INTERVIEW: David Hartley on animal mythologies, rabbitry and ‘Fauna’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author David Hartley on the research process behind his collection Fauna (Fly on the Wall Press, 2021).

I’d like to start off by delving into your personal relationship with animals. Fauna demonstrates the kind of imaginative exercise that only someone with a real passion for, or perhaps even a fixation with animals could write. When did animal life first become important to you, not just as a childhood interest but as an adult preoccupation?

A fixation on animals is only something that has properly developed over the last decade, although I’ve always felt a fondness and affinity. Growing up, my parents always made sure my siblings and I had regular access to the great outdoors. We’d regularly go hiking and fell-walking around the Trough of Bowland near Preston and our holidays were always semi-remote cottages in rural places – Snowdonia, Northumbria, the Yorkshire Dales and so on. Best of all, we had the garden. Our house wasn’t particularly big, but we were blessed with this long, elaborate garden that just seemed to go on forever and was always slightly overgrown and wild. I think that garden entwined its way around my inner spirit from a very early age and gave me an inclination towards wildness, exploration, and some of the mysterious, unknowable core truths of nature. It’s why I’ve always felt quite cold towards landscaped gardens; there’s some sort of essence missing in prim and proper lawns and flowerbeds.

This, I think, became a foundation for my interest in animals in later life. We’d always had cats growing up, who I’d adored, but it wasn’t until my early twenties when this inclination towards nature started to blossom into a proper interest in animal life. My partner and I started volunteering with the Manchester and Salford RSCPA. We’d help out at charity microchipping and welfare clinics, which were often held in the more deprived suburbs of the city. It was common to encounter status dogs on choke-chains, or a breeding situation that had gone out of control, or a neglected rabbit with overgrown teeth and matted fur. It was always distressing but I began to see the difficulties that often lie behind these situations. A lot of it came down to poverty, miseducation, and the mental health struggles of the owners, but also to some fundamental toxicities about humans; the desire to have ultimate control over something, and the idea that a pet somehow ‘completes’ a family despite the cost or the welfare of the animal in question.

Back at home, my partner and I started fostering rabbits and guinea pigs, many of whom ended up staying with us (we now have two house rabbits and, at present, twelve guinea pigs). Having seen first-hand how problematic it is to base your animal care on assumptions and traditions, we did our research and soon became experts in all things lagomorph and cavy, and that’s where my deep fascination in animals really came to life. Getting to know the intricacies and intimacies of the humble rabbit in particular totally changed my outlook on my understanding of animals more generally. I owe it all to our first pair of bunnies; Delphi and George. Changing my eating habits and going vegan soon became an inevitability, as did this new and invigorating direction in my writing: angry tales about wronged creatures. The first I penned was ‘Tyson/Dog’ which was directly inspired by the most common canine name filled out on the microchipping forms at those RSPCA events. At one point, it seemed like every male Rottweiler, Staffordshire Bull Terrier and Pitbull in the Greater Manchester area was called Tyson. All the females were named Sasha, for some reason.

I think it’s interesting that your passion for animals came from adult experiences, as opposed to childhood interests. I’ve spoken to a few writers (particularly nature writers) who came to love nature through the canon of ‘animal literature’, which worked as a kind of catalyst for their feelings about the outside world.  I remember being inspired by the fables of Aesop and Kipling, and later through Brian Jacques, William Horwood and Robert C. O’Brien, all of whom use animals as analogies for interpreting human behaviour. Perhaps you could take us through your experiences with reading animals, and how that has fed into your creative development.

I was a Redwall fan for a time, so Jacques is definitely in there as an influence. I had an audiotape of The Wind in the Willows when I was young that I can still sing along to, so that probably factors as well. And I often go back to Watership Down, of course, but more the (terrifying) film version than the book. In a similar vein, the TV cartoon Animals of Farthing Wood lodged itself deep into my brain, especially the trauma of the death of Badger. All-in-all, that’s a lot of exposure to well-to-do anthropomorphised British animals with posh accents seeking some sort of utopian pasture after humans have muscled in and disrupted things. The blood-red fields in Fiver’s nightmare in Watership is particularly key, almost as much as the gunshot that kills Bambi’s mother. There are clear echoes of all this throughout Fauna, I think.

In terms of adult ‘animal literature’, I struggle to pull on any meaningful threads. It’s curious how we tend to leave behind the talking animals as something which fairly decisively belongs to children’s literature, as if we grow uncomfortable in later life by the mere suggestion of animal agency. Or we more easily see through the metaphoric veil at the humans beyond, and therefore have no place left over for animals in our stories other than as symbols of grace or portents of death. I’m enjoying what Jeff Vandermeer is doing in his weird fiction, particularly in his Southern Reach Trilogy, and in Borne. While his work tends more towards flora than fauna, he incorporates animals in a way that pushes them beyond simple metaphors for human emotions or as convenient narrative beats. They permeate, threaten, intertwine, fade back, reappear. In essence, they are wild.

The only other obvious entry is Orwell’s Animal Farm which serves as the main inspiration to my standalone chapbook ‘Pigskin’, published by Fly on the Wall as a sort of prelude to Fauna earlier this year. ‘Pigskin’ reimagines Orwell’s work by explicitly removing the stark political metaphors and re-infusing the farmyard creatures with their animality again. It also asks us to reconsider what we understand a ‘farm’ to look, sound and smell like in our heads: more rusty, corrugated iron and creaky gates, than idyllic fields and cartoon animals with smiles on their faces. The stories in Fauna try to reach towards something similar: animals that are wild, unknowable, and wrongly conceptualised. I use the probing directions, absurdities, and possibilities of ‘the weird’ to try and reconnect with that wildness.

I’ve mentioned fables already, but that idea of deep-seated and potentially misleading conceptualisations of animals really chimes with the influence of classical mythology in Fauna. For me this feels like a natural influence, not just because animals are such a recurrent motif of mythological narratives but because the overarching tone of Fauna lends itself to the search for meaning through imagination and analogy. In general social or environmental terms, I wonder if you feel as though we are in need of new animal mythologies? To what extent might the construction of new animal mythologies be possible?

I like that idea a lot – the search for meaning through imagination and analogy. I think that’s a lot of what drives my approach to writing and why I always find myself tumbling back down into mythology and fable. But yes, conveniently for my purposes the creatures are there in those worlds too, as beasts to be battled with, or as deities to be praised. So, when I enter Greek mythology most explicitly in the collection, on the shores of the Styx with the ferryman Charon in the story ‘A Place to Dump Guinea Pigs’, there was an immediate sense of comfort and belonging. These mythologies grant you a certain power to be able to do practically anything you like story-wise because they come along with a natural aura of magic and mischief. Which is precisely what I was relying on for these attempts to reimagine animal narratives.

In this industrialised, globalised era, our attitude towards animals has changed substantially since the mythologies of ancient civilisations. I suspect that has much to do with the modernising attitude that placed human beings as central gods in an increasingly secularised, profit-driven world, as well as the domestication of animals who don’t serve a direct work-related purpose. By reaching for the rational, we pushed down a lot of the mystical, and with it the aura around animals dampened and weakened. No doubt that weakening had been a long time coming since the first horse was domesticated, or the first wolf received a pat on its head for behaving like a person. But Descartes nailed down the coffin when he wrote that animals are automata who can’t reason or feel pain, and humans finally climbed to that pinnacle we’d been dreaming of. Sure, we’ll still coo and weep at an Attenborough documentary, and we’ll declare our deep love for our pets, but we do so while chomping on a chicken burger and deforesting the Amazon. Somewhere in our heads, a switch was flipped that we’ve never flipped back.

The new animal mythology we need is one that knocks humans off the pedestal we’ve put ourselves on. Unfortunately, it currently feels impossible for us to dismantle that imaginary hierarchy of superiority, but the climate crisis is, at least, giving us pause for thought. Oil-slicked sea-birds, emaciated polar bears, and dolphins caught in netting are new mythologies that tell anxious stories in that Barthesian way. We can’t get through a Grand National these days without some anxious hand-wringing around horse deaths. We’re now looking at animals and starting to feel guilt and shame, and I think that might be the catalyst towards a new animal mythology for our nature-starved, human-centric collective unconscious.

That I understand. So if we’re imagining how that might look, it seems to me as though one of the core components in building an animal mythology must be the classical tendency towards anthropomorphism or zoomorphism. In Fauna, the constant interchange of human and animal experience creates both horror and empathy, with both states (in my reading) struggling to reconcile with the other. What are your thoughts on the use of anthropo/zoomorphism in the collection, and how might both techniques enable or inhibit empathy between human and animal? What effect might that have on our anthrocentric unconscious?

I became conscious of the perils of anthropomorphism very early on when writing these stories. I began to trace a lot of the wrongheaded assumptions we have about animals back to this comfort we derive from anthropomorphism. It’s most evident with dogs, which is why the cyborg Tyson in ‘Tyson/Dog’ reflects on the expectations of his programming: he is expected to bark, not bark, roll over, sit, fetch, stay, fight, not fight etc based on the whims of the humans. In turn, the humans expect this creature to make behavioural decisions with the same sophistication as a human: defecate there but not there, rip up this toy but not this cushion. The process of domestication is the process of getting a non-human animal to conform as much as possible to the ways, means and comforts of humans. Anthropomorphisation plays a large role in that. Our narratives suggest that animals are basically just humans in disguise. We’ve believed ourselves to be so superior for so long we can no longer imagine alternative ways of being conscious or sentient.

I think of Wittgenstein’s quote quite a lot: ‘If a lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand him.’ He was making a fundamental point about language, but the animal element of his idea shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, it unlocked possibilities for me as I travelled into deeper and weirder absurdities while trying to keep connected to an animal reality. I leaned as much as I wanted into the trickster side of my fox in ‘Broadcast of the Foxes’, letting him grow feathers and travel through bricks, as well as staying classically fox-like. My birds in ‘Flock’ have an absurd communal quest but stay resolutely avian, while the Pandas in ‘A Panda Appeared in Our Street’ are defined by the humans who tend to them, but stay perpetually stuck in that position, quite literally. But it was writing the horse story ‘A Time Before Horses’ when I really wanted to give anthropomorphism a hefty kick.

I get increasingly anxious about horses. Another animal we revere and cherish and adore, and yet we cart them half-way across the world to dance in dressage, and regularly ride them to death while emphatically declaring that ‘they love it’ and its ‘what they want to do’. It never fails to sicken me. I fear horses are deeply cursed by their symbiosis with humans, more so than any other animal. They were fundamental to our modern evolution, but also to our ability to kill each other in mass numbers, and somewhere along the way we twisted our empathetic relationship with them to help justify our imagined superiorities and our very real bloodlusts. The conquering of Native Americans was literally overridden by the glory of a cowboy on horseback. And yet that was never the horse’s choice, or fault.

I try to get a little closer to some sort of horsey essence by attempting to tune into a form of equine communication that humans are utterly disconnected from and unaware of. So, my trio of interdimensional horses speak through minute flicks and twitches, and also have this ability to connect through a sort of mystical cyberpunkish network called the ‘equus’. Of course, there’s still anthropomophisation here because there almost always has to be, but these techniques of weird fiction help me slice away the human as much as possible to see maybe get a glimpse of what’s on the other side. I happen to believe that ‘other side’ is an incomprehensible and majestic vastness that terrifies us. That’s why we wallpaper over it with anthropomorphism.

Also running alongside that weird fiction influence is your exploration of the intersections between ‘natural’ and technological life. Throughout the collection, the commodification of animals is enabled by technology, which is perhaps what sometimes lends Fauna its dystopian undertone. I’d like to ask what research you did in terms of VR technology especially, and how you see the virtual world impacting on our understanding of animal life in the coming decade.

The only real level of research I did was the RoboRoach for ‘Betamorphosis’. This is a real bit of tech that was kickstarted by a pair of neuroscientists about six years ago. It’s a DIY kit that involves you catching a live cockroach, filing away the carapace on its head to expose the brain, then attaching electrodes which transmit to an app on your smartphone which you can use to move the cockroach around. All while it remains alive. It is an utter nightmare of the highest order, and there was some handwringing about it at the time, but only because it seemed to briefly signal that the same thing could be done with humans in the future. There was barely a sliver of concern for the cockroaches, of course. Why would we care about such an inconsequential creature, after all? At that point, I diverted my research away from the RoboRoach and into the cockroach. I learned about the importance of roach sociality, about how they just stop and die if they end up alone for some reason, and how they follow each other’s trails of faeces to find the best food and shelter. Translating all that over to Kafka’s Metamorphosis was an absolute dream. I found the absurdity of Kafka’s tale helped be to highlight some of the fallacies of anthropomorphisation because Gregor Samsa’s pathetic, helpless narrative voice fit so well with our concept of the inconsequential nature of insects, especially those designated as ‘pests’.

I guess I’m quite skeptical about the abilities of VR to solve some problems in relation to animals. I fear my understanding of technology has been somewhat coloured by the era of the tech bros who promised so much utopia while dredging up a new media dystopia that took us all by surprise. That’s there in ‘Come and See the Whale’ where advancements in various technologies make it possible to suspend a live whale in a tank in a museum for the benefit of Science, Knowledge, and Rich People’s Pockets. The trick is that the whale has a VR Atlantic Ocean grafted to his brain so he’s happy, of course, as long as nothing goes wrong, and why would it? Technology famously never goes wrong.

In a sense, I see the glorious Attenborough documentaries are a form of VR: immersive, close-up, slow-motion shots that get us as close as we could ever hope to get to amazing creatures in their natural habitats. But I was a film scholar at university, and I can see other things going on. The eagles and tigers are underscored by majestic strings and soaring symphonies, while the toads and bugs get quirky tubas and plinky-plonk pianos. The footage is heavily edited to give the illusion of smooth narrative. Even here, we can’t keep our human frameworks and hierarchies out, which is why I think these documentaries ultimately fail to get their full message across. They’re too comfortable, too cosy. The VR headsets will always come off as soon as we’ve had enough, or if we’ve got too close to something we don’t have the skills, or patience, to fathom.

I think that image leads us nicely to my last question, which I think in many ways you’ve touched on throughout our discussion. I’m keen to know whether your research for Fauna has given you greater optimism for the future, or greater pessimism. Did you feel your attitudes to the future changing as you wrote and researched for your stories, and what attitudes do you think Fauna might impart to your readers as we collectively face the uncertainty of the future?

At heart, I’m an optimist and always have been. But its increasingly hard to quantify optimism and pessimism in our present moment. They are both there, duking it out like ancient gods in some creation myth. On the one side, there’s been a quiet but substantial revolution in veganism since I started writing these stories. The narrative on being vegan, or ‘plant powered’ as the successful euphemism puts it, has shifted from something extreme and faintly ridiculous to a solid and respectable life choice. It’s now easy and fashionable to be vegan, and while there’s still a long way to go with all that, they are clear steps in the right direction. That does give me a lot of hope. As do the school strikes and the tide of political and public opinion sweeping towards green solutions and ecological concerns and away (I hope) from inaction and climate skepticism.

But I do fear its too little too late. And I look at the cognitive distance we still maintain from our animals and that worries me immensely. There is no shifting the meat industry. There is fevered outcry about the mere suggestion of stopping horse racing or greyhound racing or banning pet breeders. We brought in the Hunting Act to stop fox hunting, but it still happens with very little consequence. Barely anybody wants posh people to be shooting grouse every year and destroying huge acres of land in the process, but it goes on and on with no meaningful sign of it being stopped. Most of us are still missing a full vision of animality, safe and sound with our labradoodles and eco-friendly zoos.

I hope Fauna makes a few people pause and seriously rethink their relationship with animals. Not just the eating of them, but the manner in which they think about them. Are animals just elaborate ornamentation for human world? What does an animal actually want, and what has it been trained to want for our benefit? Is an elephant more fundamentally ‘important’ than a fly? I hope that by taking time to self-interrogate about animals it will help us to scale up and see the wider natural world in the same light. Fauna is about trying to set aside the human, at least for a moment, just to see what alternatives might be possible.

David Hartley is a writer and researcher, with a taste for the weird and the wonderful. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from The University of Manchester where he researched representations of autism in science-fiction and fantasy. He is the co-founder of the Narratives of Neurodiversity Network, and co-host on the Autism Through Cinema podcast. His fiction has appeared in various literary magazines including Ambit, Black Static, Structo, The Shadow Booth, and The Ghastling, and he is the author of Spiderseed (Sleepy House Press), Incorcisms (Arachne Press), and Fauna (Fly on the Wall). He lives in Manchester with one human, two house rabbits, and twelve rescued guinea pigs. He tweets at @DHartleyWriter and blogs at davidhartleywriter.com

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