Interview with an animal: Don LePan

Don LePan is the founder and president of Broadview Press, a rather fiercely independent academic publisher that averages about forty new titles a year. He’s a painter, too, primarily of large skyscrapers and baseball stadiums. In 2008 he held his first solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Artists Gym. And, somehow, he has also found the time to write a first novel described by the Globe’s Jim Bartley as “psychologically incisive, admirably disquieting” and by novelist Dimitri Nasrallah as “a brave and frequently fascinating debut novel, wrought with painful choices, harrowing journeys, and a deep passion for its subject matter.”

Animals, published by Véhicule in Canada and, this April, by Soft Skull in the US, is the story of Sam, a subhuman or “mongrel.” Sam is abandoned by his human family, adopted as a pet by Naomi and her family, and finally slaughtered in a factory farm. Sam’s story is framed – commented on and contextualized – by Broderick, an advocate for mongrel welfare and the reader’s guide to LePan’s dystopic near-future. Animals is also an unapologetic attempt to “spur people towards a better world.” LePan is not interested in scoring ideological points or in capturing and defending a moral high ground; he is interested only in “addressing the horrific conditions that 99% of farm animals today are subjected to.” In conversation he is gracious, generous, and 100% free of dogmatism.

Where does your interest in non-human animals come from?
Initially, from reading Singer’s Animal Liberation in the early 1990s. It was slow to take effect, though; it was some years before I made any real move away from factory farmed animal products.
At the heart of Animals is the story of an individual who becomes a victim of a factory farm. Were there any individual animals that brought Singer’s message home to you, that helped you make your move away from factory farmed animal products?
I don’t think so, really. For many years I had a cat named Sam, but much as I loved him I don’t think he really affected my approach to factory farming. Maybe at some unconscious level having a loved non-human animal about the house made a difference in how I was led to act toward a broader range of animals.
He at least gave you a name for your protagonist! When did you decide that you wanted to explore the issues Singer had brought to your attention in fiction?
In the spring of 2007. The ethical impulse to try to write a book on this theme came to me at the same time as the basis for the story-line – the essence was all there in about thirty seconds. Oddly enough, the impulse came to me in part as a result of the ongoing stream of bad news from Zimbabwe. I had taught high school students in rural Zimbabwe from 1982-1985 through WUSC (an aid agency), and I had always thought of that as one way in which I had made at least some sort of contribution to the world. With the way in which Mugabe has destroyed things over the past fifteen years, it’s hard to see anything that any of us did back then in that country as having made the world much better – it’s just infinitely depressing. So I had been thinking that I should try to make some contribution now (other than what one does as a book publisher), and I thought in the back of my mind that I do have some ability as a writer, and then I thought that perhaps I could use that in a good cause such as this one. And then the story line for Animals popped into my head, and I knew I had to write it.
Animals is especially good at highlighting the ways in which class can intersect with health and disability. Did your sensitivity to class issues develop in Zimbabwe?
Class and race both – definitely. But so has a lot of my experience living in North America, and in the UK; class really is vitally important just about everywhere, I think.
Why did you choose to foreground Broderick’s framing story – weave it into Sam’s story – rather than, say, tack it on at the end?
I wanted, first of all, a separate discursive voice to talk about the historical and social background from outside the main narrative – and I guess I wanted too to have a voice continually prompting comparisons with today’s world.
Animals is set in a future that clearly follows from our present – there are references to contemporary factory farming practices, as well as to individuals like journalist Margaret Wente and scientists Samuel Wood and Andrew French. Why did you create fictional disabilities for this future (“Peake’s Syndrome,” “Gyberger’s Syndrome”) rather than use the conditions they’re clearly modelled on (Down syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome)?
This was something I spent a lot of time trying to think through. My original feeling was that it would be better to stick as close as possible to the real world in these matters, in order to try to bring things home to readers even more forcefully; in the early drafts, “mongrels” were called “downs” – and most of them had the specific disability we refer to as “Down’s Syndrome.” I was persuaded, though, that many of those who work with people with disabilities might be likely at the very least to find such a high degree of specificity to be a distraction in a book intended to be not about the plight of humans with disabilities but about the plight of non-human animals. At worst I felt some might misinterpret the work as being disrespectful to people with disabilities. I sought the advice of one person in particular who I felt would be in an ideal position to offer helpful comments, and she strongly and I now think wisely advised me to make that change. Véhicule’s fine fiction editor, Andrew Steinmetz, who has something of a medical as well as a literary background, also advised me to make the change, I should add. And I came to think they were right. Particularly given the degree to which societies have proven themselves capable of defining disabilities loosely (and of subjecting those defined as having disabilities to cruel treatment), I became persuaded that there was a benefit in trying to make that side of things a bit more vague, and in placing it at a bit of a remove from today’s terminology.
I’m really bad at geography! – what place is Animals set in?
There are hints that it’s a town or small city near a river that flows from the States into Canada and back into the States, and then into the Missouri (and of course then the Mississippi). It could be a town in Montana or in southern Alberta; Lethbridge would perhaps be the closest Canadian possibility, Great Falls the closest American one, but neither one is on the Milk, which is the only river that fits the description. I did want to keep the location pretty vague – Anytown, North America, really.
The title of the novel is, like the setting, deliberately vague, or it reminds us of how vague the word “animals” is. When did you settle on this word for your title?
The title came to me quite early on, and I never seriously considered others. The main thing it suggests, to me at least, is a commonality between human animals and non-human ones. But of course it’s often used in ways that emphasize a presumed contrast between humans and non-human animals.
How do you use the word “animals” in your own everyday life? Are you careful to distinguish between human animals and non-human animals?
Until quite recently I certainly wasn’t careful – and I’m not even sure what my practice was. In the past few weeks the issue has come much more into focus for me; I’ve just posted something on the Animals blog on this issue, as it happens. I’m sure I’ll still be imprecise from time to time, but I think now I’ll at least be far more alert to the value of trying not to use language in ways that unnecessarily or inappropriately suggest that other animals are more different from us than is in fact the case.
As a child, Naomi tells her parents “I don’t think we should eat any meat at all. Even birds, birds have brains too, they have feelings . . .” As an adult, she looks back on this scene and remarks “The family was hardly likely to eat the flesh of a parrot, but to the child it was somehow all one and the same.” Naomi sounds like she’s arguing for animal rights here, in contrast to Broderick’s animal welfarism and her mother’s rather unapologetic speciesism. Where do you locate yourself on this spectrum?
My own views in this area have shifted somewhat in recent years – and they may well continue to shift. But this is not an area where I’m interested in foregrounding my own views. Much as these questions are interesting and important ones, I feel strongly that our priority should be addressing the horrific conditions that 99% of farm animals today are subjected to. And that’s something that anyone with the slightest concern for animal welfare or animal rights should be willing to support, once they are aware of the facts.
What sources did you use in creating the world of Animals? Did you have to do a lot of research, or had you picked up most of the relevant information already?
I wrote the first draft without doing any research – just what I knew or thought I knew already. And then I revised in the light of further reading – and in the light of comments from others who know more than I do. Singer was among those who was very helpful in correcting some factual details.
What kinds of conversations did you have with philosophers Angus Taylor and Tom Hurka on your Canadian book tour?
Angus gave a very good exposition of the argument from marginal cases. He has published an excellent story/article on this topic, incidentally – “Hunting for Consistency,” which appeared in Philosophy Now a couple of years ago. Tom explored a notion I gather Nozick has put forward – that it might be acceptable to apply different sets of ethical principles in dealing with non-human animals than we do in dealing with other humans.
Animals will be published in the US by Soft Skull this spring. Which country do you consider more likely to make changes in the treatment of food animals in the foreseeable future?
The States. Proposition 2 in California is a big step, but equally important is the appointment of a Secretary of Agriculture who has some sensitivity to the plight of non-human animals; I gather Obama has done that. So much of importance happens at the level of regulatory detail and how it is enforced, not at the level of legislation – though obviously there’s much to be done with legislation too. In Canada new animal cruelty legislation has died in the Senate or on the order paper three times, and Harper has no plans to reintroduce anything with teeth, so far as I’m aware. In this as in so many areas, Canadians assume we are more humane and principled than the States, when in fact we may well be less so.
Is it too early to ask about your next book?
Yes. But many thanks for your interest in this one!
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