Saturday, February 17, 2024

Q&A with Ann B. Parson




Ann B. Parson is the author of the new novel The Birds of Dog: An Historical Novel Based on Mostly True Events. Her other books include The Proteus Effect. A science journalist, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Boston Globe and The New York Times.


Q: What inspired you to write The Birds of Dog?


A: Like many science writers, I’ve always been interested in the history of science.


Several years ago, while working on a family history, I became aware of four early scientists in one family, the Pickerings of Salem. They each made major contributions to America’s early sciences yet are largely forgotten; and they belonged to the Boston Society of Natural History, which is mostly forgotten. (It became Boston’s Museum of Science.)


Charles Pickering, a leading naturalist of his day, helped collect natural specimens for the then new Smithsonian Institution. His uncle, John Pickering, predicted telecommunications between distant points before Samuel Morse invented the telegraph. And two Pickering nephews helped move astronomy into the modern age.


The more I researched that era, the more lost pioneers and lost stories spilled out, and I wanted to preserve as many as I could—in one historical novel that wraps around the coming-of-age of the sciences.


Q: What did you see as the right balance between fiction and history as you wrote the book?


A: Most all the book’s stories are true, and I was careful to preserve their historical facts within the right time/place framework.


For the telling, my two narrators are fictitious—moveable pawns, in a way, who guide the story from one scene to another, while most other characters are real.


They include Charles Pickering, then one of the country’s leading naturalists; John James Audubon; P.T. Barnum; Charles Dickens; and James Cutting, a brilliant inventor.


Time after time, the book revisits historical events that really happened while fiction transports us and serves to magnify the event.


Q: As a science writer, what was it like to write fiction?


A: I really enjoyed the process! I discovered that the narrative of the fiction I was shaping was not unlike the narrative prose of my nonfiction.

I’ve always tried to be open and easy to understand when writing on science, so maybe that’s why changing genres didn’t seem such a big leap. Also, it was very liberating to conjure up, on a whim, a particular scene or span of dialogue. Or make use of material from my own life.


There’s a scene when a boy, his father and cousin go hunting, and the boy trips on a root, his gun goes off, and the bullet kills his father. (An anti-gun theme is front-and-center in the book.) A similar tragic event happened to a relative.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: “The Birds of Dog” refers to the birds on a small island in the South Pacific, Dog Island.


Charles Pickering served as head zoologist for America’s first major Voyage of Discovery to the South Pacific, and when he and his band of “Scientifics” landed on Dog, the island’s birds were so tame, they ate bread from the sailors’ outstretched hands and allowed the men to tip them off their nests for their eggs.


All the island’s wildlife was tame, and it was because no humans with guns had ever set foot on the island and disturbed the peace. Again, an anti-gun theme runs throughout the book.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: When I’m between projects, I tend to work on my column “The Curmudgeon.”


In my latest installment, I grumble about how television advertisements try to romanticize SUVs with backdrops of beautiful landscapes, whether mountains or ocean vistas, when, in fact, SUVs are major polluters and killers of people and wildlife. Humans’ lack of reverence for wildlife will always be my pet peeve.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’ll be giving an illustrated talk about the forces that shaped the scientific revolution in 19th century America and about the lost pioneers and lost stories that appear in my book. I’d be glad to hear from any library or group that might be interested in having me speak.  


A partial lineup below:


Illustrated Talks with Ann Parson

On The Birds of Dog and The Early Sciences in America


The Pickering House, Salem, Mass., Sun., Feb 25, 4:00 p.m.


Southworth Library, South Dartmouth, Mass., Thurs, March 21, 6:00 p.m.


Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Bristol, R.I., Thurs, Apr 11, 7:00 p.m.


The Rotch-Jones-Duff House, New Bedford, Mass., Wed, May 15, 5:30 p.m.


Acushnet Public Library, Acushnet, Mass.,  Wed, May 22, 6:00 p.m.


Friends Library, Brooklin, Maine,  July, TBA


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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