Fauna, Interview, Globe and Mail
July 29 2010
by KATIE HEWITT
Interview with Author Alissa York
Nurturing inspiration from nature
Fauna opens with a quote from Richard Adams’s Watership Down, a fantasy novel that follows a group of rabbits. There are other examples, like Animal Farm, where the animals are used strictly as political allegory. More recently, there’s been Come Thou Tortoise, Life of Pi, The White Bone, Water for Elephants and others, in which we see something a bit different. Do you see these as reflective of a change in our relationship with the natural world?
I think all the books mentioned serve to reawaken readers to the larger living world around us – important work, given the increasingly serious impact we’re having on the many creatures with which we share that world. That said, it seems to me that there are as many approaches to writing about animals as there are to writing about people. The best fiction casts a spell that allows the reader to inhabit a life other than his or her own; in some instances, that life just happens to belong to an elephant or a tiger or a crow. In any case, animal stories are never just about animals. I recently read an incredible novel called Dog Boy, by Australian writer Eva Hornung, which explores the lives of stray dogs through the eyes of an orphaned four-year-old boy who finds himself adopted by the local pack. On one level, it’s a book about dogs, but on a deeper level, it’s one of the most profoundly moving (and harrowing!) treatises on the human condition I’ve ever read.
There are section titles based on other books about animals (The City Book is The Jungle Book). Were these books inspiration, or did the titles come afterward?
The section titles evolved as I become aware of the novel’s intrinsic structure, which is essentially that of a modern-day urban love story set against two backwoods childhoods, one lived in harmony with nature, the other lived in fear of the wild. The Jungle Book, Ring of Bright Water and other fauna-centred books became part the mix as a natural result of the research process; I was reading and re-reading every animal story I could get my hands on. I love these books, and it was only natural that my characters should come to love them too.
Your writing about nature is not intrusively political; the writing and the storytelling come first. Would you call this a type of fable?
I never thought of it as a fable while I was writing it. In my mind it was a story about a place and the web of life it sustains – an ecosystem, if you will, but one that includes the lives of animals and humans, and tries to get at the truth of both.
You have an incredible ability to write as if you do the most unusual things on a daily basis – taxidermy or military service, for example. How do you recreate the richness of those experiences?
In a word, research. It’s funny, when I first started writing fiction, I looked upon research as an irritating distraction from the real work of making up stories. While working on my first book, a collection of short fiction called Any Given Power, I tended to take the quickest route possible to the information required (I once phoned an emergency ward and asked an unsuspecting doctor what broken ribs felt like). Then came my first novel, Mercy, and with it a collection of narrative threads that strayed far beyond the bounds of my own experience. I began to panic. And then I began to read. Effigy demanded an even wider field of inquiry, and Fauna followed suit. Not only did I learn to enjoy the research process, but I began to see that, at best, it can form a highly productive symbiotic relationship with the imaginative impulse. A narrative spark gives rise to questions, which in turn lead to a richer understanding of the world, along with any number of related narrative sparks. What’s more, with each new area of inquiry, I experience a sense of expansiveness with regard to the imagined territory I can call my own.
Why did you choose Toronto’s Don Valley as backdrop? The area is not normally thought of as brimming with wildlife, but at times, Fauna can make it seem like a jungle.
In fact, I feel as though the valley chose me. I’ve lived in Toronto for five years (this time around), but even before we moved here, my husband and I would always stay with friends in the Riverdale neighbourhood when we visited. From the start, I loved crossing the Don Valley. Like the character Darius in the novel, I came to anticipate that moment when the subway train leaves its tunnel for the viaduct’s airy cage. Looking down over that strip of river and forest, catching glimpses of campsites, dogs and birds – it was bound to fire the imagination. And then there were the literary echoes that enlivened the scene: Ernest Thompson Seton’s tales of crows and partridges that called the valley home when it was still a wilderness at the edge of a growing metropolis; Ann Michaels’ haunting evocation of the “great sunken gardens” that are Toronto’s ravines; Michael Ondaatje’s unlikely hero, Nicolas Temelcoff, who dangles from the viaduct and catches the falling nun. The rest of the setting grew up in relation to the valley, in part as a result of many neighbourhood miles covered on foot and bicycle, in part as a result of looking inward to see what I might find.
The character Edal has important encounters with turtles at both the beginning and close of the novel, when she finds it on the road. What does the turtle symbolize for you? Did you have particular themes or thoughts in mind for the different types of animals while writing?
Like the Don Valley, the animals seemed to find their own way into the book. The more I thought about urban fauna, the more the city around me seemed to rustle with hidden life: raccoons on the fence rails, coyotes in the parks, skunks under porches, deer in the downtown core. These are living, breathing creatures, but once we begin to tell stories about them, they inevitably become symbols for everything from secrets to innocence to death. I suppose turtles/tortoises symbolize the living earth itself (many first nations stories reference the creation of the earth on the back of a turtle), but that’s not how they made their way into the novel. The turtle on the road is an homage to one such creature my husband and I came across. We stopped the car, thinking we would save it, then got close enough to see the splintered shell, the blood. An experience like that can go a long way toward shaping a scene – even an entire book.