Animal Husbandry

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By Mike Ward

Heartbreak Phenomenology

One of Animal Husbandry‘s preoccupying themes is the way that sadness over a breakup can leave just about everything soaked in the aggrieved’s self-pity and sense of loss. After a particularly bad split, the jilted one might see her ex-lover in a certain make and model car, a brand of chewing gum, an ambulance siren, even a particular income tax form. All vectors of the sensorium are fair game, and no thing or sensation reminiscent of the once so recently loved is mere coincidence.

Though many of us may know this phenomenon as well as Laura Zigman, few know it better. Such a breakup years ago drove her to write Animal Husbandry—the tale of a woman thrown over in a manner so offhand and cruel that she must compose a rational, complete theory of human behavior in its wake—but she bears no trace of this experience any longer. Poised and confident, reserved but affable, she is working on her third novel just as Hollywood has finished working on her first. Meanwhile, she and her fiance are raising an 8-month-old baby and she is considering whether tinseltown or the bestseller list is the better place to continue adding to her success. Whoever the fellow was who caused her such misfortune years ago, he’s probably kicking himself today.

Mike Ward:

What is your plan for the future? Are you going into screenwriting, is that something that interests you?

Laura Zigman:

It does, sort of. I’m working on my third book and I just had a baby, but I am almost finished with the third novel. So I think I’ll hopefully always write books, if I’m lucky enough to do it. But I do have a lot of interest in writing for the movies. I don’t think it’s easy, but it could be interesting.

MW:

What exactly was your role with the film adaptation?

LZ:

Nothing official. They were really great about keeping me in the loop. I mean, the producer had me come out to Hollywood a couple of times, meet with the screenwriter [Elizabeth Chandler], to get to know her. They had me into New York a few times just to talk things through. It was interesting for me to see how it worked.

MW:

There were some differences between the book and the movie.

LZ:

Yeah, there were a bunch of changes. A couple of characters get eliminated that were in the book, and then there’s a subplot in the movie that wasn’t in the book involving Jane’s sister. But I think a lot of the changes in the movie were good.

MW:

What role do you think those changes played?

LZ:

People always ask me, do you hate the changes? I was lucky that people like [producer] Lynda Obst and [director] Tony Goldwyn, and Elizabeth Chandler, who wrote it, are really smart, and I think, had it fallen into hands that were not as intelligent, it could have been a mess. Some of the changes I wouldn’t have made myself, but most of them, I think, are really smart. And when I watched a rough cut in January, I was like, “Wow.” Maybe I should have done it that way.

MW:

I read that [Animal Husbandry] is based on a real-life event. Did you ever do this kind of research project?

LZ:

You mean, like, with the animals and stuff? Yeah, that part is really autobiographical. I was dumped by somebody and I was really devastated. And in my illness, I started reading a lot of stuff about animals. You know, when you’re depressed and heartbroken, you latch onto anything that will explain what’s happened.

MW:

What is your basic process of writing?

LZ:

At that time, it was difficult because I was working full-time, so I wrote very sporadically. So it took about five years to finish it. I would write, I would do research. A lot of times when you do research, you’re stalling because you don’t want to write, so you keep reading more books about animals to waste time. It makes it so you don’t actually have to sit down and write the book. I wanted that scientific stuff to be all through the book. You can make as big a connection between animal and human behavior as you want.

MW:

That connection between the animal and the human behavior is obviously central to the book, and for a light-hearted comedy, that’s a pretty heavy theme.

LZ:

I think as much humor as there was in it, everybody gets their heart broken. Everyone’s been through it, at least once.

MW:

What do you think the role of reason is in heartbreak? For instance, do you think that Jane was helped by coming up with the New Cow Theory?

LZ:

Sure. Eventually she goes beyond the scientific stuff, but I think people need to ascribe rational reasons why this happens. They want to be able to quantify certain things. One of the reasons why random violence is so upsetting is because there’s no reason why it happened. And you want to know exactly why it happened, so it doesn’t happen again. Now that I know why he left me, then I won’t do this next time. But it’s not like that. You never know why.

MW:

There’s a couple of different reasons that you can tease out as to why this is so important to Jane. One of them is, as she says in the movie, “Either men are doing this to all women, or they’re just doing it to me.” She’s either trying to figure out the world, or she’s trying to figure out herself.

LZ:

And, you know, to take the attention off herself. If it’s not you, you try to look at all the different circumstances, to see if it’s a syndrome or something. Because if you really start to think that it’s just happening to you, it’s a very depressing realization to come to.

MW:

The main character’s namesake is Jane Goodall, the anthropologist, and there’s an epigram from her in the book about why she had to take notes on everything the primates do, no matter how seemingly irrelevant. If you boil everything down to least common denominators, then you lose sight of these little events that create the primates’ society. So, to what extent do you see the book as being about the process of heartbreak? Do you see it at all as being about these larger questions about how you come to understand the world?

LZ:

I think it’s both. I think on one level it’s just a simple heartbreak story—what it feels like, what happens. And on another level, yeah—what I found when I was going through it myself was that the more women I talked to, the more I found that the same thing had happened to them. Which I found was really curious that every friend I had had been dumped in a very similar way. Using the same words and the same trajectory in the relationship: if it’s been this long, then they say this. I was fascinated by that. I mean, not that you can ever really figure it out.

MW:

So is the New Cow Theory right?

LZ:

Well, depends what frame of mind you’re in. I think at the time, I really believed it completely and now I don’t. I mean I know a lot more men who are great and not like the men in the book. At the time I was living in New York, ten years ago, and that’s the kind of man I knew. But now most of the people I know are in relationships with really good guys. So no, I’m not as much of a cow radical as I used to be. Although you know, there’s always some nuggets of truth to it.

MW:

Are your second and third novels along a similar vein to Animal Husbandry?

LZ:

I think the one I’m writing now is more similar. Dating Big Bird was about a woman who wasn’t married, and who was involved with an older guy who’s divorced and who has lost a child. She lives in New York, she wants a child, she’s not happy. So the question she tries to figure out is: should she wait? Or should she have a child by artificial insemination? And that’s what I was going through a lot, I really wanted a baby, and most of my friends—same thing. And you’re all not married, and you’re getting older—it’s cliche, but it’s really true. You’re climbing into your late 30s, you have to make a decision.

MW:

You think that’s a sign of the times? Do you think people are having more anxiety about having children at a certain age? There’s no longer this set trajectory that people seem to follow.

LZ:

Which is great in a lot of ways. It gives you more freedom to pursue your career, you can have a lot of different relationships—you don’t have to get married. You can do anything you want, and that’s great. But on the other hand, because there are no set rules, it can produce a lot of anxiety if you want to have children and you’re not hooked up with somebody in time. It can pass you by. Men deal with it, too, but they have more time. They can wait into their 40s.

MW:

The only reason I ask whether this is a “sign of the times” is that it seems like there’s been a spate of these breezy romantic comedies and yet they’re a lot more focused on heartbreak and how difficult it is. Ashley Judd’s doing a lot of weeping in her room. I’m thinking too of High Fidelity and even Get Over It.

LZ:

That’s interesting, I think it’s true. I think it’s more painful now, and that’s not to say that 50 years ago [it wasn’t painful]. I think now, people are lonelier.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/zigman-laura/