Today, author Sydney Smith interviews me about the animals in my upcoming release, Turtle Reef.
SYDNEY: Jenny, your latest novel, Turtle Reef, will soon come out. As with Currawong Creek, the story contains plenty of animal characters and a child with an intellectual disability. One of the interesting things about your fiction is the theme of “wise” animals and children like Jack in Currawong and Josh in Turtle Reef―wise because they feel comfortable in their place in the world, comfortable with themselves, while adult humans stuff things up left, right and centre. Can you talk about how you see these wise animals and children?
JENNIFER: I believe children haven’t strayed as far from the animal, and thus instinctively understand the natural world and their place in it. I struggle with our modern disconnect from nature. Most of us live our lives so removed from the elemental that we rarely even touch the earth. We tell ourselves that we are separate from the natural world. But I worry about the cost to our declining environment. Not to mention the cost to our hearts. The rural fiction genre is so popular because readers are hungry to re-engage with nature, to ground themselves. Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild tapped into this vein. The wildly successful movie, Avatar, did the same. For me, losing touch with wildness means losing touch with ourselves. In a review of my debut novel, Wasp Season, Diana Jenkins (News Editor, Varuna National Writers’ Centre) put it this way :
‘Jennifer’s a changeling, in my mind, someone who’s not really human at all, or at least not in the conventional sense. She’s too alive to the possibilities and voices of other living things for that. But with what eyes does she see? How does she so convincingly inhabit the wasps? I think it’s because she’s somehow emerged with her childlike wonder intact. Remember foraging around at the bottom of every garden or wood or forest or glen you came across as a child? How fantastic it seemed, how secretive? How full of drama and exquisite beauty? I remember it really clearly, and when I think of Jennifer’s eye on the natural world I imagine that I just might be able to reach that magic garden again.’
SYDNEY: So when you started to think about writing Turtle Reef, how did you come to choose which aspect of the drama of the Great Barrier Reef to write about? Would you say part of your role as a writer is to educate readers about how to correct old mistakes in the management of the natural world?
JENNIFER: The Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral ecosystem on our blue planet, holds a special place in the hearts of most Australians. As you suggest in your question, it has so many aspects that lend themselves to dramatic stories. I tell human and animal tales side by side, exploring how we exist together in one habitat. Choosing a cane farmer and marine zoologist as my main protagonists allowed me to look at the varied parts the reef plays in the life of coastal communities. It was also an excuse to write about dugongs and dolphins!
My aim as a writer is to entertain. It’s not my role to educate readers in any way. I simply present issues that confront people in regional areas on a day-to-day basis. However, we are so often on a collision course with nature. If my stories spark debate about conservation, that’s a bonus.
SYDNEY: Can you talk a bit about how you build an animal character? You’ve told me already about Einstein, the octopus. I was instantly captivated (and still think about inklets, baby octopi!). How much anthropomorphism goes into it? Or do you think the key to creating an animal character lies elsewhere?
JENNIFER: The first thing I do when building animal characters is to learn everything I can about their lives. This is my favourite part of the writing process. I’ve been an amateur naturalist for as long as I can remember, and love nothing more that immersing myself in the world of a brumby, or goose, or dolphin. Then I build my animal character much like I would any other, imagining its personality, back-story and motivation. In my view, anthropomorphism is a useful tool for navigating this planet that we share with other animals.
Take the recent documentary film, Blackfish, for example. It tells the story of Tilikum, a captive Orca who killed several of his trainers. It’s an emotionally-wrenching, tightly-structured tale that relies on us empathising with the whale’s plight. Thoughtful, balanced anthropomorphism helps us perceive the kinship shared by humans and animals. Can I add, Only The Animals, by Ceridwen Dovey, has been long-listed for the Stella Prize. In this astonishing anthology, the souls of ten animals that died in human conflicts over the last century tell their own stories. The old taboo against anthropomorphism is lifting, and it’s a good thing, too.
SYDNEY: Hm. Only the Animals sounds like a must-read to me. Only, I’m scared I’ll bawl my eyes out! Getting back to how you build an animal character, you immersed yourself in the worlds of several marine animals. Have you got any insights to impart about your discoveries?
JENNIFER: Yes Sydney, Only The Animals may not be for you. It’s very confronting and you’d probably cry. I did!
Getting back to the animals in Turtle Reef, I too am intrigued by my octopus character, Einstein. These misunderstood creatures are usually cast in an evil light. Take the giant, murderous octopus from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, for example, or Ursula the sea witch from The Little Mermaid. I think the octopus gets such bad press because it is an alarmingly alien animal. Eight suckered arms. Three hearts pumping blue, copper-based blood around its boneless body. However, I’m a big fan of this jet-powered invertebrate. Master of camouflage, a shape-shifter, and with an intelligence approaching that of a dog. And when it comes to maternal self-sacrifice? Well, you’ll just have to read the book …
I also learned a lot about dolphins. Recent scientific research suggests they have a wider range of emotions than humans, a culture that is handed down through generations, and personal names. Unlike us, they are conscious breathers. This was discovered in the 1960s, when researchers tried to anaesthetise dolphins. As soon as they fell unconscious, they stopped breathing and died. Depressed captive dolphins have been known to commit suicide by simply deciding not to breathe. In fact, the more I learned about dolphins, the more firmly opposed I became to them being held in marine parks. For example Dolphins have a sixth sense, sonar, which becomes problematic when they are confined. Sound bounces off the concrete tanks, confusing and irritating them. Sonar is dolphins’ most effective tool for learning about the world around them. Thwarting their ability to use this sonar is tantamount to blinding them.
SYDNEY: That is so interesting, Jenny. Isn’t it funny how suggestible we are. If we’re presented with an animal as a hostile being, we become scared of the whole species. But present us with a friendly version and we love the whole species. How much of the drama that unfolds in Turtle Reef is shaped by human preconceptions about certain animals? Maybe you can talk about the contrast between the way Josh responds to these animals and the way some adult humans do.
JENNIFER: There are lots of preconceptions being made about the characters in Turtle Reef, some negative, some positive, but mostly unwarranted. The instant aversion people feel towards Einstein, the octopus, for example. The automatic assumption that Kane the dolphin, with his perpetual smile, is peaceful and happy in captivity. Josh has a brain injury, so it’s assumed he is slow. Aisha, the Arabian mare, is branded a rogue, and nobody challenges this. However, with one exception, Josh isn’t guilty of pre-judging the other characters in Turtle Reef. He takes them as he finds them. So does Zoe. This is their strength. They can see past these preconceptions to the truth.
Thank you for your thought-provoking questions Sydney, and I look forward to sharing the story of Turtle Reef with my readers very soon!