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Interviews + Profiles

Mar 9, 2009

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dog-boy

In October 2006, I was sitting at the airport in Bali after the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, and Eva Hornung (then Sallis) and her gorgeous little boy came and sat next to me. I had seen her speak during the festival, and read her book Fire, Fire, which I found quite confronting. We talked about the festival, and about writing (I’d just finished my very first novel draft), and then she told me she was actually off to Russia to research her next novel. She told me about a street kid, in freezing cold temperatures, who lived with dogs. I can’t remember any of the exact wording of the conversation, but I know that the story stuck with me, and ever since then I have been waiting for news of this book. When I finally got to read Dog Boy and review it for Bookseller+Publisher I found it ‘ultimately moving, frightening, and heartbreaking.’ I was really glad that Eva agreed to answer a few questions about the book, her writing, and activism.

What inspired you to tell the story of Romochka?

Many things, but a news story about a boy living with dogs in Moscow catalysed it.

Why was it important to describe Romochka’s world, and his interaction with the dog family in such raw detail?

I’m not sure why, really. In hindsight I can say that the book needed that, but at the time I was really just following my nose, exploring an idea.  Really I began seeking out for myself what it might be like, and then found the novel growing from that.

I was very moved by Dog Boy. I was also moved by your recent, incredible, story ‘Life Sentence’ published in Overland 193. Do you think literary fiction has the ability to create empathy, and encourage further learning?

I think literary fiction can at its best give us a thought- and feeling-provoking semblance of experiences outside our own. As this is one of the great seductions to which humans are susceptible, literary fiction can be persuasive, engaging, transforming. What it brings us, however, can be fine or trite, truthful or distortive, and not even authors always know what they are doing. All we can do as authors is serve our project with passion, the best honesty we can muster, and attention to craft.

We are usually the first seduced, the first to fall, and often self-deceiving.  I’m glad you liked ‘Life Sentence’ – I was very seduced by it: idea, enaction, final effect, metaphors. At the time when Overland unexpectedly accepted it, I had begun to think it was a piece I had written for myself and the very few readers who know cockatoos well.

If literary fiction is capable of creating empathy, encouraging further learning, then it is as dangerous as all political tyrants believe it to be ­- and this goes both ways. This would of course mean fiction is capable of evil.  Fortunately, I think the capabilities of author and artwork are more modest, and despite the many historical instances of art in service of state, or in service of revolution, I have a feeling that fiction that is great speaks to our private growing selves, not our public performance selves, and so it is a more profound and more impotent artform than all praise or fears would make of it.

Do you have a favourite author? What/who are your influences?

I have different favourites at different times. At the moment my favourite is Tolstoy, particularly the short stories. My literary influences are, sketched broadly, TS Eliot, Dostoevsky, the 1001 Nights, and the philosopher FH Bradley. My other influences are too numerous, but the most prominent are the languages I have studied and the effect they have had on me, especially Arabic, and these days to a lesser degree Russian and Adnyamathanha.

I would call Dog Boy a novel with universal meaning. It has notions of our own animal needs, instinct for survival, and themes of displacement. Is it being published/translated in other countries? Who would you want to read it the most?

Yes – Thanks to my marvelous agent Jenny Darling, Dog Boy is to be published in Canada, UK, US, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and Italy, the last four in translation. I haven’t really thought about who I want as readers, except perhaps to hope for a lot of them. Also, I have thought that beyond the first part it is probably not for kids. I read the first bit to my son.

Can you tell us a little about some of the human rights work/projects you have been involved in?

All the projects I have worked on have started with a good idea, a bunch of creative people, and a curiosity to see whether we can make that project happen. AAR itself was formed to make these projects happen. We have discovered that inspiring projects find their people, and find their funds or pro bono contributions, and with time we have become strangely convinced that we can do anything we put our minds to. None of us are paid – we do it almost as a dare to ourselves, and that gives each project a terrifying energy. Some take three years to reach completion; some are ongoing.  We have made a TV commercial and aired it in primetime; a major billboard/poster/postcard campaign; two national story competitions with very successful anthologies published by Wakefield from winning stories; a Young Australians Parliamentary Forum, held in Parliament House, Canberra; publication of Czenya Cavouras’s Rainbow Bird, a children’s picture book, named an Honour Book in the CBCs; setting up and sustaining Ozarabic, a small ongoing language course in Arabic for children; and, in the last two years, the setting up of an Aboriginal Language and Culture course, Inhaadi Adnyamathanha Ngawarla, which now takes all our time. Creating resources for Adnyamathanha has extended into several major projects, included a published book by Aunty Lily Neville, two book manuscripts with Uncle Buck McKenzie, and a DVD animated movie, Wadu Matyidi, which should attract a lot of attention when it comes out.

I have been intimately involved in all these projects, sometimes as writer, researcher, and sometimes in the driving seat. I have discovered quite a few entrepreneurial skills I didn’t know I had.

What’s next?

Not sure. I have had a disturbing drought for a while now. I hope Dog Boy can keep me for a while until the next one bites.

Thank you so much Eva.

Dog Boy was released this month by Text Publishing, 9781921520099 (find it here, US edition here).

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