Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Noticed: Andrew Westoll's The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is a Hit!

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Andrew Westoll

Andrew Westoll's The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary (HarperCollins Canada) has been one of this spring's runaway hits. Westoll's stories of ex-research lab chimps learning to live together at Gloria Grow's rescue centre in Quebec are moving, funny and draw the reader in immediately.

The book has received glowing reviews, which are comprehensively rounded up on Westoll's website (including a 4 star review in People!). He's also received praise from the likes of Jane Goodall, Barbara Gowdy and Temple Grandin. Be sure to check out Westoll's amazing videos of the chimps behind the book as well.

You can catch Westoll in person at Ben McNally Books on July 19 in Toronto as part of the event You Think You Know Me, But You Have No Idea. Click here for more information on this event, which also includes authors Sarah Leavitt and Stacey May Fowles.

Westoll took the time to chat with Open Book about the book's enthusiastic reception.

Open Book:

Reactions to The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary have been incredibly positive. What sort of reception did you expect when you were working on the book?

Andrew Westoll:

As a relatively young writer, it was hammered into me pretty early on that to expect any sort of reception whatsoever is a mistake, and potentially catastrophically demoralizing, so I have to say the reception so far has been thrilling. I expected people to react strongly to the story, I guess, but I was never sure just how many people would end up hearing about the book, what with all the media noise out there to contend with. I’m still not sure about this, to be honest. Media coverage is one thing. Actual books in actual readers’ hands is another. I guess we’ll see.


Did you have any concerns while writing?


My concerns mainly had to do with the reception the book would receive in the USA. The biomedical industry is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, and I know they are gearing up for an expensive fight down there over the issue of chimps in research. I had to be careful to back up every claim I made in the book in order to be taken seriously. Also, I was worried about the way animal welfare and animal rights people would see the book. Luckily, it seems that on the whole it’s been positively received, and those who have issues usually cop to the fact that they themselves fall to one of the extremes on the continuum, and that for a book to be targeting the mainstream is also a good thing.


Is there anything that stands out as a particularly positive experience in your time spent promoting and talking about the book?


I’ve heard back from a number of chimpanzee sanctuary directors in the US, and they’ve all been overwhelmingly positive about my book, and about putting these stories out there so more people can become aware of the issues. These people are on the front lines, and for them to drop me a line and tell me they’re appreciative of my work, well, that means a heck of a lot. Also, the Jane Goodall Institute has been very supportive. In fact, this Saturday I will be traveling to the Congo with the Executive Director of JGI Canada to visit the largest chimp sanctuary in Africa. She extended the invite after she read my book.


What is it about the stories in The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary that you think moves people so deeply?


I think it’s the recognition that all animals have a life story. I set out to reconstruct the chimps’ lives as a biographer would, because I knew biographies were popular for a reason. Everyone loves learning the life stories of other people. The narrative arc of a life, from birth to death, is one of the most gripping narratives there is. So I figured the same attraction would extend across species lines.

But at its core, I think the attraction of my book is the extent to which the chimp and human characters rise up and overcome their difficulties. Their resilience is at once inspiring and magnetic. It amazes while it draws people in. At least, that’s how I felt when I was conducting my research for the book.


Do you have any tips for fellow writers regarding interviews, readings and other promotion activities?


If you foresee any sticky questions in advance — that is, questions on topics you don’t feel 100% cut out to handle — spend some time coming up with standard responses, or starting points. The confidence this will give you in the clutch will help you speak more naturally, and that’s when you’ll discover you actually know more than you think on the topic.

In general, I would just say that writers should take any and all opportunities to spread the word about their work, no matter how big or small. We spend our lives ‘pushing the envelope’ while locked in a room typing away. It only makes sense to continue pushing once we’re out in the world promoting the sucker. Don’t turn anything down, at least at first. And remember: radio personalities may be genuinely interested in what you have to say, but their first allegiance is to the clock. If they cut you off midstream, as just happened to me on Australian radio in a most embarrassing way, don’t take it personally.


Are you working on anything new? If so, can you tell us a little about it?


I’m picking away at a couple of projects, but none of them are at the stage where I feel comfortable talking about them. All of them explore one corner or another of our complicated relationship with animals and the ‘natural’ world. I think it’s safest to leave it there.

Andrew Westoll is 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 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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