Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing a few of the contributors to the Historical Novel Society’s anthology, Distant Echoes. Today, I welcome author Anne Aylor, who contributed two stories to the anthology, “The Man With No Hands” and “The House of Wild Beasts”. The latter won the HNS Short Story Award in 2014, and it’s this story that I’ve asked her to discuss as it made an impression on me.
“The House of Wild Beasts” takes place during the Spanish Civil War. An American reporter, Martha, visits the Madrid zoo, La Casa de Fieras, to write a newspaper article about the war. By reporting the conditions in the zoo, she hopes to make people back home understand why the Spanish Republic deserved their support.
It is the task of an author to show their readers a unique perspective, and Anne Aylor has done so with this story. She has examined the depravity of war and the breakdown of society using a zoo as the setting. I was keen to learn more about her inspiration and how she came to write her award winning story, “The House of Wild Beasts”.
What was the impetus in using a zoo as a setting to comment on the depredations of war?
Anne: I experienced the tail-end of a European war in 1994 when I visited the former Yugoslavia. The fact-finding mission I made on behalf of a British charity had a huge impact on me. After qualifying as an acupuncturist in 1997, I returned to work in Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina, to try to help those who had been traumatised by war. Patients who had lived on the east side of the city had endured a terrible siege, first under bombardment from the Serbs, then the Croats. Living in basements for 18 months and having little to eat other than rice and lentils, the Bosniaks sucked stones to try to stave off hunger.
When I started researching “The House of Wild Beasts”, I remembered the haunting photographs of Bosnian men in internment camps. They were inmates in a human zoo, unable to feed or defend themselves, wholly at the mercy of their keepers. And the foreign “peacekeepers” who did nothing to protect them.
What inspired you to write “The House of Wild Beasts”?
Anne: Years ago, I read an article by David Blundy, the British journalist killed by sniper fire while covering the war in El Salvador. One powerful image in his report about the zoo remained with me. A mountain goat had died and the staff had not dug a hole large enough for its huge body. Its rotting head and horns were sticking out of the dirt. In his article, Blundy hardly referred to the war that was ripping El Salvador apart, but it was implicit in his dispatch about the zoo.
I was reminded of that goat during the war in Bosnia when I heard about the only surviving animal in the Sarajevo Zoo. During the siege, people risked their lives to take bread and grass to a terrified, starving bear until it, too, finally died.
Was “The House of Wild Beasts” based on a true story?
Anne: I came across information that men had been thrown alive to the lions and tigers during the Spanish Civil War. I tried to imagine why this had happened and who might have done it. Accounts of savagery were reported on both sides, but the fascists encouraged gang rape, torture, mutilation and murder. On the Republican side, it was not government policy. When it did happen, it occurred mainly at the beginning of the war and was most often carried out by criminals pretending to be anarchists. Loyalist thugs carried out summary executions and appropriated property without authorisation from the Republican government.
How did you undertake your research?
Anne: My research began with finding a suitable face for one of the two main characters. Peters Sellers used to say that he could never get under the skin of a character until he figured out what kind of shoes they wore. I cannot write about a character until I know what they look like. On an earlier trip to Spain, I had discovered a village where all the residents had been painted and their portraits attached to the buildings in which they lived. And so it was in Salamanca that I discovered the face of my male protagonist. His expression of sadness and dignity was exactly what I needed to be able to imagine the director of the Madrid Zoo.
I had written several drafts of the story before I went to Madrid to see the location of the old zoo for myself. Until 1972, it was situated in the centre of the city, in Retiro Park, and was known as La Casa de Fieras, or “the house of wild beasts”. Prior to my trip, I had found a photograph that showed the small cages where lions were forced to live. I realised that it would not have been easy, or practical, to kill people in such a narrow space.
In my research on other zoos, I had read that blockbuster bombs dropped on Berlin destroyed the cages of leopards and panthers who wandered, dazed and hungry, through the streets. For the purpose of my story, it had to be impossible for the big cats to escape.
When I went to Madrid, I saw the deep pit where the monkeys had lived. I realised that I needed to ‘move’ them to the lions’ cages and vice versa. If I did that, the big cats couldn’t escape, despite constant bombing raids. As I stood on the monkey pit’s low wall with its chest-high railing, I realised, with horror, that here it would have been perfectly possible for men to be pushed over the top.
Historical Fiction often draws parallels between the present and the past. Is this true of your story, and if so, how?
Anne: A zoo is a microcosm of the world. Human conflict brings about terrible suffering that extends far beyond our own species. When I wrote “The House of Wild Beasts”, I was not just writing about Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, but also about later conflicts in which animals were starved, killed by shrapnel or incinerated by bombs: Dresden, Baghdad, Gaza, Mosul, Damascus. A militiaman who’d risked his life to feed the last bear in Sarajevo told a reporter in 1992, ‘People made this war, but the animals had nothing to do with it. They’re only victims. People have people to look after them, to comfort them, but animals in cages have only us.’
We, too, are animals, in more senses than one.
Thank you Anne for sharing the inspiration behind “House of Wild Beasts” and providing us an insight into your extensive research.
As an added bonus, here is a YouTube video of Anne’s research trip to the zoo. This is a great way to feel even more connected to the story!
Born in New Mexico, Anne Aylor is an award-winning writer and teacher who has taught over 130 creative writing courses in the UK, Spain, Portugal, Croatia, France and the US. She is the author of two novels, No Angel Hotel (publishers: HarperCollins and BareBone Books) and The Double Happiness Company (BareBone Books).
She has had short stories published by the Arts Council of Great Britain and The Literary Review. An excerpt from her first novel was a winner in the BBC Radio 3 Short Story Competition. Her work has been shortlisted for the Bridport and Fish Short Story Prizes. In 2014 she won the Historical Novel Society Short Story competition for “The House of Wild Beasts”. This story and “The Man with No Hands” are chapters adapted from her novel-in-progress set during the Spanish Civil War, The Witness from Salamanca.
“The House of Wild Beasts” and “The Man With No Hands” are published in Distant Echoes by Corazon Books and is available through Amazon (click here).
About Distant Echoes
Gripping and thought-provoking stories of people, places and times past by writers from the Historical Novel Society.
A new anthology of nineteen award-winning and acclaimed historical fiction short stories.
Distant Echoes brings you vivid voices from the past. This haunting anthology explores love and death, family and war. From the chilling consequences of civil and world war, to the poignant fallout from more personal battles, these stories will stay with you long after the last page.
This selection of winning and shortlisted stories from recent Historical Novel Society writing awards includes “The House of Wild Beasts” by Anne Aylor (winner of the Historical Novel Society Short Story Award 2014), “Salt” by Lorna Fergusson (winner of the HNSLondon14 Short Story Award) and “Fire on the Water” by Vanessa Lafaye (winner of the HNSOxford16 Short Story Award).
If you enjoyed this interview and wish to hear about another contributor to Distant Echoes and their inspiration, check out my other author spotlights: