Laura Kaye talks to Those Precious Stolen Moments about her debut novel English Animals, released 12th Jan 2017, published by Little, Brown Book Group UK.
The publisher's blurb: When Mirka gets a job in a country house in rural England, she has no idea of the struggle she faces to make sense of a very English couple, and a way of life that is entirely alien to her. Richard and Sophie are chaotic, drunken, frequently outrageous but also warm, generous and kind to Mirka, despite their argumentative and turbulent marriage.
Mirka is swiftly commandeered by Richard for his latest money-making enterprise, taxidermy, and soon surpasses him in skill. After a traumatic break two years ago with her family in Slovakia, Mirka finds to her surprise that she is happy at Fairmont Hall. But when she tells Sophie that she is gay, everything she values is put in danger and she must learn the hard way what she really believes in.
My review: ★★★★☆ Rural Britain from a fresh and unexpected perspective. Compelling. Read the full review here.
Those Precious Stolen Moments: We’ll start with actual English Animals in the book ...
There is a lot of taxidermy, how did you settle on that as a subject?
Laura Kaye: It was actually quite random – I met a girl who was an assistant to a taxidermist and she was explaining all the things she did like sorting out the glass eyes and making grass and I just thought it sounded interesting. Then I read The Breathless Zoo by Rachel Poliquin, a fascinating and beautiful book on the subject, and it made me think about it in a whole new way – about the longing and emotion we project onto the animals and all the different types. For example, stuffing a zebra, your pet dog or a deer head you shot are all very different things and I thought that the ideas fitted well with other themes in the book like hunting.
T: Did you do any taxidermy yourself as research? If yes - what was the experience like? If not - do you think you would be able to?
L: Yes I did! I did a day’s course and did it to a mouse. It was fairly disgusting, mostly because I sat next to a man who completely butchered his and had entrails and blood spilling out everywhere. If you do it precisely it is actually very clean.
T: Do you have any taxidermy animals yourself? Can you imagine one in your home?
L: I live with my brother and he had a fox for a while (who inspired the description at the beginning of the book) but I made him get rid of it because I found it really unsettling and a bit gross to be honest.
"It was fairly disgusting ... entrails and blood spilling out everywhere."
T: Did you purposefully juxtapose the taxidermy scenes and the sex scenes to unsettle us - or is that just my weird brain?
L: No, it wasn’t on purpose exactly, but I think it’s my weird brain! I think I have an interest in bodies and fleshiness that is always going to come out in my writing. I definitely did juxtapose the savagery of the fox and their having sex at one point because I wanted to emphasise the animalistic nature of it.
T: On to the English Animals of the human variety ...
I don’t think I’ve encountered characters like Sophie and Richard in any recent fiction - what made you choose a modern rural couple as your subjects?
L: That is quite hard! I guess they are versions of people I know, though mostly a younger version of older people who live in the countryside. I chose them because I wanted to make some kind of comment about the kinds of people that I grew up with.
T: There’s a slight raised eyebrow at lots of social groups - the university classes and their bad taste parties, east London hipsters and their ironic pie and mash. The whole book feels a bit like one of Mirka’s ‘scenes’ - I’m imagining a vole in a tampon outfit - are you/Mirka just placing these scenes out for examination and display, or is there some gentle judgement there?
L: Ha ha I wish I had put a vole dressed up as a tampon! I am putting them out for display and I hope there is not too much judgement because I don’t think that makes for good writing. However, I think I make it pretty clear what some of my views are with regards to some of the attitudes and prejudices that are there but I will leave it up to the reader to see what they make of it.
T: While we’re on Mirka - what were the challenges of writing in the voice of someone with English as a second language? The crossword showed her bemusement in the face of idiom, but she never lapses into Slovak, or struggles to find a word. Were you tempted to do that?And did you worry that her necessarily spare and clear voice would be misunderstood as plain or un-literary?(!)
L: I did worry about it a lot. After I decided to write it from Mirka’s (as opposed to Sophie’s) perspective I worried that I wasn’t allowed to and it wasn’t my story to tell. I wanted to do the voice justice and I thought a lot about how to give her integrity as a character. I went to the British Library and read twenty or so pages of a journal article about common mistakes that Slovak speakers make in English and it was not helpful! In the end, I just gave myself a set of rules and decided it was best not to make forays into Slovak.
T: Do you think your book has been given added poignancy in Brexit Britain?
K: Yes I do. I was sad, and still am sad about Brexit. I am conscious of being the one from London who doesn’t understand how people outside it feel, but I do believe in a tolerant and open society that is welcoming to everyone regardless of where they come from.
"I have an interest in bodies and fleshiness that is always going to come out in my writing."
T: I found it bracingly modern - but in the attitudes more than anything - i.e. you have email, but no snapchat. How do you deal with the challenge of writing a contemporary novel without getting bogged in technology?
K: Did you mean unmodern?! When you write a novel about someone’s existence you are focusing in on a very small part and leaving out all that is irrelevant – like them doing the laundry, unless it is germane to the plot – so there is no reason in my mind to put in technology unless it is necessary to the story.
T: Did the story end up any differently from the one you’d imagined when you started? Did any of the characters surprise you?
K: All I knew when I started was that Mirka was going to come to the house and have an affair. Everything happened on the page and it was a really amazing process – the first time I had ever written anything where I felt like the characters took on their own life. I loved writing Richard as a character the most. I know he can be awful but I am quite fond of him at the same time.
T: It feels like there are a lot of choices being made in English Animals : what sort of person you want to be, who you want to be with, what kind of life to lead, whether to actively choose at all or just escape instead. Do you think your characters made good choices in the end? (if it’s possible to answer that without spoilers!)
K: I think Mirka makes the right choice. I think Sophie could have a very different life if she was braver or had different circumstances. As it is, she is a practical and a no-nonsense sort of person and I can see why she makes the choice she does.
T: Finally, You introduced me to the Slovak tradition of the Christmas Carp - Have you ever tasted it?
K: Er no! A Slovak woman told me that story about killing the Christmas carp and my jaw was on the floor!
This interview is part of a blog tour, take a look at the other blogs taking part for more views and insight into English Animals.