Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the upcoming release of Dogs of the Deadlands! For those who may be unfamiliar, how would you describe the book’s premise, and what inspired you to tell this story?
Anthony McGowan: Thanks! It’s a very exciting time. Beginning with the what inspired me part of the question, several years ago, I watched a National Geographic documentary about the rewilding of the area around the Chernobyl nuclear site in what is now Ukraine. As you know, there was a terrible nuclear accident there in 1986, which contaminated much of the local area. The people moved out and, after a while, the wild animals moved in. So, suddenly, you had lynx and bear and bison and wolves roaming through the forests.
I then read an article about what happened to the pet dogs that were also left behind when the people were evacuated. It was a terribly sad story. The people were told that they couldn’t take their pets with them, but it would all be fine, as they’d be returning in a few days. Of course, they never did. The army tried to kill all the left behind pets, but a few escaped.
So, my story centers on the struggles of two generations of feral dogs trying to survive in this perilous and beautiful world. It’s also the story of a little girl who had to leave her new puppy behind, and her own struggle for happiness and redemption.
BD: What can you share with us about your creative process in bringing the story and characters to life, and what (or who) have been some of your creative influences?
AM: I think it’s fairly clear that Dogs of the Deadlands was heavily influenced by some of the great animal adventure stories that I read as a child, in particular White Fang and Call of the Wild by Jack London, and Watership Down and Plague Dogs by Richard Adams. I also deeply researched the ecology of the exclusion zone around the nuclear plant, which is truly fascinating. A lot of the book deals with wolves, and I read everything I could about them. And I also read every academic paper about feral dogs I could lay my hands on. So, that all gave me a solid foundation for the story. But then I had, as you say, to make those characters – animal and human – breathe. One big issue was whether or not I should let my animals speak, as they do in Watership Down, which always involves a lot of anthropomorphism, or whether they should be depicted more naturalistically, as they are in Jack London’s books. I’ve leaned much more heavily towards the Call of the Wild approach, although, occasionally, I translate very simple bits of dog language in to English. Come! Stop! No! Attack! ...that sort of thing! So, I suppose my great challenge was to make the animals’ characters rounded, without giving them fully articulated human thoughts or language.
So, all those things were in my head. My process was just then to sit down and write it! I had a very rough idea of the plot, but the final book only had a vague relationship with that plan.
BD: Do you foresee expanding Zoya’s story (or the overall world of the book) into subsequent stories?
AM: I’m not sure… I had to cut two long, self-contained sections out of the book, and it’s possible that they might find another home. But the basic story is complete, and I can’t quite see how I could squeeze another story out of it.
BD: At Fanbase Press, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums. How do you feel that Zoya’s story will connect with and impact readers, and why do you feel that this story was important for you to bring to life?
AM: I almost never think in terms of getting over a message in my fiction. With Dogs of the Deadlands, my first and most important task was to tell a gripping adventure story. I really wanted the reader to have that feeling that they couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. But I also wanted my novel to have a big emotional punch, to really make the reader feel invested in the characters, both animal and human. There are various themes that run through the story – the need to preserve our fragile and beautiful planet, the need to be kind, the importance of love. And, of course, the area around Chernobyl is back in the news in the most distressing way, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and occupation of the old plant. But my focus was always first of all on those stories of survival, struggle, endurance, and if I haven’t made those gripping and exciting, I’ve failed, and those other themes are futile …
BD: What makes Rock the Boat the perfect home for Dogs of the Deadlands?
AM: Well, from a purely personal point of view, they’ve been the most wonderful publisher to work with. The editorial process has been exhaustive. (My brilliant editor, Katie Jennings, is an expert on Russia, and was very severe on anything that wasn’t authentic!) Perhaps most importantly, they’ve made the book look just beautiful. The illustrations by Keith Robinson transform the book into a work of art. I’ve never felt more supported by a publisher. But also Rock the Boat, as the name suggest, like to test limits and push boundaries, and my book, which is really quite unusual, in many ways, fits in with that agendum.
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
AM: I’ve started a new book about two teenagers trying to move a small herd of white horses across a sort of post-apocalyptic landscape, based partly on Russia. So, it’s in the same sort of geographical world as Dogs of the Deadlands, but the feel is more Cormac McCarthy than Jack London.
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find more information about Dogs of the Deadlands and your other work?
AM: I have a website (anthonymcgowan.com/anewsite/#), but I’m afraid it’s a bit out of date. Rather surprisingly, the Wiki page about me is quite good and reasonably accurate.