Why did ‘Zookeeper’s Wife’ author study the sex of Florida alligators?


As Diane Ackerman tells it, nature and writing have gone hand in hand for her since she was a little girl.

Ackerman says she grew up in Waukegan, Illinois, “at a time when it was popular to go outside and play.” She spent a lot of time outdoors and was always writing poems and stories.

She recalls her mother telling her that a neighbor telephoned her and said, “I saw your daughter walking by my house, and she was talking to herself again.” Yes, those stories just kept churning inside Ackerman’s head.

She went to Boston University, planning to major in psychology, and ended up transferring to Penn State, where the computer “put me in English by mistake, and because I had been writing shyly but enthusiastically my whole life I assumed it was fate.” She went on to earn an MFA in creative writing and a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature from Cornell.

Her curiosity about nature drove her to have a scientist and poet as part of her graduate committee.

For her, nature is science.

It was this passion for nature that shaped Ackerman’s take on the Holocaust in her popular book, “The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story,” which has been made into a movie starring Jessica Chastain and is being released in theaters this month. Ackerman co-wrote the movie script.

The book tells the story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski, who ran the zoo in Warsaw as the Nazis made their foray into Poland. They were Catholic, but abhorred the Nazis and risked their lives to help Jews escape.

Ackerman says the couple’s extraordinary acts pulled her into their story, but she also was fascinated by the Nazis’ attempt to change the DNA of the entire planet. While many people are familiar with the Nazis’ obsession with  the Aryan race, fewer know they also wanted to change the DNA of plants and animals.

“For me, coming at it from a natural history perspective … goes to the heart of what the Nazi lunacy was about,” says Ackerman, 68, who will speak about her books at the Love of Literacy Luncheon on March 16.

Because of Antonina’s love for animals, she and her husband were able to help many refugees, says Ackerman. “I feel close to Antonina,” she says, “her love of nature shines through her diary and children’s books.”

Antonina was very brave, and risked her life, Ackerman says, so she was a hero, but not in the shoot-‘em-up sense that Jan was as a leader in the Underground. “She decided she not only wanted them to survive, she wanted them to survive with their humanity intact.” Ackerman sees that as “radical acts of compassion.”

Because the work is nonfiction, Ackerman is careful to point out that all quotes are taken from diaries or other source records.

She says the couple’s children are alive and excited to see the movie that tells their parents’ story.

While the movie will increase Ackerman’s renown, her many books have cemented her legacy as a poet and writer of nonfiction. For her, every book is personal.

Her book, “One Hundred Names for Love,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, recounts what happens after her husband, Paul West, an author of more than 50 books, suffered a stroke and could no longer speak.

“After he left the hospital, we were told ‘goodbye and good luck,’” says Ackerman. But she had just finished a book about the brain (“An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain”) and knew the brain could be rewired.

She took on the challenge of helping him get past his aphasia and worked on a new version of language therapy. “He went on to paint and lived a good life,” she says. He died at 85 in October 2015. The couple had been married more than 40 years, “but he was 20 years older, so I knew there would be issues.” she says.

Her most recent work, “The Human Age,” chronicles humans’ changing relationship with nature, particularly over the past 20 years. “Because we have become the largest force of change on nature,” she says, scientists have renamed this geologic era the Anthropocene Epoch. This is the first time this has happened in the history of the planet, Ackerman says, and it is “so monumental a fact that we need to be aware and act accordingly.”

Ackerman’s passion for nature has seen her spend 10 years going on various expeditions around the world, including to Antarctica and the Amazon, to get close to the endangered animals she often wrote about, while helping expeditionists with their everyday work. She acknowledges those trips ended as she got older and, she says, “I find that adventure isn’t something you have to leave home to find — some of my books are about wildlife you find around you all the time.”

During one trip to Florida, she worked with college professors who were studying hormones in alligators. She says they thought she was such a trouper for helping them with determining the sex of gators — a real up-close task — that they named a molecule after her. The dianeackerone is a sex pheromone in crocodilians.

Has this prolific writer ever thought about dabbling in fiction? Not really. “I consider fiction a very high-class form of lying in the most wonderful way — I read a lot of fiction — but it’s not my strength,” she says.

As for advice to aspiring writers, Ackerman says they should follow their curiosity and write about what fascinates them or what they have real passion for. Success may or may not come, but if they “do it for the joy,” she says, they’ll have interesting and enjoyable lives.



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