It took Bill Broun 14 years to write Night of the Animals. But the novel, Broun's debut, has still proved remarkably timely in a summer of "Brexit"-tinged anxieties.
The book depicts a dark future in which the European Union has dissolved and the U.K. has become a pacified surveillance state. Between "indigents" and "the new aristocracy," a vanishing middle class bows beneath abundant chocolate, lager, legal hallucinogens and mind-numbing electronics.
In the middle of it all, the London Zoo stands as a kind of ark for all the non-human species who are being driven out of existence. And Cuthbert, the character at the heart of the narrative, can hear them clamoring to get out.
"He actually hears the animals asking to be released," Broun, a professor at East Stroudsburg State University, tells NPR's Scott Simon. "And he understands that releasing them is actually something that is bigger than simply releasing animals from the zoo. It's a kind of fulcrum between the old world and a kind of liberating cataclysm."
On the world he has created: London in 2052
There is a newly empowered monarchy, and a lot of the important Victorian reforms that put that monarchy into check have been reversed, so that there's a fictionalized King Henry, who's a fictionalized version of the current Prince Harry, turned into a tyrant. Britain has become ultra-nationalistic and powerful, too.
On the inspirations for his main character, Cuthbert
I lived in the 1990s in Houston, Texas, and for complicated reasons I ended up making friends with a lot of men who were schizophrenic, who had sometimes been on the streets, who sometimes were in kind of shaky housing situations.
And I had my own struggles with psychosis occasionally and anxiety disorder. Indeed, I turned to alcohol as a way of coping. One of the things that I had found with these men is that they had all done the same thing. They were essentially self-medicating, and when they weren't taking their medication, they would kind of go off the rails. But I was fascinated by their imaginations and their creativity.
One of these people is a man I grew very close to, and I'm still friends with him today. I actually took him to the zoo, and I saw him talking to the howler monkeys in this just incredibly tender-hearted voice. Then I started thinking about all the different ways people have talked to animals and heard them talk back — in everything from Christian hagiography to children's stories. So I just really became fascinated by the idea of bringing to life a man who could speak to animals and hear them, too.
On the kinds of traps we confront — but real and metaphorical
I'm trying to make a comment on different kinds of entrapment. I thought about the different ways that people are trapped — you know, trapped in a kind of grief.
For Cuthbert, you know, he had lost his brother at a young age, and he mourns for this brother. And he believes — this is the other thing — he believes that by releasing these animals, there's a possibility of finding his brother, who is presented as lost and possibly dead. And that grief that he has, that need to find his brother, I think that's one of the big motivating factors for him.
On what it was like to live with the themes, the characters, this world for the 14 years he spent writing the novel
For me, I know if might sound hokey, but it was kind of a spiritual journey for me. I really felt that I was searching for God as I was writing this book. And Cuthbert in the novel, his savior in some ways is a stranger who happens to be a woman who's a police officer. I believe that God works through people — and animals, too.