Sheltering: Deb Olin Unferth on Personal Loss vs. Collective Grief
The Author of Barn 8 Talks to Maris Kreizman
On this episode of Sheltering, Maris Kreizman talks to Deb Olin Unferth about her novel Barn 8, released on March 3. Barn 8, an experimental novel about the US egg industry told from the point of view of a chicken, tells the story of two inspectors going rogue and releasing a farm’s worth of animals, roughly a million chickens. It takes on the (timely!) ethics of sequestering living beings and rejecting capitalism. Deb talks about having to balance the personal losses of this time with the collective grief of the nation, and relying on fresh vegetables to make it through quarantine. Deb’s bookstore of choice is Book People; please purchase Barn 8 through this link if possible!
From the episode
Transcription generously provided by Eliza M. Smith
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. I’m so happy to be talking to Deb Olin Unferth today. Deb, welcome!
Deb Olin Unferth: Thank you so much. It’s so great to be here.
Maris: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you’re doing.
Deb: I’m good. I am sequestered with my husband and dog.
Maris: In Austin?
Deb: We’re in Austin. We’re really lucky because we have a nice little house. We’ve got a backyard. We’re doing pretty good. I’m starting to teach from home, like a lot of us are doing our work from home.
Maris: Amazing. And tell us a little bit about your book.
Deb: It came out a couple days before this all really started to hit. It’s called Barn 8; it’s a novel about the U.S. egg industry. And in it, there’s these two USDA inspectors who go rogue and decide to empty an entire farm’s worth of animals, which is about a million chickens. It feels a little bit, you know—it’s a lot about the environment and about the treatment of animals, and how sequestering animals in such tiny cages is so unhealthy for them and for everybody. So, it feels a little relevant right now.
Maris: Timely, huh? It’s amazing how the context of just about anything has changed in the past couple of weeks. But, I mean, here in Brooklyn, I can’t find eggs. Which seems very eerie. But your book gave me hope in terms of thinking outside the box, of—I guess the box is capitalism.
Deb: Yeah, the characters in the story are rejecting capitalism, for sure. A lot of them are liberation warriors of various kinds. So yeah, I can see that. I think something that they bring up a lot is this concept of reintroducing wilderness, which means areas where humans just don’t go in order to let nature take back those particular spots. So, it’s like a voluntary withdrawal of humanity from different areas, which is kind of a popular—well, it’s an idea that’s grown a bit more in the public space lately. Only what happens is that this one character in particular just kind of realizes that’s not going to happen, and she thinks the only way it’s going to happen is if there are areas that have been so badly contaminated that humans can no longer live there. Those will be areas of non-human existence. And then that will be an opportunity for other species to go in and take back that area from humans.
Maris: And here we are having trouble convincing people just to stay home during a pandemic.
Deb: Yeah, it’s madness.
Maris: It’s madness. Tell me about what your book launch was going to be, and how you’ve kind of revised your schedule.
Deb: I was basically supposed to fly from hot spot to hot spot, like from San Francisco to New York, and then Virginia and different places. Chicago. Yeah, so, everything got canceled! It’s okay, it really is, it’s fine. I’m so alarmed by everything. I mean, I did have a couple days of grief where I was like man, I spent so many years writing this book.
Maris: That’s fair.
Deb: But there’s still time. I mean, books don’t go anywhere. I can do something later. It’s okay. I’m really trying to just talk to people more. I’m trying to just be in touch. I’m talking to my family constantly now; I’m sure everybody is.
Maris: It’s different now. I talked to my family via Zoom yesterday, which is the first time that we’ve all gotten together and did it on video, and it really does kind of change the mood.
Deb: It does, it changes the mood, yeah. My parents are saying, our kids have never bugged us this much. I mean, ever. Even when they were kids. We’re just constantly like, where are you getting your groceries? Because they’re all alone in Arizona right now.
Maris: And tell me what Austin is like now.
Deb: Oh, it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s just like breaking into bloom. It’s so gorgeous! It’s really, really nice. But yeah, everything is closed down, and the streets are completely empty, and the highways are totally empty.
Maris: The cancellation of South by Southwest was kind of the first instance where I thought oh, okay, this is a really big deal—not just in terms of the virus but in the economy.
Deb: I was completely shocked by that, because that was early. That came in early. No one else was shutting things down. And when they did that, me too—I was like, I don’t know about this whole book tour thing. Because I was supposed to be going on book tour. I was like, if South by Southwest is closing, that’s like the end of the world. I mean, I was really surprised. So, yeah. That was amazing. Usually that period is extremely busy around here. The town just emptied out then, and then all the students left, and they were encouraged not to come back. Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation. It’s like the third fastest growing city in the nation, so it’s been just hustling here for years. And now, it’s just completely silent. It’s weird. I mean, I’m sure New York is weird too. I remember being in New York—the only day in New York it’s quiet is Christmas Day. That’s been my experience. That’s the absolute only day. I remember going out, there was one Christmas, there was this huge blizzard, and it was Christmas too, and for whatever reason, my partner and I didn’t have anything to eat, and we just went out looking for food, and it was so crazy how empty everything was. I bet that’s just what everything is like there now, all day every day.
Maris: Kind of. I mean, I do wish the sidewalks were a little bit more clear, truly. But yeah, the places that have closed down…
Deb: Oh, so there are still a lot of people walking around? Because everyone’s like, well at least we can go for a walk!
Maris: Exactly. Exactly. And it’s like a snow day—you know when the sidewalks get really narrow on a snow day because there’s only one little path that’s been cleared out, and everyone stands in it and just checks their phone? They’re doing that even now, just standing in the middle of the sidewalk.
Deb: I mean, New Yorkers are so polite though. That’s really nice.
Maris: Tell me about your local bookstore—Book Culture?
Maris: BookPeople, sorry.
Deb: We have several, we have a bunch of independent bookstores here. The biggest one is BookPeople, but we also have Malvern, we have Book Woman, we have Revolution Books, and they’re all really amazing. BookPeople is this huge independent bookstore. Malvern, which is a really tiny independent press–only bookstore, they closed down immediately. South by Southwest said they were leaving, and Malvern was like, we are terrified, we are closing down. You couldn’t even order books from them or anything, they were just done. So, I’m really worried about them. BookPeople—they’ve really hung in there till the last. First, they were just saying we’re not holding big events, and then were just saying okay, we’re not holding any events but you can still come in a browse, and then they said—you know, they went through all the different stages. And now, on their website it just says go to Bookshop.org, and it’s so sad. They went through a phase where you could come and sit in your car and they would bring books out to you.
Maris: Which is like—what a fantasy that is, kind of. If it weren’t in such a bad context.
Deb: It was totally adorable. I did it; I ordered books and I went and sat in my car with my window rolled up, and then they came out and I rolled down the window, but also other booksellers that I know came out and waved hello, and they’re all standing around the car far apart, just waving, and I crack the window, like, “Hi, give me the books!” And they were using plastic gloves to hand the books through the window. It was pretty silly. But now they’re closed, so we’re just trying to do what we can. I mean, I’m so worried about—everyone is so worried about what’s going to happen. The biggest thing for me is I hope everyone is just willing to sit out. Things change so fast, but last week I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts—
Maris: What’s that?
Deb: Slate Political Gabfest. And Emily Bazelon, who’s one of my heroes—she’s so into criminal justice and reform and all this, which I’m really into because I teach at a prison—and she started saying, “I don’t think this is good for our young people, and maybe we should just open things back up again. If only old people are going to suffer…” She was really saying this. I was so shocked, I listened to it over and over again, and I even typed out what she said just because I was like, I can’t believe she’s actually saying these things. I was horrified, and I was like, I don’t think I can ever listen to this podcast again. I’ve never missed an episode since they started, so that’s pretty intense. But then, this week, she took all of it back. She’s like, “I didn’t have the numbers; now someone I know who’s young and runs marathons is sick.” So, she just walked it all back, and I was like, phew, relief. And I’m really afraid about the people who are—I teach at a maximum-security prison in south Texas, and I can’t go in right now. I’m really afraid about what’s going to happen to Texas prisons—to all prisons, but Texas has a very large prison population and not a lot of resources. And I’m just really worried about them.
Maris: Has there been any movement to release any prisoners, like from within the community even?
Deb: Yeah, it’s not going to affect anyone in any of the prisons I teach at because those are maximum-security prisons. I think in some of the jails, maybe some people will be released or have been of those few, but it’s not going to turn into a big long procession of people leaving, especially not in a maximum security.
Deb: So yeah, it’s pretty scary.
Maris: It really is. To change the mood for your final question, what have you been eating in quarantine?
Deb: Oh, I’m so lucky. I’m vegan; we’re eating great. My husband is an amazing cook, and he has been going still to the farmers’ market, which has really changed. I mean, I’m sure in New York you have this kind of thing happening, where you have people in hazmat suits separating you, but he’s still been going. And he’s bringing home tons of food, and he just cooks up a storm every night of vegetables. I don’t know, at some point they’re going to shut that down. At this point it’s still open. I don’t know if it’ll be open tomorrow—it’s supposed to open tomorrow, so we’ll see. But yeah, he’s just making giant assemblages of vegetables.
Maris: That’s wonderful. In Brooklyn, we’re having a hard time finding frozen vegetables.
Deb: Yeah, what are you eating?
Maris: Right now, we have a lot of fresh produce, which is great. My husband is making assemblages. But I’m told that fresh produce will be hard to come by soon, which is scary.
Deb: Yeah, we are hearing that too. We’ve got our contacts, though. We know people who live on the outskirts of town who have gardens and stuff, so we may check in there and get a little extra. I mean, the crops aren’t going to stop growing.
Maris: Exactly. Deb, thank you so much. Here’s your book [holds up Barn 8]. Buy it from Bookshop.org. Thank you!