By Leslie Lindsay
Gorgeously rendered novel about love and loss, compassion, and humor, STILL LIFE WITH MONKEY absolutely wow-ed me.
Some books select YOU and this is absolutely one of them; I found STILL LIFE WITH MONKEY immensely moving, well-developed, and poignant.
Duncan Wheeler is a 37-year-old successful architect (swoon!) married to a woman who is in art conservation (also, swoon) and they are trying to have a baby…but… Duncan and his intern are in a fatal car accident one day coming home from a site visit. His young intern dies and Duncan is left a quadriplegic, in a wheelchair. Duncan isn’t sure if he’s truly ‘lucky’ as everyone says…everyday is a fractured attempt at living the life he once had.
Duncan’s will to live falters and his wife, Laura, reaches out to the Primate Institute of New England in effort to obtain a ‘helper monkey’ for Duncan. Maybe having Ottoline’s ‘helping hands’ around, Duncan won’t feel so dependent on others, perhaps his faith in life will be restored.
And for awhile, it does. Ottoline is delightful and charming and quite intelligent. She loves Nutella and peanut butter and is tiny and cute. But Duncan is struggling. He can no longer do many (most) things he once did–though he can consult with his architecture partners–still, life has been reduced to a revolving door of PCAs [personal care assistants], an active mind but no way to actualize his dreams.
The writing is absolutely gorgeous: poetic, yet stark. Characters are sympathetic, well-developed, and made a strong impression. I’ve been thinking about this book long after I finished the last page and sharing insights with others– it definitely sparked a conversation or two and would be excellent reading for a book club.
I am so honored to welcome Katharine to the author interview series. Please join us.
Katharine, I am still reeling after finishing this book. It’s breathtakingly written, with a sympathetic hand, yet there are some real challenging issues here. Can you talk about your inspiration for STILL LIFE WITH MONKEY?
Leslie, first, I just want to say that I am delighted by your appreciation of my novel on so many levels.
It’s not always possible to identify the DNA for every aspect of inspiration that spark my novels. It’s always a combination of details and situations set against other circumstances or events. I have a good friend who has been a quadriplegic for the last couple of decades. Spending time with him has given me a close-up sense of the endless workarounds necessary to conduct anything approaching ordinary, day to day living. I have known about monkey helpers for years, and the what-ifs began to intrigue me. What if someone wanted a monkey helper to assist with a task that is beyond the ordinary sort of help (picking up a dropped remote or phone, turning a page, inserting a CD, flipping a light switch) for which those clever capuchin monkeys are trained And so on. And then there are many other situations and details in the novel that flow from various experiences or passing obsessions of mine over the years. As a novelist I am a bit of a magpie, so most every interesting incident or detail I might experience or hear about is inevitably stored away.
I’m a former R.N., I’ve always had a thing for art and architecture, and I’m a writer, too—so many ways, STILL LIFE WITH MONKEY combines all of my passions in one very poignant narrative. I’m curious how you make the decision to make Duncan an architect and his wife…is she an art conservator? I loved them both.
I worked in an architect’s office for a little less than a year, long ago, and I know a number of architects—and I have simply always been interested in architecture, of all periods and styles. I used to draw Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns on my school notebooks. (I could always remember which ones were Ionic because there was a girl in my class named Iona who wore her hair in two curly bunches on either side of her head.) My husband and I have lived in an 18th-century farmhouse in Connecticut for decades, outside New Haven, the setting of the novel. Appreciating the range of American vernacular building styles over the past couple of centuries is a marvelous way of learning American history. Teaching at Kenyon College in central Ohio, I discovered the numerous charming Sears kit houses that can be found all over the place, including just up the street from the faculty house I live in when I am at Kenyon. I have to admit that in the years I was writing STILL LIFE WITH MONKEY I developed a real crush on the American Foursquare. If only I could live in Duncan’s Explicated Foursquare! I hope I evoked for the reader the marvelousness of those proportions in that house. I wanted it to feel inevitable and irresistible, the house you want to come home to, and I certainly sold it to myself!
Laura being a conservator felt like a natural adjacent profession for her, and it made sense for the story that she would be someone whose job is repairing broken things, or at least doing her best to make them appear to be repaired. I have known a few art conservators, and I have been behind the scenes in various museums over the years because my husband heads the Albers Foundation, and I have over the years tagged along when exhibitions are being installed or paintings are being authenticated. The issue of fakes is chronic and damaging for the legacy of any artist, and the nature of art forgery fascinates me. It was a central plot element in my second novel, THE MUSIC LESSON). I like the way the mind of a conservator works (especially the mind of the conservator I invented). I think Laura’s work and Duncan’s work are both really illustrative of their personalities, and they harmonize. Work is important in people’s lives, but it is often strangely glossed over in a lot of fiction. Annie Dillard famously said:
“How you spend your days is how you spend your life.”
This is also true for fictional characters.
Of course, I have to ask about helper monkeys! I know about therapy/service dogs but monkeys were new to me. Can you talk about that, please?
While the Primate Institute in my novel is fictional, it is inspired by the very real Helping Hands nonprofit organization in Boston, where capuchin monkeys are trained—at Monkey College, where else?—to perform the range of tasks that make them into genuine “helping hands” for recipients in wheelchairs. A helper monkey can give recipients autonomy and independence, and there is also a terrific, life-enhancing bond that develops. I support their valuable work, and I urge my readers to support them. Helping Hands Organization has wonderful short videos that show all aspects of training and living with a helper monkey.
STILL LIFE WITH MONKEY asks the reader to consider some very intense issues: the will to live and the right to die. Of course, every novel needs stakes…so here it is! What kind of research did you need to complete to provide an unbiased view?
Do I have an unbiased view? I’m not sure. What I brought to this very central moral issue at the heart of the story is the belief that people with mobility issues are surely entitled to have equal rights to make choices about their lives, including end of life decisions, including decisions that they might not be able to enact physically because of their disabilities. Spending time dwelling with this aspect of the novel for some seven years, thinking daily about a wheelchair-dependent life, I became quite aware of the many circumstances when people in wheelchairs are confronted by lack of access to events, blocked entrances, steps into buildings, and all sorts of other small indignities. Having to phone ahead to get in a side door is not equality. Having to request a key to get into a handicap bathroom is not equality. Depending on doors with broken automatic openers is not equality. Separate but equal is not equal.
“STILL LIFE WITH MONKEY is a brilliantly crafted novel, brimming with heart. Pairing poetry with wisdom, this is a story about what it means to live, love, and grow.”
— Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage
On a practical level, I read many books on living with various degrees of paralysis. I really wanted to understand it on the practical level, the endless quotidian issues. I also delved into a variety of sources for advice and emotional support for people with spinal cord injuries, and their families. The two people I knew well who live with spinal cord injuries (the book is dedicated to both) also validated for me the state of mind I gave Duncan over many hours of frank conversations about the profound emotions of their first years of living with this disability.
Having said that, I do hope readers will discern that Duncan’s despair is as much about causing the death of his young protégé in the car accident for which he is responsible as it is about his new physical limitation.
What is obsessing you nowadays? It doesn’t have to be literary.
The monster in the White House is obsessing me.
My four-year-old grandson Wilder is obsessing me.
Trying to decide which of four different novels I am writing at the same time is the one to focus on is obsessing me.
Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Yes. What was the publishing process like for this book, your sixth novel and seventh novel?
I ask myself this question on your behalf because it was not a straight shot to publication, though I think this is my best novel, and a number of reviews have agreed. Publishers were reluctant to commit to a novel about a quadriplegic and a monkey helper. Editors admired the writing, praised it extravagantly, and then made no offer because their marketing departments were against acquiring a novel with a main character whom readers might not find sufficiently “relateable.” (God, how I hate that word.) The marvelous small imprint Paul Dry Books took the risk, because Paul Dry makes his own decisions. He publishes ‘lively books
“to awaken, delight, and educate’—and to spark conversation”
as it says on their website. I am deeply grateful to Paul for his independent vision as a publisher. I am pretty sure he feels that his gamble on STILL LIFE WITH MONKEY has paid off.
Thank you Leslie, for this great conversation.
For more information, to connect with the author, or to purchase a copy of STILL LIFE WITH MONKEY, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Katharine Weber’s first five highly-praised and award-winning novels have made her a book club favorite.
Her new novel and seventh book, STILL LIFE WITH MONKEY (Paul Dry Books), has won advance praise with a starred review from KIRKUS , Tayari Jones, Ann Packer , Roxana Robinson, Brian Morton, and Roger Rosenblatt.
Katharine grew up in New York City and has lived in rural Connecticut since 1976, when she married the cultural historian Nicholas Fox Weber. She also spends parts of the year in West Cork, Ireland, and in London.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Shreve Williams Publicity and used with permission. Cover of The Music Lesson from K. Weber’s website, image of American Four-Square retrieved from, all on 12.3.18. Artist image of book cover by L.Lindsay and can be accessed via Instagram @LeslieLindsay1]