Exclusive Interview with Novelist Ben Beck!
We asked Ben Beck, author of the new GLT novel Thirteen Gold Monkeys, a few questions about the story behind the story!
Why did you decide to write Thirteen Gold Monkeys?
I decided to write the book that came to be titled Thirteen Gold Monkeys because I thought the reintroduction of zoo-born golden lion tamarins to their native forest was a great story and I wanted to use a portion of any profits to help to continue the conservation program to save the species in Brazil. As a scientist I had written or edited several scholarly books, but had never tried my hand at fiction. It was overwhelming and presumptuous. I’m an avid reader of fiction and think I know a good book when I read one, but I’m not sure I know what makes it good. I felt the scrutiny and judgment of hundreds of successful, professional authors and publishers but, as Wayne Gretzky said, “You never make a shot you don’t take.”
I like the notion that a journey begins with the first step and consists of thousands more. So, on May 13, 2012, I just sat down and began to write. I wrote the novel at my dining room table and on my back porch, both of which overlook the large pond in our yard on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. My morning routine begins with a walk with Heidi, our Doberman, at sunrise. We walk along the tidal creek that borders our property and through the swampy woods. I take a cup of strong black coffee. It’s a slow, quiet walk unless Heidi spots a deer, or snake, or cormorant or any of the many other animals with whom we share the woods.
As I walked, I would review the previous day’s work in my head and decide what needed to be changed. Then, always at roughly the same place in the woods, I’d begin to sketch out the next chapter, sometimes even memorizing complete sentences. These usually turned out to be too spiked with caffeine, but at least I had a plan when I sat down at the computer. The chapters in the book are short, usually a morning’s work, unless it was a scheduled work-out or yoga morning, in which case I might write only a few sentences. I rarely worked on the book after 10AM.
Did you enjoy retelling this story?
I loved the novelist’s freedom to exaggerate and reinvent reality, but I wanted the most important words to be accurate and ground-truthed. I drew heavily on my daily journals, which I had kept faithfully and in surprising detail during my Brazil trips over 23 years. I was sometimes overwhelmed with nostalgia. I was rewarded when my colleague Jim Dietz said that reading the book brought back fond and vivid memories for him.
I told only my wife (and Heidi) that I was writing a novel. The secrecy was born of a fear that I would fail to finish, much like telling people that you were going to go on a diet. I finished the first draft in January 2013, and circulated it to a few trusted friends and colleagues, including all of the SGLT Board members. The reviewers were kind and helpful. I found a publisher (that’s a story in itself) called Outskirts Press, and submitted the revised version on February 15th. It was published on April 10th.
Are the characters and the events in the book “real?”
They are based on real people and real events and real animals, but experiences are combined, compressed in time, and in some cases exaggerated for effect. So the answer is “yes, sort of”. The biggest fiction is that the monkeys speak English, which to our knowledge is not the case.
Can readers learn about the science of reintroduction or GLT behavior from this book?
The book is suitable for readers from 10 to 100, and I’m hoping it will attract students with interests in science, especially primatology and conservation biology. Although it’s a novel, the book is based closely on the actual work of Smithsonian Institution scientists and their Brazilian colleagues. The book stimulates thinking and discussion about reintroduction, captive breeding, community education, endangered species designation, and habitat restoration as conservation strategies, and about primate reproductive strategies, social organization, diet, predation, learning, communication, and disease. The monkeys are made to speak English in the book but this bit of fancy is clearly marked as fancy and actually stimulates discussion on primate communication and cognition.
Readers can closely follow the thinking and work of the scientific characters and get to see their human sides as well as their commitment to the most rigorous science. The scientists formulate hypotheses and invent ways to test them, and then use the results in adaptive management. They are committed to finding ways to objectively measure things, to mark and track elusive animals in the forest, and extract data from gooey boa vomit. They disagree on methods but find science-based ways to resolve their disagreements. They come close to unleashing a virus that could have destroyed a whole ecosystem. Sometimes they lose things, argue, make mistakes, climb trees to escape squealing wild pigs, and drink too much.
You’ve decided to donate proceeds from the book help GLTs?
Our work in Brazil has shaped the second half of my life. It’s fulfilled my dreams as a scientist, conservationist and teacher, made lifelong friends, provided adventure, taught me about the power of collaboration, and brought me love. I’m looking at the book as a form of payback. Fifty percent of any profits will be donated to SGLT to support ongoing golden lion tamarin conservation in Brazil, but first novels, especially those with no sex, rarely make any money. But I took Gretzky’s shot, had fun, and the book is out there for all to see, judge, like, dislike. -To actually have profits to donate to help GLTs, I need help from all GLT fans to spread the word to help market the book.
Ben Beck’s book, Thirteen Gold Monkeys, is available now! You can find more information about Ben’s book including purchasing information here!