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  • Writer's pictureAuthorDesiree

Smithy's Journey Continues!

Here we are again, Smithy and me, with another book to share.


Despite what many people may think, Webster (released February 20, 2024) is not a sequel to Smithy, but the continuation of the story I started writing nearly 10 years ago. I intended to tell a story about a signing chimp that loosely followed the same trajectory as Nim Chimpsky's, from a sheltered home with attentive caretakers through the harsher world of institutional research. As my story progressed, I realized I had more to say than I'd anticipated. I decided to split the burgeoning manuscript into two parts at the natural breaking point, with the end of the Trevor Hall experiment. 


As sinister as the old Newport mansion could sometimes be, it takes on an idyllic gloss when contrasted with the next, darker stage of Smithy's life. I wanted to pull the characters from their ersatz opulence and plunge them into exile far from all they knew. But what place would offer the biggest culture shock? 


California was the most natural destination. Even people born and raised here know the state is weird with a history of fringe beliefs and extreme attitudes. These would have been especially prevalent in the 1970s when the New Age was still ascendant. I chose Fresno, CA, specifically, as my setting. It's less well-known than Los Angeles, San Francisco, or any other of the major West Coast cities to leap to mind. Further, Fresno has a university that could conceivably be involved in research of the sort my characters perform. Finally, for reasons that remain mysterious to me, people act as if Fresno were the armpit of the world. When friends or co-workers need to travel there for business or other special events, they groan, sigh, and pull faces. A Los Angeles DJ even has a regular comedy feature playing quirky, amusing news bits from Fresno, "your vacation destination when your budget is low." Fresno seemed like a place where people didn't want to be, so it seemed perfect for my purposes. 


I've never been to the city myself, but I learned a great deal about it by reading Fresno Growing Up by Stephen Provost. Stephen was one of the first authors I met when I started attending writers' conventions. He describes his hometown with great affection, bringing to life the geography, businesses, and culture of its mid-century incarnation. The more I read about Fresno, the more guilty I felt about choosing it as my setting. Fresno sounds charming; I would gladly visit it. 


Within the pages of my book, Fresno is the location of Smithy's new home, the Center for the Scientific Advancement of Man, or CSAM, operated by Dr. Manfred Teague.  Though fictional, CSAM is informed by real ape research facilities of the 1970s. 


Such facilities varied widely in quality, then and now. The Institute for Primate Studies (IPS) in Oklahoma, where Nim Chimpsky lived after leaving Delafield, specialized in cognitive studies, including language studies, and was spearheaded by a colorful, domineering figure about whom I found many eyebrow-raising anecdotes. But medical research facilities had the reputation for the worst conditions. After the IPS was forced to cease its research due to cash flow issues, many of its research subjects were sold to facilities like Sema, Inc. in Maryland, where apes were forcibly isolated in highly restricted enclosures, some of which allowed no movement at all, and deliberately infected with diseases like Hepatitis and HIV. Animal rights activists worked to expose Sema's egregious behavior, dragging the facility into the general public's gaze. Primate advocates Jane Goodall and Roger Fouts petitioned to tour the facility for themselves, and Sema agreed. Those in charge hoped the scientists would see how the primate subjects were being treated and tell the world that things weren't really as bad as PETA claimed. 


Dr. Goodall left Sema in tears. 


Neither party endorsed Sema's conduct.


You can see for yourself why not:


Reading Dr. Fouts's description of the facility in his book Next of Kin and seeing contemporary videos has the feel of a horror novel or torture movie, without any pleasurable frisson of suspense. Test subjects' lives were nasty, brutish, and (if they were lucky) short. Apes were recruited for medical facilities from a range of sources. Some were purchased from other facilities, like IPS, some were sourced (re captured) from the wild, and some were surrendered by private owners who had acquired apes as a fad and weren't prepared for the demands their powerful "pets" imposed when they grew out of infancy. The sudden change from nurturing homes, where they were often treated as humans, to prisons, where they were abused, must have been the severest shock for this last group. 


To echo the suffering experienced by its primate subjects, I also exiled Ruby and Jeff to the gloomy, oppressive CSAM. As I was starting to write Smithy, new social movements were beginning to call attention to sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. I've been fortunate never to experience this type of abuse, but I have witnessed and endured other kinds, including verbal abuse, psychological abuse, and garden-variety bullying, on the job. I wondered when, or if, non-sexual abuse would also be publicly addressed and denounced. (Maureen Ryan's 2023 expose Burn it Down, which details racism, sexism, physical abuse, and bullying in the entertainment industry, does just that). In the meantime, I would turn CSAM into a hothouse for different types of abuse. Toxic workplaces can be cages, too. 


Apart from exploring the lot in life of research chimps, I wanted to further explore the phenomenon of ghosts. What is a ghost? What can a ghost do? How do ghost stories get started? Why do people believe in ghosts, why do they believe the things about ghosts that they believe, and why do they go on believing especially when evidence is lacking? By drawing on the legend of the Dark Woman already established in Smithy, Webster further addresses these questions, and more generally explores the pull that the unknown and the unusual have on people from all walks of life.


I've always been impressed by stories that take claims of the supernatural seriously by exploring their real-world implications. Films like Audrey Rose and The Exorcism of Emily Rose even investigate the paranormal through courts of law. I wanted to employ that same strategy to make Smithy's story as real as possible and explore how people would react to the possibility that a chimp could really be communicating with ghosts.


These scenes served a dual purpose in the story, for the courtroom is also where the rights of high-functioning animals like chimps, elephants, and dolphins are increasingly being explored. The documentary film Unlocking the Cage follows attorney Steven Wise in his quest to help non-humans acquire dignity and legal recognition, and to avoid the types of abuses inflicted by places like Sema.  His arguments and the outcomes of his hearings are fascinating. As the courts continue to redefine personhood on a daily basis, it will be interesting to see whether the great apes ever achieve the same rights and protections as a frozen zygote.


As you can see, Webster covers a lot of ground, introducing new challenges for Smithy and his human allies, and new questions for readers to consider. It also draws upon the same ambiguity and unease that pervaded Trevor Hall, challenging us to decide what is real and what is the truest threat.

Why not take the next step of that journey with Smithy and explore this mysterious territory for yourself?

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