‘In the Land of the Pig, the Butcher is King’, an Interview with Joseph D’Lacey

Posted by Xavier Aldana Reyes on December 05, 2013 in Interviews tagged with , ,

When I first read Meat upon its publication in 2008 I was blown away by it. I had heard a lot about D’Lacey’s eco-horror novel and its gruesome premise: a post-apocalyptic town where human flesh has come to substitute that of animals due to the scarcity of any other type of food. As I found out, apart from challenging the indiscriminate consumption of meat in the style of Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts (1949), the novel offers a very interesting critique of religious power and of tyrannical ideologies. I had also recently read Michel Faber’s Under the Skin (2000), which had developed a similar scenario, and decided that the time was ripe for an examination of slaughter in the context of contemporary gothic fiction. This is how my chapter on the ‘slaughterhouse novel’ for the forthcoming Body Gothic (University of Wales Press, 2014) came to be.

During the late research stages, I was lucky enough to be able to get in touch with D’Lacey himself, and he very kindly agreed to answer a few burning questions I had. I felt that his answers were too interesting and articulate to keep them to myself, so I have decided, with his consent, to share them with you. This might hopefully prompt some to read the novel, which has just been reissued, and should give you a flavour of the interesting work of this prolific author.

Xavier Aldana Reyes: What was your inspiration for Meat?

Joseph D’Lacey: In my case, it’s unusual for a novel to spring from a single idea. Meat certainly didn’t. What’s more usual is that several ideas will collide, creating a thematic framework I can explore in fiction.

The primary catalyst in this instance was the fact that, in a predominantly carnivorous society, life must be taken in order for life to continue. In other words, the majority of people perceive that for the human to remain alive and functioning, the animal must be killed to become meat. Is this a necessity, I wondered, or is it simply a tragedy – much encouraged by businesses creating a greater and greater perceived need in the mind of consumers? I also wondered if killing anything could be considered morally or ethically defensible.

In my twenties, I went through a phase of personal development during which it occurred to me that if I really wanted to eat meat, the most honest and honourable way would be to find, catch, kill, dress and prepare the meat myself. I subsequently learned how to use ferrets and nets to catch rabbits and for a short time wild rabbit was the only meat I ate.

There was a large slaughterhouse in my village and sometimes, on a hot day, the smell would waft over the house. I’d often wonder what was going on in that place. Was it the ‘best practices’ we all hope are applied when animals are dispatched or was it a very different story? The suspicion that animals destined for our tables suffered – not some minimal, brief pain but prolonged, unimaginable agonies – would never quite leave me alone. I began to research the subject online, simply watching footage of slaughter; all kinds of animals, all around the world with many different methods and in a variety of settings. I also looked into factory farming and animal transportation methods. By then, I knew I couldn’t not write the book that became Meat. These were subjects I had to explore, and to some depth, in fiction.

The best way to do this, it seemed, was to make meat of humans, of my characters; for us to farm ourselves for sustenance and to somehow create a world where such abominations could be considered not just normal, but even righteous and good.

The idea scared me. So much so that I stopped writing the novel less than a third of the way in. If it hadn’t been for very serious interest from a publisher, I doubt I’d have continued. In the end, by the time the book was in the shops, the afterword was already obsolete. I had become a vegetarian.

XAR: It strikes me that for a novel that foregrounds the eminent corporeality of the body (we are all potentially meat), the only seeming escape route is provided by a form of spiritualism. Why did you decide to contrapose the meat packing plant to a belief system?

JD: I’m not certain it was a conscious decision – not specifically for this set of ideas or for any other story in which I use similar juxtapositions. I appear to employ religion as a means of world-building with relative frequency because, to me, ‘faith’ so often symbolises how closed-minded people can be when it comes to the beauty and magnificence of the human spirit.

After all, one could propose that, even in our much-safer-than-Meat and less brutal ‘real’ world, the urge to cleave to a belief system remains almost universal – whether it be an unflinching faith in science or an equally dogmatic theistic stance. However, in Meat, it is not the old religion that gives the greatest comfort or spiritual freedom but the new ideas, as preached by the heretical messiah John Collins.

I never stop being fascinated by the spiritual yearnings of humanity; how they are so simple and pure in the individual and how they can become so perverted once organised into a religious code. History shows that the edicts of religion are far more useful for exerting control over the masses than they are for bestowing spiritual comfort upon individuals among the flock.

It’s perhaps for this reason more than any other that I brought an organised religion into the novel – in a low tech post-apocalyptic dystopia, I couldn’t think of a means of control more ruthlessly efficient or powerful than a religion. In combination with the muscle of Magnus’s corporate mafia, there was nothing those in power couldn’t keep firmly under their thumbs. Or so they thought.

Quite honestly, I don’t think many of the ‘controlling’ characters in Meat genuinely believed in their God or teachings of the Gut Psalter and The Book of Giving. Magnus very clearly didn’t and it’s questionable whether the Grand Bishop had heartfelt faith. I suspect they were far more concerned about the iron grip the religion bestowed upon them and how they could use that might to their own ends.

XAR: The fact that Collins and his believers discover they do not eat to at all adds a layer of fantasy or magic that stands out against the very ‘real’ and physical reality of the novel. What was the rationale for this decision?

JD: Again, I’m not the sort of writer who’s ever employed much in the way of rationale prior to beginning a novel. My stories are more like discoveries made whilst excavating apparently worthless mud – and the idea itself is a bit like the shovel I use for the digging.

Nevertheless, there is a reason for Collins and his followers to have their place in the novel. Ethically, if one eats neither animal nor vegetable, one takes no life in order to continue one’s own. The tradition of Breatharianism is a fascinating one. Its proponents state that it is their interaction with air and sunlight which sustains them. Some of these people use ‘exercises’ to maintain their health. Others appear to employ meditation or prayer. So, whilst to the majority of Meat’s readers the practise of non-eating might appear fantastical or thaumaturgical, it seemed a natural way to include a moral – if at face value impossible – mode of living; one that was entirely without the ‘sin’ of killing and, if it is to be believed, a method that actually exists in our reality.

XAR: Would you say that the novel is mainly a critique of the meat industry or is it also saying something about our own bodies?

JD: I hope Meat, if nothing else, draws further attention to the idea that edible flesh is the result of killing. In order to more fully investigate this, I made humans the flesh in question, thereby elevating the issue to a level at which it became an interesting premise for dark fiction.

Even if it is not a direct critique of the meat industry, however, Meat cannot help but draw attention to the fact that, in order for ‘ordinary’ people to continue eating meat in the quantities to which they’ve become accustomed in the last few years, an almost unimaginable suffering has become necessary on a vast scale. There are many reasons why farming meat in the way we do makes no sense and the plight of the animals on the sharp end of the process is only one of them. However, it is probably the most emotive and interesting, especially when using that wholesale disrespect and mistreatment to ‘animalise’ humans in a fictional setting.

To me, the body is a vehicle for consciousness and, because of the all-encompassing and enabling nature of consciousness, it is therefore just as sacred as spirit. That said, when the body is killed or dies of old age, it then becomes little more than a meat-sack. It was the ethics around how that death is achieved and what the meat is subsequently used for, rather than a damning of corporate meat production or a comment on the nature of our own dead flesh, which was my main area of exploration.

The effect – on me – of researching and writing Meat has been that I have re-conceptualised animals as sentient beings, to the extent at which I no longer wish to be responsible for their deaths or suffering. Animals are vehicles for consciousness in much the way we are. When they die, their meat-sacks are not much different, in essence, from our own. It was, therefore, far more the motivations behind robbing them of their conscious vehicles and the ways in which that is achieved, large-scale, that interested me.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Joseph D’Lacey is best known for his shocking eco-horror novel Meat. The book has been widely translated and prompted Stephen King to say ‘Joseph D’Lacey rocks!’. His other novels are Black Feathers: The Black Dawn Volume I (2013), Blood Fugue (2012), Garbage Man (2011), Snake Eyes (2011), The Kill Crew (2009) and the short story collection Splinters (2012). He won the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer in 2009.

When not realising his fantasies on paper, he dabbles with Yoga and continues a quest for the ultimate vegetarian burger recipe. He lives in Northamptonshire with his wife and daughter.

Website: http://josephdlacey.wordpress.com/

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