Interviewed by Valerie Waterhouse
Read Perry Lopez’s fiction piece, Happy Hunting Grounds
Valerie: Your story, Happy Hunting Grounds, is based on the 1909 safari of Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt through East Africa. Why is this relevant now?
Perry: I’m not a culture writer, and topicality is never my foremost concern in a story, but it happens that this one does contain elements that I think apply to our present moment. Beyond the fact that big game hunting is an ongoing and insidious practice, as is the impulse toward sublimated racial violence and the larger drive to dominate the natural environments of other peoples, there is at the center of the story a case of a young man choosing the wrong hero to worship that I feel bears strongly on our present climate where healthy masculine idols have become increasingly scarce and the unhealthy ones increasingly destructive.
Theodore Roosevelt’s racism and white supremacist positions are well documented. He died 100 years ago, in 1919. In this centenary year, have his views been given enough emphasis?
That Theodore Roosevelt had his bigotries is beyond question. The prominence those bigotries should have in his legacy is less certain for me. However odious his private beliefs (like, say, on the necessity of white domination in Africa), they found relatively little expression in his policies, with the glaring exception of the Roosevelt corollary, the great sin of his administration, which I’m still not sure arose more from a sense of racial supremacy than of pure imperialistic cupidity, hard as the two may be to distinguish between in practice. So, if it isn’t too much of a cop-out, I would simply say — no, Teddy’s racism has not yet been given due emphasis in his popular image, having come as a rather unpleasant surprise to someone who idolized him before discovering those views, and who has since written a story as a way to disabuse himself of the worship of a man who, if not a simple villain, is not a safe star to guide one’s life by.
Is this story in some way autobiographical? Is it about your own feelings as a young man regarding a fallen hero, as well as Kermit’s increasing disillusion with his father?
While I don’t share Kermit’s problems in either their nature or severity, and I have a healthy fear of the word “autobiographical” being attached to any of my fiction, I will say that I felt enough of a connection with Kermit to make writing the story largely intuitive. I don’t think that connection was any more or less personal than that which any writer needs to achieve to render their character in good faith, but my own experience of idolatry and disappointment in Theodore Roosevelt did serve as a useful emotional tuning fork for capturing Kermit’s voice.
Can Theodore Roosevelt be held responsible for Kermit’s suicide?
No, not in my opinion. Whatever my deep reservations about Theodore’s character, I do not lay Kermit’s death at his feet, just as I would be loath to blame the suicide of any mentally-ill child on an imperfect parent who did their best for them. I do not doubt for an instant that Theodore and Kermit loved each other truly. Nor do I doubt that Teddy had only his son’s well-being in mind when he passed along the philosophy of “the strenuous life,” which had rescued him from his own personal demons, and which he must have honestly believed could save Kermit from his depression.
In East Africa, Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt personally shot 512 animals (out of 11,000 large and small specimens), many of which were stuffed for the Smithsonian Museum. Yet Theodore is also remembered as a conservationist, who founded five American National Parks. Can these two Theodore Roosevelts be reconciled?
In the man’s own mind, certainly. I don’t believe Teddy found any contradiction between his sincere impulse to protect nature and his lifelong taste for violent sport. And I don’t place Teddy in the same class as the rich, disgusting assholes who will give a hundred thousand dollars to a wildlife foundation for the right to shoot an endangered animal, all so they can have both the satisfaction of killing something precious and of sneering in the faces of those of us who would rather they didn’t. Theodore loved nature, and found the most natural way to celebrate that love was by killing its creatures. Is there a bit of telling cognitive dissonance there? Sure. But the most important fact, as I see it, is that his efforts toward preservation were earnest and enduring, and that eradication was never the object of Teddy’s hunting, unlike those Great White Hunters like R. J. Cunninghame who, when not employed leading the wealthy on safaris, would be hired by landowners to cull whole generations of wildlife.
The description of Kermit, Theodore and the dead buffalo brings to mind images of Donald Trump Jr posing with an African buffalo he shot. Why are US presidents and/or their sons so fascinated with killing large animals?
I’m no psychologist, and again no culture writer, but my best guess would be that it has something to do with the need to oversize themselves. When one occupies a position of disproportionate power, especially (as in the case of the children of presidents) when that position has not been personally earned, I imagine the ego needs a steady diet to keep it from shrinking to its proper scale. So why not feed it a dead rhino or two?
Do countries such as the UK and USA do enough to own the negative legacies and responsibilities of the colonial past? Is today’s widespread anti-immigration sentiment in the USA and Europe connected in any way?
An absolutely essential question, but one I feel unequipped to answer beyond saying No and Yes, respectively. While it is tempting to say that we have improved on taking ownership of our colonial misdeeds due to their near omnipresence in our art and cultural discourse, the actual substantive policy changes these dialogues have brought about have been minimal to my thinking. However much worthy artwork has been produced addressing the issue, real ownership of our colonial past demands a practical change in the way we treat other nations and peoples, and the USA continues to operate as it always has.
You have used poetic licence to stretch the historical ‘truth’ at times. Where does fact end? And fiction begin?
This was a line that you helped me discover, honestly. To give the interested reader some insight, the editing of this story involved a discussion between the two of us on what does and does not constitute sanctionable inaccuracies in a piece of historical fiction. What we ultimately decided was that interiorities and events can be fabricated in service of advancing a story (no meeting between the Roosevelt expedition and a German from Shark Island took place, for instance), but the basic realities of the world should be respected, or else risk losing the confidence of the reader. In this story’s case, that involved improving accuracy regarding the behavior and locality of Africa’s flora and fauna. Seussian that I am, I tend to prioritize the ring of a sentence over its accuracy. Hopefully, the final version is closer to the basic facts (and only a little less alliterative).