Ahead of the Women’s Prize for Fiction winner being announced in two weeks, BLOT sat down with Laline Paull, author of shortlisted book POD to talk about fighting the environmental crisis through fiction.
If Laline Paull had to describe her Women’s Prize shortlisted book, POD, in three words, it would be “provocative, truthful, and original.”
And if it were to win, she said it would be sending a “most powerful message to the world that it is supporting a story that is not only valuable as literature, but that unapologetically flies the flag for nature – of which we are all a part, and which will not survive without us taking up her cause.”
POD is a unique and immersive story, set in the depths of the ocean. We follow Ea, a dolphin who has always felt like an outsider. She suffers from a type of deafness that means she cannot master the spinning rituals that unite her pod of spinner dolphins. When tragedy strikes her family and Ea feels she is partly to blame, she decides to make the ultimate sacrifice and leave.
As she ventures into the vast, she discovers dangers everywhere, from lurking predators to strange objects floating in the water. But just as she is coming to terms with her solitude, a chance encounter with a group of arrogant bottlenoses will irrevocably alter the course of her life.
Laline Paull explores the true meaning of family, belonging, sacrifice – the harmony and tragedy of the pod – within an ocean that is no longer the sanctuary it once was, and which reflects a world all too recognisable to our own.
Laline said: “It’s a great honour to be shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, because the quality of the other books is so high.
“All the judges are admirable women and so there’s the wonderful feeling of connecting with them too – POD has found its way into their hands and minds.
“Because of the international reach of the prize, and the respect it commands, readers who may not otherwise have even known about POD, are now giving it a try and finding themselves extremely moved and eager to find a way to fight the environmental crisis. It’s a story about people trying to survive in a world that is being destroyed by a hostile power.”
This isn’t Laline Paull’s first time to be nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Back in 2015, her first novel, THE BEES, was also shortlisted for the prize. She began writing the book in 2012, before climate change was as prominent as it now is, and before cli-fi was a term.
“I never intended to write about climate change, but I came across an extraordinary fact about the laying worker honeybee.
“Then I came up with the idea – one of ten thousand previously sterile female workers, who spontaneously starts laying eggs, and becomes a hive criminal, hunted to death by her sisters.
“She sprang to life very quickly in my imagination and then research led me to find the story of the novel, always choosing scientific truth about the bees when there was a choice of narrative routes.”
For POD, Laline followed the same process, researching all the different species and trying to understand a particular cetacean ecosystem in a specific part of the Ocean – the archipelago of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean.
“On holiday in Mauritius, I went on an ill-advised swim with wild dolphins during a hotel excursion.
“It was a shamefully ignorant thing to do, because it involved not just one hotel boat intercepting a pod of bottlenose dolphins on their dawn return from the night’s hunt, but about forty boats, full of overexcited tourists.
“The boats surrounded the pod, the screaming tourists jumped in, and the pod streamed about buzzing and clicking and trying to get out. Bottlenose dolphins are huge and magnificent and could easily have killed many people with a glancing blow, but they did not, they buzzed and chirped and shrieked at us and I am absolutely sure they were cursing. Then one went right by me and looked me in the eye, and I saw she had a small calf by her side, and I was horror struck by what we were doing.
“Afterwards, I learned that this pod of bottlenose had arrived en mass one day, following an unreported oil spill up the coast. They had driven out the resident small pod of spinner dolphins and taken their home water – and no one had ever seen the spinners again.
“I immediately thought of how on land, we humans are driven from our homes by war and famine and natural disaster, and how we will do whatever we have to, to ensure the survival of our families. Which is a recipe for tribal conflict, large and small.
“We are still such a primitive species, that reacts in fear of the unknown other, and demonises, and pushes away.
“We must be vigilant about our right to protest, and be aware of the rapid erosion of our civil liberties, happening right now. Without the right to protest, we are powerless to make a better world.”
Laline hopes POD will empower readers to believe that if they can feel empathy for other sentient beings, they will be roused to join the fight on behalf of the natural world – in whatever way they choose, or are able.
“When writing the book, the most challenging parts were telling the truth about what we are allowing to happen in the ocean, through the greed and apparent omnipotence of industrial fishing, unregulated shipping, deep sea mining, and the occult activities of the world’s militaries at sea.
“I write about what’s in front of me – and I have to confront my own denial and cognitive dissonance all the time. It’s extremely inconvenient to become aware of my own destructive unconscious habits, and try to change them.
“But the really good news is that once you start to do this, a sense of empowerment replaces that dull pervasive sense of fear. It has done for me, anyway and remarkable people have come into my life as a result. I must thank the honeybee for showing me the way.”
Laline explained that a huge amount of research went into the book.At first, she didn’t want to write POD because it was so intimidating – she knew she would have to research not just each creature that went into the story, but the whole marine ecosystem in which they lived.
“I have always had a brilliant tutor, the BBC natural history unit, in particular, Blue Planet series one and two. Watching any of those episodes re-fired my imagination, and seeing David Attenborough at the end of his life, using everything he’s got to rouse us to action on behalf of nature, gave me the courage to go for it.”
Though POD is both haunting and sad as it explores the cruelty and ignorance of humans, it still leaves readers holding a spark of hope for the future.
Laline said: “There is hope because although we humans have made a terrible mess, we are capable of great change at high speed – if we feel our lives depend on it – as in lockdown.
“There is still so much beauty in this world, and if we can only remember that the ocean gives us every second breath we take – right now, just stop and become aware of your breathing – then that is how important it is to realise that we can all make a difference.
“So we have to safeguard our right to peaceful protest, because without it, the status quo of faceless corporations, shareholder interests and political inertia, will allow the degradation of our world, our ocean, our beauty and joy, to go on. And that cannot be allowed to happen.
“The cavalry isn’t coming – there is only us, but we are enough. The anthropologist Margaret Mead said ‘Never doubt that a small group of committed, thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.’ That group is you, and me, and everyone – reader of novels or not – who determines to make a difference.”
If you liked this post then read Lillie Lainoff: There’s a lack of representation for chronic illness in books or Paul McVeigh: “Working class authors still don’t have a seat at the table” next.
Laline was born in England, but her parents were first-generation Indian immigrants. She studied English at Oxford, screenwriting in Los Angeles, and theatre in London, where two of her plays were performed at the Royal National Theatre. She is a member of BAFTA and the Writers’ Guild of America. Her book, POD, is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 20232.
Maddy is a journalism student who enjoys writing about culture, entertainment and the arts. If she’s not reading a book, you’ll find her listening to Taylor Swift. She’s passionate about books that reflect what’s going on in society and lead us to ask important questions about the world around us.
Favourite genres: Contemporary Fiction and Romance.