Bill Broun’s debut novel Night of the Animals, publishing today, July 5, is already getting excellent buzz. If the book goes on to success as hoped for, we can echo wise words attributed to Dolly Parton: “It takes a long time to become an overnight sensation.”
Broun has been working on this novel for 14 years. Much of the work was quite a struggle, as he tells it: “The idea of the sort of tortured artist is an awful cliché. It embarrasses me. But it was hard doing the novel. It felt like a kind of pilgrimage because it spread over so many years. A lot of life got pulled into and suffused with the writing process.”
During the writing, Broun, who is a dual citizen, born in Los Angeles to an English father, a machinist, and an American mother, a nurse, lived in various places, including New Haven, where he taught and his wife completed a Ph.D.; and eastern Pennsylvania — he is an associate professor of English at East Stroudsburg University and lives in Hellertown. Through all the transitions, he kept at the novel, finally getting to a point where he thought, "This is as good as it’s ever going to get.” A writer friend, the novelist Mary Gaitskill, shared it with her literary agent and, contrary to his expectations, the agent jumped on it. A significant book deal with Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, came soon after.
After all those years of “chipping away at the novel,” Broun says he is stunned and overwhelmed. “I was on Highway I-78, taking my son to his cello lesson, when I got the news. I started crying and I couldn’t stop for a while.” Broun says that over the next two weeks he even felt suicidal. “I’m very open about this kind of stuff,” he interjects, and explains further: “I think it was because I didn’t think it was real. It was a wonderful trauma.”
The story takes place over a single night in 2052, when a homeless man named Cuthbert Handley goes on a quest to release all of the animals in the London zoo. He believes that he hears voices telling him to do this, and that the act will unite him with his older brother, whom he has been grieving since his death in early childhood.
The book is interestingly timed. “The novel mentions the breakup of the EU and the decline of strong prime ministers, and implies an independent Britain,” says Broun. Did he see Brexit coming? “I think the seeds had been planted for many years," he says. "I’m a dual national, but I consider myself American through and through, so I’ve always had this bifurcated relationship with nationalism and patriotism in general.”
Since the book is so much about animals and zoos, Broun has made a study of several zoos. The London zoo is a favorite and the primary inspiration, but Broun has also spent time in the Philadelphia Zoo. “I visited quite a bit around 2008 and 2009,” he says. “I wasn’t near the London zoo anymore but was still writing about it, and I felt like I needed a kind of IV of zoo-ness to keep plugged into my arm. What was helpful was the lion enclosure, where you can really just sit next to a lion with safety glass [in between] and really just watch it carefully. Lions have a big role in my novel.” He also enjoys spending time in the Lehigh Valley Zoo near his home.
Broun values his teaching work at ESU, calling it a dream job. “I wanted to teach students who had a little bit closer to the life experiences that I had,” he says. “They are first-generation college students from an utterly working-class background.” Meanwhile, he is moving on to new work, a group of stories, as he awaits the book’s publication in an optimistic mindset. “Night of the Animals opened up a new artistic vein of gold. I’m returning to my work with a different perspective.”
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