BERLIN — One local author is offering insight into early animal conservation and re-introduction efforts. But author Benjamin Beck decided to frame his experiences taking golden lion tamarin monkeys back to the wild in a creative non-fiction novel meant to appeal to children and adults, conservationists and laypeople.
Thirteen Gold Monkey is a novel with several parallel storylines. While the force of the plot focuses on Beck and other conservationists’ efforts to re-introduce the tamarins to the wild in Brazil, there was so much more going on under the surface, according to Beck, including the personal story of how he developed a relationship with his future wife.
“We were working together and we were falling in love. But we had this tension between us about what was the best way to re-introduce the monkeys,” said Beck. “So that’s kind of a sub-theme of the story, how our relationship developed.”
The novel begins in 1983, when the idea of what a zoo was began to evolve from just being a pleasant distraction into what we have today.
“The inspiration for the work came from, well my career was in zoos,” explained Beck. “We were challenged in the 70s and early-80s to change the concept of zoos from menageries to conservation meaningful organizations.”
This led to the project that serves as the foundation of Thirteen Gold Monkeys, the re-introduction of the creatures into the wild in the hopes of boosting their population. To prepare them for release, Beck explains that he and his colleagues attempted to train them to find hidden food in their cages at irregular hours to better prepare them to forage.
“We really believed that they needed to be trained to understand that food won’t be delivered twice a day in a pan,” said Beck.
Unfortunately, initial attempts to prepare the tamarins weren’t able to realistically mimic what their new environments would be like, and Beck said that many of the animals early in the program struggled to survive or disappeared. Improvements came quickly, however, like allowing the monkeys to roam the entire zoo in the summer and providing some food and shelter for them post-release, all of which greatly improved their chances for survival.
As important as the story is at face value, Beck tried to expand upon it further, which is where the “creative” part of the non-fiction comes in. The original 13 monkeys that are referenced in the story are given the gift of human speech by Beck’s narrative, the better to express what they would have been feeling going through such an experience.
Other creative liberties are taken with time compression and the occasionally blending of two characters into one, but Beck promised that the story stays true to the facts and is only altered enough to make it engaging and readable for any age.
“I came to write the book to make an approachable, accessible account of what I think is a landmark conservation program,” he said.
Despite having no experience with novels beforehand, Beck found writing Thirteen Gold Monkeys to be fun and free from writer’s block. Much of that, he admitted, comes from the fact that he has 40 years of experience in conservation, including more than 20 spent managing the re-introduction of the tamarins. While it was his first shot at a novel, Beck has been writing scientific papers on the project and many others for decades.
Once written, a process that took less than a year, Beck decided to self-publish his novel through Outskirts Press. Like many first-time novelists, Beck found self-publishing to be a useful tool but also a challenging one. Out of pocket costs might discourage a lot of people, he said, and once the book is actually available, self-promotion and generating buzz is a labor in and of itself.
It was worth it, however, according to Beck. He added that new resources like Saltwater Media in Berlin will make self-publishing locally an attractive option for writers.
“I wish that Saltwater Media over here in Berlin had opened a month earlier. They’re dynamic,” he said.
Overall, Beck is happy with the novel, which he wrote as a tale of adventure, a love story, and a fact-rich account of golden lion tamarin monkeys and the struggles of conservation. Too many books paint conservation in a bleak light, he added.
“When we talk about environmental conservation, it’s usually depressing and we’re always quick to identify bad guys,” said Beck.
But Thirteen Gold Monkeys tries to show that positive results can happen when people get together and try to preserve nature. Though the battle is never really won, Beck revealed that the tamarin population has boomed since re-introduction began in the 80s. With the momentum from his first novel, Beck has begun a second book, which will focus on chimpanzees.
Thirteen Gold Monkeys is available at Amazon.com in both paperback and e-book editions. Likewise, it can be found at barnesandnoble.com, including an e-book for the Nook, iTunes, the Beanery, Salt Water Media, and the Barnes and Noble in Salisbury.