Keynote speaker of women writers conference discusses her craft

Author Diane Ackerman said the success of The Zookeeper's Wife is due in part to its story of what she called "heroic compassion."
Author Diane Ackerman said the success of The Zookeeper's Wife is due in part to its story of what she called "heroic compassion."

Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses and The Zookeeper's Wife, will be the keynote speaker at the Kentucky Women Writers Conference.

In a telephone interview from her home in Ithaca, N.Y., she discussed her new audience in the wake of The Zookeeper's Wife, the best-selling true story of a woman who sheltered Jews at the Warsaw Zoo throughout the Holocaust, and her new collection of essays, Dawn Light: Dancing With Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day.

Question: Obviously, you've been a successful writer for a long time. But it seems that The Zookeeper's Wife, as long-form narrative, was a departure for you as a writer, and it introduced you to a huge new audience. How has that experience changed your writing life?

A: First of all, I hear from an awful lot of book groups. With A Natural History of the Senses, people would send me their smell memories. I loved being the repository of people's memories; they felt people couldn't understand that but I would.

When Zookeeper's Wife came out, I was surprised at how people of all ages were interested. Young people were interested — they were surprised by the environmental element of the book and by the different forms of heroism it offers in contrast to the Rambo shoot-'em-up heroism we're presented with most often.

This heroine is one of the most heroic who has ever lived, but her kind of heroism was really about radical acts of compassion. Her determination that 300 people whom she hid in the zoo, that they survived the war, not just with their bodies intact but their sense of humanity intact. That takes a special kind of bravery.

She fought for that by bringing them out after dark, to listen to music, to talk. They had the innocent distractions of animals, she provided a Noah's Ark for them, and people of all ages have been able to find things that apply to what's been going on today.

Q: The story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski is fascinating, inspiring even among the masses of Holocaust literature. How did you find the story, and how did you do your primary research? What were some of your favorite experiences while doing this book?

A: I discovered it through the animals. I heard from my grandparents, who were Polish — they escaped just before the war. My grandfather told me of the beautiful countryside in Poland. I heard there were these ancient horses in those woods, horses that looked like the cavemen's paintings. There were not only ancient horses in those woods, there were ancient bison. The forest was the place where all our fairy tales came from, the last remaining primeval forest in Europe.

Then I found that she (Antonina Zabinski) was also hiding people, escaping Jews, at the zoo. At that point I became very interested.

If you want to Google something in Polish, you discover you need to know the language. I asked a neighbor's friend if she would translate for me. It turned out she was Catholic and went to the same university as Jan Zabinski and she had an uncle (who still lived in Warsaw). She sent him to every used-book store in Warsaw, and he found Antonina's diary.

The more I learned, the more fascinated I was with her and her magical relationship with animals and people, too. It was her understanding of animal nature that really saved her repeatedly throughout the war. She had an instinctive understanding of what human beings needed in order to survive. She was an extraordinary woman.

Jan Zabinski also he risked his life many, many times over. I think he enjoyed it. I think it gave him a sense of intensity that he liked. She was terrified the whole time, but she did it anyway.

When I met their son as an adult and interviewed him — a man in his 70s who lives with no animals in an eight-story walk-up — when I asked him about this, he said, "Why would you be interested in their story? It's what anyone would have done."

That is also what his father said when interviewed after the war, what every single rescuer said. They felt it was morally the right thing to do. ...

So why did this story fall between the seams of history? I think because it's about a woman, and because it's about a kind of heroism which has more to do with heroic compassion than with violence. And after the war, it was very, very dangerous to talk about what happened. The people in Poland didn't even know what happened. After the war, the Soviets came in, and it was still really dangerous to let anyone know you had been a freedom fighter; there was a level of paranoia."

Q: The Zookeeper's Wife received the Orion Magazine book award, recognizing it as a groundbreaking work of environmental non-fiction. You've been writing about the natural world for a long time. What do you see as the future of environmental writing, or are we reaching a point where that category is no longer needed?

A: Not by a long shot. We still have way too much capability — it's too easy for us to turn away from nature, especially in these electronic days, which I bless because computers are wonderful, but we're more and more tempted to play indoors as children and to spend our lives looking at screens. We've worked very hard at exiling ourselves from nature, but then we long for what we've given up.

For most people, fitting into the seamless system of the seasons is alien. In a very real sense, we are now out of our elements. Small wonder we enjoy environmental writing. It's really an essential part of our sanity. There is a terrible loneliness at the heart of our society when we exile ourselves from nature.

Q: Your newest book, Dawn Light: Dancing With Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day, returns to what seems like more familiar territory, essays about the natural world. What inspired this book? Do your observations form a book, or do you decide, "This is the area I want to concentrate on"?

A: Most often, I discover I'm coming down with a book. It's as if there was a board meeting of my psyche, and they slipped this telegram under the door. I wake up so fascinated by something that I have to write about it.

Several years ago, my husband was hospitalized for weeks with pneumonia, and life felt horribly calamitous and off-balance. Most of all, I needed to find some pockets of calm. I would leave the hospital, sleep fitfully, and first thing, I would turn to the wonders of nature, I would go outside and absorb everything in nature. I'd go around the yard, look at the bees.

You don't need to live in deep country; the smallest yard or even in a stroll in a city can be country enough to find nature. Look at changing shadows or listen to birds and watch the changing colors. Even in cheerful times, but especially during periods of pain and suffering. We need to find enriching ways to transcend.

Q: You pepper your own observations with an almost dizzying array of history, science and philosophy. For example, in the essay about whooping cranes, you drop in that Theseus is said to have done a crane dance after he killed the Minotaur. Do you research these items as you're working on a book, or have they stuck in your mind from some previous reading?

A: Some stuff is in my mind. I also observe things first, and then I get so interested that I want to find out more. I'm very, very curious about the world. I get so excited when I learn these things. It's like dominos: One thing leads me to other things.

Q: You reference Zen Buddhism frequently in Dawn Light. Wendell Berry, who is very popular in these parts, often notes how Protestantism, with its devaluation of life on earth and emphasis on the afterlife, has yielded an economy that is destructive of the earth. How do you feel about that idea?

A: All works of art owe their beauty to mindfulness, to paying deep, respectful, loving attention to the world of nature, to humans, and animals and how all of it is connected seamlessly.

For me, when I talk about mindfulness, I mean allowing yourself fully alive moments. They can be at any time; they don't have to be at dawn. You really watch any natural wonder and you're paying attention to the nuances; the world becomes much dearer, more precious and it becomes less trying. Priorities rearrange themselves very quickly. I find every day I wake up amazed to be alive at all, on a planet that produces trees that grow and bloom.

Q: At the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, you're going to be speaking to an audience made up mostly of writers and aspiring writers. In this era of media and literary bombardment, between blogs and self- publishing, what advice do you give to emerging writers?

A: I have two pieces of advice that really helped me a lot. One is to invent your confidence. You're always going to feel insecure in some way. I think to myself, what fun can I have today?

But the second one is to follow your curiosity and your passion and don't worry about success; don't worry about publishing.

If you write about what fascinates you, then probably you'll be successful. Because that translates well. But even if that doesn't happen, you'll have an interesting life.