Black Cow

Since 2008, unemployment in the U.S. has escalated, the housing market has plummeted, wages have dropped, taxes have increased, and the national debt is $5 trillion higher. Is it, therefore, any wonder in light of America’s impending trajectory off the fiscal cliff and descent into socialism that so many people are feeling anxious, depressed and desperate for an exit strategy? While Magdalena Ball’s new novel, Black Cow, transpires an ocean away – in Australia – there’s no doubt she has crafted a compelling, insightful and topical message about survival that will keenly resonate with readers around the world.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett


How did your spark of passion for the craft of writing initially catch fire, and who are some of the authors whose work you most admire?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading. Books have always been a significant part of my life. So my passion for the craft of writing comes from my passion for reading – a passion for the written word and the way in which stories and meaning are made through the connection between reader and writer.  Again, I can’t remember a specific moment when I thought that I wanted to write – writing has always been part of who I am. I wrote poems and stories to augment my reading and create my own things from the first moment I could hold a pencil in my chubby hand (let’s say aged 3 or 4, though the transition from listener to reader to writer was a subtle and interlinked one).

There are so many authors I admire, and I keep discovering new ones but I find myself returning to James Joyce regularly, and every time I open Ulysses, I find it inspires my writing.  Another surprising, recent source of inspiration for me is Gertrude Stein. I just discovered Tender Buttons (which completely bamboozled me when I first came across it) and the impact on me as a writer has been dramatic. For modern authors, a few that I love that come to mind immediately are China Miéville, Peter Carey, and Julian Barnes for fiction, with Emily Ballou, Luke Davis and Dorothy Porter for poetry.  There are many, many others. 

When and where was your first piece of writing published?

The first thing I can remember was a series of poems published in a well-known (at the time) East Village NYC newspaper while I was an undergraduate at college.  I had the entire centre spread of the newspaper and didn’t even know about it until my cousin told me.  I didn’t save a copy (I have no idea why I didn’t save it, but I suspect it might have something to do with several international moves).

Do you ever go back and read it and, if so, what do you think?

I can’t even remember which poems they were, so no I don’t go back and read it, but I can guess that I would probably cringe! My writing was reasonably dark back then – sometimes ridiculously so – something to do with reading too many confessional poets or a teenager’s liking for the macabre and drama.

Describe your favourite place to write and why it energizes/inspires/comforts you.

I have to be able to write anywhere, so I don’t really have a favourite place to write.  I’ll write anywhere – even pulled over my car a few times to write something that was in my head.  I do enjoy writing outside though – sitting by the pool on a day that’s just warm enough but not stifling hot, with a little sun on my back but not so much it makes the screen impossible to read.  I just got a greenhouse and I have a feeling that it might be my new favourite place in the winter – since it’s lovely and warm, sunny and kind of inspirational with all that young growth and potential nutrition.

You’ve launched a fun website called The Compulsive Reader in addition to a companion radio show. How did these two creative ventures evolve and how do they interface with your daily writing schedule?

I set up The Compulsive Reader in 2001 – so it has been around a very long time in Internet terms. I had been doing some reviews for another website. The first book I got was Frank McCourt’s ‘Tis, which came in a beautiful hardcover set with Angela’s Ashes, followed by the opportunity, which later fell through, to interview McCourt.  As I was a heavy reader already this was a dream job for me – unlimited books, and the opportunity to use my writing skills and enjoyment of close readings (and talking about books) made it a natural thing to do.  So when the site closed, I decided I was hooked and instead of applying for jobs elsewhere, I just decided to start my own. 

If you were asked to describe your new novel, Black Cow, in a single sentence, what would it be?

The story of one modern family’s search, in the midst of recession and the inevitable changes that occur in mid-life, for a sustainable, meaningful life.

What was the inspiration to write this book?

I’ve long wanted to write a book that explored the notion of self-sufficiency: one that traced a family who decided to go ‘off-grid’ and produce their own food and live off their own land. It was something of a hobby interest of mine and I spend a lot of time reading magazines like Grass Roots and Backwoods Home. At the same time, as we moved heavily into the Global Financial Crisis, I saw many people I knew working harder, longer hours and at the same time, spending more (all this sanctioned by governments under the heading of “stimulus spending”).  It’s a vicious cycle – you work harder to spend more and as a consequence have to work even harder. I knew a couple of people who ended up having nervous breakdowns. So I decided to play with these two notions: a couple trapped in that cycle, wondering what they were working for and why they were spending so much, and what might happen if they were to just stop and actually leave the game.

And the title – what does it mean, both literally and metaphorically? 

There are many black cows in the book.  There are the Wagyus (a variety of cow) that James and Freya decide to raise on their Tasmania property. At one point, when James and Freya are looking at the property James goes over to one of the cows and whispers into its ear.  This represents a few things – both James and Freya’s desire to feel connected with the earth and with their lives again. It’s a creative longing.  Other black cows including the Steely Dan song, which James listens to in the car – it reminds him of his youth. Fear of aging and what it means for the couple is a key theme in the book.  There’s also the drink, which the song is about. Freya makes Black Cows in the kitchen in preparation for James’ 40th birthday. He arrives home late from work and doesn’t have time to drink his (or eat dinner). 

Your novel transpires in Australia and yet its themes – economic uncertainties, emotional stress, and the “for better or worse” hardships imposed on marriage – are relevant and relatable to virtually any part of the planet. How would you say that the events in the book reveal evidence of your own world view, including your emigration to NSW Australia after an upbringing and education in New York City?

I really wanted to write a book set in Australia – with the beauty and iconic nature of the Australian scenery that surrounds me, especially since my first novel was very much a New York book, but the themes are definitely universal, and maybe even more relevant for the U.S. where the recession hit harder than in Australia and continues to have a strong impact on the everyday lives of families.  All my family are still in the U.S., and I also lived in England for some years, so I do tend to write with a global audience in mind.

Who is your target demographic for Black Cow and what is the takeaway message you’d like these readers to embrace by the final chapters?

Black Cow is fiction, so I don’t necessarily want to say that they should have a takeaway message at the end. I’d like people to be moved and invested in the story of Freya and James. The underlying theme of the novel (and maybe all my novels…), is the critical importance of living creatively, thinking deeply about who we are, the meaning we are making in our lives and about the value in living sustainably – in all senses of the word, not just the ecological. I wouldn’t like to (ever) exclude any readers but I’d say that my target demographic would be people who are around mid-life, and who might see recognise themselves or those around them in the story – people for whom the story will ring true. Because the sustainability theme is strong, I find that the book tends to resonate best with readers who are interested in notions of creative, sustainable living.

At the start of the book the protagonists Freya and James are clearly in trouble. Are these characters based on real people?

Like many of my characters, they are amalgams of all sorts of things – people I know and my own experiences to be sure, though reworked and repurposed, but also ideas I wanted to try out, characters in films, in other novels, etc.  There certainly isn’t a one-to-one correspondence, though I’ve been finding that many people who read it will often tell me that they are indeed “James” or “Freya” and that I’ve written their lives.  Though it’s not necessarily a good place to be (at least in the beginning), from a writer’s point of view, that’s the best comment, because it means I’ve succeeded in verisimilitude or making the story real.

If Hollywood came calling for a film adaptation, who do you see in the lead roles?

Funny you should ask that. My mother is friends with Liev Schreiber’s mother Uma and we’ve been talking (dreaming) about how utterly wonderful Liev would be in the role of James and his gorgeous Australian wife Naomi Watts would be in the role of Freya.  She even encouraged me to send a book to Uma, which I did. Feel free to put it about!

Freya and James both suffer from stress-related conditions and yet they react in different ways. What was your rationale for the opposing perspectives they adopt?

Well they’re different characters, with different backgrounds and motivations. People do react in different ways to stress, and they bring the totality of their experiences into the situation that they’re in.  There are also a number of parallels – both have health issues, both are obsessive perfectionists in their way, and both are running so fast that they have forgotten who they are.

Insofar as the setting you’ve chosen, how does the transition from Sydney to Tasmania impact the story as well as the evolution and character arcs of Freya and James?

From a plotline point of view, the move to Tasmania marks a transition in the story. It was originally my part two.  However, and I don’t want to give too much away, the move from one place to another is not the real solution to Freya and James’ woes.  As the old Zen saying goes (and one of my wonderful reviewers pointed out), wherever you go, there you are.

There’s a small hint of Norse mythology in Freya’s lineage. How does this play out in terms of her character development and memories?

I’m so glad you picked that up :-).  I tried to be subtle with the Norse mythology, but Freya as a character is Norwegian and there are references to her grandmother’s home in Tokleskaret, the 24 hours of daylight, knitting, and her grandmother’s words “Av skade blir man klok.” which mean “injuries make one wise”. Finding the way back to those roots – the historical connections to our family – the DNA link – is a theme in the book.  Of course in mythology Freya was the goddess of love, beauty and fertility, and these qualities also play out in the book.

How do you define “happiness”?

Happiness is a shifting noun. It’s relative and notional and perhaps rendered meaningless by overuse, but in Black Cow, what the characters are looking for is a sense of peace (‘calm inner strength’), a sense of satisfaction that comes, to my mind, through creative work, and connectedness (with family, with friends, with community).  It seems to me that those things are worthwhile enough aims to count for happiness.

Do you believe that excess has created a false sense of security for most people?

It could be. I do suspect that the need to accumulate ‘possessions’ for the sake of the possession rather than from any real need is driven by fear and a sense that being able to afford so much is an indication of safety.  Of course the sense of security is nonexistent because the fear remains. The hunger remains because it isn’t satisfied by excess.

Is less more?

I have to admit that I’m personally attracted by minimalism. I don’t necessarily think that it’s right for everyone, but I get nervous by too much stuff around me. I’m completely willing to admit that this is just my own issue, and I wouldn’t like to turn that issue into a principle, but I’m definitely more comfortable when I don’t have too many things around me. That said, when it comes to time, less may not be more. Less time with my family is not more.  Less creative output isn’t more for me. It’s all about balance and finding time to do the things that really matter.

Identify three things that you are optimistic about and why.

Every time I go into my children’s schools and listen to the kids talk I become optimistic about the future. There are so many bright, intelligent, interested, vibrant children that I am filled with hope that the substantial problems that we’re facing in the modern world will be dealt with.

I know I’m biased, but my own children are pretty amazing too in so many ways, and they fill me with optimism.

I’m pretty optimistic about the future of books and literature in general. So many wonderful books keep coming out. You’d think after so many years of writing poetry, novels, and nonfiction that there would be nothing new to say but even yesterday I opened a new book and was shocked at the beauty of the language and the fresh talent in the writing.

What’s next on your plate?

I’ve been working on a poetry book and it’s pretty close to completion.  I’ve also got my third novel in the works. It’s looking like being a science fiction, with time travel, which is a very new direction for me and a big leap in structural terms, but I’m pretty excited about the direction the work is taking.

Anything else you’d like readers to know?

Just that more information about all of my work, including my Compulsive Reader website, my radio show, my poetry books, my blog, and lots of freebies, can be found at my website  I love to connect with readers and other writers (I’m pretty gregarious – in person and in a social networking sense), so please do drop by and link up with me on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, etc.