Paula Cocozza is a staff feature writer at The Guardian and has covered everything from soccer to fashion to fourth-wave feminism. Her writing received the 2013 David Higham Award. I recently met with her at the Cuírt International Festival of Literature in Galway where she read from her first novel How To Be Human. The book, described by Hilary Mantel as ‘an intriguing and subversive debut, charged with the power of the ignored and the suppressed’, tells the story of Mary, a thirty-something woman in Hackney, who develops a complex relationship with a fox visiting her back garden.
Susanne Stich: Let me start by saying that How To Be Human is one of the most poetic and mysterious novels I have come across in years. It read like a thriller, and the ending stayed with me for days. The atmosphere throughout is incredibly dense as you weave together Mary’s emotions and her day-to-day existence, most of which unfold in her house, garden and the forest-like wasteland beyond the garden. There is much fascinating material in the book, but before we unpack some of the themes, perhaps you can start by talking about the origins of your love of language and story.
Paula Cocozza: I have loved language since childhood. I remember thinking about words and the sounds of words, and the words you can sometimes hear hidden inside other words. When I was seven I started supporting Manchester United because I could hear cheering inside it. I was a reserved child, sometimes painfully shy, and I think language was something that tended to go on inside my head rather than come out of my mouth! I did not grow up in a really bookish house. It was deemed unhealthy to ‘have your nose in a book’ too much when you could be playing in the garden. My parents were not readers; they had other hobbies. So reading was a private activity for me as I grew up. Looking back, I think this made the experience more intense. When I was 14 I got hold of a book called Mastering English Literature which described all kinds of techniques that poets and novelists use and I was agog. The technicalities thrilled me, suggested a sort of subterfuge that went into writing, and a reward for the attentive. Funnily enough I thought of that book again when I was writing How To Be Human, because at one point I experimented with writing the fox’s point of view entirely in anapaestic metre, and I could picture the very page in that book where I first read that such a thing existed. Like a lot of children, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five sold me on stories.
SS: As a journalist you write for a living. How easy or difficult was it to move from journalistic to creative writing? In terms of following your imagination as opposed to a brief for an article, with wildness being at the core of the book, was there an element of ‘re-wilding’ involved?
PC: I have never thought of it in those terms before, but I might do now! Initially I worried about whether I would find it hard to transition between fiction and journalism: I was doing a Masters in creative writing on Tuesdays, working for the Guardian three days a week and writing fiction on Fridays, so I was always shifting between the two. Sometimes I would come out of a fiction workshop at UEA and crouch in a corridor doing a phone interview for work. After a while I realised that it didn’t matter whether it was fiction or journalism, everything I wrote needed to be about telling a story in the best and most honest way possible. I’m not a news reporter, I’m a feature writer, so there is more scope for creativity anyway, and I began to think of my features as stories, to look for (but not impose) an arc. I think my journalism benefited. I think it became freer. But still: how I loved those Fridays when I could sit at my desk at home and write the fox story (as I thought of it then). I was so glad to be writing fiction I would sprint back from school drop-off to get to my desk and stay there till pick-up. I don’t know if it constitutes rewilding but certainly the experience of writing felt intense and instinctive and as if the words were coming from some part of me that I couldn’t see. The words bore witness to an unknown, and I think that is probably how wildness is often perceived - as an unknown.
SS: One of your features for the Guardian was entitled ‘21st -century fox: how nature’s favourite outsider seduced the suburbs’ (9.4.2017) and explores how the animal at the heart of How To Be Human fits with the buzzword ‘wildness’. You consider myriads of fox manifestations from the more ‘antiseptic… anthropomorphized … clean’ ones on mugs, cushions and jumpers to people’s personal fox stories, which span the concrete and the archetypal, flagging up a human longing to be fox-like, but also a reticence to take the risk of ‘seeming strange in order to interact with wildness’. What sparked your interest in wildness in the first place, and how did you shape your personal take on the concept?
PC: I live in east London and for some years now it has been possible to observe nature evolving as a kind of trend. So there are farmers markets, and hipsters in plaid shirts, and people paying a lot of money to paper their walls with expensively gallivanting stags, or to learn how to split logs at weekends. So alongside the increased interest in nature on its own terms - people trying to plant wildflower meadows or go for a wild swim, whatever means of connection they are choosing - there is this commercial consumption of nature too. It’s sort of nature merchandise, I suppose. I wanted to explore in the book the disjuncture between that sense of ‘loving nature’ as processed by fashion or design and loving the real thing in a totally unmediated interaction. Of course, I didn’t think of any of that when I had the idea for the story.
The quote you mention – ‘seeming strange in order to interact with wildness’ - came in relation to the wildlife photographer Sam Hobson. In order to attract the attention of foxes in Bristol he would get to their territory, make a little squeaking noise, wait for them to appear and hang out with them, loll on the pavement, become one of the gang. I was struck by a story he told me, about how a passerby would make all the foxes scarper and he would be left on the pavement alone looking silly. I love the fact that he thought he looked more silly alone on a pavement than he did among a family of foxes. I think that shows a readiness to overcome embarrassment, or to achieve a kind of immersion in wildlife that makes embarrassment negligible. The truth is, everyone who loves animals or has a pet, interacts in ways that might seem embarrassing were they to be witnessed by other humans. It has amused me a bit that some readers (on Goodreads, for instance) have found How To Be Human disconcertingly strange. Well, of course it’s strange. It’s a story of estrangement, of feeling alienated by one’s own species and trying instead to rediscover and loosen some sort of internal, fugitive wildness. It wasn’t meant to be normative.
SS: Another buzzword these days is the Anthropocene, which denotes the current geological age, during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. How To Be Human explores some of the present-day implications of the term, the predicaments resulting from ideas about human responsibility for the environment and other human beings, be it former lovers, neighbours or complete strangers. The book considers the overwhelming sense of having options in these matters, and negotiating them on a day-to-day basis. I was particularly struck by your analysis of (human) relationships. At first sight, the story is about the bond between Mary and the fox, but ultimately it presents the reader with an invitation to answer the question implied in the book’s title. Did you begin the book with this question in mind?
PC: I didn’t. Really what I started with was this sense that a human could ascribe human motivations to a fox’s behaviour. That a fox could just go about its fox business - taking objects (food, gardening gloves, shoes, plants, you name it), delivering them elsewhere, scenting human structures and belongings, digging holes - and a human could feel themselves addressed in a kindred language of gesture and action. This sense built while I was working to clear a little wasteland with some neighbours. After we put down a bit of turf, we went outside and found the fox had lifted it up. When we dug a hole, the fox dug a hole inside our hole. Lots of these shenanigans went into the book, but the main idea that I started with was this sense that the behaviour could be read both ways - that it was a fox being a fox, or that it was a fox trying to communicate with a human.
The title was actually the last bit I wrote. It took a long time to write those four words. Several months, in fact. But I think that distance was helpful. It isn’t always possible to observe the themes while you’re writing. I did want to ask a question about what it is to be human, one species among many, and to invite readers to view themselves - for a while at least - in that way. But it was also meant to be a bit tongue in cheek because Mary’s experience is really the opposite of a guidebook or self-help text book - though I’d love to hear of someone who treated it that way! And, because she works ineffectively in human resources, the title fit that too.
SS: Let’s talk more about Mary. I thought your portrayal of this introverted, newly ‘wild’ character was enchanting and complex. You draw the reader into her world, which, regarding its geographical scope is small, but emotionally massive, hingeing on her relationship with the fox, and also Flora, the neighbours’ new baby. Mary epitomizes something vital about women’s relationship with intuition and empowerment, its hidden paradox really, i.e. the need to factor in a space for the masculine, which potentially (still) suppresses it. The book also illustrates how tricky it can be for a woman to claim her own wild nature in a time that is so very conscious of the bigger environmental picture and its paralysing effect on the psyche. In all this, the fox presents a miraculous companion. He is the ‘great uncrackable code’ (184), but also the opposite of Mary’s former, bullish fiancé: ‘considerate, sociable and civilised’ (264), without losing his air of mystery. How did Mary and her relationships take shape?
PC: I started with the voice of the third person narrator. I heard these two sentences: ‘He was still there. And now she was stuck too.’ I don’t think those lines made it into the book, but they were its original beginning and stuck for a long time. They do convey what I started with, though, which was a sense of the narrator being perched on Mary’s shoulder, able to enter and withdraw from her head at will. This was all part of the exploration of boundaries that interested me; I wanted the narrator to be implicated in that, too. I mean, the idea of interest itself is partly about ownership, so everything got pulled into this consideration. I knew that Mary was someone who felt impinged upon by other people’s expectations, but who also habitually wielded those expectations, too, of herself and others. Mary’s relationship with the fox took shape quite instinctively: the first time she saw him, he was male, and I knew straightaway that that assumption would inform the relationship. So clues began to arise from the writing, little signposts that I found fruitful and could develop. As for her relationship with her ex-boyfriend, initially I thought he was entirely off the scene, but as I was finishing a chapter, she walked right into him. I hadn’t planned for that to happen, but the words appeared on the laptop screen, somehow bypassing my brain, and when that happens I tend to pay attention.
SS: Definitions of sanity and insanity and the boundaries between them quickly wear thin when we talk about fiction. Without giving too much away, on occasion, Mary’s story, although much more liberated and contemporary, made me think of the classic trope of female hysteria.
At one point you write that having the fox around gives Mary a sense of ‘emotional prosperity’, which you contrast with a sense of entrapment in her former relationship and also her job. You explore her (mental) needs and desire to be trusted regardless of her mental challenges, her deep-seated loneliness. What are your thoughts on ‘wild’ fiction in relation to mental health?
PC: Hmm. This is a tricky one. I prefer to leave the question of Mary’s mental health open to interpretation. I will say that when I started to see agents, they would compliment me on a wonderful portrait of a woman in breakdown, and that the first time I heard this, I was quite surprised. I didn’t think of it as a breakdown so much as a sort of rewilding. Of course, her behaviours are not common. And she is very lonely. But it troubles me that in this age of information, we subject ourselves to a kind of hypervigilance. Sometimes I think we are invited to diagnose more than we need to. This may be because I am by nature quite reserved and avoidant, but it was really important to me to withhold any formal diagnosis in relation to Mary. You can think she has a mental health disorder, or simply that she’s responding to a really tough time. I don’t actually find her hysterical so much as deeply absorbed by her new interspecies friendship. She throws herself into it. She has an enthusiasm. And our species has become wary of enthusiasms. She loses perspective, or has her perspective altered. She is also pretty private, which tends to make other humans inquisitive and judgemental. But I think if any of us had our thoughts under the magnifying glass, as Mary’s are, we would look pretty weird. I find I want to defend her.
SS: I absolutely loved the language in the book. At times playful, then again lyrical, subversive and strangely erotic, it is incredibly nuanced and creates space for emotional urgency and transformation. There is detailed observation of Mary’s mind, of the fox, their environment and a small group of humans. Most of the novel is written from Mary’s perspective. In parallel, there are some passages from the point of view of the fox.
Here is a selection of quotes:
It was just a patch of wasteland, but magical for all that – an island of wilderness in the inner city, left to do its own thing while property prices soared and the council forgot it was even there. Trees were overlaid so densely on trees that the greens meshed and knotted, and perspective itself seemed made of leaves. Locked inside a rectangle of terraced streets, the woods kept their secret. They belonged only to those who could reach them. (11)
His scent. Was very rich. An endless supply. He drizzled it with his paws. He blew it from a notch in his tail. He packed it in his scats. His life in a footprint pressed mid-air. Sniff and show respect! Keeping the respect fresh was what he did day, night. Wherever he went. Wait. Wherever he went and wanted other creatures to know he went. He sprayed, wiped, released, squeezed, twisted, dropped. (25)
She pictured his ears pricked into two pointed portals, opening up their dark, Gothic chapels, snuffing out all the night sounds like wicks till the only flickering was her breath. She inhaled with a flutey whistle, which winged its way towards him. Soft and sad. (181)
She tried to keep up, but at some perfect point where distance equalled darkness, he began to silver and fade for her, as if his fur were intercut with night’s invisible stripes, and it was no longer possible to know for sure if she was seeing him, or seeing the night behind him. (185)
How do you approach style, and who are the writers that inspire you?
PC: I don’t have a fixed approach to style. In How To Be Human, I wanted Mary and the fox to have a fluid point of view. So when we are in the fox’s point of view, it should be possible to believe those are the fox’s thoughts as represented on the page, or equally that they are Mary’s thoughts, projected on to the fox. I had this idea that those two characters of Mary and the fox should be a bit distanced at the outset and then converge in the woods, just before the neighbours’ baby vanishes. I wanted their points of view to switch seamlessly there. And then for them to diverge again towards the end of the book, when Mary seeks to ascribe thoughts to the fox, and we no longer hear his ‘voice’ but only her translations of his gestures - at that point she is exercising the sort of control that she herself has experienced in human relationships.
I tried not to think about style self-consciously, except in relation to those sections written from the fox’s point of view. At first, as I mentioned earlier, I tried to write them all in a sort of galloping anapaestic rhythm. But that didn’t work. It felt turgid and predictable, which was sort of the opposite of fox. So I wrote down lots of fox behaviours and then tried to translate them into language. For instance, sudden changes of direction, unexpected pauses or stops, repetition, and so on. I tried to free up the language, to use it in its parts, to imitate those habits.
Around the time I was writing, I had to go to Swansea to interview some refugees who were working in an Oxfam bookshop there. This was a journalistic commission. And one of the refugees described his journey to England by lorry with the words ‘Most there was dark’. There was something bewildering about that, about the way the words seemed to feel their way towards something, and the line stuck in my head. I heard it often over the next few months. I stayed in touch with the guy who said it - I was trying to help him with his university applications. But the line kept coming back to me when I was thinking about the fox and I couldn’t work out why. It seemed bizarre. Then I understood that the fox is an immigrant too, living in cities where (many) people think they don’t belong. So I wanted an element of brokenness to the fox’s English too. In the fox’s case, it is just a hint, because foxes have been in cities here for a long time now.
As for the writers who inspired me, I had three books on my desk when I started: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett and God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin. Stylistically they are all very different, and I don’t know the exact reasons why those ones felt like the ones to keep close, but they did.
SS: I love what you’re saying about the urban fox as another type of immigrant.
On a related note, human-animal relationships have often made for great literature. Recently, there has been a spate of new titles, including Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, Sara Baume’s Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither and Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers.
At times your portrayal of the feminine in relation to the Anthropocene also made me think of Austrian Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall and even Scott O’Dell’s young adult fiction classic Island of the Blue Dolphins. In terms of masculinity’s role in the narrative, Ted Hughes’ animal poems came to mind.
In the book’s acknowledgements you mention two non-fiction works that informed your perspective, David MacDonald’s Running with the Fox and Roger Burrows’ Wild Fox. Did you also read any fiction about animals, wildness etc., and, if yes, are there any favourites?
PC: I tried not to read a lot of animal fiction while I was writing. I would happily start a book, but then found that the experience was inhibiting. In this way I began and cast aside DH Lawrence’s The Fox, David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox and countless others. But I read bedtime stories to my children and I did go on a bit of a fox/wildlife splurge in children’s fiction (Michael Morpurgo’s Little Foxes, The Midnight Fox, My Side of the Mountain etc.) Since finishing I have re-read Kes and Watership Down, and I have just bought Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, which I have been desperate to read.
SS: Where will you go with your writing from here?
PC: I will keep going! It took me a long time to start, so I’m definitely not stopping. I am circling around the beginning of something, to do with nostalgia and memory, and the impact of technology on a relationship. I have been writing and rewriting the same 5,000 words for a couple of months. Going round and round; I think this phase is a bit like building a nest. I hope it’s nearly done, and then I’m going to live in it for a while.
SS: Thank you so much, Paula, for giving these questions your time and thought. It’s been amazing to hear all this; in fact it makes me want to read the novel all over again. Best of luck with the new project, which sounds equally fascinating.
the Anthropocene was also the subject of a fascinating panel event at Cuírt, featuring nature writers Jay Griffiths (author of Wild - an Elemental Journey), Richard Hamblyn, Gaia Vince and Paul Kingsnorth.
Photo by Christian Sinibaldi.