TCR Talks with Deb Olin Unferth
by Matt Ellis
Deb Olin Unferth is the multifaceted and award-winning author of six books, including her memoir, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, and the acclaimed graphic novel, I, Parrot. She is a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, the winner of three Pushcart Prizes, and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Her work has appeared in Granta, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and The Paris Review. Unferth’s most recent novel, Barn 8, follows two egg industry auditors and a legion of unbalanced activists as they attempt to pull off the greatest hen heist in history. Back in late March, she took a break from interviews about the Coronavirus outbreak to FaceTime with me about her latest book, her relationship with revolution, writing in a variety of forms and media, and releasing a book just ahead of a pandemic.
The Coachella Review: How did you come up with the idea for Barn 8?
Deb Olin Unferth: I got this image in my mind of chickens leaving a farm and it just sort of arrived to me in whole. Nobody really likes factory farms, not even the people who own them and run them. Nobody wants to put millions of animals into little tiny farms. I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about the egg industry, so I decided to do some research. Farmers or people in the egg industry wouldn’t talk to me as a layperson. But suddenly, when I became a journalist, when I approached Harper’s Magazine and asked them if I could write about the egg industry, they were willing to talk to me. I learned a ton researching that piece.
TCR: In Barn 8, like in Revolution, you were able to present complicated and polarizing social and environmental issues without coming off as heavy-handed or dogmatic. How did you strike that balance?
DOU: It wasn’t easy at all. I’m a vegan, so I already have an opinion about it. At first, I put so little in because my goal was art and not to preach at anybody. I thought it would be fun to try to write something where people who usually say that chickens are kind of stupid, and “who cares about chickens,” would suddenly, by the end of the book, find themselves rooting for the chickens and caring about them and being horrified when certain things happened. I thought that would be a really fun challenge. At first, I had nothing in there about how chickens are treated, or almost nothing. Then my editor, as we were working on later drafts, urged me [to] put in a little. I did and found that a little went a long way. Even if I just added a few sentences or, sometimes, just a word here and there, [it] created a whole image. But now that I’m out in the world talking about the book, people keep asking me questions about it and now I sound like a raving lunatic vegan activist militant. What can I do?
TCR: In Barn 8 and Revolution, the central social issues always hold importance, but you take a humorous approach to both sides.
DOU: I feel if you can get people to laugh, they’ll follow you almost anywhere. So, if I could get people laughing about these farmers or about these activists, then they’d be willing to follow me into this weird idea of them stealing all those chickens.
TCR: I also sense some parallels between who you are in your memoir Revolution and the Barn 8 newbie activists, Jamie and Cleveland. Are you reflected in any of the characters?
DOU: It’s hard to write without putting a little of yourself in there. I didn’t do it purposefully, but probably there is some. There are similarities between Jamie’s storyline and the storyline in Revolution. You leave home and strike out into the unknown. Then these two young people come up with some weird cause they want to follow for reasons that might be a little bit suspect but become a little bit clearer as you go on. You just kind of watch the changes in the people. There’s probably a little bit of Jamie in me. She’s a little more badass than I am.
TCR: You spent time in Central America during three different wars. Did any of that influence the way you approached Barn 8?
DOU: Before I wrote Revolution, I tried to figure out how to write about that experience. I didn’t want to write a memoir about being in Central America because I’m not from Central America. I felt like it was their story to tell, so I resisted it for a long time. I wrote a different novel about being in Central America that never got published. I might have sent it out to a couple of places, but I never really tried to get it published. Then I wrote a bunch of nonfiction essays about Latin America, especially about these revolutionary priests from the eighties, but none of it was very good. It was all pretty bad. It all felt a little bit phony. It wasn’t until I switched to writing the memoir that I felt like—this is my voice. I want to write about this. That’s the book I want[ed] to write and I was happy with how it turned out. But then I had this novel that was written about running around Central America during a revolution. It was a spy novel called These Priests. I wound up taking some of the chapters from that book and adapting them for Barn 8. For instance, there’s a security guard who was left on an abandoned farm at the end of the book. That was originally supposed to be the last CIA agent left in Nicaragua or El Salvador. It was now the year 2000 and everybody had left, the war was over, but they forgot to call him home. So, he was still there reporting and nobody was paying any attention. That was from the original story. I thought it was sort of funny and I lifted it and put it in [Barn 8].
TCR: Your voice and tone reminded me a lot of the gallows humor in anti-war books written by veterans like Catch 22 by Joseph Keller and Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut. Was that a style you always had?
DOU: I love that book, Catch 22. I love Kurt Vonnegut. I think the last time I seriously read Kurt Vonnegut was when I was a freshman in college. I think that was the end of me and Kurt Vonnegut. All through high school, I read Vonnegut. I’m sure his voice was internalized. Catch 22 is a classic. It’s one of the best books about war ever written. I love that book so much. So, yeah. Absolutely. It also has a number in the title.
TCR: You have a huge cast of characters and a nonlinear narrative that ranges from prehistoric times to millennia beyond humans. At one point, you were able to drive a mob point of view of more than 100 activists. How did you establish a structure and pacing with a storyline that was so complicated and often chaotic?
DOU: It was not easy. I had all of these different things I wanted to do, but I also wanted it to be easy to follow for the reader. I didn’t want it to be one of these avant-garde, difficult slogs to get through. I wanted it to be like, if you were just reading it, you could just be flipping through the pages quickly and be like—Oh god, I can’t believe she just did that. And you flip through a few more pages and—No, she’s not doing that. I wanted there to be one central event. They’re going to steal all these hens and empty this barn. I wanted the whole book to be circling around that one twelve-hour period. So, you’re leading up to it and then you’re leading away from it and you’re going into all these different minds: all different people and animals and even the air at one point. You’re seeing the air and what it’s doing. It’s all circling around like a cubist portrait. You could go way far in the past from when chickens were just evolving or you could go way far in the future, you know, twenty thousand years from now. But ultimately, it’s all just about that one little twelve-hour period.
TCR: You were able to provide a great deal of important information about Big Ag and chickens as a species, but it never felt like a data dump. What was your approach to blending that into the story?
DOU: My rule about putting research into a book, or anything just about, is it always needs to have more than one purpose. You can’t just put in a sentence of research just to give information to the reader. It also has to be there to develop characters or to show something about the setting that’s emotional, not just—this is the setting. If someone is seeing the setting through their eyes, then it’s supposed to be telling me something about the character—how they view the setting. Information is a tool, like research is a tool in a text, and it can’t be used only to convey specific facts. I wanted people to learn information, but first and foremost, I wanted to tell a rocking story.
TCR: One of the most astonishing points in the story and in “Cage Wars” was how the undercover investigators had to become adept at tasks they sought to abolish. To be above reproach and suspicion, they had to be model employees, and after their careers were over, they weren’t really qualified to do anything other than farm work. How did you discover that?
DOU: I did a huge amount of research and met all of these undercover investigators. I spent months interviewing them and watching their footage. I got fifty hours of footage of what they did. There were a couple I really got close to. One lived closed to me and so we hung out. Another I texted with for months, like fifty times a day. He was a cross-country driver for Amazon. He was in the truck all day and I was watching this footage. I really tried to get to know him and he explained a ton to me. I also got to know a couple of directors of undercover investigators. I did a huge amount of one-on-one conversations. Before it was published, I showed it to someone who was an activist and knows a lot of the people. She said, “You got it, that’s exactly what they’re like.” So, I feel really good about that. It’s rough. They’re kind of a mess.
TCR: During your research what surprised you most?
DOU: The farmers surprised me the most because I’d been vegan for a long time. I’d had this image of farmers as these evil people who just want to hurt animals. I first started getting to know them when I went to an egg conference because I couldn’t figure out how to get in contact with them. It’s not like you can just look them up online. It’s really behind a wall. So, I was doing all of this research online, just trying to figure out how to get in touch with one of them. I guess I’d looked at so many egg sites that I ended up on some kind of list. This window popped up and it said, “Do you want to go to an egg conference?” But you had to be in food service or something like that. So, I just presented myself as a faculty representative from food service at Wesleyan University, where I was a professor at the time. I didn’t really lie. Not too much. I went and I met all these farmers. They were really nice people. We had a ball. We had so much fun. Once they found out that I was writing this book and I was writing an article for Harper’s, they changed their tune and were not nice to me. But before then, they were really nice people and they don’t hate chickens. They like their chickens. This is just what farming has turned into within our culture for all kinds of bad reasons. They’ve followed it and are trying to make a living.
TCR: You’ve done everything from investigative reporting, essays, short stories, fiction, memoir. You have an acclaimed graphic novel—I, Parrot. How does your approach change with the styles and genres?
DOU: I try to have my voice in everything that I do. I tried to have my voice even in that investigative reporting piece, to the extent that I could. That’s the unifying feature. I like form. I like trying all different kinds of things. I feel a little old now, but I wish I could try movies or podcasts or something. I feel I’m really missing that element. Everything I do is writing. But I like trying different forms. It’s fun. It’s an experiment. It’s a challenge. I like learning a lot about each form and then seeing how I can disrupt it. When I wrote Revolution, I read a huge pile of memoirs. I thought so much about how I would like to add to the form. I didn’t just want to write any old memoir. It was the same thing with both of my novels. I wanted to approach them with daring and a disregard for the norm in some way.
TCR: Barn 8 was released only a few weeks before the COVID-19 crisis hit North America. How have you and your publisher had to adjust to this unprecedented situation since the release?
DOU: It was pretty intense because I’ve been working on this book for a very long time. There was a lot of build-up to it. I had this big tour planned that I’m supposed to be on right now. That was nineteen events in different cities all over the country. The whole thing fell apart. I did my first event here in Austin, but already it was hitting, and then every single event was either canceled for us or I just decided to cancel it. So, I’ve been sitting in my house and doing a lot in the backyard. I had two days that I felt really grief-stricken because I did work so hard on the book and there was a lot of build-up to it. We got great pre-publication reviews. The first couple of days after the book was released were really good, and it went into reprint in two days, then everything collapsed once this hit. Everything fell apart. I had two days of just darkness and grief. Then I watched John Oliver on HBO. He was saying that everyone lost something right now. Everyone is losing something big. Let’s all just sit and just have a moment of grief for the thing that we’re losing right now. I thought, here is my moment of grief and I’m having it now. Then he said, “Get back to work. Now we have a world to take care of.” I’m trying to have that attitude now.
Matt Ellis is a retired Army officer serving as a security expert in Guatemala. Over the years, he’s been a HUMINT officer, counterintelligence agent, linguist, diplomat, musician, and Christmas tree trimmer (the machete kind). He’s a freelance reviewer for Publishers Weekly and was the staff screenwriter for Pacific Rim Media. His short fiction has been published at Thought Catalogue. He holds an MS in Information Security from the University of Maryland Global Campus and is studying Fiction at UCR Palm Desert’s Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Find him at www.letswriting.com.
Related Post: Matt Ellis’s Book Review: Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth