Episode Twenty-Five: Laura Jean McKay

January 11, 2021

Delightful writer Laura Jean McKay joins us to discuss releasing a novel about a pandemic during a pandemic, performing animal voices for her audiobook, and advice on healthier ways to consume the news. 

Links to topics discussed:

Shout out to:

Laura Jean McKay is the author of The Animals in That Country (Scribe 2020) and Holiday in Cambodia (Black Inc. 2013), shortlisted for three national book awards in Australia. Her work has appeared in Meanjin, Overland, Best Australian Stories, The Saturday Paper, and The North American Review. Laura is a lecturer in creative writing at Massey University, with a PhD from the University of Melbourne focusing on literary animal studies. She is the ‘animal expert’ presenter on ABC Listen’s Animal Sound Safari.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Steph 

Thank you for listening if you are listening.

Laura 

Thank you for listening to our voices  we can’t stand ourselves. (laughs)

Steph 

Welcome to Sisteria, a podcast about women and non binary creatives and their experiences creating and consuming arts and culture. I’m your host Steph Van Schilt and in today’s episode I speak with writer, animal expert and all round delightful human, Laura Jean McKay. Laura is the author of the recently released novel Animals in That Country. And in 2013, she released Holiday in Cambodia, a collection of short stories that was shortlisted for three National Book Awards in Australia. Laura’s work has appeared in Meanjin, Overland, Best Australian Stories, The Saturday Paper and the North American Review. She’s a lecturer in creative writing at Massey University with a PhD from the University of Melbourne focusing on literary animal studies. Laura is also the animal expert presenter on ABC Listens Animal Sound Safari. It was so lovely catching up with Laura for today’s recording. We spoke about releasing a novel that’s about a pandemic, during a pandemic. We talked about about performing and recording her audiobook which meant she had to perform the voices of animals because yes, animals do speak in her book. And she also offered some advice for healthier and more practical ways to approach the news. Because I for one cannot stop doomscrolling. I started off by asking Laura how she was feeling about promoting a book during lockdown.

Laura 

How am I feeling about promoting the book. I mean, it’s been very, very bizarre. I guess while I was writing the book, I was quite sick. And so I was sort of in my own little painful lockdown the whole time. And I was sort of pointing towards this year of being able to get on stage with other people who’ve released books at the same time, like Rebecca Giggs with Fathoms and Erin Hortle with The Octopus and I, and Chris Flynn with Mammoth. I just wanted to talk to other people about this crazy thing that is writing about other animals. And I wanted to sort of share that with audiences. And also to learn from it myself to get out of that writing process and get into the talking process, I guess. And so to then suddenly be very inside and very insular, again, was a real shock. And I was really, I was extremely worried that bookshops would shut down and nobody would be able to actually buy the book. But luckily, in Australia, they stayed open. Unlike New Zealand, in Australia, they stayed open and people did book buying sprees of massive proportions. And then all these other, you know, organizations and events just totally contorted to make it possible for authors to get their work out there. Yeah, just just amazing ideas and, and opportunities that I would just never have thought of. And it meant that I can have this big, fat book launch online with all these people who wouldn’t normally have joined because they live in places other than Melbourne. And so that was really beautiful. And I’ve been attending book launches, you know, Ellen van Neerven launched Throat the other day in Brisbane, and I could go to that and be there because it’s online. So that’s been a really beautiful thing.

Steph 

So you were talking about all these other authors who’ve written about animals and your book is obviously about animals. How would you describe your book? Can you give a plot summary for listeners if they haven’t heard of it.

Laura 

Sure. So it’s, it’s a road story with a big difference. And the big difference is that the people who are going on this road trip are a hard drinking grandmother called Jean, and a very talky, chatty Dingo called Sue. And when I say chatty, I mean that she actually talks and so do the other animals. This strange new flu has swept through the country. And one of the symptoms is that people can finally talk to and understand what other animals bodies are saying. And for some people, that’s a really cool thing. And at first Jean, the protagonist thinks that this is great. But as it develops, people start to realize that what animals are saying isn’t necessarily what we want to hear.

Steph 

And how did you come up with that concept? Because It’s not, it’s not something you hear of every day. Where did it come from?

Laura 

It’s such a good question. I’m never quite sure where these things come from, I think that I’ve always been quite fascinated by other animals. And I’m also really fascinated by dialogue, and also…where did the idea come from? It’s not actually a very hard question, but it’s just very, very complex.

Steph 

No, it is, I mean, like you’ve been writing it for a long time. So it’s not necessarily one idea, or either, is it? It’s like…

Laura 

Yeah, yeah. So like, I have a few origin stories that I tell, but I bet like, where it actually comes from is, um…I guess, one of the main things that happened was that I was living in the bush, on this writers residence, and I was walking along this bush track one day, and I literally bumped into this rogue male kangaroo, who was the size of me, and we just stared at each other. And I should have been absolutely terrified. And he should have been terrified too because I’m a human. And we don’t tend to do very nice things to kangaroos. But we just looked at each other, and sort of did this dance to either side of each other, trying to get past each other, and then finally found our way. And later on, he hung around the house, and we think maybe he was sick and had been kicked out of his mob. And then he went away. And you know, maybe he went off to die, or maybe he went off to live a full life. But I started thinking about the connection between humans and other animals and how we have these connections and misinterpretations and, and mistaken sort of moments all of the time. And the thing that we put up as the main separator between humans and other animals is language. It’s like humans are so much better than other animals, because we have language. Firstly, if we’re so much better than other animals, why are we destroying the planet?

Steph 

Yep.

Laura 

Secondly, what happened? If we took away that language barrier? What happened if, if there was something that enabled us to understand what they were actually saying? What happens then? Are we still so much better than them? Or can we learn things from them? Or actually, they just living these other lives that have nothing to do with us? And that was sort of what propelled me forward and started to change my ideas of how I see other animals, and also how I see humans and our place in the world as well.

Steph 

Yeah, I was gonna ask about Jean as a character, because at times, she’s very empathetic and sympathetic, and you feel for her. And, you know, you said she’s very hard drinking, and she’s lived quite a hard life. But other times, she’s not sympathetic, and she’s quite awful. And you hear some, she tells you some things that she does that you’re like, not that into you. How was it crafting a character like that? Was that very deliberate? And why did you choose to write her that way?

Laura 

Yeah, I needed I needed a character who could carry quite a heavy story, because this is a work of gritty realist fiction, but it’s also a speculative novel that has an animal apocalypse in it. And that’s a very, very heavy load. So I felt that it needed to be told from one perspective or first person perspective to be able to hold all of that. And I tried a few different characters. She was a cat at one point, she was this middle aged man who just seemed to sit on a couch and I couldn’t get him moving. She was also a woman who worked in a lab and then a farmer. And then I thought, you know, who, who is strong in our society who can who can carry a heavy load, and I was like a middle aged woman, you know, a middle aged woman who’s been through a bit and is brave and brazen, and really, really cares what other people think about her but also doesn’t doesn’t really give a shit. And so Jean just came forth, and I gave him my middle name because I needed to sort of feel closer to the character, and that was just a writerly trick. But then once she had that name, she just took off on the page. So I wanted her to be likable. I wanted people to feel close to her, but I also didn’t want her to just get away with everything either. Jean is casually racist and casually homophobic. And she is a really problematic character. She isn’t a great role model for her son or her granddaughter. I didn’t want for her to be this character that pretends not to have all of the problems that a colonial settler white woman in Australia does have, I didn’t want to pretend that that doesn’t exist just because I’m writing fiction. And so I needed to give her these very big issues that don’t necessarily get resolved. But are there.

Steph 

And you also wrote an animal character, you talk about Sue the dingo, there are a few lines in it. That really stuck with me, obviously, you wrote in verse, which is kind of a formal element of trying to convey their communication, animals communication, but you’d write lines like, “for Sue smell is like the internet”, that really stuck with me. And I loved that, that line. Sue for me is felt as well as like, reading her dialogue. What was it like writing an animal character? Because obviously, you’ve done animal studies, you’re the animal expert presenter on ABC Listens Animal Sound, Safari, you have the utmost respect. You just told the story about the kangaroo. And obviously, this book is very much about the relationship between the species but what was it like crafting an actual dingo as a character?

Laura 

It was really hard. (laughs) Sue really just emerged from the narrative based on some time I spent with dingoes in a wildlife park, up north. And, and I was, I was living in this Wildlife Park and I was just always drawn to the dingo enclosure. The way that dingoes call is so mournful, so lonely, they’re long calls, they carry so far, it’s just a beautiful sound.

Steph 

And they’re so smart.

Laura 

They’re so smart, so smart, and they’ve got you know, this smell is so advanced, you know, more advanced than other canines. And, yes, Sue just sort of burst onto the page, I didn’t really think about Sue and again, what she was there, and her sort of slight, her and Jean’s slight obsession with each other, really carried off. But in terms of her talking, it was always an exploration with Sue. A dingo is a very complex character in Australian society anyway. They are killed because people think that they’re feral. Some people want them as pets. Some people think that they’re native animals, some people think that they’re introduced, they’re sort of all these things, but also much more than our ability to categorize them. And so I wanted Sue’s dialogue to be very complex. And so her dialogue, there’s a lot of brackets, she will say, you know, something like, I love you. And then in brackets, she’ll be like, No, I don’t. Like she’s got this naughty dingo on her shoulder, um always whispering in her ear. And for me, I wanted that to be her sort of captive upbringing alongside her wild nature, I’m constantly in battle with each other. Also, I don’t really, I don’t really feel that I ever really, completely got to know Sue. And I know that’s a strange thing for a writer to say when they created a character, but I felt like she was the embodiment of the wonder I feel when I when I encounter an animal and  stare at them. And they’re probably thinking, Oh, shit, I’ve got to get away, you know, like, this person is gonna kill me. And I’m just thinking, you know, what, wonder to be able to have the abilities of flight or, or smell or sonar that these animals have.

Laura 

I think if you didn’t say that you completely understood her or knew her that would undercut your overall messaging and your being, really.

Laura 

That’s so true.

Steph 

Um, did you just say that you lived in an animal park?

Laura 

Yeah, just threw that in? Yeah I…

Steph 

So how do you go from living in an animal park to becoming a writer of like, just give me a little bit of an understanding of this journey, please.

Laura 

Like this amazing residency up at the the northern the Northern Territory Wildlife Park, and I went and lived there for a few months in a caravan in the actual park underneath a ranger’s house. And there was just there, there were the captive animals and the rangers was so you know, generous in sharing their knowledge and, and helping me to access the captive animals but also they often had wild counterparts. So these barking owls in the enclosure would go woof, woof every night and then up above, you’d hear the wild ones calling back to them. They will pythons everywhere. There was a python who blocked my access to the toilet every day between two and four. So, so she could get some sun.

Steph 

Too bad for you.

Laura 

Too bad for me.

Steph 

Turn back around.

Laura 

Um, so it was a really, it was a really full on experience, though, I felt like I was one of the exhibits. I was felt very confronted by the intensity of captive animals, even though the park, you know, is a really great park, there’s certain things that come out when animals are in captivity. So I just recorded everything, I wrote down everything, I took photos of everything I recorded, smells, feelings, I collected little bits of fur that I would find, leaves, dust. And none of it was categorized. I didn’t research in a particularly effective way. But all of it sort of went into the novel, even if not in a, in a particularly, you know, obvious way. And I did, I did finish a terrible draft of the novel there in the caravan as well. And I hit the last full stop. And I just went over to the sink, which was very close to me, because I was in and just threw up because of the intensity of what I was trying to write, and also the intensity of how bad my draft was, and how much work I would need to do to keep going at it. And by that stage…

Steph 

That’s a really animalistic response.

Laura 

It is. Yeah. So it is a very, like, all of my senses. And all of my animal behavior sort of went into the novel. And, and because I wrote it was writing it for so long, you know, I think, yeah, it just, it was a very intense experience.

Steph 

How long were you writing it for?

Laura 

I reckon about seven years, probably fairly, fairly constantly. And there were at least two years in there, where it was the worst writing that has ever been done by anybody. So

Steph 

I’m sure that’s not true

Laura 

I had to just (laughs)

Steph 

Must feel, like I understand it feeling that way.

Laura 

I think to get to get to something…to get to a place where animals can talk vaguely in a vaguely realistic way, in a book to a human, it has to go through a really, really ugly phase. Because it’s it’s not a it’s not a normal thing to do.

Steph 

And then now, seven years later, it’s been released at this particularly specific singular moment in our living history, in our living memory. We have to talk about the fact that there is a zoo flu and a pandemic. And I did want to ask whether you were a soothsayer? Because there are things in this book that are very, very onpoint right now, not only, like, I guess, if it had, if coronavirus hadn’t, you know, happened in the same way it has, I think this book would be discussed in terms of the fires and the recent, you know, cataclysmic events in terms of the Australian bushfires and, and what we’ve done to the wildlife. But now we’ve also got the pandemic element. And there are lines in there where you constantly talk about all the characters talk about the new normal, and they wearing masks, and it was just the parallels between, obviously it’s fiction and it’s very different, b ut you couldn’t have predicted or could you have predicted (laughs) that you were going to be releasing it at this kind of moment. Like how, how does that feel? And like, I don’t know, like, obviously, there have been pandemics before but nothing quite like this like. How does that feel?

Laura 

Yeah, I don’t think I have a good enough imagination to have ever imagined something like coronavirus, like it is beyond my wildest dreams. And I certainly when I was writing the novel, I certainly didn’t imagine that we would live through times like this. Obviously, all writers are responding or especially those working in speculative fiction are responding to, you know, climate change events and the horrors of the world even if we’re not trying to. It’s just in there. You have a coronavirus is something else and it was really really weird to see things happening in the news that I had written about in the novel, especially in the early stages with people fighting in supermarkets and whether to or not to wear masks, locking down staying inside. Fear of others. That was very weird, and it all probably seems quite creepy and maybe be crystal bally. But actually, pandemics and disasters do often follow quite quite a tried and true pattern and I had worked in aid work, you know, with, with Red Cross and Care Australia, so I had responded to the SARS pandemics I had, you know, responded to the 2004 tsunamis and, and the Haiti earthquakes, and the Christchurch earthquakes and people in those situations would talk about the new normal. It’s, it’s sort of not, it’s not a new phrase, it’s a phrase that people who have have lived through times like that, you know, tend to use, the big difference is that my characters, you know, once they’ve got, once they’re infected, they get out in the world, it’s sort of like, “Well, we’ve got it now let’s go talk to some animals. Ooh, what’s that animal say? That’s a bit intense.” Um, the big, the big difference here was that we all stayed inside and locked down and became so insular. And, and that was, that was a real deviation and shock, I think. But one other thing that did come out that I didn’t expect was this focus on wildlife and other animals during the pandemic. And suddenly, people felt they were noticing more birds around. And, you know, there’s rats taking over Sydney and, you know, different stories of penguins wandering through Wales. And so that was a real joy to me, even though I’m heartbroken at, at what people are, and have been going through in the pandemic, it’s horrible. It’s really, really interesting to see nature’s response, I suppose to a little bit of quiet, a little bit less pollution, a little bit more space.

Steph 

Right, even just like the lack of planes and just seeing the bluest skies, and you know, the skylines, without all of the smog. It’s definitely um, it’s eye opening, to say the least, I think. Given that you have worked in these situations in terms of like crises and disaster relief, and you’ve helped with pandemics before I thought it would be a good time to transition into our Arrogant Aunt segment.

Laura 

Great. I love that you have this section. (Laughs) Arrogant Aunt.

Steph 

or sorry, arrogant on is the segment where we ask listener questions, and we answer them with an authority we just don’t have. It’s an exercise in imposter syndrome for all of us. Today’s question is from Sasha. And I’ll just play the question now.

Arrogant Aunt – Sasha 

Hi, this is Sasha, I was just hoping that you could give me some advice about how to stay up to date with the news without being so overwhelmed, given what’s going on in the world right now. Thanks.

Steph 

Do you have any tips, Laura?

Laura 

Sure, um, so many opinions. I’m so arrogant. (laughs) Um, we are really politically engaged beings, especially with social media and, and access to everything now. And it is really important that we are engaged in that way. I also think that there’s a mistake in believing that we need to know everything, and comment on everything and share everything, and be there for every moment in the world, because that is just going to wear us down. We certainly don’t need to click on or even think about Donald Trump in the way that we do, he wants us to click on everything he does. And we perpetuate that. He makes, he just as silly things every single day, and it’s not going to change if we don’t pay attention to him for five days. In the same way, it is essential that we’re currently so engaged with the protest movement in the States. And it’s important that we show our support for that, especially if you are white. And you, you know, it might make us all rethink or try harder. But also there is not much we can do about it other than show some support. Whereas there are things that we can do in Australia and New Zealand, with Bla(c)k deaths in custody and movements around that we can we can be part of that change and physically, emotionally and monetarily help. Um, and so I guess it’s about looking at what you’re passionate about, and trying to focus that into, to a place where you can actually do something. And also we have to think about the legacy that we’re leaving to other people. We’re showing our kids that being online all the time and being really anxious is the model that they should follow by doing that. Taking some time out and going for walks and being alone without the internet or being with other people, that’s probably one of the best things we can do. Especially if we’re creative people. We need to turn off and believe that our creative outputs are contributing to this change just in a slower way. And it’s okay to be slow. We don’t have to be fast all the time.

Steph 

100%. My, my therapist as well, because I was falling into quite a dark, obsessed with the news hole, made me delete the apps from my phone, not just social media, but like news apps, don’t get the alerts, limit your engagement with the news to twice a day, once in the morning, once at night. Maybe if that doesn’t work for you, lunchtime evening, twice a day.

Laura 

That’s such good advice.

Steph 

Rather than just like obsessively clicking refresh on those live blogs. There is a tipping point between being informed and being obsessed, I find that I fall into that categorization very, very easily. And I think what you were saying about like stepping back and taking a walk, and working out how you can help in your own way. In doing that, you also have to help yourself. So be educated and engaged to a point. And for me, I am again, I’ve deleted social media off my phone for now. But I am also going to donate once a week to a relevant charity. Like you’re saying, for instance, Sisters Inside is a really important one that helps incarcerated Indigenous women in Australia. Yeah, I think there are a number of ways to stay engaged and to still look after yourself. But I think it is important that we pick and choose, like you were saying, how we do that and how we go about it.

Laura 

That’s right, if people like if someone has a great book inside them about a particular subject, you know, take a year out and write that great book because it’s it may do more, than you’re obsessive tweeting.

Steph 

There you go. Take the year off, right. Write that great book.

Laura 

(laughs) Yeah, just take a year off. So easy.

Steph 

(laughs) I do want to ask you before we get to the Shout Out, because I will shout out your book in general, I think everyone should read it. But I also part listen to the audiobook and I do want to talk to you about this before we did get to the the recommendation stage of the podcast. I have only just kind of started listening to audiobooks on the recommendation of my partner. And I know you, Laura, so I knew it was going to be excellent because you do narrate it yourself. And it was just so fun. And I went back and forth between reading and listening. How was that element? We talked about writing Sue as a Dingo, but how was it performing animal characters in the audio sense? Because you do perform them they have very different voices and and different incarnations. And yeah, tell me about that experience.

Laura 

It was one of the most bizarre experiences I’ve had. And I haven’t actually listened to the audiobook. I just couldn’t.

Steph 

Oh, it’s great.

Laura 

I couldn’t do it. I even when you said you’d listened to it before you said you liked it. My, you know, my heart started beating. I was so…

Steph 

She runs to the sink and vomits again. (laughs)

Laura 

That’s right.

Laura 

Um, but I did beg to do the audiobook. They sort of said, No, no, we’re going to get a proper actor to do it. And I said, No, I have to do it. And then I think they looked at the book and they saw all the different animal dialogue. And they thought probably thought we couldn’t pay an actor enough to do you know, to take this on. So it was such a joy to go in there, and just… especially the insects, a lot of people find the insects in the book quite terrifying, because they’re sort of shouting over the page. But to me, it’s gleeful. It’s this sort of like “me, and we and she” you know, and so I just got to belt it out, and really have fun with voice in that place. But also, it was a really, really fast track lesson in adaptation because of course, I’d spent these many years working on the page and having this internal vision of what the animal voices were like but I’d never ever thought about how that would actually sound. So I talked with my partner about it. And he talked to me about how, about the physicality about how I really wanted to emphasize the wonderful physicality of other animals. And so I did things like manipulated my face, like you know what, I put my cheeks together or and hold up my lips or I’d squeeze my nose or I’d wobble my chin. So I was doing sort of this improv clowning. (laughs)

Steph 

I wish the listeners could say that because I can actually see Laura doing that on the video chat. It’s pretty great. I might get you to do it, I’ll take a photo of it later so I can put it on our Instagram.

Laura 

Sure. It’ll be very flattering I’m sure. So in a way, it’s sort of added this, this bodily element to me because I’d been writing these animals, but I hadn’t really been going through their physicality. So I had a lot of fun embodying that, but I also really tried, I didn’t want to make the animal voices part of the cliche of the way we think cats speak slightly sexily or something. I wanted it to be for some reason…

Steph 

(laughs) it’s so true!

Laura 

 I wanted it to be…Someone has to look into why we make cats sexy.

Steph 

Can you please write that essay, I really want to read it.

Laura 

Sure. It can be a co-publication. Um, so I wanted it to be odd, and otherworldly and very non human without being the cliche animal voice.

Steph 

No, it was incredible. I understand not, the impulse of not wanting to listen to your own stuff, though. I think that’s that’s only human and I think there’s something with the audio in particular. Like, I don’t go back and listen to Sisteria after I’ve edited it. It’s like, published and done. I’m not gonna be like, Oh I can’t wait to listen to my voice for 45 minutes today? No, thank you.

Laura 

Nothing worse.

Steph 

But thank you for listening if you are listening

Laura 

Thank you for listening to our voices that we can’t stand.

Steph 

(laughs) That’s a classic thing that I like I remember being young and recording it and like remember when and when they called answering machines. And people will be like you said what I really sound like?

Laura 

Am I really that shrill?

Steph 

No, I love I loved the audiobook, I highly recommend it. And I think that um, an audiobook is also a really good way of getting out and about. Just back to what I was saying with Arrogant Aunt question going for walks, check in an audiobook, and then you can come back and read some in the bath or read some at home. But it’s a really good way of, much like a podcast, slightly more transformative. And yeah, I highly, highly recommend Laura’s. What’s your shout out Laura?

Laura 

I am completely obsessed with the novel Severance by Ling Ma. I finished it a few nights ago and I am so sad. It’s like I’m so sad it’s gone. It’s not a long book. It’s a pandemic novel. It’s set in New York. If you think that my book had some insights into the pandemic, this is mind blowing. It’s an incredible narrative that flips between a woman’s life in New York where she works in a strange sort of fairly repetitive job in publishing, and then flipping to her life during this pandemic called Shen Fever. Very similar to coronavirus, which, which sweeps through and basically turns people into zombies. And somehow she she survives it. It is just it’s funny, it’s chilling, it’s prescient. It’s absolutely of this time and even though some pandemic books or disaster books might be hard to read in this time, I think that this is definitely one for this moment.

Steph 

Is it a new release?

Laura 

It’s actually came out in 2017. But I suspect it’s having rather a resurgence. (laughs)

Steph 

I’m surprised you’re still writing about pandemics even in your fiction reading.

Laura 

Well, actually, when I was writing The Animals in That Country, I pretty much just read animal books. So books with, you know, talking animals or any animals in them. Because pandemic or apocalypse was in a way a sub-plot, I didn’t read so many of those books. So now I’ve got all these books to catch up on and just sort of roll around in that’s really lovely.

Steph 

No, that’s good. Well, hopefully you’ll have plenty of time. But hopefully now you can get out and do more long walks. Now. You’re no longer on the lockdown. Laura Jean McKay, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciated your time and chatting with you.

Laura 

It was such an honor to be here. Thank you so much.

Steph 

Yay. Thank you.

Laura 

Yay!

Steph 

Sisteria is supported by the Melbourne City Council Arts Grants Program and recorded on the lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin nations. We pay our respects to the elders past and present and to the elders of all the lands this podcast reaches. Subscribe to Sisteria everywhere and follow us @sisteriapod. Links to everything discussed in the episode are available at sisteriapodcast.com. Our theme music is by Rainbow Chan, the song is called Last and it’s from her album Spacings. Thanks so much for listening, stay safe and we hope to tune in again soon.