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Karen Joy Fowler
The descriptions of Fern's behaviour are wonderful and seem very authentic. Did your research involve working with chimps or did you have other ways of studying them?
I depended mostly on book research, but I did a LOT of that. I got to spend one day with actual chimps Ė bullet-proof glass between us at all points Ė but it was magical. I did hear from one primatologist who persuaded me I made rape among chimps look more common than it is. (Orangutans are the primate rapists.) So Iím trying to correct the record where I can. Not that chimps arenít capable of pretty unpleasant stuff. I have about as much affection for them as I do for people. I donít like all of them, but the best of them make up for the rest of them.
It is clear from the book that you have great affection for chimps. Is that what drew you to the story or did it develop in the research and writing?
I was equally focused on the predicament of the home-raised chimps and the predicament of the children in those chimped up homes. In both cases, it seemed to me these experiments were creating a sort of in-between creature Ė chimps who thought they were humans and chimp-infused children Ė and the cruelty was that neither fit into the world anymore. In all honesty, I didnít know much about chimps when I started. I learned a lot.
The book makes a very strong case against the sort of experimentation that was prevalent in the 60s and 70s, yet you point out that the Davis Primate Centre is credited with advancing understanding and treatment of Alzheimer's, autism and Parkinson's. To what extent do you feel that the ends can justify the means?
Thatís the question, isnít it? And could the ends be accomplished any other way? I donít write about issues when I think I already know the answers. I write to learn and think more about those things Iím conflicted about. Iím never going to settle this one.
But I believe research to date has been needlessly, excessively cruel and that is something I do feel certain of.
Humans tend to come out of the experiments carried out at that time (eg Project Nim) very badly. Do you feel there are broader lessons we can learn from our primate cousins?
Once you start looking at human behavior through the lens of primatology, it is hard to stop. To say that chimps are more like us than we care to admit is to simultaneously say that we are more like them than we care to admit. Certain behaviors come naturally to both of us and for all our pride in our rationality, we are often controlled by our animal selves. Perhaps even most often.
Growing up with Fern as a sister had terrible consequences for Rosemary's social development. Was that speculation on your part or was it based on evidence?
When I started the research, I found information on the experiments and the chimps easy to come by. So many books, so many accounts! But about the children Ė almost nothing. So I depended on speculation, my novelist chops. But since the book came out, I have heard from a handful of these children, adults now, and it seems I was not too much off the mark. Honestly, for their sakes I wish Iíd been more so.
It was fascinating to read that people are instinctively more imitative than chimps. Do you think your research and experience of writing the novel has given you a greater understanding of what it means to be human?
Definitely. See above on humans and chimps. In many ways, I wrote the whole book, trying to determine what makes humans different from the other animals. What I think now, is that there is no bright line dividing us from them. At best a dotted line. The more we learn, the more blurry that line seems to become.
Having read this novel and THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB, we're very much looking forward to your next book. Can you tell us a bit about what you're working on at the moment?
I think Iím going back to historical. Iím interested in the Booth family Ė famous Shakespearian actors in the 1800s. One of them went on to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, but Iím more interested in his father and his older brother, and an earlier period of the family life.
Karen Joy Fowler

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