Deb Olin Unferth, American short-story writer, novelist, and memoirist is interviewed on her latest novel Barn 8, the enthralling story of a band of animal activists who plan a heist to free 900,00 chickens.
Tell us a bit about yourself and when you first became interested in animal issues.
I became a vegan in 2008 after I accidentally downloaded and found myself listening to a podcast about how farm animals are treated. It took a few months to figure out how to eat, but mostly the challenge was in re-seeing the world, reorienting, by reading and listening and understanding the history of animal oppression. That took a couple years to get the big picture and decide how I felt about animal personhood.
You have a strong background in philosophy. Is your work influenced by any particular philosophers who communicated their ideas through fiction?
I like fiction that has a philosophical bent, but as a philosophy student, I liked the philosophers who were known for their beautiful writing skills more than anything—Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, the pre-Socratics, Plato’s early dialogues.
What was your inspiration behind your novel Barn 8?
I think it was around 2011 that I read an article about some cage space legislation being debated.
It seemed so absurd to me, the idea of keeping 150,000 thousand birds in small cages in one large room, such a bizarre endpoint of civilization, and an image popped into my head of all the birds leaving the farm (kind of like how you might think irritably while sitting in traffic, “Why don’t the people in the front just go faster?”).
I couldn’t get the image of hundreds of thousands of birds leaving an industrial farm out of my head, and finally I decided to write it.
How did you set about researching chickens and contemporary farming practices?
I wound up researching the book for years and wrote an investigative essay for Harper’s Magazine about my findings. I visited all sizes of layer-hen farms, from a tremendous industrial farm of millions to tiny free-range ones of a couple hundred, and also several farm animal sanctuaries. I interviewed farmers, undercover investigators, animal-rights lawyers, activists, biologists, scientists, government workers. I attended an industry egg conference. I read books about chicken history and biology. I spent a lot of time with chickens, trying to get to know them. I lived near a sanctuary that held a hundred rescue chickens. The sanctuary said I could come whenever I wanted. I’d just sit in the hen house and watch them, record them chatting among themselves and listen to them at night on my headphones. By the end I had a chicken tattoo on my back and a painting of a chicken drawn in the artist’s blood on my wall. I went pretty far with the whole thing.
What themes and messages do you hope readers of your book will reflect upon?
I don’t normally think of my fiction as a lesson, but the book does have underlying messages. For one, we don’t own animals. They aren’t ours to do what we like with them. We decided we own them, but it isn’t true. The fact that we behave as though they are products to use and store and kill whenever and however we like, and to do it on such a massive scale, says that something has gone very wrong with civilization. I believe it will be our downfall because—and here is the second underlying message—we are connected to these animals.
Chickens, all animals, are our sisters. I rebel against the classic model of family, where we care mostly or only for those few living beings that are directly related to us by blood. We are connected to all living beings. This pandemic has shown us that on a large scale, though in a far darker way than my chicken adventure.
The animal activists in your novel are perhaps quite flawed What are the essentials of a more effective form of activism?
The activists in the novel are flawed because humans are flawed and because we live in a flawed world. They aren’t utterly flawed as activists, not all of them, anyway. They are fighting for what they believe in: a better world, where animals are not kept in cages, where humans respect animals’ individual dignity and personhood. It’s hard to figure out how to change the world. Animal activism is especially hard because pretty much the entire world and all of human history is against you. These activists are depressed. That’s where I started from with these characters. But I tried to move them to a better place, all of them, in one way or another. How do we find grace in this flawed, damaged world? How do we find hope when it all seems so hopeless? That’s a question I tried to answer by the end of the book.
How might people begin to take practical steps in advocating for animals in their lives and communities?
I’m a big believer in personal choice, in not participating in evil practices, as a way to begin to scratch one’s community toward moral action. So I would say the most important thing is to not eat or use animals and to be role model for others. Second, apply your skills to the cause. Do what you’re best at. I’m a writer, so I tried to write a book that might lead readers to think more seriously about their connection to nonhuman animals and what changes they can make in their lives. Third, don’t let companies or the government off the hook. Support businesses and legislation that advocates for animals. Kick up a storm over animal advocacy.
Deb Olin Unferth is the author of six books, including the novel Barn 8. Her essays and fiction have appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times, The Paris Review, Granta, Vice, and McSweeney’s. She has received a Guggenheim fellowship, three Pushcart Prizes, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Texas in Austin. She also runs the Pen City Writers, a creative writing program at a penitentiary in south Texas.
Barn 8 is available for purchase online and at all good book shops.