By MARY-JUSTINE LANYON
Lake Arrowhead, CA
For fans of Ken Decroo’s Almost Human series of books there is good news: The third and final installment is in the editing process now and should be released just after Christmas.
The Running Springs resident told members of the Mountain Sunrise Rotary Club that “you write what you know. For some of us, that can be harder than others.
“In this respect,” Decroo said, “I’ve written about the life I’ve lived, in fiction, training wild animals, working in research facilities and films.”
When he writes a book, Decroo told the Rotarians, he never knows at first how it’s going to go.
“When I wrote Almost Human, my agent asked me after I had submitted 10 chapters how it was going to end. My answer was I really didn’t know. The characters were writing it.”
The agent told Decroo not to send her another chapter until he had sent the last chapter.
“When I wrote the end, I suddenly had a goal, a light that directed me to the end. Then I didn’t meander as much in my writing. My focus was sharper.”
In the school districts where Decroo has worked – including the Rim of the World Unified School District – he found that if he could give the students a focus, it made all the difference. “For some,” he said, “it gave them a focus for the rest of their lives.”
Decroo told the Rotarians that he has been graced. “I had a story to tell. I wanted to go back and revisit a very special time in my life but I didn’t want to write a memoir. I wanted to combine some of the incredible characters I’ve met, tell the story and make it come out how I wanted it to come out.”
Almost Human grew out of a conversation he had with two of the actors on the set of the movie Animal Behavior. Decroo was on set with Mike the chimp, whom he had taught some sign language. One of the actors, Armand Assante, told Decroo he couldn’t believe how humanlike Mike was.
“I put on my professor hat and told Armand about the similarities between humans and chimps,” Decroo said. “There’s a difference of one chromosome. The chimp is more closely related to us than the gorilla.”
That conversation led to Decroo sitting down at the typewriter and writing the beginning of what would become his three-book series.
In Almost Human, creatures with the enormous strength and power of a chimpanzee and the intelligence and size of a human are discovered in a remote area of equatorial Africa. Drs. Ken Turner and Fred Savage follow the rumors of these chimp-human hybrids, wanting to study them. The government, however, wants to exploit them.
In Becoming Human he has tried to “flush out the ethics of science and our human relationship to animals – how it can go awry very quickly. Some of the characters are in it for the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Others are in it for how that knowledge could profit them,” Decroo said.
In Dr. Turner, readers will see the “ethics of what we owe animals.”
Much of what happens in Becoming Human actually occurred when Decroo was working with Washoe, a chimp he taught to communicate using 350 words of American Sign Language. “We were approached by the Department of Defense, offering us strings-attached grants to do research on the retrieval of dangerous devices using chimps. They put a lot of pressure on us but we weren’t interested,” Decroo said.
In the book, however, “they do bend. It’s tempting when there’s that kind of money involved.”
Decroo’s series of books “has to do with the ethics of science and the ethics of people who work with animals – what is expected of us. We don’t always come up to snuff,” Decroo said.
Becoming Human sets up the third book – More Than Human – in which Decroo will tie in some of the mysteries and myths of the Pacific Northwest.
Decroo said he usually writes late in the evening, when it’s quiet. On a good evening, he said, “the characters come to visit you and tell you their story. On a bad evening, you stutter around and try to make it work.”
He explained the editing process to the Rotarians, noting that a book first goes through a developmental edit, when the author may see substantial changes in the structure of the book. “The editors are thinking of marketing,” he said. “They may want to strengthen the lead-in or change the ending.”
His first publisher wanted him to edit out Lester, a character he considers crucial to the story. “The rep said, ‘He’s an old man. You have him trekking through the jungle.’ I hung up on her.
“You don’t have to agree with everything they suggest.”
The next step is copyediting, where the prose is examined. “They may tell you you have used a certain word too many times.” Then comes line editing, looking for typos. The process, Decroo said, “takes a while.
“There were substantial changes in my first book. As I got better, knowing how to structure a novel, there were fewer.”