An Interview with Bill Broun on Night of the Animals
Words By Bill Broun, Interviewed by Dani Hedlund
Thank you for writing this wonderful book. I absolutely adored it.
Thank you. It amazes me when anyone says something like that. A couple years ago, it seemed like it was not going to happen.
I can definitely tell how much time when into it. You’ve packed so much into it, so I can definitely see that it has been a labor of love for many years.
It was hellishly difficult in terms of all the work that went into it. And, honestly, at times it was not so much a labor of love as this feeling—if I didn’t finish it, I was doing something wrong. In some ways, it was almost penitential. It was like I felt like I had to finish it, to make amends in some weird way. And I don’t even understand that to this day. But definitely, I felt driven.
So talk to me about where this story came from, the initial inspiration.
For many years, I’ve written about down-and-out people. Mostly writing about people who have problems with housing, street people—almost everyone is an addict of some sort, in some sort of trouble with their addiction. That was already a character area that I was really dedicated to.
In the late 90s, I developed a set of friends who were all people who had schizophrenia—and I, myself, had problems with mental health. When I was 19, I was hospitalized, then again when I was 25. I found a lot of meaning in friendships with people who had mental illness. For one reason or another, and I don’t know why, they were attracted to me
So I had this little group of friends who were schizophrenic and sometimes we would do social things. We would sometimes do things like go to the zoo or have an outing, like going to dinner. I started going to the Houston Zoo in Hermann Park. And one really close friend, who has schizophrenia—well, we were separated temporarily. I found him talking to these howler monkeys from South America. It just blew me away. There was something about the sincerity of what he was saying and the gentleness in his talking to the animals. It was a spark.
And then I started reading stories in the news; I started researching this and there were a number of stories of young people, usually young men, who had gotten into various zoo enclosures. There was a famous case in London from 1992 where a man named Ben Silcock got into the lion enclosure and he was mauled. Similar cases are all over the world, too. Anywhere where there are zoos. One of the things I learned about schizophrenia is that there are patterns which you will see repeated in people with the illness. I noticed often an obsession with religious themes. Many times, the people who were getting into these enclosures had a kind of religious motivation. At least in their minds, they did. If you Google ‘schizophrenic’ or ‘schizophrenia’ and ‘zoo enclosure,’ you’ll see some of these cases. They sometimes ended tragically. So I was interested in those. My friend at the Houston Zoo was, at the time, in relatively good health and had no notion of breaking into the zoo but he felt like he was talking to the animals. I found it really moving.
Rarely do I find literary fiction that plays with genre as interestingly as this book does. You’ve set this story in the future. You have very cool sci-fi tech elements, as well as many wonderful moments that could count as fantasy, yet I’d say this is still branded as literary fiction. Talk to me about how some of the sci-fi and fantasy elements kind of bleed into the novel.
I was writing about something that I wanted to read. It’s not so much apocalyptic worlds but worlds which may seem very plausible in the future. I don’t think of them as a doom and gloom kind of apocalypse. You know the word apocalypse, etymologically, relates to the idea of revealing or disclosing, and I’m very interested in that idea of the future. Our eyes will be open in new ways. At the same time, I was very obsessed about my grandfather. He died long before I was born and I somehow started dipping into these two worlds and I started dipping into the future and the past in Britain and the big key was to have someone who lived long enough to experience both of those.
In terms of fiction, it seemed completely implausible. But then the writer Mary Gaitskill, who was a mentor to me as I was writing this book, reminded me that I can do what I want with fiction. It’s fiction, after all. As implausible as it seemed to me to make a man, who is 90 years old, break into to the zoo, I just started to construct it. I said, “You know what? I want this character.” And I started to really like him and, to me, he seemed real. It didn’t seem implausible once he seemed real, if that makes sense? Once he seemed believable, in terms of his fiction existence as a character, he seemed more believable to me medically and scientifically.
One of the things I find very interesting about the element of wonder, and this goes back to what you’re talking about with blending the future in with the past, is this idea that it’s been passed down from grandmother to grandson and switching generations. Where did the mythology for that come from? Is that something you researched and discovered or is it completely your own creation?
It’s not all my own creation, to be honest with you. It really right comes out of folklore. I did some research on Northern European folklore and especially English folklore. I looked really deep into the folklore and language of the area where the novel is first set, around northern Worcestershire, where my father was born, in 1929. It’s a really complicated area—it’s close to this area called the Marches, which is a border between Wales and England. You have this mixing of the ancient Celtic and Welsh culture and then Britain’s, going back to Mercia and the Roman Culture and then obviously the Normans. The Saxons, also. They all come together in this interesting way and the folklore really reflects that.
My wife is a Victorianist, and she’s a poet too, so she’s interested in these questions and does translations. So this is floating around the household, in a way. Just as an example: right now, my wife is doing research on her second book which involves dialect poetry from the 19th century. Some of the books she looks at are very similar to some of what I looked at. I was lucky enough to start most of the writing of my book when I was teaching at Yale and they have really incredible libraries there. I was able to really easily get books from the 19th century that really hadn’t had that much attention. And my dad’s from that area too, so that’s also part of it.
Where did the idea of all the suicide cults come from?
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, there were quite of a few mass suicides that got a lot of attention. Heaven’s Gate happened 1997. It was around the same season as the novel’s setting, just before May Day—the novel just transposes it way into the future. That guy was actually from Houston, Marshall Applewhite, and he was a real person. What happened was very well documented in the news and Heaven’s Gate is still around.
I studied Heaven’s Gate and I read all the material on them I could find. I have an interest in alternative communities and cults. Not from a negative perspective, but going back to anthropology from college, from more an academic approach. Heaven’s Gate cult became obsessed with a comet, Hale-Bopp. My book hews very close to this, with a made-up comet. Some of Applewhite’s dialogue is very similar to things he said in news reports.
I was quite young when Heaven’s Gate went down. Is the idea of killing the animals part of the original cult or is that something you fabricated?
It’s sort of an extension of their mythology. The thing about Heaven’s Gate is that they practice castration. There was something I found so tender and beautiful about Marshall Applewhite and his perspective and his caring about his fellow cult members. But, at the same time, just completely self-hating. That clicked with me because one thing that interests me is the damage of guilt. How we hide it. Marshall Applewhite and his cult members went beyond self-denial to self-destruction. One of the things that he writes about in his treatises is this denial of our animal nature, our human nature. He had this idea that if we got rid of our human bodies, we could naturally ascend up to this vehicle that was in space, in the comet. That’s all from the Heaven’s Gate cult. One of the ways to ensure that is to make sure that there are no other vehicles around. Night of the Animals, for me, is kind of extending his philosophy.
One of the most intriguing parts of this book is the very fine line that you walk between whether these fantastical things are happening or your main character is just going crazy. How did you walk that tightrope?
It was really hard. That, without question, is where the real art comes in, where I crafted every sentence really carefully. I had enormous help from my editor, Megan Lynch. She’s a genius, by the way, if I can just say that? It was really tricky and required a lot of crafting, trying to have it both ways at once in a way that worked.
To talk about the scope of the book—when did you start writing it and how was the process of seeing it through to print?
I started thinking about it seriously in 2000 and it was really just an idea. I lived in London when I started it. Then I moved back home. I had lived there for four years. Annmarie and I both lived there. We got married in Britain and we moved to Yale and lived on campus. We were resident fellows. But that’s when I really started the heavy work of writing. In Britain, when I started conceptualizing the novel, I would just write little bits here and there. I think it took 14 years because I started noodling around in 2002 and then I re-wrote it completely two times.
Looking at the first draft that you finished and then at the finished book, what was the biggest change that you made?
The biggest change is: it’s set in the future. It was a story of a homeless man who was in present-day London. I felt like the creative equivalent of a particle collider where I was under so much pressure to finish the book and make it work that I finally just cracked open and exploded into science fiction. I never planned to write science fiction. If you dig around, you can find some short stories I’ve written on the web and their really social realism, naturalism. They’re almost Jean Genet kind of things, with drunk people and recovering people in these extreme situations, but it’s very much in the world that we know. We talked about my friend talking to animals as an emotional spark; I had another spark. I had a book of short stories that I felt was ready for publication in 1999. It came really close. I had this horribly awkward meeting with Faber and Faber in London (I cringe to this day, thinking about it) and everything was looking really positive. I was so anxious about it and in the end they did not take my book. I remember I wore a suit to that meeting. I thought, you know, my working-class background, you wear a suit. No one else did.
It was really hard and crushing. I was just devastated. I think, out of the anger of that and anger at myself and at the world, I was like, “fuck Britain.” It kind of tied in a little bit with stuff with my family and my English father. My father and I have had, at times, a very difficult relationship, although he’s very proud of this book. I was like, “I’m letting the animals out of the London Zoo. If I can’t do it in real life, then I’m doing it in a book. Take that, London!”
And so, in some ways, it was all that negativity and pain and hurt, it all just got a breaking point where I’m like, “I’m doing science fiction.” And it’s very liberating. I felt like I was finally brought into the world of the book rather than making the world. It kind of grabbed me and pulled me in.
That’s great. It’s always easier to get a short story collection published after you get a novel out. So fingers crossed.
Fingers crossed. Absolutely. And by the way, Night of the Animals, despite all the critical acclaim (it received starred reviews in all four pre-pub journals) and all the crazy attention it’s been getting and its British setting and characters—has yet to find a UK publisher.
Talk to me about how you finally found representation for Night of the Animals.
I was definitely helped by Mary Gaitskill. She was my primary reader. I also had a lot of help from the novelist Marian Thurm, who is a very different kind of writer than I. She writes books that are about sophisticated, well-educated people in New York City. We’ve become very good friends over the years. She was reading drafts of the novel. But Mary and I worked really closely. It was very emotional. She does not pull punches. She was my teacher when I was an MFA student at Houston. I thought I had finished the novel and I showed it to her and I could tell that she thought it was good but that there were problems. So she pushed me to not give up on it. She was just relentless in her belief in my writing. And also my wife, Annmarie. These women always thought I should keep working on it and never once suggested that I should do something else, no matter how bad things got. So I finished this third draft in 2014 and Mary was over the moon about it. She said, “I want you do just a couple little things and then I’ll show it to my agent.” We did that one last nipping and tucking with the draft and I sent it to Jin Auh at the Wylie Agency. I was shocked when Jin got back a few days later. She loved the book. She signed me. Within days she had offers coming in.
With Jin, it just seemed to click from the beginning. I don’t know, for me, I need utter reassurance. I’m kind of a high-maintenance and kind of a baby, I guess. Megan Lynch – my editor at Ecco – and my wife, Annmarie, and Mary Gaitskill – none of them ever seemed to flag even for a second in their support of my writing. Never once. I don’t know what other people need but I found I need that. If you write, I think you need to find the people who believe in you and your dreams. If they don’t believe in you, you need to find some other people!
That’s sage advice. Here’s the last question I like to ask our authors. I have an author friend who always says, “It’s not about sales. It’s not about the money or your spot on NPR. It’s about being able to take one message and purport it through your literature.” So anytime he writes a book, he distills it down to the one thing he wanted to say. What do you think is the one thing you wanted to say with this book?
That’s a really tantalizing and great question. God works through people and animals. That’s what it would be.