Laline Paull, Author, Pod - “This was the book I didn’t want to write”

ByShireen Quadri
May 12, 2023 09:35 PM IST

On the deep-sea drama, told from the prespective of dolphins, that’s been shortlisted for the 2023 Women’s Prize for Fiction

Pod features a diverse cast of marine creatures with their own distinct cultures, languages, and social hierarchies. How did you create such believable characters, specifically dolphins, particularly in terms of their social and cultural dynamics? 

Author Laline Paull (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Laline Paull (Courtesy the publisher)

When you’re looking at social animals be they dolphin or human, there’s some kind of organisation and hierarchy. We’re used to seeing leaders and followers, (social media capitalises on this even more). We understand that being acknowledged as of value to the herd, or pod, or social group, makes you more central and therefore safer. Being an outsider makes you vulnerable to predators.

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I was struck by the fact that in bottlenose dolphin societies, the males are dominant over the females, and maintain a fluid dominance hierarchy within their own gender. This suggested a volatile political social structure, with all the inherent power plays, alliances and betrayals. Then I wondered about how the females cope in this kind of environment, and if they emulate it themselves? We know all mothers will do whatever they have to, to ensure their childrens’ safety, so what does that mean if they live in harem groups? There would surely be a dominant female... or “First Wife”.

I imagined her. She would have to remain subordinate to every male, despite her own qualities of leadership. It wasn’t a great stretch to imagine how she might feel... and the character of Devi formed herself. I wondered how her lord Ku, the ailing leader of the megapod, might relate to her in public but also in private... She would of course be younger, highly intelligent, beautiful — and increasingly politically skilled. He would secretly come to rely on her — but perhaps a rivalrous male very close to him would know, and there would be a secret enmity between the leader’s wife, and his closest advisor.

Pulling on a thread of factual research spun into one character, then another, then a world. I did the same process with the spinner dolphins. Because they live in matriarchal and apparently very peaceful societies (compared to the more aggressive bottlenoses) there was inherent opposition of values, therefore dramatic conflict.

I also wanted to explore how a culture can become so stuck in its rules and customs, that an individual can feel stifled if they don’t easily fit in. For instance if you’re brought up in a very hippy-ish community that only acknowledges love and peace, or a very wealthy family that only values privacy and luxury, yet you can see the strife and pain in the world beyond — you might feel painfully lonely, or even a bit mad.

272pp; Pegasus Books (Amazon)
272pp; Pegasus Books (Amazon)

What specific aspects of dolphin behaviour and communication did you find most fascinating during your research and what made you tell the story from their perspectives?

It was quite hard to narrow down the story to only use certain facts, when everything was fascinating. Dolphins are found in every ocean of the world with the exception (so far) of Antarctica, and their spread is not dissimilar to our own species on land. Like us too, there are so many different cultures and ways of behaving, though science as yet knows so little about them. One thing that definitely hooked me and shaped the story was learning that spinner dolphins have this extraordinarily beautiful and athletic activity — the extreme and characteristic spins that give them their name – but why they alone of all the dolphin species have developed this, is not yet and may never be fully understood by humans. To me, it seemed obvious: it’s their culture. It’s their way of communicating with each other, surely of expressing joy, but perhaps also an ancient choreography that tells myths and stories of their people. Why not? Why do we assume humans are the only storytelling and cultural animals? Our understanding of animal communication is rudimentary, so why this anthropocentric arrogance? I worked with scientific fact to imagine myself into the experience of other creatures, rather than the other way round. But always trying to fuse the two into a good story.

The setting of the novel, the Indian Ocean, is portrayed as a rich and diverse ecosystem with its own unique and complex history and cultural traditions. Could you elaborate on how you captured the nuances of the setting, and how it influenced the development of the story?

From the little I’ve seen, and I have not travelled in it nearly enough, the Indian Ocean is a miraculous world of beauty and wonder — but also a paradise despoiled by rapacious industrial fishing that is taking beyond nature’s ability to restore her balance (for instance yellowfin tuna). Human activity also despoils the Indian Ocean and causes great suffering to her creatures with all the lost and abandoned “ghost gear” of the fishing industry. I have written about this from the point of view of the marine citizens of the Indian Ocean, who must encounter these terrors. There is so much beauty, but my research forced me to confront these crimes against nature and against our one precious ocean. Each second breath we each take, uses oxygen provided by this single, world-encircling ocean. Whether it’s the grey English Channel near me, or the beauty and treasures of the Indian Ocean, we are connected by this life-giving source.

Each marine character in the story is struggling to survive, and collectively, they form an imagined social and environmental portrait of this wonderful place, and the ecosystem of the dolphins’ world. Science has barely understood a fraction of life in the ocean, and if we can stop destroying and start protecting the ocean, who knows what treasures and gifts to humanity we might discover?

The character of Ea, a spinner dolphin who cannot spin or hear the ocean’s music, is a compelling and sympathetic protagonist. How did you approach portraying her experience, and what aspects of her story were important for you? 

At school, I wasn’t good at or interested in competitive sports. Both my parents were sporty, so were my siblings, so I was the odd one out — and I really wanted to please my family so I kept trying to win running races (fail), score goals in netball and hockey (fail, fail) and though I enjoyed swimming, speed was what you were praised for, not endurance nor enjoyment of the sheer doing of it. So fail again. Everything felt competitive, even learning an instrument — pleasure alone was not on the curriculum, you had to take exams to prove your proficiency. There was no yoga, no walking for pleasure (though my mum did both, meditation too, and long before yoga and “mindfulness” was fashionable in the west). So I outwardly resigned myself to being at the back, coming last, and becoming a bit of a joke. But inside... I minded a lot. So although I didn’t consciously think of all this, obviously it was there in me and it came out in the character of Ea.

I was also interested in the idea of someone who sees — or in the case of dolphins — hears the world clearly and truly, but the people around her don’t want to accept this. The spinner dolphins have conditioned themselves only to focus on the beautiful parts of existence — the music of the ocean — and deny the rest, which they’re able to do because they live in a remote place and think they’ve separated themselves from everything painful. Very much in the way I’ve observed some fortunate people being willing to donate to charities but shy away from acknowledging the structural inequalities and injustices in the world. But Ea hears the pain and suffering in the ocean, and it interferes with her ability to tune into the Longi, or spinner, cultural vibe.

I believe young people are particularly susceptible to pain, both their own and that of others - but adults have learned the ability to become callous or indifferent, in order to protect themselves from it. Adults are also prone to feeling disempowered and therefore become passive, and hope for a quiet life. Paradoxically, this attitude turns us into children, waiting for problems to be fixed by “someone else”. There isn’t anyone else — there is only us. This is what Ea has to learn, and it’s a painful but essential journey.

Spinner dolphins (Shutterstock)
Spinner dolphins (Shutterstock)

In a changing ocean where creatures are mutating and disappearing, Ea navigates the dangers and maintains her sense of self while encountering a group of arrogant bottlenose dolphins who challenge her beliefs about family and belonging. How does her deafness impact her sense of belonging within her pod, and what does her decision to leave reveal about the importance of identity and sacrifice in the face of tragedy?

Ea’s decision to leave her pod is her first altruistic decision in the story. Up to this point, she’s been all about herself, how she feels, how annoying or bad other people are, how she suffers. But then something happens that is so bad (no spoilers!) and her life will never be the same again. She feels huge guilt and for the first time, realises how much she loves her family and tribe. She decides everyone would be better off if she were dead, but the ocean needs her alive.

The portrayal of the tursiops, or common bottlenose dolphins, in the novel is particularly striking, with their patriarchal and often violent culture. How did you approach exploring difficult and sometimes harrowing themes such as human impact on marine life and violent misogyny within the tursiops? What broader reflections on gender dynamics and power structures do you hope readers take away from this portrayal?

I did not intend to write a brutal book, but despite the beauty and love and wonder in Pod, I know there are terrible and true things in the story. Because of that truth, I had to write as I did, because the way we treat the natural world and also each other, is still brutal — and it does not have to be. We need to evolve faster, we need to be brave enough to look at our terrible mistakes then work together to put them right — and if we have courage and imagination, this is possible. We need to be kinder, to ourselves, to each other, and to the natural world. We’re taking too much and respecting too little.

This was the book I didn’t want to write, because I too didn’t really want to know the truth – because then I would have to change my own behaviour and habits, which was going to be uncomfortable and difficult. And so it is, but once you decide to face the truth, it’s hard to go back to pretending you don’t know. It’s not for any of us to criticise another — it’s about allowing our consciences to speak. Stories allow that, when we have the private imaginative space to empathise with others unlike ourselves. The reward for the courage to look, is a tiny feeling of hope, that grows with each action to make a difference. As Greta Thunberg says, no one is too small to make a difference. Plankton is small, but the basis of the whole oceanic food chain. Electrons, protons and neutrons are small... and atomically powerful. So are we.

The character of Google is particularly fascinating, as he challenges the military training imposed on him and retains his essential “humanity.” What message were you hoping to convey through his ?

When I learned about the use of dolphins in the military, at first I could not believe it — but there is plenty of evidence available to the public. When I looked more deeply and found out how dolphins are procured (violently captured from the wild or bred in captivity from captured females) I was furious and upset. This only got worse when I found how how they are used, what for, and how they are sacrificed as weapons and tools. This was beyond anything I could make up — the truth is the only message — we abuse animals and call it normal, or necessary. If we were being abused, or our families, we wouldn’t care what reasons the abuser gave — it would still be abuse. This is the truth about so much of our human relations with animals.

I thought about how an intelligent sensitive bottlenose calf bred for the military, might grow up separated from all his natural impulses, but how the need for love is so strong that if humans were his only contact, then he would love humans. Even if he were a tool to be used and ultimately sacrificed for reasons that mean nothing to him. But what if he survived a mission, and found himself wounded and wild? This is how — with some privileged research — the character of Google came about, and he has become passionately loved by readers.

One of the central themes of Pod is the impact of human activity on marine ecosystems, particularly the effects of noise pollution and oil spills. How did you integrate environmental issues into the story without distracting from the overall plot and character development?

We’re living in the midst of a climate crisis we can barely acknowledge — until we find ourselves affected — and we all will. The climate crisis is coming for us just as callous or ignorant human activity is affecting the lives of the characters in Pod. It’s unthinkable yet true, that in 21st century London where today I write from, there are roads where the pollution is so bad, that the health of children who live near them, is severely compromised.

As I write, in the UK, the water companies allow sewage to make sea and river swimming impossible. This is happening now, to people by people. And if I sound angry that’s because I am. But I didn’t write Pod out of anger – at first. I wrote it because I was intrigued by the parallel in the animal world, of one tribe driving out another, and that forced migration crisis. Then I realised that it’s happening throughout the ocean, through habitat loss and the collapse of the food web. I had to face the unthinkable yet real amount of fossil-fuel created waste plastic, that is being dumped all over our world — too much now to hide from.

I’ve long thought the amount of time people spend addicted to their phones is a way of buffering the chaos and pain in the world, so I took this idea into the world of the Tursiops, where their constant noise, gossip and addiction to sarpa fish, is a way of deadening their acoustic stress and pain. I blended my consciousness with what the dolphins and marine animals must have to endure, and I wrote from that place.

In crafting a speculative fiction world grounded in scientific research, what specific considerations did you take to balance scientific accuracy and emotional resonance? How did you navigate the fine line between adhering to scientific observations and allowing creative freedom to enhance the storytelling?

I’ve found my creative path in writing by following a fascination, or noticing a paradox, or simply thinking: this is mad, why does this happen? How can we let this go on? And then researching the issues around my fascination or question. This is always the relatively easy bit, where there’s no stress about how to make a story — or even any intention to write a story. The interesting things start to build up, and the conflicts and relationships I see amidst them. That’s when I start to get a bit apprehensive that this might need to become a piece of work, but I keep going, and open various files on various things. When statistics start to feature more prominently, it’s a sign I’ve got enough material to start shuffling into some sort of story. And when there’s a fork in the narrative path, I always choose the truth — because it’s always the strongest element of any story, be it literal or emotional. The truth is like a very strong scaffolding that lets you build high and wild and hopefully, something beautiful.

The diverse ecosystem of the Indian Ocean (Shutterstock)
The diverse ecosystem of the Indian Ocean (Shutterstock)

What message or takeaway were you hoping readers would gain from reading Pod, and how would you like the novel to contribute to ongoing conversations about human impact on the environment and the treatment of other species?

Readers tell me they effortlessly empathised with many sea creatures, especially the dolphin protagonists, that they have wept, have paused the book to go away and check the facts – and as a result of believing in the truth of the story, now feel a deeper connection with the natural world and are newly energised to help protect it. I don’t think I could possibly ask for more. Emotional connection is everything, and love lets us move mountains. If a story can create more love for the natural world, the endeavour has been worth it a million times.

The novel’s devastating climax leaves a lasting impact. How did you approach crafting this scene?

I forced myself to research the Taji Cove dolphin hunts in Japan, and also those in the Solomon Islands – both places where dolphin calves and adults are captured and abducted from their parents for sale to marine parks, private zoos, and militaries. What happens is truly obscene. Ob skene the early Greek stage direction from where we derive the word, means action too upsetting to be rendered in front of an audience. If a society looks to what it hides, it will almost certainly be something considered obscene. We must also face the structural inequalities and injustices in our global economy, where human beings struggling to feed their families and make a living, are vulnerable to rich entities who will pay them to capture dolphins, fish unsustainably, take them trophy shooting etc. The suffering of animals is also the suffering of people who for a variety of reasons, are economically disempowered. Blaming the fisherman, blaming the trawler workers, is not the answer. Stories ask more questions than they answer, but stories are powerful. If they’re good, they go to our hearts, and change us from within. Once we decide to choose compassion and kindess over wilful ignorance – once we can tolerate discomfort while we change, that can be reflected throughout the world. We get the world we accept... or the one we’re prepared to work for.

You are a first-generation Indian immigrant in the UK. How has your multicultural background, studying English at Oxford, screenwriting in Los Angeles, and theatre in London had an impact on you?

That’s a huge question and I don’t want to be glib in a manageably short response – but I will say that my next project springs from this last question. I have experienced the best and worst of the English educational system, and when I went to Oxford, my exact contemporaries there were Boris Johnson and David Cameron, though they were not at my college. But David Cameron and I did work together as waiting staff at a Jamaican restaurant in Oxford and he had good manners. And that is all I’ll say!

Film and theatre need people who will share an original vision of the world, stories need new points of view, and as readers and audiences, we want to be transported into other worlds, other experiences. You have to find the right home for your work, you have to find your creative tribe, but first you have to survive as an artist — and to be an outsider, can be a highly advantageous position from which to work. You can be close enough to see detail, yet removed by where you come from, to an interesting perspective on society.

As an artist who comes from outside “the system”, ie the child of immigrants, you have to be prepared not just for criticism, but for your voice to be ignored. Yet if you can find a way to keep working with integrity, to keep developing, if you can keep that small piece of solid ground underfoot — you know where you come from and you believe in yourself — you might find, as I have, that the world might turn to meet you halfway, and want to hear what you have to say. But you need patience, because that process can be geologically slow.

Shireen Quadri is the editor of The Punch Magazine Anthology of New Writing by Women Writers. She tweets at @shireenquadri.

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