Flynn, who has a polite Belfast accent, is talking via Zoom from his writing lair, a small dark room with an uninspiring view of the carport. He works here in 20-minute bursts: ‘‘I’m not one of those martyrs who sits at the desk for seven or eight hours poring over every sentence. I’m more ‘get something down and it can be fixed later on’.’’
The room is in a house on Phillip Island he shares with his partner, illustrator Eirian Chapman, their children, Ripley, five, and Elektra, four, and two cats from an animal shelter. The penguin sanctuary is next door.
The family moved here from Melbourne 18 months ago. The island reminds him a bit of where he grew up, where his parents still live: rural, near the sea, with lots of nature and animals. It’s also a good place to be during a pandemic.
The first stirrings of Mammoth came about when Flynn was reading the letters of Thomas Jefferson and discovered the US president was very keen to get hold of some recently unearthed mammoth bones, or perhaps even a live specimen. At the dawn of the 19th century, people still believed herds of mammoth could be roaming the plains somewhere in the Wild West.
‘‘He was obsessed with those bones. He’d pore over them, trying to reassemble the creature. And this was at a time just after the election … It was all to do with him wanting to show Europe what a powerful great nation the American democracy was. That struck a chord with me.’’
Another thread in the narrative emerged when Flynn read about a natural history auction in New York in 2007 that attracted both museums and Hollywood stars. Among the prehistoric remains for sale were the skulls of a mammoth and a 67 million-year-old dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus bataar, a distant relative of T rex. Rival bidders included Nicolas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Flynn decided he’d write a story based on the history behind the fossil collection, spanning prehistoric times to the recent past, and drifting into the future.
This splendidly ambitious project was like nothing he’d written before: his two previous novels, The Glass Kingdom and A Tiger in Eden, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize, were respectively about travelling carnies and an Irish loyalist on the run in Thailand.
‘‘Initially, it felt like a human story,’’ he says. An early draft was a comic romp about a group of men sent out to the wilds of Kentucky to bring back mammoth bones. ‘‘But it just fizzled out. I sat on the story for a couple of years, I thought ‘I don’t know if I’m mature enough to do this yet, maybe I need to be older and wiser’.’’
Meanwhile he was working with sick and injured animals at an RSPCA shelter. ‘‘I became very aware of the internal life of animals and the way they communicate with each other, and with us. And I thought, maybe the animals could tell the story.’’
The mammoth is the main narrator, taking us back to his days with the herd on the vast Mammoth Steppe, where he and his fellows were prey for Clovis, the early ancestors of native Americans. Then he tells us how his bones were dug up and presented to the eager and sometimes sceptical scientific community.
His audience – the T bataar, a fossilised penguin, a pterodactyl and the hand of an Egyptian mummy – are sceptical too, often rude hecklers, and jostling to tell their own stories.
You can see how Flynn feels he’s a frustrated sitcom writer and actor in the creatures’ dialogue that interrupts the interwoven tales. Bizarre as many of the details are, Flynn insists that about 80 per cent of his story is true, and most of the historical characters really existed. He spent about five years reading up on sources and had his story checked by experts in palaeontology and native American languages.
The thing that surprised him most was how the men of science reacted when their discoveries were constantly challenging their religious beliefs. Some were willing to adapt their religion but others were very resistant. Circa 1800, long before Darwin, the consensus was that the Earth was about 6000 years old. ‘‘When the French scientist Cuvier proposed the idea of an age of reptiles, everyone thought he was a madman.’’
It wouldn’t be a Flynn book without a bit of Irish, so he’s woven in a fictional tale of how a roguish rebel and his intrepid sister used the mammoth bones to try to finance the Irish rebellion. When the rebellion collapses, they go on the run in deepest Kentucky and have Deliverance-style adventures.
Flynn left Northern Ireland when he was 18 and made a leisurely journey to Australia via years in Scotland, France and Asia. ‘‘I just never felt it was the right place for me,’’ he says of Belfast. ‘‘It wasn’t the nicest place to grow up in at the height of the Troubles and it wasn’t a very creative place.’’
Astonishingly for a man who became an author, an editor and a book reviewer, his parents are functionally illiterate. ‘‘There were three books in our house, the first books I read: the Illustrated Bible, The House at Pooh Corner and The Exorcist.’’ He credits his literary education to a local librarian. ‘‘She would direct me to all the great kids books and then into the adult fiction and history section. I owe her a lot.’’
Hominids through the ages don’t behave very well in Mammoth, being responsible for much death and extinction. But there’s hope. The book details true stories of current research into resurrecting the mammoth, with the aim of cloning new herds to roam the Arctic steppes, compress the ground with their feet and stop the permafrost thaw as a way to combat global warming.
‘‘We might have a live mammoth within a year,’’ Flynn says. ‘‘And a dodo, a passenger pigeon and a thylacine.’’
Mammoth is published by University of Queensland Press at $32.99. The audio book will be available on June 1 from Wavesound.