Lilly the Deer: a collaboration with photographer Traer Scott
When I was a child growing up in rural Pennsylvania, it wasn't unusual to see a deer. Often they were in the woods just off the road. It was rare to see just one in those cases: there was usually a small group of them, startled as my own family whizzed past in a car. Or they might come wandering into our yard, looking for fruit, which they found on the trees of our neighbors. We had a huge picture window in our living room, and my mother would call me over: "Look what's in Mrs. Harvey's yard," she would say, adding "I hope they don't try to cross the street." It wasn't unusual to see them dead along the road, but our reaction never seemed as deep as it would be to see a dog along the road. Dogs belonged to the world of humans. Dogs could be missed. Deer were part of the landscape.
I thought of this as I drove from Detroit to Flint a few weeks ago to visit Lilly. I passed two dead deer along the road and gasped with sincere melodrama each time. At the site of the first, my hand actually left the steering wheel to cover my mouth. What had changed in those intervening years? Lilly had gotten me, along with her story. Our meeting, which would be our first, had been arranged through her lawyer; Lilly is a very well-represented deer. I first heard of her last summer, after the State of Michigan dropped by her house and told the humans that Lilly had to go. What fascinated me, initially, was the ethical gray area in which the case was lodged. I understood that people shouldn't have wildlife in their house; there were potential dangers to both the animals and the community. But Lilly had been living in this particular house all her life; her mother had given birth as she lay dying after being hit by a car. After five years, it didn't make any sense at this point to "return" her to a world she had never known and of which she had never been a part.
Lilly the deer's owners say she is just like the family dog. For more GMA, click here: http://gma.yahoo.com/
Don't worry, there is a happy ending. A compromise--a word we rarely seem to hear anymore. Lilly was allowed to stay if the family's house was licensed as a sanctuary. I immediately wanted to tell her story. My friend, the photographer Traer Scott, and I have been wanting to collaborate on a project and this seemed a natural. I had been successful writing about people and their relationships to dogs; Traer was well-known for her photography of both domesticated and wild animals. (Her upcoming book Nocturne is fantastic!) There was so much to tell in Lilly's story: it was about family, it was about love, and it was also, quite frankly, about the wonderfully surreal images we imagined Traer could capture of this modern sort of family: human parents surrounded by pet dogs, a cat and a deer.
But there is no "deer' section in the bookstore, and as we began speaking with potential publishers about "the Lilly project" we found their initial excitement and curiosity diminished after tossing it around the editorial department. They didn't know "where to put it." They didn't know who would read it. They weren't sure if it was for adults or children. One publisher even said that there wasn't any reason for readers to care what happened to a deer.
Excuse me? Although I wouldn't have said this more than a year ago...those are fighting words now. And I love to prove people wrong. So after a year of email correspondence with Lilly's "team" (my words, not theirs), we sat down around the patio with mom, lawyer, Lilly and the dogs to discuss other options. I was nervous, of course, about making a good impression. A good impression on Lilly. "What do you bring a deer on your first meeting?" I asked on Facebook. At the hotel breakfast bar, I hoarded apples, blueberries and raspberries and slipped them into my laptop bag. I probably needed have worried. The dogs and deer had just finished their morning frisbee game as I arrived, and they all greeted me at the door before setting in. (For the record, The Westin's apples are not up to Lilly's standards.)
I want to prove the publishers wrong, and I've done it before. My most successful books have always been the ones people thought would find no readers; my least successful have been the ones publishers thought were a great idea. On the way to Lilly's house, after passing those two poor dead deer, I thought: what if we found a way to do a version of this project on our own terms? It costs money, of course, to publish a book, particularly one with color images. Beyond that, the biggest hurdle is distribution. How do you get the finished product into readers hands? I figured for $10,000 we could get a small version of the book together. In the publishing business this might be considered a blad: a signature of pages shown as a sample of what an expensive-to-produce book will eventually look like. But we could print enough copies to distribute Lilly's story to the readers who might be most likely to respond to it: members of the animal welfare and humane education community. (Note: we also will include information on what to do if you find a wild animal in need of rescue (ie. don't bring it home with you!)
This is the scary part. Our Kickstarter has launched and now I have 28 days to find out whether I'm right or I'm wrong.