West with Giraffes
#1 AMAZON BESTSELLER-LITERARY FICTION
#1 AMAZON BESTSELLER-HISTORICAL FICTION
TRANSLATED INTO 15 LANGUAGES
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"This book was painted, not written..."
"This is the kind of story that, when well-told, can change one's perspective on the world..."
"Lynda Rutledge has written a one in a million book..."
"A modern masterpiece..."
"The depth of feeling that went into the writing of this wonderful book exudes from every page..."
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"A perfect book 🦒"
"...This book is a rare thing, a book that will appeal to every type and level of reader.
It is heart, raw heart. You will read past your bedtime and not regret one lost moment of sleep.
You'll buy this book to give to people who need a moment of hope, grace, and mercy in their lives..."
Woodrow Wilson Nickel, age 105, feels his life ebbing away. But when he learns giraffes are going extinct, he finds himself recalling the unforgettable experience he cannot take to his grave....It's 1938....The Great Depression lingers. Hitler is threatening Europe, and world-weary Americans long for wonder. They find it in two giraffes who miraculously survive a hurricane while crossing the Atlantic. What follows is a twelve-day road trip in a custom truck to become Southern California's first giraffes. Behind the wheel is the young Dust Bowl rowdy Woodrow. Inspired by true events, the tale weaves real-life figures with fictional ones, including the world's first female zoo director, a crusty old man with a past, a young female photographer with a secret, and assorted reprobates as spotty as the giraffes.
Part adventure, part historical saga, and part coming-of-age love story, West with Giraffes explores what it means to be changed by the grace of animals, the kindness of strangers, the passing of time, and a story told before it's too late.
West with Giraffes
It started with a stack of yellowed newsclippings, a very old map, and a white board to fill up.
Over a year, it turned into this calculated mess.
Until, one day, I finally began to write:
West with Giraffes Q&A
Over the amazing two years since West with Giraffes has been published,
I've done a handful of interviews and received many, many emails about questions I didn't cover in the
Author's Note/Historical Notes/Acknowledgements.
So I've consolidated the best below for your reading pleasure!
Q: You packed SO much in this one novel!
[Laughs] One reader wrote: "How did you manage to write a historical novel, a social and political commentary, a coming of age story, and a love story all in one book?" My answer––and it so true: "I had a lot to work with and I had the time of my life creating it."
Q: As a female writer, how were you able to capture the on-the-nose characterization of the male narrator?
[Chuckles] Well, I could give a writerly answer about the way writers hear voices of their characters, but the truth is, in a way I rather lived it if you read my bio. I was a pure tomboy as a kid, constantly risking my little neck with the stitches and scars to prove it, loving softball and horses and dogs much more than, say, tea parties. And part of me is still that little tomboy. So perhaps that helped me, the writer, bridge the gender gap to understand how Woody saw the world.
Q: Did you actually make the cross-country drive?
Yes, I did, but not because of the book. I'd already driven cross country several times moving back/forth over the last 25 years, from Chicago to San Diego to Michigan and then back to Texas, pre-novel, all personal moves that informed every part of the fictional trip as you might imagine. Also, during my writing career (See BIO page), I'd been a travel writer, so writing about a cross-country road trip was the best kind of writing fun, a true joy.
Q: Where were you living when you wrote the book? And what project were you working on at the San Diego Zoo when the idea for the book struck you?
I was living in Texas but traveling back/forth to San Diego every few months to research and write the San Diego Zoo's history for its centennial in 2016. I had lived in San Diego back in 1999 for a short time, fell into a book project for the Zoo, as I explain in my Author's Note. It was a biography of their visionary director of the 50s-60s who not only did away with the Zoo cages whereever he could, replacing them with moats, but also founded the 800-acre Wild Animal Park (now the San Diego Zoo Safari Park). In researching for that project, I discovered clippings about the giraffe story in 1938. I wasn't a published novelist yet so when I couldn't find an actual diary written by the man who pulled off the feat, the head zookeeper named Charley Smith, I had to let the idea for a book go. But obviously, it didn't ever let me go.
By 2012 I was a published novelist, and while I wasn't doing nonfiction projects anymore, I couldn't say no to the San Diego Zoo's request for me to write their history before their centennial in 2016 (now a two-volume coffee table book entitled The San Diego Zoo, The First Century). Of course, I revisited all those great yellowed and crumbling giraffe story clippings from 1938, knowing I'd be telling the true, if short, story about the giraffes in the Zoo's history book, and the thought began to percolate in my now-novelist's mind that I could fill in the big gaps in the clippings to create a novel.
If I did, I could make it not only a love story to animals, tame and wild, but also maybe make a statement about Sixth Extinction, the extinction crisis we are now in. Why not try? So I worked on the Zoo history project during the day and played with the giraffe book at night, plotting and scheming how to fill in the gaps of the information I gleaned from the 30+ clippings.
From the moment back in 1999 when I first read about the hurricane the Zoo's first giraffes lived through before they even landed in New York harbor and then were driven across country to San Diego in pre-interstate times, I was hooked. I actually had a mental image of a little farm girl sitting at her window beside a road, bored to tears, when suddenly a couple of giraffes whoosh by in a truck. When I saw an actual telegram from Lloyds of London, the legendary centuries-old insurance company famous for insuring the uninsurable, mentioning all manner of chaos they'd cover, such as floods and tornados and acts of God, I knew there was a terrific story to be told if I could figure out some unforgettable characters to go with the giraffes themselves.
Q: How did you come up with the name Woodrow Wilson Nickel for the main character?
Writers entertain themselves when it comes to this type of thing. I first thought I'd just name the boy after an early president of the time, i.e. Woodrow Wilson, but after deciding he'd be called Woody, I couldn't resist making his last name Nickel so I could somewhere along the line use the old goodbye saying of that time, "Don't take any wooden nickels!" If you don't know that one, you're probably under 30. I had lots of fun using such sayings for authenticity.
Q: You chose to tell the story via a 1st person POV. How did you find Woody's "voice?"
The answer is going to sound a little writerly "mystical," I fear. It just came to me as soon as I realized I needed a frame story set in the near future so giraffes would be 'extinct' and set Old Woody onto writing his adventure. Perhaps deciding to make him a Texas Panhandle boy helped too, since I have those voices in my head, being a native Texan.
Q: Why did you choose the year 2025?
The story needed to be set a few years into the future but not too far, just far enough for the possibility that giraffes could become extinct. Also, for a poetic opening, attached to Woody Nickel's name, he had to be 105—a century and a nickel (yes, writers love being clever)--so that put it at 2025.
Q: Are any of the characters based on friends or relatives?
Not really. Although I did have an acquaintance, upon hearing about my book idea, hand me an account that her mother wrote about bums coming to her door during the Great Depression that informed that portion wonderfully. Besides the fact that I was once caught in a West Texas dust storm, everything else came from accounts and books I found/ read, most mentioned in the Acknowledgements if you're interested. The rest were just places, things, people I made up after I'd absorbed that big pile of research. My main character, Woody was from Texas so I could not only use all my knowledge of Texas to inform the story and the character, having grown up there, but also use the Panhandle Dust Bowl accounts to make his own story come to life as well as the Dust Bowl story itself that had to be part of any cross-country story in 1938.
Q: What is fictional and what is fact?
The hurricane was real. The time at the quarantine station was real if not the action. Belle Benchley was real. Hitler, of course, was real. The cross-country drive was also, of course, real. Riley Jones, the "Old Man" was based on a man named Charley Smith, SDZoo's head keeper, as mentioned in my Author's Note. But Woody and Red and all the people they encountered on the trip were fictional as were all their adventures.
Q: You nicely wrapped up some things at the end, but left others open. Why? Would that have been too "Hollywood?"
In a way, yes, too "Hollywood." Good literature should reflect real life as much as possible but, in my humble opinion, should always offer hope; it should leave you feeling uplifted but it should also offer a bit of mystery. Because isn't that real life? As the Old Man told Woody after escaping Cooter in New Mexico: "You think you always get to know the ending of a story? Most times you're lucky if you get your ending. If this is our ending, it's a gotdam happy one." Example: I've been asked why I told Red's back story in the last chapter, but not the Old Man's, beyond his circus experience. My answer: mystery. Isn't it more fun for Woody, keeper Cyrus Badger, and you to guess what his real story was than to lay it all out? You get to imagine all the many different back stories yourself. And imagination––as you know I believe––is everything.
Q: Were the obstacles factual they encountered during transport (e.g., nearly driving off the mountain in the Great Smokies or run-ins with the traveling circus)?
No, they were all from my overactive writer's mind after research. All I had to work with was the yellowed clippings, which wouldn't have discussed any of the perils, although the Lloyd's of London telegram I uncovered helped me imagine what problems they might encounter — that telegram in the book (again, verbatim) mentioned blowouts, duststorms, acts of God, and so much more wonderful/awful things.
Beyond that, I relied heavily on the geography that they'd have to transverse without interstates to foster my imagining potential perils, especially after studying the Lee Highway (which I had to deduce they took, not finding their actual route in any of those clippings.) I mean, how could they not find themselves in peril crossing the Shenandoah Mountains? It had to happen.
As for a few other challenges, the flash flood in Texas I invented, for instance, to further the character development and the plot, revealing more about Woody's background but also to reveal Red's true character since she'd been questionable before then—i.e. what she was willing to sacrifice for the giraffes. And it was a big sacrifice. She saved them all. The circus villain, of course, was fully fabricated but factual concerning the fly-by-night circuses that actually DID travel circuits to impress the townfolks every year, during those pre-radio, pre-television times.
Also, you may enjoy knowing this—the man, elephant, and dog they encountered in Arizona is taken directly from one of those clippings. That encounter allowed me to make up and use the great line that sums up the entire book ("There's no explaining the world, boy. How you come into it. Where you find yourself. Or who your friends turn out to be––be you man or be you beast.") It was a very different world back then. And I tried hard to create a feeling of what it was like.
Q: Were the obstacles factual they encountered during transport (e.g., nearly driving off the mountain in the Great Smokies or run-ins with the traveling circus)?
Because I had only the barest outline of the original story, not even the probable route, everything else had to come from my fevered imagination. (See my White Board on this webpage for how I plotted it). I smiled reading the small amount of communication that Charley Smith (who inspired my Riley Jones character) sent back to Belle Benchley, including the postcard found in the novel, because he made it sound as if there were no problems at all and you KNOW that wasn't true, especially in 1938 before interstates and 12 days on the road with a couple of giraffes in your "backseat." So after much research, I let the geography of each day inspire my imagination on the potential problems, and we are talking the geography of the entire continental USA.
Q: When writing a piece of historical fiction such as this, do you have a formula of any kind as to what percentage or components of the tale must be factual and to what degree you feel free to embellish or create fictional tangents?
Actually, this novel worked the other way around. I had all these facts from the 30+ clippings, (which I spinkled throughout the novel almost verbatim, taking only a bit of literary license to make them fit) that gave me a framework and wonderful details such as the onions. I just had to fill in the gaps. I had a stack of facts. I even had one of the main characters, the Old Man, although I didn't have much about him, so I based him on all that I knew about zookeepers during that era, rough and tumble guys, many of whom had backgrounds with circuses and farms.
As for Red, my background as a travel writer and a photographer who grew up with Life magazines in my house, informed her. I knew, for balance, I needed a woman on the road somehow with them, a "scandalous" character who would embody the social situation for women in 1938. The story had to have a female character as much as it needed the Dust Bowl and the "Green Book" sort of racial situation at the time as well, all done with a light, adventure-focused touch, if I could pull that off.
If you are interested in how a writer, at least this one, figures out all the many, many elements involved in such a tale, you might enjoy seeing the white board I created to be sure I had a full-told tale before I ever began writing. See this website's "West with Giraffes"' webpage. I've shown a photo of it during many of my speaking events this year, both Zoom and in-person, and people seem to get a kick out of it, to my surprise.
Q: Do giraffes really eat onions?
As I said in my Author's Note, the only thing I had to work with as I begin brainstorming how to tell the story was the 30 clippings about the giraffes' cross-country trek along with a few other small pieces of ephemera like telegrams. So I had to believe the 1938 San Diego Union article I placed (verbatim) as the last newspaper article in the book, that said the only way they got them out of the traveling crates once they were at the Zoo was enticing them with onions. I recall the clipping's quote from Charley Smith who inspired the Riley Jones character: "Onions have power." So, of course, I couldn't help using that all through book. I've been told by a giraffe expert that they'd rather have carrots but onions will do. And they certainly did.
By the way, giraffes are ruminants who have more than one stomach like cows and sheep. Believe it or not, giraffes have four stomachs. They're always chewing cud before swallowing it again. Hence all the cud chewing mentions.
Q: Have you traveled to Africa to see giraffes in the wild?
I was offered a trip during my travel writing years to go to South Africa but I couldn't take it to my deep chagrin. I often have readers write, mentioning their own African safari experiences, and I admit to being more than a tad jealous every time. *Sigh.*
Q: In 1938, the year this book is set, Belle Benchley is the "lady director" of the San Diego Zoo. Yet in the back matter of the book, you explain that although Benchley was put in charge after a succession of male directors didn't work out, her title didn't go above "secretary" until she neared retirement. What kind of person was she, according to your research?
Anyone who's heard of Belle Benchley will get a kick out of her overarching presence in the book, and anyone who doesn't know about her will love the discovery of such an amazing woman. She's the driving force behind both the true story and the novel but only makes a quick appearance at the end. One of my characters, Riley Jones, who Woody calls the Old Man, put it well: "Looks like a granny, dresses like a schoolmarm, swears like a sailor, and still charms snooty zoo galoots with their fancy educations." The all-male Zoo Board in those unenlightened times (that wasn't too long ago) wouldn't allow her to have the name of "director" since she was a woman. She didn't care, nor did the keepers (all men). They respected and loved her, calling her Boss Lady. I had fun sliding her most audacious story into the novel, if you've read the novel. If not, you're in for an extra treat.
Q: What source materials were you able to find for the cross country journey? And how long did the research take for the book?
As I mentioned in the Book's Acknowledgements, I leaned heavily on half a dozen books about the era, including The Worst Hard Time about the Dust Bowl and the original Green Book, which Blacks had to use to travel in those days safely, and of course books of that time such as Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. See the novel's Acknowledgements for more if you're interested. The research took years and while I'm not the kind of writer who can get lost in research to the point of delaying the writing, I did with this one and I think it helped make it feel more "real" when I did start writing. For instance, there were amazing oral histories about the 1938 hurricane that the giraffes were caught in before landing in New York was the worst until Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Q: Woody often mentions the Old Man's "pigeons," telling the story of how they became extinct. Was that symbolism and what was that based on?
It refers to the sad extinction saga of one of our most iconic extinct species here in the United States that we learned about in school--the passenger pigeon. I wanted to refer to that in case the reader wanted to google it if it was unknown to them. It, of course, was symbolic of the situation we are facing now with the Sixth Extinction endangering so many, many species today. The inclusion of the "Old Man's sky-blanketing pigeons" was used to show that while it felt like a land of plenty back then, humans were still capable of unknowingly causing an entire species to disappear from the face of the earth, and the Old Man explained it well.
Q: Why does the Old Man call the giraffes "his darlings"? Is it an homage to your first book, Faith Bass Darling's Last Garage Sale?
Maybe it IS an homage to my first novel. If so it was subliminal, I assure you! The best answer to why the Old Man called the giraffes 'his darlings' is rather writerly mystical: On the road, the Old Man took on a life of his own, as all my characters did; most authors will tell you the same thing about their characters; they start talking and we end up just listening--if we've done our job and created realistic characters. (Yes, writers are a bit crazy). To show his affection for the giraffes, Riley Jones needed to have a term of endearment, so that's what he started calling them--the darlings.
Q: Any chance of the book being made into a movie?
It's just been optioned, the first step, but these things take years to happen. We'll see!
Q: What is your process? Do you get up in the morning and force yourself to write for a few hours?
I've heard authors say that's what they do and it sounds horrible. If it's forced, how can it be fun? And it has to be fun. If not, why bother? I suspect such talk is a little "posed," as in sounding like what an author should be saying. The creative process should be a thing of wonder and of joy. It should not feel like work. You know? You could get more per hour working at McDonalds. No, the creative process is a thing of wonder and imagination and promise. No one else can do what each of us, individually, can do, vision being such a personal thing. I can only hope that my vision is something that offers something new for each and every reader to consider. Because, if not, again, why bother?
Q: How does this book differ from your other novels? Are there similarities?
I tend to wander in my interests. But, if pressed, I'd probably say that my first major novel Faith Bass Darling's Last Garage Sale is about our relationship to the inanimate things in our lives, our possessions, and my second West with Giraffes is about our relationship with the animate things of our lives, the living creatures who share our world. And, to take that thought further, my next novel Mockingbird Summer is about not just the creatures who share our world, but specifically the other humans with whom we share the world. But, truly, the only thing that is really the same is the author's voice and style, which I hope is strong enough to recognize and be always entertainingly enlightening.
Q: You have quite a unique voice. How would you describe your style?
I'm told my style is "humorously serious." I like that. Robert Frost nailed what a good piece of writing should do, saying it "begins in delight and ends in wisdom." A good story, the kind that stays with you and gives you food for thought, packs a velvet punch––so it must have some gravitas to it, but it should be delivered lightly and with a dash of joy. That's what I'm aiming for in all my novels, the past ones and the ones still to come.
Q: What is next? Any projects you can tell us about?
My new novel, just released, is entitled Mockingbird Summer. Set in 1964, it's inspired by my own experiences growing up during that time of immense cultural change. But the novel also, I hope, speaks to today as all good historical novels should do, especially since the ending's a bit of a surprise, jumping decades ahead to 2020. It does have animals in it––a very important dog and horse who are characters themselves, much like the giraffes were. And, like all my writing, as mentioned above, I want the story to stay with you, to linger, for you to ponder long after you've read the last words.
A few of the THOUSANDS of reader reviews:
"It's not often I have to sit in silence and recover when I finish a book, but I needed to after this one. It's gripping, moving, and so incredibly touching. The tone is so well-crafted, the dialog so realistic. An utterly beautiful novel."..
"A boy running from his mystery past, two giraffes, a gruff old zoo keeper, a red headed photographer and an adventure so extraordinary it has given me goosebumps…"
"West with Giraffes, along with Water for Elephants, The Last Bus to Wisdom, News of the World and Where the Crawdads Sing are the kind of books that the reader wants to devour in a day...only to immediately turn back to the beginning to savor each page...."
"This is a book unlike any I have ever read…There is black humor, heartbreak, and hope all balled up into a crazy road trip and a story that spans 100 years that will touch heart and soul…"
"Read this book. Now. Don't wait. I had every emotion through the course of reading this book. I loved the giraffes, the characters, the story, the writing. Oh, the writing!"
"It had me both laughing and crying. I was sad when the book ended but my heart was full."
"Rutledge brought to life a remarkable story that few know about, and tells it so beautifully as a plea for the preservation of the Earth's most exotic creatures…"
"Ms. Rutledge has spun a masterpiece…. Reading it was like falling into another world."
"I was profoundly moved by West with Giraffes. The writer is a master story-teller, a beautiful story about why stories are written and remembered."
"The author manages to wrap a travelogue, a historical novel, a social and political commentary, a coming of age story, and a love story together in one book."
"I've read some truly wonderful books in my life, but never one I'm convinced will stay with me forever as will West with Giraffes. This is a book that I read with my heart as well as my eyes, every page a joy…"
"There is so much history in West with Giraffe's travels including artfully-woven reminders of the tragic Dust Bowl and the many struggles and prejudices African Americans endured…"
"Publishers actually seem to encourage writing books that are like some other books: "Reminiscent of _________, for fans of ________". It is rare to pick up a book that is really DIFFERENT."
"A journey through a world both intimately familiar and lost in the dust of the past. On the surface a road trip coming of age novel, but down deep an aching meditation on loss, time, and hope..."