Top Shelf: Donna Mazza

Photo: ©Sarah Mills

Fauna lays bare an electrifying genetically re-coded future so real, so terrifying, so close, I can feel its baby breath soft against my cheek.’—Robyn Mundy

I am thrilled to introduce fellow author, friend and colleague Donna Mazza. I have known Donna since we were postgrad writing students at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Donna about to graduate, me just beginning. More recently we were colleagues at Edith Cowan University South West in Bunbury, Western Australia, where Donna, lover of fine literature and funny looking chickens, works as an Arts lecturer.

The south west of WA is an extraordinary region of farmland, vineyards, tall tree forests, beaches and surf—a place that beats a little more slowly than city life. But how might the future look for Stacey, a young mother, newly pregnant through genetic engineering? How far will a mother go to save her child? Donna Mazza’s novel Fauna artfully navigates this terrain. As one of its early readers I found this story to be a chilling, entirely arresting window into the reachable future.

I posed some questions to Donna about the work and her writing:

Your new novel Fauna is about to enter the world, to give birth, you might say. Its main character Stacey is a pregnant mother of two, living in a familiar though somewhat bleaker Western Australia, 17 years into the future. The title itself is a sobering choice for a story that offers a different slant on motherhood. Tell us about the story and the questions you set out to explore.

The story has a provocative concept about Stacey carrying a child who is not entirely human, but I feel that there are many issues that it raises about motherhood. I particularly set out to consider the invasive nature of contemporary childbirth and its relationship to technology. I think it has changed the way we think about life. Having the window that we now have to look into ourselves as we create life is quite a wonder and as we unpick the code of our DNA that seems to raise even more wonders.  That doesn’t only apply to humans, of course. In Fauna, I wanted the sense that the characters are also living in our own aftermath: that the damage we are doing to the world sits all around them as the world goes on, continuing its journey and leaving its wake, and its consequences.

How did the ideas for the novel first come about? 

It was reading about the new CRISPR technologies and the potential to raise extinct megafauna that started my wondering for this novel.  I first wrote about it in my short story ‘The Exhibit’ and applied what I had been reading to extinct humans instead of extinct animals.  The short story never really felt like enough to fully tease out the ideas and the more I read around it the more I realised that eventually we would be able to do this and if we were able to then somebody, somewhere probably would.  As I deepened my research on the Neanderthal people, I found that contemporary science has a much more sophisticated understanding of them, their intelligence and their lives. I gathered all kinds of precious details and wove them into Fauna through my research.

How would you describe your process of writing? I mean, do you set plot points along the way, or does the story carry you along to where it wants to go?

I like to have a scaffolding when I write so I had some structural plot points as guides along the way for Fauna, helped by the markers of pregnancy, birth and childhood.  But it was a loose structure, with plenty of creative space in it for taking the story where it needed to go. I don’t have a failsafe method of writing but I do my best writing in intense bursts. These don’t come out of nowhere and I am always ‘working on it’ mentally, building the scaffolding for the story.

Your debut novel The Albanian was published in 2007 after winning the illustrious TAG Hungerford Award. You began writing Fauna around 2017. I remember you quietly saying to me that throughout that hiatus you felt you had become a stronger writer. Tell us more about that realisation.

I think if you’re a writer and an avid reader, like me, you never stop learning and I hope that I can say that to you again next time I have a novel written.  I learned a lot between novels by writing short fiction and poetry and also from my reading and teaching.

In 2018 you were named the Mick Dark Flagship Fellow for Environmental Writing and awarded a residency at Varuna, the National Writers House. How did that residency influence your writing?

That was a wonderful three weeks of reading and writing and writers. I met some wonderful and encouraging people who urged me forward with my journey to publishing Fauna.  I also realised something about myself and my relationship to writing that I will carry into the work that I do in the future – that I try to share the emotional and physical experience of my characters in the hope that the reader can empathise and feel something of it too.

What advice do you have for fellow writers?

Make time and don’t give up.

Do you have a favourite paragraph from Fauna?

The nights and the days. I have forgotten my name and the chapters that have gone. I have no knowledge of what will come or how I have moved from place to place. How they have all lived around me. Their coming and going in a world above the surface, where the wind blows and sun shines. Down here, inside this thing we slip into the gullet. So slick with saliva that little force is required to swallow it down. So many things here that I cannot name. Through the miasma all I see is her eyes, her cheeks drawing in, the rim of milk at her lips.

Donna Mazza’s novel Fauna, published by Allen & Unwin, is available in bookstores from 4 February 2020.

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