4 Apr 2021

Laura Jean McKay and Philip Armstrong discuss animals in literature at Word Christchurch 2020

From Smart Talk, 4:05 pm on 4 April 2021

Animals feature as characters in both Philip Armstrong's poetry and Laura Jean McKay's award-winning novel The Animals in That Country. The authors talk at 2020 Word Christchurch.

Wild dingoes near Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia

Photo: 123RF

Laura Jean McKay’s novel The Animals in That Country imagines a world in which a new virus gives those humans who catch it the ability to understand animals. The core relationship explored in its Australian setting is between the main human character Jean, and a dingo called Sue. This audacious novel won the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Fiction award at the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards and is also shortlisted for the Stella Prize.

Laura Jean McKay:

Laura Jean McKay

Laura Jean McKay Photo: supplied / Kyra Clarke

It’s no easy task to try to write a novel where animals might communicate. I felt that I needed to write two books – this gritty realist book about a woman who loves a drink and a smoke and has a very active love life.

She doesn’t really like people but she loves animals, and she’s going through a really crappy divorce. That’s quite a realist thing.

And then I had to write this novel that was almost speculative, where suddenly there’s a strange new ‘flu, a pandemic going through the world, and one of the outcomes is that people can finally understand what other animals are saying.

And so, to bring these new novels together, and to make it work, was quite the undertaking.

I want people to take a step back, look at the animals in their life, and if you don’t have a companion, maybe it’s the birds in the street, and consider what is our actual relationship with them. What does that mean, and what can we do about that?

Philip Armstrong:

Professor Philip Armstrong of the University of Canterbury

Professor Philip Armstrong of the University of Canterbury Photo: University of Canterbury

The protagonist, having caught this ‘flu (which does something to your cognitive abilities, and enables you to understand animals) – you know, that’s a hard sell for a reader. We can think of animals talking if we’re reading Richard Adams or kids books, and there are people like Barbara Gowdy who have narrated serious novels from the point of view of animals, as if animals think and speak like us.

But Laura Jean doesn’t do that. She knows, and we know that animals don’t, can’t, and will never, speak like us. What the virus in the novel does is enable you to be more sensitive to the chemicals, and the body language, and the pheromones, and the vocalisations, and the gestures, and smell of animals’ urine markings, and these things come together in a most extraordinary way.

The protagonist – aghast – in a gradual way, starts to realise what the animal is saying, and it’s often not very pretty.

But it is very astonishing in literary terms.

Philip Armstrong and Laura Jean McKay

Philip Armstrong and Laura Jean McKay Photo: WORD Christchurch

About the speakers

Laura Jean McKay

Laura Jean McKay is the author of The Animals in That Country (2020) and Holiday in Cambodia (2013). Her work appears in the Guardian, Best Australian Stories and the North American Review. Laura is a lecturer in creative writing at Massey University with a PhD from the University of Melbourne focusing on literary animal studies. She is the ‘animal expert’ presenter on ABC Listen’s Animal Sound Safari.


Philip Armstrong

Philip Armstrong lives in Lyttelton and teaches literature, creative writing and human-animal studies at the University of Canterbury. He is the author of two scholarly books on Shakespeare and one on animals in literature, as well as two books for a more general audience: A New Zealand Book of Beasts: Animals in Our History, Culture and Everyday Life (2013, co-authored with Annie Potts and Deidre Brown) and Sheep (2016). His poetry and short fiction have appeared in a range of journals in New Zealand and overseas. In 2011 he won the Landfall Essay Prize for ‘On Tenuous Grounds’, a piece about the Canterbury earthquakes. Sinking Lessons is his first collection of poetry: it won the Kathleen Grattan Award in 2019.


This session was recorded in partnership with WORD Christchurch

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