Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Charles Taylor Prize Interview Series, with Andrew Westoll

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Andrew Westoll

Andrew Westoll is the author of The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary (HarperCollins). Nominated for both the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, the book relates the months Andrew spent at Fauna Sanctuary, a home for retired research chimps and has received praise from Jane Goodall and many others.

Andrew talks with Open Book as part of our series of interviews with the finalists for the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize.

Read on to hear from Andrew about his incredible time with the chimps and his mysterious new project.

Stay tuned this week to hear from all five finalists. The winner of the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize will be announced on Monday, March 5.

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

Andrew Westoll:

The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is part-adventure story and part-biography of an incredible family of apes. For one magical summer, I lived and worked with thirteen chimpanzees who had been retired from a biomedical research lab in New York State. In the lab, they had been taken from their mothers just days after birth, held captive alone in tiny cages, subjected to invasive surgeries and injected with lethal human viruses, all in the search for medical breakthroughs.

Now, at the Fauna Foundation, these apes had been given a whole new life, a chance to learn how to trust humans again, and how to be chimps again. The chimps are free to socialize with each other, build friendships, play and eat their fill of healthy food. They are looked after by a remarkable group of people led by Gloria Grow, who along with her partner, Richard, founded Fauna 15 years ago on their hobby farm on the south shore of Montreal. Gloria invited me, a former primatologist-in-training and now a writer, to move into Fauna, to work as a volunteer caregiver for the chimps, and to write their story for the world to read. It was an amazing adventure.


What were some of the most challenging and most enjoyable elements of writing this book?


The most challenging parts definitely had to do with witnessing the extent of the trauma some of the chimps still summer from. Rachel and Chance, for example, both still exhibit clear signs of PTSD, which lab chimps suffer from in much the same way humans do. It was very hard to watch them struggle to remain calm every day, because sometimes they would fail, and they would start to harm themselves. That said, the enjoyable parts of writing this story all had to do with building relationships with the chimps, playing with them and making their smoothies for them, watching them slowly accept me into their world. Every day in the chimphouse was an adventure; I never knew what might happen.


What do you love about writing non-fiction specifically?


I love bringing the art of storytelling to real-life events. It is a constant challenge, and I extract a huge amount of joy from it. Non-fiction writers are more than just storytellers, though; we are also witnesses. I like that combination, going somewhere no one else gets to go and returning with a rollicking story to tell.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.


The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen. An incredible journey into the Himalayas, with one of the leading scientists of his time, George Schaller. Peter was looking for closure and a deeper connection to his Buddhist faith. George was looking for the elusive snow leopard. The result in an absolute classic of 20th century literature.


What can you tell us about your next project?


It will explore another facet of the human/animal relationship. That’s all I can say at the moment.

Andrew Westollis an award-winning narrative journalist and internationally published author. A former biologist and primatologist, his first book, The Riverbones, is a travel memoir set in the jungles of Suriname, where he once lived as a monkey researcher. Andrew now lives and writes in Toronto. Visit him online at his website.

For more information about The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary please visit the HarperCollins website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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