Fiction publisher

Author finds himself in the middle of his own novel as Covid-19 strikes

His science fiction work is acclaimed around the world. Now she writes from her home office in a well-known residential area in Palmerston North State. Jimmy Ellingham meets Laura Jean McKay.

As the world teetered on the brink of a pandemic, an author entered a recording booth where fantasy mirrored reality.

Laura Jean McKay voiced the audiobook of her first novel, The animals of this country, about a pandemic. Amid the initial confusion, the book’s zooflu was spreading similarly to Covid-19.

The novel was published in March 2020, as New Zealand was introduced to blockages, alert levels, bubbles, and mandatory walks.

It was a surreal time, especially for McKay, who rushed to Sydney, Australia from her new home in Palmerston North to check in before the borders closed.

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McKay's home office allows him to contemplate his garden and observe animals.


McKay’s home office allows him to contemplate his garden and observe animals.

“I was in this sound booth for eight hours a day talking about scenes in my novel where people were panicking buying and wearing masks with strange symptoms.

“The government would make decisions, then I would leave the audio booth and the news cycle would have continued. I would go to the supermarket and the supermarket would just be emptied of toilet paper.

McKay’s real world had become that of her novel, and she saw the world in the same way as her first-person narrator, Jean.

McKay could never have envisioned the novel’s premonitory timing when she began writing seven years earlier.

“I was feeling very confused and confused and wondering how I got into my novel one way or another, and I also felt really worried.

“People were in pain and scared, and I didn’t want to make a mistake or create something that would upset people. “

The Massey University creative writing professor, 43, an Australian living in New Zealand, had nothing to worry about.

Critics around the world praised the work, such as The Guardian saying, “His writings about people… are dirty and cool and funny. It’s prose on high alert, spiky hair and bared teeth in every sentence. “

On top of that, there are the awards, including the 2021 Victorian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and the best science fiction award, the Arthur C Clarke Award, named after the 2001: A Space odyssey author.

In beautiful symmetry, the first winner of the UK’s Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year Award was Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale. McKay borrowed the title from Atwood’s poem The animals in this Country for his novel.

For years people have imagined talking to animals, but usually it’s in human terms. We imagine them chatting like we do with other humans.

But not in McKay’s novel, where animals communicate with infected flu through jerky, rambling snippets.

The animals are absent from his Palmerston North home. This is in part due to the traveling life of a writer and teacher – her partner Tom Doig is an author and also works at Massey. Years of Melbourne apartment living and commuting are not suitable for routine non-human creatures.

It is also in part thanks to his novel.

“I would really love to have a pet in my life, but after writing a book on inter-species communication, I don’t know how I would tell a dog that I was leaving for three days and that he would live in a kennel.

“It bothers me a bit that I can’t communicate well. “

However, she sits down and watches, often from her home office, the domestic cats roaming the large backyard of her property.

“Rather than getting mad at them, it’s good to sit down for a bit and be like, ‘OK, what are they doing? How do they work? Maybe I can make a space for them, which means they don’t dig my yard, but they’re fine.

“If a fly comes into the house, I talk to it and say, ‘Look, we don’t like you. You are not welcome here. Go out. We haven’t invited you. My partner said to me: “Are you talking to flies? “”

Writing such a work is a big investment. Although it took seven years to create, the seeds were sown over a decade ago, when McKay began recording his first thoughts on paper.

At the beginning of the book, there was a different beast, located on a farm rather than the animal park where it had settled.

McKay talks to his partner Tom Doig while signing books at Bruce McKenzie Booksellers in Palmerston North.


McKay talks to his partner Tom Doig while signing books at Bruce McKenzie Booksellers in Palmerston North.

The turning point came a year or two into writing when McKay was in residence at a wildlife park in the Northern Territory, where she lived in a trailer for three months.

There were captive animals, but also their wild counterparts, and McKay recorded, photographed, watched and observed all she could for the atmospheric details so carefully woven into The animals of this country.

She also observed humans, such as how rangers grabbed their portable radios by the back of their belts like a cop would with a gun.

It was a special experience, even though she often waited to go to the bathroom.

“I was going to see a python in the reptile section and then I would come back to the trailer and there was this 3.5 meter olive python lying in front of my entry into the bathroom, and I couldn’t get in there. because she was there. She was taking the sun.

“Every day at the same time, she would go out and lay down in the sun, and she lived on top of the laundry, so when you went to do your laundry you would look up and see that face looking at you. It was just amazing.

McKay’s humility and quickness in congratulating others, like his “great editor” or the “wonderful in-laws” who sent him a congratulatory bouquet of flowers, comes after years of hard work.

Its success does not come from nowhere. Collection of stories Cambodia vacations – exploring the role of expatriates in the Asian country, where McKay has spent years traveling for humanitarian work and in residency to help writers – has been well received and his stories are widely published.

McKay views writing a novel as a three-step process. First, turn the 70,000 words into something that looks like a story. The next difficult step is to rewrite and reverse the work.

“This stage is really difficult and heartbreaking, and it can last for months to years. This is a really nasty step because your novel looks bad. You tear pieces of it out, you put pieces in it, and you think it’s never going to end. “

McKay has his novel.  In September, she won the Arthur C Clarke Award for Science Fiction Writing.


McKay has his novel. In September, she won the Arthur C Clarke Award for Science Fiction Writing.

Finally, there’s the refinement, getting the job done in the kind of form an editor can work with.

“This third draft is quite pleasant. At this point you’re like, I have this thing. Not only is it 70,000 words, but it also makes sense and has characters and a story.

She has had enlightening adventures along the way. A trip to America included attending a chimpanzee rights court case and meeting Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee Bubbles at a retreat for retired animal showbiz stars.

It also includes a severe attack of chikungunya fever due to a mosquito bite in Bali. The effects lasted for a few years and were so severe that McKay remembers it being too painful to get out of his couch for a drink of water.

So far, it’s hard for McKay to say how his success sinks.

Since the 2020 lockdown, promotional tours have been held and awards have been held online, including the Arthur C Clarke.

Broadcast on the BBC, of ​​which McKay is proud, the ceremony began around 7.15am NZT. She got up at 6, got dressed, won the award and later that morning came back to real life.

“The zoom ends and I am alone in a room. I will go out and my partner will be able to make noise again. We do the dishes and watch television.

“I don’t really have a clue how it made a difference, how it might have affected the way people might read my work or how many people read it. “

McKay is working on another plot, but it’s still in its infancy.

Level 2 alert restrictions keep her at home and there is plenty of inspiration to be found as she strolls to her desk, on the floral patterned rug and in front of a bookcase filled with classic tomes and records. of music, including Bowie and The Beatles.

She has lived in Palmerston North for a few years, moving with Doig, her partner of 10 years and friend of 20 years.

“It’s been tough with the pandemic because when I moved to Palmerston North I was like, ‘Great, this is a place I can get on a plane and I can be home in seven hours if anything. something is wrong or if I just want to go back to my family ”.

“I had planned Australian tours for the book. I was going to do a lot of back and forth … but then the pandemic hit and I was only able to go home once. “

Palmerston North is similar to where she spent time as a child, Sale in Victoria.

The former McKay and Doig State House in the 1940s at Savage Cres is part of a project to strengthen the community. And, says McKay, decades later, it still works, as neighbors and passers-by regularly stop to talk.

They may not know it, but they are talking to a master of his craft.

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Tags : sci fi
Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson