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Andrew Westoll

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Profile: Writing fiction gave Andrew Westoll a way to revisit his former life as a primatologist in South America

FrontmatterJulyAug_AndrewWestoll_BlueIn 2012, Andrew Westoll was mulling over material for a novel when he landed on the idea of revisiting his experiences as a researcher a dozen years prior in the small South American country of Suriname. The author of two successful non-fiction titles, Westoll imagined a primatologist as the pivotal character of the story, but needed a dramatic linchpin.

Thinking he might be able to find a metaphorical hook in the predatory relationship between the powerful harpy eagle and the capuchin monkeys he had studied during his residency in Suriname, Westoll turned to the Internet to refresh his memory. He instantly landed on a video of a harpy attacking capuchins, posted to YouTube by the University of Florida.

“The footage starts, and it’s just this hand-held camera pointed at the canopy,” he recalls. “It was actually shot in the same bush I had lived in. You can hear monkeys screaming. You hear the alpha male barking. And then you hear this voice saying, ‘Oh, my God! Oh, my God!’ Suddenly, I got these shivers up my spine because that voice was mine. I had shot that footage.”

A similar episode serves as a crucial plot point in Westoll’s debut novel, The Jungle South of the Mountain, which takes place in an unnamed country that bears a strong resemblance to Suriname. After completing a yearlong research fellowship in 2000, Westoll swapped career paths and went to the University of British Columbia to pursue a master of fine arts in creative writing. He returned to the sparsely populated former Dutch colony for five months in 2005 to gather material for a travel memoir, The Riverbones: Stumbling After Eden in the Jungles of Suriname, published in 2008. He followed that up with The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, which claimed the 2012 RBC Taylor Prize.

“I had a very intimate relationship with Suriname,” says Westoll, who lives in Toronto with his wife and one-year-old son. “I spent a long time trying to get it out of my system. I thought the first book did that, but it didn’t. Fiction allowed me a way back in.”

Westoll hastens to add that while the novel has autobiographical elements, they mainly pertain to his familiarity with the geographical and professional setting. Stanley, the novel’s protagonist, is not Westoll. He’s the person the author left behind when he switched vocations.

“When I was in Suriname the first time, I realized very quickly that it wasn’t the data collection I was interested in. It was that I was living in a natural cathedral that came alive with new things every morning,” he says. “I saw a kind of death in a life solely committed to data. Stanley’s an embodiment of that side of the argument for me, in terms of science versus, for lack of a better word, wonder.”

Westoll has often allowed that The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary practically wrote itself. It documented his intimate relationship with traumatized chimps living in a Quebec sanctuary after being rescued from a research lab.

“At the end of the day, I had nothing to do with it being an amazing story. The stories were incredible. They were showering down on me, and I was just trying to catch them.”

The Jungle South of the Mountain, published by HarperAvenue, may be Westoll’s first attempt at fiction – not counting the “drawer novel that will never see the light of day” he wrote at UBC – but he describes the transition from non-fiction as relatively seamless.

“All writing is like squeezing water from a stone for me,” he says, “but I had the most fun [with the novel] and it hopped along surprisingly well.”

Westoll has shared notes on transitioning between genres with a couple of friends: John Vaillant, whose first novel, The Jaguar’s Children, followed two acclaimed non-fiction titles; and Helen Humphreys, a novelist, poet, and essayist whose abiding interest in the natural world has informed many of her works, including the 2015 novel The Evening Chorus.

“Helen is the number-one person when it comes to talking about cross-genre books, and just eschewing this idea that fiction and non-fiction shouldn’t be appearing beside each other in a work,” he says.

Westoll, who teaches creative writing and English literature at the University of Toronto Scarborough, met Humphreys when she was writer-in-residence there. In his courses, he often focuses on literary works rooted in scientific and natural subject matter.

“Helen’s work is seriously inspiring to me, in terms of what she does with fictional and non-fictional elements,” he says. “That might be where I go next, a mélange of the two.”

And Suriname?

“I can’t say for sure, but I feel like writing the novel helped rid me of my obsession with the place. We’ll see.” – Vit Wagner