Tom French on zoo stories, narrative nonfiction and the pleasures of playing anthropologist
In 2007, St. Petersburg Times reporter Tom French delivered a nine-part series about Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, which led to the writing of “Zoo Story,” published in July. In his book, French focuses on the lives of a number of mammals, including Enshalla (a tiger), Herman (a chimp) and Lex Salisbury (the director of the zoo). A veteran of the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism and winner of a 1998 Pulitzer Prize for his harrowing “Angels and Demons,” French currently teaches at the Indiana University School of Journalism. In these excerpts from a phone conversation last week, he talks about how he framed his story, his reasons for writing the book, and his pet peeve with narrative journalists.
You started thinking about telling the story of a zoo after reading “Life of Pi“ in 2003, and your big series for the St. Petersburg Times appeared in the paper to a good deal of attention in 2007. What story were you hoping the book would tell that hadn’t already been told?
Well, there are a couple things. It’s a totally different audience between the series and the book, although different people around the country and other parts of the world see the series online. It was primarily a story that was available to people in the Tampa Bay area. But beyond different audiences, I wanted to go deeper into the moral ambiguity of what a zoo is and what it means and its place in a world where so many species are becoming extinct.
So, one of the things was I did a ton more research. I think I read every book ever written about the history of zoos, the culture of zoos, the politics of zoos, zoos from a veterinarian’s standpoint, zoos from a keeper’s standpoint. I also did a ton of research on the different species that I was writing about, especially on elephants, tigers and chimps, and a lot of research into extinction. What that really did was allow me to write with a lot more depth and with a different sense of authority. The first two thirds or three quarters of the book are the same dramatic narrative arc, but they’re told from a different, more informed context. I feel like it really makes it read in kind of a fresh way.
The other thing is that after I began it, all this stuff happened with Lex’s downfall. I already thought I had a pretty strong ending with Herman and Enshalla, and Lex kind of barreling forward despite those losses. But then when Lex gets knocked out by the monkeys and by the other primates in Tampa society, it was just this amazing new ending – it was like a triple ending. And so I called my editor at Hyperion after Lex got –
So you already had the book contract at that point?
Yes. I was already working on the book. And I called my editor at Hyperion and said, “We have a new ending.” She asked, “Well, does it change your arc very much?” I said, “No, it’s a very natural resolution of the arc from the first page.” Lex’s ambition is really what powers that opening scene of these elephants coming over on the plane. The word hubris comes up in that chapter – actually a later chapter – just this idea that what’s involved in a zoo, period, involves a certain level of human arrogance and a presumption of supremacy, as the book says. But then to actually make elephants fly, to do this really unnatural thing – since he’s bringing over these wild animals to be the centerpiece of a new vision of the zoo, that was an audacious move.
He got tripped up on these conflicts of interest and the other stuff at the end, but I actually think that’s the most audacious thing that he does in that time frame. And certainty PETA went after him with a lot of fervor. But that ending really felt like the arc was complete, and the circle really came around. That makes it a very different read to me.
“Zoo Story” balanced two stories – that zoos are magical places of animal preservation, and that they are exploitative and sometimes detrimental to their residents. A lot of long-form newspaper stories and books seem to have a narrative and then a counter-narrative that pushes back on it a little bit, but you seemed to be trying to keep the two on equal footing throughout the book. Can you talk about that a little?
I’m so glad it read that way to you.
That’s a hard thing to do.
One of my pet peeves in narrative reporting is – it’s not just narrative reporting, but in American culture – we tend to be this culture where everything is presented in really black-and-white terms. I really wanted to avoid that kind of simplistic thinking, either that “zoos are terrible” or “zoos are wonderful.” The truth is a lot more complicated than that.
I was determined not to make a book that was either an attack on or a defense of zoos, but instead asking “What’s it like?” What’s a zoo like, and how do the people inside the zoo grapple with these very complex moral and ethical questions? And what do those questions mean for the animals, and what’s the relationship those animals have with their human keepers? Should they even have a relationship with them? The complexity was just beautiful, and I really wanted to map that.
In the book, you mentioned being aware of the dangers of anthropomorphizing the animals. But at several points in the book, you actually de-anthropomorphize the people. Did you struggle with how much to make the humans part of the animal kingdom?
That wasn’t a struggle. That was, to me, one of the most rewarding things to do in the book. We are human. We look at the animals, and I think it is almost impossible to remove our human perspective as to how we see them. I did try. I have one moment near the opening, where I refer to the orangutans sighing their philosophical sighs. “Philosophical” is an anthropomorphic word. But by God, if you watch them – it feels that way. So I allowed myself that moment, but I tried hard otherwise to limit that as much as I could.
One of the things that was stunning to me, that I found so powerful, was that I didn’t have to guess what was happening with the animals or about their personalities. They could be reported out. It was factual. You could see the things that I was describing and observe it in their behavior during the time I was there — and with creatures like Herman, in the decades he was at the zoo. And I just thought that was fascinating. There are a couple moments where I wonder what’s happening inside the animals, but I was bowled over by how much you could actually prove and nail down through factual reporting, good hard reporting. And that was just really fun.
But at a certain point, once I get you thinking about the animals in terms of species, it was really fun to shift into looking at the humans more closely, and seeing us as another species. That was, for me, a revelation. It shouldn’t have been, because I’m not the first person to do that by any stretch of the imagination. Lots of people have written some really powerful stuff about that. But for me it was a revelation, and the key happened at that black-tie fundraiser.
I hate getting dressed up. I hate formal events. I certainly don’t want to go to them, and I especially hate trying to cover them. And so I was really dreading going to that fundraiser. I knew I needed to, but then at a certain point, I thought, “What if you just think of yourself as a primate anthropologist, and you’re going to study your species in the field? And you’re not even going to interview people. You’re just going to watch and listen and observe.”
And the night became just beautiful to report. It was so much fun to report it that way, and so revealing. That made a big shift, and then of course, that shift really led me to being able to contrast and compare Herman’s leadership and alpha status with Lex’s leadership and alpha status. Once Lex went down at the end, it became clear that they were both going to pay a price for their leadership styles. There were benefits to how they ruled, but they both ultimately paid a price.
Turning to the big picture, the publishing industry is having its own share of troubles right now, but it seems like many long-form journalists who would have written for newspapers in the past are now going to books. What do you see as the future of narrative nonfiction?
Narrative is going to be part of journalism long after newspapers have become extinct, and long after the Internet evolves into whatever it evolves into next. Narrative has been a part of human experience since before there were newspapers. It’s not going to go away. Some newspapers have pulled back on narrative, and I think that’s unfortunate. I was very sad to see the narrative conference at Nieman dropped, because I think it was a terrific conference. That was a real service – one that really made a difference in American journalism.
Some newspapers have pulled back on narrative, but a lot of newspapers have realized that it’s like saying you’re not going to do interviewing anymore. It’s so much a part of what we do. It’s woven into every newspaper every day. The entire sports section is essentially narrative. The comics page is narrative. The political coverage of a campaign is narrative. It’s woven into what we do so tightly that I think this notion that it’s something we can get rid of is very muddied in its thinking. But some newspapers have deliberately decided “We don’t have enough resources for that.” If you really study narrative, as Nieman has, there’s a lot of narrative that’s still done daily, beautiful narrative done every day, under very tight deadline with minimal resources being committed.
Big, long-form narratives – yes, those have taken a hit. But the best newspapers continue to do great work of all kinds, including narratives. I just read a powerhouse piece by Anthony Shadid in The New York Times, a week ago, I think it was, or a week and a half ago, on this one Iraqi family’s quest to find out what happened to their father, who was taken away by people dressed as police officers in the middle of the night – a brilliant, gorgeous, heartbreaking piece. If you go back and read the Walter Reed series by Anne [Hull] and Dana [Priest], that was clearly a marriage between classic investigative thinking and classic narrative strategies. If you read The Virginian-Pilot, they have a real serious commitment to narrative. They have, for decades, done narrative projects and narrative dailies.
And if you go to the St. Petersburg Times, the commitment to narrative is still very much in evidence . Lane [DeGregory] won a Pulitzer writing the long-form narrative “The Girl in the Window.” Ben Montgomery and Waveney Ann Moore were Pulitzer finalists earlier this year with “For Their Own Good,” where they used a combination of classic investigative techniques with very smart narrative strategies. It’s not going to go away. It can’t go away. The stories will become just become boring, long, jumbled articles of statistics if there’s not a human story unfolding and illuminating that larger issue.
Yes, narrative has taken a hit, no question, but in the best newspapers, it’s still very much part of the fabric. Still, some journalists who previously would do this work in a newsroom are now going straight to nonfiction books – but that’s actually problematic, too. That’s a difficult model economically. I can’t imagine a publisher giving me an advance large enough to cover the amount of research and reporting for all those years that went into this book. It was through the good graces and the support of the St. Petersburg Times that I got to do all that reporting. I hope and believe that they feel it was to the advantage of their audience and the St. Petersburg Times to do it, that it was something that they believe in – that kind of work. But they were very gracious to allow me to expand on that work in this book.
I’d be very surprised to see publishers being able to fund this depth of research for very many people. But certainly there are some journalists who are doing this work for books. I’m not sure yet how that will work economically. Publishers are struggling, too.
Is there anything else you’ve been reading lately that’s really exciting? Who do you think are some of the storytellers we should keep our eye on in the future?
He’s a friend of mine, so I’m a little biased, but I think Ben Montgomery is a very exciting young reporter – he’s not that young, like 30 or something, but he’s really somebody to watch. He and Waveney and Edmund Fountain, the photographer, they have done such beautiful work there. I read “The Lost City of Z,” which knocked me over, it was so amazing. I also read David Grann’s piece in The New Yorker where they executed the allegedly innocent guy.
I also read a lot of fiction. I recently read Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin.” It’s really an astonishing, transcendent, jaw-dropping piece of work. I told my friends that reading it was like listening to “Born To Run” for the first time, which is the highest praise I can give. I’ve never met Colum, I don’t know him. He definitely has a novelist’s way of seeing, but there’s a lot of reporting in that book, too. He chronicles people from totally different walks of life. There’s a monk, there’s a judge, there’s a prostitute, there’s an artist. There’s all these different people whose lives he has to get into. I’ve never read this in an interview with him, but I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that he did research and reporting about those lives, even as he’s writing fiction.
You see something like that and it just blows you away. I read “The Good Soldiers“ last year – one of the best books I’ve read in years. That’s a classic nonfiction book, but you know, one of the quotes in the book compared it to “The Iliad.” [David] Finkel would never say something like that, but I think it’s easy to see why the writer who said that used that comparison, because there’s a certain scale of ambition, and I think he succeeds beautifully.