A talking chimp—and in more than one language? With The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, debut novelist Benjamin Hale gives readers a chimpanzee who, though resident in an apehouse, is no stranger to libraries, salons and even bars, and who ponders the simian—and human—condition with a philosopher’s eye. We talked with Hale about his much-hyped book.
How did the idea for The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore come to you?
The idea came when I was sitting in the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago watching the chimps. My girlfriend at the time lived in Chicago, and during my first year at [the University of] Iowa I spent a lot of time there. I’d go the zoo and watch the chimps all day while waiting for her to finish working…I’ve always been fascinated by chimps, ever since I was enthralled with Jane Goodall as a kid.
There was one time I remember sitting in front of the chimp exhibit, intermittently watching the chimps and reading Portnoy’s Complaint. I was thinking about Kafka, I was thinking about Philip Roth, I was thinking about chimpanzees. Then I had the idea to write a noisy, rambling memoir narrated by an insecure, neurotic, perverted chimp.
How did you decide to place Bruno, your chimp protagonist, at, say, the Stephen Fry end of the wit scale rather than down on the lower rungs?
It was deeply important to me to respect the character as a fully conscious being and to consistently surprise his readers. Also Bruno is a trans-species immigrant and an autodidact with a massive chip on his shoulder; his sesquipedalian style comes from a mixture of self-aggrandizement and insecurity—always going out of his way to prove his erudition to humans. Plus, I simply wanted a strong, interesting voice to play around with. I had a blast writing Bruno’s voice. I knew I was having a good day writing if I realized I was sitting in my room alone, laughing out loud.
What sort of research went into shaping Bruno’s story? Did you visit Gombe [a national park in Tanzania where Goodall did her groundbreaking research]? A primate lab? Read piles of books?
I only wish I’d visited Gombe, though I hope to someday. A plane ticket to Africa is expensive. The most interesting research I did was at the Great Ape Trust, outside 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 also revisited the chimps at the Lincoln Park Zoo whenever I was in Chicago, and on top of all that, yes, I read piles of books—I probably fed at least 200 books into my research mill. Frans de Waal’s writing was particularly helpful to me.
We know you studied in the writing program at the University of Iowa, but Evolution doesn’t seem workshoppy in the least. What did you learn from your time there that shows in the novel?
The most important thing an MFA program gives a writer is simply time to write—so, the most evident thing in the book from my time at Iowa is, well, the whole thing. It would have taken me many more years to write if I’d had to pick away at it on evenings and weekends while working a day job.
The second most important thing is the community of writers it provides. It’s a hothouse of opinions on what can and should be done with fiction. Everyone influences each other, both positively and negatively. By negatively I mean that sometimes in a workshop you’ll read something that you absolutely hate, but even that helps—to carefully deconstruct why you hate it, and then try to do the opposite with your own fiction.
Here’s one of my favorite things that happened to me at Iowa. Jonathan Ames was guest-teaching there for a semester, and I asked him to read an early, unfinished draft of Evolution. He read the manuscript on the plane on his way back from the literary festival in Mantua, Italy. I picked him up from the airport, and he’d just finished reading it. He was incredibly enthusiastic about the book. On the way back from the airport, I prodded him for criticism, and he pointed out certain things that felt off-kilter—certain episodes and plot points and such that didn’t feel right. But in conclusion, he said, “But you’re a writer. You’ll figure this stuff out yourself.” It was perhaps the most helpful writing advice anyone had ever given me. It was like telling Dumbo he doesn’t need his magic feather to fly.
What writers are you paying attention to these days?
Some recent books that I loved were Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Steven Millhauser is another writer I’ve been obsessed with lately. The last book that totally devoured my soul was Roberto Bolaño’s 2666—I read it about a year ago I still haven’t quite come down from that high. Right now I’m reading the collection of Saul Bellow’s letters that came out recently. I am a Bellow completist.
What’s next on your list of projects?
I have a finished collection of stories on deck, and meanwhile I’m working on another novel. It’s still early in the process, and I don’t want to jinx it by talking about it too much. But at least right now it’s about a sommelier, a pot dealer and the Columbine massacre. I may throw a talking animal in it yet.
10 More Books in Which Simians Figure Prominently:
Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes
Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes
Aldous Huxley, Ape and Essence
C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle
Mallory Lewis, There’s an Orangutan in My Bathtub
Terry Pratchett, The Wizards
H.A. Rey and Margret Rey, Curious George
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore
Twelve / Feb. 2, 2011 / 9780446571579 / $25.99