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Dog’s Eye View

Sophie Cunningham talks to Eva Hornung

I first met Eva Hornung when she won the Australian/Vogel Award for her first novel (under the name Eva Sallis), Hiam, in 1997. That novel went on to win, and be shortlisted for, many other awards. Hiam, like all of Eva’s work, explored ideas around culture, exile and belonging. Eva has worked extensively on human rights issues, particularly with the group she helped found, Australians against Racism. Other novels published under the name Sallis are The City of Sea Lions, Fire Fire, Mahjar and The Marsh Birds (which also won several major awards). The extent of Eva’s scholarship is impressive. She studied Arabic intensively for seven years and travelled regularly to the Middle East, particularly Yemen and Lebanon. She learnt Russian specifically to research her latest novel—the subject of this conversation—Dog Boy, which was published in early 2009.

Sophie Cunningham: You used to write under the name Eva Sallis and now you write as Eva Hornung. Have you found that writing under a different name has affected the book at all?

Eva Hornung: It probably hasn’t affected the book at all, but it attracts media attention. It was a painful decision to make, and I found media have been quite impertinent. Sometimes I just say, ‘My marriage ended,’ and sensible people say, ‘I’m sorry for asking,’ and that’s fine.

Sophie: What else did they think the answer was going to be?

Eva: Well, people have asked me, was it a promotion strategy?

Sophie: If anything I would have thought it would be an anti-promotion strategy!

Eva: Yes. If you build up your career under a name and you’re known by that name, suddenly ditching that name is not a good thing, especially if you’re still doing literary fiction. I’ve got very mixed feelings about it. I’ve left my Eva Sallis website up as a memento to that time, those books. Most of them are still in print.

Sophie: Are you going to try to get your backlist into ‘Hornung’ or just keep it as Eva Sallis?

Eva: Anything that comes out from now on, I’m Eva Hornung. I’ve always been Eva Hornung. Apparently legally you’re always what you were born, so Eva Sallis was just a 26-year dream. A good one.

Sophie: There’s an interest in disenfranchisement in all your work.

Eva: Yes, same book six times.

Sophie: Dog Boy reads to me differently from the others, but afterwards I could hear the echoes.

Eva: There are unifying concerns: longing and boundaries and exile; the interplay between dehumanisation and the definitions we impose on others. That’s always interested me. If another big book would bite—I wish it would—it would probably be the same book again.

Sophie: I thought Dog Boy was one of the most extraordinary books I’ve ever read. I liked how the dogs were characters, how you entered the animal world. Could you tell us a bit about where the idea came from? I know that you read a newspaper article about a boy but is that where the idea came from, or have you been thinking about writing a book about animals for longer than that?

Eva: I never actually expected to write this book, so that newspaper story really was the catalyst. But in hindsight, it had a long germination. I’ve been writing very slowly a collection of short stories called ‘The Sad Book of Animals’, and quite a few of those are attempts to explore the limits of my own imagination or the limits of human imagination and see how hard or easy it is to persuade a reader that they’ve really inhabited the consciousness of a creature that’s other than human.

Sophie: What animals are you writing about in that collection?

Eva: I’ve got a story called ‘Abattoir’ from the point of view of a cow, and I’ve got a story called ‘Life Sentence’ from the point of view of a cockatoo, and a sort of funny sad story from the point of view of a dog called ‘Dog’s Breath’, and then a few more satiric ones about the human relationship with the environment.

Sophie: And is that collection going to be published?

Eva: Well, as I said, I’ve been writing it very slowly. I think I’ve only got six stories. I’ve published most of those stories at one point or other. But yes ultimately I would hope to finish it. It’s certainly something I’m mulling over again now.

Sophie: Have you owned or had relationships with all of those different types of animals? Does research get you where you need to go or is it actually just about observing the animals?

Eva: I have known cows and cockatoos. Plenty of dogs. In the case of Dog Boy, I did very little research on dogs. I did some research on feral dog packs and the way they are self-regulated, mainly to confirm that my instincts were right about how I portrayed my pack. I didn’t expect to know as much as I found I knew. I’ve always had dogs and really every dog I’ve ever known came forward and said ‘I’m part of this’. I’ve only ever owned two dogs at once and I’ve only ever taken care of three at once, but every memory of dogs really surfaced for this.

Sophie: So you’ve had dogs since you were a child?

Eva: Yes, and I think I have always observed them closely. Dog body language is familiar to me. You know how you people-watch—I think all writers people-watch—I have always dog-watched as well: all the nuances of how dogs interact and the amusing things you see dogs do. There’s just an archive there.

Sophie: You don’t anthropomorphise the dogs in Dog Boy at all.

Eva: No, it was very important not to. I think there is one scene that’s borderline but I really needed it and I honed it and I worked on it to make sure it was at least possible for a dog.

Sophie: What scene was that?

Eva: Where Mamochka [the dog that adopts Dog Boy] brings home a second child, and her motivations for bringing home the second child are clear to the reader.

Sophie: That she wants to mother?

Eva: Well, she also wants her first human child to quit wandering in the human world; if it’s humans he needs, she’ll provide a human. And she wants to curtail his adventures into the world beyond which she can effectively influence or protect him. She has a crush on humans but a lot of dogs do. Even dogs that have gone feral for one reason or another.

Incidentally, in Moscow you can tell which ones are perfectly happily adapted to looking after themselves, and those that are really dependent on human beings for their survival. Mamochka is a dog that has formed a feral pack but is nonetheless replete with a whole wealth of memories that involve human beings, and that significantly modifies both her relationship with human beings and her behaviours.

Sophie: How long did the book take you to write? The reason I ask that question is I want to know how long you were immersing yourself into a dog’s view of the world.

Eva: I started in 2004 and pretty much finished in 2008, so four years. I’ve left the book behind but I can’t let go the dog view. Actually Rafael [my eight-year-old son] is just as bad. When Raf writes stories he keeps writing dog stories and he keeps drawing dog pictures, so both of us have still got a brain space that’s very canine at the moment.

Sophie: Do you think people don’t let themselves think about how animals feel because they eat them?

Eva: Yes, I think there’s a very deep need for us not to look. Everyone knows that. We don’t like buying pigs’ heads in the supermarket, we’d rather buy dismembered bits of pig that most of us don’t recognise as pig.

Sophie: Are you a vegetarian?

Eva: I do sometimes eat seafood and take responsibility for catching and killing fish, so I have retained that, but I haven’t eaten birds or mammals for more than twenty years now.

Sophie: And was that because of your relationship with animals?

Eva: I don’t really know how much vegetarianism is related to this book but everyone seems to think it is so maybe it is. There was a particular day. I was eating steak and black-bean sauce—it was my favourite lunch while I was at uni—anyway, I was eating steak and black-bean sauce, which is quite uncow-like but I was well aware it was cow and I was thinking about that and I looked down at my own, at that stage, considerable thigh and I thought, gosh, imagine if my whole life had to end just for my thigh to be eaten. And I just decided not to participate in that any more. I’d already stopped eating chicken because I felt very strongly about the way chickens are treated, and I’d stopped eating pig because I felt very strongly about the way pigs were treated. I’m not really comfortable with seeing animals as a commodity. And if their lives are to end in order to sustain our lives I think our culture has a profoundly disrespectful approach to that.

I’m so kin to birds and mammals that it’s very hard to really see a big enough boundary between me and them. I can eat a prawn, I don’t feel that kin to a prawn, but I really do feel kin to birds and mammals.

Sophie: I was very struck by the sense the dogs had of the winter that lay ahead. I assume humans who live on the land can read the weather in this way as well but we’ve lost that to some extent.

Eva: I think many people retain a sense of the seasons, and of the portents of the coming season. And seasons in Moscow are much more extreme than here—it is important to know what’s coming if you can. I had to get at all the seasons, although I was in Moscow in autumn. I sat down with Tamara, a friend of mine in Moscow, with this list of questions: ‘What’s the first smell of spring? What’s the first sign you know that spring is coming?’ And she just got so into this. She was fantastic. She took me through a seasons journey of Moscow, through the impressions of smell and what you see first and what plants and what this and what that and what happens with that sort of plant and that sort of plant, and how these look. And I spread out all these photos that I had of seasons as well and got her to talk to them a bit, and that was fantastic, because I had to project myself into the seasons other than the one that I was experiencing, and also hear a lot about the one I was experiencing. So I think autumn … it’s a very autumnal book. But I did enjoy the seasons.

Sophie: That’s actually where you’ve got the greatest sense of dread for Dog Boy was that how many winters could a human—indeed a dog—endure?

Eva: Well, it’s a very precarious existence. If they’re injured it’s pretty severe. Brown Dog gets killed in the attack of the strangers. And Grey Brother gets injured as well, and those sorts of injuries are quite critical. The fact that they have Romochka with them and can expand their hunting technique because they have a human boy with them contributes significantly to their health and survival. The dogs in Moscow are all beautiful because the ones that are diseased or injured don’t survive for long. We saw a feral pack near the Kremlin and followed it around for quite a while photographing extensively. It was such a beautiful pack of dogs, really the picture of health, very husky-like and all curved tails. Really gorgeous beasts.

Sophie: Is there tension between humans and packs of dogs in Moscow?

Eva: Muscovites’ relationship with dogs is very interesting, it’s very different from ours. We are perceived as a dog-loving nation but they are a dog-loving nation in a different way. Those proposals that are mentioned in the book—one of giving pensioners a bit of extra money if they’ll feed stray dogs and the other one of desexing stray dogs and letting them go again—those were seriously put forward in municipal council meetings in Moscow. And the desexing may have been done for a while, I’m not sure. The whole relationship between the populace and the homeless dogs is much kinder, and so there’s a lot of confluence. We met a lovely dog at St Basil’s Cathedral, so nice and so friendly, and so healthy-looking we even let Raf pat him. We asked the dvornik if it was his dog and he said, ‘No, he just lives here.’ And there’s a lot of that, where the dog just lives there, and they can part company again just as easily as …

Sophie: Which I find really interesting because it means that the animal doesn’t have to be your pet. It’s just a creature you’re sharing a space with …

Eva: … and you look after. But if it disappears one day, that’s its prerogative. And if you disappear one day, you don’t give it a thought, really. There’s a kind of expectation that dogs might move in a serial fashion from carer to carer, and there’s an outcry if authorities try and do something about feral dogs. There was an outcry when feral dogs were shot in Moscow, and they were only shot after there was a rumour of rabies in the north and things like that.

Sophie: Some of the sequences I found quite amazing were those when Romochka and the dogs catch the subway all over the city. You conveyed a sense of the variousness of a city without any of the conventional markers.

Eva: It had to be a Romochka-eye view of the city. When I was travelling around I’d already written a draft of the book, so when I went to Moscow I had an itinerary which was completely book-based. There were things I had to find that would notionally enrich what I’d already written or add to it or confirm it, and things I had to discover about the mechanics of central heating or lifts and staircases and all of that sort of stuff, older buildings, newer buildings, how you’d break into them. I cased out the joint, I had to check out how he would break into them, what sorts of buildings he could break into. That scene where Romochka looks around for likely buildings, I did that, and I photographed the ones that I thought he’d shimmy up.

Sophie: How long did you spend in Moscow?

Eva: Two and half weeks, twenty-four hours a day researching.

Sophie: So it must have been very intense.

Eva: Yes, very. I came back with about 2500 photos.

Sophie: Did you learn Russian?

Eva: I learned Russian for more than nine months leading up to going. So I went with enough Russian to get by not just on the street but also on the phone, which was very handy. It takes a lot more than nine months to learn a language to fluency of any kind, but I do read it and write it and can get by in it enough to make it a viable research project, and enough to soak my musculature in the sense of being Russian and Russianness.

Sophie: Did you do much research on feral children?

Eva: As much as I could, yes, because I really didn’t know very much, particularly the developmental aspects of language acquisition under conditions of extreme deprivation, the psychological developmental stages of play and much more. The point of view not of a mother or sibling, but of a scientist. Once I was writing Puppy I needed to know a lot about how play manifests itself and what its significance is and all of those things that you instinctively know as you watch a young child grow up that but I needed to put into a scientific framework. Scientists in the book have an important role of interpreting or mediating what it is that they see.

Sophie: And not understanding, I think, what is before them.

Eva: Well, having science mediate for them and in fact interfere with their basic instinctual responses to what it is they’re seeing.

Sophie: Puppy was such an interesting character because but as a reader you never care about him quite as much because the book is positioned from Romochka’s point of view.

Eva: Romochka is very ambivalent about Puppy.

Sophie: That ambivalence comes through very strongly, which is very effective.

Eva: There’s one beautiful scene (well, I thought it was beautiful!) where Romochka looks wholeheartedly at Puppy and is so proud that Puppy is a member of the pack, and Puppy is this lanky, lolloping creature with pale blue eyes and very long, lank blond hair flicking in the breeze.

Sophie: He’s pretty.

Eva: He’s the prettiest puppy ever. And then, more or less through Romochka’s envy, Puppy is exposed to a world in which he is immediately captured. But Puppy twists us a bit because all the language used to describe Puppy is the language of dogs. So we know that this is a human child, but he lollops and he capers and he yelps …

Sophie: As I read I was trying to work out whether he was physically deformed.

Eva: Increasingly, yes. I skirt the borderline in keeping even Romochka physically normal because children who do run on all fours don’t grow in the same way as children who run upright. So Romochka runs upright most of the time because I need him to keep a physique through which he can more or less fake being human, but Puppy is quite a different matter. Puppy’s dogness, which Romochka finds beautiful, human readers find grotesque.

Sophie: The original case that you read about, was that in the Ukraine?

Eva: No, it’s a case in Moscow. When Ivan Mishukov was found it appeared he’d been living with dogs for at least two years.

Sophie: From what age?

Eva: From about age four or five, or possibly older, it’s very hard to pick the age of a child. I found this out. Bone scans don’t work until you’re thirteen or something. It’s very hard to determine age. And the eruption of teeth is not age-specific. Ivan Mishukov was rescued and fostered, and the last bit of information I read about him was that he’d actually done very well. He was a highly intelligent child and according to a story that I read he’d joined his peers in learning at school.

Sophie: Can humans digest raw meat?

Eva: Humans can eat lots of raw meat but they’re not that good at eating rotten meat and the health issues are pretty full on. Ivan Mishukov lived in a very urban environment, so he and his dogs terrorised the neighbourhood and stole. His dogs helped him to steal for him and the pack.

Sophie: And what happened to his dogs?

Eva: They were killed.

Sophie: You write a lot about smell in the book. I was just struck because in The Lost Dog, Michelle de Kretser writes about smell and it made me wonder whether people who have dogs become more aware of smell as a sense.

Eva: Once you inhabit something like this imaginatively, you can’t not sniff around. I’ve got photos of Raf in Moscow being Romochka for me, sniffing at dumpsters and … you know, you don’t just go through the motions, you analyse those smells as well and then imagine what it would be like if your nose were infinitely better and you actually think they’re nice rather than nasty. It’s just a sleight of hand in a way but it’s part of yoking your imagination to that process. In ‘Dog’s Breath’, the little story that I wrote, I wanted to explore the way smell is a vehicle of narrative for dogs. This dog runs away from its owner on the beach and it follows a smell narrative and describes that narrative, ‘This rat ran along here and it did a little pee here and it did this, and then it got a fright … and oh, so exciting, rat fright is my favourite fright.’ And you feel the excitement of the dog as it literally reads a story with its nose that is mapped out in smells. Part of the purpose of that story was to play with how far I could extend myself into imagining that, and once you start doing that you don’t stop.

Sophie: You’ve immersed yourself so deeply in this book. Has that been your process with all your books? Are you a different person as a result of having written the book?

Eva: Yes, this has always been my process. Different? Well, I learned Russian and languages change you.

Sophie: Are you doggier?

Eva: Am I doggier? I think I’m probably slightly more conscious and much more amused by our young dog’s disobedience than I used to be. So when our young red heeler, who’s Raf’s dog, is fiendishly disobedient, I don’t find it an affront to my dog training abilities. So things like that: I think I’ve mellowed a bit and maybe the book’s had an influence.

Sophie: I assume the age of Romochka is very important?

Eva: At the beginning he had to be young enough to hesitate about decisions to make with where he belonged. Almost every scene I wrote with a notion of boundary and who belongs, who doesn’t, where the lines … all these lines and territories and boundaries, not just between groups of animals but groups of humans. And he’s young enough to know that little kids shouldn’t be on the street and there are all these rules conscribing his permitted spaces and his forbidden spaces. And also these rules of contact with other people. In a way he follows the dog because it’s less forbidden than talking to strangers, and for that to be true you need a very young child. He also needs to be able to make the choice to suckle without much thought, so any older than four seemed too old.

But I needed a child who’s already verbal because he cannot possibly function the way he does later if he is as young as Puppy is when Puppy is adopted by the clan. Because the significant thing about the rehabilitation of feral children or severely neglected children is that their language acquisition can be repaired and they can catch up, if you like, depending on the age that the deprivation begins. And so he actually has a rough but quite loving mother and a rough but quite unloving uncle in the beginning.

Sophie: Do we assume the mother dies or is that not even a relevant question?

Eva: Well, I’m pretty sure she’s under the leaves somewhere in Bitsevski Park but she might be trafficked, she might be in London, she might be anywhere that she would have had no choice about, because we do know she works as a prostitute, and so her position is incredibly vulnerable in that society.

Sophie: And was the uncle really the uncle or was he a boyfriend she was living with?

Eva: I don’t think there’s any euphemism, I think ‘boyfriend’ is boyfriend and ‘uncle’ is uncle. Romochka has lived so long with his mother and his uncle that he’s not even familiar with the father–mother–child scenario, he always thinks of everyone as having an uncle, mother and child if they have a household at all.

Sophie: Can we talk about what happens to the uncle?

Eva: The uncle carries an echo of Romulus and Remus. There’s a lot of Romulus and Remus in the novel. I’ve always thought that the stories about Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, being brought up by wolves, was a legend to explain their extreme brutality. Wolves’ milk has suckled them and wolves’ passions run in their veins, that kind of legend.

Romochka doesn’t have a taboo in place, he does not have the ‘thou shalt not kill’. He has ‘I won’t eat cats’ and ‘I won’t eat humans’ and ‘I won’t eat dogs’ in place, they’re his taboo, but they’re acquired from Mamochka. The taboo that gives moral shock at the possibility or consideration of murder is completely absent, and it’s not going to be put in place by being with Dimitri and Natalia either.

Sophie: I interpreted the end as incredibly scary.

Eva: Did you?

Sophie: The scientists had no idea what they’d gotten into …

Eva: They had no idea. Romochka is by this point beyond human, he has demonstrated that capacity humans have of expanding their boundaries infinitely, and he’s in the unique position of having expanded his selfhood to include doghood. The final act is a profound affirmation of his responsibilities, against his wishes, his responsibilities to his pack. So the end is supremely an expression of his doghood where his selfhood is both a boyhood and a doghood.

Sophie: But there was a part of him that wanted to become human again, wasn’t there?

Eva: Oh yes, definitely. He’s thoroughly bored once he’s leader of the pack. He’s very attracted to human beings and to human interaction and to his abilities in that context, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to walk away from his doghood. It’s never an easy task to be all dog or all boy.