Meet the Author! A Conversation with Karen Donley-Hayes – Author of “Shoalie’s Crow”

Meet the Author! A Conversation with Karen Donley-Hayes – Author of “Shoalie’s Crow” 629 571 Reader Views Kids

Shoalie’s Crow

Karen Donley-Hayes
Family of Light Books (2024) 
ISBN: 979-8988120384

A main focus in Karen Donley-Hayes’s writing has always been animals, particularly horses, with forays into the medical field. Her work has appeared in Dressage Today, Equus, Modern Horse Breeding, The Horse, Hunter & Sport Horse, The Chronicle of the Horse, and Horse Illustrated, The Saturday Evening Post online, Blue Lyra Review, and The Quotable, among others, and numerous medical journals and publications. Her work has been anthologized in Chicken Soup for the Soul-My Cat’s Life, The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home, and The Blue Lyra Review. She was a Pushcart Prize nominee for “Hens on a Porch” from Blue Lyra Review as well as for “Under Cover” from The Quotable.

Her first book, the memoir “Falling Off Horses,” was released in print and ePub in March, 2023. “Falling Off Horses” received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, a Recommended review from US Review of Books, and a 5-star review from Reader Views. The memoir was a Distinguished Favorite, 2023 Independent Press Awards, received an Honorable Mention in the 2023 EQUUS Film & Arts Fest, and was Winner in Animals, and Finalist in Health, Debut Nonfiction, and Narrative Nonfiction in the 2023 American Writing Awards.

In addition to a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies, Karen has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and multiple medical technician and medical research certifications. She has had the fortune of combining her love of animals, writing, and medicine in both her professional and personal lives. She lives in Northeast Ohio with her equally creative husband Arnold and an assortment of animals.

In her “day job,” Karen works for the Cleveland Clinic Foundation as a Clinical Research Coordinator at the Clinic’s Taussig Cancer Institute. Shoalie’s Crow is her second book, and her first novel.

Hi Karen, Welcome to Reader Views! What is Shoalie’s Crow about?

Shoalie’s Crow is about a woman who is killed in an equestrian jumping accident, only to wake up again as a newborn horse… complete with her human intellect, and one snippet of memory from her human life: the riding accident that killed her. No one understands her efforts to communicate. Not humans. Not horses. No one. Except, that is, a crow with a bad attitude, a short fuse, and life mysteries of his own that he refuses to discuss.

What inspired you to write a story about a horse that believes it’s the reincarnation of a human, and what drew you to explore themes like reincarnation, dreams becoming reality, and the human-animal connection?

I don’t think I set out to write a story about a horse who believes she was a reincarnated human as much as I wanted to develop on a college writing assignment which involved telling a story through someone—or something—else’s viewpoint. Because I’ve been a horse nut since I could draw breath, I jumped on the idea of writing from a horse’s viewpoint. From there, over the years, the story gradually evolved and grew into the novel it is today. The idea of a “botched reincarnation” gave me the mechanism to still be a horse, but to think, reason, and grow friendships and grudges and everything in between like a person. I certainly did not start out with the idea of writing a novel; that was a years-long conceptual metamorphosis. I think it’s kind of a hodgepodge amalgamation of the horse’s voice of Black Beauty to the time-traveling history-insuring or correcting concept of the original 1990s TV series, “Quantum Leap” with Scott Bakula.

How did you prepare to write an accurate portrayal of the inner world and perspective of a horse?

I have been a horse nut my entire life, was making up and telling stories before I could read or write, and was writing stories before I could spell my way out of a paper bag (which, as a dyslexic, still presents a challenge, so take that at face value). And while as a child, school was my nemesis—certainly in grade and middle school and even into high school—I had the great fortune to have access to real live horses early on. So, from my earliest years, I played with horses, literally, or lost myself in horse make-believe. I felt I related to and understood horses better than I did people.

The presence of a crow as a significant character is intriguing. Can you explain the symbolic significance of the crow in the story and any mythological or cultural references you drew upon?

Wow, I think you’re giving me more credit than I deserve! I don’t think there is really any symbolic significance to the crow in the story other than it fit the bill, so to speak. What it boils down to is that early on I knew Shoalie needed a friend or compatriot. I wanted that to be another animal, but not another horse because that would be putting all my eggs in one basket. I liked the idea of a bird because it was different enough from a horse or a person, but also ubiquitous enough to be plausible… with the added advantage of being able to fly from place to place without having to rely on people or some other means of transportation. I settled on a crow because they are very common, but also very smart.

Tell us about the character development of Nik, the crow, and his role in the story?

I wanted Nik to be different enough, temperamentally, from Shoalie to cause some friction between the two; but the fact that neither could communicate with anyone or anything but each other kind of forced them to at least tolerate each other… and that need for companionship, even though they didn’t initially particularly like each other, gave a friendship time to germinate and grow. They also seemed to have similar “histories,” although whatever that history may be—especially where humans might come into the picture—was a point of contention between the two for most of the book.

How did you approach the sensitive themes of suicide and alleged animal abuse in Shoalie’s Crow, ensuring they were integral to the story and handled with the necessary care and responsibility?

It would be disingenuous to say I had a strategic approach to addressing issues of abuse, in people or animals. Because, barring the inarguable extremes, what constitutes “abuse” is very subjective; what one person considers abuse, another may consider just standard operating procedure in dealing with ½ ton horses, or, for that matter, unruly children. There is such universal disparity in opinions on the topic that it seemed impossible to write about horse/human interaction without it factoring in somehow. And because people can often be far crueler to each other, or each other’s cultures, that unease kind of worked itself in organically when I was developing the humans’ stories. At some point, I figured I needed to actually put together a history or background for the people, which I only hint at in the story, but which actually helped me “know” Oksana and Mike well enough to write their stories.

As far as suicide is concerned, I didn’t go into writing this intending to have a suicide, but Mike was tortured enough for it to be a plausible outcome for him. But it was also a catalyst for Nik to revisit the theory of “previous lives,” how his “previous life” was the basis of his attraction to Mike, that his refusal to even consider a connection might have prevented Nik from somehow helping Mike. But moreover, Nik started to ruminate on what making the connection with Mike could mean to his actually helping Oksana… or, more accurately, helping Shoalie figure out how she could help Oksana.

There’s an intriguing side story involving human characters. How did you intertwine these narratives with the main plot?

The development of Oksana and Mike kind of grew in the writing. I didn’t have a specific “plan” for either one of them, although the history of social conflict or civil war relative to Russian or Eastern European geography did become an integral part of the humans’ stories from very early in the book’s development. How their individual stories grew and related to the development of Nik’s and Shoalie’s stories kind of evolved during the creative process of “trying on” various story threads to see what felt “right,” and working from those ideas until their individual stories kind of coalesced into the current form.

The book deals with complex themes like reincarnation and consciousness. How did you approach the philosophical aspects of these themes without compromising the narrative’s flow?

Reincarnation—that was difficult, and it didn’t feel right until I came on the idea that one’s “reincarnation” was actually one’s being “sent back” with a mission… that of saving a specific person’s life—or even choosing not to save that life, assuming that the critter in question recognized his/her “mission” in time to make an educated decision. To meet this “reincarnate” as a possible lifesaver meant that the reincarnate would have to have some kind of visceral attraction to the person who he/she is tasked with saving; and the animal would also have to have the kind of consciousness and insight to not only figure out the connection with the person but also the ability to reason—very abstractly—about what that connection might mean.

Still, I couldn’t figure out how to make that leap of logic for Shoalie, which ended up coming by way of Mike’s suicide and Nik’s subsequent soul-searching and change of heart, even to the point of trying to convince Shoalie of their previous lives, instead of Shoalie being the one insisting. It was through this retrospective ruminating that Nik was able to make enough connections to see that Shoalie had a specific cause, a mission, and to demand that she needed to “make the choice.”

Did you face any particular challenges while writing this novel, and how did you address them?

Interestingly, one of the biggest challenges in writing this stemmed from what is also one of the most important aspects of writing: critique. I sought, and received, a lot of good critique and feedback. The major learning curve for me was understanding what to do with that. I spent the first few years and iterations of SC considering all the input and tying myself in knots, trying to work it all in. In the process, I kind of lost touch with the story I had at first so much enjoyed. It’s really important to stress that the critique process itself was never the problem, but rather my ability to know my story and myself well enough to understand how to best utilize that process, what to incorporate, and what not to.

Eventually, I realized that the original storyline was the only storyline that really “spoke” to me; I refreshed the first 20 pages to reflect the original idea, and I took that to a writers’ retreat to see if it was worth taking the story “out of the drawer.” The feedback encouraged me that yes, it was worth taking the story out of the drawer. And here we are!

What was your approach to the pacing and distribution of clues throughout the story, leading to the big twist at the end? Could you share some insights into your writing process for a story as unique as this one?

In some ways, the writing process was easy, primarily with respect to writing in the voice of a horse, because for years as a kid I wanted to BE a horse, pretended I WAS a horse, so that voice almost came naturally. I also have always had a well-developed (over-developed? Warped?) sense of creativity, and my mind sometimes takes sharp turns that send me pondering off-the-wall “what-if” scenarios. The trick then is to keep the story plausible (at least relative to that particular storyline), including that things have to happen for a reason. And a LOT of making a story plausible is asking yourself, “Okay, great… but WHY?” Finding answers that work, finding the “why?” does a great deal to build the story… also, finding a way for the characters to discover the answer to “why?”—or sometimes, NOT discovering the answer, or discovering it too late, builds conflict and angst, but also helps the story’s characters… well… do the story’s telling.

Not so far from the realities of real life, because even fiction has to be believable. And sometimes, no “credible” response to the “why?” question is forthcoming. In which case, maybe the best bet is to remove or modify the scenario that created the question in the first place.

What message or feeling do you hope readers will take away from Shoalie’s Crow?

Life is weird and curious and mysterious… there isn’t always a clear and present purpose (or is there?) and that there are a myriad of “true” stories, valid opinions, and individuals… even down to “dumb animals.” Maybe especially down to “dumb animals” at the horse or bird level.

Do you have any upcoming projects or plans for a sequel that readers can look forward to?

No sequel to Shoalie – trying to conjure an idea for that feels really contrived—but I do have a WIP revolving around crime, medicine, secrets—and this almost goes without saying—horses. My main goal now is to get this WIP out from between my ears in a more organized fashion, so I actually have a hard copy draft to work with…

What advice would you give to aspiring writers who wish to explore unconventional storylines or characters?

Personally, I have to feel strongly about what I’m working on—even to love it—to have fun in the creative and writing process. Otherwise, for me at least, I’m less likely—MUCH less likely if I’m being candid right now—to complete or even seriously work on the project.

Other points: Solicit feedback/critique, consider the input, then decide how, or even if, to incorporate that feedback.

Ideally, write for yourself because you love the story, not because you want to see it published. If you write primarily with the endgame being publication, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. Whereas, if you write because you just love it, that in itself is a reward—and if publication is in the stars, beauty!

Read. A lot. And read a lot of the type and style you like, and perhaps wish to emulate. Study what makes unconventional or off-the-wall storylines work (or not work) for you, and why. What makes it fall flat for you? What feels contrived? What feels organic? And again, ask “why” for each of those questions. That way, in addition to enjoying the read, each read in and of itself is part of your creative learning process. For example, I love the off-the-wall satirical writing of Carl Hiaasen, and trying to emulate that gave rise to my short story, “The Bionic Lobster,” which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post online—and it was great fun to write!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.