Laura Jean McKay is the author of The Animals in That Country (Scribe 2020) - winner of The Victorian Prize for Literature 2021, The Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Fiction 2021, and the ABIA Small Publishers Adult Book of the Year 2021. Laura is also the author of Holiday in Cambodia (Black Inc., 2013) and a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Massey University.
Thom Conroy: It’s such a pleasure to have the opportunity to catch up with you and talk about your outrageously successful novel, The Animals in That Country (Scribe 2020). As your colleague in the Creative Writing program here at Massey, I’ve had the chance to witness a small part of the amazing journey that has been the writing, publication, and overwhelmingly positive reception of your debut novel.
Headland is a forum for new and emerging writers, and I’m aware that some of our readers and contributors may stare in gob-smacked awe at the accolades The Animals in That Country has garnered—not least of which is the Victorian Prize for Literature 2021, Australian’s richest literary prize—and wonder where this writing journey began. Would you be willing to tell us a little about your drafting process? You would have hoped for success, of course, but I’m guessing that you wouldn’t have entertained the possibility that The Animals would be such an off-the-charts triumph! How did one of the most successful books of the past year begin and what sort of turns did it take on the way to its final form?
Laura Jean McKay: Thank you, Thom – it’s such an honour to be interviewed by you for Headland. I so admire what the magazine is doing for writing in Aotearoa. Eight years ago – when I started writing Animals in earnest – I wouldn’t have dreamed that interviews like this would be possible. Answering questions like this is a really lovely way to get into the writing process because it helps me to think through the bigger ideas that I’m trying to grapple with, and also now to reflect on what I’ve done.
There are so many different ways to enter a story, but I would say this novel started with animals. I was staying at the edge of Melbourne on a writing retreat in the bush and I was thinking about this story where humans and nonhuman animals could communicate. One night, when I was walking along the dark path to the car, I came face to face with an enormous male kangaroo. Instead of the terror we both should have felt, we gazed at each other benevolently and went on our way. If that had been a human male I would have been very worried. But here was this encounter with a member of another species that left me feeling quite calm, in absolute awe and with so many questions. I wanted to put some of that feeling into my story. Later I had similar encounters with birds, chimpanzees, dingoes and crocodiles that deepened this feeling. Every time I have an animal encounter it opens up a whole new area of enquiry for me – never answers, only more questions. That’s a good place to write from, I think.
I have to say that my writing process is laborious and not necessarily recommended, but I’ll lay it out here because you asked! I really love writing the first draft: it’s messy and all my passion and ideas are in there, there’s character and voice and possibilities. And I really love working on final drafts, when the whole thing is in pretty good shape and you can focus on the text at a language and continuity level. The problem is that my first drafts are awful – almost unreadable. I know what I want them to be but there’s no way anyone else could. Early on in my writing life I would do a first draft and assume that publishers and editors would be able to see the ‘magic’ there and help me to get it to the final version. A billion rejections later I started to realise that editors are a lot of great things, but they’re not mind readers. They need something to work with. During that time a few different readers told me that I was a good writer, but a lazy one. They didn’t mean I wasn’t a hard worker – I wrote all the time – but that I didn’t put the effort into extensively developing early drafts. Years later, I am still that lazy writer who would like to move from the first draft to that final one in a snap, but I’m experienced enough to know that I need to go through that loathed middle draft stage (which, in the case of Animals took years and years) to get the work from inspiration to publication. This novel went through about three major rewrites (pretty much from scratch) and I guess hundreds of macro and micro drafts to sort out the narrative.
TC: My next question is about the relationship of writing craft and politics. The role of writing as a form of activism is on everyone’s minds. There’s a sense now that writing has to be more ethically engaged than it has been before, that the best literature of our age will arise out of a deep immersion in social and political causes.
As a Literary Animal Studies scholar, you will be all too aware that the statistics on the slaughter of farmed wild and domestic animals seem closer to speculative fiction than fact. For instance, about 3 billion domestic and wild animals are killed for human consumption every day1. That’s a figure I find hard to get my head around. Another statistic that floored me was this: If the population of the United Kingdom was killed at the same rate farmed animals are killed around the world, it would only take about eleven hours2.
My question, then, is this: how do your political aspirations factor into the writing of the novel? There’s no doubt that The Animals is a form of political activism, but in what ways did your political aspirations guide your writing? How intently were you focused on these ends and ideas each day when sat down to write and how did you negotiate the points where, say, you felt that one decision was required to develop the story and a different choice was needed to heighten the political impact? What guided you in navigating this tension?
LJM: I write character-driven stories because I think that as humans we read for character. My little formula for stories is to write: character and the character’s transformation through action. That’s a fairly classic way to approach a story, but the traditional way to read and write would dictate that the character must be human and the transformation must be heroic and the action must be about the human experience – don’t get too topicsy! These ideas have changed dramatically this century: they have had to. This time of catastrophic climate emergency, political turmoil, pandemic, #metoo and black lives matters movements and rapid extinction means that the writer’s response to the world around them is necessarily one of great awareness of crisis. It’s no surprise works defined as clifi, ecofiction and own voices writings are garnering such interest – readers and writers are naturally seeking responses to a rethinking of this world and who has power in it.
In Animals I felt that I was writing two novels: one a gritty realist about a woman who is struggling with her life through divorce, estrangement from loved ones and a reliance on alcohol. The other: a speculative fiction novel starring a dingo and a pandemic that means that humans can understand other animals. The first is the more traditional way to write (where the human experience is prioritised and the political thrust hidden), the second is more of what we’re seeing in novels that are more overtly political. Bringing these two novels together so that they worked as one narrative (without writing it as an alternating story told from several voices – which I can’t manage) was really hard and took a long time. That’s what I spent much of that difficult middle draft doing. But it wasn’t particularly conscious either – I didn’t set out to write the novel like that. It was only after writing years of drafts that I understood how to depict the complex state of the way we treat other animals and make it of equal importance to the human character’s journey through the novel.
Sorry I’m talking about craft again, rather than politics, but I do think that (for me) the way to tackle these big subjects is at the level of form and so: communication. How do I communicate human/nonhuman animal relationships and all the misunderstandings, violence, joy and suffering that comes with them in a way that will speak to readers?
TC: I don’t think it requires a spoiler alert to say that in The Animals in that Country a pandemic renders people able to understand what animals are saying. This an extraordinarily prescient take on a classic human aspiration: if only we could talk to the animals. In your novel, however, the experience of cross-species communication feels both remarkably convincing and remarkably strange. The language of the animals—inflected by the possible aural hallucinations of those suffering from Zooflu—is like nothing I’ve heard before. Peculiar, menacing, and as persuasively non-human as language can be. At one point, for instance, a spider says,
EYES ARE INSIDE.
Like I’m sure many readers did, I found this sentiment—if that’s the word—to be creepy, foreign, and, yes, very arachnidian. I could quote stand-out passages all day, but in another place, a horse says this:
tonight. So does
Yes, animals speak in your novel, and their language is a new and feral poetry, often as confronting as it is bizarre. I just have to ask, where does this language come from? Did you actually catch Zooflu at some point? What led you to imagine animals speaking in this way and how much was this aspect of the novel revised?
LJM: I did catch a version of zooflu! I was in Bali doing some work with writers and went for an ill-fated dawn walk where I was bitten by a mosquito carrying a virus called chikungunya (known as dengue on crack in the aid world!). The side effects weren’t that I could talk to other animals, but I did get the sense – as I was deep in fever, skin peeling off, totally delirious with pain – that I was inside Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis and most definitely turning into a mosquito. Once I gave myself over to that explanation, it was easier to become absorbed in the fiction that a shared language between humans and other animals was possible and that nonhuman animals could be the stars of their stories – it didn’t have to be about humans all the time. I was experiencing a moment where a mosquito was so powerful she had rendered me almost immobile with a single bite – that’s impressive! So when I tried to write animals ‘talking’ in the novel, I started fairly naturally with insects. I like working through a series of questions when I’m stuck in a piece of writing. In this case I had written many drafts where the animals weren’t really communicating. So I asked: what does an insect seem to express when they fling themselves across a room? Joy. How would joy manifest on a page? IN CAPS LOCKS. What does an insect want more than anything? And so on …
TC: The Animals in That Country was written as part of your Creative PhD at the University of Melbourne. We’re both teachers of creative writing, so the idea of writing a novel as a PhD isn’t all that strange to us, but I know some people still harbour reservations about writing as part of a degree program. Common concerns include homogeneity in the work of students, artistic constraints, writing work that is too politically correct or, for others, too tied to an intellectually colonialised institution.
Speaking from your experience as a student, rather than as teacher, in what ways do you think The Animals was influenced by writing it as part of a Creative PhD? Can you describe that process, including how you came to frame the novel in the critical portion of your degree?
LJM: I was really lucky to be accepted into a creative writing program with supervisors – Dr Kevin Brophy and Dr Amanda Johnson – that I already knew well and admired. They had been teaching me for years and knew my writing well too. Although they read countless words and offered incredible guidance on the novel work, they also knew when to let me be, to experiment and write my terrible drafts. Kevin would often finish reading a draft and say ‘just keep writing’ – and he knew that I would. There was a lot of trust there that I would work very hard and that they would support me tirelessly and that made a big difference.
What I needed real help with was the critical ideas I was working through. When you’re writing a novel that does engage with more contemporary models of response to global issues, the research can be overwhelming. I was part of a degree that required a very thorough critical output and, because I’m not naturally an academic writer, it was hard for me to frame this. With my supervisor’s support, outside research, engaging with reading groups and signing up to every academic writing lesson and boot camp I could find, I managed to work out how to write critically and creatively about interspecies connections. I think it would have been very hard for me to produce the novel that I did without that engagement and support, actually. That’s not to say that people have to study to write! Goodness no. But for where I was at that time – and through the incredible privilege of being able to access that level of education – it really was amazing to be able to work through those ideas with other people who have extraordinary experience and who are as concerned about the state of the world as I am.
A caveat to all of this: it was important not to let that critical research overshadow the story – I do still believe that stories can be subtle while packing meaning. So, while the whole novel engages directly with contemporary animal studies theories (what a mouthful!) it would be very hard for anyone outside of that scholarship to pinpoint where and how. Overall, I wanted something that everyone could read if they were interested.
TC: Finally, thinking back to those readers and contributors who may wonder where your writing journey began, can I ask you for some writing advice? Would you say to that beginner writer seeking success in the arena of contemporary literature? What habits, processes, methods, direction, tutelage, or tricks do you think are most important to grow as a writer? What should they drop everything and do today?
LJM: Success is a funny word because it means something different to everyone. I mean, if I wanted commercial success then I probably wouldn’t write a literary novel – I would go into genre writing or another form (and that still involves an element of luck). Even seeking critical acclaim … well it would be a weird way to enter into a writing life! It would be very odd to sit down at a computer and say, ‘I’m going to write a bestselling or award winning novel now’. I’d be setting myself up for disappointment. Even if I thought I was choosing a ‘topical’ theme that would be really popular, the book production process is so slow that it’s likely that by the time it was published, the world would have moved on. Instead, it’s more probable that I would think, ‘This is something that is important to me and that I need to write about and that I haven’t seen written in this way before – I’m going to try that’. When I started writing Animals, the pandemic subplot was such an unlikely and embarrassing notion that I often hid it from people. In 2019, it sounded cheesy and unrealistic. I could never have known that it was this aspect that would become important – and if I had somehow known it would have marred the writing.
Raymond Carver says (I’m paraphrasing) that there are much better and easier ways to make money than writing. He’s talking about the idea that if you’re not going to work very hard on your writing until it’s the best you can make it, why bother doing it at all? But I think it also applies to the idea of seeking money or fame from art. Of course, if you have money, you can buy yourself time to write more, and if you have fame, more people will read your work – these are wonderful things! If people want to (and are able to) make money from or find stability in art, they should. But I think there needs to be more in order to maintain the stamina for it: usually that’s a drive to say or explore something and finding the right art form to do it.
The best thing anyone can possibly do as a writer – emerging or established – is write. All the time. Keeping a writing journal, having a daily practice, working out the best time and space to write in and doing it, sharing writing with others, prioritizing writing over other things – these are practices that help writers to develop their craft. Writing is very often compared to running and it is a good analogy. Nobody would try to run a marathon without practice. They would train, build up strength, injure themselves and try different techniques, seek advice, build up mental stamina, become part of a running community. In the end, a marathon only takes about 4 hours to run. A novel takes about two to ten years. You can see what I’m getting at.
The other best thing you can do is read. When I was writing short stories I sought them out and read them. When I was writing an animal novel, I found other novels and stories where people had grappled with similar problems – I learnt from these amazing authors who had come before me. If I wanted to write game scripts or poetry, that’s what I would read. Alongside that, I would read for pleasure and also read outside my comfort zone.
If I’m writing and reading a lot, then when I do other things (washing the dishes, going to work, listening to music, talking with friends) my writing brain is open to new ideas. It’s very often that the best thoughts come when I’ve walked away from the computer, but I have to have put in the regular writing practice to allow these ideas in.