Deb Olin Unferth’s ferociously funny novel Barn 8 drops Brooklyn teenager Janey Flores into the utterly alien environment of rural Iowa, where she is recruited into a thankless job as an auditor for the US laying-hen industry. Appalled by the grim conditions in the vast chicken barns, she and her boss Cleveland Smith go rogue and plot an audacious plan to liberate a million birds from a single farm, enlisting the help of a ragtag, hundreds-strong sleeper cell of animal activists. The pivotal attempted heist is enveloped by a sweeping history of life on our planet from the time of the dinosaurs to a not-so-distant post-human future. The effect is to show that many of our actions, choices and motivations today are ultimately puny, punitive and devastatingly mindless. Among the witnesses is lone chicken Bwwaauk, who slips through the bottom of her rusted cage and wanders with puzzled curiosity out into the wild, perhaps striking out on a path by which superchickens can eventually inherit the earth…

MR: Perhaps the most startling thing about your book is the minimal effect the liberation of a million chickens would have on the US egg industry. What most alarmed you about the numbers and conditions you uncovered as you undertook your research?

DOU: I had a pretty good idea about the numbers, but when I visited an industry farm, as research, that was a bit of a shock. The sounds, the smell, the number of hens. It’s like walls and walls and walls of cages, all filled with hens, really long walls – you can’t even see the other end – the experience of it, that really stuck with me.

How does egg production today compare with a century ago?

It was about a hundred years ago that we figured out how to make chickens lay more eggs. Before that, eggs were a bit of a luxury. Hens laid between 30 and 90 eggs a year. Then scientists figured out that if you make a chicken believe it is spring with artificial light, it will simply keep laying. Today a commercial hen lays about 300 eggs a year.

They were adored, respected, admired. In the nineteenth century, chickens were hugely popular as beautiful creatures. The era was known as the ‘hen craze’.”

And what about the public perception of chickens then and now?

There’s a great book by Annie Potts called Chicken that goes through the whole history of the chicken and how people looked at them. They were adored, respected, admired. In the nineteenth century, chickens were hugely popular as beautiful creatures. The era was known as the ‘hen craze’. London had the biggest chicken exhibition in the world. Boston had the second biggest. People would come from all over to admire the chickens.

How do the tactics of today’s animal rights activists compare with those of 1970s ‘chickens’ libbers’? (At one point your narrator observes, “These days animal activism was less revolution, more capitalism with a conscience.”)

Animal and eco-activism was very hands-on with guerrilla tactics. There were even anarchist groups, such as the Animal Liberation Front. A charming and hilarious book by Clare Druce called Chickens’ Lib tells the story of she and her mother running all over the English countryside saving chickens, and protesting in London. Adorable! Beautiful! Hilarious! And pretty effective. Now it is much more common to ‘vote with your dollar’, boycott, or send around petitions.

‘Enriched’ cages are now the norm for caged hens in the UK, and are gradually coming on stream across the US. How much of an improvement in welfare do they really represent?

Maybe this sounds a little radical? I believe that chickens aren’t ours to own and use. I don’t think humans own everything we can see or find or dig up or breathe in or make on our planet, including living beings. So I don’t think we should be putting chickens in any kind of cages, enriched or not.

How would a genuinely humane chicken farm be run? Is there such a thing as a ‘happy egg’?

A genuinely humane chicken farm is a forest or jungle where chickens can create their natural villages, sleep in the trees, lay, nurture their chicks, and there aren’t any humans coming around killing them or taking their stuff. Now that’s a happy egg!

I spent a lot of time with chickens, visiting them in giant industry farms, in tiny free-range outfits, in friends’ backyards, and in farm animal sanctuaries. I recorded their voices and listened to them at night on my headphones.”

How much of the story was formulated before you first set foot in a hen barn? And how was the novel informed by those visits?

The plot arrived in my head whole. From the first day I knew what it would be. So then I had to construct the details.

What specific research went into the creation of Bwwaauk?

I did a huge amount of research. I read eight or nine books about chickens and interviewed several chicken scientists. I spent a lot of time with chickens themselves, visiting them in giant industry farms, in tiny free-range outfits, in friends’ backyards, and in farm animal sanctuaries. I recorded their voices and listened to them at night on my headphones.

Time is elastic in this novel, in so far as it sweeps from the age of the dinosaurs to an imagined future world, on top of focusing on a decade or so – and one defining action – in the lives of the protagonists. Is the main purpose of this to emphasise the accidents and missteps that can shape the future?

Really it was because I wanted the heist (the removing of the chickens from Happy Green Farm) to seem momentous, like you can see history and prehistory building to it, from the origin of the bird species, and you can see the future spinning away from it, thousands and thousands of years in the future. I thought that was fun and sort of funny, and also for me gave the book an epic feel, a historic feel, and entrenched it in what I hope is coming: the genre of eco-fiction.

Where do you think humans and chickens will be, say, a hundred years from now?

That’s such an interesting question. If a hundred years ago, we could have seen where we and farm animals are, we would have been shocked. I hope we are in a very different place.

What could we today do to plan for a more favourable outcome?

Less. We could do less destruction, eat fewer animals, have fewer children, just turn the volume way, way down.

What role do literature and satire have to play in fostering social change?

I do think literature has a long history of influencing social change. I’m eager to take part in that tradition!

What are you writing next?

Ah, I’m writing a sci-fi book about some people on Mars! And yes, there are animals in it.

 

Deb Olin Unferth is the author of six books, has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and Creative Capital, won three Pushcart Prizes, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. An associate professor at the University of Texas in Austin, she also teaches creative writing at a prison in southern Texas. Barn 8, her UK debut, is published in paperback and eBook by And Other Stories.
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Author portrait © Nick Berard

Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.
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Read an extract from Barn 8

 

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