Audrey Schulman’s The Dolphin House is an engrossing fictionalised account of a singular episode in modern science. In the mid-1960s, a NASA-funded project led by neuroscientist Dr John Lilly saw naturalist Margaret Howe live in confinement with a dolphin named Peter in a flooded house on St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, to investigate the possibilities of human-cetacean communication. Schulman’s protagonist is a young woman called Cora, who is hearing impaired and therefore ultra-sensitive to the underwater clicks and sound pulses through which dolphins interact. Cora is hired by obsessive maverick Dr Blum, whose casual sexism is typical of the male-dominated world of scientific research in that era, and adds to Cora’s sense of isolation as she forges a remarkable bond with her fellow creatures.

Where are you now?

At my house.

Where and when do you do most of your writing?

At my house.

If you have one, what is your pre-writing ritual?

Morning is when I write, so generally I make strong coffee before I start.

Full-time or part-time?

I assume you aren’t asking if my pre-writing ritual is full-time, but rather if I write full time. Most writers don’t write full-time. They have to support themselves. The vast majority of writers (especially literary novelists) cannot earn enough with just writing to support a family. Thus, my second job is running a non-profit that fights climate change.

I think in little chunks that need to be inserted and then re-edited. I think in layers like a painter, sketch first, then background, then highlights, then shading.”

Pen or keyboard?

Is there anyone who still writes by pen? Their minds must be so different from mine; they must think in a straightforward start-to-end kind of way. I think in little chunks that need to be inserted and then re-edited. I think in layers like a painter, sketch first, then background, then highlights, then shading. All of that requires a keyboard.

How do you relax when you’re writing?

I don’t relax. I’m writing. If you are asking do I get tense while writing, I don’t tend to. I feel so, so lucky to write. It is such a great privilege.

How would you pitch your latest book in up to 25 words?

In 1965, a woman famously lived in a flooded apartment with a dolphin to teach it English. Told, first time, from the woman’s perspective.

Who do you write for?

Readers.

Who do you share your work in progress with?

A few other writers I know well so I can understand how to hear their critiques.

Which literary character do you wish you created?

None I can think of. To me a character is not separate from the book they are within.

Share with us your favourite line/s of dialogue, poetry or prose.

Anything by Dorothy Parker. She was so concise and funny: “If you can’t think of anything nice to say, come sit next to me.”

Which book do you wish you’d written?

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns.

Which book/s have you most recently read and enjoyed?

I’m on a Samantha Hunt kick right now. She’s great.

What’s on your bedside table or e-reader?

A lot of books about early hominids.

Which books do you feel you ought to have read but haven’t yet?

Most of the books out there.

Which book/s do you treasure the most?

Anything by Valerie Martin, Cormac McCarthy, Sheila Watson, Carol Shields or Lewis Nordan, as well as Death of a Man by Kay Boyle.

What is the last work you read in translation?

I don’t know. I guess I should pay attention to that.

Which story collections would you particularly recommend?

I like novels more. With a novel, you can move in and wander around. In a short story, you glance around fast and then you’re booted out.

What will you read next?

More books about hominids.

What are you working on next?

A novel about (yep, you guessed it) hominids.

Imagine you’re the host of a literary supper, who would your dinner guests be (living or dead, real or fictional)?

Difficult question. I think I’d rather go on long rambly walks one on one with my favourite writers. I could then talk for so much longer and ask all the questions I want. I’d love to do that with the authors I mentioned above.

If you weren’t writing you’d be…?

Working at my non-profit. There’s a lot of emissions to be cut.

If you were the last person on Earth, what would you write?

Probably a book about hominids. It might seem even more pertinent at that point, as a method of wondering how we got to the point where I was the only one left.

How can we make peace with our planet?

We have to figure out how to make our waste streams into something that enriches life instead of poisons it. Or we have to stop the embodied growth aspect of the market. I figure the first option is more likely for us to do than the second.

 

Audrey Schulman is the author of five previous novels, including Three Weeks in December (2012) and Theory of Bastards (2018). Her work has been translated into eleven languages. Born in Montreal, Schulman now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she and her husband run the not-for-profit energy-efficiency organisation HEET. The Dolphin House is published by Europa Editions in paperback and eBook.
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Read an extract from The Dolphin House

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