When Rae DelBianco, author of the new novel Rough Animals, was in her first year at Duke, she had a momentary existential crisis. "I was there for a month when someone commented how soft my hands were. I felt so destroyed," she told Refinery29. Until that point, DelBianco's hands had been callused from years spent working on the Bucks County cattle farm she began at age 14. At Duke, DelBianco began the journey that would lead her away from the daily labor of raising steers, and towards a new kind of labor entirely: novel writing.
DelBianco finished her debut novel, Rough Animals, while living with her 88-year-old grandma in the months after graduation. It was published in June 2018 to rapturous reception, drawing comparisons to Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy. To simply describe the plot is to undersell the book's key quality — the way DelBianco's arresting, lyrical sentences seem to activate all five senses, plus your sense of fear.
Rough Animals follows two fraternal twins on a remote Utah farm, bound together by a dark secret. Their idyll is interrupted when a feral and mysterious 14-year-old girl shoots their cattle dead, sending Wyatt Smith into Utah's hyper-violent crime underworld to find her. We spoke to DelBianco about cultivating a massively popular Instagram persona, the parallels between cattle raising and writing, and how the Western genre has always undersold its women — until now.
Rae DelBianco: "It’s all because of William Faulkner. It takes a specific kind of person to like Faulkner — it’s very immersive, very thick, very gritty. I realised on Instagram, looking around and finding book posts, that I could find my community of Faulkner folks by using a hashtag. It was an incredible discovery for me to be able to build a literary community instantaneously. I don’t think there’s anything quite like books, and a love of shared books, that is able to connect strangers. If you love the same book you understand one another’s souls to a degree. My Instagram is an extension of myself and my art."
You started a cattle farm when you were 14. What did that entail?
“I got started raising goats at the age of 8. My parents don’t farm and don’t have any experience, so I built my base farm from scratch. I went to the seed mill, got a VHS tape, and watched the video on how to build an electric fence. [At 14], I would buy steers from a feedlot when they were about 600 to 700 pounds, then I would raise them to finishing weight, at which point they were sent to the butcher at 1400 to 1600 pounds.
“It’s been the most formative experience of my life. I went from struggling in school, being very shy, having a hard time socially, to having the experience of over the course of a year, taking this 700-pound animal that does what it wants with you, to being able to control an incredible goliath of an animal. You can see your progress. It was the first time I could see a concrete visualisation of what consistent hard work and creativity could do. It instantly changed my outlook on the rest of my life.”
How does that background and skill set bleed into your ability to write? Do you see overlap between those two passions?
“Absolutely. I’d say the incremental work is the most important thing. We'd have to halter break the steers in order to show them, which took seven hours a day. You’d get knocked down, you’d get your ass kicked, and you’d have to get back up again. Knowing that I could get back up again was such an enormous thrill. I’ve never felt that experience quite so similarly as I do with writing. You take something that is such an astronomically large task for an individual that it’s almost laughable to think about — one person writing an entire book, in charge of this entire world. Whether it’s through rejections or plot struggle, you become thrilled at the idea of how many times you can get back up again.”
Rough Animals is a book concerned with survival — who survives, who doesn’t — and the animals who never had a chance. What interests you about this as a topic?
“I try to look at my life today and my life through college, versus the life I had growing up on a farm. We eat pre-packaged food that looks nothing like the animal it came from. We don’t go to bed physically exhausted, we go to bed anxious and stressed. When you’re done with your day’s work, you close your laptop and nothing has changed on your desk. You can’t see the thing you’ve built. We take a lot for granted when we’re in a world that’s disconnected from the land — you see so much anxiety, dissatisfaction, and loss of direction. I love this idea of returning to a mindset in which not a bite of food and not a single breath is taken for granted.”
How did the Girl come to you?
“I spent some time in Bali after college with a friend working on a construction project there. Those towns outside of the tourist areas are enormously gang controlled, and they make enormous use of 13- to 14-year-old children. There was a particular child I was aware of that worked that area. The one thing this child had was an ability to predict human reactions. Every time I saw him speaking with an adult, you could tell he was in control in terms of being able to manipulate them and being able to predict their actions. It was a moment of pure empowerment in an otherwise marginalised life. I wanted to take the opposite look — how to completely liberate someone and empower someone in a very marginalised life."
So many of the writers you’re compared to are male titans of literature, like Denis Johnson. Typically men are associated with the Western genre. As a woman approaching the genre, did you feel any pressure? How did you see yourself fitting into the canon?
“I spoke to Claire Vaye Watkins about whether this book was feminist. I thought it was, but the women are very twisted and very flawed. [Watkins] said it was the freedom of menace. There’s an aspect of liberation in being able to do these extreme, violent chaotic things that the women in Rough Animals do without the fear of consequences, or with the ability to deal with the consequences.
“I have been challenged a number of times when I was in the process of approaching publishing. I got many questions about my right to write this. I can’t imagine anyone asking a guy. ‘Where did this come from?’ If I were a guy off the farm I’m not sure I’d get that question. I think there’s an enormous amount of question as to my ability or authority to write this. My authority, my agency.
Why would people question your authority?
“The Western canon is guilty of sexism. In the classic Western we see this dark rider who shoots something quite impressive before they take their hat off and reveal they’re a beautiful girl. Then they become a damsel in distress, and they’re demoted for the rest of the story.
“This is a simple inaccuracy. When I was raising cattle, it was the most gender-equal experience I’ve had of my life. More than college. More than most corporate offices. When you’re facing down an animal whose head weighs more than your entire body, the difference between your strength and a boy's is completely irrelevant. It takes so much more than a marginal difference in physical strength. All of the women who make lives out West have to be, and are, equally competent and equal agents in their own survival. When westerns diminish that, it’s bad storytelling.”