister book review site EcoLitBooks.com. EcoLit Books reviews books from all publishers and also provides a list of publishers and journals that are looking for environmental and animal literature.

Finally and most importantly, don’t give up. Rejections are a part of being a writer. I’ve got two short stories and several plays out on submission and have received nothing but rejections over the past three years. But I’m still submitting, damnit. 


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