Diane Ackerman Discusses ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’

March 31, 2017 at 10:06 am Leave a comment

Diane Ackerman, award-winning poet, essayist, and author, draws on the many wonders of the natural world to inspire her work. The movie version of her book, The Zookeeper’s Wife, starring Golden Globe-winning actress Jessica Chastain, hits theaters today (you can watch the trailer at the top of this post).

The book recounts the story of Jan Zabinski, director of the Warsaw zoo in 1939, and his wife Antonina, who during the Nazi occupation of Poland, tirelessly worked with the Polish resistance to hide hundreds of Jewish people, and zoo animals, in their villa. The Zabinskis helped many Jews escape to safety and saved numerous animals.

We chatted with Ackerman ’70 via email. Here’s what she has to say about The Zookeeper’s Wife, about her work and about the power of nature:

Photo via @DianeSAckerman

The Zookeeper’s Wife is based on a true story. How did you find it and what interested you about it?

I’d heard that there was a primeval forest in Poland with ancient horses running around in it, and I wanted to see and write about the horses. One of my neighbors’ uncles had been a vet at the Warsaw zoo. We emailed him, and he remembered that the zookeeper’s wife had published a diary. We asked him to find it and send it to us. I had it translated, and when I discovered Antonina’s saga, which had disappeared between the seams of history, I knew I would have to share it with others.

The book addresses the destruction of nature by human beings and the regenerative power of nature. How did this play out in the Holocaust period?

Most people do find nature transcendent and restorative. So it makes sense, for instance, that the ghetto rabbi in Warsaw encouraged his flock to meditate on the beauties of nature, rather than thinking only about their plight. Certainly, that was also true for Antonina, whose early life included the murder of her father and the death of her mother. She found animals and nature an endless source of comfort, companionship, insight and delight.

Why do you think The Zookeeper’s Wife has struck a chord with so many readers around the world?

The story is especially relevant today, given the political climate here and abroad. It’s also a true story of a so-called “ordinary” woman (not a superhero, soldier, or saint) who was so disgusted by racism that she was able to rise to acts of extraordinary bravery and compassion.

Is there anything new that struck you about this story in its movie version?

Though the movie stays very close to the book, watching it unfold on the screen, in three dimensions, added another layer of richness to the story for me. I especially loved being able to see the facial nuances.

How do you feel your work, particularly The Zookeeper’s Wife, can make people aware of the threats to nature and the environment?

I hope the book and film and all of my work really will remind people that we’re not separate from nature. We are nature, and we need a healthy environment for the sake of the planet, but also so that we can be healthy, so that we can feel whole.

There’s a molecule named after you, the “Dianeackerone.” What exactly is it?

It’s a sex pheromone in crocodilians. I once helped sex alligators for hormone studies, which meant being up close and personal with alligators, and when two chemists discovered a new molecule, they thought it might be fun to name it after me.

How does nature inspire you to think/write/be?

I find being out in nature a tonic. And I’m endlessly curious about the world, so I like to go out each morning and see what happened in the natural world overnight. It might be the prismatic flash of domed dew, or what squirrels do with their tails, or the slime left by slugs… I find it all wondrous.

Is there any one plant or animal species that has inspired you more than any other?

I’m drawn to a variety of animals and plants, but I confess—I’m a rose addict.

Savita Iyer, senior editor

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