Attention animal lovers, nature lovers, literary lovers—the Flannery O’Connor Award-winning author Becky Mandelbaum has written a book just for you. The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals is Mandelbaum’s debut novel, and it is characterized by love the size of the Kansas sky, an indelible attachment to home, and enough dogs to comfort you through the complexities of a Trump administration.
The story follows the mother-daughter pair of Mona and Ariel, two women with deep passions for saving animals and even deeper frustrations after the 2016 election. They’ve been estranged for years after Ariel left their small-town Kansas home in search of something else, but a hate-crime at the sanctuary makes the news and brings Ariel back home for the first time. Thus begins a weekend of attempted amends and well-intentioned mistakes. There’s a tender softness in between peaks of chaos, and the tug and pull of Ariel’s two lives is relatable, even in the bad moments. You root for Ariel to land her apologies while backing Mona’s guarded resistance to them. The cast of characters is rounded-out with the Trump-supporting Fuller brothers who live next door, the kind-hearted Gideon who works on the sanctuary, Ariel’s city-raised, wildly naïve fiancé Dex, and the always-happy gang of dogs, cats, mules, chickens, horses, and even a pig that populate the sanctuary.
I was honored to interview Becky about her debut novel. We talked about how animals have shaped her life, how humor can support even the most serious of scenes, and how a book being published in 2020 can make a place in the world.
This book’s heart and soul revolve around love of animals. What’s your own relationship to animals, and how do you think that helped you write Bright Side?
Growing up, I was obsessed with animals, to the point where I was desperate to become one. I remember following my aunt’s Boston terrier into his stinky dog Igloo and praying that God would transform me into a puppy. I also spent many years trying to have telepathic conversations with my gerbils and rabbit. When I was a little older, I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian, a dream that fell apart in high school biology.
I think, growing up, a big part of my connection to animals was that I didn’t feel safe around humans. I was extremely shy and often bullied about my weight; animals were a safe space. They would never judge or tease me for how I looked. I still feel that I can be myself around animals in a way I can’t around humans. Animals have always brought me great comfort, and have taught me so much about unconditional love, joy, and acceptance.
I know you’re personally from Kansas, and both your first book Bad Kansas and now also Bright Side are set in the state. Can you talk a little about how place plays a role in your writing?
It’s funny, because I never wrote about Kansas until I left. I think a lot of writers experience this—we have to get out of the water before we can write about it. I was born in Kansas and lived there until I was 24. My family didn’t travel much, so I didn’t have much context. Kansas was everything. I remember writing an essay in high school about how my backyard was the most beautiful place in the world. Even through college, most of what I knew was Kansas. When I left to start grad school in California, it was a shock, not only because the world was much larger than I thought, but also because Kansas looked so different from the outside. For one, everyone in California thought I was a conservative Republican who grew up on a farm. True story, a guy once asked if there were a lot of cows in Kansas City.
Another shock was how much I missed it. I still miss it, and constantly think about moving back. While I miss my friends and family, I also miss the landscape. The open sky, the thunderstorms, the lightning bugs. The chirp-hum of crickets and cicadas. I even miss the humidity. I live in northwest Washington now, in what must be one of the most beautiful parts of the country—the town where I live is on the water, wrapped in mountains and in sight of a volcano—and still when I think of driving through the Flint Hills, there’s a part of me that cracks open with relief. Maybe my relentless homesickness is another reason I keep writing about Kansas, as a way to go back there, at least in my work, to keep my imagination in the prairie even if my body is far away.
If we can get a little political for a moment, the book addresses the Trump presidency head on, with no apologies. I often felt Mona and Ariel’s anger as if it were my own, because it has been my own at times. Over the course of writing this book, how did the ever-shifting political narrative inform your writing of the characters?
I originally wrote this book when I was a senior in college, back when Trump was just a rich guy yelling at people on TV (okay maybe not much has changed). I put the book away for a few years, and returned to it in 2016, while caretaking a ranch for literary dynamo Pam Houston. So there I was, surrounded by animals in a paradise dreamscape while an egomaniacal, misogynistic, unprecedentedly unqualified reality-TV clown was entering the highest office in our country. The two worlds were hard to mesh—the peace of the ranch versus the chaos spiraling out in the news.
As we all remember, this was a heightened time, no matter which side you were on. Things were changing fast. Every day was like a new paradigm shift. I wanted to capture that moment and what it felt like, in that setting, with the animals, these completely neutral, apolitical beings, while the world of humans burned around us. What I hope the book does is show us who we are when removed from our politics—that we’re always, beneath our layers of bullshit, just creatures sharing space with other creatures.
I also hope the book sends the message that being a Trump supporter does not make you a monster. I don’t think anyone wants their political identity to shape their entire personhood, and I think we fail one another when we make these assumptions. People on both sides are prepared to take up arms against those whose beliefs are a product of factors outside their control—where they were raised, what their parents believed, the culture they grew up in. None of that is Trump’s fault. It’s a failure of education, and we don’t do ourselves any favors by writing people off or making them feel stupid. Even if someone’s beliefs are dangerous or make us want to scream into the void, we will not accomplish anything by ignoring their humanity.
A friend of mine who’s a Methodist pastor once told me something I think of constantly: You cannot make someone listen to you unless they know you love them. I hope Bright Side is in conversation with this message.
How do you feel about this book coming out in an election year? This election year, of all years?
I think some people may cringe at the sight of Trump’s name in a novel—who wants to read more about this guy right now? That’s fine. Keep reading and you’ll see he’s not the central force of the book, just a shadow. My hope is that readers stick it out to the end, when the characters shift and gain texture, grow more complicated. All the characters are flawed, but they are all trying to be decent people. I hope, in this way, it feels honest.
There are some truly hilarious moments in this novel—smart, subtle humor that was just delicious to read. Is that humor a natural tendency for you, or do you consciously write toward it?
First, thank you. I always love to hear that readers find my work funny, because humor is a big part of my life, and I’d feel something was missing if my work didn’t elicit at least a smile or two.
As for consciously writing toward humor, I’m not sure I consciously write toward anything. I pretty much black out when I write, which probably has its pros and cons. One good thing about blacking out (on the page, not in real life, drink responsibly) is that I can’t take myself too seriously. I think, when we try to really control our sentences, our characters, our plots—that’s when we get into trouble, because things begin to feel unnatural and forced. They feel “Dramatic” or “Literary” or whatever other capitalized words we want to apply to “Serious” writing.
While this book contains a lot of “Serious” themes, I hope the characters come across as realistic, by which I mean they are as silly as they are serious, as kind as they are cruel, as self-aware as they are oblivious, and on and on. I think every book, if it’s about the human experience, should have some humor. Life, however bleak, is always at least somewhat funny. Remember when we were hoarding toilet paper?
This book has many facets that, on their own, would be hard to write about—estranged family, hate crimes, animal cruelty, the Trump election—and you’ve written a book beautifully combining all of them. What was the biggest struggle with all of that, either in the content or the process, or both?
Writing this book was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, creatively, because it was my first time writing a novel. I think of how many stories I had to write to figure out how to write a story (if stories are even things you can figure out), so when I think about this novel, I try to be gentle with myself. I learned so much from this book—it feels sort of like a school I went to, with different instructors and lessons and a weird cafeteria that smells like soup where you eat alone because you talk to squirrels at recess. I had to make so many mistakes in early drafts, and even now when I look back there are things I would do differently, which I take as a sign that I’ve learned.
Another difficult part of this project was blending the book I wrote when I was twenty-one with the book I was re-writing at twenty-five. I wasn’t the same person, and the world wasn’t the same world, so it took a lot of finessing (by which I mean many whole manuscript drafts) to reimagine the story and characters.
Maybe the best thing about writing this novel is the new appreciation I have for novelists, or anyone who finishes a book. Whenever I read a novel, even one I don’t particularly like, I’m filled with awe, that the writer finished the damn thing. Anyone who finishes a novel is a champion in my eyes.
The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals
By Becky Mandelbaum
Simon & Schuster
Published August 4, 2020