Wednesday, September 10, 2008

An Interview with Diane Ackerman

Through my work with Writer's Digest, I am often given license to root through some fascinating literary minds - none more so than that belonging to Diane Ackerman. Starting out as a widely admired poet, Ackerman took her deeply lyrical use of language and combined it with a talent for interpreting scientific knowledge to produce A Natural History of the Senses, a collection of essays on our perceptual equipment that became a surprise best-seller in 1990. She has since applied her unique package of talents to such topics as the human mind, the animal world, the history of love and the sources of creativity. I had the chance to interview her for WD articles on author-poet "double-threats" and the application of brain science to creativity. Her answers were like small poems, ink candy, so beautifully wrought that, frankly, I felt like I was cheating. She made my job too easy.

Ackerman's latest venture is narrative non-fiction. The Zookeeper's Wife (2007, W.W. Norton) chronicles the use of the Warsaw Zoo as a hiding place for Jews during World War II. In a sense, the story is right up Diane's alley. Her descriptions of the animal population, of Polish culture, and of the attempts of Nazi scientists to re-create extinct species through back-breeding are filled with the same sense of wonder and precision that imbue her essays.

Ironically, it was precisely that fascinating brain that kep me from finally meeting Diane in person. She was scheduled to appear at a bookstore near my hometown of San Jose, but suffered a concussion and couldn't make the flight. Still, she was gracious enough, as always, to answer a few questions.

MJV: How did you come upon this remarkable story? Was it something that you've been considering for a long time?

DA: Decades ago, I proposed an essay for National Geographic that would carry me into the primeval forest skirting Poland's border with Russia, to see animals of the sort paleolithic artists painted in ochre on the cave walls at Lascaux. I'd heard that a few living fossils-- including ancestral horses-- were still running around this Polish preserve, and also that they had something to do with Nazi perversity.But I didn't know, when I proposed the story of ancient horses in Bialowieza Forest to my editor at NG, that I was sharing some of Adolf Hitler's, Hermann Göring's, and zoologist Lutz Heck's passion to revive extinct animals. NG had a photographer sailing to French Frigate Shoals, in the Hawaiian archipelago, to chronicle the last few monk seals left on earth (they used to pepper the Mediterreanean, Caribbean, and South Pacific) and he dispatched me there instead. But over the next fifteen years, all sorts of miscellaneous facts, lore, insights, and other fare began to accrete, until I rejoined my quest where I'd left it, on the trail of horses, bison and Nazis, and layer by layer, a bizarre fascinating story began emerging.

MJV: How did you find the shift from your more essay-style works to a narrative form?

DA: I had to learn how to write narrative nonfiction, but many of its elements were familiar, since I'd written a lot of nonfiction prose about studying animals in the wild, which required merging drama, conversations, facts, observations.

MJV: The amount of detail is (no surprise) just amazing. How much time and effort went into the research for this? Did you do any traveling to investigate things first-hand?

DA: Because The Zookeeper's Wife is nonfiction, I couldn't make anything up, but I needed to detail the sensory texture of daily life at the zoo in Warsaw for this particular woman. So I saturated myself in Antonina's world and the era. In Poland, I spent time at the Warsaw Zoo and in the villa where the Zabinskis lived; followed Antonina's footsteps down some of the streets she wrote about; spoke with people at the Warsaw Zoo; interviewed the Zabinskis' son; spoke with women, now in their eighties, who served in the Underground during the war; visited outlying cities and Bialowieza Forest; located the insect collection that plays an important part in the story, and visited other relevant sites and museums. I read a sea of books, interviews, and testimonies-- by and about people who witnessed the holocaust-- and studied WWII history, armaments, cuisine, leaders, airplanes, medicine, architecture, fashion, music, films and such. And I studied the sounds and smells and behaviors of the animals that the Zabinskis adopted as pets and those they tended in the zoo. I had great fun learning about Polish plants and animals and folk customs. The whole process was completely fascinating and absorbing.

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