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Monday, September 29, 2008


Talking animals

An interesting question from Amaryllis:

Your first book had werewolves in it; I understand that the second is about fishy-people. Is there a theme developing here? Are you fond of talking-animal books, in general, Wind In the Willows/Watership Down/Redwall kinds of stories? And I know werewolves and mermaids aren't animals; they're kinds of people (well, they would be if they actually existed, but you know what I mean). But do you find those animal-like beings useful for exploring what it actually means to be human, and to exist as physical beings in the physical world, but with that brain that keeps inventing non-physical realities? Do you understand what I'm awkwardly asking here?

That's a good one.

For someone who has written quite a bit about animalistic people, talking-animal books are a surprisingly small part of my reading. I read Watership Down as an adult well after I finished Bareback; the Redwall books I'm vaguely aware of, but never read. I'm actually not sure if I've read Wind in the Willows; it's one of those stories you pick up by osmosis - but I remember feeling rather unconvinced by a particular feature in my childhood: the animals wore clothes, drove cars and lived in houses. That is to say, they were basically people.

That's something I never liked. I was fond of stuffed animals as a child, but would reject any that wore frilly little pinnies or hats; I was very clear that animals were animals, didn't wear clothes and didn't act like people. That's what was interesting about them. Too much anthropomorphosis, and my interest switched off at once. The same thing applies to overly human animal stories. The Redwall stories, for example, I've had just one experience with: while temping at Penguin, I picked one off the 'these books will be pulped if no one wants them, so everyone can help themselves to one or two per day' shelf. I gathered it involved swordfighting squirrels, and immediately put it back. The combination of human lifestyle and animal protagonists just threw a switch in my head, and I couldn't be having with it.

Dick King-Smith's books, on the other hand, I liked a great deal in my childhood. His animals talk and interact, but, while they have definitely human personalities, they tend to remain animals: his pigs can't communicate with his farmers, their understanding is limited by their environment and experience. In retrospect, the gulf between animal and human understanding mirrored the gulf between child and adult understanding: being surrounded by tall humans who had power over you and seemed preoccupied with bewildering things was certainly one I could identify with.

The stories that really got into my imagination, though, were the most animalistic. I remember a series of TV shows, whose name I've forgotten, in which real wildlife footage was synced to actors' voices, the actors telling a story of realistic interactions between the animals - hunting, trying to persuade each other to mate, evading humans, and so on - and that interested me a great deal more. Similarly, I have vivid memories of sitting mesmerised in front of David Attenborough's Trials of Life series, a passion for nature documentaries that's with me still. It was animals out in the wild that interested me, animals in their natural state. If an artist could convey that, it captured my attention - again I've forgotten the name, but I remember being very wrapped up in a story about the life of an escaped mink that was all about hunting rabbits and the dangers of liver flukes; I lived in that book for weeks. Animals seemed to me raw and vital, full of experience and utterly uncosy. I had a pet cat which I adored, so I wasn't averse to domestic animals in practice, but I spent time in the country, I pored over Usborne nature books, and my imagination was taken up with foxes and deer and otters. My inner landscape was a thriving English woodland, and it mattered a great deal to me. I was an obedient child, on the whole; in my love of animals was my wild side.

That was in childhood, the era when talking-animal books are in their greatest proliferation. As an adult, such books are not a particular feature. I read Watership Down out of interest, and thought it was well done: his image of rabbit culture is grounded in how rabbits actually live, which produces a bright and rich effect. But when it comes to my own writing influences, I turn to fact rather than fancy.

I read a great deal of werewolf stories when writing Bareback, not so much in search of influences but to make sure I wasn't doing something that had been done before; my strongest interest was in real human history, the stories of people who'd actually been convicted of 'werewolf' crimes in the Renaissance; I was, for an amateur, pretty well up on that lesser-known branch of the witch hunt for a while. When it came to the second book, the stories that really caught my attention were those of feral children. Michael Newton's excellent Savage Boys and Wild Girls was a book I read over and over; I returned to my old love of nature documentaries and wrapped myself up in accounts of dolphins and whales, the interaction of real sea mammals and the the endless life-or-death turmoil of the sea. I read with utter fascination Temple Grandin's extraordinary Animals In Translation, a book I'd recommend to anyone in the world, about animals' emotional experience from the viewpoint of Grandin, a high-functioning autistic woman who considers her own mind to be more similar to an animal's than most people's. The common element was that these were accounts that gave some glimpses, however faint, into a wild experience.

My third book doesn't involve animals at all - it's a few-decades-in-the-future thriller involving medical ethics - so I'm not going to spend my entire life writing nothing but animal stories, but I might return to theme, as it's one I've loved all my life. What I can say is this: stories that show animals as people strike only a faint chord with me; what I'm interested in writing is stories that show people as animals. Because we are.

Thinking about such stories, they're part of a wider principle I have. Some non-naturalistic stories are about escape from this world into another, the secret tunnel that leads to a more interesting place. Such stories never held my attention as much as stories that conveyed real experiences, real life, human or otherwise. I never wanted fiction to help escape from the world; I wanted to immerse myself in it more richly. Animal experience was part of that: animals are creatures of this world. They create it and they move through it, they're beings of perception and interaction. When I write animalistic characters, it engages my imagination - but the interesting thing, now I think about it, is that, as I picture them, such characters tend to be themselves unimaginative. They're too caught up in witnessing this world to invent others. That, from an imaginative perspective, is one of the most fascinating states I can think of. An unimaginative mind is completely absorbed in the world I've imagined, and from there, everything looks different.

Thanks for answering, Kit, in another beautifully-written essay.

I never read Wind in the Willows until I was an adult. Those clothes-wearing, car-driving animals confused me completely as a child. I tried to read Watership Down when it was so popular, but had pretty much the same reaction you had to the sword-fighting squirrels of Redwall. "Warrior rabbits? I don't think so."

When I was six, my teacher asked the class, "Are birds our friends?" expecting an affirmative answer. Well, they're not our predators, I suppose, outside of a Hitchcock movie, but my six-year-old reaction was, "They fly away when I go near them. That's not how friends would act."

When you were researching werewolf stories, did you come across Fred Vargas and Seeking Whom He May Devour? I'd heard of the lycanthropy disorder, but that novel included some history I'd never come across before.

I'd like to think of my inner landscape as an East Coast of America beach: sunrise over the ocean, sandy beaches, dunes with beach grass and beach plums and bayberry and pine, all the big and little shore birds, and somehow having the true hardwood forest behind it all.

Anyway, thanks again!
Futuristic medical ethical thriller? Ooh, this is the kind of novel I've been looking for :-)

Have a lovely day! :-)
Great essay, Kit!

We studied Watership Down in university, and it's still one of my favourite books. Interestingly, it mirrors the plot of The Iliad.

We also studied Wind in the Willows for the same course (Children's Literature, affectionately known as Kiddie Litter). The professor pointed out just what you did, that the animals are really "little people in animal suits". Apparently this was a common theme in English children's literature for some time. Other classics with this trope are Alice in Wonderland and the Narnia series.

Oddly, I didn't mind the people-in-animal-suits trope nearly as much in Alice or Narnia as I did in Wind in the Willows. I assume it's because Wonderland is supposed to be nonsensical and upside-down, so once you accept that then it's easier to swallow that the animals are walking upright and wearing clothing. Similarly in Narnia, once you go through the Wardrobe you know you aren't in the same world any longer, so everyday rules no longer apply.
Another huge WATERSHIP DOWN fan here; for a large part of my life, I re-read it at least once a year, and can still recite huge chunks from memory (and still experience a visceral thrill at the words, "Meester Pigvig, ees rabbits come!")

I still maintain a soft spot though for the delightfully anthropomorphized critters of RABBIT HILL, not to mention the very first book I ever read, BECKY THE RABBIT.

Oh dear. I seem to be falling into a bunny theme...

David Clement Davies writes gorgeous, poetic animal fantasies that are absolutely crammed with analogy and allusion. Alas, I was never quite convinced that his wolves, deer, etc. were as much real animals as fur-covered metaphor-machines.

"Erin Hunter" has written a hugely popular series about feral cats that is a bit twee for my taste. But "she" has a new one coming out about bears that I found a good deal more convincing.
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