This interview took place on my old compound many years ago at the Wild Animal Training Center (WATC). For those who have read my Almost Human Series, you will recognize what inspired me to create the setting where Dr. Chris Raven works and lives.
I’m often asked what the backstory is to my Almost Human Series. Recently, I wrote a short collection of some of my stories. In one way or another, they’ve worked their way into my novels, Almost Human and Becoming Human. You can get a free copy by signing up for my newsletter on this blog or email me at email@example.com. These experiences served as the foundation on which I built my characters and settings. The plot came from a deeper place, late at night, when the characters came to visit me and tell their stories as I wrote.
Ernest Hemingway once said, “In order to write about life you must live it.” While I’m not Hemingway, I believe this and have tried to write about what I know and have lived. Most of the time, my writing is loosely autobiographical.
Here is the first chapter of Animal Days. I hope you enjoy it!
Chapter One, Animal Days – Kenneth L. Decroo
One evening the mid-eighties, while working as the technical adviser and chimp trainer on the movie Animal Behavior, I relaxed after a long day of filming on location in Albuquerque, New Mexico with the movie’s human stars, Karen Allen and Armand Assante. After a few drinks, Armand commented on how humanlike my chimp Mike seemed. Mike, the animal star of the movie, played a chimp who used American Sign Language.
I put on my university professor hat and pontificated on all the traits we humans shared with chimps. I mentioned that they differed from us by only one chromosome; that we could catch a cold from them and them from us; that they had the same ABO blood type groups like us, and that they were more closely related to us than a gorilla. I talked about my work as a linguistic research assistant on a project in Reno that had successfully taught chimps to communicate using American Sign Language (ASL) as used by the deaf.
The information fascinated them, and Karen asked, “Since chimps are so closely related to us, could they breed with humans?
“The famous primatologist Robert Yerkes once mentioned in one of his lectures that it was not only possible but also it’s rumored that the Soviets had attempted it in the 1920s,” I replied— remember that we’d had at a few drinks! “The rumor goes as far as suggesting that the Soviets had had success but the hybrids were on a ship that had burned at sea.”
My audience’s eyes widened, and we continued talking into the evening.
After the bar closed, I drove back to my accommodation, rolled some paper into my old Royal typewriter, sat down, and wrote chapter two. The setting is the University of Nevada, Reno, where I’d worked. In that chapter, Dr. Ken Turner gives a lecture filled with the information I’d shared with Karen and Armand.
The hour grew late, and I had an early call time. I’d just finished chapter two and was preparing for bed when Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald played on the radio. Inspired by the music, I rolled in another paper and wrote the first chapter in which a Soviet cargo ship carrying a mysterious cargo runs aground during a big storm. And so The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is another link in the circle that became the Almost Human Series.
I wrote those two chapters in 1984.
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.”
I should’ve been writing not riding!
The audiobook of Becoming Human is about to be released. The actor/narrator, Kevin Chambers did an excellent job of bringing my humble effort to life. Here is a link to a sample: https://www.dropbox.com/s/
|See this Amazon Giveaway for a chance to win: Almost Human (Kindle Edition) by Kenneth L. Decroo. https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/33a857b3ceb6c514 NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Ends Feb 16, 2019, 11:59 PM PST, or when all prizes are claimed. See Official Rules http://amzn.to/GArules.|
The Back Story
As an author, I’m pleased that readers have found my books, and from that success, I have developed a fan base. But, there are pitfalls to success. I find that I’m spending way too much time talking about writing instead of writing.
At first, it was validating to receive invitations to do newspaper and television interviews. I was excited to share the backstory of my books and talk about the techniques I had learned concerning my practice and craft. However, now I’m finding that I am spending most of my time marketing my product; my books. I am concerned that my books are becoming just that, products.
For me, book signings, interviews, and blog posts have become thieves of time. These endeavors tap into a different part of my brain; a part that seems to pull me away from my characters and the world I create in my novels.
After the release of Becoming Human, I found myself spending more and more time talking about writing instead of writing. I found myself going down a subtle and slippery road that led to not writing about what was most important to me; my third novel in the Almost Human series.
Recognizing a problem is the first step to solving it. I need to taper off talking about writing and WRITE! I plan to get back to my morning routine of actually writing at least a thousand words, if not more and finish, my next book, More Than Human. I think starting the day writing first will add balance to any “marketing” that follows.
How about you? I’d love to hear from fellow writers on this subject. What are your solutions and practices, or is this even a problem for you?
I had a great time appearing on NBC KSEE24 talking about my new book, Becoming Human. Click on the photo above to view the interview.