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Ramona Ausubel on her novel 'The Last Animal'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Eve, who is 15, and Vera, who's 13, are what Ramona Ausubel calls tagalong daughters to their mother Jane. The year before they lost their father in a car accident and are, quote, "sad and angry and growing and trying," as the novelist writes, tagging along on a research trip with their mother to Siberia in search of woolly mammoth bones. It's Eve and Vera, not the scientists, who almost accidentally dig up the frozen little mammoth body. Let's ask the author to pick up the story from there.

RAMONA AUSUBEL: (Reading) They realized it was a frozen baby. It felt like a rescue mission more than a discovery, and they did not stop but dug until their fingers were soaked and frozen. It was perfect. It was sad and beautiful and perfect, the size of a large dog. Pull, Eve said, and they reached their arms around the back, Vera on the front end and Eve on the rear, and they hugged it, this cold body, and they pulled hard, bracing against the cliffside until it came free with a sucking sound, and both girls fell backward.

The mammoth smelled of the beginnings of rot. It was starting to thaw. Vera pushed it off herself and stood. She was elated and disgusted, and there was a rampage in her chest. Is this happening? she asked. It looked like the animal might at any time open its big eyes.

SIMON: Ramona Ausubel, the novelist and teacher, joins us now to talk about her novel, "The Last Animal." Thank you so much for being with us.

AUSUBEL: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Let me get this out of the way. How do you feel about the irresistible comparisons to Michael Crichton's "Jurassic Park"?

AUSUBEL: (Laughter) I'm all for it. I feel like we are doing utterly different things. But I also - I appreciate so much the way that science asks these big what-if questions, and then the novelist can swoop in and start to imagine what it might have felt like to be in those places and lands and with all these strange new old creatures.

SIMON: And how much science did you have to learn and imbibe and then express to do this novel?

AUSUBEL: So I did a lot of research at the beginning to understand how CRISPR works and how gene editing...

SIMON: CRISPR is the - yes, OK, got it.

AUSUBEL: Exactly. So CRISPR is the gene editing. So basically we would take an Asian elephant cell, which is the closest living relative to a woolly mammoth. And we go in there just like a writer would and make our edits. We say, we want you to look less like an elephant and more like a mammoth. And we now know - we know a lot about the mammoth genome from finds just like the one described in that passage in the book. The science needed to be generally plausible for the novel for me, though the situation heads off in very fictional spaces.

SIMON: Tell us about the triumvirate at the center of this story - Jane and her daughters, Eve and Vera. They all share a great loss, and, I might add, a distinct sense of humor.

AUSUBEL: They do, yeah. I grew up with a single mom and a sister, and I was really interested in that kind of triangle, and the way that three is kind of a socially unstable number because two are usually in and one is out. And at the same time, the triangle is such a strong form. If you're building something, a triangle is a pretty good way to get it to stand up. And I wanted to look at the change in their family, that they were a family of four until a year before the novel opens, and now they are this new shape.

And they have to figure out how to individually exist in that shape and how to relate to one another across every different line. And it's utterly different than it was before. And I feel like the channels are all open. They're making - especially the girls are making jokes and making trouble and figuring out how to love each other and take care of each other in a completely changed reality.

SIMON: Yeah. I'm also, I must say, touched by their sense of doom. Some of it seems to be concern about the environment, but I can't help but thinking that their father's death turns them a bit in that direction, too.

AUSUBEL: Absolutely. I mean, grief is not - it's not theoretical. The grief that I know a lot of us feel about thinking about the future of this planet is present. And that's certainly part of what the book is about. But it's also about a very immediate kind of extinction with their own dad, who they can't bring back.

And I'm sure that a lot of us would relate to that question of if you could bring an extinct thing back, something that you've lost, would you do it, and what would it feel like to do that? So they are - the project is to bring back this extinct animal. But I think for all of them, what they're really longing for and reaching for is their dad.

SIMON: Yeah. Help us understand why Jane commits what I'll just call a serious act - OK? I'll leave it at that - which even she calls unethical, illegal, and has no chance of working.

AUSUBEL: (Laughter) We do desperate things when we are hurting and when we are tired of being unseen. So Jane is a woman, and she is a little old for her position as a postdoc in a university lab. She's got two teenage daughters. And people are not paying attention to her, and they're not listening to her. She's kind of used to this. She's part of a generation that maybe was taught to accept that as the way things go and look for a side door instead.

But her daughters have been pointing out to her how unjust they think it is and how much it's nonsense that their mother, who is smart and helpful and offering all these really good ideas and discoveries, is not being taken seriously. And between the shifty earth of grief and that anger, suddenly this very big move makes a kind of logical emotional sense. And she goes for it, and everything changes because of that.

SIMON: Yeah. I found the novel enormously entertaining, but it does raise some questions about if what we're doing is any more responsible than the people we hold responsible for harming the earth.

AUSUBEL: Absolutely. I mean, the ethical implications of reinventing a species - and it really is reinventing. It's not - we can't ever bring back the identical creature that was lost. And this is a complicated decision. And I think there are a lot of potential unintended consequences, which was what made it such a wonderful landscape for a novelist, because we have both the sweetness of that impulse to try to return something wonderful to the wild that we helped make extinct and the potential problems. And, like, that's where we writers like to hang out - the hope and the sweetness and the danger.

SIMON: Ramona Ausubel - her novel, "The Last Animal." Thank you so much for being with us.

AUSUBEL: Thank you so much, Scott. It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.