Thanks so much to Deb Olin Unferth for chatting with us about her new novel, Barn 8, released last month from Graywolf Press.
EcoLit Books: For your article “Cage Wars,” published by Harper’s in 2014, your research included visiting a commercial egg farm and watching unedited footage of undercover investigations. A lot of information portrayed in the article, from horrific farming practices to the social lives of chickens, is also woven into Barn 8. How did this research affect you — both personally, and as a novelist making choices about what to include in the book?
Deb Olin Unferth: The book came before the article. That is, I had the idea for the book but I needed facts. If I was going to write such a crazy plot, I wanted to be as accurate as possible. Ideally, everything I described could happen. I wrote the article as a way to get AR organizations and farmers to talk to me.
I thought the article would take me a month or two. Instead it turned into a year-long saga of twelve-hour workdays, travel all over the country, more hours than I could count sitting in henhouses, dozens of interviews, piles of books about chickens. And draft after draft after draft of that Harper’s article, as I battled it out with the editor who had little interest in the chickens or undercover investigators or cages, and wanted me to write about “the purity of the egg” (whatever that means) and what might be the safest way to consume eggs. Ha! I kept telling her, “Well, I’m vegan. One thing I’m not going to write about is the safest way to consume eggs.”
EcoLit Books: I love this! Given society’s denial about what animals suffer in the ag industry, I feel that “Cage Wars,” which every human who eats eggs should read before consuming another one, really needed to be researched and written by a vegan, in order to get to the truth. As a vegan novelist writing for mainstream—i.e., presumably mostly omnivore—readers, did you have any similar battles during the editorial process for Barn 8, or any moments during the writing process that made you think about the book’s audience?
Deb Olin Unferth: No, not really. I wasn’t writing an expose. I wanted to write a fun, cool novel, and one from my point of view, which includes the understanding that we can’t ever own another living being. They aren’t ours to own. I didn’t feel the need to write a ton in the novel about the conditions that hens live in. I did add some description, mostly for plot reasons, but my purpose was slightly different than for the Harper’s article. On the other hand, the book is about a million chickens and three hundred activists—so I wound up writing a lot about chickens and activists! My editor for the novel was incredible, and he encouraged me to take it all as far as I wanted. More madness! More chickens! He wanted it all.
EcoLit Books: Speaking of a million chickens and three hundred activists: How did you decide on those crazy numbers? Did you always have a large-scale rescue in mind?
Deb Olin Unferth: Yes! The book arrived whole in my mind. I got this image in my mind of all the birds leaving a barn. It was the kind of logic/illogic when you’re in a traffic jam and you think, “Why don’t the people at the front just go faster?” I thought, “What if we simply took all the chickens out?” And then I had to figure out how to make it happen. At first it was only one barn, but then as I researched and calculated, I realized it had to be an entire farm.
EcoLit Books: One plot twist in the novel struck me as unusual—without giving too much away, a group of activists harms some animals. In reality, activists usually take great care not to harm any animal—human or non-human—during direct actions. What made you decide to have these characters take this action, despite the consequences?
Deb Olin Unferth: Yeah, that moment you’re talking about, that was tricky, but I knew early on that I wanted that group of people in there, for contrast, in a way. It was so outrageous what they did. Clearly they were now taking part in this direct action not for the sake of the individual animals, but for the idea of it, almost for the aesthetics. It was about pride, honor, control. One person was in charge, and she was leading a tiny cult. So they weren’t real activists. They were cultists. I don’t know if you’ve ever been accused of being extremist or crazy or sanctimonious or hypocritical for your beliefs about animals? I have, and I’ve never understood it. My beliefs seem to me to be so sane and logical. I liked having a little group in there for a moment who really is all of those things.
EcoLit Books: The novel begins with Janey’s story, then broadens to adopt several other points of view—was this always your plan, or did the characters and point of view evolve during the writing process?
Deb Olin Unferth: It was always the plan. Janey is the practically the only person in the book who isn’t an expert on chickens and the layer hen industry. Everyone else is an activist or a farmer or an auditor or in some other way connected to the industry. So she kind of waltzes in, representing the reader, into this world. And then you see what’s happening from all these different perspectives, almost a cubist portrait of this event. But Janey is the key, the person carrying us through to the other side. That was the plan, but I didn’t realize just how many voices were going to be involved! It was a lot! I kept thinking of more and more and more. At one point even the wind has a point of view.
EcoLit Books: What has been your favorite bit of feedback about the novel so far—whether from readers or reviewers?
Deb Olin Unferth: Jeff Sebo, the director of the animal studies M.A. program at NYU—I know him a tiny bit, have met him a few times—wrote me a list of times that he “almost cried” while reading the book.
Midge Raymond is a co-founder of Ashland Creek Press. She is the author of the novel My Last Continent and the award-winning short story collection Forgetting English.