Interviews

Back to the Future in “Mammoth”

An interview with Chris Flynn on his new novel, "Mammoth."

“Since so long ago, can we say that the animal has been looking at us?” the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, once pondered. Chris Flynn’s third novel, Mammoth, occasions such possibility. An original work – in both concerning the origins and constructing the uncanny – Mammoth brings to life a 13,000-year-old extinct American mastodon. Inside the basement of an auction house that specializes in natural history exhibits in New York, this unlikely narrator pontificates to his captive audience of a foolish tyrannosaurus, a stuffed penguin of 10 million years, and a bitterly haughty mummified Egyptian princess. So goes a sprawling tale that binds the fate of a multitude of species across times and spaces. This is a human story too, is it not? It was we, or our fellow hominids, after all, who brought the mammoth’s glorious dominion to a tragic end. Can we revive them from their dry bones now? De-extinction, to what purpose?

Following an ashen Australian summer which claimed the lives and habitats of hundreds of millions of non-human animals, I spoke with Flynn about his new novel, the future of climate catastrophe, and the role of fiction. We met for lunch at a cozy café that shuns the midday madness of the city center in Melbourne. Like his elephantine protagonist, Flynn is a natural storyteller. We shook hands, and the yarning flowed on before we even took our seats. He told me that he grew up in Belfast during the Troubles when the city was still grappling with the specter of sectarian violence. He left Ireland at the age of 18; “that’s what the Irish do,” he retorted matter-of-factly. Since then, his own life has become a menagerie of places, people, and occupations including, in a recent incarnation, a wildlife saver. But they are all conducive to his main calling – to write. An Australian citizen, he now lives on Phillip Island about 140 kilometers southeast of Melbourne.

Keyvan Allahyari

Are you a self-made writer?

Chris Flynn

I’m an autodidact, yes. I don’t have a degree. I went to university very briefly when I was young, but my family couldn’t afford to pay for it, so I dropped out. My parents are functionally illiterate. We grew up dirt poor in Ireland.

Keyvan Allahyari

So your family can’t claim your love of writing as that came from them?

Chris Flynn

Definitely not. I spent most of my youth in the library. The librarians in my hometown inspired and guided me.

Keyvan Allahyari

I can see traces of the picaresque tradition in your career with A Tiger in Eden but to some extent in Mammoth as well.

Chris Flynn

In Mammoth the challenge lay in working out how to have a propulsive narrative when the characters ­– fossils on sale at auction – could not physically move. I also have an inclination towards the absurd, the comic. Maybe it’s an Irish thing. I don’t believe in pure tragedy. In Ireland when someone dies, you have a wake, which is a joyous affair. Everyone is laughing, telling stories about the person’s life, having a drink. Humor has always informed my work. That’s not an easy fit in the literary world. There’s a pressure to be serious, in order to be taken seriously, and I find that confronting, by which I mean highly irritating.

Keyvan Allahyari

I can think of few things more serious than the idea of extinction, especially these days in Australia.

Chris Flynn

Yes. The biggest looming catastrophe of our time is that the world is slowly and inexorably coming to an end and we are complicit. I like the idea of alternative solutions. That’s the concept behind this book. Mammoth walked the tundra which encircled the north of the planet, keeping everything cold by compacting the snow, essentially running Earth’s refrigerator. Then we came along, killed them all, burnt the forests and the climate changed dramatically. The world began to warm up. Fast forward ten thousand years and the Siberian permafrost is melting. The bones of these animals are becoming exposed and we can collect viable DNA in order to clone the mammoth back to life. The idea is to create a huge herd and release them, so they can cool everything down again. They’re not going to reverse climate change, but at least they might buy us some time, while we wean everyone off fossil fuels.

Keyvan Allahyari

Perhaps the most striking feature of your novel is the voice of this extinct American mastodon speaking to other extinct species in the basement of a New York auction house. How did you arrive at that scenario?

Chris Flynn

The auction was real. Natural history auctions occur every year in New York. It’s generally the fossils of megafauna and dinosaurs for sale. They are often bought by museums, sometimes by celebrities. The story began after I read some of President Jefferson’s correspondence. In his letters, he asked Captain Merewether Lewis to bring him back mammoth bones because he wanted to prove to Europe that America was a powerful place where great creatures once roamed. He also believed that they might still be alive. When I heard about the auctions, I had an epiphany. Those bones were still around, they were still being treated as commodities. What if they told us what really happened?

Keyvan Allahyari

The story of the modern human. We make commodities out of everything. We recycle the very species that we made extinct and we enjoy them in other ways.

Chris Flynn

Ironically, these species might save us. Even when they’re gone, they have an influence on our world. They lived here longer than we have. We can’t ignore their influence on the biosphere.

Keyvan Allahyari

Is mass extinction as the result of climate change the elephant in the room of our times?

Chris Flynn

We are wholesale destroying the natural world. In the recent Australian bushfires, more than a billion animals died. But, we tend to catastrophize everything, and I’m more of an optimist. Just like the mammoth, I don’t think we’re finished yet. I have faith that science and intelligence and creativity will pull us back from the brink. Empathy leads to solutions and change. It is those with powerful imaginations who will help us progress into the future.

Keyvan Allahyari

One core aspect of Mammoth is the art of entertaining through telling a good story. Did it occur to you that storytelling might not be limited to human beings?

Chris Flynn

I was employed at an RSPCA shelter while writing this book. Working with animals helps you realize the infinite variety of personalities that they have, and their ability to recognize and communicate with each other and us. It’s very difficult to work in that environment and not feel that animals have their own internal life. It became easy for me to imagine they had been observing us across deep time.

Keyvan Allahyari

The notion of ‘deep time’ comes through in your attempt to create a vast cosmos both in terms of geography and longevity. What were the challenges of covering this much ground?

Chris Flynn

It’s an ambitious project. Covering millions of years in a single book was never going to be possible, so I limited it to the end of the ice age and the first five years of the 1800s, which is when the mammoth bones were dug up on a farm in New York. A lot happened between 1801 and 1804–the aftermath of the French Revolution, the second Irish Revolution, a scientific revolution. As the mammoth says, it is hard to believe that the men of science and the men of faith were once the same men, reassessing what their religious beliefs meant in relation to what they were discovering as scientists. It seems strange given today people don’t want to change their mind about anything. But at that time they were digging up bones that were quite obviously ancient, giving lie to the notion of the earth being only six thousand years old, as was previously thought. 

Keyvan Allahyari

You see a role for fiction at the end of times?

Chris Flynn

Absolutely. So much has been written about climate change and it is easy to feel depressed when you read it. I like the idea of injecting a bit of humor and imagination into the climate change debate because it becomes so much easier to talk about when we’re not feeling dread. You can already see in the media conversation that people are sick of it. And we can’t really afford to be sick of it because it is very real. This has been an awful summer in Australia. People are worried that this will happen every year now. Fiction writers are useful cogs in our society because they generally lack fear. I love the unknown. My whole life has been one big unknown. I never knew where I was going to live next or what I was going to do. I learned to embrace that uncertainty and perhaps my writing reflects that.

Keyvan Allahyari

In its weird and wonderful way, Mammoth is like no other novel that I have read. (Perhaps the closest that I could think of is Julian Barnes A History of the World in 10½ Chapters.) What are some of the literary influences on your recent work?

Chris Flynn

I read a lot of contemporary Irish fiction, including Sebastian Barry, Kevin Barry, Eimear McBride, Lisa McInerney. I love contemporary Irish writers because they are willing to take risks and employ voices that are not traditional, and literary techniques that are experimental. It’s refreshing that literature is still evolving in Ireland and that a new generation of Irish writers is coming through who are willing to try something different.

Keyvan Allahyari

Is Mammoth an Australian story? Irish? Are you an Australian author yet?

Chris Flynn

The idea of national identity has always been a tough one for me to come to terms with. I left Ireland at 18. I still have an Irish passport. I also have an Australian passport, because I’ve been here for twenty years. Will I ever be accepted as an Australian author? Some days I feel that I am. Some days that I feel that I am definitely not. Mammoth is more of an American story. It’s about an American mastodon. It’s primarily set in America. It’s also a little bit of an Irish story because it is partially set in Ireland, and a few of the human characters are Irish. It was obviously written in Australia. but us Irish have always lived in the world. We are very good at leaving our home country and adapting to life elsewhere.

Keyvan Allahyari

What’s your ultimate goal as a writer?

Chris Flynn

I want to continue to create narratives that offer different ways of looking at the world. I have a long list of projects lined up, but I’ll choose the ones that are most difficult to do. I will continue to explore and push against the limits of my artistic ability. But also laugh. I’ll keep laughing.

FICTION
Mammoth
By Chris Flynn
University of Queensland Press
Published April 28, 2020

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