June 10, 2009 / 6:52 AM / 10 years ago

Father's gerbil obsession gives writer a voice

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Some children grow up living with their father’s obsession for golf or fishing. For Holly Robinson, it was gerbils.

As a child, Robinson accepted her father Donald Robinson’s job as a gerbil breeder as normal, but it was only as his health began to decline in his later years that she started to question how this former navy commander became caught up with the rodents.

His obsession began in 1965 when he read about “America’s newest pet” and bought a few pairs, but his interest grew and the family eventually settled on a 90 acre farm with nearly 9,000 gerbils which were sold for medical research and to pet shops.

Robinson spent three years working on her memoir, “The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter,” that has just been released. Her father died in January, aged 80, ahead of the book’s release.

The Massachusetts-based writer spoke to Reuters about her childhood and making the shift from magazine writer and ghost writer of health and science books:

Q: Was it hard to move from ghost writer to your own book?

A: “Not really. We can keep learning and get better and sharper at writing until our death beds. You learn from every piece that you write. I see my career as more of a staircase that has all been leading up to writing books.”

Q: Why this book first?

A: “My father was getting ill and he had had such an interesting life. My (five) children started asking questions about it and I had never really talked to him about it. He was a braided captain who had served in Korea and Vietnam but they were taken aback when I told them he had bred gerbils. That is when I started thinking that the life I had led that seemed so ordinary to me was not the life that most people know.”

Q: Did you ever work out why gerbils became his obsession?

A: “As a kid, my dad was one of those boys who was a collector. He was this geeky kid who took a mail-order taxidermy class when he was 12. He really was a scientist from the time he was born. When he first read about gerbils he had never heard about them before and could not find information from the library, so he ordered some and they arrived by mail. He started watching them and breeding them in our garage.”

Q: Was his interest based on science?

A: “He was the one who found gerbils have these natural seizures likes epileptic seizures. He made a movie of this because it was so interesting and pursued this working with a vet in Los Angeles so that they could be used in medical research. I had a sister with cystic fibrosis who was ill for a long time and she died at a young age. I think because he found it hard to talk about her and this was his way of contributing to the medical world.”

Q: Were the gerbils pets or a commodity to you?

A: “I always saw them as pets. I was 11 when he started keeping them and I had one in particular that I trained called Kinky, because she had a crooked tail. She would sit in my pocket when I rode my bike. Later we weren’t allowed to touch them because my dad did a lot of behavioral experiments.”

Q: Your family sold the farm several years ago to Charles River Laboratories but do you still have gerbils at home?

A: “Not until I started working on the book. I put as much distance as possible between me and gerbils for many years. In fact my kids even had hamsters. I was an employee on my dad’s farm when we had 8,700 gerbils and we cleaned cages, fed and watered them and carried them back and forth. By the time I went to college I majored in biology but I realized that this was not for me. But three years ago, I got back into contact with gerbil breeders and that helped. Now I have three gerbils.”

Q: Did writing a memoir help you get to know your father?

A: “Yes. As children we live a parallel existence to our parents. Your parents are there every night at dinner but you don’t really think about what they are doing as people.”

Q: What was your biggest challenge to writing this book?

A: “I think having faith in myself that I could do it. You have to be passionate about a book to stick with it. It is a tough market. The money isn’t always there to support you and you have to do other things along the way to support yourself so you have to keep telling yourself every day that it is worth it.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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