Laline Paull’s latest novel takes a dive into the ocean world of a young spinner dolphin named Ea. The members of her pod and their rivals, the neighboring Tursiops, struggle to survive in waters that—once a sanctuary—have been devastated by the effects of human carelessness and cruelty. Rife with violence, darkness, and danger, Pod is compelling and high stakes, but also filled with a deep wonder and empathy for myriad lifeforms and lifeways of our oceans.
Kristen Hewitt: Like your first novel, The Bees, Pod explores the perspective of nonhuman communal organisms, specifically through the eyes of an unlikely female heroine who becomes a kind of leader or change agent. What draws you to write from this perspective?
Laline Paull: Social animals and insects fascinate me because it seems that where you have a society, you have a hierarchy. I’m interested in the reasons for that structure: what traits, characteristics, behaviors, and qualities put one individual at the top, another at the bottom? The social animals—and even insects that live in highly organized colonies—reflect us back to ourselves in some way. With The Bees, I was intrigued by the language scientists used—to read them speaking of queens and workers and nurseries and princesses was too much provocation for my imagination. When I learned about the laying worker who becomes a hive criminal when she goes from sterile to fertile, yet keeps trying to do her job as well as hide her eggs, that was an immediate standout heroine. What mother wouldn’t die—or maybe even kill—to save her child?
With Pod, my imagination was more caught up in the tribal differences between spinner dolphins and bottlenose dolphins. The bottlenose are the more successful species and found in all the world’s oceans except the Antarctic Sea. They surf, they spin, but they don’t have the elaborate—and you might say highly ritualized—choreography of the spinners, something scientists don’t yet understand. But to my mind, it was their kinetic culture of story and feeling and spiritual union that was especially intriguing.
When I learned that bottlenose males form all-male alliances that shift and change, that immediately struck me as characteristic of a patriarchal and political society. Then when I learned that it is not uncommon for bottlenose males to indulge in “coercive mating”—or to “abduct” a female of mating age from another pod of bottlenose, or even another species of dolphin, a story began to emerge. What if a young female spinner dolphin was abducted by a roving gang of juvenile male bottlenose? I had already come across information that juvenile males sometimes formed “gangs” and even engaged in “gang violence.”
Survival is in all our natures. We’re all here because, somehow, our ancestors survived long enough to breed and keep their children alive to do the same. What if a young female spinner dolphin was abducted into a harsh alien culture, but was determined to survive? The drive to survive is what creates leaders, but it takes a very different story path when you have a female protagonist. There is an overtly emotional dimension to the action, which to me only makes the story more powerful and surprising.
KH: What’s so surprising and delighting to me about your writing is the way you incorporate fascinating factual details and scientific information to evoke the consciousness and lived experience of nonhuman beings. What is your research process like, and how do you use what you find to bring to life the—in some ways—unknowable emotional experience of animals? How do you keep from simply anthropomorphizing?
LP: My process is simple. I get interested in an animal, or an insect, or a dynamic between species, and I start to read more, and watch the many amazing films that technology and social media make accessible. I reach out to scientists working along a story line that interests me—and very often, they generously share freshly peer-reviewed work, which is so exciting because it’s not even in a book yet. For instance, in Pod, I was helped by a preeminent scientist in Singapore working with giant clams. I was also helped—on condition of anonymity—by an ex-Navy SEAL who had read and loved The Bees, and who had worked in San Diego helping train military dolphins. He wanted me to know certain things—and I put them in the story. Once you start researching with an open mind, and if you like rummaging around in footnotes and cross-referencing sources, and don’t mind cold-emailing scientists and other people, it is just amazing the trove of extraordinary facts you collect. Then the difficult part is not getting seduced by every amazing thing, but keeping to the spine of your story. Of course, sometimes you discover something—like the military dolphin named Google—that is just so good, and adds such a powerful dimension to everything else, that you have to stop and rework certain things. Then you feel the pulse of life and it gets very exciting. And quite a bit harder.
Once you start researching with an open mind, and if you like rummaging around in footnotes and cross-referencing sources, and don’t mind cold-emailing scientists and other people, it is just amazing the trove of extraordinary facts you collect.
KH: Did you have a favorite discovery in writing this book?
LP: Really hard to choose just one! I loved discovering that humpback whales gradually all vote with their voices on which male is singing the best song—and this is in all the oceans of the whole world—and gradually adopt it, so that this very specific song becomes the oceanic world number one hit, and somewhere in the ocean, one individual whale created it. That is a joyous thing to think about.
I loved finding out about different dolphin cultural expressions, which made me think: They’re just like us. They’re tribal. They like different foods, different dances; they make love or coercively mate, have political alliances, get into great big amorous raves—it was wonderful to discover these things through the strict unemotional lens of science. Then run away and make a wild story of it.
And I loved discovering that the dark “eyespots” in the mantles of giant clams actually process light and are highly reactive. So they are, in fact, practically eyes. And another thing about clams—they make something called byssus silk, the substance they use to adhere to rocks. And in Italy, there is one lady left who actually weaves with clam silk, fine gold threads she uses for embroidery, like the rarest fairy tale. Apparently, the location of the gold silk-making clams is a matter of omerta—but that is fairy tale too. And out of real biological and environmental truths, I weave my tale.
Of course, I also discovered many deeply disturbing truths about our world, and those details were painful to confront—but essential if we are going to heal our ravaged world.
KH: Building on that, while reading, I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s comment on The Handmaid’s Tale that “nothing went into it that had not happened in real life somewhere at some time.” Every few pages I found myself googling to see if an animal behavior or ecological phenomenon in the book was a real thing! To what extent are the happenings in Pod based in reality?
LP: Well, on the flip side of reveling in all those ecological discoveries, I must say that as humans, we do unspeakable things to our fellow creatures who have as much right to their homes and families and lives as we do. We do not want to see the pain of this planet on nature documentaries, only the glory and wonder and comedy and beauty—but if we do not acknowledge the damage and cruelty that is institutionalized in how we live, what we consume, what we accept as fashion, then we will lose everything. There is no tomorrow for action to save our natural world. The time is now. The people who will do it are you and me and everyone who cares in time. Pod is full of beauty but I could not write a story set in the ocean now, without telling the truth about the enemies of that beauty and wonder, and those enemies have human faces and hearts that we have to reach. But we can’t wait any longer; we have to stop the destruction of our world by whatever means we can.
I could not write a story set in the ocean now, without telling the truth about the enemies of that beauty and wonder, and those enemies have human faces and hearts that we have to reach.
KH: In the prologue, you write of Ea’s story: “The truth is hard to believe, harder to bear,” and I would agree that this is a hard story to bear—I found it haunting and challenging. Oil drilling, sound pollution, commercial fishing, toxic waste, ocean acidification, climate change . . . we see the real-life, moment-by-moment effects of all forms of human carelessness on oceanic individuals, societies, and ecosystems writ large. The story also examines violence, rape, and aggression within the dolphin pod—behaviors that are amplified in the book by the hostile environment created by humans—and Ea’s story is a painful one. Can you talk about the role of darkness in this book? What do you hope readers take from it, and how did you handle the process of immersing yourself in this story as a writer?
LP: I didn’t want to write this book; I was scared of the whole idea of writing a big story featuring a cetacean ecosystem. Who wouldn’t be?! I didn’t want to face anything to do with whaling, or killing dolphins to stock “marine parks”—a most sinister oxymoron George Orwell might have grimly enjoyed. I did not want to acknowledge the world of pain that comes with thinking of life from the point of view of a wild animal in proximity to human beings. And when I saw a giant Napoleon wrasse in a tank on a Hong Kong street, staring out at the lights and passersby, literally waiting for death, I felt shame and guilt. I wrote a short story about that, as a way of processing it. In fact, in writing Pod, I wrote several short stories set in the human world, in which animal characters in the novel resonated in some way, explicitly or more elliptically. I found that I was zoomorphizing myself both ways—I would think myself into a Napoleon wrasse about to change gender, but then I started to think myself into an acoustically tormented pianist who goes to war with the builders through the wall—her piano against their drill. I imagined the agonizing pain of cetaceans whose acoustic environment is their sanity or madness, and I found myself putting that into a human story. I wrote a lot of strange human stories that accompanied the writing of the novel.
KH: I was wondering if you could talk about the idea of “freedom” in the book—there is the Longi pod type of freedom that the character Ea describes—having personal and bodily autonomy (to choose her own mate, for one)—within the more loving and cooperative spinner dolphin group. And that is set alongside the aggressive and hierarchical Tursiops pod’s idea of “freedom” that is synonymous with being abandoned—the only free Tursiops are the “peripheral” (elderly, ill, or weak) dolphins pushed to the edges of society to be picked off by the “Residents” (sharks). All healthy and strong Tursiops are slaves to the leaders of the pod. I was wondering if you were thinking about the contradictions inherent in the idea of “freedom” within a Western individualist society.
LP: It’s interesting, isn’t it? What freedom means to us at different times of our life. When you’re very young, you need containment for your safety. When you’re of age, which I take to mean sexually mature and physically able to survive without your parents, then freedom is your life’s breath. When you have your own children, you forget about your freedom for a bit, in your efforts to keep them safe. When you’re single and totally free, you might fantasize about not making plans because your mate is there; you’re bonded, no longer free. Then with the encroaching signs of mortality, freedom changes again. Your body itself becomes your location, then your prison in old age. It seems the human condition is a constant tension between freedom and duty, but perhaps that’s just in the very indulgent capitalist West, the only bit I know firsthand. We cherish the idea of freedom; we rightly fight for it if it is threatened, but sometimes, we prefer not to have too much of it, and for a higher power of some kind to lay down the law. I have no answers, only questions . . .
I don’t think anyone can watch film of the ocean spawning synchronously, or the exquisite diversity of life on earth, in water, in the air, without experiencing awe—a religious sense of wonder.
KH: For me, the most moving parts of this book were moments of deep, transcendental connection between different creatures, sometimes even those of different species—whether through sex and eroticism, as on the climactic night of the “Spawning Moon,” or subdued and poignant as in the moment when the Rorqual whale sings to soothe the injured and terrified dolphin Google’s addled mind. There is something of divine communion in these scenes, and I wondered if you were influenced by any kind of spiritual, mystical, or religious framework in writing them.
LP: I’m honored you read it that way, thank you. I sit down and work and sometimes have moments of grace. I don’t think anyone can watch film of the ocean spawning synchronously, or the exquisite diversity of life on earth, in water, in the air, without experiencing awe—a religious sense of wonder. We humans didn’t make any of it, and it doesn’t matter what name or explanation we put to the reality of our world: for now, it still exists—and it is cause for love and awe. Research is the scaffolding; wonder is the ink.
But I did intentionally name the plastic-choked Sea of Tamas after the Sanskrit word tamas: darkness and dependence. And the bottlenose alpha female is called Devi, which means “goddess” in Hindi, and her son’s name is Chit, Sanskrit for “consciousness.” Her lord’s name, Ku, is the name of the Hawaiian god of war, and Ea comes from the Hawaiian word that means “sovereignty, breath, life, and air.” I was researching a much-studied pod of Hawaiian spinner dolphins when I came across that name, which immediately went deep into my imagination. I respect the divinities and concepts I invoke.
London-born and of Indian heritage, Laline Paull studied English at Oxford, screenwriting in Los Angeles, and theater in her home city. Her most recent novel is The Bees, which was a resounding critical and commercial success in the United States and Britain. She lives in the English countryside with her family.