Cougar News had the chance to speak with author Diane Ackerman before her visit to Collin College, April 4-6, for a series of Book-in-Common lectures and appearances. She talked a little about her process and what it was like to research Antonina Żabińska for her book “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”
How do you choose the topics you write about?
Most often, they choose me. I think that most often what happens is there is a board meeting of my psyche that takes place without informing me. I wake up one morning and it’s as if a telegram has been slipped under the door of my awareness and I find that I am ‘coming down with a book.’ It always seems to happen like that.
I’m sure my friends probably know what I have been growing more and more obsessed with for quite a while, but for some reason, it tends to be a surprise to me.
What made Antonina the best character to focus on in your retelling of the Żabiński’s lives?
It was one of those stories that was just meant to be. I just happened upon the diary of Antonina Żabińska. Her diary was out of print, but I found it and had it translated.
Her attitude was so heroic, so soulful, so spiritual, so brave and so uncommon that I really couldn’t let her disappear through the seams of history. She was a hero who had to be remembered the same way her husband was remembered, as one of the great rescuers.
I made her the main focus because her husband was heroic in the usual ways. He was in charge of part of the underground that was responsible for blowing up trains, and he fought with the underground. Her heroism was different.
How do you reconstruct events whose actors have since died? How do you get at the emotion of the moment?
I just kept layering in research details.
When people speak, I am quoting from interviews, diaries, third-person accounts, translations of different sorts. Every time that someone speaks in the book, it is a direct quote that I’ve managed to weave in.
Antonina’s sensibility is very evident in her writings. She didn’t just keep a diary. She wrote books where she became an animal, usually a mother animal.
She was quite candid in them and in what she told other people who recorded those memories in their books.
Is there an overarching message you’d like people to take away from this book?
There are extraordinary acts of mercy and heroism that people perform everyday on our war-torn planet. There are different forms of heroism. They are not always shoot-em-up heroism. Some are compassionate heroism. It’s very important that those people are role models too.
Excited to have your book made into a movie?
I am thrilled. I saw an early screening of it, and it is absolutely wonderful. The acting is splendid. It is very, very powerful. And I like the way that they have translated it from one art form to another art form. I think the Żabiński children, who are still alive, will really enjoy it.
Ackerman will talk more about her work and writing process in a series of Book-in-Common lectures: 7 p.m., Tuesday, April 4 at the Spring Creek Campus Living Legends Conference Center; 7 p.m., Wednesday, April 5 at the Preston Ridge Campus Conference Center; and 1 p.m., Thursday, April 6 at the Central Park Campus Conference Center.