Until I began working on my novel Barn 8, I had not written fiction about environmental collapse and the end of civilisation. My stories had been micro in scope – about lonely people wanting to help other lonely people, or get back at them, or run away from them. Now I wanted to write about late-stage capitalism, the human obsession with putting things into rows, lining them up, making them all look the same, caging them so they can’t go anywhere – humans, animals, even plants – and how this is our error and downfall. But I had to do it in a way that wouldn’t be pedantic, sanctimonious, or preachy, all of which I abhor. I have very little patience for fiction that tells me how to think or be, though I know that the role of literature is, and has always been, to describe where we are today in light of where we once were and are now headed.
Barn 8 is about a couple of auditors for the egg industry who go rogue and decide to steal an entire farm’s worth of chickens, about a million, in a single night. I researched the hell out of the book, visiting farms of all sizes, interviewing farmers, undercover investigators, animal lawyers, and reading every book on chickens I could find. I put some of that research into an article for Harper’s, but when I turned to write the novel, I found the research clunky in the text, and detracting from the characters and their woes.
But if I could layer the facts into the story with a light hand, the reader would encounter them often but not in a way that felt like information. Research should always have more than one job in fiction. Its primary purpose should be to reveal the characters, deepen the setting, show off absurdities, do classic storytelling. It can heighten emotion, such as working to slow a scene down or it can show a character’s personality, such as by the tone they take or by their reactions to pieces of information. The very sound and rhythm of the words of information I wanted to add had to contribute to the pacing of the narrative. I wanted the reader to walk away with a lot more knowledge about chickens and modern farming but maybe not realize they were gaining that knowledge as they read it.
Also I decided to be minimal when it came to details that might horrify the reader, of which there are plenty in the egg industry. Barn 8 is not The Jungle, but I wanted the reader to get a bit of the information, and I wanted the reader to understand the characters’ motivations. So I snuck in a line of harrowing description here and there. I sprung it on the reader in places where they wouldn’t expect it. I found that even a single disturbing word or phrase was effective. I could let it hang there without comment or expansion and then swiftly move on with the story, but it had made its mark.
I also leaned into the funny. Humor can be used to conjure or express all kinds of emotions: bitterness, revelation, kindness, joy, rage. I described aspects of the farm industry in a way that was accurate but truly absurd. I teased the characters in a lighthearted way. And then there’s the kind of truth-telling where someone says something devastating, then grins, ‘Just kidding!’ and after a beat you laugh with relief. People (not me) seem to find chickens inherently funny. I enjoyed the challenge of stealthily persuading readers over the course of the book to care about them.
I also resorted to sci-fi. Any glance into the future of our race and our planet is going to be grim and have plenty of room for the weird (and therefore funny). So I let myself jump far ahead, hundreds, even thousands of years, just for a couple of pages in specific targeted spots, to get a look at how this was all going to play out.
And how is it going to play out, on and off the page? There’ll be a lot of ugly, yes. We are lost creatures. But there will be beauty. There will always be grace in tiny spots, lighting up the globe in its dark spin. And the chickens may rise again.
Image © Alexander Rabb