Author interview : Arthur C. Clarke Award winner Laura Jean McKay

Image of a typewriter reading "Author Interviews" with an image of novel "The Animals in That Country"
Headshot of award-winning author Laura Jean McKay.
Massey University lecturer Laura Jean McKay picked up one of the most prestigious awards in the Science Fiction World last year for her remarkable debut novel The Animals in That Country.

The Animals in That Country is a speculative fiction work about a pandemic that causes inter-species communication.  A stunning work; McKay’s debut novel is clever and darkly humorous, with carefully drawn characters and a deep empathy for some of the most important social and environmental issues of our time. One of the most remarkable aspects of this novel is the way in which Laura portrays the consciousness of our fellow creatures, exploring deeply into the limits of how we as humans can understand and comprehend (or not) other types of consciousness.

In a weird example of synchronicity, another of one the novel’s core themes is that of a contagious pandemic. Written before COVID-19, it was Laura’s own experience of contacting the chikungunya virus at a writers festival in Bali that inspired this aspect of the book.

To celebrate her exhilarating and profound work, we approached Laura about the possibility of a written interview, to which she very graciously agreed. We wish to extend our heart felt thanks to Laura for taking the time to do the below interview, and for providing such illuminating answers to our questions. You can borrow The Animals in That Country from the library by clicking the link at the end of this feature.

The Animals in That Country is a truly remarkable achievement on so many levels. It is fierce and funny and brilliant.  In the novel, after being infected by a virus, people start to understand animals. Some people embrace this new ability, and some fear what they will hear from the animals when they are talking. I say talk as shorthand, the animals don’t really talk, they more communicated through “hallucinogenic haikus”. In some ways this book might seem a bit bizarre, but is also strangely still very believable and in places also funny. Can you tell us a little bit about the creative origins of the book? 

The Animals in That County came together (or came at me?) in a few ways. The whole time I was writing the book I was asking: ‘what would happen if we could finally understand what other animals are saying?’ and this really came from the encounters I was having with other animals – a kangaroo, a chimpanzee, a mosquito (who I’ll talk about later). In Australia, I came face-to-face with a full-size rouge male kangaroo on a dark bushy path at night and had this lovely moment of benevolence, where we regarded each other calmly and then went on our way. I thought, if I could have this moment with another species, what would happen if we could actually communicate clearly? I had a similar experience in Florida, where I went to meet the ex-show chimpanzee and orangutan stars of films and TV, like Mickael Jackson’s old companion chimpanzee Bubbles. Often these stars are cast out to road-side zoos and laboratories when they grow too big for show biz. There are a few sanctuaries in the States who track them down and offer a home. I wandered through the enclosures at one such centre, feeling such a recognition for chimpanzees who are really very very similar to us in DNA and I thought about the terrifying lives they’ve had at the hands of humans. Would we treat them differently if we could communicate?

Using this animal Haiku allows you to communicate some very beautiful and, for the want of a better description,  alien views of the world? Can you tell us how you went about getting to those strange animal places? Was it just pure raw imagination?

So funny to see the nonhuman animal dialogue described as haiku! Haiku is gorgeously structured, so I wonder if it could possibly apply to what I have done? There is of course an intentionality to the dialogue, but it’s more to do with font and punctuation than poetic structure. I tried to make the rhythm as awkward as possible to move the dialogue out of a human state (while still using written English). The insects came first, especially the mosquito. I thought, how does a mosquito express themself on a page? CAPSLOCK of course. After that came the birds speaking in italics. Then Dingo Sue (in parenthesis). That sort of structure gave me some parameters to play with the idea of nonhuman dialogue.

There is a real balance in the novel between the humans understanding what the animals are communicating and incomprehension of those messages. How did you decide where that balance rested, in other words, when to make something understandable and when to make it alien and incomprehensible?

I was really conscious of avoiding the nonhuman animals as prophetic characters sent to the humans to solve their problems, or of being too poetic or meaningful. Characters need to be full on the page and being full is to have a life beyond the other characters and beyond the scope of the story. The disease in the novel – zooflu – enables the humans to understand that other animals are communicating and to translate that into human language, but it doesn’t give humans extra empathy, powers of observation or the ability to look beyond themselves. The nonhuman world is there right in front of us all the time and many from my anglo tauiwi cultural background don’t listen to this world or to the people – especially First Nations People – who do understand that humans are part of a bigger picture. Climate change, mass extinction, factory farming and habitat destruction prove that. I didn’t see a reason that many humans would completely listen even if they could finally understand other animals!

Jean, your lead human protagonist, is a fabulous creation and not without her flaws. Can you tell us about how you went about creating her?

Jean was a long time coming. For hundreds of thousands of words she was a middle-aged man, then a young woman who worked in a lab, then a cat, then a farmer. I needed someone who had the strength to hold the weight of this story and none of them could bear it. I realised that only a middle-aged woman – someone who had been through life and has learned to lose and love with a certain ferocity – could carry this narrative. Like the other animal characters, Jean needed to be full and – as humans are flawed – so too is Jean. I wanted her to love fiercely, be loyal to a fault, be curious and brave. At the same time she needed to be self-absorbed, substance-reliant, bigoted and unable to listen.

Moving on from that, can you tell us about Sue, your lead animal protagonist, and the relationship between Jean and Sue?

In western literary criticism, animals are often seen as mirrors for human meaning. But in many books (including Animals), humans can be mirrors for other animal meaning too. Jean and Sue reflect each other. They are different but they’ve experienced similar things. They’re both females of their species dealing with loss, searching for kin. I was struggling with how to find Jean, but when Sue appeared on the page (influenced by dingoes I met in the Northern Territory) she made sense of Jean. They took off together.

I know you became ill with Chikungunya (a severely debilitating mosquito born virus) just before you started writing. Can you tell us how this influenced book and its creation?

The other game-changing animal encounter I had was with a mosquito in Bali who bit me (the nerve!) and gifted a disease called chikungunya, which brought fever, delirium and serious arthritis for months and long-term symptoms for years. The most amazing thing about that was that I learnt how very powerful this tiny creature was. If a small creature could be that impactful in life, what could they do to the page?

Can you tell us how long the novel took to write, and the difficulties of completing a work over that sort of time span?

The novel took about 7 years to write (through to publication) but I was thinking and writing around it for three years before that. I did a PhD in Creative Writing in that time and the novel was part of that. The beauty of taking that long on a work is that you have space to restructure and build. I rewrote the novel completely three times. There were a few years (years!) where the book was awful and messy – I could see where I wanted it to be but it took a long time to get there. It was always going to be a slow write. Partly that’s because it’s three books: it’s a gritty realist novel about a woman struggling with life; it’s a speculative fiction novel about a world where humans can understand other animals; and it’s a nonhuman dialogue. I’m not a clever enough plot writer to do an interweaving structure told from different voices chapter by chapter so I had to make it all work at once. And apparently, that takes ages!

Your portrayal of animals in the book is, in many senses, profound, Can I ask you how you avoided the pitfall of Anthropomorphising the animals?

My initial technique for avoiding anthropomorphism was to render them silet on the page, with the humans reporting their meaning. That was terrible. Then (through my research into literary animal studies) I saw that it’s not anthropomorphism that’s the problem, but anthropocentrism: the centering of humans to the detriment of all else. As the plot goes on, I increasingly shove the humans to the side and the nonhuman animal dialogue comes through. It’s still anthropomorphism, but (I hope) a respectful one that honours the agency of all characters.

The book is about a viral pandemic and features lots of the things we have sadly got used to, for example mask wearing and fear of infection. However, the book was conceived and written long before the present Covid 19 outbreak, which is both strange and startling. Can I ask you where you got your detailed knowledge of endemic viral outbreaks from?

In another life I was an aid worker doing communications writing for international aid organisations. I started in response to the 2004 tsunami and worked on lots of emergencies, including the SARS epidemic. Even though that wasn’t a conscious experience in writing Animals, it was something I gravitated towards. In bald craft terms I needed for a lot of characters to gain the power to be able to communicate with other animals at the same time – an outbreak with weird symptoms was familiar to me. I could write that. At the time though, I kept that plotline secret from people because it seemed too far-fetched. Now of course …!

The title of the book comes from a Margaret Atwood collection of poems, can you tell us why and what led you to choose it as the novels title?

For a long time the novel manuscript was simply called ‘Animals’. I came across Atwood’s incredible poem after a few years. I love how she talks about animals in the poem as having ‘the faces of animals’ (animals as animals) and later ‘the faces of people’ (the categorisations we attribute to them). I was so thrilled when Atwood granted permission to use a line from the poem in the epigraph, so that people could see the original context and hopefully seek out the poem themselves.

Can you tell us about authors you admired or influenced you as you grew up?

Our household in regional Australia was a big Footrot Flats comic book house. We blasted the movie theme song on camping trips. When I was little I thought it was an Australian comic (typical!) – but of course it’s so Aotearoa! When I moved to New Zealand I started collecting them again and realised what an influence these stories had on me and The Animals in That Country: talking animals, environmental themes, outcast characters. I owe Murray Ball a lot. In my early uni days I read a lot of Janet Frame and Raymond Carver – I’d attribute any writing technique I have to those incredible stylists. Carver is very out of fashion now, probably because his work cast too big a shadow over creative writing studies (there are other writers!), but I learned to edit my work by reading his and that’s a skill I’m forever grateful for. I got back to Frame’s short stories again and again to remember the importance of dialogue, style and heart.

The book is also a celebration of animal bodies and their extraordinary abilities. Is this something we need to as a society embrace more?

Absolutely. The celebration of other animals as animals rather than our categorisations of pet, food, wild, vermin etc would chart a big shift in human relations with other animals, I think. What would happen if we celebrated the insatiable curiosity of cows instead of treating them as milk machines?

The animals in the book refer to humans as “it”, echoing the way we dehumanise our fellow creatures. What you tell us about approach?

As I said earlier I often feel like I wrote three novels in one … There’s a gritty realist narrative about a woman going through a rough time; there’s a speculative fiction about a dingo (also going through a rough time!) in an epidemic world where humans can communicate with animals; and there’s another thread which is the interspecies communication itself – the animal dialogue. Animals in literature are so often equated with objects: as things to use and dispose of at human will. I thought it would be interesting to turn the tables. ‘It’ is a tiny word, but when a nonhuman animal character calls humans ‘it’, a big statement is made. I love how language works that way. Tiny changes can be powerful.

How does it feel to have the novel so well received? It has already received several major awards and glowing reviews!

The most honest word I could use is: relief. Anyone who has put a book out knows the terrifying silence that follows publication where you wonder if it will get reviewed or even read and if so, will people like it? My first book was a short story collection lucky enough to get on some shortlists and a few lovely reviews, but it didn’t set the world on fire. Still, I was encouraged and excited to write the second. When it became apparent that The Animals in That Country would be released into the pandemic I was terrified. All the book shops in New Zealand were closed in the first big lockdown and I didn’t know how people would even read it. The support that New Zealand and Australian readers, festivals and book shops showed for books published in that time was incredible. And thanks to the hard work of my amazing publisher, Scribe, the book got in people’s hands early, and has since been released in the UK and US and is now in translation. It was such a strange feeling when it became apparent that this wasn’t going to be a quiet book – a relief, a thrill and an ongoing privilege.

You have a PhD in literary animal studies, can you tell us how that informed the book?

Once you start looking into human-nonhuman animal relationships, you fall down a series of rabbit holes. With every word I wrote, every thing I read, every thought I had about Animals, a new question would come up. I was so lucky to be held by amazing supervisors (Kevin Brophy and Amanda Johnson) who not only thought this relentless questioning was okay, but encouraged it. In my time as a PhD student I also came across an amazing network of people in what is known as the animal studies field. One of these people was Siobhan O’Sullivan who welcomed me into the Knowing Animals reading group and later interviewed me for her podcast. I’m now a passionate committee member of the Australasian Animal Studies Association, who work to help scholars like me to access information in the field.

Our final question is, have you got any future plans to write something else ? Would like to share some aspect of those plans with us?

A novel manuscript and I are currently circling each other. At some point one of us will strike.

The animals in that country / McKay, Laura Jean
“Hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, and allergic to bullshit, Jean is not your usual grandma. She’s never been good at getting on with other humans, apart from her beloved granddaughter, Kimberly. Instead, she surrounds herself with animals, working as a guide in an outback wildlife park. And although Jean talks to all her charges, she has a particular soft spot for a young dingo called Sue. As disturbing news arrives of a pandemic sweeping the country, Jean realises this is no ordinary flu: its chief symptom is that its victims begin to understand the language of animals – first mammals, then birds and insects, too… ” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Also available as an eBook.