Laura Jean McKay on writing our present and future

Laura Jean McKay on writing our present and future

Laura Jean McKay is a fiction writer, and her latest work is the short story collection Gunflower. Her previous novel, The Animals in That Country, was awarded the international Arthur C. Clarke Award, as well as the Victorian Prize for Literature and the ABIA Small Publishers Adult Book of the Year. Laura was awarded the NZSA Waitangi Day Literary Honours in 2022.

Laura Jean McKay on writing our present and future


ASTRID: Laura, it is very exciting to talk to you.

LAURA: It's so exciting to talk to you.

ASTRID: We are recording in late-ish 2023. Before we go into your new work, a short story collection called Gunflower, I wanted to take a step back and ask you, and remind everybody listening, about The Animals in That Country, which I checked, was published in March 2020. Now, that is about a pandemic that allows humans and animals to understand each other. Reflecting back from this point in 2023, back on what happened in 2020, since then, I wanted to ask, how do you feel about that work now? And I should say for those listening, this is a highly awarded work in Australia, in the literary ecosystem here, but also externally, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which is very fancy.

LAURA: I feel about The Animals in That Country... I mean, it has been a wild ride from the very beginning of that book. It took me about seven years. I tell people that it took me seven years to write, but it really took me 10, just between you and I. It was a hard book to write, it was a big book to write. Writing a multispecies work, I think, is always more difficult than just focusing on human characters. But I didn't expect for it to be launched into this other world I'd written about, about a world that I thought was so weird, and so impossible, and then suddenly, we were living it. Looking back, it seems very natural that I was writing about those topics. I mean, we now live in a time where we've experienced a recent pandemic. We've experienced extraordinary climate catastrophe, or the beginning of such, and we're experiencing extraordinary species loss. And these are the things that I'm touching on in that work, and a lot of other writers are now touching on this as well. A number of books came out before mine, at the same time as mine, and after, and we're responding to the world around us. And sometimes that seems prescient, but it's just our writerly sponge-like selves, sucking in all of what is happening in the world, the good and the bad, and then and then regurgitating into literary form.

ASTRID: Now, thinking of Gunflower, it's a short story collection, and I've been musing on this, what makes a good short story? And I mean that in quite like a specific way, you don't have 200 or 300 pages to take your reader on an in-depth journey, you have a page or two or 10. And yet you still, as the creator, as the writer behind the words, you still gif your reader with something. How do you understand or approach the short story form?

LAURA: The short story spans a really lovely place, even though it's very much prose based, it's I think it spans poetry and longer prose. With the short story, every single word counts or it has to go. Kurt Vonnegut has a lovely list of how to write a short story, and one of his points is that every sentence should deepen the character or advanced the action. I really agree with that. And it is a way to just attack a single moment and get into that space, purely with just a few characters, to really dwell on one important point.

In one of the stories in Gunflower, I have a group of chickens who live in a battery farm. And you know, it's in this collective ‘we’ voice. I wanted to experiment with that collective voice for a group of animals who where all stuck together. I think for an entire novel, it would be a very, very difficult voice to maintain, but this short story is only a few pages long. And for me, it just helps me to understand my relationship with chickens and the world. It's the one that a few readers who have read Gunflower so far, I think that's the one that they seem to resonate with most.

ASTRID: Yes, that short story is called ‘Those Last Days of Summer’, and that one will not be leaving me, Laura. I wanted to go into that particular story from the point of view. You've just expressed it is as the ‘we’ is the collective. But also, I found that quite difficult. My mind goes straight into it, and I understood what was happening and it was pleasurable from the reading experience, but the experience of those chickens, chickens inhabiting that point of view, inhabiting that world, is horrific. How do you place yourself in that?

LAURA: It was a commissioned work, actually. It's in direct response to a piece of artwork by Jade Burstall and her artwork, called ‘Trading Futures’. Basically, I was given this artwork and not told anything about it and asked to respond to it in short story form. You know, I love that. I wish people would send me little prompts like that every week. It was some golden eggs smashed on the ground. And for some reason, it just launched me into this world of money, of animals for profit, of the strange collective experience that animals that are forced into intense experiences have, and also the fact that they have lives, they live whole lives in there. And maybe those lives are horrific, and often we don't want to think about it. We don't want to think about where the eggs come from, we just want to eat them, or we'll do what we will with them. But there's a beautiful theory by Vinciane Despret, who says every animal has the right to want. And what she's saying is that even if you're stuck in a cage and you're on top of your friends and you're pumping out eggs, you still have the right to want something – water, some food, a little more space. And that's a life. And so those theories and that idea and that artwork helped me to imagine myself into a small cage for a moment and what it's like to live out a life there.

ASTRID:  You know, that one pushed something in me. I don't know what you're trying to get at in your reader, but you certainly pushed something in me. I guess that leads me to another question I wanted to interrogate with you. In any collection or long form work, you know, like The Animals in That Country, you're creating a piece of art, but are you also at some point, even if it's just at the publication stage, aware of your reader, aware of your audience? How would you like your audience to respond?

LAURA: I've been thinking about this question lately. I was told when I was much younger, a starting writer, that you have to have an audience member in mind, even if it's only one person, or if it's a whole heap of people or a type of person. But I realized that I write for myself, to myself and for myself. And this sounds very selfish and very focused. But I think that writing is my way of making sense of the world. And I want to reach readers, that's all I really want to do. When I write I certainly don't just write and put it in a drawer, I want it to be out there. But I don't think I'm ever asking readers to think a certain thing, or form opinions a certain way, or read the story in a particular sense. But that also means that I think I wear my politics on my writerly sleeve. Back in the day, I was told that you're not supposed to do that, you know, it has to be about the human experience, it has to be about character and voice. And usually, it should be essentially the story of the man alone going on a journey, even if it's a feminized version of that. But I think what we're seeing now in writing is that a lot of people are saying, well, no, that's not my story. That's not our story. That's not the world story. So how can we tell stories that tap into universal themes? I think the universal themes behind Gunflower – which is how I've organized the collection, into the ideas of birth, and life and death – these are states that are shared with every living being, every animal on this planet. We're born and we live and we die. There's no one alive who can get away from those experiences.

ASTRID: I'd like to go back to what you referred to a few moments ago, that earlier in your writer career people told you that you shouldn't do that ,you shouldn't make it apparent maybe what your personal politics or convictions are. That really astounds me. And I know it happens and it has happened, and it is a thing that exists that but like, was that from editors? Was that from publishers? Who was that from? I don't know, universities, where was that coming from?

LAURA: It was coming from readers, I think. I was given that advice a few times. I went through the university system and creative writing and had friends who were readers. It's terrible advice. But it's also good advice. I'm conflicted about that one. On the one hand, I do think that having a grounding in things like character driven stories, and stories that have a deep emotional voice, and stories that connect with broader issues on a very personal level, I think that that is good practice. And that's very traditional, Western literary writing, and there's, there's something to be said with that form. There's also a lot to be said for experimentation. And once you have those things, breaking out of those boxes, those ideas, and saying, ‘I really believe in this, I really believe in battery hens, I don't want them to have this experience. And I want you to know how they might be living, or one version of how they might be living’.

Another aspect of fiction, like in the hen story, is that it's a way to show great harm and violence without causing any to the people or animals that you're representing. Hopefully, of course. There are problems with representation. But in that scenario, you can show the situation of battery hens without having to go and go and film them or something like that.

ASTRID: Okay, until you said the word representation in this context of battery hens, I had not interrogated the idea of a problem with representation in that story. I just have to say, I missed that one, Laura.

LAURA: Well, I mean, I am representing a group who can't speak for themselves, or in the same language. I mean, representation and fiction are such a fascinating and an important topic. And I'm thrilled that we're having these conversations now.

ASTRID: Me too, as a forever reader. I'm excited. Yes.

I wanted to talk about the short story within the collection also called Gunflower. I read it twice. It's another one where you have prompted things to rattle around in my mind. I feel like I'm not going to do it justice, would you introduce the listener to it, and if you're happy with spoilers, I'm very happy with spoilers.

LAURA: I'm happy with spoilers. So Gunflower is a story about a lost at sea abortion ship. A woman in the United States needs and wants to have an abortion and travels with her partner to a ship, which is going to collect them off Georgia’s coast. She's traveling to the ship to make the point that this is what some people need to do to be able to access abortion services, and suddenly the United States is in a similar position to one that many, many countries have already faced. She boards the ship, which is called Gunflower and run by an all-female crew. As the ship goes off into the ocean they realize that they lost at sea, the land has disappeared. What was America is not there before. What was her homeland isn't there before. And she finds herself in a country which is a ship, searching for something, searching for her rights to her body, searching for an America that she thought she knew but she doesn't know any more, and searching I guess for a new life with this community of women.

ASTRID: The short story references the decision in the United States of America that overturned Roe v. Wade. Was this story written indirect response to that decision? Or was it already percolating in your mind because America was in and remains in a dire state.

LAURA: I have been thinking about this story for a long time. It was the start of a novel that I didn't know how to write, which has become another novel. And the captain of the ship, Hannah, is currently in the novel that I'm writing at the moment. But I didn't know how to tell this story. Even though reproductive rights are a huge issue all over the world and remain so, I didn't feel very close to the story, because I live in Australia and had access to these services. This, when this happened in the United States, even though that is a country that's very far away from me, that has nothing to do with me, of course, we're very influenced by the States here, and by Western politics. It had a big impact. I realized that that was the story I wanted to tell, that it was the title of the collection, and that it was going to be the centerpiece of the short story collection. It was a hard one to write, a bit like The Animals in That Country, it felt a little bit like a novella, to be honest. And my publisher, Marika Webb-Pullman at Scribe, and I probably put the most work into that story. It wasn't working, it wasn't working, and I said, it has to work. And she trusted me, thank goodness. And I made it happen. But it was not an easy one to write, a big abortion ship story, I'll tell you.

ASTRID: There is a lot in there. I want to note that you are writing a book with Hannah, the captain, and then I'm going to come back to that. But before I do, when you say it was a difficult one to write, it wasn't working, the subject matter could be counted as difficult, but I also suspect you're referring to the form of the story. Can you unpick how you knew it wasn't working or why it wasn't working in a way that was going to work for you?

LAURA: I had this idea that it would be written like a New Yorker piece, and that it was going to be a non-fiction piece that wasn't a non-fiction piece. And that this woman was a journalist and was going to come in and do a story about this ship. You know, I had this piece and it was 12,000 words, and it was so fantastic. And I was just in love with it. And I always tell my publisher, rip through my work, you know, don't hold back, make me cry, I don't want to send it out there without it being as best as I can make it. But this piece I wanted to send to her and for her to say it's great, don't touch a word. Instead, I got it back and she took away the first 3,500 words. I was so sad, it was so heartbreaking. It was the very definition of ‘kill your darlings’. She said I don't know what isn't working about it, but it isn't working, and this is a suggestion. I raged against it for a while, and then I realized that of course she was right. Basically, we talked about the fact that it's enough to have a story about a lost at sea abortion ship, it doesn't need all of this other sort of tricky, crafty voice in there that's pretending to be non-fiction. In a way I needed to reach in and find the heart of the story, what was the story really about. I'm a huge editor, I love editing my work, and I loved rewriting after I get over the heartbreak of losing the start. And so, once I found what I was looking for and found the voice of the main character… the character was a lot younger. Initially, I think she was in her late 20s. And then I made the new character, the same age as me at the time. That was a really lovely moment to just say, Okay, this woman is in a heterosexual relationship and she's pregnant and she doesn't want to have this baby, and she should be able to make that choice. That that presented a little bit of an extra conflict in the piece that, you know, there's arguments were in the States where women can only get abortions under violent, particular circumstances, but reproductive rights are rights to choose to have a baby or to choose not to have a baby.

ASTRID: Absolutely. It goes both ways. Now, let's talk about the idea of this becoming a novel. Is it going to focus on the captain? And this is really silly, and I don't mean to ask something that like is trying to lock you into, you know, part of a creative work that hasn't been written. But is America there in this story? Or is it all left behind?

LAURA: Strangely… so Captain Hannah is like another figure in the novel at the moment. And to be honest, I don't even know that she will stay. She's just helping me along, and she almost haunts the novel. She's there but never in the actual into the text as a figure. It's just her voice there. But I often wonder if she will stay. I feel like for some reason she's very, very huge to me as a character figure, and I needed to write her into Gunflower and I needed to write her into this novel, but she might not stay, she might just be helping me along.

ASTRID: And one further question just because this is a writing podcast, like will it be published in less than seven years?

LAURA: I mean, I had hoped to finish it by the end of this year, that won't happen. Now I have this rosy date of the end of next year, that will also not happen. It's just I seem to be able to crack out short stories. Sometimes they come out fully formed and I'm really happy with them. Sometimes they take a little bit longer. I seem to be able to understand that form easily and see the world through that form. I think novels – unfortunately, because I love writing novels – will always be hard for me. The Animals in That Country, every sentence was a beautiful struggle. This new novel is exactly the same. I take heart from The Animals in That Country – it was so awful for so long, and then finally I got it. At the moment, this new novel is really awful. And at some point, one day, I'm going to wake up and it will be okay.

ASTRID: I am looking forward to that Laura. Changing tack a little bit, as I was reading Gunflower and thinking back to The Animals in That Country, I started to remember a recent interview I did with Robbie Arnott. It was at Canberra Writers Festival about a month ago. I asked him, because he also writes about, in a very different way, but also about place and land and people and animals. I asked him what it is like and how he navigates being a Settler writer on Stolen Land, writing so intimately about the non-human and the land. I wanted to ask you the same question. How do you navigate that?

LAURA: I think this isn't navigation. You know, I am constantly aware that I'm of colonial heritage, and that every land, every country that I take up residence on in this continent is stolen. And really, a lot of my research and fascination has been in post-colonial theory and increasingly, I guess, deep colonization. And so, everything I write as a writer from here has colonization in mind. Then on the other hand, I'm so in awe and thrilled to live in a place that has one of the longest cultures in the world, it's such an honour to be in the presence of such knowledge and such power. And you know, and such an incredible way of being with Country and ocean and sky. It's a conflicted feeling, I suppose, being a colonist. On the one hand you are from violence and you live in violence and you live in privilege. And then on the other hand this Country is incredible. And the culture that holds this Country is incredible.

There's a story in there called ‘Site’, which is probably the one that expresses that conflict the most. It's about a woman who's an artist, and she's everyday racist. She sees ships coming towards her. She lives on the bay in Victoria, and she lives in a strange little rented place, which was once a cultural heritage site. There's birthing caves near her house, but now it's been defunded and it's strangely rented out to this white woman. She sees the ships coming towards her and she's very confused. She wants to paint the birthing caves, and she can't quite get it right for many obvious reasons. At one point, she goes and adopts you know, Western Desert style for this for this very southern place. And when the ships arrive, she realizes they are the colonial ships, they're the First Fleet coming back and haunting and re-colonizing, and she boards this place and finds her power for the first time. It's about the constant state of waking up every morning and recolonizing. You know, walking down this street with great privilege and not being aware of that enough. To be honest, I hate that story. Not because I think I wrote it badly, but she's a horrible person, but I think it was such an important story to have in this collection. I've been carrying it around with me for a long time and I've never known where to put it out or how to get it out there, and I'm glad that this yucky state that is the White Woman walking through this world, you know, is there for people to read.

ASTRID: I'm glad it is too. I am a White Woman and a settler, and the bad stories need to come out.

LAURA: Need to be poked at.

ASTRID: Congratulations again on Gunflower. And I'm very excited at that novel that you have somewhere in the background.

LAURA: Thank you. I'm excited too.