Elizabeth Hess was an art critic before she began writing about animals.
I love speaking with writers whose careers have evolved as they have written; Elizabeth is a beautiful example. Beginning by writing as an art critic, she found her way to writing about animals and the cultures that surround them. She’s won awards for her coverage of the municipal animal control program in NYC, and is the author of Lost and Found and Nim Chimpsky, which became the documentary Project Nim.
We talk about the incredibly exhaustive research that went into her books, how she followed the trail of interviews to get to the bottom of Nim’s story, and the new exploration of an animal-based subculture that she’s writing about now. If you love animals, this will be an especially engaging episode, as we learn how writing can change animal’s lives for the better.
Author photo: Sylvia Plachy
Show notes for Episode 41 with Elizabeth Hess:
- Writing at the Village Voice (2:45)
- Crossing genres (3:40)
- The animal ambulance (3:50)
- Writing Lost & Found (4:30)
- How work as an art critic prepared her for animal investigative journalism (5:00)
- Writing as part of the political climate (6:45)
- The life changing impact of writing about municipal animal control in NYC in the 90s (7:30)
- Writing about companion animals (9:45)
- Wanting to write a biography about one animal (10:00) Mentioned: The obituary of Nim Chimpsky
- The research & interviewing process of writing Nim Chimpsky (11:20)
- The overview of the Nim experiment & argument between Noam Chomsky and B.F. Skinner (13:15)
- The evolution of chimpanzee research (15:30) Mentioned: Project X
- Where Nim came from (17:00)
- Connecting with Nim’s human family to learn the story (18:45)
- Interviewing the science team (22:00)
- Becoming the Nim library (23:00)
- Seeing the book mirrored in fiction and film (23:15) Mentioned: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, Project Nim by James Marsh
- The change of viewpoint in relation to animals changed by writing (27:00)
- Researching on location and interviewing beyond the family (29:45)
- Flying out to see the chimp lab in its final days (30:30)
- Dumpster diving for files (31:40)
- Continuing to place chimps in human homes (32:30)
- The life of a research chimp & their connection to sign language (33:00)
- Nim’s time in New York & the controversy around it (34:15) Mentioned: The Fund for Animals
- The great love of Nim’s life (36:10)
- Elizabeth’s current project on pit bull & dog-fighting culture in America (37:20)
- Taking care of herself as she tackles dark and painful subjects (41:20)
- The fascination of hidden subcultures (43:00)
This episode sponsored by Scrivener
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