Research Notes · 04/27/2012

Animal Sanctuary

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Sarah Falkner gives us a guided tour of her Animal Sanctuary, winner of the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction.


It is probably useful to explain that my initial and main formal creative training was in the visual arts, and I think about the plasticity of forms and narrative, character, temporal and spatial elements — and research, and craft — more like some other kind of visual or time-based artist or poet might, than as do most fiction writers I know.  My longer pieces of writing can stand alone and stand-in as novels, but they are conceived of in community with other media; my first novel, Animal Sanctuary, released by Starcherone Books last November, is enmeshed with a related performance and installation cycle now in progress, in collaboration with the interdisciplinary artist Ryder Cooley; my second novel, Quarry: A Young Person’s Survey of Regional Natural History and Folklore With Familiar Phenomena Examined Through the Allied Sciences, also is intertwined with related projects. The other day I read that Lydia Lunch joined a punk band in the 1980s because that was the only/closest model she knew of at the time for what she intuited that she wanted to achieve by getting up in front of people and saying confrontational things, and only later realized she is actually a spoken word artist; maybe I’m a written word artist, as opposed to a writer. The forms of the texts I construct are engaged with and informed by many kinds of text forms, as well as other media altogether (most notably film), and I am interested in how we are able to parse out a narrative — or, more frequently, an alternative cohesiveness of some sort — from disparate elements.

It is also true that I wasn’t really certain I was writing a novel or novel-length text much of the time I was researching, let alone writing, what is now the novel Animal Sanctuary. So it is very fuzzy math formulating how long the process took and what exactly constituted the process (in contrast to the writing of my second novel, which was characterized by a great sense of urgency and purpose, and an acquired slight increase in self-confidence due to the first novel having been published and awarded a prize; and so its gestational period is crisply delineated: I began to think about it in 2010 and researched it much of 2011 and completed its entire first draft in one month while at a residency, the latter half of October and the first part of November 2011).

It is also true I distractedly, casually, habitually research — often without clear subject or end in sight — on a daily basis much the same way that a Border Collie, finding itself confined to a suburban house, will herd the ottoman and coffee table. Google and handheld, portable devices are deliciously pernicious enablers.  I have never owned a television and I don’t play any sort of game or puzzle, so I suppose some time that I might otherwise put towards pastimes like those, goes to reading or trolling the internet.

Despite all this effusive diffusion, I can ferret out some of the more notable moments and factors of seeking information and experience — is that a definition of research? — that contributed to the making of the book Animal Sanctuary, presented here neither in chronological order nor order of importance:

1. When I was six years old I engaged in my first political/activist action, involving a lion, which you can read about here, and I’ve had some subsequent related personal experiences I also drew upon.

2. Animal Sanctuary can be said to circle around the character and idea of Kitty Dawson, and for her there was an initial inspiration in Tippi Hedren, a biography of whom I had a chance encounter with in a used bookstore; I had previously only known of Hedren in her performance in the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds, and was intrigued when I learned that she had founded a sanctuary for lions and tigers.  I suppose I immediately liked the idea of a fragile woman reclaiming her power aided and abetted by power animals and familiars, going from being dominated and terrorized by Alfred Hitchcock to living at ease amongst large predators, going from being an object of obsession to having her own obsessions, and the whole rich gestalt of Tippi Hedren and her and other Hitchcock movies has so many levels and areas of interest for me personally, and so I started on that trope by sitting awash in video screenings and meditating on it all in a state of overwhelment.  I watched The Birds, Marnie, and Vertigo, and then went on to You Tube clips from animal disaster films of the 1970s.

3. I did a little bit more bookish research on Hedren and Hitchcock, and then deliberately stopped, because since Tippi Hedren does exist as a real person, for formal and I guess feminist/personal respect reasons, while admittedly inspired by her, I above all else wanted to avoid trying to write some kind of very-recognizable allegedly-authentic portrait of a real person based on research. I am also generally interested in the relationships between film and dreaming and stories and what is usually called reality, and the experiencing of the Uncanny by way of the elision of what we think we know or what is very similar to what we know, with something(s) else, and in Animal Sanctuary, I wanted to convey the Uncanniness I imagine that actors experience themselves, and their audiences experience in encountering the gestalt of the public Celebrity, in which “reality” and fictional roles dialogue with one another in all manner of confusing ways rife with projection and yearning. I also think of the structure of Animal Sanctuary’s twelve chapters as six sets of problematically-conjoined twins, which inform, depend on, and undermine each other’s narratives: each set of twins is thus both dialectic as well as a sort of deliberate invocation of cognitive dissonance in the interest of illuminating some of the inherent oppressions of hierarchical/linear narrative (e.g. truth — whose truth do I pick?).

4. A wonderful contemporary sanctuary for big cats, the Exotic Feline Rescue Center, has in recent years been created very near where I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana.  I visited several years ago as my most official-feeling research trip for the book, and I spent the night in a cabin on the grounds (listening to lions roar all night) and enjoyed a private tour of the entire facility with the director, and I was permitted to interact with some of the animals up very close. The EFRC is in my opinion worthy of much praise and support particularly for its prioritizing the animals’ needs over pleasing a public expecting exploitative zoo-performance situations, and for its sustainability-minded practices; it seems to me the best of its kind. However, there is nothing in my book that is meant to represent an optimal big cat sanctuary, so I based nothing in particular on the EFRC’s actual facilities or personnel. This visit was for me more about experiencing close proximity to the animals.  I also attended a benefit event for another sanctuary located in Texas, in which guests were encouraged to have their picture taken with a tiger cub; after learning about how these events work, I now oppose them for the stress they place on the animals.

5.  I wanted to be a veterinarian as a young child in the 1970s. I watched a lot of age-inappropriate movies as a young child.  I went to art school in the late 1980s, and worked in the art world in the early 1990s. I have had friends and family die of cancer. I have traveled to Mexico.

6.  For various reasons, largely philosophical and theoretical, the following books were opaquely yet indispensably important to me while writing Animal Sanctuary. Some of them I had on my desk or in my backpack more for their power as magic talismans than as constantly-read books.

  • Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, by Bruce Bagemihl
  • Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism, by Dawn Prince-Hughes
  • A Thousand Plateaux: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, by Gilles Deleuz and Felix Guattari
  • Our Word is Our Weapon: Selected Writings, by Subcomandante Marcos Abuses
  • Dangerous Emotions, by Alphonso Lingis
  • Animals in Film, by Jonathan Burt


Animal Sanctuary is Sarah Falkner’s first novel. A number of her short stories are part of City of Salt (2005: Aperture, New York), a collaborative work between herself, visual artists Nicholas Kahn & Richard Selesnick, and writer Erez Lieberman. Other stories have appeared in a couple of now-defunct magazines, Tatlin’s Tower and The Styles. She has also written non-fiction features about sustainable living, ecological activism, community affairs and alternative healing practices for community monthly magazines New York Spirit and The Park Slope Reader, and on US political activism and police response for L’Offensive (Paris).