The Crowtagonist at the End of the World: Talking with Kira Jane Buxton
Kira Jane Buxton’s Hollow Kingdom (Grand Central Publishing, August 2019) is making big waves in the literary world. Told from the point of view of a domesticated crow named S.T., readers are led into a post-apocalyptic Seattle to search for answers as to why humans are turning into zombies.
But this is not just another zombie book. In a time when climate change threatens every creature’s way of life, when thousand-year floods and catastrophic wildfires are devastating landscapes and lives, Hollow Kingdom is a tale with an ominous and real warning. Delivered with humor and intelligence, Hollow Kingdom shows us the most literal repercussions of nature’s commercialization. As S.T. says in the book: “life isn’t the same once you learn how deeply a tree feels.”
I came for the Cheetos-loving crow but stayed for the lush writing, and in the end, I was left in tears. So how does a writer with a talent for the literary make a reader laugh, cry, and reconsider both their impact on the planet and the way we look at novel genres? Kira Jane Buxton, a writer with publication credits in the New Yorker online, the New York Times, and more, gives us an idea.
After talking over email, Kira met me at the Woodland Park Zoo, a central setting in her book. Walking through the trails and past animal enclosures provided an eerie reminder of what happens in Hollow Kingdom within that very space. During our visit, we spoke about crows, conservation, and craft.
The Rumpus: I know you have a coterie of animals you hang out with. How did they inform Hollow Kingdom?
Kira Jane Buxton: I have an indoor menagerie—three cats and a bearded dog—and I have also befriended wild birds, including a charm of hummingbirds, two juncos, and two crows. Although Hollow Kingdom is narrated by a crow, there are interstitial chapters that follow other animals around the world. One of them is a tabby named Genghis Cat, who is based upon one of my own cats—a tyrannical tabby I worship. Winnie the Poodle is based on a pampered poodle I know and love. My two crows (a mated pair) informed some of the behaviors and idiosyncrasies of S.T. (my crowtagonist). I spend more time with animals than I do people—at a party, I’m the girl in the corner consorting with the host’s golden retriever or goldfish.
Rumpus: Thousands of crows live in the Seattle area. Did S.T. come from your exchanges with your local flock? Or were your interactions with them a result of wanting to learn more about your “crowtagonist?”
Buxton: I had already started writing Hollow Kingdom when I developed a relationship with my crows. Certainly, spending as much time researching corvids and imagining the voice and motivation of a crowtagonist inspired me to spend time watching what my local murder was doing. I’m closer to the female crow of the mated pair. I’ve been delighted and inspired by how different their personalities are. The male crow is sweet, but aloof and rightfully leery of humans. He’s highly observant, eerily intelligent, and a very good partner to her. I watch him warning her about surrounding dangers—whether it’s a red-tailed hawk or approaching humans. The female is a goofball, clumsy, and full of sass—we have lots in common!
Rumpus: Do you write in their presence?
Buxton: I tend to write inside and the birds are outside, but uncannily, my crows seem to always know where I am in the house. They call for me if they want me to come outside. My female crow seems to find the inordinate amount of time I spend sitting pretty tedious—more than once, she has perched outside my writing room and started to shuffle and flap her wings to flush me out. Spending time with them does tend to spark ideas and inspiration, which sometimes leads to delicious writing insights. More importantly, they lift my spirits and put me in a playful mood which directly affects the energy of my writing.
Rumpus: You are very specific when describing nature in the book. Trees aren’t just trees; they are Norway maples, Douglas firs, and madrones. Birds are glaucous-winged gulls, red-breasted nuthatches, and Anna’s hummingbirds. How important are these distinctions for you?
Buxton: That has to do with reverence. I’m enamored of the biodiversity that makes up the natural world, passionate about getting to know our neighbors better. We have a tendency toward anthropocentric storytelling, which is wonderful, but only a fraction of the truth. Learning about plant and animal consciousness, the names we’ve given them, their attributes, their artful methods of survival, makes me feel closer to them. That’s what I want—intimacy. In naming things, we honor them, we dignify them with our attention. It’s a way to bridge a gap in our understanding of them and how they experience the world. It’s a way to instill empathy in the seer. I crave those delicious details in literature—I am not given much by the descriptor of “bird” or “tree,” but by calling on specificity, I can visualize the sunset pastel colors of a cedar waxwing or envision the evergreen stateliness of a Douglas fir.
Rumpus: In line with this, your characters are incredibly rich. Which came first, the premise or characters?
Buxton: The premise came first. I knew I wanted to write about crows, but couldn’t figure out how. The premise hit me one day. What if something happened to the human race and a crow was left to tell our story and navigate what came next? I was so excited and terrified by the challenge of it that I wrote the first chapter in an ecstatic frenzy. S.T.’s voice came through clear as a bell, vulgar as a sailor. Many characters were total surprises—Angus the Highland Cow exploded onto the page as I was attempting to voice a hummingbird. Big Jim was originally a little boy (small Jim). I wanted to honor each species with research, to get the details right. It mattered to me that each voice was authentic, which took a combination of research and listening to my intuition about whether or not a particular animal would express themselves in a certain way.
Rumpus: Did you ever consider telling Hollow Kingdom from a third-person point of view? And why the glimpses at other poetic forms and PoVs in the interstitial chapters?
Buxton: I wanted to experience the inner thoughts of a crow and I wanted it to feel as authentic as possible given that they are my favorite birds and I spend so much time with them. I wanted a bird’s eye view of our own species and a fresh take on the world around us—both the natural world and the devastation caused by humans. The first crow voice allowed me to explore the particular dilemma of being a crow who has eschewed the natural world and the conundrum of belonging when you struggle with identity issues. Once I had the premise and I started writing as S.T., there was no turning back—he was vociferous and opinionated and I trusted him to guide us through some difficult truths and a great adventure. As for the interstitial chapters, I wanted a world view and I was hungry to hear what other animals felt about the world around them.
Rumpus: Everyone is always so eager to place books into categories. Your novel seems to live in a place where the literary merges with genre. Did you have a hard time combining the two—both in writing Hollow Kingdom and in trying to get the book published?
Buxton: I didn’t have a hard time merging genres because (perhaps naively) I didn’t think about it. I wrote this novel because I had to write it; it was burning inside me. I was committed to telling the story as it came, without the weight of where it might fit on a bookstore shelf or how it could be pitched to a publisher. I put the story first. I wrote it at the risk of it never being read by anyone. I love humor and I love literary prose—why can’t both be featured in a novel? Why can’t something have a deep emotional register and feature horror elements? Why not be experimental and risky with our fiction; isn’t that the point and part of the fun of it? Merging genres was organic, a conflation of the elements of fiction I love most. When I queried agents, there was an overwhelmingly positive response to the premise. Many said that although they loved the book, they didn’t know how they could sell it given that they hadn’t seen anything like it. Ultimately, I was offered representation and then received multiple offers from publishers. I consider it a badge of honor when I hear, “I’ve never read anything like this,” but that’s not what I set out to do. I set out to write about a little crow I loved, to tell a story about our connection to nature, and I had a lot of fun doing it.
Rumpus: Speaking of genre, often we hear the term “world-building” more in reference to genre writing than in literary fiction. Again, you’ve combined the two so well and created an entire world here. Not only amongst the animals and the changes of the planet, but also with Aura, Echo, and Web, concepts not reliant on human infrastructure.
Buxton: I spent a lot of time imagining the experience of an animal, as well as listening to what was happening outside my front door. There is a vast and rich world of communication happening amongst birds at all times. I listen to the companion calls of two dark-eyed juncos throughout the day as they check in with one another, but once in a while, they’ll sound an alarm call. TSIT! When this happens, I investigated and found a cat slinking into the yard. The worlds of Aura, Echo, and Web are an extension of this idea—that there really is an intricate network of communication between animals that we, as humans, often miss. How wonderful that we have the option to tune in, listen and learn if we care to.
Rumpus: If you read literary magazines and novels, it’s like we are being told to be generic or vague about using real brand names. You very clearly eschew this with details like S.T.’s love of Cheetos—why?
Buxton: It’s partly the specificity that lands a joke when writing humor. “Spray tan” is less funny than “Sally Hansen’s Airbrush Legs.” I also feel that the detail is necessary, evocative, and authentically part of our lives. We are inundated with brand names and marketing—why shouldn’t our fiction reflect that? In the case of Cheetos, it was important to name it because of S.T.’s reverence for it. I love that something as seemingly innocuous as Cheetos could seem like the pinnacle of human culinary achievement. The details are important, they illuminate the human experience and pay homage to the articles that fill our lives.
Rumpus: Hollow Kingdom does a great job balancing serious matters with funny writing. What motivated you to use humor alongside such a dire message?
Buxton: I’ve always been drawn to humor. Life is hard and laughter is a beautiful antidote. Anne Lamott says laughter is carbonated holiness. When tackling difficult topics, like humanity’s extinction, I relied upon S.T.’s bright voice and irrepressible hope to guide me. S.T.’s voice is humorous in part because of his miscalibrations about humans, and in part because he is a playful crow and the symbol of hope in the face of dark things. His humor adds nuance through its innocence or absurdity, it enriches the emotional resonance of a situation. When I think about the times I have been inspired or moved to act upon something, it hasn’t been because I was shamed into it. It’s been because I felt a glimmer of hope and felt more inspired to action by the possibility of a positive outcome. Humor can be deeply moving. Humor has been so essential to me in every aspect of my life.
Rumpus: Throughout the book, we see several mentions of women’s place in our society. Here’s one poignant line: “It seemed that being female meant to be prey.” How intentional was this?
Buxton: I think it was less intentional than necessary and inevitable. Much in the way that Hollow Kingdom is an environmental parable because it is a reflection of what is happening to the natural world around us, an exploration of what it means to be female seems to flow through everything I write. I’m writing about themes that are truths, and the truth is that the female experience is still fraught with terrible inequality, obstacles, and violence. I hope that one day I won’t have to compare women to prey, but a cursory glance at the news or an honest conversation with any woman will remind you that it is a truthful expression and in writing about it, I’m expressing both reality and a fervent hope that things can and should change.
Rumpus: You must’ve done some intense research for this novel. How do you go about sharing what you’ve learned without being pedantic? How do you not include something fascinating you’ve discovered?
Buxton: With this novel, as cliché as it sounds, I followed my passion. Since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by animals and plants. I read nonfiction about the natural world voraciously as I was writing Hollow Kingdom, but would then set it aside and dive back into my fictional world. The animal facts that snuck in are either ones I consciously wanted to share, or they just flowed into the narrative or description because they were authentic to a character’s behavior and fit perfectly within a scene I was writing. It was less about feeling a need to insert them than being excited to share them. I also believe that if the research is a true and honest reflection of a particular character, then you’d be doing them a disservice not to share it. I also maintain that anything I’ve fabricated in my fictional world is not half as interesting as what is happening in nature. All of it is so thrilling!
Rumpus: Want to share a favorite little-known fact about crows?
Buxton: They hold a grudge inter-generationally, so if you anger a crow, he/she will likely tell all his/her family members, their children, their grandchildren. I’ve met people who are unable to visit certain neighborhoods because they’ve pissed off a crow. It’s pretty intense and one of the reasons I adore them—crows are passionate. It behooves us to be nice to them. They’re incredibly smart, fiercely loyal, and, as I’ve learned, make the most wonderful friends.
Rumpus: I felt like Hollow Kingdom was in conversation with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, placed in the intersection of conservation and art. Do you feel a responsibility as an artist to raise awareness and use your art as a mouthpiece?
Buxton: Hollow Kingdom was the book I wrote thinking no one would touch it—I took big risks and explored what I wanted to without the encumbrance of outside expectation or scrutiny. I told the story from the perspective of a crow and christened him Shit Turd. As I wrote, I wasn’t worried about didacticism or political agenda, just what felt natural, what needed to be recognized and talked about. I do feel that artists are at the forefront of social change. Artists should be speaking their minds and exploring cultural questions through their art, using their freedom and creative curiosity to inspire change. I’m very worried about the state of the planet and how disconnected we’ve become from nature. There is no matter more pressing that what is happening to our warming world, to what we’re facing with climate change, and it’s not surprisingly to me that the novel reflects this. It matters that our fiction mirrors and projects our concerns and hopes for a better world. If inspiring empathy for an “other” (in my case, other species) moves people to action, even on a micro level, or if one reader walks away from my book with a mind to be kinder to the creatures around them, then I’ll feel I’ve achieved something. It gives me hope.
Featured photograph of Kira Jane Buxton by Laura Zimmerman Photography. Second photograph provided courtesy of author.