Exclusive Q&A with Kenneth Oppel
By Teen Editor at Indigo Books
"I am so excited to bring you this exclusive Q&A with one of my personal favourites, Canada's own Kenneth Oppel in which he talks about writing his new novel, Half Brother."
TE: How did this idea of a family adopting a chimpanzee develop for you? Were you inspired by a particular story or study that you’ve read?
KO: As a first year undergrad at the University of Toronto, I read about Project Nim, in which a baby chimp was raised as a human child to determine whether chimps were capable of learning human sign language. Nim was dressed in diapers and clothes, he ate at a high chair, had books and toys -- and a very large surrogate human family. But when the experiment ended two years later – after being deemed a failure, Nim was stripped of his human identity, his clothes and toys and favourite foods, separated from the people he’d come to think of as mothers and fathers and siblings, and shipped off to another primate research institute. I found the image of Nim, looking out through the bars of a cage, incredibly sad. It stayed with me for over twenty years.
TE: Half Brother is a bit of a departure for you from your other books, such as Airborn and Silverwing. What were some of the challenges you encountered writing it?
KO: Ironically, the subject matter of Half Brother is even more fantastical and strange than that of my earlier books, so I was quite at home! But certainly it’s a much more realistic book, and a more intimate one, so the characters and their relationships are more intricate. So I found it both challenging and invigorating, after so many fantasies in alternate worlds, to be grounded in our own.
TE: You set the novel in the early 1970s Victoria. What made you chose that particular time and place? Were you interested in pursuing some of the popular ideas around behavioural science and psychology?
KO: The real chimp language experiments that inspired Half Brother took place in the late 60s and 70s so I wanted to stay true to that time period. They were some of the first attempts to teach another species our language. Followers of the psychologist BF Skinner thought any behaviour – including language -- could be taught; followers of the linguist Noam Chomsky believed that language was intrinsic to human beings only. So these experiments were quite radical, and still controversial to this day. Also, there seemed to be such a fascination with chimps in popular culture at the time. They were everywhere on TV and in movies – namely the Planet of the Apes franchise which imagined a world in which chimps and the other great apes had evolved beyond humans. As for setting the story in Victoria, I mostly grew up there in the mid 70s to mid 80s, and I found it just gave me another way of entering tangibly into Ben’s world.
TE: I noticed that family dynamics continue to play an integral part in all of your novels, from Matt’s devotion to his mother and loss of his father in Airborne, to Dusk’s complicated relationship with his father in Darkwing. In this novel, it really all about that isn’t it? Who is the Alpha Male in the family and outside of it and what that means for Zan and Ben’s relationships?
KO: All drama is really about the dynamics between the characters – whether they’re bats, aeronauts in an alternate past, or the members of a uniquely dysfunctional family in 1970s Canada. Father-son relationships fascinate me, how a boy inevitably moves from seeing his father as impervious and all-knowing, to fallible and frail – simply human, in other words. But I think that all kids seek reassurance in dominance and power and control – boys in a more physical manifestation than girls – but every kid wants to be an alpha. Despite his ambivalence towards his father, Ben models himself after him by trying to control his environment and relationships – and the results are far from triumphant in some cases
TE: What kind of research did you do for this novel? Did you learn American Sign Language?
KO: I’d learned a bit of sign language to use with my youngest daughter, and it was amazing to see how it helped her communicate with us before words came. Then we used it simultaneous with speaking, and then the sign language just faded away as spoken language took over. My other research included reading up on all the famous chimp studies – Project Nim, Project Washoe, as well as some other accounts – including one of a scientist who lived with a chimp and truly thought of her as his daughter. I tried to learn as much as I could about chimp behaviour, especially baby chimps, and was fortunate enough to visit an amazing chimp sanctuary outside of Montreal.
TE: What do you think of the evolution of Teen/YA literature in the last five years and your place within it? Do you think that there are things you have to do differently now?
KO: Teen/YA literature definitely experiences trends like any form of literary and popular culture. Harry Potter gave us a good decade of wizardry and magic that spurred a huge general interest in fantasy which included period gothic fiction and steampunk. About five years ago the trend took a turn into contemporary gothic with Twilight, and now the shelves are groaning with books about hot vampires and werewolves and fallen angels and any other kind of paranormal creature you could wish for. I would say that trends rule the marketplace as never before – and it’s probably harder to launch books that are not considered trendy. But almost inevitably, the next great big doesn’t belong to the clique: it bravely charts its own course. No one really knows what’s going to take off, so as a writer all you can do is write the story that you fall in love in, and have to tell.
TE: Do you hope that this book raises awareness around animal cruelty and what kids can do about it?
KO: Certainly I hope that kids will take an interest in chimpanzees and the way they’ve been used and abused by humans. But the more I worked on Half Brother, the more it seemed to me the story was really about love in all its possible forms – how and why we decide to bestow it, or withdraw it; what’s worthy of being loved, and what isn’t? We are masters of conditional love. As the dominant species on the planet we have incredible power, and an incredible responsibility to treat our planet and all the creatures on it with respect and care.
TE: Abba or Zepplin?
KO: My feet say Abba, but my heart says Zeppelin.