As she works on her keynote address for the 2021 SPN Independent Publishing Conference, award-winning author Laura Jean McKay talks to Emma Kellaway on animal superpowers, humans’ relationship with them, and why now is a better time than ever to address publishing and the environment.
McKay’s debut novel The Animals in That Country (Scribe 2020), has been praised for its boldness and originality, winning The Victorian Prize for Literature 2021 among other accolades.
The coincidentally timed speculative-fiction novel sees a widespread flu-like virus rip through the country, giving humans and animals the ability to talk to each other. Despite being a trait many may wish for, the unexpected side effect confronts characters with the admonishing truth of human-animal relationships.
Where it all started
Watching birds outside the window from her Nanna’s kitchen table where she grew up on Gunai/Kurnai country in Gippsland, Victoria, is where a fascination with animals started. ‘I wouldn’t say [my family] are animal lovers, but moreso we look at them and are fascinated by them, we talk about them all the time, it’s been like that all my life,’ McKay said.
This turned into writing The Animals in That Country, exploring the conventions of power between humans and animals. ‘I love meeting a wild animal, it’s so exciting for me, but for them it’s a moment of life and death. That is such an interesting moment of power, and power is something that is in everything I write,’ she said.
This power relationship is largely explored between protagonists Jean (human) and Sue (dingo). As the book goes on, we see Jean talk less and Sue talk more, shifting the power dynamic.
Decentering the human and bringing the animal out on the page is an idea McKay is most passionate about. ‘How can we depict animal characters in a way that is more than them just being there for human meaning? I want us to look at our relationships in real life and realise that animals are there for more than just our entertainment and use,’ McKay said.
Animal superpowers and colonial Australia
McKay said she looked at animal superpowers to explore their autonomy on the page. ‘I wanted to celebrate animal bodies on the page throughout the book, the things that they can do and the things that they’ve evolved to do,’ she said.
While doing an arts residency at the Territory Wildlife Park, McKay was grateful to learn from the traditional owners of the Larrakia Nation about their experience of being on country and their relationship with animals.
When writing Indigenous characters and knowledge of country in the book, McKay said she wanted the protagonist (Jean) to display a willful ignorance to depict a truer representation of colonial Australia.
‘I get a little bit sick of white characters parading through Australian books and suddenly they have all this knowledge and generosity that isn’t reflected in white Australia broadly, of course there are exceptions.’
‘Jean makes really big mistakes all through the book and the thing about Jean is she’s a consistent character. She doesn’t really ever learn and I think that’s the case all throughout Australia,’ she said.
When the fictional epidemic met real-life pandemic
In a surreal turn of events, as the final edits of the book were being made (with what was thought to be a far-fetched plot line about a flu-like epidemic), COVID-19 had begun to cross international borders.
Panic buying, conspiracy theories, and mask wearing were all scenes McKay described aloud as she recorded the audiobook in Sydney in early 2020. As she left the studio, she was confronted by ransacked supermarkets with no toilet paper in sight. ‘It was a strange parallel to live through,’ she said.
McKay said she always wanted humans to be able to communicate with animals in the book and needed a lot of them to be able to do it all at once, making an epidemic a convenient plot point to use.
At the same time she was bitten by a mosquito and caught Chikungunya, a disease similar to Dengue fever, which saw her completely bedridden with an intense fever, skin peeling off, completely delirious, with polyarthritis and unable to move.
Despite this, she continued to write using voice-to-text software to dictate the story. ‘I genuinely thought I was turning into a mosquito … I feel like the book caught the disease. I was writing these characters and they were getting sicker and sicker as I was getting sicker and sicker,’ she said.
Looking towards the IPC2021 and what’s next
McKay hopes that her book—like all good fiction—stirs up more questions than answers. `We use them, we wear them, we eat them. I guess I want us to step back for a second and be quiet … and think, what is my relationship to the animals and animal products in my life, does it need to change?’
Looking towards the 2021 Independent Publishing Conference, McKay said she was excited to have great minds come together to discuss the importance, urgency, and opportunities we have in publishing and writing, to address the environmental crisis.
‘The environmental crisis, not that we’re facing, we are not facing it anymore, we are in it, the future is here, the train has left the station. We have to figure out how we are going to deal with these very very fast-moving events that we’ve mostly caused.’
‘There has never been a more important time to discuss the role of the environment, especially in publishing,’ she said.
McKay is a lecturer in creative writing at Massey University, with a PhD from the University of Melbourne focusing on literary animal studies. She currently lives on the North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand and is working on a gritty-realist turned speculative-fiction novel.
McKay will be the keynote speaker for the research day, addressing the theme of ‘Publishing and the Environment’, at the SPN 2021 Independent Publishing Conference taking place from Thurs 25–Sat 27 November.