Ginny Rorby is the author 6 MG/YA novels: How to Speak Dolphin, Lost in the River of Grass, 2013 winner of the Sunshine State Young Readers Award, Hurt Go Happy, 2008 winner of the Schneider Family Book Award, The Outside of a Horse, Dolphin Sky, and Freeing Finch (2019). Ginny is a past director of the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference and its current president. She can be reached at Ginnyrorby@mcn.org and at www.ginnyrorby.org.
Today we are lucky to have her on Unleashing Readers to answer some questions.
All of your books combine human and animals into stories that build empathy for both. Why do you combine both instead of focusing on just one or the other?
To me, our treatment of each other extends to our treatment of animals. I think we are losing our appreciation of the natural world and its systems. We only care about what we learn to care about. If I can help young readers connect with even a fictional animal of another species, they will be richer for it, a better person and, hopefully, grow up tuned into the needs of all beings.
When planning a book, what do you usually have first: a topic, a character, a story, or something else? How do you get from that to a final book?
Almost without exception, the animal character comes first. Dolphin Sky came from the tragic conditions of three captive dolphins at roadside “attraction” in Florida. Hurt Go Happy was based on the equally tragic story of Lucy, a sign language using chimpanzee. The Outside of a Horse was the result of two newscasts, one on the slaughter of horses (100,000 annually) and a second about the horses used to pull the caissons at Arlington National Cemetery helping Iraq war veterans deal with PTSD. Lost in the River of Grass is an exception: it is based on the true story of my husband sinking his airboat and having to walk out of the Everglades, but it also shows the main character’s initial fear of the wildlife she and Andy encounter and her growing appreciation of the beauty of a natural place. How to Speak Dolphin was purposed to me by Scholastic. Even though it was about a sister with an autistic little brother, the fate of the dolphin became my first consideration. Once I’ve been driven to distraction by the plight of an animal, I try to create a character with issues compatible the story, which is always about how healing a relationship with an animal can be.
Many of your books focus on very tough topics such as abuse of children or animals. Why do you feel that this topic is so important to write about?
I’ve always believed the abuse of animals and children is linked. A person capable of abusing a dog or cat, or any animal, is surely capable of abusing vulnerable humans. To write about it is to expose it. To expose it may empower a child to seek a safe adult, or to speak up if they know a friend who is being abused. Beyond that, my goal is to have young people look deeper into the plight of animals. When they go (heaven forbid) to SeaWorld, I want them to hate seeing a whale in captivity, or a dolphin forced to jump through a hoop for our amusement. When I was 6 or 7, my mother took me to a circus in Orlando. One of the elephants being herded past in a parade of animals, toppled over and died. To this day, I’ve never been to a circus. Thankfully, six decades later, the outcry over forcing elephants to perform, has finally resulted in change. And we seem to be slowly coming to our senses about whales and dolphins in captivity. There are still thousands of animals in confined situations compelled to perform for our amusement, or caged in labs being experimented on. The emails I get from young readers show me I’m getting my message across. I can’t ask for more than that.
Tell us about your newest book and how it came to be.
Freeing Finch, my most recent, had two beginnings. I wrote the first iteration about an abandoned dog and an abandoned (at least in her own mind) child. It didn’t quite hit the mark. Two years ago, our local orthopedic surgeon and acquaintance with whom I’d aligned over attempts by our local hospital to close Labor and Delivery, came out as trans, had confirmation surgery at age 70, (Kate’s surgery ) and changed her name to Kathryn. I was stunned but supportive. I have many gay friends but had never met anyone transgender (that I knew of). I sent Kate a congratulatory email and received back a note of gratitude. I then mustered my courage and said I’d like to learn more. She recommended I read Becoming Nicole. By then, Katie Couric had visited Kate and Linda, her wife, of 47 years, to interview and include them in a special she was doing on transgenderism. A year later, Kate and Linda were featured in Katie Couric’s National Geographic special, the Gender Revolution.
Before I rewrote Freeing Finch, I had no dog in the fight. I’m straight, cisgender, widowed, childless, white, and a lapsed Episcopalian. I grew up in Central Florida during the civil rights era but was too young and self-centered to truly notice what was happening. We certainly weren’t in the thick of it. My saving grace has turned out to be that I detest injustice.
Since Kate’s focus has been to educate the uninformed, I continued to pepper her with questions, read many of the available books, interviewed transgender acquaintances, and watched Jazz Jennings grow up on YouTube.
I remembered the book I’d written years before about an abandoned dog and a young girl whose mother died, leaving her to be raised by her recently remarried step-father. The abandonment theme reminded me of the stories I was reading about families turning their backs on gender-questioning children.
It’s the 21st century. Gender is a rainbow spectrum. Let’s educate ourselves and move on.
Thank you so much, Ginny, for sharing your writing process and inspirations!