Issue 038 Author Interview: Maria Zoccola and “The Zoo”

New week, new interview from our latest issue. Today we chat with Maria Zoccola about her story “The Zoo.”

LSQ: In the pre-Peace scenes, you paint the picture of poor zoo animal welfare. In a way, one could argue that a holographic zoo is “better” in that sense, and yet, as Ray ponders, it’s a matter of “nearly”: nearly the same, but not. It’s complicated, isn’t it? Is it better to be fake with no problems or real with all the problems reality has? Can you share some of your thoughts on this?

Maria: When I began drafting “The Zoo”, I was trying to write a story where I could dump all my unhappy vegan thoughts on captive wildlife. While the story grew to be quite a bit more than a big ol’ lecture from yours truly, that’s still the heart of the piece: the relationship between Ray/humanity with the elephant/wild animal captivity. A common solution I’ve heard for the end of zoos is to use technology as a replacement: all the education with none of the little pens and for-profit animal husbandry. And the counter-argument I’ve heard, again and again, is that a zoo with no animals would be no zoo at all, because people want to bring their kids to see the tigers, not a screen or a holo or a plastic model. People want animals, no matter the cost. And it’s not the people who are paying. I could talk for a long, long time about corruption and abuse at zoos both roadside and accredited, but I encourage everyone to do their own research. None of the animal abuse in this story is my own invention; it’s all real. Zoos suck. Yes, even the one you’re thinking of right now, the one from your childhood, where you ran up and down the park paths with your mom. Yep. That one too.

LSQ: Yours is a story set in the future, but far enough ahead that it’s set in post-war recovery where citizens are thriving once again. We typically don’t see the story beyond the dystopian future where civilization is once again functioning. What was behind your decision for this setting in time and place?

Maria: There’s a lot of really great science fiction predicated on the idea of a great big War that destroyed everything and catapulted humanity into space. I love those stories. I also love the stories set closer to home, where there’s a great big War that beats everyone down for a while, but since humans are humans, we all get up and brush ourselves off. I think real-life human history makes a pretty good argument for those stories. We’re a feisty bunch.

LSQ: Ray pines for the old war days, as if then, at least there was something to live for. How does this speak to generational differences seen today? What does this say about the strength and sometimes the distortion of nostalgia?

Maria: We’ve all grown up with elders bemoaning the state of the kids these days. Shoot, I’m nowhere near old enough to qualify for elder-status, but I spend my workdays with a roomful of middle schoolers, and I do plenty of bemoaning myself. Kids these days, with their tech nativism and their Instagram feeds! Why, in my day, we had to wait for our mamas to get off the phone before we could dial up the internet. All those old stories from our parents and grandparents: uphill both ways, no air conditioning, draft notices in the mail. You kids don’t know what it was like! All this said, of course, with a grin and a sigh and a far-off gaze.

I’m being flip. Let me be serious.

Ray’s constant question in this story is what is missing from his holo zoo. He finally discovers the answer when reliving a memory from his past: the elephant performing tricks, abused and scarred. What’s missing from the future he’s found himself in? At the risk of spoiling my own story, the answer is suffering. Suffering, like a pair of prescription glasses, sharpens the whole world. It’s what we remember. It’s what we begrudge others for not having experienced, whether we mean to or not. The slow internet, sure, but also the war, the fear, the trauma. Kids these days, with their full bellies and their smartphones. We can’t stand it. We fought so hard for them not to live like we did, and in doing so we have othered them from ourselves.

LSQ: Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

Maria: I’ve been vegan for approximately a thousand years, so I have a lot of bottled-up feelings. I also devoured The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, which is the most magnificent story about a zoo in wartime.

LSQ: What was the most challenging aspect of this story to write and why?

Maria: For me, ending a short story always takes three times as a long as beginning one.