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Talking with Shauna Laurel Jones

Shauna Laurel Jones studied art history at UC Santa Barbara and environmental studies at the University of Iceland. After a decade in Reykjavík, she now lives in London. Her writing combines her diverse interests in nature, language, and aesthetics.

Shauna’s essay “Up, up, on implausible wings: The chance ascent of the iconic puffin” received an honorable mention in the 2018 Prose & Poetry Contest and will appear in the Spring 2019 issue of Carve. Preorder to reserve your copy or subscribe with a discount by March 31.

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Your story "Up, up, on implausible wings: The chance ascent of the iconic puffin" immediately caught our committee's attention for its creative look at the somewhat misunderstood bird. What was it about the puffin specifically that drew you to it, or what was the moment you realized the puffin deserved its moment as a subject of study?

If you ever set foot in Iceland, you can’t help but notice the puffin! Over the ten years I lived in Reykjavík, I saw the puffin’s transformation from a humble member of the Icelandic fauna to the cute and quirky creature that symbolizes the country. Downtown Reykjavík has been absolutely overrun by effigies of the bird, and tourists can’t seem to get enough. Meanwhile, numbers of actual Atlantic puffins are dwindling, and that uncomfortable irony is not lost on environmentally conscious local residents.

I’m interested in cultural and aesthetic dimensions of human relationships with other animals, so naturally this “puffin problem” was a topic that spoke to me. What I wanted to explore is why the puffin was so easy to project these symbolic/nationalistic ideas onto, and whether—counterintuitively—it had anything to do with the absence of the bird from Icelandic poetry and literature. But I also wanted to interrogate my own ideas about the puffin and what it has come to represent, which is why I included a number of personal anecdotes in my essay.

We really enjoyed your essay for the amount of research that went into the writing. For those that don't normally conduct as much research or work with the interview process, what can you tell us about that process that might be helpful to new writers?

Thanks for acknowledging that. Yes, a ton of research went into this short piece! What I enjoyed was giving equal weight to such a diversity of sources: literary memoirs, peer-reviewed social science articles, my own conversations with scholars and artists, children’s books, and more. It reflects my belief in the validity of different types of knowledge—something that’s not necessarily allowed in academic writing—especially when confronting complex issues such as human–animal relationships and conservation challenges.

It also reflects the great curiosity that is my driving force. That is what I would recommend to writers new to incorporating research and interviews into their work: Be insatiably curious! As I learned in my academic training, one of the keys to solid qualitative research is starting with a well-founded question and perhaps even a tentative hypothesis, but then remaining flexible throughout the research process; up till the very end, stay open to revising not only your hypothesis but also your question. Let your findings guide you. Especially with research that involves online searching, confirmation bias is a constant temptation, but resist it, and push yourself out of your intellectual comfort zone. Don’t write about what you know; write about what you want to know.

Are there currently any other topics you are researching, and what else are you looking to learn and write about down the line?

While I don’t want to pigeonhole myself—no pun intended—as a bird writer, I do have a couple of avian irons in the fire. I’m synthesizing some research on bird calls and songs, both for what they are and for their value to artists, musicians, and conservation biologists. I’m also adapting my recent MS thesis research into a literary nonfiction essay; the topic is the conflict between whooper swans and farmers in Iceland, and how cultural values have come into play in terms of conservation decision-making around swans.

What I’m hoping to do with these pieces, and with future work, is to continue developing my voice as someone motivated by transdisciplinary research on animals and aesthetics but also by the art of writing itself. I’m tremendously pleased to have my puffin essay published in Carve, as it’s my debut in a literary context. It feels like after a lifetime of quietly tiptoeing around creative writing, I’m finally coming into my own and am ready to share my work with a wider audience. This publication is all at once a culmination and a new beginning.