It’s no surprise that Colin McAdam’s A Beautiful Truth is a great book. McAdam’s previous publications were received to multiple accolades, and in 2013 A Beautiful Truth took the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, but all that has no bearing on my choice to pick it up. I don’t choose titles because they’re award winners or part of some big national debate, I choose books if they have some appealing quality that attracts me. The rest is just a postscript. A Beautiful Truth appealed to me because of the subject matter: the primary story is about a couple who adopts a chimp to raise as their pseudo son. Intertwined is a story that takes place at the Girdish Institute where many chimps are living as test and research subjects, and later these stories overlap, but what I found powerful about this book was McAdam’s ability to create understanding and empathy for all characters whether chimp or human no matter their motivations or behaviours. While Looee, the main chimp who is adopted, is at the center of the novel, we meet other chimps, and we see into the lives of other characters. We witness gruesome acts, tender moments and comical interactions. We cringe, we cry, we laugh. The book is easy to read but complex in reaction. It makes us think of our own connections to these fascinating animals, and that can move a reader in many different, sometimes frightening ways.
What kind of research did you do for the writing of this book?
I did a lot of book research initially, and eventually spent time with some chimpanzees. I talked to people involved with chimpanzee research, including some who worked at biomedical labs.
What were some of the challenges to writing ABT compared to your other novels?
The research was one of them. It was hard to get access to some of the people I talked to, hard to spend enough time with the chimpanzees, and hard to stomach a lot of what I learned. There were a lot of politics involved in terms of gaining trust with some of the people I talked to – old-fashioned ape politics. And there were longer term challenges to do with how to convey my world view in a way that wasn’t preachy, how to explain, in an emotional, non-satirical way, that I see myself as an ape in a world of great apes. It was a novel of belief for me, and I wasn’t used to that in my other novels. The manuscript was twice as long as my other books, and the final result was shorter – that in itself was a complete change because I usually write economically. But as hard as a lot of the research was, and all the other adjustments, I had some fantastic, life-changing moments and revelations as I wrote.
The sections about the institute that describe the life and actions of the animals within very subtly but powerfully point to the similarities between us and them. How did you navigate that line between subtle and obvious?
I set out to portray the behaviour of chimps as honestly and roundly as I could, based on what I knew. I had faith that the similarities between us and them would emerge naturally from that. For the most part, I wrote the two narratives in isolation and followed events to what felt like their natural conclusions, and then as I edited over time I chose which sections should sit with each other – depending on what I felt could be evoked from the opposing narrative. I knew, for example, that I wanted the political narrative of Mike in Vermont to echo the politics among Podo, Jonathan and the rest, but I wrote the Mike sections and the chimp sections separately towards their natural ends, and later inserted them among each other when it felt appropriate. It seemed the best way to evoke the similarities emotionally rather than pointedly or logically.
One of the striking things about A Beautiful Truth is the different perspectives from which the story is told and how you create empathy and understanding for all characters whether human or chimp. What kind of process was it to write from these different voices?
In this respect it was the same as my other novels – they all knock different perspectives against each other. So the process was familiar, although in the others I aimed to portray some kind of a ‘villain’ and felt less need for that in this one. I’ve learned that creating empathy in readers is sometimes as much the reader’s responsibility as it is the writer’s. There are lots of readers who, regardless of a writer’s efforts, steadfastly want to see nothing but their own view of the world reflected. That’s something I feel like I will always struggle with. While it was hard at first to find the right voice or tone for the chimp sections, once I figured out what felt good to me I wrote as I always have – consulting my mood each day and deciding whether I was a chimp or the balder ape. But, like I said in my last answer, I tended to take a longer time with each narrative and then intertwined them later. In my earlier novels I had a more restless approach, bouncing voices off each other constantly and writing from A to B.
Does Looee exist outside the pages of this book?
Yes. In some ways, he exists by the thousands. I think of this novel as a true story. I based him on a number of chimps I read about, and also on some I met, and if you look at the history of any chimpanzee sanctuary, eg the Fauna Foundation or Save the Chimps, you’ll find stories like Looee’s in abundance. The most influential real chimp for me emotionally was one I met, named Pepper. Looee’s experience in the cages was largely based on Pepper’s medical file, although I had to tone it down a little because the complete reality of her experience wouldn’t seem credible. And, without wanting to sound like a flake, I think that Looee exists in everyone. Anyone who has had to adapt, find his or her way in changing groups, had things taken, grown old. By the time he hit maturity in that novel I thought of him not solely as a chimpanzee but as a fellow ape, not as an animal, a lesser human, a cousin, but a brother.
I don’t usually ask this question but there are undeniable cinematic qualities to this book. Do you envision an adaptation for ABT? Would you consider it?
I think it would take a lot of technology to make the chimp sections come alive. I’d love to see someone try. I suppose if they could film Life of Pi, they could do this.
What’s the typical day like for Colin McAdam?
Short. Lucky. I don’t have a predictable routine. Sometimes I write, sometimes I don’t. Come and knock on my door and I’ll show you part of whatever day that is.
What are some books you’ve read recently?
I’m loving a book called BEDOUIN LIFE IN THE EGYPTIAN WILDERNESS by Joseph L Hobbs. And I’m re-reading Ken Kesey’s ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. Unless I’m taking a break from writing, I tend to read things that have to do with whatever I’m writing. So to answer your next question, I’m working on a novel about Bedouins and one about an old folks’ home.