KEARNEY — Author Carson Vaughan invested a decade picking up the threads of a story that highlighted a failed zoo in northeast Nebraska.
“If I thought the issues in this book were endemic to Royal or to only Nebraska, I wouldn’t have spent ten years of my life looking at the story,” the Chicago-based author said while on a book tour in Nebraska. “What interested me more was the universal themes that kept popping up the further I dug into the zoo.”
He ticks off themes like isolation, obsession and failure.
“All of those things felt like issues that people in small towns and big cities alike deal with everyday,” he said. “And anybody who has spent time in a rural area will recognize a lot of the characters in this book. What I’ve been hearing with a lot of people who have read this book, people who are not connected with Nebraska at all, they’ll say, ‘I grew up in Pennsylvania — or I grew up in Iowa — but I recognize that family or I recognized that character.’”
Vaughan writes about the true story of Dick Haskin, a man who planned to assist primatologist Dian Fossey in Rwanda. After her murder in 1985, Haskin returned to Nebraska with an adolescent chimp and established the Midwest Primate Center in a trailer home.
The facility later became Zoo Nebraska located in Royal about 55 miles northwest of Norfolk.
Vaughan will talk about his writing and read selections from his book, “Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream,” during a program at 7 p.m. Thursday at Kearney Public Library. Admission to the event is free.
Vaughan pondered the role of ambition in everyday life.
“I think it might be more accurate to call it drive, but for some people like Dick Haskin, the main character in this book, that drive took over and it became all encompassing,” Vaughan said. “He needed to see that through. That took over his life. I’m not sure but I think we’re all born with the need or the desire to chase a goal, but it’s stronger in some people than in others.”
Nebraska writer and professor Joe Starita, author of “I Am a Man,” wrote about Vaughan’s work: “With the deft touch of a novelist, Carson Vaughan brilliantly weaves an intricate, intimate, in-depth look into the heart and soul of a small Nebraska village.”
Vaughan also sees failure as a component of the story he tells of Zoo Nebraska.
“I thought it was a much more realistic version of the American dream,” he said. “To show someone who was trying his absolute best and still fell short, that becomes a test for a lot of people. If they chase that dream and they fail, some people will take that as a sign that they weren’t meant to do this. Another personality type will shoot for that dream, fall short and find a way to pivot and start again.”
Things at the zoo came to a head in 2005 after three dangerous escaped chimpanzees were shot and killed.
As for his writing style, Vaughan gives credit to Starita, his former academic advisers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“He read an early version of this book when I was still a senior in college,” Vaughan said. “Joe Starita is into history but he’s also a journalist. He knows how to write clearly and concisely — and he knows how to dig for those universal themes. Joe taught me that there’s a way to spend enough time with people to tease out those more cinematic elements of their lives.”
Vaughan also credits writer Gay Talese with inspiring him in his research methods. Talese called his interviewing habits, “the art of hanging out.”
“A daily journalist does not have the time to spend weeks or months or years chasing someone for a story,” Vaughan said. “That’s what this book required.”