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When a new cow becomes an old cow
Laura Zigman talks to BookPage about her new novel
The hilarious novel of a weasel and the woman who loved him too much
Laura Zigman is thinking about her new novel, Animal Husbandry. She thinks it may mean the end to her love life. "I'm not going to get another date once the book comes out," she tells me, pokerfaced, "because I have a feeling what men are going to think. The men who have read it know that it's not male bashing," she adds quickly. "But I think that one of my fears is that men will just think . . . ." She sighs. "I just won't get another date. I won't ever again get a date."
It's the sort of darkly comic pronouncement Jane Goodall might make. Not Jane Goodall, the chimpanzee expert, but Jane Goodall the self-deprecating heroine of "Animal Husbandry," Zigman's comic first novel about a 30 year-old New Yorker who falls in love with one of her co-workers and then suddenly, without warning or explanation, is dumped by him just as they are about to move in together. Heartbroken, angry, and more than a little obsessed, Jane undertakes a whimsical investigation into the romantic and sexual behavior of the human male that culminates in a theory based on the mating habits of bulls. "If someone had asked me a year ago why I thought it was that men leave women and never come back," the novel begins, "I would have said this:
"New-Cow is short for New-Cow theory, which is short for Old-Cow-New-Cow theory, which, of course, is short for the sad, sorry truth that men leave women and never come back because all they really want is New Cow."
A hilarious, witty and surprisingly moving novel, the power of "Animal Husbandry" lies in the wry but often heartbreakingly vulnerable voice of its heroine. A voice Zigman readily admits is similar to her own. "I think I'm a lot like her," says the 35-year-old author. "There's a lot of emotional similarities and things." The novel was in fact inspired by an especially painful and abrupt breakup Zigman endured several years ago. "All of a sudden, before you know it, the person's not returning your calls," she says with a short laugh. "And the person has just somehow . . . something has snapped, the circuit breaker is out and they just panic." It was a particularly devastating experience, she feels, because of the intensity of the relationship and the suddenness with which it ended. "You meet someone with whom you connect on what you feel is such a profound level: physically, emotionally, spiritually. The whole thing! And it's really mind-altering to feel that kind of connection for the first time with someone. . . . And then it's taken away," she says with a wry smile. "And then you almost wish you hadn't had it. Because now you know what you're missing. So it's very painful," she says quietly. "Because you've had a taste of something and it goes away."
In talking with other women, Zigman heard countless stories eerily similar to her own -- stories of "hit and run" romances that would end suddenly, often "at the peak of passion" and for no apparent reason. "The guy would just disappear," she says. "Sometimes without even calling to break up with you."
It was such a universal story that Zigman felt she had to tell it. Knowing that it was a universal story, however, didn't quite prepare her for the willingness with which women shared their "dumping" stories with her when she told them about her novel. "You think it's going to be hard, that you're going to have to beg people to talk about it. But you know, everyone has a story."
It is easy to imagine women spilling their heartbreak stories to Zigman. A warm, solicitous woman with enormous brown eyes and an infectious smile, she has the sort of genuineness that inspires confidences. Dressed in black from head to toe, she looks like she never left Manhattan, where we are conducting the interview and where she lived until two years ago. "I just wanted a quieter sort of life," she says. For 11 years Zigman worked long hours in the publicity departments of book publishers, which left her with little time for her novel. "Completely burnt out," she moved to Washington D.C., taking a job at the Smithsonian which she quit after selling her novel last fall.
After years of publicizing other authors' books, Zigman is pleased to promote her own, though she has her fears. "To me there's nothing worse than the sight of wings being de-iced," says the novelist, whose book tour takes flight this month. She's also afraid that the man who dumped her might recognize himself in the character of Ray, though the book is highly fictionalized. "I guess my greatest fear is that he would think that I'm still pining for him. That's the embarrassing part," she laughs. "This happened a long time ago," she explains. "So it's not like I'm still carrying a torch." And what does she hope he thinks if he does read the book? "I don't know," she muses. "I mean, one of the things that women find so painful about this kind of breakup is that they feel the guy doesn't understand what he's done. I mean, obviously he hasn't committed a murder. And he hasn't raped a small child. But they've done damage," she says with feeling. "And a lot of them don't understand how devastating it is."
It is in her desperation to find an answer to why Ray dumped her that Jane latches onto the New-Cow theory, which allows her to explain away Ray's leaving her. Zigman too has felt the lure of theories. "I did a lot of reading," she says, "a lot of animal stuff, because I became completely fascinated with the notion that there was a reason why men do this. And I was going to figure out what it was. But of course you can't," she says. "Because human behavior is human behavior."
And with all her reading, does Zigman consider herself an authority on male behavior? Or as Jane styles herself, an "expert in the study and prevention of male behavior"? Zigman laughs. "I like to think I'm a big expert. I like to think: 'Ooooooh, I didn't like him the first time I met him because he was . . . !' " she says, wagging her finger like a self-righteous schoolmarm. "But just when you think you know everything -- you think you can figure them out and you know exactly what theyıre going to do -- they do something really wonderful! And really surprising! And you have to go back and say: 'Well, I can't think that.' Because they do surprise you. They do bad things but then they can be really good."
"Human! It's true! Actually, shockingly! Men can be really human!"
Laura Reynolds Adler lives in New York City and regularly interviews authors.
Animal Husbandry, by Laura Zigman Dial Press, $22.95, ISBN 0385319002
Audio Rennaissance, $16.95, ISBN 1559274891
-- (email@example.com), April 27, 2002
This book was made into the forgetable movie Someone Like You starring Ashley Judd and Ellen Barkin.
I find the tongue-in-cheek "New Cow" theory to contain just enough truth to be worth a sardonic chuckle but not much more. After all, we men are not total idiots. We know the every "new cow" is someone else's "old cow". We know that only gullible women perpetually permit themselves to be "new cows".
Most men go through a "new cow" phase but eventually pass beyond it. We come to appreciate the comfort of an "old cow", learning to cherish her unique moo and barnyard fragrance.
-- (firstname.lastname@example.org), April 27, 2002.
"Unique moo and barnyard fragrance." Lars, you are one romantic silver-tongued devil. Sure you're not Irish?
-- Peter Errington (email@example.com), April 27, 2002.
You have a way with words Lars. All of a sudden I wish I was someone's old cow.
I wanted to :) but it feels more like a :(
-- Debra (Thisis@it.com), April 27, 2002.
Debra, our politics may differ but we are simpatico on barnyard metaphors. Moooooooo.
-- (firstname.lastname@example.org), April 28, 2002.