Deb Olin Unferth’s latest novel is Barn 8, in which two rogue auditors in the U.S. egg industry plot to steal a million chickens. The New York Times praised it as “a beautiful, urgent, politically charged book with a huge heart.”
She is the author of five other books of fiction and nonfiction including the story collection Wait Till You See Me Dance (Graywolf, 2017). Her other books include the graphic novel I, Parrot (Catapult, 2017) in collaboration with the illustrator Elizabeth Haidle; the memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War (Holt, 2011) a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, about dropping out of college to join the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua; the novel Vacation (McSweeney’s, 2008), winner of the Cabell First Novel Award; and the story collection Minor Robberies (McSweeney’s, 2007).
An advocate of prison reform, Unferth founded and runs the Pen City Writers, a creative-writing certificate program at a maximum security prison in southern Texas. For this work she won the 2017 Texas Governor’s Criminal Justice Service Award and the 2017 American Short Fiction Community Star Award.
LaVonne Elaine Roberts had the pleasure of conducting this interview over email with Deb Olin Unferth in early 2020. Unferth grew up in Chicago, and now lives and works in Austin. She is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches for the Michener Center for Writers and the New Writers Project.
LaVonne Elaine Roberts (Cagibi): When you wrote Barn 8, did you write it as a means to catapult activism? One could argue that you’re most content catalyzing a revolution.
Deb Olin Unferth: I didn’t write the book to catapult activism, no. I’m interested in activists, activism, social justice, environmental justice, animal personhood. I want to write about those things and get people thinking about them. I wasn’t writing a polemic.
Cagibi: I loved getting an education in the egg industry landscape—like learning that California activists fought and won the right for chickens to be able to “lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely” in 2008. Your reportage of the approximately 295 million layer hens and the political and legal battles around the country reads like a KGB novel of espionage, spook-level secrecy, and grave consequences. Could you give us some background into the lengths you went to when you did your undercover research for your Harper’s essay Cage Wars and how that led to Barn 8?
Unferth: I realized that to write the book, I needed research. I needed access to the farms. I needed to get to know industry farmers, spend time with chickens, understand undercover investigators. Harper’s let me write an article on the egg industry, which gave me an excuse to do all of that. Most of what I did was straight journalism: I spent many hours talking to investigators, farmers, scientists, lawyers, watching undercover footage from inside the industry barns, researching chickens, and getting to know them. I went to all kinds of farms, from giant factory farms to tiny ones to sanctuaries. I was obsessed for a while, and I could see how addictive investigative journalism can be.
I went to all kinds of farms, from giant factory farms to tiny ones to sanctuaries.Deb Olin Unferth
Cagibi: Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. Do you think fiction is well suited to explore complex philosophical questions? Was it your goal as a storyteller to use fiction to build your readers’ morality?
Unferth: I was a philosophy major, and I’m married to a philosophy professor. Yes, I do think fiction is a good place to think about philosophical questions. What is meaningful? What is beauty? What is freedom? Who is a person?
I do think fiction is a good place to think about philosophical questions.Deb Olin Unferth
Cagibi: You shift perspective between your characters by diving into multiple points of view. Why did you decide to move between perspectives?
Unferth: The book circles around one event, one night, what led to it, and the fallout afterward. I liked creating a Cubist perspective, where you could see all angles on what was happening, why people were doing it, what the animals were thinking, what the wind was doing, the insects. History was part of it, too, and the future came into play. It is about a whole community, even the air, which is slowly contaminating.
Cagibi: Barn 8 opens to a story about Janey, a 15-year-old girl who finds out her mother has kept the identity of her biological father from her. Your character is split in two after learning of her father – the new Janey and old Janey. There’s a restlessness in Janey’s nature that feels so real. How did you develop Janey’s character so authentically? Is questioning one’s birth origin a subject close to you?
Unferth: Restless characters are human characters. We are questers. I wanted Janey to have a connection to the Midwest but to feel lost there.
Cagibi: I met you in a homeless shelter while I was volunteering, and you were a guest author/teacher. As you thoughtfully responded to every participant, I thought about your ongoing work in prisons. I wondered about the cornucopia of writers work you read, from MFA students to incarcerated writers. How do their stories influence your writing?
Unferth: I’ve been teaching for so long—since my second year of grad school—I’ve barely been a writer without teaching being part of it. And yeah, I love teaching and all kinds of places. I like getting to know all sorts of people who are different from me or similar, all of us coming together and talking about stories. It’s hard to say how they influence me because I have so rarely been without them all these years. I like people.
Cagibi: Because of your Harper’s essay, we know about the anonymous donor who paid to charter a cargo plane to fly nearly 1,200 chickens across the country to New York. I picture you driving to visit 100 of those chickens at the sanctuary you wrote about in Manchester, Michigan. Now, I think about all the times I reached for commercially produced eggs at a third of the cost of free-range eggs before Barn 8 with remorse. How do we lower the price of eggs so that single moms on welfare can afford to buy them responsibly?
Unferth: We can’t. There are better things to eat anyway. Beans are just as cheap and are better for you. Peanut butter gives you a better punch of protein and isn’t loaded with cholesterol or inoculation byproduct. We don’t need eggs. We don’t need them for baking, we don’t need them as cheap protein, and we don’t need them for Easter.
Cagibi: For writers, it becomes imperative to find joy and humor in life off the page. What are the ways that you offset your writing and teaching?
Unferth: I like hanging out with my husband and dog. I like hanging out with my old parents, my tiny nieces, and my sister. I have a little gang of friends that I like to meet up with, and I like nature.
Cagibi: You leave crumbs worthy of a literary forensicist, like your inclusion of Austrian architect, Victor Gruen, or the fact you named Olive after your editor’s daughter. Is it deliberate or subconscious?
Unferth: I’m so glad that you noticed Olive! She entered in a later draft of the book when my editor and I were already working together. I put her in almost without thinking, and then I realized what I’d done, and I was delighted.
I just pull in the world around me—it’s not conscious or unconscious. It’s just writing.
Cagibi: You’ve mentioned that there is a bit of you in every character. Which character is or was most you?
Unferth: At the end of the book there is a park ranger who is watching a tremendous of amount of TV. Now, I seriously never have been a huge TV watcher, though I do watch some. But there was a time several years ago, when I was first starting this book, that, I don’t know, I got into a funk and couldn’t do anything. I mean, there was something really wrong with me.
My husband and I had jobs in different states that year and only saw each other one or two weekends a month. I started watching TV and could not stop. I’d try not to start watching it until at least after dinner, but I couldn’t help turning it on as soon as I got home from school. I’d try turning it off by ten, but I watched later and later until I was going to sleep at four in the morning and getting up at ten, hurrying to school bleary-eyed, and coming home and turning it on the second I got in the door.
This went on for months and months. It was a disaster. But in those months I wrote the passages that turned out to be that character. The character is watching so much TV but still manages to complete an important act (I won’t say what) that makes the end of the book possible. And there I was, watching so much TV but still managing to write the passages that would lead me to the book.
About the Interviewer
LaVonne Elaine Roberts, Cagibi’s Interview Editor, is a short story writer, essayist, and memoirist. She is a regular contributor of interviews and book essays to Cagibi.
Author photo by Nick Berard.