Author Benjamin Hale on Braveheart, chimp sex and Kafka
We generally don't think much about who is narrating our stories, but in the case of Benjamin Hale's new novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, we have to. Mostly because the narrator is an ape. Hale, who grew up in and around Boulder but who currently lives in New York, will be in town tonight at the Tattered Cover Colfax to read from and talk about the book. We managed to catch up with him beforehand to talk about humor, philosophy, interspecies sex and more.
Westword: Can you talk a little about the premise of the book and how you got to it?
Benjamin Hale: When I started writing the novel, it was my first semester in grad school at the University of Iowa and my girlfriend at the time was living in Chicago, which is a three-hour-ish drive from Iowa City, so I was in Chicago half the time. She was a grad student in architecture, which meant she was really busy, whereas I, an MFA student, had effectively nothing to do (I was supposed to be writing). So while I was waiting for her to finish her work, I would often spend the day in the Lincoln Park Zoo, watching the chimps at the primate house. Sometimes I would sit there and watch them for three, four hours... At the same time I was also getting really into Philip Roth and Saul Bellow (the unofficial novelist laureate of Chicago; the first line of The Adventures of Augie March is "I'm an American, Chicago-born -- Chicago, that somber city..." the book's Chicago setting is in part a bit of an homage to Bellow).
Often I would read in the zoo, when the chimps weren't doing anything. There was one time when I was reading (Philip Roth's) Portnoy's Complaint in the Lincoln Park Zoo Primate House -- I was reading the book and I looked up at the poor chimps stuck in their claustrophobic enclosure during one of those brutal Chicago winters, and an idea was born. It's also kind of a book-length spinoff of the very short Kafka story "A Report to the Academy." But I wanted to see if I could take this absurd, surreal premise and write a novel in which the ape's character is as fully developed -- emotionally, intellectually, etc, and make a fully drawn human character.
WW: What was it like writing from the point of view of an ape?
BH: A blast. Bruno was a very fun mask to put on. I knew I was having a good day writing if I realized I was alone in my room, laughing. As for the fact that the character is an ape? I had to do a lot of thinking about how a conscious being who knows no language might see the world and how to express that through language itself. It's kind of a philosophical pretzel.
WW: At any point did you have a different narrator, or was Bruno always the one you wanted to tell this story through?
BH:It was always Bruno. The whole thing springs from Bruno's voice.
WW: What type of research went into writing the novel?
BH: The most interesting research I did was at the Great Ape Trust, outside of Des Moines, Iowa, just a couple hours' drive from Iowa City. The only ongoing ape language experiments in America happen there. Kanzi, the bonobo, is their most well-known ape. I attended the Decade of the Mind conference at the GAT -- an annual symposium on the science of consciousness -- and went back and visited the apes a few times after that.
William Fields, the current director of the bonobo language research program, was particularly receptive and helpful with my research. I also revisited the chimps at the Lincoln Park Zoo whenever I was in Chicago, and on top of all that, I read piles of books--I probably fed at least two hundred books into my research mill. Frans de Waal's writing was particularly helpful to me, but I also read all kinds of other stuff: anthropology, primatology, philosophy of consciousness, philosophy of language, linguistics, semiotics.