Laurel Braitman is author of Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves (Simon & Schuster, June 2014). She just completed her PhD in history and anthropology of science at MIT and has written for Pop Up Magazine, The New Inquiry, Orion and other publications. When she isn’t writing, she is organizing concerts for gorillas, sea lions and buffalo. She is a TED Fellow and an affiliate artist at the Headlands Center for the Arts. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito, California.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them… ?
It depends on my mood. But I usually just say I’m a writer. People then very quickly try to find out if that’s “how you pay your bills.” I suppose they think this means that you’re a “real” writer, whatever that means.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
The aspects of contemporary adult life that include calling large businesses with phone trees, paying parking tickets on time, dealing with insurance companies, or organizing receipts for taxes. Somehow writing a book or finishing a PhD seems a thousand times easier for me than taking care of these things.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
I really have no idea; I did not follow a clear path through the woods that I could delineate for someone else. There are no breadcrumbs I can drop. I suppose though I would tell them to read as much as they can and also try to explore something that they are genuinely interested in that not that many people know about already.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I feel successful in certain ways. I feel that I know how to follow a story and it’s taken me years to even figure out what a story is, as opposed to an interesting topic. I have completed a few big things that I set out to complete. I know I can work very, very hard, day after day. I am proud of this. But I am not sure I would say I am successful. I would say I am successful at trying to be successful. It’s a work in progress, leading a meaningful life and trying not to get too caught up in things that don’t actually matter. This is a project for the ages.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Anything featuring a capybara, particularly those that ride in cars or have pets of their own (see below). Please note however, that I don’t believe having exotic pets is a good idea.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I have wanted to be a writer and to be around animals since I started forming conscious memories. For a time I thought that vegetarian/veterinarian were the same thing; this must have been because they sounded similar and I couldn’t yet read. In any case, I wanted to be an animal healer who wrote stories and didn’t eat her pet rabbits. This is pretty much where I have wound up. Except that I write about animal healers, instead of filling my house with my own rescue hamsters.
My heroes growing up were half literary characters (Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pippi Longstocking) and half actual women (Jane Goodall, Amelia Earhart, and Laura Ingalls Wilder counts here too). Also, my parents. I looked up to them massively and still do.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
All of my ideal weeks are in the wilderness. Especially Alaska in mid-summer, near a salmon stream. But I also love the American Southwest, the coastal forests of Oregon, Point Reyes, the Mendocino Coast, the Sespe Wilderness in Southern California, Baja deserts… I actually have not met a wilderness I couldn’t happily spend a week inside of. I include New York City by the way. It’s very much a wilderness area with its own endemic wildlife.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
I went to the Lusty Lady once to see how I might stack up. Alas, I am not gifted with the ability to slither around like that. I would look like a snake with seizures. That said, I will try anything once.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
What’s wrong with society today?
I do not have enough time to answer this question but I think it boils down to most people ignoring their own mortality. This results in weird priorities and an epidemic of disconnection.
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
How many times do you fall in love each day?
I fall in love constantly… with intelligent passionate men and other animals, also with good ideas, and bits of cheese.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
The least interesting thing about art is trying to define it. I don’t waste a second on that. But I know it is necessary. It is a fundamental part of our very humanity. It is the way we connect to one another and sound the alarms.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on my next book in my head. It will also be about animals, by which I mean it will also be about being human. And there will be dogs.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Affordable housing programs for anyone who does not work in tech.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
The other day on Muni I stood next to a man who was aggressively antisocial, but the way that manifested was via his tiny travel alarm clock. It went off constantly for an hour, in fact maybe it’s still going off because it was still beeping when he left the bus. It drove everyone around him increasingly bananas but he refused to shut it off. It seemed like some small protest at being a human among other humans. And it was very effective.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
This seems like a question about Twitter, which I still haven’t figured out. I am afraid I can’t do much with 50 words. With 50 dollars I’d take someone out to eat.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Coastal sage in the Marin Headlands, whatever is being cooked by my friends Samin Nosrat and Cal Peternell (both chefs in the Bay Area), the smell of avocado blossoms on my family’s ranch where I grew up. They’re farmers. Oh, and horses.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
Going to see the Mountain gorillas while they munch on leaves in their native forests. And maybe not just once, because I think you can only be with them for an hour, but enough money to be able to see them a few days in a row.