1. How can you write fables now? Aren't fables supposed to be old?
MH True, we've been writing fables in virtually every culture for 3,000 years. But each era needs its own.
Aesop's 6th-century B.C. Greece was brutal and corrupt, and a woman couldn't own a donkey, let alone a company.
Jean de la Fontaine, in 17th-century France, nailed absolute social and economic power in a monarchy. Might makes right.
In the 20th century, James Thurber fought the Battle of the Sexes before we redrew the battle lines. George Orwell's Animal Farm shaped history by exposing Communism's downside.
But in the 21st century, women have rights, America's trying to make a democracy work, and Communists aren't on our ballot. We need fables that explore our own issues. We need an American Aesop.
2. What’s the difference between a fable and a short story?
MH. Both are short fiction forms using dramatic characters, conflict, plot, setting, point of view, story arc, but two technical differences distinguish them.
First, their protagonists: A fable's main character lives 24/7 by a philosophy of life that is socially or psychologically significant (shared by many or hot politically). A short story's protagonist "represents" only himself—a one-of-a-kind hero, villain, guy-next-door, or weirdo.
Second, a short story has a “turning point” at which the protagonist has all the key information and decides what to do, determining the outcome of the story. A fable has a “testing point” when the protagonist—who has been living by his philosophy or attitude or virtue or flaw since the fable’s first word—meets an ultimate challenge. He behaves as he must, and we see the consequences. He's empowered or devastated. He risks his life so we can save ours.
3. Why do you write fables? Why don’t you write a novel?
MH I wrote novels before I wrote fables. But I love fables because they’re personified logic and analysis. Writing a fable is like solving a real-life puzzle. And I love fables’ spare, pure, musical language; every word counts. They’re fun to read aloud. The characters are fulfilling and fun to spend my days with.
4. Where do you get your ideas for fables?
MH From life. You’ll probably do something that will trigger a fable idea.
5. Why don’t you write out the morals at the end of your fables?
MH My fables have layers of meaning and motivation that a single moral at the end doesn’t capture. Readers like figuring out the meaning for themselves. Besides, we each read a slightly different fable because our life experience and personalities are unique.
Aesop did not write morals at the end of his fables. The whole point was to figure them out. The morals were added later by other people.
6. What authors have influenced you most?
MH In college I was a French and English major, and the French are big on short, tight, philosophical writing. My favorites were Voltaire, Camus, St. Exupery. In English, Mark Twain and James Thurber were key influences. I think “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a perfect short story.
My favorite authors are Vladimir Nabokov, Anne Tyler, Annie Proulx, David Sedaris, Richard Adams, J.D. Salinger, John Irving, and Khaled Hosseini.
7. If you’re a fabulist, why did you write a book about birders?
MH I’m a birder, myself, out every weekend watching birds with other people. And because I’m always observing people, looking for characters for fiction, I couldn’t help noticing other birders and their philosophies of birding.
That book was truly fun to write and illustrate. This Theorying Owl on the right is the birder I am. Proudly.
Twenty-two fables for the 21st century
Carolyn See called these fables "hedonistic and luxurious" in her Los Angeles Times review.
Birders watch birds--and other birders. That's the premise of Margaret Harmon's laugh-out-loud parody in classic field guide format. It identifies our favorite companions on the trail--and the few we'd like to strangle.
"[It shows] why birding is so much fun." BIRDING Magazine