an interview with laura zigman   introduction  

photo of laura zigman

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laura zigman as THE jane goodall

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Bold Type: Were you inspired to write Animal Husbandry by any particular person, or experience, from your own life?

Laura Zigman: Jane Goodall's experience in the book of falling in love and getting dumped and then becoming obsessed with revenge and justice? It's COMPLETELY made up, since neither I, nor ANY woman I've EVER known has experienced anything like this. Therefore, I had to rely entirely on my skills as a fiction writer to invent such an unlikely plot.

Just kidding.

Of course it was based on real life experiences--those not only of myself, but of every other woman I have ever known. The main relationship, between Jane and Ray is basically a composite of all of these stories, but since all of these stories are so oddly similar, I believe it's a fairly realistic portrayal of this type of experience.

There are stories of bad male behavior of such epic proportions that if we tell them we risk sounding like we're making them up. But, of course, we're not. One woman I know was dating a man for almost a year, until a close friend called to tell her that she'd just received an invitation to his wedding -- to someone else. Several friends of mine have simply never heard from guys they were seeing ever again: that is, the men just never bothered to call them to tell them it was over. Maybe they thought the women would just, you know, get the idea after a while. And what about the woman recently who was jilted at the altar? While this is an extreme example of bad-boy behavior, what's most interesting to me is the public's reaction to it. It dominated the national news for days. Clearly, it struck a big fat chord with people all over the country, and their response shows that we've all had enough of this kind of heartlessness.

BT: How does the war between the sexes differ today from 25 or 50 years ago?

LZ: The part that has changed, I think, is that fifty years ago, when a man dumped a woman, he was considered a cad. A snake. A father would threaten to take a shotgun to a man who had ditched his daughter and stolen her honor. That's because -- even as recently as twenty-five years ago -- women were still perceived as helpless, as needing a man to protect them. Now women, after a long struggle, are perceived as equals, capable of taking care of ourselves in this brave new world. Still, before this gradual revolution, everybody knew what the rules were. Women were culturally programmed to want marriage and children. Men were culturally programmed to provide and protect. Men and women were programmed to couple. But today there is a far more elastic code and the result is that there are a lot of lonely single people out there. All the single men and women I know sense there is something very wrong now with how we relate to each other. That there is something missing, a disconnection, a profound sense of confusion that has polarized us. Women don't understand why men are so skittish and evasive and seemingly fearful of relationships, and men don't understand what women want from them. The part of the story that has never changed is this: Men have been dumping women for ages.

BT: You frame the relationship issue in terms of an old cow/new cow theory -- i.e. the Coolidge Effect, which states that a bull will not mate with the same cow twice. Of all the paradigms available, how did you come to choose this one?

LZ: It sort of chose me. Or, to be more precise, it chose a very close friend of mine who first discovered it as a passing reference in a women's magazine article. Maybe it was because it was so visual -- the idea of a bull rejecting a big fat sad Old Cow for a new one. Or maybe it was because, at the time, I felt so much like that big fat sad Old Cow, that the metaphor struck me.

The thing I found when I was listening to all those Old-Cow stories was that they were remarkably similar. They were so similar, in fact -- how the relationships began, how they ended; what the guys said when they wooed us; what they said when they dumped us -- that it was as if we had all dated the same man. Getting dumped isolates you, and talking about getting dumped helps alleviate that isolation. Obviously there's a lot of dumped women out there, because I guarantee you, on any given night, in any given restaurant, half -- if not more than half -- of the women sitting together with a glass of white wine in their hands, are talking about this subject.

BT: Is this just another man-hating women's novel?

LZ: No. Not at all. The truth is that I like men, I really do. I find them fascinating and interesting and weird and different and hilarious. I love trying to figure them out and realizing that no matter how many completely demented theories and explanations I come up with to explain their behavior, I never really will. For a long time I thought that men were not capable of feeling deep emotion or a wide range of emotions, but that is untrue. Men feel things very deeply -- love and lust and fear and passion and sadness. They just don't admit it as readily as women do -- or talk about it as incessantly as women do. And because they don't talk about it, I think it gets knotted up until they're completely confused and dump you without an explanation. You can hate the behavior without hating the man.

BT: In Animal Husbandry, each chapter begins with an appropriate, and often hilarious quotation from an outside source -- the Kama Sutra, old editions of the New York Times, National Geographic -- did writing the novel involve a lot of outside research?

LZ: Yes it did, but not of the traditional sort. I never actually sat down and read Darwin's The Origin of Species cover-to-cover, for instance, but I did pick through it and other various texts searching for arcane bits of information to support all of my demented theories. When you're heartbroken, you find yourself with a little too much time on your hands and a gigantic need to think only about yourself as if you and your emotional condition are the center of the universe. Ergo, the greatest thinkers throughout the history of time were consulted.

BT: You worked in the publishing world for 10 years before writing your first novel. What's your take on book publishing?

LZ: It's the same as it was when I worked in it: book publishing is a fascinating profession to go in to because it's a business of ideas. But it's a business. And that's something that's difficult to accept when you're working in it because the books you love are not always the ones that get the most attention -- and vice versa.

BT: What writers have influenced you the most?

LZ: Faulkner influenced me very early on -- The Sound and the Fury, namely -- because of his complete and brilliant disregard for the traditional rules of voice and narrative. Poets like Sharon Olds and Stephen Dunn are unbelievable geniuses when it comes to language. And writers like Nicholson Baker, Martin Amis, Jane Smiley have also been some of my favorites.

BT: What are you currently reading?

LZ: When I'm writing, I have to be very careful about what I read because I'm a big copycat and am prone to unconscious mimicry -- so I generally don't read any fiction. Right now I'm reading this incredibly hilarious novel which is going to be published in the summer by Viking/Penguin but which is already a huge best-seller in England: Bridget Jones's Diary, by Helen Fielding. Each daily diary entry Bridget Jones makes begins with how much alcohol she's had to drink, how many fat grams she's ingested, how many cigarettes she's smoked, and how much she weighs. When you have that, who needs plot?

BT: Do you have a favorite word?

LZ: I think my favorite word is "gazillion." I think I use it too much. And I think I use it too much because I tend to exaggerate sometimes. Like, I've probably said "gazillion" about a gazillion times already today--and it's only 10 a.m.

BT: What are your New Year's resolutions?

LZ: I have only two resolutions. One is to not turn into a big jerky writer who believes the gazillion fabulous things written about her by her publicist who was paid to write them. And the other is to get a date sometime before the new millennium.
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Photo of Laura Zigman copyright © Lynn Goldsmith.