From the author of How to Bee, The Dog Runner is an intense adventure with an all-important environmental message, set in an all-too-possible dystopian future Australia. She answered our questions on her book.
The Dog Runner is a very powerful dystopian novel. Why are you drawn to this genre, and what does it allow you to do in your writing?
I’m drawn to the future, always wondering what it might be like. I like creating future worlds where I extrapolate what we’re doing right now and see how it turns out. One pressing area that I’m worried people overlook is food security, so I’m able to highlight this in my storytelling. What I really want to do is get people talking about where our food comes from and understanding the ways in which it can be threatened, but in a safe fictional environment. These are children I’m writing for, after all, and there’s not a lot they can do about anything right now, but I think if I spark that curiousity or some understanding, they may be ready to tackle challenges like this creatively in the future.
You grew up on a farm, how much do you draw on your knowledge of the countryside in your writing. Was there any research you needed to do?
I grew up in New Zealand on farms, both lowland and highland, so the Australian landscape is fairly alien to me, and it is so vast. But I think, being out in the landscape so much as a child, and now that I live in a bus and travel all over Australia, has helped a lot with this novel. I thought I knew a lot about the land, grass, mushrooms and dogs, but I actually received a grant from the Neilma Sidney Foundation to go off and research all of these things, and found that my knowledge of all these things, particularly the land and grass and many kinds of fungi, was like an iceberg. Most of the really interesting information is below the surface. Of course I can’t put it all in a fictional book or it would become non-fiction, but it was so fascinating. It was a joy to research and so many people gave freely of their time to talk to me.
How much are the catastrophic events of The Dog Runner (death of all the grasses) based on real life?
It’s absolutely based on real life. I took out every member of the grass family in my book, which I admit was drastic. It’s a good bet any killer fungus would only take out sub-families. So if we lose wheat, rice and corn would probably live on, but wheat was attacked by a killer fungus in 1999 in Uganda. The strain is called Ug99. This was a common fungus that humans hadbeen cultivating wheat to be resistant to that suddenly made a giant leap in its evolution. Ten years later, food scientists around the world are still combatting this strain of fungus. If it did it again, we’d be outclassed immediately. Also, in Queensland, large dead circles have been appearing in pasture and baffling everyone, but this has been attributed to a strange new fungus as well. Fungi are both the bad guys and the good guys in this novel. We need fungi in the soil to grow grass, and the family in the country grow woodland mushrooms.
Do you feel as a writer that you have a duty to inform/educate children whether about the threats to the natural world or the structure of society? How conscious are you of the need to balance that with entertainment and providing them with adventure?
The story is about a child forced into an adventure, and the changed world is a backdrop that builds as she negotiates it. It can be read just as an entertaining adventure. Talking about environmental issues is a delicate area. Children need to understand, think and talk about threats to our environment, but they need to do it within a safe framework. Future solutions need creative thinkers and one thing we know about humans is that they do not like to think about things that scare them. So I’m super conscious that children need safe childhoods but also, it’s important to begin the process of talking about these issues. Especially since most children are already aware of them. Everyone needs to talk about these issues, so we can all understand better what the facts are. The modern world is full of scare-mongering and misinformation, and that does no one any good. The one thing I feel I can do for children is show them kids their age, coping with change, and coping with a devastating future scenario. I believe it’s empowering to show them characters who find the courage to cope with danger, who have the love and support of a family, and that this is something that they can stand up for.
The Dog Runner ends on a positive note. How important was that to you?
I think children see too much these days. I love what young people like Greta Thunberg are doing, raising awareness of climate problems, but I worry that children see facts and figures and governments not acting and they despair. I worry they will be overwhelmed and jaded before they see anything achieved. They aren’t familiar with how slow and stubborn governments can be. So when I talk about my books with children, I always end by telling them what individuals are doing with renewable energies and electric-powered vehicles, drones and planes. How beneficial fungi are being discovered and utilised to recover polluted and dead land. How individuals are changing the world one idea at a time, and impress upon them the importance of thinking creatively about solutions like these individuals. So it was very important for me to end The Dog Runner on a high note. On a note of renewal. And when I talked to a grassland regeneration expert based in the Wimmera, one of the great grasslands of the world, he impressed upon me, that a grassland will always return to grass, and that grass will outcompete all weeds if just left alone long enough, and if the fungi in the soil is healthy.
Are you working on a new project?
I’m working on something a little more out there set in a city dealing with food-terrorism, but if that’s too scary, I may pocket that for a while, as I’m also working on a really fun novel set in a far future drowned world. While a drowned world may not seem fun, for the inhabitants of the hilltops and mountains that are now islands, it’s life as usual. Life goes on in some form, is a much more comforting theme than a city’s food supply at the mercy of a nefarious force.
The Dog Runner is published by Old Barn Books, 978-1910646489, £6.99 pbk.