Sunday, October 31, 2010

Jay Kirk

From a Q & A with Jay Kirk about his new book, Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals:

What led you to tell the story of Carl Akeley?

I first ran across the name Carl Akeley while working on a story for Harper's. It was a piece about all of these inexplicable sightings of mountain lions in the eastern United States. The thing is, the eastern mountain lion (aka cougar, puma) has been extinct since 1888, and yet there were, and still are, more cougar sightings than Elvis sightings. It was the first story I wrote that got me into the whole natural-history thing, however paranormally tinged, but I realized that, for me, here was the really essential story about America that's never gone away, and it's never going away because it's part of our collective national DNA, and that's our relationship with the wilderness. So in addition to spending a lot of time roaming mountainsides in Appalachia with game wardens and amateur cougar experts, I was reading a lot of history about how we had wiped out the cougar, along with just about everything else, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and somewhere in there, I read something in passing about this "famous taxidermist" who had once "Strangled a Leopard with His Bare Hands." It was just a moment of research serendipity. I can honestly say that my first thought was: I want to write a book about this guy.

How did you conduct your research for Kingdom Under Glass?

The word "painstaking" comes to mind ... I mean, it's hard to separate the research from the writing because in nonfiction, if you really want it to be serious nonfiction, you never stop researching. But I've always loved doing research almost as much as I like actually writing: I love visiting the archives at the natural-history museums, I love reading all the correspondence, especially when it's typed; I love reading the old diaries, even when they're not typed. I loved reading, literally, a couple of hundred safari memoirs—it's, like, this great forgotten subgenre of the travel narrative. Akeley also had thousands of photographs that I was able to use to help visualize my scenes and characters. The vastness of the material available made it immensely feasible to make a lot of artistic choices in terms of what to use for scenes. So many, many unbelievable and amazing things happened to Akeley over the course of his five expeditions and his life, but at times I admit it was hell on my tendency toward OCD.

Not to say that I didn't take half measures in some ways. For instance, to understand the genius of Akeley's craft, or the Akeley method, my research also required that I spend a good bit of time with professional taxidermists. My best source was a guy from Jersey City by the name of John Janelli. Janelli is a high-ranking nabob of the National Taxidermists Association, an organization whose greatest competitive prize is a medallion emblazoned with Akeley's face. Janelli was as impassioned with my project as I was, and he kept coming up with these wild schemes where he would properly educate me in the Akeley method—ideally with something more interesting than a squirrel. On one occasion, Janelli arranged to euthanize a terminally ill...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue