Briohny Doyle on elegy, time and the non-human world

Briohny Doyle on elegy, time and the non-human world

Briohny Doyle writes extraordinary fiction. Echolalia was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2021, and in 2023 she released Why We Are Here.

Briohny is a lecturer in creative writing at The University of Sydney and a former Fulbright scholar, and her writing also appears in The Monthly, The Guardian, Meanjin, The Griffith Review, and The Age.

Briohny Doyle on elegy, time and the non-human world


ASTRID: Briohny, it is so good to speak to you again. We last spoke via Zoom back in 2021, and I confess I have almost no memory of that conversation because it was 2021, but at that point we were talking about your previous novel Echolalia and hope I said that right. I'm sure I said it back in the day, but I still find myself thinking about the images in that book, the dried up lake that features in that novel now inhabits my mind two years later, and I don't know whether to thank you for that or not because it is a distressing image. But I wanted to let you know I still have it there.

BRIOHNY: I mean, I'm glad, but I'm also sorry.

ASTRID: It's a bit like that. But now we get to speak about your new work, Why We Are Here. This is also a beautiful work in a very, very different way. It is a work of beauty, a work of grief an elegy. It is a work reminding me what it was like to live through the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, because that is where a large chunk of it is set. Can you introduce us to Why We Are Here?

BRIOHNY: Yeah, so Why We Are Here is a novel about a woman who moves in, essentially into an apartment, this incredible old, glamorous apartment on her own. After multiple bereavement, she loses her husband and her father or partner and her father, and then she moves into this place and then she gets locked down again. It's that time in between the 2019 and 2021. See, we've all lost track of time there. It's also a novel about time. Anyway, she's in this strange little village, suburb, outpost, and she is mistaken for a dog trainer and she kind of sees that as her into sort of get to know this area.

But it's really a novel of interiorities and a novel of, as you said, elegy for the people that she's lost, but also thinking about collective and individual grief, crisis and ruminating over this idea of aftermath. It's a work of auto fiction. It's also kind of a magical book as far as I'm concerned. It's a book that's to do with human and non-human relationships, not just with the dogs, but also with the birds and the coastline, and it's also about moments of connection and how much they pull us through and keep us alive in lots of ways. And it's a funny book, I think. It's a book about gritting your teeth and gallows humour and finding those moments of levity where you can. So yeah, and I've got to say at the very start of the podcast, no dogs die in this book.

I've had a few people say, does the dog die? And it's like, no dogs die. And then I was like, I would never kill a dog in a book. But then I thought about Echolalia and I was like, no, it's fair that you think that I would kill the dog.

ASTRID: No dogs die in this book, for which I was very grateful because the dogs that feature in this book have as much of a starring role as people that feature in this book. I want to talk about the dogs. Baby, the dog, but I want us to go straight into the pandemic part of it so we can get that out of the way. This is not a pandemic novel. It all happens in the background. It is the protagonist, the narrator's experience of existing in Australia in that time. And the protagonist moves from Highbourne to Silver City, which I'm assuming is moving from Melbourne to Sydney. Well done, and sorry that Sydney went into lockdown.

The reason I want to talk about this is, this is only the second time I have seen that experience of the pandemic in Australia appear in fiction. It also appeared in Sophie Cunningham's This Devastating Fever and that work was also a bit of auto fiction and had Sophie's zoom fort where she was on a meeting with her laptop propped up on pillars all fall apart. That happened to me. And so, Sophie's zoom fort will always be part of my pandemic experience, but also you taught and the protagonist teaches throughout the pandemic and you put that on the page and that is my experience, was my experience, and it was a disastrous and painful and eye-opening experience. So, after that big emotional dump from me, how did you do it? Because everyone fucking hates the pandemic.

BRIOHNY: Look, I hated the pandemic and I didn't set out to capture the pandemic, but my project with this book was very time specific. The narrative itself is engaged with time, but also the way I was writing was very much to do with time. When I started writing the book, I hadn't been locked down again, so it wasn't my intention, but it was my intention to do a book that would be written over a controlled period of time and would address the present. I wanted to be writing into the present. I actually thought we were beyond the pandemic lockdowns at that point, but that's not what happened. I found myself addressing that just because that was what was happening and it is auto fiction, and I was working with constraints in various different ways, particularly in relation to time and in relation to the dead characters who are just voices essentially in the book. Those are the things that I didn't want to mess with. Just by virtue of that, I had to address the pandemic. And I also think this is auto fiction, the experience of grief that is in this book is my experience of grief.

I lost my partner and father, but also losing people in the pandemic, it's such a specific thing. It does something specific to how you engage with time, your inability to have funerals or your inability to connect with people in the same ways that we usually would, but also there's a part of grief that is withdrawal. In some ways it makes it kind of a more universal experience, like everyone has withdrawn. And so this experience of having these very specific emotional kind of experiences that everybody did, I think, regardless of what their situation was, and then having to stare into the zoom screen and just kind of pretend that everything is okay and keep things going, it just felt to me like I was writing this stuff down, not knowing what would make the final book or what it would be, but once it was done, I was like, no, this is really important to document this, I think because we need literature that speaks to our times as they're happening.

I know that people are sick of it, but also you don't want to just gloss over a whole period of time and a really specific set of behaviours and ways of living just because it's a bit boring for you at that time, or you'd rather not think about it. And I addressed this in the book in a lot of the thinking and writing and academic scholarship about the Spanish flu, they're like, oh, why was there never any Spanish flu books? And then they're like, oh, well actually, if you read Virginia Wolf through the prism of the Spanish flu, you'll see that it's in there. I guess I was interested in explicitly engaging with our specific time. And I think in my work, I'm often interested in that. I'm interested in situating my characters and my story specifically in a time and saying what led to this and what are the implications of it?

So that felt like that same sort of investigation to me. And as you know, Astrid, the experience of teaching during the pandemic, it was crazy. It was just kind of sitting in front of a screen and you're all yearning for this connection and all kind of making these paltry attempts at it, but also all very isolated in your own experience, which is both common and utterly unconnected.

ASTRID: The experience of teaching in the pandemic deserves its own academic literature. It is a specific area where everybody fell apart and pretended not to. I want to stress for those listening, this is not a pandemic novel. It's not triggering, it won't make you feel bad about those experiences. I found it quite therapeutic, and I don't normally read for therapy in that sense, but I felt seen in that aspect. But also, this is a novel of grief, and I also wanted to say Briohny, in my late twenties, I lost my partner.

BRIOHNY: Oh, I didn't know that.

ASTRID: And there are extremely few novels that have captured the experience for me. And even though… well, grief never ends, but I was not grieving during the pandemic your depiction of the experience of grief really resonated with me, unlike some other contemporary works in Australia that didn't. And I just wanted to say that on record. Beautiful work.

BRIOHNY: I mean, I'm so sorry you had that experience. It's such a specific thing to lose a partner when you're young and starting your life, but it's wonderful to hear that that resonated because I was looking for things that would resonate and you'd go to a grief group and or a partner's grief group and everyone's in their sixties or seventies and you're just like, oh. So to the extent that it can be helpful text, that's amazing to me. That's great to hear.

ASTRID: I really think so. And I think that if that is someone's experience, Why We Are Here is a beautiful novel for them to engage with at some point. It's beautiful novel for everybody else as well. As you said, this is auto fiction, and so of course you have put some of yourself in there. I think it's for the reader to experience what you are sharing of yourself. But as a writer and a creator, I'd like to ask you kind of that decision of why you wanted to share it with the world.

BRIOHNY: So this particular writing project didn't come from the impulse to share anything with the world. People who are listening who are dying for that publishing contract or whatever might roll their eyes there. But honestly, at the point that I was writing this, it was the thing I could write.

I would try and sit down and write other things. I have other plot outlines and for different kinds of books, and it just wasn't happening for me. This book felt urgent. It felt like the book that I had in me at that time, and I wasn't even sure it was a book, I was just like, I want to write auto fiction. I want to write into the present. I want to be in the present. I had the voices of my father and my partner in my head all the time, and I didn't want to exorcise them. I wanted to live with them, and I wanted to keep them and capture them. I know as well that the voices of people you've lost get quieter and less insistent. And in some sense, I wanted to keep them in this level of urgency and here in the present because I wanted to keep them with me.

So this is what I was doing. And then the other thing, of course, is that by the time I was locked down, it was a fun project of imagining myself into this space. So it wasn't that I wanted to share with the world, but it was just that I needed to write and this is what I needed to write. Then at the point when I had my time ran out, I was very much like, I'll finish this first draught or whatever it is by the end of, what was it, 2021, same year Echolalia came out. And then because I didn't want anything else to happen that I felt like I had to write into the story, so I was like, I'll just do that. Things are pretty chaotic, probably something else dreadful or full on will happen. And then I put it to the side.

I didn't even think that I had written an ending. When I came back to it in February of the next year, I was like, oh, the ending is there. And it was just exactly the right ending for the story. So then I sent it off to my agent and with a query of like, is this a novel? I had hoped at that point, which I think turned out to be true, that it was one of those novels that people, they'll either love or be like, no, not for me, because it's quite sprawling and it's got a lot of interiority. But I also hoped that it would be one of those books where people are like, how did you do that? Because I always read Maggie Nelson. I read all of those people and I'm like how though? How did you structure that novel?

And I think, so a big part of writing this novel for me was I wanted space in my practise. I wanted to open things up. I didn't want to plot everything like I had with Echolalia. I didn't want to constrain myself in any way. I didn't want to have to tell the truth or have to make everything up or have to have a point. I just wanted to let it all happen. So that's how I did this book, and I don't think that's going to become my process or whatever. I just think in a very specific time and place, that was what I had to do. And luckily my agent and editors agreed that it was a book in the end.

ASTRID: I also agreed that it is a book. It is a wonderful book, Briohny. In the book, the narrator kind of reflects on the fact that what they were writing, that was comedic, humorous, just wasn't going anywhere. It wasn't working. Do you have that kind of failed manuscript in the drawer somewhere or?

BRIOHNY:I The failed manuscript for this was actually not a comedy at all. It was a big epic about rich people paying to sport hunt endangered rhinoceros. It was set across three or four continents. It was in different decades. It was a very elaborate novel. It wasn't funny. And it just didn't feel. When your whole world is reduced to apartment, walking around, talking on the phone, zooming into your students. I don't know. I'm just not the kind of writer who could suddenly put myself in Kenya in 1963 or in the brain of a drone or whatever, my imagination was keeping me in the present and keeping the present magical. In the book BB, the protagonist is constantly talking about writing a funny novel about a funny young protagonist.

And I do. I often kind of yearn for that version of myself that would have written the rom-com, and for lots of reasons, some of them purely for fun and to not have so much of myself and of staring at the uncomfortable parts of life in my writing because I think it would a fun publication experience that I've never had. But with BB, it was just the comedy is that she's kind of trying to push towards this light, funny, young character, but she herself is a funny character, not young, not old, just kind of in the middle of things, just reaching out for stuff she might be while at the same time I really like that character. There's a lot of me in it, but there's also a lot of just the various things. BB became her own adventurous self as well. So yeah, I think she's a funny character, I think.

ASTRID:  I agree. And I just want to put on record that I will desperately line up to read and buy that sprawling epic about lions, please, and I will be your audience… Which brings us to animals and animals are everywhere, and part of Why We Are Here. From the very first scene as BB is walking the dog Baby and meets a man. And then we got introduced to a new dog, a Doberman, and the story starts. Can you talk to me about the non-human and relationships between humans and non-humans?

BRIOHNY: Yeah, so I'm a dog person, and the Baby character is really based on my experience of living with dogs my whole adult life. I think when you live with a dog or also with another kind of animal, when you're living in a multi-species dwelling where you have to find a common language and a way to communicate with each other that is not language in the spoken way, it's a really specific experience. You become a little emotional network. I wanted to capture that on the page.

I wanted to do that, but I also wanted to kind of show how in the development of that communication, we find something of ourselves as well. But I also wanted to show how thinking about the more than human, the non-human, the natural world, I'm doing kind of air quotes around that, but the natural world, how sustaining it is in those moments where you kind of feel the world shrink around you, grief, possibly for some people during the pandemic, when there's crisis, when things feel really intractable, what it feels like to watch a bird surfing on the wind, on a headland, what it feels like to have the birds come to your window, what it feels like to be a creature among creatures, and to give yourself that break, to cut yourself that break of, okay, human society as I know it isn't the only thing.

This interfacing with these other things is kind of what keeps you alive and in the present. I wanted to demonstrate that on the page. And I also just wanted to, dogs are so funny and they tell us so much, and they're so funny to engage with, and they're so funny to write actually, because in this book, I write them from BB's perspective, obviously, but they've got so much to tell her and so much to share with her as far as she's concerned.

ASTRID: Near the end of the novel, there is a long communication between the protagonist and Baby, the dog. And it's long. It's about a page, and you almost had me in tears. I live with cats, and I was suddenly thinking, oh my God, what are they trying to tell me and what am I missed and do they resent me? And I went down the emotional cat rabbit hole. It was a beautiful perspective coming from the non-human.

Briohny Doyle: Yeah, great. This whole novel was very loose in its creation, and I didn't know I was going to do that. But when I started just doing this speech in this particular spot, I was just like, yeah, this is exactly what needs to happen, both in terms of the protagonist's psychological state as to where she's gotten to with how hooked into the natural world, and she is, and how much of a schism it is from her life amongst human beings. But also, I just felt like the pivotal speech needed to belong to the dog. The dog knows, the dog has been through it all. The dog has all the wisdom in this and has been sharing it the whole time.

And while the humans are all tying themselves in knots, questing, the dog is just steadfast standing there, letting you know, this is what we're doing. We're here. We're just walking. We're just being together. We're just eating sandwiches and throwing balls, and that's why we're here. That's what we're doing.

ASTRID: It's a lovely moment actually. In addition to exploring the non-human, you are also exploring the process of creation, the writing craft, and literally as the title suggests, asking some really profound philosophical questions that can't necessarily and shouldn't be answered, but I almost thought you were speaking to me the way it's written, it's asking the reader to stop and to think about their particular answer to the various questions that you pose. Who should survive, who should get to live together. Their heart. I don't know what the technical word is, but I felt like you kind of changed style and were talking to me, and I guess I'm asking for the craft element of these questions.

BRIOHNY: So there's moments of direct address for sure in the novel. And I also have a number of different devices for allowing quotation and citation without moving into essay terrain. There's a prison nearby BB's apartment, and she can hear the intercom or thinks that she can, but they just quote philosophers and writers, and I put that there so that she could be like, oh, just let the quote in so that the reader can just sit with the quote so that you're not going according to blah, blah. They say this, and I want to respond to it in this way now. I just wanted to let those moments of other wisdom out there in. And then the directness I think is, I guess I was sort of addressing myself, but also addressing my friends and family and my community because these are urgent questions.

How do we go on? How do we move forward from what has been happening to us. And I mean, this speaks to that very thing of like, oh, we've all got pandemic fatigue and we don't want to engage with it. That's very well. However, we are in the aftermath of something that was serious. And just to act like we can go back to how it was before and pretend that it won't happen again and that it hasn't affected us, and I think that that doesn't seem wise to me. It doesn't seem wise to me from the position of someone who's processing and processed grief. It doesn't seem wise to me from a political stance in terms of how we're going to move forward into the future. I wanted to have it as a provocation. Of course, we're tired. God, I'm so tired. But also, that doesn't make the immediacy and the importance of the moment any less.

We need to rise to the challenges in our life. And even if that's just asking questions like what's important to me? What makes my life meaningful? How can I feel comfortable engaging in my community and my society? How do I connect meaningfully and ethically? Yeah.

ASTRID: They are such important questions, and I agree with you wholeheartedly. Which kind of brings me to a question about publishing, the act of publishing and the publishing industry itself. In the work, you ask questions about publishing trauma and grief and the trauma economy and what might get you a contract, which you referred to earlier in this interview. I guess I kind of wanted to ask your thoughts on the trauma economy and processing grief in the way that we sometimes see done in Australia, which is nothing like what you have done in Why We Are Here.

BRIOHNY: No part of me wanted to write a grief memoir or a trauma memoir. No part of me wanted to do that. And in fact, in parts of the book, I am kind of unpacking that the drive for people to put themselves out there for public consumption, which I think is writ large, I have my students, I have so many students that want to write trauma, and I'm like, why do they want to write trauma? And I think, oh, it's just because that's what's happening at the moment. And I think part of the point of having humour in this book was to kind of de-deify trauma, capital-T trauma or something like that. We live, things happen. It's hard, it's difficult. The creating of traumatic artefacts or something seems to me to be kind of a strange commercial enterprise in a way. That said, obviously in some ways I have used my own personal experience and ended up publishing it.

But yeah, like you said, no one is selling this book or pitching this book on the idea that it's just all about a trauma and all of that. It's not really exploring that. It's more outward facing and thinking about how we narrate and how we sit with the things that have happened to us and how we keep ourselves, I guess. And to speak personally, and there is a section of the book that speaks to this, is this probably happened to you Astrid, and I'm very sorry. But when people would go, you'll never be the same again. You'll never be the same again. And I thought, oh God, I liked me. I've lost the love of my life. Now I have to lose myself too? Is there not some way that I can keep at least some of both of these people? I think I was trying to play with that as well.

In the language of trauma, it's always very violent. It's always about wounding and loss and obliteration, and I wanted to kind of get up to the edge of that and then pull back and find levity in those small moments of hilarity and connection and all of that kind of stuff. And yet, in relation to publishing, it's a tricky one because we churn through in the Australian publishing industry, we churn through those memoirs and they splash in, and then they're gone in a year or two. Sometimes I just worry. I think God, the people who shared that, and then it's a book, and even I'm experiencing this to some extent with this book, then it's a book and it's out there sitting on a shelf somewhere and then it's gone. And I think like God, there's a lot of different conflated needs and desires. The desire to connect, the desire to share, the desire to unpack a trauma, the desire to have a book contract and and all of this kind of stuff is there. It's a big mess around that stuff. I don't know. I don't know exactly how, I'm not against it, but I just feel like, gosh, it's a full-on thing to do.

ASTRID: It is a full-on thing to do. I have one final question for you, Briohny, which is kind how you interrogated place. So Highbourne is Melbourne and Silver City is Sydney. I grew up in Sydney. I felt like I recognised Silver City and how it acted during the pandemic. And I now live in Victoria in Melbourne, and I definitely recognise that as well. That is hard to do. I guess your thoughts on telling the story of a place which you create so beautifully in the home that you live in, but also the geographical surrounds and your five kilometre radius in Silver City.

BRIOHNY: Well, I mean, the place is based on the place where I still live, which I'd never been to before. It is a suburb on the coastal outskirts of Sydney, or not even outskirts, I guess. It's the most southern east beach or something. My Sydney geography is still not great. It's such an evocative place.

And as soon as I came here, it was the first time I'd ever been here, being just between those lockdowns. And I was just like, my God, look at this place. It has the rifle range and which had military training at some point. It has a wastewater treatment plant. It's surrounded by golf courses. It was really working class at some point, but now it's absolutely bougie rich. And it's just seemed to me to be so emblematic of Sydney as a place. It just seemed to have all of those… and like the dried-up lake in Echolalia, it evokes something about class in Australia without you having to be like, no, I'm going to talk to you about class in Australia.

And I kept saying to my friends, when I first got this really short-term lease on this really amazing a apartment, I kept saying, oh, don't let me pitch an essay. Don't let me pitch an essay. And then of course, simultaneously, I was like writing this book. I don't know why I didn't put that together. It's like, you don't need to pitch an essay because you're writing this book. But yeah, it seemed to me the perfect setting to think through the way we live in Australia, the egregious colonial violence that we continually perpetuate. There's nothing like some of the most beautiful coastline you've ever seen, totally dominated by golf courses. And only used pretty much by a very small percentage of the population, which is men and women, mostly white, mostly over 50, and this whole area of land, just crazy to me. And then this idea that I'd never been here before to this particular beach because it was so polluted all through the nineties, that no one swam here.

There's all of this kind of stuff about the environmental, about the colonial, about, I call it in the novel, suspicious suburban fence peering. The way that there can be communities that are suspicious of each other. They're not really communities. And what it feels like to be able to sort of infiltrate them as an outsider was sort of how I positioned Baby and her. She meets all of these various dogs from the people around there, and through meeting the dog, she gets to sit in their backyards and drink wine spritzes with them and do all that kind of stuff, and kind of unpack what's going on in this gentrifying, but also kind of deeply entitled and oblivious area that she's landed in. And it's like, well, it's nice to live by the sea and it feels great. Everyone feels great, but there's this sense that the people around her aren't really unpacking that in any way.

They're just kind of like, yeah, we deserve it. And I think that's a very Australian attitude. We just, yeah, we get this. We should keep it for ourselves. I don't know. Yeah, so that was my unpacking here. And also, it is just such a visually interesting place when you're in lockdown, when you just start cluing onto things like the trees, the birds, the ocean, seeing the same things every day, becoming very, very connected to seasons and stuff like that.

ASTRID: You captured it perfectly Briohny.

BRIOHNY: Thank you.

ASTRID: I would like to recommend everybody read Why We Are Here Here. It is absolutely a wonderful piece of literature. Congratulations Briohny.

BRIOHNY: Thank you so much, Astrid. Thank you for having me. This was a wonderful talk.