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Leonie Swann | The Interview

Listening to the silence of the lambs


Leonie Swann worked in public relations and journalism before writing her first novel, "Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story" (Doubleday, $22.95), narrated entirely by the woolly Irish flock of shepherd George Glenn. When the sheep discover George murdered in their pasture and notice certain humans behaving strangely, they follow their noses -- and their considerable wits -- to find the killer, while Swann, with great skill and exquisite humor, engages not only our sympathy for these creatures but also our curiosity. She spoke, in English, from her home in Berlin.

Q Did "Three Bags Full" start out as a sheep novel?

A I began with a concrete situation: a murdered shepherd surrounded by his astonished flock. The sheep ruminate about the new state of affairs and decide to sniff out the murderer. I had to do the same. Together we set off to investigate and, little by little, a short-story project grew into a novel.

Q Why sheep?

A I like sheep. They are among the oldest domestic animals and have shared our lives for thousands of years. Sheep are herd animals with rich social behavior; they mirror humans in many ways. These days most of us do not see much wool outside of our wardrobes, yet sheep metaphors remain embedded in our culture. Even those of us living in cities are familiar with the "black sheep," sheepishness, and other bleating imagery. On the other hand, maybe I just didn't give enough thought to chickens, alligators, leeches, or humans.

Q Why Ireland?

A I come from Bavaria, where sheep are usually kept in fenced lots. When I first visited Ireland, I was surprised to see so many of them roaming, like independent and rather wild creatures, alert and energetic, not at all the dull munchers. The sheep I met had very individual faces, and their calm, confident behavior impressed me. I started to wonder what was going on in their heads. And naturally Ireland is a place where stories grow like grass. . . .

Q What most surprises you about sheep?

A I found it astonishing to discover that sheep live in a society that rewards personal initiative. True, they like to follow -- but they do not always follow the same individual, nor the strongest or oldest ram. They follow the ones with the good ideas. Every shabby little ewe can draw the others if she is the first to discover a way through the fence.

Q Did you begin by thinking of these characters as humans, and then make them sheep?

A My characters were animals from the very beginning. I spent a lot of time trying to imagine how different it would be if one were a four-legged grazer; writing from an animal point of view is not unlike translating. On the other hand, I also wanted this to be fun. So the ovine heroes have names like Cloud or Melmoth and they discuss life, justice, and baby tomatoes. And I was happy when quite a few shepherds let me know that they could practically recognize their own flock in mine.

Q Did the sheep cast make the construction -- or execution -- of the plot more difficult?

A My detectives couldn't question any suspects. They lacked important human concepts such as "jealousy" or "money." However, this was exactly what attracted me to the idea. I wanted to find out what a flock of sheep could do to find a murderer -- and what a writer could do telling their story. Sheep have a keen sense of smell that can tell them who is lying, who is afraid, who is related to whom. I also allowed them some basic understanding acquired through a few cheap romance novels, which their shepherd used to read to them.

Q Is it important that we know only what the sheep know?

A Quite the opposite. We understand a lot of things that the sheep take in without comprehending: what a "last will and testament" is, that the butcher is not necessarily the murderer just because he smells suspicious. So the reader can recognize when the sheep's investigation veers in the wrong direction, and that double perspective allowed me to play with expectations.

Q Have you always been fond of animal novels?

A I liked [Richard Adams's] "Watership Down" and enjoyed Barbara Gowdy's "The White Bone," told from an elephant's point of view. And of course Michel Faber's "Under the Skin," not your typical animal novel.

Q Were you influenced by "Animal Farm"?

A I don't really know if I was. "Animal Farm" seems to me a parable, where the animals are chiefly human traits in disguise, whereas in my case, behind all the sheep metaphors, there are sheep.

Q Have you attracted eccentric fans?

A I received a letter from an Icelandic ewe (or from the shepherd writing on her behalf). She thanked me in the name of her flock because their shepherd had actually read some of my writing to them, and brightened their long winter evenings. This reaction encouraged me a lot, and I hope that many shepherds will follow his example.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, can be reached via e-mail at