Laura Jean McKay is the author of The Animals in That Country, which in her home of Australia won the 2021 Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction. The novel then won the prestigious Arthur C Clarke Award Science Fiction Book of the Year. Here she discusses with Alex Lockwood the book, our relationship to other species, and being rebellious as a writer.
Did you feel rebellious when writing The Animals in That Country?
What an amazing question. I suppose I did feel a little rebellious. It seemed an impossible task to write a novel about human and nonhuman animals communicating. I felt a little alone in the task. Of course, once I scratched the surface, I found that so many authors have already forged those waters – George Orwell, Suniti Namjoshi, Eva Hornung, Will Self (to name a few particularly influential writers).
I thought writing The Animals in That Country would take about three years. It took seven. In a way I was rebelling against myself: how I was interacting with other animals – through food, clothing, speech and research – was violent and insulting. With Animals I threw the gauntlet to myself to see what I could do and what I could change, both in my life and my writing. Every sentence of The Animals in That Country was a struggle and it needed to be.
It is quite something to have won the Arthur C Clarke award, especially with the history of science fiction as a genre and all that it entails. Has winning the award changed your sense of the book at all, in terms of its location within the genre world?
It is the most wonderful thing! I was absolutely astounded to be shortlisted in such a strong year and then beyond words when I found out that I had won. I was in the backyard having a picnic – New Zealand had gone into strict lockdown – and I idly checked my phone. Because of lockdown it was really quiet across my neighbourhood so the neighbours would have heard this delighted screeching coming from my yard! I’ve always love speculative fiction, and many of my favourites have won or been shortlisted for the Clarke (The Handmaid’s Tale, The City and the City, The Underground Railroad, among others). While I was aware that I was leaning on science fiction conventions to write Animals, the work is also a realist literary novel. I wasn’t sure that it would cross over to a wider readership. It has been very cool to enter this wild world.
May I ask about something that perhaps you don’t get asked much, which is about the declaration at the front of Animals supporting the Uluru Statement? This frames the book powerfully, opening up a potential for nondominant readings; it gives permission for us to rethink sovereignty; it raises the spectre that the human as we usually understand it is normatively described as a ‘white, male, European’ being; I do not want to detract from the meaning of the statement in support of Aboriginal peoples, but I wonder if you could bring together the statement and the fiction that follows it in response to some of these ideas?
An Acknowledgment of Country in Australia is the first offering of respect to First Nations people who have lived on and as part of Country for tens of thousands of years. I say first because it is the basic first step that non-Indigenous people should offer as a show of respect and basic politeness. Unfortunately even that step is often ignored. I feel both ashamed for every time I’ve neglected to do it as a white colonist and at the same time proud to live in a country that has a strong Indigenous heritage and the opportunity to learn from cultural protocol. In regards to the book, it was essential that this statement should come first because it is the first thing that should be said at any gathering in Australia. A book is a sort of gathering of many stories, to be told to (hopefully!) many readers. So, I acknowledge the Countries on which it was written.
Did you always like Jean as you were writing her? Her arc is one where we come to like her more. Was this this same for you?
Ha ha! I don’t know if I’m supposed to say this but: yes, I always liked Jean. I owe the ability to tell this story to that character. Her stupid jokes made me laugh even in the final edits. Even when she was intentionally impossible, bigoted and unthinking… The novel was, frankly, really awful for a number of years. Jean saved the story. Then when Sue [a captive dingo] arrived, it just took off.
I love the way the languages of Sue and Jean seem to come progressively closer to one another’s through the novel, as they learn how to communicate together. Jean speaks less and shorter, more ‘dingo’ as Sue speaks more ‘human’. Am I right? Did this theme emerge from the beginning or through later drafts?
Thank you for getting that trajectory. I do what I call ‘washes’ (other writers use different terms for this), where I edit the whole manuscript focusing on a particular aspect and ignoring all else. One of these major washes was a power edit. Power is something that I’m always concerned with in my fiction. Who holds the power and why? Why should they? What happens if I shift it?
How do you think a novel such as yours can help change the relationship we humans have with other animals, especially us white colonial readers?
It’s impossible to know if and how something you write changes things for readers. But I do know how other people’s stories changed my ability to understand the world. Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, for example, changed the way I look at dogs. And who has read The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey and not been forever altered? In terms of the violence of colonisation and capitalism, speciesism and environmental degradation need to be included in these discussions. When colonisers enter any space (or even just sit at home consuming) we often aren’t choosy about the destruction we’re causing – whether it’s to people, the planet or other animals. It’s a wrecking-ball approach to life that needs urgent change.
How has the book’s writing and reception impacted your sense of being a writer and a novelist in particular, and how one can affect change, and indeed rebellion?
Writing Animals changed me – the work was really with me for ten years (and remains!). I came to the study with a fascination with other animals and came out having changed the way that I interact with all animals (human and nonhuman) on a daily basis, in the way I eat, live and speak. It’s such an honour to be read – especially when you’ve spent so long on something, writing alone. So the very act of getting something out there and receiving responses is thrilling. What other people do with that reading is something I can’t really know. I know only that other works have affected me so significantly – along with those I have mentioned, the writings of Val Plumwood, Marcia Langton, Deborah Levy and Marie Darrieussecq have been so influential. I love reading something that makes me hyperventilate with the rebellious potential of the words on the page. That’s so electrifying.
Changing our relationship with animals will transform our whole world, and the positive reception of your book is an implicit, perhaps conscious or still unconscious acknowledgement of that, especially within the pandemic. Do you think people are coming to see the fundamentally transformative power of changing our relationship with animals for tackling our human social and environmental crises?
Humans are such frustrating creatures: we love a challenge because we’re good at adapting (even if we truly stuff up most else!). I think we’ve given ourselves no other choice than to turn towards environmental and nonhuman animal concerns. We truly do need a radical transformation from super apex consumers to kindred animals who live as part of the world. It annoys me that we will probably, at the very last minute, find some way to save some of what we’ve exhausted because I’m not certain that we deserve this world. But I also hope we do, of course. There is some gnarly old hope left in me after all!
Animals Australia are the country’s leading animal protection organisation: a strong and unified voice representing millions of members and supporters. They live for kindness, raise awareness and shine light on animal cruelty to illuminate the pathway to a kinder world for all. You can support and donate here.
For more information visit http://www.laurajeanmckay.com/.