Andrew Westoll on studying monkeys in a South American jungle
Andrew Westoll won the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize (now the RBC Taylor Prize) for his bestselling book The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, which chronicles his journey volunteering at a refuge for traumatized chimpanzees in Quebec. Now, he's followed up that success with a novel — his first — that takes readers on a trip into the jungle.
The Jungle South of the Mountain is the story of a scientist who has spent years studying capuchin monkeys in a unique South American jungle. In his own words, Andrew Westoll tells us why he decided to try his hand at fiction. He also, of course, tells us about monkeys.
The grace and intelligence of capuchin monkeys
"I spent a year studying the capuchin monkey in the jungles of Suriname, way back in a previous life. Capuchins are basically the most cognitively and socially advanced monkey species in the New World, by which I mean Central and South America. They are often referred to as the 'chimpanzees of the New World.' We're learning more and more everyday about how cognitively intelligent they are.
"The thing that sticks with me about capuchins — and this is true across monkey species — is that they almost seem to be able to fly through the trees, because they can jump so far and land with such grace. When you're living in the forest watching them for 12 or 14 hours a day, you're continually struck by just how graceful they are. It's amazing to watch."
Of monkeys and men
"I had originally planned to make this a very spare, slim book about a man and an eagle. As that idea developed, though, I realized I was missing a huge opportunity by not accessing the human drama, the human primates, in the country as well. I'm certainly not drawing an analogue between the monkeys and any of the people in the book, but I think there's an unavoidable connection between an animal behaviourist who's studying and observing a community of beings in the bush and himself becoming part of the story among his human compatriots.
"The story is set in a fictionalized country — some of the historical basis is drawn from Suriname, but not all. I was there during a relatively peaceful time, years after the unrest. But as I mentioned in [The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary], it was very easy to peel back a couple of layers with people I knew and hung out with, and uncover some of the trauma that was still there. And without being too ham-fisted, it presented itself this time around with real potential for narrative."
The pros and cons of ecotourism
"[Stanley, the scientist who is the book's protagonist] is a character I've created — he's not me. But for Stanley, there's definitely no love lost between him and the ecotourists. He really doesn't give much thought to the reasons they're there and the conservation-based reasons for ecotourism. He thinks they're in the way, and that they are a blight on his forest. And there are lots of people out there who feel that way when they're out working on science in the bush and they come upon a bunch of tourists."
On switching from fiction to nonfiction, and back again
"When I first started writing, I was mostly writing fiction — mostly because I didn't know what creative nonfiction was — so I mostly spent my time writing really short stories and working on my sentences through fiction. I always kind of thought I'd be writing longer-form fiction at some point. And then nonfiction took me on a tour in a different direction.
I'm really interested in continuing to explore the fictional voice for sure. I'm also really interested in exploring the cross-genre voice, which is something that I'm messing around with right now. I won't be just skipping straight back to nonfiction and forgetting about fiction — it's been really rewarding to stretch my legs and return to something that I thought I was originally going to be doing."
Andrew Westoll's comments have been edited and condensed.