COVINGTON — In his latest science fiction novel, local author Jay Cullis explores the issues of managing invasive species and why people eat some animals and not others.
Cullis, who is also a teacher and musician raising a family and chickens on a farm in Covington, recently published a new novel, “The Shadow of the Chandelier,” which is now available at Jay and Mary’s Book Center in Troy.
A Troy native, Cullis started working in the newspaper business in southern California before getting into teaching. He moved back to Miami County in 2011, where he started teaching at the Miami Montessori School.
He wrote his first book, “Ott Rising,” quickly as an example of how to write a blog for his students. He updated the young adult fantasy story in installments several times a week and eventually self-published the story.
His second book, “The Shadow of the Chandelier,” took a little longer. He started working on it in 2013 and had a little more than half of it written when he and his wife had their first child in 2014.
“I spent the next couple of years slowly chipping away at it,” he said.
Inspired in part by raising chickens, a fascination with invasive species and a love of sci-fi, the book explores what happens when aliens crash in a field near Columbus and become an unexpected problem.
“Every day they reproduce by the thousands. And there’s no indication that they’re trying to take over. They’re not dangerous, they don’t seem to be intelligent. They just become a nuisance,” Cullis explained.
In trying to figure out what to do with this rapidly reproducing invasive species, a businessman realizes that he can market them as a food source.
The story starts about a decade after the aliens’ arrival and follows several characters, including a young woman who gets involved with an activist group trying to liberate the aliens and finds herself labeled as a terrorist.
“There’s a cop trying to find her. Meanwhile, there are some scientists stumbling into answers about where they’ve come from and why they’re here,” he added.
Cullis set out to write the kind of book he would have liked as a young reader and the kind of book he would feel comfortable recommending to his advanced readers.
“I can’t feel comfortable, necessarily, recommending some of these great books that I really like and they could totally handle the reading level, but they’ve got themes that are not appropriate,” he said.
While the book explores some big ideas, it’s aimed at readers of all ages, he said.
It’s also informed by his experiences as a journalist and farmer.
Cullis, who has at various times in his life kept a vegetarian or vegan diet, now raises chickens for eggs and to eat and found himself wondering why we eat the animals that we do.
“I’ve always been fascinated with why we eat some animals and we don’t eat other animals,” he said. “Dogs are eaten all over the world, horses are eaten all over the world. We wouldn’t eat dogs in the United States, but pigs are, to some extent way smarter and more like humans than any other animal that we would consider eating.”
He was also inspired by a student’s research into invasive species.
“He was really interested in Lake Erie — the zebra mussels that are coming in on the boats and they’re invading,” Cullis said.
While working as a journalist in California, he also wrote a series about the state’s struggle to manage an invasive plant species, arundo. The bamboo-like plant was introduced to control erosion, but quickly took over wherever it was planted.
“One of the ways they tried to get rid of it was to burn it. But if you set it on fire, it will explode and it will shoot its segments out and throw seed everywhere,” he said.
He recalled that the only way they could get rid of it was to hire crews of people to hand cut it and paint the stumps with herbicide.
“So all of those things were kind of swirling in my head,” he said. “Like, what would happen if aliens crashed and it was the most boring thing ever? What if it wasn’t like “Independence Day” and they’re hovering over our national monuments, blowing them up? What if they were just really annoying?”
Cullis shopped it around to literary agents, before deciding to self-publish and make it available online www.jaycullis.com and at Jay and Mary’s.
“At the end of the day, it’s really about people reading it. I feel like if I’m going to spend that much time writing something, I want somebody to read it,” he said. “I wanted to tap into the people that I knew around here.”
From food and farmers markets to hosting open mic nights and selling his books at a local independent bookstore, Cullis said that he prefers to support his local community.
Cullis can be found, especially when school is out for the summer, performing at local venues and events. He is also the host of an open mic night at The Hotel Gallery in Tipp City, held at 7:30 p.m. every third Friday of the month.
“There’s such great music in Miami County and there’s artists and craftspeople and people putting on music festivals and writing. Just all manner of things,” he said. “I just feel like, if I’m going to live here, I’m going to be a part of that.”
Reach Cecilia Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org.