Interviews

Making the Case for Chickens in a Farm-Factory World

An interview with Deb Olin Unferth about her novel, Barn 8.

Deb Olin Unferth’s new novel, Barn 8, comes in at least 300 parts. It is the story of the 300 (or so) people who descend on a farm to steal a million chickens, how those people and those chickens got there, and why. Unferth’s formal invention, always a central aspect of her work, is here at its most incisive and most playful, giving us such an incredible multitude of perspectives, both human and not, to reconcile with the mass-scale tragic absurdities of factory farming, of climate change, and of our interconnected human experience. In anticipation of its release, I called Deb to talk about chickens and to compare tattoos. 

Kyle Williams

You told me once that you almost quit writing after Revolution in 2011. How then did we get to Barn 8?

Deb Olin Unferth

I had written three books one right after the other, Minor Robberies, Vacation, and Revolution. I didn’t know what I was going to write next. I felt suddenly exhausted. I figured I’d never write again. I didn’t know it but I was already writing what would become my next three books. It took six years for Wait Till You See Me Dance, I, Parrot, and Barn 8 to start roll out onto bookshelves, so the whole time I was thinking, I’m done, I’ll never write again. Now that I’ve finished all three and they’re all out, here I am again thinking, I’m finished, it’s over, I don’t know what I’m doing—but I am writing, I’m doing it, even though I’m saying, again, that I’m not and won’t.

Kyle Williams

You mentioned at a reading that the story “The First Full Thought of Her Life,” a story from your last collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance, had opened a way to write the novel you had been working on, which has become Barn 8. Could you talk about that connection?

Deb Olin Unferth

Both of them have a similar structure: both crystallize one day, one event. In the story it is the shooter raising a gun to point at a little girl. In the novel it’s 300 people stealing a million hens in the middle of the night. The rest of the story around each of them is circling that event, that image, and while doing so you are led into many different viewpoints, and far into the past and the future, and even into possibility, conjecture into what might happen, into unknowing. The story was kind of a study for the novel, the way maybe painters do studies.

Kyle Williams

The heterogeneity of narration in Barn 8 makes it almost difficult to ask you about it. It reaches in many different directions at the same time. What do you think you get from telling the story in that way that you wouldn’t be getting from a more traditional narration?

Deb Olin Unferth

It makes the story not only about these few characters but about personhood, animalhood. I can put storylines of different characters into conversation even when those characters never meet, or meet only briefly, but parallel each other in different ways. I have more freedom to move around in time, to show how history links to where we are now, and how our future is linked to our history, and I can put in more research showing how we wound up on this path. 

I didn’t want the novel to be pedantic. I didn’t want it to be an animal-rights screed. With so many different voices, I can show that the farmers aren’t villains, I can show that the animal-rights activists have both their good points and their weaknesses, and I can show how the animals have one way or another been trapped in all this. I can give a much fuller view, not just of the story but of our world, and the voices add to the strength of my narrative argument. 

And I wanted there to be acceleration. The book starts in one person’s head and continues for a long time, thirty pages, then another, twenty pages, and I do that a few times to lull the reader into a kind of safety. Then, as the story gets going, the narrative splinters into all these different voices. And at the end it’s still accelerating, but you slow down for certain moments. I kept thinking about the structure as a Bach fugue—where many voices are going at once and perhaps one voice rises out of the rush.

Kyle Williams

Your pacing is wonderful. Especially in the middle of the book where there’s this Ocean’s Eleven kind of getting the gang together.

Deb Olin Unferth

People keep saying Ocean’s Eleven—but I haven’t seen that movie! I have to, now. I can tell you that P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia had a big influence on me. Not directly on this book, but I watched that movie a dozen times when it came out. That structure really sunk into me, and it pops up in my work in a lot of different ways.

Kyle Williams

How did you find some of these voices?

Deb Olin Unferth

I got to know farmers, animal lawyers, undercover investigators, and all kinds of people in the industry and in animal activism. I wrote a long investigative piece on the egg industry for Harper’s and I spent a lot of time with the people I met, especially the undercover investigators, talking, texting, getting drunk. One investigator, I texted all day every day with him for about two months. I also got to know one of the directors of undercover investigations very well.

Undercover investigator is a hard job. You have to leave your family and friends and live alone in different motels. You have to lie about what you do, you have to be deceitful all day on the job, worry about being caught, you have to participate in this horrible activity. You can get really paranoid and lonely.

I also went undercover, sort of, to an egg conference, as food service.

Kyle Williams

Did you have a cover story?

Deb Olin Unferth

I was a professor at the time at Wesleyan University. I went to the conference as the “food service faculty representative.” The conference was mostly farmers and people from grocery store chains who had been sent by their companies. Most of them were pretty bored, nodding out in their seats. But I was eager, thrilled, in the front row for every session, my hand raised with a million questions, asking if I could record, trying to talk everyone into going for a drink afterwards. I got to know several big-industry farmers and the people who ran the United Egg Producers. I liked them. They were charming. Later, I used those connections to visit the farms, though by then I was writing the article for Harper’s and they weren’t happy with me anymore. I’m glad I had that experience, because it would have been difficult to write this book otherwise. Beforehand I had thought of the farmers as villains, but now they were people.

Kyle Williams

There is also this one moment where a first-person narrator comes into the voices. Is that you?

Deb Olin Unferth

It’s not me, the person talking to you right now. It’s the person telling the story, saying, “I created this world, but even so, there’s a lot I don’t know about it.” That passage concerns what happens to chickens after they die. You know, chickens get a bad rap. People make fun of them, act like they’re stupid, or like how they experience their lives is so simple it can’t possibly be beyond our understanding. But in fact chickens are very different from us. They experience the world differently. Their eyes work differently, they store and process information differently. We will never be able to understand some of what they experience. In some ways they are beyond us. And when it comes to what they experience after death—which is what that passage is about—well, even the narrator, who is purporting to know how chickens experience the world, can’t say what comes after the world. I later decided that passage was funny, though I can tell you I didn’t write it in a moment of humor. I wrote it in awe.

Kyle Williams

This might be a silly question. Why chickens?

Deb Olin Unferth

Can you believe nobody has asked me that yet? 

Kyle Williams

Well, I know about your chicken tattoo.

Deb Olin Unferth

The tattoo really came out of the obsession with this book, with the chickens, my identification with them. I became vegan in 2008 and the hardest thing to give up was eggs. But I kept reading that the most abused animals in the agriculture industry are chickens, specifically layer hens. So I felt that it was really important to give up eggs. I would go to farm animal sanctuaries and look at the chickens, think about them. The book came to me whole. I knew it could never be anything but chickens.

But nobody likes chickens! Nobody cares about chickens! Once I found myself sitting on a plane next to this somewhat famous journalist. I told her about the book and she said, “But why would I care about chickens? You should at least do turkeys, people care a little about turkeys.” I thought, jeez, maybe I should change it to turkeys. Then I thought, No way! I’m doing chickens! So many people over the course of my writing this book held forth to me about the stupidity of chickens. Sometimes I would get mad, sometimes I would just smile and plot my narrative revenge. It became a technical challenge, to make chickens sympathetic.

Writing that piece for Harper’s, I spent a lot time with chickens, getting to know a bunch of them. I mean, they’re just these sweet little fluffy things. They’re funny, and they have so much personality. They’re friendly. They’ll follow each other around, talk all day. They’ll sit next to you. They’re curious about you. They’ll stare into your face.

Kyle Williams

I never thought about animals the way Barn 8 made me. You really made me care about Bwwaauk.

Deb Olin Unferth

Bwwaauk!

Kyle Williams

I love her. She’s wonderful. How did you come up with Bwwaauk?

Deb Olin Unferth

I knew if I wanted to write a book about chickens, I was going to have to get people to fall in love with chickens. And I thought there would have to be one chicken that we fall in love with. Almost out of desperation, I wrote Bwwaauk. But I didn’t want her to be personified in a way that would make her a fleshed-out character that could almost be a cartoon. I wanted this chicken to be very chicken-like, and I didn’t want to violate what chickens really are like. It was a balance, trying to figure out who Bwwaauk could be. 

I’m really happy with how Bwwaauk turned out. A couple of artists have done renditions of Bwwaauk, they’re amazing. The chicken tattoo became part of all this, but it was more, too.

Kyle Williams

Something I might be asking around—while we’re talking about the agriculture industry, animal rights, veganism—is climate change. How do you think about Barn 8 as a book about climate change?

Deb Olin Unferth

I predict we are going to start seeing a massive collective mourning over what we are doing to our beautiful planet. This is the time and place for it and I am ready to take part. Climate change is a big part of the book. A character lives on a contaminated Superfund site, dreaming about how soon the world will be covered with contamination. I touch on the dying insects, on the fact of fewer birds. We see into the future in the book, to the end of the human race. In this time we are currently living, we are going through a mass extinction, yes, but at the same time there are more animals alive on the planet because of our mass production of them, these genetic monsters locked in boxes on distant landscapes, waiting for us to use them. It’s our responsibility as artists to represent what is happening. And that’s what I want to do. 

Kyle Williams

Do you see it as hopeful? There aren’t any humans left, twenty-thousand years into the novel’s timeline, but these chickens seem to be doing pretty well.

Deb Olin Unferth

I don’t think it’s hopeful, not about what’s going to happen long-term on a large scale. I do think it’s hopeful on the small scale of individuals. There’s a moment toward the end where a character has to make a choice about whether to live or die. She makes that choice by realizing that even in the contamination there will be moments of beauty. There will be love and joy, even in the destruction.

I teach in a maximum-security prison in South Texas. It’s a hard place to live, and some of the students with extended sentences have written stories about coming to terms with the length of that sentence. They write stories about not knowing if they can hack it, about wanting to kill themselves. But there’s a turn in those stories. I see it again and again—the character who has been considering suicide laughs. Someone makes them laugh, and they relax. They decide they won’t kill themselves, that they’re going to find something here—humor, love, companionship, learning, meaning. They say, “I’m still alive.” That always strikes me as so profound, and important, and hopeful. It’s a moment of revelation, and I wanted to express that somehow. There might not be hope for everything, but there’s hope for you, there’s hope for me. We’re still here together and that in itself is beauty.

Cover image of Barn 8

FICTION
Barn 8
By Deb Olin Unferth
Graywolf Press
Published March 3, 2020

Kyle Williams is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is an Interviews Editor for Full Stop, Director of Communications for Chicago Review of Books, and A Public Space’s 2019 Emerging Writer Fellow. He is on Twitter @kylecangogh.

0 comments on “Making the Case for Chickens in a Farm-Factory World

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: