Deb Olin Unferth is the author of six books, including Barn 8 and Wait Till You See Me Dance. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and three Pushcart Prizes, and was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Her work has appeared in Granta, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and the Paris Review.
Abby Walthausen: I encountered your work first as short stories. In them you tend towards the mysterious, the absurd. Absurdity explored over the span of a full-length work usually organizes into satire, though I notice shades of your short fiction off-kilter-ness all over the place in Barn 8. Is that hard to achieve? How do you feel about the difference between working in the two genres?
Deb Olin Unferth: The short stories felt like training for the novel—not in all ways, since a short story arc is so particular and entirely its own—but in the sense that I could experiment with techniques and styles on a small scale before bringing it big with the full novel. Once I figured out some of the novel’s absurd-logic, it was a joy to string it through so many pages and scenes and characters.
AW: The book also lies a bit outside of the political satire tradition in that you take on very human novel challenges. One unusual thing you do is that, in Borges’ “garden of forking paths,” you don’t choose, but instead follow two paths. When Janey’s story splits at the beginning, when she moves from Brooklyn to Iowa and her mother dies, you continue telling the story as it happens, as well what would be happening had she stayed behind. In describing two Janeys, did you feel like you were doing double duty? Was it exhausting? Exhilarating?
DOU: Exhilarating. I feel self-conscious writing story lines and characters. I love being able to break away in this way, and I love that the effect seemed to me to be to bring more emotion to the page, more sides to who she is, more understanding of her broken heart. I like using techniques like that when they give me opportunities to deepen emotional complexity.
AW: Culturally speaking, the egg is a pretty fixed symbol: fertility, rebirth, purity, possibility. As you write it, it takes on new shades of meaning. Obligation is an important one, and it is overwhelming: in some passages the egg is a consumerist or patriotic duty, in some passages it represents ties to family (at times description of the Green-Jarman family reads like a montage in Goodfellas), or even insularity. It is bounty not of life, but bounty for its own sake. Am I asking an insular non-question? Let me reframe it: if you were to hold an Easter egg hunt with your eggs, what would the event look like?
DOU: Yeah, I wanted to roll out a Cubist portrait of the egg over the course of the book, all its different meanings to us. American duty, patriotism, fertility, etc. And I also wanted to show the transition of the meaning of egg, how its value has decreased because we produce so, so many of them. For most of civilization, eggs were a luxury. Rebirth and fertility were not cheap. The lives of chickens were not cheap.
And… [Laughs] Well, of course, I wouldn’t hold an Easter egg hunt, since I don’t believe animals or what comes out of them are ours to paint and hide.
AW: The event that sets your whole story into motion is one of “fertilization,” as it comes when Janey’s mother Olivia tells her that she is not the child of a sperm donor, a lab baby, but that she has a father back in Iowa. This sudden discovery refigures her life up until that point—what seems on the surface to be a richly resourced and happy coastal life—into something that appears clueless and insular. This is interesting to me, because our cultural narrative usually couches naivete in the country, then corrects it in the cosmopolitan big city. How did you decide to make this reversal?
DOU: Oh, interesting. I see what you’re saying. Anywhere one grows up is insular in the sense that you are being exposed to the values and norms of your community, which most of the world outside your community doesn’t hold. If we have learned anything from the Trump era it is that you can grow up in a coastal city and be exposed too so very little of America, and not only America, but the world. New York is a very insular place if you let it be. You have to work hard to push at the boundaries of it, or you have to have the outside world forced on you, as Janey did.
AW: I’ve got a name question that is related to this theme of self-liberation: I’m wondering if one of literature’s most famous Janies, Janie Crawford from Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, was on your mind in naming your protagonist. That Janie also veers off from societal expectations, is beckoned by the primordial (bees, blossoms, swamps, etc. rather than chickens and eggs). Does it track?
DOU: I love that book, love that Janie, love her bad choices and good ones, how she was carried so far from home before she found true love and community. I love her independent spirit, her flirty manners, her goofiness, her language, her deep emotions and sorrows. Maybe, yeah!
AW: There’s also some word play in the book that piqued my curiosity. Since 8 / -ate is a suffix, I wonder whether “barnate” is part of your story’s lexicon, a word along the lines of “stagnate,” “ruminate,” “rusticate,” and so on. Also, I notice you play with the word “layers.” Layers are the hens who are at the center of the story, but you also dramatize the moment when your characters are poised to free the hens by listing the “layers” of their collective, disorganized thoughts. Tell me more about some of this language play!
DOU: I like your barnate idea: barning as a process, how those giant barns rumble and produce on their own, how the role of the farmhand is minimal, as if the enormous barn is a robot set in motion that will take these living beings and churn out massive numbers of eggs. Of course I was thinking about barns in this way, but I hadn’t thought of the verb invention “to barnate.” I like taking words and revealing their different sides, their underlying philosophical and social assumptions, and seeing what that says about us. So you picked up on a habit that is very much there.
AW: I notice that you explore some themes in the novel that come up elsewhere in your books. In Revolution, you take a look at naive, impulsive activism. In I, Parrot, you’ve written a woman liberating birds more out of world-weariness and a desire to start again than out of zeal. Which drives your auditors and inspectors more in Barn 8? Which motivation do you think drives more meaningful activism?
DOU: Yeah, I guess I’ve been thinking for a long time about how one can do meaningful acts. The auditors and investigators don’t have simple or singular motivations. Unlike the protagonist in I, Parrot, they are informed. Everyone in this book, with the exception of Janey, have made this their life’s work, from the investigators, to the head of audits, to the farmers, to the design engineer… I purposefully made these characters have complex and solid motivations, where they want something that makes sense and they know how to do it.
I spent a huge amount of time getting to know farmers, activists, investigators, and animal lawyers while writing this book, and one thing that struck me: if they wanted to do this, they could and would. It’s just who they are.
AW: The number of chickens that your activists in this book attempt to free is truly sublime (a million, right?). Even so, the number amounts to nothing in the face of the egg industry, or of industrial farming as a whole. So, there is some tension between humane action and symbolic action amongst the characters. Cleveland frees a single errant chicken called Bwwaauk, and continues on that small scale for a while. When the plan escalates, another character, Anabelle, asks that the chickens be relieved from use “For a single fucking hour…Not for their eggs, not to eat, not to make a point.” A group of activists say, “It’s time to reject the so-called Renaissance and go Dada on these assholes.” Is it possible to make action on a grand scale that is more than just symbolic, aesthetic?
DOU: I don’t think the action of freeing those hens is symbolic or aesthetic. They are doing it for the individuals who would benefit. If you save one person from a fire do you say, “Well, so many other people are dying in fires, that action was just symbolic or aesthetic”? No. It matters. Each act matters. Each act is your choice and makes you who you are. Not symbolically who you are. But what you lay down at night as.
AW: One of the most dispiriting moments in your descriptions of industrial egg farming practices is when you talk about the cage-free barns. Though it sounds more humane, these chickens are not roaming a field, they’re not hopping freely up and down little chicken ramps. In reality the cage-free chickens also live in chaos, with daily routines fomenting a “predator apocalypse” among panicked chickens. Some get trampled by farm hands or by each other. Are cage-free eggs just a greenwashing phenomenon? You obviously did a lot of research on the egg industry, is there anything that still surprises you, or surprised you when you headed into the farms?
DOU: Yeah, I wrote an investigative piece for Harper’s Magazine on the egg industry as part of my research for this book. Every aspect of it surprised me. Experiencing for myself the size of the barns, the incredible sound of a hundred thousand hens, the general badassness of the investigators, and yet how much of a wreck they were. I learned that there is no way to mass-produce eggs that isn’t a moral atrocity.
But maybe this surprise was the greatest: the farmers! They were nice people. They were friendly and funny. They weren’t terrible people. They just didn’t think chickens were worthy of moral consideration. They didn’t think that much about it. A disagreement between us.
AW: Are you vegan now? Were you when you began writing the book?
DOU: I became vegan in 2008, years before I started writing the book, but eggs were the hardest thing to give up, so that might be one reason why I headed down this road.
AW: At the end of the novel, you step back from your main characters and rely on a few outside narrators who take very small roles in the story. One is a security guard who sticks around long after the Happy Green Family Farm is empty. He collects his paycheck and notices a growing silence among birds and insects. Another is a park ranger who is charged with the contaminated forest where the remaining chickens eventually settle. Both of them are guarding worlds that are desolate, and appear to be growing more so everyday. Do you see their attention to these emptying spaces as hopeful or doomed?
DOU: I’ve always felt like the book is about human destruction and perversion of the environment. I’ve been waiting for the avalanche of fiction that is sure to come that will be massive public mourning over what we have done to the miracle of our planet. I think of those characters are part of that, waiting, watching, beginning to mourn. We are doomed, the earth will soon be covered with contamination. But there is beauty and uniqueness in each individual, and that is hopeful.
AW: I hate to tag this on as though it is a throwaway question, especially because it’s always my favorite question, but what books are you reading now? Anything you’d recommend? Anything that feels like it is in conversation with Barn 8?
DOU: Let’s see. I recently read Cruddy by Linda Barry, whose protagonist seems like an alternate Janey.
Other Minds by Peter Godfrey Smith is an incredible book about octopuses. Some heavy lifting philosophy in there, but truly one of my favorite books of all time.
Speaking of Zora Neale Hurston, if you haven’t read Barracoon, her book-length interview with the last-known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade, you are going to be blown away.
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko really helped me think about the endings of cultures and civilizations, about the individuals at the tail end of those transitions.
Feature photo by Nick Beard.