Ernest Dempsey — Five years since Australian poet and reviewer Magdalena Ball debuted as a novelist with Sleep Before Evening at which time I had an interview with her on News Blaze. Now, her second novel Black Cow takes readers to the rural side for a breath of fresh air, away from the stressors of city life and closer to Mother Nature. The novel tells the story of James and Freya Archer, a couple that finds its married life threatened with the stress of their jobs and the ruling urban dream of success. But what does success really mean and what is it worth to be chased? Magdalena Ball explores this issue in her Black Cow, and she talks about it in the following Q&A session.
Ernest: Maggie, I’d first like to ask what the title “Black Cow” signifies.
Maggie: Black Cow signifies a number of things in the novel. At its simplest, it’s just the Wagyu that the Archers decide to raise when they move to Tasmania. Then there’s the black cow that James talks to when they first go to look at the house in Tasmania. He whispers into its ear. He tells it what’s ailing him. It becomes symbolic of the hunger that this family feels for renewed connection to the land – to their roots – to the garden. They feel very strongly the disconnect of their lives but they can’t initially articulate it. They’re hungry for something the cow signifies. Then there are a whole welter of jokey references from the Steely Dan song which James actually sings in his Jaguar (“In the corner/of my eye…”) – and the lost youth that this reminds him of. There’s the drink that Freya makes, which also brings to mind – Proust like – a series of memories of her own youthful dreams.
Ernest: Your novel shows the pressures of modern urban life on individuals living it and their families. Do you think these pressures result primarily from the kind of work we do for a living?
Maggie: Not necessarily. I see the pressures as coming hand-in-hand with a dearth in creativity – with having the earning of a living as an end in itself, rather than an outcome of creative, satisfying work. We tend to swallow notions of success, and I’ll talk more about that later, around the salaries we earn rather than the good we do or the inherent pleasure and creative joy in our work. There’s no reason why earning a living can’t be emotionally satisfying and creative, but so many people begin to accumulate ‘stuff’ and get themselves on soul-destroying treadmills where they don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing and yet they fear the loss of income. This is exacerbated in times of recession when you add fear into the equation, and people also are encouraged to spend more (stimulus), which creates a kind of cycle of debt and work that leaves people exhausted and cut off from reflection and self-awareness. That’s not an unusual situation and that was what I wanted to explore in the book.
Ernest: Cameron, the teenage daughter in the family in your novel, is shown hurting herself, inflicting pain on her body. Given the recent suicide of Amanda Todd, would you say that this age of finger-tip technology comes at a great risk to young people’s lives?
Maggie: I don’t think that computers themselves (and the rest of it – the iPods, iPhones, Xboxes, and other gadgets) are necessarily problematic; these are useful and handy tools, and indeed I’m writing my responses to you on a laptop right now. However, one of the key themes in the book was the power of community, and by that I mean real community. A hand on hand: the sense of knowing that you’re not alone, that we don’t have to be self-sufficient. I think it’s easy, especially for teenagers, to use technology to isolate themselves, or to think that 5,000 facebook friends or “video chatting” is as good as one deep friendship or in some way more important than time spent with family and real, caring friends relating and interacting. We’re all so time-poor these days, running around and ticking as many boxes that we can, that it’s easy to miss important signs of distress, and it’s easy to forget to talk to one another. Our children mirror us in ways that can be pretty confronting at times, and sometimes they take on our stress in ways that are exaggerated. We need to pay more attention.
Ernest: For one thing, Freya’s decision to take her family to the countryside appears like escape – you know, like running away from challenges. But there are challenges in rural life as well. So why would she, Freya I mean, not stay put and revise her lifestyle and that of her family?
Maggie: Freya and James (and their kids, though they don’t realize it for a while) are hungering for something; they want to feel a greater connection in their lives between production and consumption. So they’re hankering for fresh air, fresh vegetables, something more concrete than the lifestyle they have in the city. In addition, house prices in Tasmania are (in the novel at least!) significantly cheaper than house prices in Double Bay, so they are able to do away with their mortgage without having to work. It does look, at least for a bit, like a way out. And the notion of making a ‘tree change’ from city to country is one that is becoming more popular. But of course, as the old Zen saying goes (and one reviewer astutely pointed out), “wherever you go, there you are”. Part of James and Freya’s character arc is learning that where you live isn’t really the issue—that real change only happens inside.
Ernest: I personally loved the line “money didn’t equate to success” (p. 146). Hence the question what success means to you?
Maggie: Success may well have different meanings to different people, as it’s such a subjective notion. However, I think it’s a word that we’ve come to associate with material gain. So ‘success’ in the commonly used sense would be a well-paid job and all the trappings, such as a large, fancy house, expensive cars, and the measure of respect from peers that comes with that. But in a more literal sense, if you don’t get real pleasure from your so-called successes; if, instead, as is the case for James and Freya, they’re actually causing you pain; they aren’t really successes. For me, success is knowing that your life has real meaning – that you’re creating something sustainable and powerful in the short span you’ve got, and that you’ve developed meaningful long-term relationships that will leave the world a better place than it would have been without you. That may sound sappy, and maybe it is, but I don’t see ‘climbing’ some arbitrary ladder or acquiring more and more possessions as being something that has this kind of sustainable value.
Ernest: Unlike Sleep Before Evening in which you explore in detail the struggle of a teenage girl with life challenges, this novel doesn’t zoom in on the teen members of the family. Do you think it makes a good read for teenagers?
Maggie: My target audience for Black Cow was readers who will identify with Freya and James primarily; so I would say that would be, at the most ideal, someone in their thirties or forties who reads the book and might see themselves in one of the protagonists. I didn’t see this as being a book that would really appeal to a much younger readership because the kind of mid-life crisis that is confronting James and Freya is one that might seem alien to a younger reader. Sleep Before Evening (which is about to be released in Macedonia by Blesok publishing!) was definitely aimed at a younger target readership, being a coming of age story, and readers who loved it most, did tend to be somewhat younger. I do get a reasonably amount of fan mail from readers who tell me that Black Cow is their story; that they either did exactly what James and Freya did – making the tree change – or that they want to.
Ernest: Just curious to learn whether you have a personal fondness for the rural side of the land.
Maggie: I grew up in NYC myself, and will always have a kind of romantic fondness for the city. But I do live in a rural environment now and have to say that I’m always inspired by the beauty of the natural world that surrounds me (not just for Black Cow, but for all my writing). The bell birds in Sleep Before Evening came straight from my backyard. I have always had a little fondness and hankering – something I recognize as romantic and illogical – for the good life – backyard self-sufficiency if you like and I did want to explore that path to its conclusion. And yes, Tasmania has always had a special place in my heart, which also, in some personal way, perhaps parallels the Catskills (Haines Falls) and upstate NYC places (Altona) I would go during the school holidays with my father and brother as a child. I wanted to capture that nostalgia too in the book, since James was brought up on a farm and was hankering after that time, even though it wasn’t always halcyon.
Ernest: You also published a poetry book Repulsion Thrust before Black Cow. Do your poems also treat the subject of modern city life?
Maggie: My poems are varied and touch on many different subject matters. Repulsion Thrust itself is divided into 3 sections: one on depression, one on environmental themes, and one on joy and playfulness – a kind of musical play. Of course these themes are treated poetically, so they’re broad in focus. But there is one poem, “Maggie’s Farm”, from the environmental section, which very specifically picks up the themes of Black Cow and was, in fact, my precursor to the novel. A lot of the poems are inspired by scientific themes – quantum physics and astrobiology in particular – twin areas of some interest for me, and the way in which those things can be put into the context of the themes of each section– a kind of parataxis of symbols that hopefully comes to a conclusion in the mind of the reader.
Ernest: Closing out chat here, could you please tell our readers a little about your radio show The Compulsive Reader Talks and where to catch it?
Maggie: The show is an extension of my review site The Compulsive Reader; there’s a radio show player at The Compulsive Reader. You can also find it directly at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/compulsivereader. It’s 30-minute segments of podcasted interviews with the authors of some of the books I review. We’ve recently had Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat), Kate Fagan, Amanda Curtin, Frank Delaney, Tim Flannery, and many others. There are some 50 reviews in the archives, so lots of meaty stuff there.
Ernest: Thank you Maggie! I hope to stay in touch to talk more about your writing work.
Maggie: Thank you, Ernest. I really appreciate your insightful questions and support!