Q&A: Dr Angela Savage speaks to Chris Flynn, author of ‘Mammoth’

Friday, October 30, 2020
By: 
Writers Victoria

Chris Flynn is the author of ‘The Glass Kingdom’ and ‘A Tiger in Eden’, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The Age, The Australian, Griffith Review, Meanjin, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, Smith Journal, The Big Issue, Monster Children, McSweeney’s and many other publications. He has conducted interviews for The Paris Review and is a regular presenter at literary festivals across Australia. His latest book ‘Mammoth’ is narrated by a 13,000-year-old extinct mammoth and scrutinises humanity’s role in the destruction of the natural world, while also offering a message of hope. Chris lives on Phillip Island, next to a penguin sanctuary.

Angela Savage is an award winning Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her debut novel, ‘Behind the Night Bazaar’, won the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. All three of her Jayne Keeney PI novels were shortlisted for Ned Kelly Awards. ‘The Dying Beach’ was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award.  She has taught writing throughout Australia and overseas. She completed an Arts degree at the University of Melbourne with Combined Honours in Criminology and the History & Philosophy of Science. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Monash University, and spent three years as the Director of Writers Victoria. Her latest novel, ‘Mother of Pearl’, is published by Transit Lounge.

 

AS: What sparked the initial idea for ‘Mammoth’?

CF: How long have you got? A combination of things. Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence to Merewether Lewis mentioned that he might like to pick up some mammoth bones while he was out looking for a passage to the Pacific, or even shoot a live one. That was in 1803, and it got me curious. They didn’t know much about fossils back then and thought mighty creatures might still be roaming the American plains. Republican President Jefferson wanted to show the Europeans how great the new American democracy was. Some things never change. Then I heard about a 2007 natural history auction in New York, where museums and celebrities (including Nicolas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio) outbid each other for the bones of dinosaurs and megafauna, including a mammoth. I thought it might be fun to examine that 200-year period of human history and our idiocy through the eyes of the creatures going under the hammer.

 

AS: In a bold creative choice, the novel is narrated by Mammut, a thirteen thousand-year-old mammoth fossil excavated in 1801. Tell us about how you developed Mammut’s voice. Were you worried about how much disbelief readers would have to suspend in order to be drawn into Mammut’s story?

CF: Tricky one to answer because I’m not really sure how it happened. While I was researching, I became aware of the mammoth watching over me, as if he’d chosen me to tell this story and was waiting for me to begin. It wasn’t even supposed to be in his voice. I initially tried telling the story from the point of view of humans, but it didn’t work. It needed an overarching narrator who spanned the centuries. Once I had the epiphany that it might be the mammoth narrating, he simply opened his mouth and started speaking. I just wrote it down. That sounds glib, but I don’t know how else to explain it. There were days when I looked at what I’d written and wondered where it had come from. I never really worried about whether readers would struggle to suspend belief or not, because I didn’t think anyone would ever read it! It’s an inherently fantastical conceit, so either you buy it, or you don’t. I can’t influence that. I guess it comes down to how you approach reading–in a cynical way, ready to tear a book apart, or in a joyous way, ready to enjoy yourself. This book lends itself to the latter. It’s a good bit of fun. Good craic, as they say back home.

 

AS: On the subject of good craic, Mammut tells his auction room companion, a Tyrannosaurus bataar fossil, “For a story to be successful, tragedy must be tempered with comedy.” Certainly, there were many laugh out loud moments in the book for me, though there is also sadness – the narrators are extinct species after all. What emotional tone(s) were you aiming for in the novel?

CF: I was a (bad) stage actor when I was younger, and I guess theatre taught me the above lesson. Pummelling an audience with relentless misery feels nihilistic to me. Sadness in storytelling is so much more affecting when you’ve been laughing up to that point. And that’s our lives to a tee, right? Our days are filled with ups and downs, highs and lows, melancholy and levity. Novels that are one-note emotionally are abject failures for me. They don’t reflect reality. There’s a lot of humour in this book because I’m Irish and what do you expect? But then when the emotional beats come along, they’re all the more devastating (I hope).

 

AS: To my mind, ‘Mammoth’ shares traits with the ‘Night at the Museum’ movies and TV shows like  ‘Horrible Histories’ in bringing history to life in ways that are engaging, irreverent and funny, while also enlightening. What’s your take on how to engage with history as a writer and a reader?

CF: Will you kill me if I say I’ve not seen any of those? I just looked up ‘Horrible Histories’ to see what it was. People have asked me if I was influenced by the ‘Ice Age’ movies too, but I haven’t seen any of those either! I guess this is the gap that forms when you don’t have kids – although teenagers seem to be loving the book, so maybe I tapped into something. I remember history in school being so deathly boring. I was aware of that and played around with the idea of Mammut being this tedious character who likes nothing more than to drone on about aspects of history he considers interesting, while other characters interrupt to spice up the narrative. I just realised that structure mirrors what happened in my high school classroom, with Mr Gardiner being interrupted by me and my disruptive classmates. History is so much more engaging (and sneakily educational) when it’s entertaining. I was more concerned about conveying a climate change message without lecturing anyone. Crazily, the part about mammoths being resurrected by synthetic biologists to rewild Siberia and arrest the melting of the permafrost is true! We might see creatures we thought were consigned to the annals of history coming back to save us.

 

AS: If you had to choose just one, what sentence or phrase in your book are you most proud of?

CF: I don’t know if pride comes into it, but I rather enjoy the moment when the penguin fossil who has spent 167 years hanging over bars in Boston refers to Ireland as, ‘a sodding-wet nation of alcoholic misanthropes’. Look, he’s not wrong.



You can read an extract from ‘Mammoth’ on the University of Queensland Press website.