What's the book all about for those who don't know?
Still Life is a chronicle of my 7-year journey among taxidermists and my quest to understand what drives them to duplicate what nature has already created. (This was as true in the 1700s when taxidermist preserved animals for the royal cabinets of kings as it is today at leading natural history museums.) In Still Life, I tagged along with a three-generation firm who has lovingly preserved creatures for the American Museum of Natural History’s dioramas for 50 years; Emily Mayer, the wickedly funny English sculptor who prepares animal replicas for art star Damien Hirst’s most provocative works; and Ken Walker, a Smithsonian taxidermist and bear trapper from Alberta who recreates extinct species using DNA research and ancient cave paintings for reference. In the end, the book is about obsession, their absurd drive to get it right.
How did this book come about?
I grew up a mile from Schwendemans Taxidermy Studio, the father and son firm that has worked with the American Museum of Natural History for fifty years. One day in 1994 after a safari gone awry, I wandered into their workshop with its stuffed owls, antelope heads, snake skeletons, and strange tools. I found the place completely engrossing and wanted to know more about this intriguing art form that thrives despite its fringe reputation.
What was the most shocking thing you came across while researching for the book?
Before Still Life, I thought taxidermists were kind of creepy, like Norman Bates in Psycho whose hobby was “stuffing things.” But the truth is far more complicating and more fascinating. Over the years I’ve come to understand what compels people to preserve dead animals: the answer turns out to be far different than what I expected when I first immersed myself in the taxidermy world: an absurd—almost fanatical—love of animals and the beauty of organic forms.
What did you learn from the process of putting the book together?
I had no idea how much I’d have to learn about the history of natural science. All of the great museums began as collections of dried specimens. Charles Darwin himself took taxidermy lessons; otherwise he never would have been unqualified to work as naturalist aboard the Beagle. I love the historical stuff, but I also wanted to understand what drives taxidermists today and that took time and patience because they don’t trust journalists, and, it turns out, for good reason.
What's next for you?
My new book idea is a true story of a magnificent obsession; it has plenty of impassioned characters, some wild uncanny stuff, but, sadly, no animals.