About the Author:
Katharine Weber is the author of seven books, including Triangle, Objects in the Mirror are Closer Than They Appear, The Music Lesson, and The Little Women; the last three were New York Times Notable Books. She’s the Richard L. Thomas Chair in Creative Writing at Kenyon College and was one of Granta’s “50 Best Young American Novelists.”Her short fiction has been published in The New Yorker and Story, and her book reviews, essays, and journalism have appeared in publications including the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, and the Washington Post, among many others.
About the Novel:
Still Life with Monkey centers around successful architect Duncan Wheeler whose life transforms when a car accident leaves him severely paralyzed. Duncan and his wife, Laura, find themselves in conflict as Duncan’s will to live falters. Laura grows desperate to help him. Laura brings home a highly trained helper monkey—Ottoline—to assist Duncan with basic tasks. Duncan’s life appears to become more tolerable, fuller, and funnier. Yet the question persists: Is it enough?
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How did you first hear about Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers?
Nearly thirty years ago, when I was visiting my daughters at their summer camp in Vermont, a man who was fostering a young Capuchin monkey for socialization brought the monkey to the camp and explained to the children about the job helper monkeys can do to assist people with disabilities.
I have a vivid memory of the monkey running up the very high climbing net in the middle of the playing field, where it stayed for quite a while until it was finally coaxed down.
Strangely, neither my husband nor my daughters, each of whom is usually capable of recalling the tiniest details of the past, recall this encounter with a helper monkey. I know I didn’t dream it.
How does the mission of our organization resonate with you?
There is something really meaningful to me in such dedication to a program that gives people back some independence and autonomy. An incredible amount of effort goes into each placement, starting years before the placement, and then for all the years of the placement, with marvelous, personal ongoing support, without limit.
While the physical needs of someone with an illness or disability are met by conventional means, with medical treatment, physical therapy, adapted surroundings, and personal care assistance, providing someone with a monkey helper recognizes the individual’s inner life, and offers significant opportunities for finding new kinds of fulfillment in daily life.
The connection and emotional bond that forms between Helping Hands recipients and their monkeys is profound and life-changing. Depending on circumstances, this often has a huge and positive impact on the recipient’s family as well.
What inspired you to write the novel Still Life with Monkey?
As a novelist, life situations I see or read about or encounter personally are invitations to imagine all the “what ifs.” What would lead to the situation, and what might be the consequences?
I never write about actual people, but I start with inventing the characters in their situations—who would that person be, to whom that happened, who would make that choice? And then what would happen? From situation grows the cast of characters and their motivations, which I turn lead to the development of the plot. What do they want? What do they do to get what they want? What is at stake for each of these people? And then what? At the heart of every narrative plan for my novels there is a moral dilemma or challenge. I feel great empathy for my characters, and I certainly hope my readers do too.
Still Life with Monkey comes from years of thinking about a friend who has been a quadriplegic since a boating accident more than twenty years ago. He is a very upbeat and positive man who has made the most of his life since then. But like most people in his circumstances, Andy had to get through all kinds of states of feeling, from fear to anger to depression.
Everyone has his or her own emotional response to the loss of physical mobility and independence, whether it has been gradual or sudden. He has talked very frankly with me about those feelings. My thinking about this novel emerged from those conversations. What would such a circumstance be like for someone who, for another reason completely apart from his physical losses—guilt over being responsible for the accident that took a life—really didn’t think he could live this life? What then?
What research went into crafting your novel?
Over eight or nine years, I have devoted myself to learning all I can about Capuchin monkeys. I have also learned all I could about helper monkeys and how they are trained at Helping Hands. I was high bidder for a behind the scenes tour of Monkey College several years ago, and then it was my good fortune to be introduced by a mutual friend to a Helping Hands recipient and his wife—Kent and Nancy Converse—and Farah, Kent’s helper monkey. (My novel is dedicated to them, as well as to my friend Andy.) What began as research visits for my novel, which Kent and Nancy very generously agreed to, turned into a genuine friendship which I value enormously.
I was dismayed when I learned that fourteen states, including Connecticut, where I live, do not allow helper monkey placements. Still Life with Monkey takes place in New Haven, which is where I locate the fictional Primate Institute of New England—though of course in real life neither Duncan Wheeler and his helper monkey Ottoline nor the Institute could be located there.
I read several novels for context, starting with Sigrid Nunez’s Mitz, about the marmoset owned by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, and including two extraordinary and compelling novels with chimpanzees—We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, and A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam. Both of those novels about connection and disconnection between humans and the chimps in those stories are profoundly sad.
I have also tried to learn all I could about the emotional and physical impact of living with spinal cord and other injuries or illnesses that lead to use of a wheelchair. And educating myself (an ongoing process) on the very important politics around disability. This has opened my eyes to the infinite ways we live in an able-ist society, with inadequate accommodations for the differently-abled. To paraphrase Justice Warren’s language from the landmark 1956 Brown v. Board of Education ruling on school segregation, separate but equal isn’t equal.
Why did you feel like this was an important story to tell?
I think we live in a society that resists—for reasons of fear as well as prejudice—full acknowledgment of the infinite varieties of human experience. While racism and homophobia are obvious prejudices, I think there is a kind of able-ism that runs deeply through our culture. In fiction you can dwell with people who in real life might make you uncomfortable because of their differences. These differences may be obvious or invisible, but many of us turn away from and distance ourselves from people we are glad not to be. Many differently-abled people are just invisible in our society. Fiction invites the reader to step closer and feel some connection to characters they would never get close to in real life. As a reader, I love meeting characters in fiction who are not like people I know or would cross paths with otherwise.
What is the one thing you hope readers take away from the novel?
I always hope readers will continue to think about my characters long after they have finished reading the book. With Still Life with Monkey, I hope readers will recognize in new ways the many aspects of daily living that are not fair, not accommodating to the differently-abled, starting with physical inaccessibility. When readers think about Duncan’s ultimate choice in my novel, I hope they will think about the rights of the differently-abled to make choices for themselves, another kind of accessibility which should be no different than anyone else’s, even if those choices are hard to think about.
Katharine Weber will donate a portion of profits from the sale of this book to Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers. Order your copy today!