The Death and Life of “Zoo Nebraska”: An Interview with Carson Vaughan
By Lewis PageMay 9, 2019
Carson Vaughan’s Zoo Nebraska tells the true story of Royal’s zoo, with its unlikely rise and untimely demise. The bizarre subject material, fodder for schlock in the hands of a lesser writer, is rendered in blisteringly researched, ardently literary prose. As the careful plotting propels readers through the two-decade collapse of one man’s dream, it’s easy to forget that this is nonfiction, and difficult to comprehend the feat of reportage that it required.
Vaughan grew up in central Nebraska. He often writes about the Great Plains, but, as a freelance journalist, he’s covered everything from campus politics to conservation to cowboy poetry, everywhere from Nevada to North Carolina. Across topics, his writing retains an attentiveness to style and narrative, an abiding empathy for his subjects, and an orientation toward American landscapes and the distinct subcultures that inhabit them. Zoo Nebraska is his first book.
LEWIS PAGE: How did Carson Vaughan enter the story of Zoo Nebraska?
CARSON VAUGHAN: In the summer of 2009, between my junior and senior years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I was snooping around for a story that might serve as my honors thesis in the journalism school, and I really wasn’t coming up with much. I had founded a satirical newspaper here in Lincoln called The Dailyer Nebraskan, and I thought I might write a long essay on satire or sarcasm in the news — something along those lines. But my wife (then girlfriend) Melissa Dohmen was from a town called Plainview in northeast Nebraska, which is about 20 minutes from Royal, and at some point that summer we drove up to visit her parents. They drove me around their part of the state, toured me through all the small towns, gave me the history and whatnot. While cruising down Highway 20, we drove past this old chain link fence. Mel just pointed out the window and said, “Oh hey, that’s where Reuben got shot.”
I had no idea who Reuben was, or the fact that Reuben was a chimp. Honestly, I couldn't even tell that we had passed through a community. Royal is so small it just looks like a cluster of old farm sheds. And so they gave me a little background; they told me that Royal is a town of 65 and once had this zoo, that eventually these four chimps got loose, that three of them were shot and killed, and that one of them was this chimpanzee named Reuben, who was sort of a celebrity in northeast Nebraska for a little while. And that was enough for me to think, well, maybe I should return and do a little bit more reporting. Sniff that story out a little bit more.
Luckily, they were actually auctioning off what remained of the zoo the very next weekend. So I drove back to Royal, and conducted my first interviews for the book with people who were attending the auction. Of course, some of the people attending the auction were there just to buy cheap fencing, but other people were there to say goodbye to the zoo. It was a fairly somber occasion. And it was also just a very strange reporting experience. I was a young journalist at the time, and I was perceiving a certain defensiveness from the community, a peculiar tension at this strange country auction. It sort of sunk its teeth into me. That tension made me want to dig even deeper.
That was my first introduction to Royal. Throughout the next academic year I returned to northeast Nebraska numerous times to interview community members and former zoo volunteers, and ultimately I wrote a half-assed thesis, something close to a book proposal, with all that material. Later, I took that same material to the University of North Carolina Wilmington, added to it, and finally completed a first draft of Zoo Nebraska. Starting with my initial encounter at the auction, the reporting never really stopped — I kept working on it off and on for a decade.
What would you say Zoo Nebraska is about?
I usually tell people that it's topically about the rise and fall of a roadside zoo in rural Nebraska, and of course I mention the chimpanzee escape to hook them. But I’ve always viewed this book as more of a community portrait, and I keep telling people that I wouldn't have spent 10 years writing a book about Royal if I didn’t think it served as something of a simulacrum for small towns everywhere. The issues I found simmering beneath the surface of Royal and its biggest attraction — obsession, isolation, big dreams, and big failures — were themes I have come to recognize in communities across the country.
What general insights do you think this exceptional story can provide?
One that strikes me immediately is that there are a lot of strong — some might say strange — personalities in this book, and I think some of that comes from isolation. In such a small bubble, people get creative with how they spend their time and effort. By the end of this saga, the board was tearing itself apart over a matter of virtually nickels and dimes. Obsession, obviously, was a major theme, as well. When I say obsession, I think of Dick Haskin immediately, and will for a very long time. The zoo took over his entire life. Dick had tunnel vision like no one I’ve ever known.
And once I came to fully understand Dick Haskin and his story from start to finish, I realized that it was, in a way, the most realistic version of the American dream. We like to tell ourselves this story of rags to riches, but a much more common story, really, is one of aiming high but ultimately falling short. Though his pivot later in life toward writing local history and celebrating his grandfather’s legacy through annual reenactments may seem a little offbeat, it really pleases me to know that Dick has found a new focus, something else to energize him and distract him from his life’s darker chapters.
It’s my hope that folks from all backgrounds will read this book, recognize these characters in their own lives, and see with a certain distance how fragile communities can be — how folks can rally to save something good, or crumble through greed and petty politics.
There are so many different ways to tell this kind of story. You ended up creating this very distinct, descriptive, literary, novelistic final product. Broad analysis felt notably absent, but I could tell it wasn’t out of neglect. It felt like a tool to keep us in this period piece, almost, of the early 2000s and the ’90s in small-town Nebraska. How did you choose that specific form and style?
Honestly, I don't know how consciously I thought about that in the beginning. My favorite kind of writing, the stuff really that got me interested in being a writer and a journalist in the first place, was that longform, novelistic style of journalism. But I think once this project transitioned from a college thesis into a real book, I started to think about those things a little more clearly. That's when I had to make some decisions that would steer the rest of my work on the book.
I could easily picture another journalist writing a book that is just as good, but very different. For example, they might look at this situation, this questionable zoo in a town of 65 people, see a failure of the USDA, and in turn write some broad analysis of the USDA and its role as a regulatory body. I could see another writer using Royal as simply a jumping-off point to discuss rural issues in a more scholarly sense. But again, because I was primarily interested in all these community dynamics, I wanted it to feel like some of those novels I love that are full of community — people like Kent Haruf, or Richard Russo, or other novelists who in my opinion really excel in telling small-town stories that feel both epic and so true to life. So I decided from the very beginning that I didn't want to leave Royal aside and zoom out and talk about other, more contemporary issues in a more frank sense. I wanted to keep the reader in Royal, keep them surrounded by these real characters at all times. I wanted them to fall into that narrative without having to think about other things.
You’re from Nebraska, and you’ve been writing about the place for a long time. But in recent years it’s become more of a political statement, whether it's intended or not, to write about the Midwest — the heartland, middle America, whatever you want to call it. How has this affected your work and its reception?
I think those are actually two separate questions. Like I said, I started writing this in 2009, which was well before any of this shift toward — well, I don't know if it's a trend or what it is exactly. I see it like this: when Trump won the presidency in 2016, it kicked open a door that has slowly been closing ever since. But we have this opening right now where the publishing industry is looking at the Midwest, the Great Plains, rural places more broadly, and saying, “Oh, we should have been paying attention to you.” And so I do think this renewed focus on the Midwest helped me sell the book. And I think — I hope — it has maybe opened up a new audience for this story. But it's certainly not why I started writing Zoo Nebraska. Also, though I think we sometimes bandy about that “write what you know” maxim a little too liberally, when I was an undergraduate and a young reporter, it just felt like this was the material at hand for me. It was the most intriguing and untold story I had ever stumbled upon, and so it felt natural to pursue it.
Are there specific writers whose work you tried to model this book on?
Every time I get frustrated or experience writer's block, I will pull a book off the shelf and hopefully find some inspiration. A big one for me, not only because I know him personally and because he was a mentor but because I really love his writing, is a guy named Joe Starita. He's written a lot about the Native American cultures of the Great Plains. He was a journalist, a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize, and is just a really sweet dude. His writing is so sharp, and he's the teacher who got me started down this narrative nonfiction or literary journalism path to begin with. So I often find myself pulling some of his books off the shelf. But more often than not I end up pulling novelists off the shelf, or short story writers. When you're working from transcripts with real characters for so long, you sometimes end up looking at your cursor and realizing how dry everything you’ve just written is. Not just a lack of lyricism, but also structurally. And you realize, sometimes, that you unintentionally became a slave to your research.
But you can’t write novelistically in nonfiction if you haven't put in the time with your sources. I love getting inside the head of my characters, giving interior shots. But I couldn't do that without having those really long interviews with subjects like Dick Haskin. A lot of the book entails the interior life of Dick Haskin, his inner monologues, and I couldn't do that if Dick hadn't eventually opened up to me. I spent a ton of time with Dick asking, "What were you thinking in this moment?" and, “What were you thinking in that moment?” and, “How did you feel after this happened, or before this happened?”
Dick had turned down my interview requests for about eight years. And then when I told him, “I've sold this to Little A, you’re one of the few holdouts that still hasn’t spoken to me. And this is kind of your last shot,” he finally relented. I ended up camping out in his backyard for two days and doing these hours-long, marathon interview sessions. It was wild. But ultimately, once he did say yes, he was one of the most candid and warm and welcoming subjects I’ve had the pleasure of working with. But it took him a long time to get there, and rightfully so. He raised Reuben virtually from birth, the zoo was his life, it took him down in a lot of ways, and so I think he was pretty reticent to rehash that chapter of his life.
Has Dick read the book?
He has, and I was sweating bullets waiting to hear back from him. I've been a reporter for a while, but I'm still the kind of guy who gets nervous about how a subject is going to react. And obviously it's a lot of responsibility to tell somebody's darkest chapter.
So I sent Dick a copy of the book a few weeks before it was published. And a week and a half later he wrote a really nice email. It said, and I’m paraphrasing now, “Carson, as you suspected this was very painful for me to read. That being said I think you did a wonderful job with it.”
And then the last line of his email said something like, “This is a great book. I hope you write another one, and I hope I'm not in it.”
I was blown away by that email, really. That is, I think, the best review I have received to date.
Lewis Page is a writer, editor, and journalist from Seattle. He is an editorial fellow at Sierra magazine.
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