Charlotte Wood’s Animal People (A&U), an urban love story set over 24 hours, and Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing (A&U), a novel about love, loyalty and creativity, made it to the top of the most mentioned chart this week with the same number of mentions. Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began (Vintage) is about one man’s discovery of an old manuscript in the 15th century, which fuelled the Renaissance and changed the world. A Private Life (A&U) is Michael Kirby’s collection of reminiscences that reveal his private side. Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot (Fourth Estate) is a novel about Madeleine Hanna, who falls in love with Leonard Morten, a charismatic loner and college Darwinist–Media Extra.
Stephen is a man living an almost adolescent life. He has a crappy job at a zoo cafe, rents a small flat and the state of his bed sheets doesn’t bear thinking about. He also has a loving girlfriend but he’s about to dump her, commitment being out of his emotional range. The story takes place over a single day from hell that begins with Stephen accidentally hitting a junkie with his car. Despite working at the zoo, Stephen is not an animal person, and finds the fixation people have with their pets mystifying. A visit to what he thought was a toy shop for children turns out to be a pet shop where they sell ‘Tushie Wipes’ for dogs and cats. The bizarre nature of this scene fits perfectly with Stephen’s day. I think we all know someone like Stephen for whom the real world isn’t a good fit; someone you sympathise with, but also want to shake. Clever and compassionate, Animal People will appeal to anyone who likes a story about relationships. Charlotte Wood has described this novel as a companion to The Children (Stephen is one of ‘the children’), but it also works as a standalone novel. (See interview here.)
Heather Dyer is the owner of Fairfield Books in Melbourne. This review first appeared in the September issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.
In the September issue of Bookseller+Publisher, reviewer Heather Dyer interviewed Charlotte Wood about her new book Animal People. Wood had lots of interesting things to say about writing comedy, revisiting characters from previous novels and conducting book research in zoos. Here is the extended interview.
You’ve said that each new book is both a challenge, and a reaction to the previous book. What was your challenge/reaction with Animal People?
I had several new creative challenges to play with in this novel. The first was to write my way through a thoroughly ordinary day while making it an extraordinary, life-changing one for Stephen, my character. There were also structural challenges involved in the one-day timeframe, in terms of keeping up a lively, naturalistic narrative that revealed things about Stephen without lumping in too much static flashback. And my final big challenge was to embrace an element of comedy in a way I had never done before—that to me was the riskiest element of all. I’ve discovered that for me, and I suspect for many writers, it’s easier to write a sad or violent or tragic scene than a funny or a tender one. It can become banal to keep falling back on misery to propel a story, I think, and so I found the challenge to balance comedy and seriousness, or tenderness, quite an exhilarating task with this book.
The reaction to the last book is probably most apparent in the setting. The Children is set entirely in a country town, whereas Animal People is thoroughly urban—they are, perhaps, companion portraits of city and regional living. Oh, and in point of view—The Children is told from several points of view whereas in Animal People we see everything only through Stephen’s eyes. And I didn’t realise how hard that was going to be until I did it.
What did you see in Stephen that made you decide to develop a book around him?
Not until quite some time after I’d finished The Children did Stephen occur to me as a character—I knew the next book would be set in a city, and I wanted it to be a one-day book. But I kept being drawn back to thinking of him, I think, because he was the only character in The Children I didn’t feel I completely understood by the time I finished writing that novel. He remained unresolved when the others—Mandy especially—I felt I knew, inside out. And in a way—this will sound odd, for a person one has invented—I still worried about him. I wanted to see him through the next stage of his life, and I wanted him not to be so lonely. It is very strange how fictional characters can sort of embed themselves in one’s consciousness almost as if they are real. I think of him as a kind of wayward cousin I’ve always loved, but who inexplicably finds life a bit of a struggle.
Do you plan to write about any of the other siblings from The Children?
I’ve completely done with Mandy, I think I’m certain about that. And I think Cathy is far too sane and well-adjusted to make good fiction out of, really. But who knows what might happen to her in a decade or so? My next novel is knocking at the door of my mind and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Connolly family. But I didn’t plan on writing more about Stephen either, so who knows—never say never. I quite like the symmetry of the idea that a book about Cathy might emerge one day, though I can’t really imagine it in the foreseeable future.
Animals, and human interactions with them, play an important role in the story, but Stephen is, for the most part, mystified by the amount of attention people lavish on them. Do you share his views?
I’ve loved exploring my own bewilderment in this novel. I have come to the conclusion that perhaps I’m a little lacking in the ‘cute response’—a syndrome researchers refer to in describing human responses towards animals. I don’t get, for example, the whole baby-orangutan/elephant/panda-video ‘squee!’ thing. I find it faintly embarrassing (but then I have English heritage). At the same time, I think I have more respect for animals than some baby-orangutan-squealing people do, and writing the novel was a fascinating way for me to explore our contradictory attitudes to animals as a society. We sentimentalise animals to almost exactly the same extent that we brutalise them, and while anthropomorphism can be a good thing (in understanding, for example, when animals might feel pain), it can also be disrespectful and narcissistically human-centred in assuming that what is good for us is good for animals. What I’m interested in is the many kinds and levels of denial we employ in our behaviour towards animals.
Did you do any research in zoos for this book? And did you find them a good study of animal, and human, behaviour?
I certainly spent time in zoos around the country. I highly recommend visiting a zoo to observe human behaviour—it’s really quite enthralling. People are very, very weird. One of the most striking things I noticed was how desperate we seem to be, at zoos, for the animals to look at us. A lot of human behaviour at zoos is kind of depressing, though … many of us seem to treat it as a kind of shopping expedition—there’s an acquisitive vibe about getting photographs, ticking off lists and so on. But of course it’s ripe for comedy too—zoos are so rich in anthropomorphism.