Years after returning from the Suriname jungle, Andrew Westoll hadn't forgotten his time there studying wild capuchin monkeys, or the feeling of isolation that slowly crept in.
More than 10 years later, he still found himself wondering: "What would it be like if someone spent too long in the bush?" And so Stanley, the protagonist in his latest novel, was born: A scientist who has been studying capuchin monkeys deep in the rain forest for eight years, seven of which he has spent practically alone after his wife, Maria, left him. A scientist who has started to let the solitude truly affect him.
"Stanley is very much the person I didn't become because I left," Westoll says while seated in a coffee shop in Toronto. "The seeds of that progression that he goes through were definitely in me after spending a year there. … You are not supposed to be this isolated as a human being for that long. [In fiction,] I could explore what would happen to someone if those seeds had germinated and someone stuck around."
Westoll is a former biologist, primatologist and a veteran of the non-fiction writing world. He wrote a travelogue in 2008 titled The Riverbones: Stumbling After Eden in the Jungles of Suriname and a biography about a family of chimpanzees who were rescued from a research laboratory, titled The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, which won the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.
Now he has a novel, The Jungle South of the Mountain, slated for fall publication.
Though he began his career as a scientist, even during his time in the jungle, he says he was always "scribbling" during his spare time and "quietly publishing stories" in the student literary magazine.
"I was living in this incredible place and I didn't want to be reducing it any more to just numbers and figures and canopy spreads and Latin names. There was something much larger going on in the world around me and I wanted to try and capture that," he says. "So it was all about coming to terms with the fact that I was way more interested in the truths that are offered by literature than the truths that are offered by science."
He ended up switching career paths and attending the University of British Columbia to pursue a master of fine arts in creative writing. Then he began weaving his two passions, writing and science, together.
With his new work, The Jungle South of the Mountain, he is wading into the fiction world for the first time. Or more accurately, he's plunging into it, with a book that not only diverges from non-fiction but delves into magical realism, with a fierce bird that acts as a foil for the main character.
As Westoll tells it, he had Stanley before he had a story to put him into. The character, he felt, needed a worthy adversary. (As Westoll – who teaches creative writing and English literature at the University of Toronto Scarborough – says, "the first rule of writing fiction is, don't leave your characters alone for too long.") So he researched birds of prey that could threaten the lives of his protagonist's beloved monkeys. One of the first hits on Google, a video posted by the University of Florida, took him by surprise. The shaky camera filmed a forest he knew well, and the repeated, "oh my god, oh my god" sounded all too familiar. The footage, detailing the first harpy eagle attack in that forest, had been shot by Westoll years ago. And he had forgotten.
"I somehow had just subsumed that into my subconscious," Westoll says. "Once I heard my own voice and the whole experience of that attack came rushing back to me, I knew it was on. I had to write this character. I had to write this story. So that's kind of the genesis of it."
The Jungle South of the Mountain shares some similarities with his previous works, as it deals with capuchin monkeys and the science surrounding them, but Westoll says he took immense creative licence with the names of locations and names of tribes and their stories. He did draw on real-life experiences for the setting and scientific observations, yet the entire story takes place in an unnamed country.
"I had to find my own spot on the tightrope between fiction and non-fiction where I felt comfortable balancing," Westoll says. "I kind of want readers to feel unsettled by what is true and what is not. That's the whole point of the book."
In the future, Westoll hopes to continue exploring fiction, while also looking into works that fall between the two genres. "I think with non-fiction the biggest challenge is finding that true story that's so compelling and I lucked out with the chimps. So when you compare fiction to non-fiction in terms of story generation, it's way more fun to sit there and think about fantastical things out of your imagination," he says. "But I will say there is no feeling like finding and capturing a true story and rendering it well on the page. I really don't think that there is, even now that I've written a novel."
He says he has no intention of revisiting the topic of the Upper Amazon basin. However, he does plan on examining some themes he started to explore in his new novel, including "rationalism versus faith and the imagination versus the rational mind."
"Basically what I'm saying is, the divide between science and art, which is very much kind of drawn right down the middle of me in my career so far … I want to keep exploring that."
But before Westoll writes another book, he needs to go out into the world, experience new things and live some more. He admits that the older students in his creative writing classes usually make for the better writers, as they have "more life behind them."
"I want to get back out into the world. I've become a teacher, I've bought a house, I have a young child. I now need to refill the well."