Charlotte Wood is an Australian fiction writer and author of four novels. Her last novel, The Children, was shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Association’s literary fiction book of the year. She also edited Brothers & Sisters, a collection of short stories and non-fiction about siblings by twelve Australian writers, including Nam Le, Christos Tsiolkas and Cate Kennedy. In her spare time she writes a blog on cooking, and she is currently working on a non-fiction book about food.
An extract of her new novel, Animal People, is featured in Overland 204. We spoke to Charlotte about her latest book, which was released this month.
Animal People follows Stephen Connolly, a character who first appeared in your earlier novel, The Children. What inspired you to revisit him?
After I had finished that novel I kept thinking about Stephen, the brother of my main character. I felt I didn’t really fully understand him in the way I had the others, and I felt there was more I could do with him. And I felt very fondly towards him, if you can say that about someone you have invented, and wanted to see him through the next phase of his life.
As its title indicates, Animal People explores the kinds of relationships that humans have with animals. Stephen, for instance, can’t seem to get away from them. He works at a fast food kiosk in a zoo and in the extract published in Overland, he has a rather uncomfortable encounter with a neighbour’s dog. What interested you about this theme and made you want to write about it?
The zoo setting was plucked out of the air – an old boyfriend of mine once worked as a sandwich hand at a zoo – and I thought it was rich with potential for both pathos and humour. But about a year after I’d been writing it I realised I had no idea why, at a deeper level, I had chosen this setting, and I began to think about all the potential meanings of zoos, and our relationships with animals – and the city as a human zoo, full of people captive to their own pasts or jobs or relationships or behaviours.
But there were also the contradictions that I see around me all the time in our relationships with animals to explore.
I grew up in the country where there is necessarily a much closer relationship between society and animals – as in farming, grazing, more space for pets, horses and so on – than is possible in a city. And yet I had begun to perceive that in the city there seemed to be a more sentimental societal attitude towards animals, particularly in terms of ‘humanising’ them. There are several shops within a five km radius of my house, for example, selling clothes and jewellery for dogs and cats, and I know of at least two ‘cafe’s for dogs and cats in the city. Zoos use anthropomorphism in their marketing all the time – giving the animals birthday parties and so on. This seems to me both amusingly ridiculous and indicative of a fairly depressing need for humans to see everything in our own image – that the only way we can accept ‘the other’ is to make it ‘like us’, to either elevate it or, if it isn’t like us enough (like caged broiler chickens, say), to dominate it in the most brutal possible terms.
I wanted to explore that and, more personally, my own ambivalent feelings about the cutesfying gush about animals that our society is drenched in. I wanted to examine what this ambivalence might mean. In Stephen’s case (and possibly my own at some level?) his fear of and discomfort with animals is indicative of a much broader fear of and discomfort with disorderliness, with chaos, with the messiness and unpredictability of life, and, in his case, the demands of love.
The novel also takes place over a 24-hour period, and is a rather intimate look at one day in Stephen’s life in which many things go awry. Why did you choose to structure the novel in this way?
I really just plucked the one-day thing out of the air at the beginning, because I had never set a book over such a short time before and as old Norman Mailer says in his excellent book on writing, The Spooky Art (when he’s not saying hilarious things like calling his novel The Bitch and other foolish chauvinistic old nonsense), ‘You gotta rotate your crops’, which I have taken to heart. I want to do something different every time I write a novel, and this time that difference was squeezing the narrative into a very short space.
However, once I chose the time frame the benefits of it began to appear. For one thing, I wanted to write a kind of hymn to ordinariness, and a portrait of urban living. The one-day time frame allows me to focus on the small, easily missed details that go into making an ordinary contemporary life that are not so easy to keep in a novel that sweeps over a larger time frame.
As well, I liked the recognition factor. We have all had The Day from Hell, and I hoped this might draw readers in to an intimacy with Stephen. He is having the sort of day in which you know there are a couple of unpleasant things looming, but even before you get to those, other things start going wrong and sort of cascade into catastrophe. I wanted this to be an ordinary day – nothing really dramatic takes place, as things did in my previous book – but at the same time I wanted it to grow into a life-changing, psychologically explosive experience for Stephen.
What’s next for you? I hear you’ve got book on cooking coming out next year.
Yes, I’m editing a non-fiction book about the emotional terrain of cooking for others. It’s a sort of memoir with recipes, and is called Love & Hunger: Thoughts, recipes and notes on the gift of food. It will be out in April 2012 with Allen & Unwin.
But after that I am very keen to get stuck into my new novel, a story set in a girls’ reform school, in which I suspect I’ll be moving away from realism for a bit. Am very keen to get going.