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.


New forays into Science Fiction and Fantasy

A Cathedral of Myth and Bone book cover

Ready to explore new viewpoints, worlds and inventions of the imagination? Recent titles for Science fiction and Fantasy delve into long running series and uncover new writing territory.

Syndetics book coverBikes not rockets : intersectional feminist bicycle science fiction stories / edited by Elly Blue.
“As you ride down the intergalactic bike path, you come to a crossroads. Which path will you take? Your choice could determine your future, or the future of all humanity, forever. These twelve stories explore a variety of intersections set in distant, outlandish, or disturbingly realistic futures and dimensions–all involving bicycles and the breaking of gender stereotypes.” (Adapted from Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverHow Long ’til Black Future Month?: Stories / N K Jemisin
“In these stories, Jemisin sharply examines modern society, infusing magic into the mundane, and drawing deft parallels in the fantasy realms of her imagination. Dragons and hateful spirits haunt the flooded streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow South must save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story The City Born Great, a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.” (Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverTexas hold’em / edited by George R.R. Martin ; assisted by Melinda M. Snodgrass ; written by David Anthony Durham, Max Gladstone, Victor Milán, Diana Rowland, Walton Simons, Caroline Spector, William F. Wu.
“San Antonio, home of the Alamo, is also host to the nation’s top high school jazz competition, and the musicians at Xavier Desmond High are excited to outplay their rivals. They are also jokers, kids with strange abilities and even stranger looks. On top of that, well, they are teenagers, apt for mischief, mishaps, and romantic misunderstandings.” (Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverThe lies of Locke Lamora : book one of the gentleman bastard sequence / Scott Lynch.
“They say that the Thorn of Camorr can beat anyone in a fight. They say he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. They say he’s part man, part myth, and mostly street-corner rumor. And they are wrong on every count.” (Adapted from Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverA cathedral of myth and bone / stories by Kat Howard.
“In these sixteen exquisite stories, Kat Howard deftly weaves in and out the countries of myth and hagiography to write the lives of women untold and unexplored.”  (Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverSplintered Suns (Humanity’s Fire, 5) / Michael Cobley
“For Pyke and his crew it should have been just another heist. Travel to a backwater desert planet, break into a museum, steal a tracking device then use it to find a ship buried in the planet’s vast and trackless sandy wastes. Except that the museum vault is a bio-engineered chamber, and the tracking device is sought after by another gang of treasure hunters led by an old adversary of Pyke’s, the devious Raven Kaligara.” (Adapted from Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverThe labyrinth index / Charles Stross.
“Since she was promoted to the head of the Lords Select Committee on Sanguinary Affairs, every workday for Mhari Murphy has been a nightmare. It doesn’t help that her boss, the new Prime Minister of Britain, is a manipulative and deceptive pain in the butt. Mhari’s most recent assignment takes her across the pond into the depths of North America. The United States president has gone missing.” (Adapted from Syndetics summary)


New Science Fiction and Fantasy titles

The Blue Salt Road book cover

“Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.” — Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Our final Science Fiction showcase of 2018 has titles in it that think the unthinkable, do the undoable, and grapples with the ineffable from Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch, to the future noir of Richard Morgan’s Thin Air. Terry Brooks science fiction outing, Street Freaks to Joanne M Harris’s The Blue Salt Road and the wonderful Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri. From tales legendary to those full of trickery and wisdom this selection ranges far in the geography of imagination. These new Science fiction and Fantasy titles hold something special for all tastes.

Syndetics book coverLies sleeping / Ben Aaronovitch.
“Martin Chorley, aka the Faceless Man, wanted for multiple counts of murder, fraud and crimes against humanity, has been unmasked and is on the run. Peter Grant, Detective Constable and apprentice wizard, now plays a key role in an unprecedented joint operation to bring Chorley to justice. But even as the unwieldly might of the Metropolitan Police bears down on its foe, Peter uncovers clues that Chorley, far from being finished, is executing the final stages of a long term plan. To save his beloved city, he might have to come to terms with the malevolent supernatural killer and agent of chaos known as Mr Punch.” (Adapted from Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverStreet freaks / Terry Brooks.Street Freaks: Limited Edition
“Go into the Red Zone. Go to Street Freaks.” his father directs Ashton Collins before the vid feed goes suddenly silent. The Red Zone is the dangerous heart of mega-city Los Angeles; it is a world Ash is forbidden from and one he knows little about. As Ash is hunted, he must unravel the mystery left behind by his father and discover his role in this new world.
Brooks has long been the grandmaster of fantasy. Now he turns his hand to science fiction filled with what his readers love best: complex characters, extraordinary settings, exciting action, and a page-turning story. Through it, Brooks reimagines his bestselling career yet again.” (Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverThe blue salt road / Joanne M. Harris ; illustrated by Bonnie Hawkins.
“The Blue Salt Road balances passion and loss, love and violence and draws on nature and folklore to weave a stunning modern mythology around a nameless, wild young man. Passion drew him to a new world, and trickery has kept him there – without his memories, separated from his own people. But as he finds his way in this dangerous new way of life, so he learns that his notions of home, and your people, might not be as fixed as he believed.
Beautifully illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins, this is a stunning and original modern fairytale.” (Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverHannah Green and her unfeasibly mundane existence / Michael Marshall Smith.
“An unpredictable, poignant, and captivating tale for readers of all ages, by the critically acclaimed author of Only Forward. There are a million stories in the world. Most are perfectly ordinary. This one… isn’t. Hannah Green actually thinks her story is more mundane than most. But she’s about to discover that the shadows in her life have been hiding a world where nothing is as it seems: that there’s an ancient and secret machine that converts evil deeds into energy, that some mushrooms can talk and that her grandfather has been friends with the Devil for over a hundred and fifty years, and now they need her help.” (Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverFire & blood / George R. R. Martin ; illustrations by Doug Wheatley.
“Centuries before the events of A Game of Thrones, House Targaryen took up residence on Dragonstone. Fire & Blood begins their tale with the legendary Aegon the Conqueror, creator of the Iron Throne, and goes on to recount the generations of Targaryens who fought to hold that iconic seat, all the way up to the civil war that nearly tore their dynasty apart.
With all the scope and grandeur of Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Fire & Blood is the the first volume of the definitive two-part history of the Targaryens, giving readers a whole new appreciation for the dynamic, often bloody, and always fascinating history of Westeros.” (Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverThin air / Richard Morgan.
“An ex-corporate enforcer, Hakan Veil, is forced to bodyguard Madison Madekwe, part of a colonial audit team investigating a disappeared lottery winner on Mars. When Madekwe is abducted, and Hakan nearly killed, the investigation takes him farther than he had ever expected. Soon Hakan discovers the heavy price he may have to pay to learn the truth.” (Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverEmpire of sand / Tasha Suri.
“The Amrithi are outcasts; nomads descended of desert spirits, they are coveted and persecuted throughout the Empire for the power in their blood. Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an exiled Amrithi mother she can barely remember, but whose face and magic she has inherited. When Mehr’s power comes to the attention of the Emperor’s most feared mystics, she must use every ounce of will, subtlety, and power she possesses to resist their cruel agenda. Should she fail, the gods themselves may awaken seeking vengeance.” (Syndetics summary)