By Sarah Evans
John Morano, Professor of Journalism at Monmouth University in NJ, is author of the Morano Eco-Adventure series and one of our featured authors in this issue. I was grateful to have some of his time to learn more about his career, using his craft to shed light on environmental issues, and the poignancy of his characters.
I was curious to know what drew John, film critic turned environmental advocate, away from covering movie premieres, writing about the stars at the AMAs, the Grammys. John certainly thrived on the exhilaration. But there was something missing.
After a while, he started to think. “These are movies,” he said, “I love movies, but there are bigger stories—there are more important things to write about. I asked myself, ‘Are you going to spend the rest of your life writing about someone else? Or is someone else going to be writing about something that you do?’”
Something was trying to take hold of him, and he couldn’t shake it. He knew he needed to write about it—once he figured out what it was.
Spring break arrived during his graduate studies at Penn State, and John was upset with himself. He was already 26, and he hadn’t written a book yet. He didn’t have the story he needed. But the inspiration would soon arrive.
While at his parents’ home in Florida, John caught an unusual story on the news: a specific species of hamster was going extinct.
The woman on the screen stood in front of a cage containing the very last member of that species on Earth. Imagine being the last one, he thought.
And what is more dramatic than extinction?
A Voice for the Voiceless
The remainder of John’s spring break passed in the public library examining endangered and threatened species.
“I had found this animal called the Guadalupe Island petrel,” says Morano. “I had grown up on the beach and this was an ocean bird. It went extinct in 1911—that was the last time they were seen.” It turns out that the bird became extinct by accident.
“[People] weren’t paying attention, they didn’t really care.”
The petrel lived on the Guadalupe islands off the coast of Mexico. This spoke to John’s memories from childhood, growing up on the south shore of Long Island, in the bays, and on the beaches.
“Because it had evolved on the island, it nested in the open with no fear of predators. Men would stop at the island for fresh water, or hunt for meat, and left behind cats, rats, pigs. These animals decimated their nests, and they became extinct quickly.”
John had found his character in the petrel named Lupe, and his passion for journalism fueled the fire.
“That’s the foundational cornerstone of what this is—I’m writing creative literature, but it is journalism. These are real creatures, real habitats, real environmental issues. And truth is stronger than fiction. My stories are about 85% true; sprinkle in some fantasy and some fiction, and it becomes great.”
“Journalism, when it’s done well, often gives a voice to the voiceless; [we] speak for those who can’t speak for themselves, and who is in more need of a voice than an endangered species or an imperiled habitat?”
Reporting on the truth also gives John the opportunity to craft allegory into his work, to comment on our own conditions, and affect change.
Animals as Superheroes
Lupe’s story took shape into A Wing and a Prayer, the petrel who believes he might be the last of his kind, followed by three other novels in the Eco-Adventure series. John’s characters are superheroes, he says, and continually inspire him. He mentioned the X-men, Batman, Black Panther—countless other heroes are modeled after animals.
John rattled off an extraordinary series of traits about the female octopus—the protagonist of his second Eco-Adventure novel, Makoona.
The octopus has eight arms lined with suckers, which it can release at will if it is being attacked and regenerate later. It has three hearts. It can alter the color and texture of its skin and employ jet propulsion.
The aspects of these underrated superheroes in the animal kingdom are real—“they are here, [and they] tend to be overlooked,” said Morano, and Binti, whose name is Swahili for courage, drives the story.
“The reason I pick a female octopus… Well, we need more female protagonists. You will almost never see a female octopus that’s much more than a year or two old. The males you’ll see. You can see them year after year. Females don’t get past two years.”
Female octopi like Binti take extreme measures to ensure that their young may live—or at least as many as possible out of the thousands of eggs they produce. “Every single female octopus gives birth exactly one time, because she starves herself to death, so her young can live. Anything that wants to get to those eggs has to go through her.”
Beyond his efforts at highlighting incredible, endangered species in his novels, John has also built a universe for his characters that is inclusive, diverse, and speaks to all readers.
“Rather than have [a book series like] Harry Potter, say, [I] leave main characters in their book and take a supporting character in the next book, and give them the stage.”
Supporting characters, now protagonists, might be faced with the same challenges, but they approach them differently, or see their role a bit differently, than the previous character in the previous book.
John’s characters entertain, inspire, and highlight the plight of extraordinary species on our planet that we may not see again if we remain indifferent about our role in affecting their habitats and threatening their future.
After leaving the world of celebrities, John’s studies and writing career have involved international research in Bermuda, experiences among wolves in Colorado, and have garnered endorsements from the World Wildlife Fund and The Ocean Conservancy.
He has also authored a textbook for aspiring film critics that he uses in his own classes, Don’t Tell Me the Ending!, and has served as the founding Editor-in-Chief of ROCKbeat Magazine, managing editor of Modern Screen Magazine, and senior editor of Inside Books Magazine.