Rebellion, Loss, and Fighting the Status Quo in ‘The Last Animal’

Rebellion, Loss, and Fighting the Status Quo in ‘The Last Animal’

When novelist and short story writer Ramona Ausubel, who penned Awayland and Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, came across a news story nearly a decade ago about a team of scientists trying to de-extinct the woolly mammoth, something about it stuck in her brain. These scientists wanted to preserve permafrost by introducing animals who were part of its natural ecosystem for so long and whose trampling of the snow helped create colder conditions in the ground of the arctic climates.

Now, Ausubel has taken the idea and run with it in her new novel, The Last Animal. The story follows Jane, a postdoc scientist working with a team of all men who are trying to revive the mammoth, and her two teenage daughters, Eve and Vera. The three women navigate the unusual life of traveling scientists and the very usual life of family dynamics, love, rebellion, and coming of age while they grieve the loss of Sal, Jane’s husband and the father of Vera and Eve. But after a summer in Iceland when the girls find a dead baby mammoth preserved in the melting permafrost, just when Jane is at the end of her rope with the exploitation and sexism of her lab mates, the three meet a mysterious wealthy woman named Helen who owns a menagerie of animals in Italy, including a female elephant. Jane and Helen hatch a plan to steal one of the lab’s mammoth embryos and implant it into the elephant … and it works. The Last Animal is a tender, funny, and fascinating imagining of a family grieving, of women rebelling against the status quo (or their mother), climate grief, and ultimately what it means to care for one another and this planet we share.

Shondaland spoke with Ausubel about outsiderness and going rogue, grief, sisterhood, and the many ways to love.

SARAH NEILSON: Was there a seed or a spark behind this story, especially behind the idea of going on a journey to resurrect the mammoth?

RAMONA AUSUBEL: The very beginning seed was a news story that popped up about eight years ago that said a team is working to re-create the woolly mammoth. And I was like, “Wait, we are?” We are humans. We have all the ideas. We have all the wishes and the dreams, and we have these big, powerful brains, and we make all kinds of things happen with them. At first, it just seemed like hubris, and I was curious about it. I felt like, “Can we just do something good with what we already have? Why do we always have to keep messing with everything?” So, I followed it. I didn’t really get going on it for a few years still, but any time we were anywhere that had a natural history museum, we’d go there. We went to the La Brea Tar Pits, Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. … I was just poking around and gathering mammoth-y things and thinking about starting a story about gene editing.

The Last Animal

The Last Animal

Credit: Riverhead Books

When I started to really write the book, I still started with that as the center. And I thought that it was going to be a novel about a lab that does this, but the more I got writing, the more I started to fall in love with the characters and the way in which they were outsiders in that scientific world and in the world in general. Jane is a single mom to two teenage daughters, and they don’t really fit. She’s a postdoc, and she’s old for that, and she’s a single mom, and she’s got these older kids, and she’s kind of awkward everywhere. And she’s a woman in science, so she’s not being taken all that seriously. Their outsiderness started to be really dominant in the story for me — it’s one of the things I was most interested in. It started to echo off of the idea of an outsider animal, this creature that once belonged and now doesn’t really have a place anymore, and even if we do successfully gene-edit an Asian elephant cell to look like a woolly mammoth cell and have a woolly mammoth — which we probably really will do some years from now — it will still be an outsider animal. It won’t really be a woolly mammoth. I thought that was juicy and interesting and cool, and that’s when the story shifted into its current form where rogue moves are made and things do not go by the book or in a lab anymore.

SN: There is this strong theme of rebellion and going rogue. What’s your relationship to the word or idea of rebellion, and how does it show up in your writing?

RA: There’s so much to that, to the questions of are you getting or are you following the rules? Are you doing what has been asked of you? Are you a good team player in the society? In some ways, I feel like maybe I’ve been thinking about that my whole life because I think I’m very dutiful and good. I want to do what people need from me; I will always show up and be helpful. But I also think I’ve always had kind of a rebellious streak. I think even in just being a writer and choosing to do this job … I’m taking it all the way. I’m not stopping. I’m not going to quit. I’m not going to just be the so-called practical. Because this is what I came to this planet to do, and so I’m going to do it. Maybe somewhere in there are the ingredients of wanting to still be a good player on Team Human, to take care of things, to take care of people, to be kind and helpful and good. And also to really listen to what matters and not follow the rules when the rules are bad rules. There are so many bad rules! We have so many systems in our societies that are unjust and not okay. And by following them, we just reinforce the entire system that we have to break down. So in the realm of being a good person, a lot of what we have to do is figure out which rules we’re not going to listen to and which rules we’re going to rebuild for each other.

SN: So much of the book is about grief — grieving the dad, Sal, but also grieving the world under climate change and grieving lost opportunity or taken opportunity in the world of science (and the world in general) that is so sexist and oppressive. Can you talk about the ways that this is a book about grief and how you got to that point where Sal was going to be dead?

RA: It started with those other forms of grief, for sure. I knew that it was going to be a book about grief on a planetary scale, and I also came to understand how much it was a book about the grief of not being heard or seen, in a way being invisible. “Invisible” sort of makes it sound gentle, like you’re hanging around and nobody notices, but it’s actually actively doing things that someone else takes out of your hands and is like, “That’s mine now.” It’s real violence. It’s worse than just being invisible. But those ideas, while critical and so important to me, to the project, and to the book, they also are really big and amorphous and swoopy. It’s hard to keep repeating them over and over. So, I felt like they were in a way this heavy weight that was pulling the novel down, and I needed something much more specific. The other thing that was going on as I was writing along is that Sal, the dad, was not really an interesting character. Eventually, I thought, “Oh, his job is to be an absence.” There’s this center of gravity that had been part of their family that was suddenly absent — all of a sudden, they had something to circle as a threesome. There was a core and immediate loss, and they were redefining themselves in relationship to him and to each other and to the world. And it was happening right now, so they could then attach to that really real and specific grief of a lost individual person in addition to feeling sad about climate change and everyday sexism. They had something to circle in an orbit, and then those other kinds of grief took on a lot more specificity and realness because of him. So, I needed to write him, and then I needed to disappear him so that he could matter in the story.

So, maybe care is redefined for me as opening oneself up to sadness, of being available for the sadness of loving something, no matter what happens.

SN: Can you expand on the idea of climate grief and how that shows up for you as a writer?

RA: It’s just sort of always there. I grew up with parents who were very involved in environmental stuff, especially my dad. So, I’ve had this understanding of what was going on and the kinds of possible solutions floating through my households since I was probably 8 years old. But it’s definitely different now because it feels so present and so much better understood by everybody around us, and the situation is worse. I still luckily have a lot of those solutions floating around. My dad and husband both produce a conference that’s all solutions-based conversations about environmental and social justice. So, maybe I’ve had a little longer to think and feel about it — I don’t know what everybody else’s childhoods were like, but I feel like it was part of my consciousness earlier than I think it was part of a lot of my friends’ consciousness. The good news about that is that it feels like it’s kind of mulched around, and I’m ready to allow things to grow out of it that are not only desperation. We each have a role, like some of us are going to invent the thing that does the thing that saves that river. And some of us are going to start a nonprofit and connect a group in one town to a group in another town. We’re all going to need to do stuff to help. I feel like part of me is looking for the ways that we will feel our way through, the ways that we will take care of each other as we keep going, the ways that we can think about the story. Finding some kind of hope or a bright thread through the middle of it is not tangential; it’s not optional. Because we have to keep surviving, and we have to keep feeling invested in the situation rather than disengaging, which is what was happening to me as I was starting. When I started this book, I was like, “Yikes, extinction? This is too much.” And then the pandemic started, and I was like, “Whoa, I really don’t know if I can keep going.” Before Covid really shut everything down, I was listening to NPR every day, and I could just feel my brain disappearing from me and feeling like everything is very bad. We cannot live! This is not an amenable, okay place for us anymore. But the more that that happened, the less that I was gonna be able to do anything about it. Because I was just becoming a solid mass of misery, and those don’t function. I have to find a different way to stand here. Because if I want to actually be hopeful and be part of anything positive, I have to believe in something. Believing is part of what the novel is about, for me. It’s some way of saying yes to something about humans and a way of saying yes to an idea of the future. We don’t know what it’s gonna look like, but we’re gonna have to show up and care about it one way or the other.

SN: Can you keep going on that and talk about how this is a book about care and mothering in many different ways?

RA: As I was writing Eve and Vera, they became such caretakers. They always were caretakers of each other, although in early versions of the story they were mostly caretaking in the way that they were sort of the sounding board for each other’s jokes. Which is a way of caretaking; always laughing at your BFF’s joke is totally a way to love them. But it wasn’t the only way that I wanted to reach for, so they became for each other really a holding place, especially in the grief with their lost father and the situation on the planet, which they’re much more aware of. Their mother certainly knows about it and is doing work in that field but … I feel this with my parents, and I would imagine my children would feel even more, that the older generation are going to get out of this. You are going to be here for some number of years, and then you will go on to whatever is next, and the rest of us are stuck with this forever. And it belongs to us in a really different way. I felt Eve and Vera come to that, that there’s no out and that this is it. This is their home, and the only way for them to make it is to find a way to care about it that also allows them to survive the difficulty of caring about something that you know is in peril. How to care when caring is dangerous is one of the questions that I kept coming back to. How can you keep falling in love with something knowing that that thing is not necessarily safe, but the only way to work towards its safety is to care about it and love it in spite of the pain that it might cause you? So, maybe care is redefined for me as opening oneself up to sadness, of being available for the sadness of loving something, no matter what happens. Which is true for family members — it’s true for the creature that arrives in the book — that to love something or someone exactly right now in the way that they need to be loved, even if it causes me pain. And then we’re going to trust in whatever it is that happens next. That’s all that we can do.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Neilson is a freelance culture writer and interviewer whose work regularly appears in The Seattle Times, Them, and Shondaland, among other outlets. They are an alum of the Tin House craft intensive, and their memoir writing has been published in Catapult and Ligeia.

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Rebellion, Loss, and Fighting the Status Quo in ‘The Last Animal’

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