In Jessica Anthony’s New Novel, a Taxidermied Aardvark Leads to a Politician Getting Canceled
How would you explain the contemporary political moment to someone from the 1800s? Jessica Anthony’s Creative Capital Project—a new novel called Enter the Aardvark published by Little, Brown, & Company—shows that perhaps the volatility of the moment isn’t that different from the world of 1875. The novel centers around a taxidermied aardvark delivered mysteriously to Alexander Paine Wilson, a representative from Virginia, eventually leading to his downfall. At the same time, the story follows Titus Downing, taxidermist and conservator of the aardvark in question, and his parallel fall from grace. Anthony’s novel provides a hilarious examination of what happens when repressed male love meets oppressive male power.
We spoke to Anthony through a series of emails.
Alex—My first question is an obvious one, but one I can’t help asking. The story follows two, parenthetical characters across centuries and contexts, and they surround a single aardvark. So, what led you to write about the taxidermied aardvark?
Jessica Anthony—The novel began with the title, which appeared in my mind sometime in 2012. I was sitting with those three words for a while, a little scrap of poetry, trying to figure out the song it was singing. I knew nothing about aardvarks beyond what most people generally know. Three years later, in the run-up to the 2016 election, I sensed that I would be writing a “political” novel, but did not know who or what would be interrogated. I never plan fiction. But I knew the novel would read quickly, and would respond to the feel of the current moment in politics, in technology, media, money.
These would all be antagonistic forces, I felt, in the fiction, as they are so often in life. It would not be at all implausible nowadays, I thought, for a politician’s career to be completely ruined in 24 hours. That the speed of indictment would come at the hands of something ridiculous felt both amusing and horrifying. As soon as the aardvark was killed on page 3, I knew I had to follow it. Plot, I’ve come to feel, is simply the sequence of logic which is born out of desire. It made sense that a British naturalist would wish to preserve the “strange beast” in 1875 through taxidermy. So I began to study taxidermy.
Alex—There are so many little details in the book that refer either to your creative- or research-process, and in the acknowledgements you thank some of the UK institutions that helped your discovery. It feels like there are some very interesting stories behind all this, so I wonder if you could talk more about your experience during these two processes.
Jessica—I learned a while ago that having a process doesn’t work for me. Having a process means you are constantly either serving or betraying a way of doing things, which usually leads either to boredom or guilt. The word “research” itself sounds sort of strange and sort of wrong when talking about fiction. It is maybe a word for science? A writer is always on the hunt for some tidbit of information or some image that will deliver the thrill of recognition. Hunting is wild and dangerous and a life is at stake. It is, itself, an experience. I’m constantly broadening my repertoire of composites to write: “experience” is both what you have done, but also what you elect to do. What must you learn or do—or the novel dies?
In the summer of 2017 I was awarded a fellowship in Slovakia and Hungary to guard a bridge for three months, and write. The bridge is the Maria Valeria Bridge, a 500-meter steel tied-arch bridge which connects the settlements of Štúrovo, Slovakia and Esztergom, Hungary, over the Danube River. The first arch of the bridge was destroyed at the end of World War I, and then rebuilt. When the Nazis bombed the bridge again in 1944, three of its five arches were destroyed, and the bridge was left that way, obliterated, separating the two towns, the two countries, for over sixty years. When the bridge was finally rebuilt in October of 2001, the people of Štúrovo established the Bridge Guard program. Every three months, a new artist arrives from around the globe to guard the bridge against further violence through the act of creation. “The mental act of guarding,” the organization says, “is more important than the physical.”
I arrived eager to finish my novel only to discover that the apartment where I would be living had no bed, and was infested with black mold. Huge swarms of flying ants teemed out of the walls, determined to colonize. And so began my routine: sleeping on an ottoman, working on my novel while armed with aerosol cans of Raid, scrubbing tile with a bleaching product called “Mr. Proper,” crossing the bridge once a day, reading Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach again and again (the only novel I had in English, a book left behind by a previous Bridge Guard), and entering notes into the Bridge Log which were largely imaginative leaps to fight boredom. For example: “July 10. A big day! Two Chinese tourists taking selfies climbed onto the railing and became unsteady and almost fell into the Danube! No, that didn’t happen. They walked by you and laughed at your broken bicycle.”
“To let the world in, for me, is not merely a question of writing from one’s personal experiences. To let ‘the world’ in, means to open the door to all of it. The unnatural and the natural.”
Across the river, though, speaking with a classroom of Hungarian teenagers, it was clear the mood in Esztergom was decidedly different from the mood in Štúrovo. This was largely due to fear over the rise of Orbán’s anti-immigrant nativism. In 2015, Orbán ordered “barriers” built on the border of Serbia and Croatia. The teenagers wanted to know what other countries I had been to, and were eager to talk about, and imagine, open borders.
Alex—I want to know more about that residency, but first more about the book: One of my favorite components is the beginning. It begins with this wonderful narrative of the evolutionary process described almost as if it’s a strategic, even political unfolding, rather than a series of long, drawn out events that are messy and haphazard. This contrasts starkly against the political trajectory and mishaps of the principal characters. Meanwhile, we are all very familiar with the two stories of nature and politics playing out against each other in contemporary life. Can you talk more about your experience of these two universes?
Jessica—The novel certainly addresses this. Nature is infinite. What lives in nature is not. But how funny are we humans, that we keep living as though we are infinite? If cognizance of mortality leads to humility, lack of it leads to arrogance. The main character’s—Alex’s—vanity: is it natural or political? Maybe Alex’s flaw is one so many of us seem to share these days: that we can’t simply allow ourselves to feel anything without smothering the feeling with layers of cynicism. Or block it out with our phones. I’m part of the TV generation. Weaned on it. TV made us imitators of life. Now we have allowed our lives to become TV. Life itself, if we agree that it is something felt, is now a managed product. We are constantly natural in that we are alive, and constantly political in the way we have to live.
Alex—You mentioned that you can’t write a novel without opening up to the world. As you explained, while writing Enter the Aardvark you worked as a bridge guard in Slovakia. You’ve also been a butcher in Alaska and a masseuse in Poland. Tell me more about these experiences! Is it more than just “getting away” on a creative residency?
Jessica—Opening up to the world. Yes. It means different things to us all. Early on writing fiction, I once mentioned a computer in a short story, and writing professors hated it. They insisted that nothing should “date” your fiction. They would say things like “technology belongs to science fiction.” It was all snobbery now that I think about it, but my first novel was willfully atechnological. The more you read, of course, the more you realize how silly any of these rules are. And any work of Realism, it seems to me, even hyperbolized Realism, must deal in some way with the dilemma of technology now. It has profoundly changed fiction as it has changed reality. Characters interact differently, as we all do. If a character is late, and no one knows where she is, the first thing they would do is text her. So to let the world in, for me, is not merely a question of writing from one’s personal experiences. To let “the world” in, means to open the door to all of it. The unnatural and the natural.
But I love that you’re asking about the various jobs I’ve had.
I’ve been working since I was 18. One of my many early jobs was working the meat counter in a convenience store in Sitka, Alaska. (I also rented videos.) So I would butcher meat and then rent The Silence of the Lambs to the fishermen coming off the halibut boats. About as far from a writing residency as you can get. I also got a job teaching English at a summer camp in Rytro, Poland, on the Ukraine border. I was paid $40 for the summer. One of the counselors, a large Polish man named Janusz who wore Bart Simpson t-shirts, was a professional masseuse in Warsaw. He taught me how to give professional massages. So I started doing that for extra money. This was a handy skill, it turned out, as a few years later, when I was at a writers conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, my wallet was stolen. I spent the night in the St. Petersburg police station, met the chief of police. He spent three hours writing out an “official police report” in cyrillic. Eventually I got bored and wandered outside, to the hallways, where I discovered a gigantic burlap bag that said, in English, GRANULATED SUGAR. I looked inside, and it was filled with “official police reports,” torn in half. So I gave up on the wallet and gave massages, which kept me fed and got me home.
Alex—Creative Capital has supported a handful of writers over the years, and they have always used the award to great success. You said in one of your funding requests that the award levels the playing field. Can you speak more about what it means to you, your career, and your writing?
Jessica—Creative Capital funds paid for the flight to London, to Slovakia. CC helped me to teach less while I was writing this novel, and it helped me to invest in a writing space which I plan to use forever. So this grant will actually carry me forward, into the next novel, and the next. Right before I was awarded the grant, I was adjunct-teaching 12 courses a year, which paid a criminally low wage. I was writing freelance medical articles, and taking any other job I needed to make it to the next month. We don’t talk as much as we should about class differentials in the arts. It’s all the same hard work—but there’s no question that Creative Capital is giving working writers the support that so many artists receive through other means. Even to have access to an academic job is a kind of security most artists are not afforded. So I view Creative Capital not only as an extremely prestigious award, but as a tremendous force for class equality. There is no question that Creative Capital has given me a writing life, and I am deeply, deeply grateful for it.
Read more about and purchase Jessica Anthony’s novel Enter the Aardvark, published by Little, Brown in the US. The book will also be published by Penguin RandomHouse in the UK.