The Next Chapter

Why scientist-turned-writer Andrew Westoll is obsessed with primates

Andrew Westoll, author of the award-winning memoir The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, talks about his first novel, The Jungle South of the Mountain.
Andrew Westoll won the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize for his bestselling book The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. He returns to the jungle for his first novel, The Jungle South of the Mountain.

Before becoming a writer, Andrew Westoll was studying to be a primatologist. At 23, he travelled to a rainforest in Suriname, a country on the northeastern coast of South America, to study the habits of the region's capuchin monkeys. He was just weeks into working when he realized he wasn't as interested in collecting data as he was in writing stories about the diverse life the rainforest supported.

Fifteen years later, his work with primates has inspired two nonfiction books: The River Bones and the Charles Taylor Prize-winning book The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. And now, he brings the same passion to his first novel, The Jungle South of the Mountain. Westoll spoke with The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers about the inspiration behind his new book.

On realizing you don't want to be a scientist... in the middle of the rainforest

I was dropped off in the middle of the largest tract of pristine protected rainforest that was left on Earth at the age of 23 to study these troupes of monkeys that had never been studied before. It really didn't take long for me to realize that science wasn't the way I wanted to interact with that environment. I can actually remember walking with my boss, my professor who was running the project, through the bush and she was rattling off the Latin names of all the trees. There was just something weird to me about naming everything with these Latin terms. It seemed to be missing so much of the story. As I learned to collect data on the monkeys, I felt the same thing. Putting their actions down to little codes and numbers, I began to feel like I was missing something larger.

The natural cathedral that I was living in was filled with new things every single morning. The more time I spent focused solely on the monkeys, the more time I felt I was missing with everything else, all the dynamism around me. I was blessed to have that experience so young because I realized at that point that science just wasn't the way I wanted to interact with the world. I wanted to engage with it in a more holistic, more narrative way. I'd always been scribbling and telling stories, but that was sort of the final straw for me.

Staring down the world's most powerful bird of prey

The idea for the book was simple: What would have happened if I had never left? That idea stuck in my head as a potential character. Then I remembered that harpy eagles are the most powerful birds of prey on earth and they sometimes prey on monkeys. Everyone thinks the harpy eagle must have a huge wingspan, but it doesn't. It's nowhere near the largest wingspan of any bird of prey, but it is the most powerful and that's because its pectoral muscles are profoundly strong. Its wings are a little shorter and thicker, so these birds can manoeuvre incredibly thick canopies and pump their way out of the canopy really quickly. This bird is unbelievable to see in the flesh. It's got these crown feathers behind its head that give it a regal look and I big massive white breast. The breast was just enormous and it has this curved charcoal beak. In my novel, one of them looks at Stanley at one point, and that's an autobiographical moment. I'm talking about what it felt like to be looked at by that creature, and she looked right through me. It was one of the most humbling things that happened to me out there. 

Andrew Westoll's comments have been edited and condensed.