Toronto author says chimp research for new novel was 'life-changing'
Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlisted author Colin McAdam poses for photographs at the Giller Prize gala in Toronto on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009. (Darren Calabrese / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Monday, March 18, 2013 7:45AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, March 18, 2013 7:46AM EDT
TORONTO -- Colin McAdam's new novel, "A Beautiful Truth," is a change for the Toronto-based writer. While his previous books are focused on human relationships, parts of "A Beautiful Truth" are narrated by Looee, a chimpanzee.
"My big ambition was to write about apes generally, both humans and chimps," says McAdam.
"The more I read about chimps and the way their politics played out, I realized that I wanted to find some way of exploring these wordless creatures who are so like us."
First, though, he had to meet some chimpanzees. McAdam visited the Fauna Foundation, a sanctuary near Montreal.
"Most of the chimps there were involved in biomedical research at a lab in upstate New York, and a lot had been raised in family homes when they were small," McAdam says.
"It was just such a life-changing experience to meet them. It's hard not to sound flaky when I talk about it, but I drove away from the place and everything had changed."
"A Beautiful Truth" (Penguin) had to change, too. McAdam decided to focus the novel on what these chimps experienced in their journey from medical labs to the sanctuary, using Looee as his narrator.
The novel begins with Looee's adoption by Walt and Judy, a childless Vermont couple. But after a shocking incident, he is transferred to a research facility in Florida, and eventually to a sanctuary where he is introduced into a group of other chimpanzees.
The result is a moving and linguistically inventive novel that examines the curious bond between humans and apes.
"When we look at chimpanzees, we see an astonishing similarity that makes us uncomfortable," says McAdam.
"It seemed to me that both what we put these chimps through and how they go through it -- and of course how well they are looked after now at the sanctuary -- all these things say something about innate cruelty and sympathy and survival."
In order to portray the medical testing that Looee endures, McAdam spoke to someone who had worked in a similar research facility.
"I was also able to get my hands on the medical files of some of these chimps that I met," he says.
The scenes set in the facility are some of the novel's most moving, particularly because readers see everything through Looee's eyes.
The chance to write from an animal's point of view offered McAdam, known for his striking dialogue and firm command of narrative voice, a new challenge.
"The whole thing made me rethink what a word is. I realized that words are tools," he says. "They're our hands in some respects. As chimps groom, we speak."
To create a distinctive narrative voice for his chimpanzees, McAdam admits he "raided the world's dictionaries for a few weeks.
"I tried to find words that seemed fun to me and evocative to an English speaker. They were pretty goofy, some of them."
But McAdam also wants his readers to empathize with the chimps. The novel begins from Walt's point of view, so that like him and Judy, readers will see Looee as a child in need of a home.
"The movement of the whole narrative, the movement in reality of the chimps I met and read about, is from a safe human home through this incredible process of survival," McAdam says. "That movement really appealed to me."
Movement is certainly familiar to McAdam, who has spent much of his life living outside of Canada. Born in Hong Kong, he lived in Denmark, Bermuda, England and Australia before returning to Montreal and eventually Toronto.
He started his first novel, "Some Great Thing," while working on his PhD in English literature at Cambridge University. It won the Books in Canada First Novel Award and was nominated for the Governor-General's Award and the Rogers' Writers Trust Fiction Prize, among others.
"Fall," McAdam's 2009 follow-up, won the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. But he tries not to put pressure on himself.
"I don't read reviews, I don't get caught up in the scene, I don't think about awards. (Writing) is a stressful way to make a living and it's totally unpredictable.
"The healthiest way to get through all of this is not to listen to anybody."
However, he agrees that awards can be useful when they translate into sales, which hasn't been his experience so far.
"My books actually don't sell!" he says. "Some days it winds me up incredibly and I just hope the next one will.
"For me, practically speaking, that's the most important thing, but it makes me sound cynical."
Cynicism aside, McAdam calls this his most personal novel yet.
"I'm writing a bunch of essays right now for various publications about apes, because there's still so much in my head about this stuff."
But he admits that he doesn't have a favourite chimpanzee. "I thought I'll have an annoying one, an oversexed one, and that sort of thing," McAdam says.
"And even the ones I made a little villainous, I still like."