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Q&A with Laura Jean McKay

When a novel emerges set in a society collapsing in the midst of a viral epidemic, the author must have known something that we didn’t, right? Laura Jean McKay’s prescient The Animals in That Country invites us to look more closely at the animals in our lives. We speak with Laura about dingoes, becoming Dr Dolittle, deciding on what a fly’s inner monologue should be and hoping for radical empathy. Enjoy this fascinating insight into the mind behind this ingenious new novel.

This novel is a love letter to a world that I don't think is possible.
Laura Jean McKay

The Animals in That Country is set in a society that’s collapsing in the midst of a viral epidemic – and is now publishing into an unprecedented global pandemic. What did you know what we didn’t?

wish that the other aspect of the novel – a flu symptom that means that people can understand other animals – had come true instead. If it had, we’d all be having intense conversations with insects and birds right now, instead of isolating inside, fearing for everyone’s lives (though some characters in the novel do that!).

The idea of a pandemic seemed so far-fetched when I was writing The Animals in That Country. We were at the height of global travel. Connecting with people in real life was encouraged because we spent too much time online. Despite funding cuts, writers’ festivals, courses and events seemed stronger than ever. But during that time, I was bitten by a mosquito and got sick, entering a strange period of isolation. My fever and delirium were so intense that I thought I was turning into the mosquito that bit me. That the characters in the novel started experiencing this too was a natural progression, and a useful plot device, to help the interspecies communication along in the narrative. But these were ideas that were limited to the page and what was happening to my body.

I didn’t ever imagine that I would live through a global pandemic that would bring the world to a standstill. Having said that, I think a lot of writers have been responding to the pressure cooker that has been the world in the last decade. We write these fictionalised apocalyptic scenes because that’s what we see in the news every day. Sometimes, sadly, they come true.  

Can you tell us a bit about what inspired your book, how long you’ve been working on it and what sort of research you undertook? How did you come up with the idea for the Zoo Flu, an infection that allows people to talk to animals?

I’ve been working on the novel fairly steadily for about seven years – four of those included a PhD on the topic of how animals ‘talk’ or communicate in literature. What that essentially comes down to is that I’m now Dr Dolittle! As well as the academic research – which really helped me to understand how I might represent animals on the page – I went out into the field. I was lucky enough to get that flash Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship, as well as a residency at the Territory Wildlife Park, so I spent some months up north staring at animals and talking to the people who work with them.

I also went to the US to meet Michael Jackson’s old companion chimpanzee Bubbles and other ex-TV and movie star chimps who were abandoned by the industry, often to medical laboratories and roadside zoos. Bubbles lives at a beautiful sanctuary called Center for Great Apes now, but he still (understandably) hates cameras and can aim a bit of poo from some distance to hit a lens. Moments like this didn’t make it literally into the novel, but everything about the unequal relationship between a mega pop star and a kidnapped chimpanzee infant fuelled my writing. Meeting captive and wild animals helped me to imagine a world where some of that power dynamic is shifted through shared language. 

The relationship between Jean, the grizzled, trash-talking zookeeper, and the equally foul-mouthed dingo, Sue, makes for the greatest buddy road trip story since Thelma and Louise. What inspired their journey? Do you have a Sue in your life?

There is a real dingo called Elsie who definitely captured my attention. Like the dingo characters of Sue, Buddy and Mister in The Animals in That Country, Elsie lives with her two brothers in an enclosure at a wildlife park. The brothers are gregarious, always putting on a show, but Elsie hangs back. She seems more dingo to me – takes her time and studies the situation. The fact that she refused to be a show canine was captivating in itself. I wondered what she’d have to say beyond the enclosure.

Like Thelma and Louise (not a comparison I would have thought of but I’m so going with it!), Jean and Sue are very different, but they share important commonalities. The physical difference is obvious, one is hairless, walks on two legs and is human; the other: hairy, four-legged, canine. They communicate and perceive the world in completely different ways. Jean is relatively free, though trapped by her past and her addictions. Sue was taken from her birthplace and lives in an enclosure. Even once they share a language, Jean has trouble understanding Sue, and vice versa. I think what ultimately brings them together is that they’re tough females of their respective species. They both have huge hearts, a desperate longing to find a pack and a drive for survival in the strangest of circumstances. In that way, they belong together.

Every creature in this book, great and small, have their own distinctive voice. How did you decide what a fly’s inner monologue would be? Or a pig’s? Where do all these wonderful voices come from?

People are really limited in what communication we pay attention to. Apparently we’re attuned to all sorts of things like body language and smell, but we seem to subsist just fine on some text and an emoji. The physical aptitude of other animals blows me away. That dogs have giant smell processing plants in their brains. That whales and bats communicate with sonar that humans can’t detect. That bees dance complex instructions and insects see things in slow motion. That birds raise their young in the sky. Everyone knows these facts about animals. I wanted to really dwell on what it would be like to go through life with, for example, a sense of smell that’s 40 times greater than humans (like canines).

I’m really in love with dialogue and how that works on the page. For me, dialogue is the driving force of characterisation. So I played with how a character who perceives the world in a totally different way to people, and has a divergent evolutionary path, might use a common language. In the whale scene, I dwelled on the fact that millions of years ago, whales left the ocean and walked around on land on stumpy legs until (after a long time) they decided that it was better in the water. So, in that scene, the whales try to tell the humans how great it is to be ‘home’, back in the water, and that the humans should hurry up and come home too…

If you aren't a vegetarian when you start reading this book, you may well be by the end. Was encouraging readers to rethink their relationship to animals something that you intended?

I wasn’t vegetarian when I started writing the book either, and I’m vegan now! Not many people could spend this long on a book about animals and still eat them. It’s not my intention to ‘turn’ anyone veg, though – I was eating eggs and meat too recently to lecture anyone about what to do with their clothes and plates. It is my intention that readers stop and look at the animals in their lives. I hope that after paying attention to the animal characters in this book – what they have to say and what is left unsaid – that people might look at other animals more closely. The cat on the couch, the birds and insects outside, the animals that are farmed and caught, the animals that are used for entertainment and experimentation, the animals that are (sight unseen) very quickly becoming endangered and extinct. What is our real relationship to them? Who were they before they had the misfortune to step into or be raised in our orbit? If we could understand what they were saying, would we treat them differently?

A lot of people are sharing the classics of pandemic literature at the moment, and The Animals in The Country is one of the funniest and – in a strange way – the most hopeful books about the end of the world that we’ve come across. Do you think the kind of radical empathy the Zoo Flu causes would ultimately be good for the world?

I love that phrase ‘radical empathy’! Yes, I do think we need to stop and look around ourselves and realise that we’re not the only things on this planet. I do think we need to listen to what we’re very clearly being told by the mass extinction and rapid climate change events: that we’ve done terrible damage and we need radical change if we want to keep this world.

But I’m also a deep cynic. This novel is a love letter to a world that I don’t think is possible. Having said that, humans are animals too and because of that we’re surprising. I didn’t imagine, for example, that a prime minister in this day and age could mobilise a country the way that Jacinda Ardern does in New Zealand (where I’m currently living), but there she is: kindly and brilliantly leading a country through a global pandemic.

And I did create characters who have hope. Jean stumbles but Sue never really loses it, no matter what she goes through. Deep down in my crumpled cynic heart maybe I have some too…

The Animals in That Country is available from Gleebooks. Gleebooks is currently offering free delivery to all addresses within the Inner West Council and City of Sydney Council boundary areas, and free delivery for orders totalling $50 or more to other locations across Australia.