WEST WITH GIRAFFES
Q & A
Over the last amazing year that 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 book's Author's Note/Historical Notes/Acknowledgements.
So I've consolidated the best and added them below for your reading pleasure.
The giraffes and I thank you ever and again for loving our novel enough to want to know so much more about its story and its creation:
You packed SO much in this one novel! How did you do that?
I really did, didn't I? [insert laugh here] One reader wrote to ask: "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? "I had a lot to work with and I had the time of my life creating it."
Where were you living when you wrote the book?
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.
What project were you working on at the San Diego Zoo when the idea for the book struck you?
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 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 knew 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.
How did you come up with the name Woodrow Wilson Nickel for the main character?
Writers are crazy when it comes to this type of thing. We entertain ourselves. 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.
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.
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 all 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.
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, it was 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.
Did you actually make the cross-country drive?
You know I did, but not because of the book. I'd already driven cross country several times moving back/forth, from Chicago to San Diego to Michigan and then down to Texas, pre-novel, where I wound up writing the book, all personal moves that informed every part of the fictional trip as you might imagine. Also, as mentioned, I'd been a travel writer, so writing about a cross-country road trip was the best kind of writing fun.
Were all of the obstacles and challenges encountered during transport (e.g., nearly driving off the mountain in the Great Smokies or run-ins with the traveling circus) factual?
No, they were all from my overactive writer's mind, since all I had to work with was the yellowed clippings, which wouldn't have mentioned any of the perils, although the Lloyd's of London telegram (mentioned above) helped me imagine what problems they might encounter — that telegram in the book (again, verbatim) mentioned blowouts, duststorms, acts of God, etc. 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 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.
Have you ever fed an onion to a giraffe?
No, I haven't, but I had to believe the 1938 San Diego Union article I put (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 quote from the man who inspired Riley Jones character: "Onions have power." So, of course, I couldn't help using that all through book.
By the way, giraffes are ruminants who have more than one stomach, like cows and sheep. Believe it or not, though, giraffes have four stomachs. They're always chewing cud before swallowing it again.
Have you traveled to Africa to see giraffes in the wild?
I so wish I had. 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. It's on my bucket list. Until then, I'll have to use my imagination. I often have readers write me, mentioning their own African safari experiences, and I admit to being more than a tad jealous every time. *Sigh.*
How does this book differ from your first major novel? Are there similarities?
I tend to wander in my interests, so it's very different. But if pressed, I'd probably say that my first 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 in our lives, the living creatures who share our 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 always entertainingly enlightening.
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. Yet many of the men in the book fear and respect her. 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 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.
What source materials were you able to find for the cross country journey? And how long did the research take for the book?
As mentioned in the 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 books of that time such as Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." Do see the 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. There were amazing oral histories, for instance, about the 1938 hurricane that the giraffes were caught in before landing in New York was the worst until Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
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 saga of one of our most iconic extinct species here in the United States--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, as mentioned above. 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.
Why does the Old Man call the giraffes "his darlings"? Is it an homage to your first book?
LOL. Maybe it IS an homage to my first novel. If so it was subliminal, I assure you. The best answer is this: 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.
Any chance of the book being made into a movie?
There have been a bunch of nibbles. We'll see!
What is next? Any projects you can tell us about?
I have new novel coming out in Feb. 2024. Set in 1964, it's nspired by my own experiences growing up during that time of immense cultural change as many readers will know from their own lives. But it also, I hope, speaks to today as well, framed as it is from the Summer of 2020.
I'm told my style is humorously serious. I like that. 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.
In 1999, I was doing deep dives into the San Diego Zoo's archives for a project when I stumbled on a batch of yellowed newsclippings chronicling the kind of story that captures the imagination and never quite lets go. A place as colorful as the San Diego Zoo has stories galore, but the scope and audacity of this one was remarkable:
In September 1938, on the orders of the Zoo's famous female zoo director Belle Benchley, two giraffes survived a hurricane at sea to be driven cross-country in little more than a tricked-out pickup truck. Over 500 newspapers carried the story day after day as the giraffes saw the U.S.A. from their sky-high windows to become the first giraffes in Southern California.
As I read those old clippings, I kept seeing a bored little farm girl staring out her window when suddenly two giraffes whiz by. Finding a telegram from Lloyds of London insuring them for "tornados, floods, and blowouts," I was hooked all the more. I searched for some sort of trip diary by the keeper who managed the feat, a man named Charley Smith. But like most rough-and-tumble zoo men of the time, he wasn't the kind of guy who wrote in diaries.
So that was that.
A few years ago, I once again found myself thinking about those giraffes––but for a disturbing reason. Giraffes along with so many other species are now threatened in what is called "the Sixth Extinction" which is about as scary-sounding a name as it should be. As I mulled over the future survival of some of the world's most iconic animals, I was back in 1938 with two young giraffes surviving a hurricane and traveling the winding roads of America seeing things in my mind's eye no one will ever see again––imagining how those giraffes surely made the people they met more human. Maybe that's what really had me. I wanted to spend time thinking about why other creatures of our world, both wild and tame, can move us so. Belle Benchley's memoir Life in a Man-Made Jungle being an international bestseller during one of the worst eras of the 20th century proves that connection. There's more going on than the "circle of life": Hitler was threatening, the Great Depression was still going, yet two traveling giraffes lightened the load of an entire country.
The challenge of creating historical fiction inspired by a true story is to research enough to capture what life was like when such a crazy idea seemed feasible. At the same time, the story is always a reflection of the present since that is where it's being read. We have big, big things to worry about in this new century, extinctions of beloved animals among the most heartbreaking. But there's good news: All over the world, conservation organizations, research centers, aquariums, foundations and zoological institutions like today's San Diego Zoo Global [recently rebranded as San Diego Wildlife Alliance] are fighting the good fight for endangered species––and for ourselves, since we now know there will be a human toll for losing even creatures as small as bees and butterflies.
In the decades ahead, when/if someone finds this novel on a family bookshelf or in the stacks of a library, God forbid the world's a place without elephants, pandas, tigers, rhinos, butterflies–and giraffes. A noted conservation writer once posited how we feel about an animal dramatically influences its future survival, that imagination has become an ecological force: Storytelling matters, emotion matters. May it be so.
For now, we may not have the chance to ride cross-country with a pair of giraffes, falling in love with them and each other while learning secrets to life, but we can still meet and be charmed by them. They are still with us. And here's hoping that will never, ever change. #