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In ’Barn 8,’ Austin writer Deb Olin Unferth makes the case for chickens

Joe Gross, jgross@statesman.com
Austin author Deb Olin Unferth at her home. She has been vegan for 12 years, and her new novel, "Barn 8," looks at the egg industry. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Deb Olin Unferth’s path to veganism began 12 years ago with a mistake.

“I downloaded a podcast that I thought was about cooking chicken,” the longtime Austin author and University of Texas professor says. “Instead, it turned out to be about how chickens are treated, so-called free-range chickens in particular.”

Unferth listened to it and was so horrified she stopped eating chicken on the spot. “Then I listened to another one on pigs and another one on wool, and it just went on from there,” she says. Within a few weeks, she was vegan.

Years later, an image came to her: “All of these chickens, thousands of them, leaving this barn,” leaving the cramped, stressful conditions in which industrially bred chickens are raised.

Related: Best restaurants in Austin for vegetarians

The result is “Barn 8,” a fascinating turn for Unferth.

A young woman named Janey leaves her mother in Brooklyn to track down her absent father in Iowa. When that doesn’t yield the results she is after, Janey, finding herself stuck in Iowa, becomes an auditor for United Egg Producers.

When she becomes repulsed by the conditions in which even so-called free-range chickens live, she decides to liberate nearly a million of the fowl and starts recruiting various co-conspirators, heist movie-style.

This allows Unferth both to examine various aspects of everyday veganism and the poultry industry in general (see also the animal inspector, vegan punks and the heir to a farm) and remind the reader that chickens are highly trainable and can make for excellent companions.

She manages to do all this without becoming pedantic or dull; indeed, “Barn 8” is Unferth’s most nakedly entertaining read, a crime/heist novel from a writer not known for the same.

She knew she wanted to write the book, but she needed to learn about the topic. As part of her research, Unferth wrote a piece on the egg industry for Harper’s (“Cage Wars,” from 2014).

“I did a lot of interviews with undercover investigators, farmers, animal lawyers,” Unferth says. Which is to say, the book is fiction, but the personalities are in line with folks she talked to.

Still, the question must be asked: Why chickens?

“So many reasons,” she says. “They are incredibly sweet, have a ton of personality but are the worst treated of the farm animals. Who would want to be crammed into one building like that; who would want their life to be that? Friends of mine said, ’Don’t do chickens,’ but that just made me more determined to make the reader care about chickens.”

Nor is veganism a running theme for her work. Her first short story collection, "Minor Robberies,“ and her novel ”Vacation“ were both sharp acts of literary fiction published by McSweeney’s. Her most recent book, the 2107 short story collection ”Wait Till You See Me Dance,“ does not contain chicken-related material.

However, she does know something about dropping everything to join a cause. Her 2011 memoir, “Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War,” is about the time she dropped out of college with her boyfriend to join the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Which brings us to Janey, our reader identification lead.

“Once I had the image of the chickens leaving the barn, I had to find characters who would want them to leave,” Unferth said.

It seemed too simple to have some activists do it; she needed a person who was having a transformation as well. “She is leaving a life that has so much promise and comes to this place and finds this thing that others might not think of as important,” Unferth says.

It was also crucial that Janey be new to the world of animal activism (hence her role as a reader stand-in). “The reader might not feel the way I do about animals, so they need to be pulled along by someone who is not a vegan,” Unferth says. “She’s not an expert on this. These activists spend their life on it. Janey is the one who is coming in as a stranger to all of this. She is the reader. If Janey starts to believe it, then the reader will.”

In spite of the nature of the story, Unferth says it never occurred to her that she was writing a heist caper.

“I was thrilled when folks started calling it a heist novel,” she says. “But it’s very hard for me to think of it that way. A heist to me means something is being stolen.

“I don’t believe these chickens are things that can be owned.”

STATESMAN SELECTS

Deb Olin Unferth will read from and discuss "Barn 8“ at 7 p.m. March 9 at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd., as part of the Statesman Selects series. The reading portion is free and open to the public. Only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.