Author Chris Flynn’s mammoth task of fleshing out a dinosaur
“I know it’s hard to believe looking at me now, but it’s true – I was there just travelling, when I was approached by an incredibly handsome guy who asked if I’d like to some catwalk work.”
He’d been doing medical experiments for money and was, he says, “rake-thin”. “I must have looked like a waif,” he says. “I didn’t get to keep the clothes, but it did give me an appetite for fashion.”
And French food. We order starters from France Soir’s intimidatingly handsome waiters – scallops for me and the pork terrine for him – and then we panic-order the escargot as well. “They don’t come up in your life very often, so why not?” he says.
Flynn goes for the steak au poivre for a main and I have the fish. He’s given up the booze – mid-pandemic, no less – so it’s sparkling water, and I sneak in one glass of white with my main. “I was never much of a drinker, so I don’t miss it much,” says Flynn. “Everyone thinks because I’m Irish I must be an absolute lush.”
Flynn grew up in Northern Ireland, his parents moving the family out of Belfast to Antrim when he was young, at the height of the Troubles.
While he had long wanted to be a writer, it wasn’t a straightforward path: his parents, he says, were illiterate.
“We had no books in the house – well, we had three. We had The Illustrated Bible – you could just look at the pictures, we had AA Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner and then we had William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, so those were the first books I read.”
It was the local library that ignited his love of reading and words. “The librarians adopted me from an early age. My parents never knew what to make of me. As a kid I used to think, did they find me in a glowing orb at the end of a long furrow in a field?”
At 18, he set off as a backpacker, travelling through Europe and Asia before he arrived in Australia in 1999. “When I left home, my parents treated me like I was a cabin boy on a 17th-century clipper ship – they waved goodbye at the shore, never expecting to see me again,” he says. “Whenever I return they’re like, what do you want? Any time I go back they’re like, ‘so … what do you want?’ ”
On his travels, he “continued the Flynn tradition of never having any money and taking any sort of weird job”.
His CV ranges from standard backpacker jobs – working for car-hire firms, a stint as a garbage collector in St Kilda (including run-ins with local pimps) – to data entry for the Department of the Treasury and working at a pillow-stuffing factory. Foam pillows, not down, for the record. “You had to be there 10 years before you could be moved up to feathers,” he says. “I had to shove my arm into this machine to fit them, always expecting to come out with a bloody stump.” It was, though, more interesting than government data entry.
“Then I worked for an events company where I was the referee in sumo-wrestling games for kids – the one where they put the giant suits on,” he says. “I’d make them fight, then pick them up. I still can’t believe I had that job.”
He worked at the RSPCA and then Borders bookshop for years after that, writing the whole time, and sending his work out. “But nobody was interested. I ended up getting into the industry through the back door, helping out at the Melbourne Writers Festival, and other festivals, so then when I’d send my stupid ideas out, people would at least say, ‘Oh OK, Chris, we’ll read it’.”
He became a regular panellist at various festivals, and worked as a book reviewer and editor at The Big Issue. His first novel, A Tiger in Eden was published in 2012, followed by The Glass Kingdom two years later. Then came Mammoth, which, despite bamboozling some in the publishing industry, was shortlisted for the 2021 Indie Book Awards and the Russell Prize for Humour.
“When my agent pitched it, everyone liked it but no one wanted to sign it because as soon as marketing got a whiff of it, they were like, it’s too weird,” Flynn says of his genre-defying book. “I think I straddle a really awkward position in publishing, in between having commercial potential but also being a bit weird.”
But it found an audience – it was the best-selling book in 2020 for his publisher. “There’s obviously an appetite for stories that are a bit off-kilter,” he says. “There’s only so much ‘misery fiction’ we can wade through before we just despair.”
Although Mammoth isn’t all wise-cracking fossils; the story also touches on, among other things, the chequered colonialist past of natural science, the ongoing laws around natural history auctions that allow Hollywood celebrities to outbid museums for megafauna and dinosaur fossils, and humanity’s role in the destruction of the planet. It’s funny, but it’s also poignant.
“That’s me in a nutshell – I’m Irish, so there’s always that roller-coaster of emotions,” says Flynn. “Laughing one minute, crying the next.”
His next book, Here Be Leviathans, a collection of short stories, promises a similar mash-up. “It’s stories from the points of view of animals, and there’s a hotel room telling a story, an airline seat, which is a story about how horrible workplaces can be and a grizzly bear who eats the brain of a teenager during a fun-run and then absorbs his memories, and has a greater understanding of the human world.”
He was definitely the man for the Museum’s Editor-in-Residence. Which I hadn’t even realised was a job. “It wasn’t! I’m the first.”
Flynn, who lives at Phillip Island with his partner Eirian, an illustrator (and their two cats), spends a couple of days a week at the Museum, and can’t believe his luck. “From a writer’s perspective, what a job to have – I’ll never have to come up with an idea for a book ever again,” he says. “I’ll be working on other exhibitions and with things from their collection, which I’m going to explore. There are a million stories in there.”
Every day he’s there, he finds out some “new weird thing”. “Someone will walk past and start telling you about a mollusc, or ask if you’ve seen the hummingbird collection.”
On one of his first days on the job, a colleague popped his head over the partition and asked Flynn if anyone had shown him the spiders yet. “He took me into the bowels of the museum where they have, for research purposes, all these super-venomous spiders, and weird lizards and snakes. It’s brilliant! The museum is actually a zoo.“
As well as bringing Horridus to life, Flynn has written a kids’ book, Horridus and the Hidden Valley, and an exhibition companion coffee table book, Horridus: Journey of a Triceratops, for which he interviewed experts and palaeontologists from around the world.
“I don’t think anyone fully understands yet exactly how significant Horridus is; there’s never been a complete Triceratops ever found,” Flynn says. “I spoke to the director of the Natural History Museum in Berlin, and he said, ‘I don’t think you have any comprehension of how many people are going to come and see this show’. In Berlin, when they bought a T. Rex, they totally underestimated how many people would come. In the first month of the show, they were totally behind the eight-ball. The gift shop sold out of everything, the toilets were overflowing. There were so many people coming in, they couldn’t keep up.”
And their dinosaur didn’t even have a Twitter account.
“It’s going to be a great thing for people to get and see, after everything we’ve been through,” he says. “I think it’s a nice thing for Melbourne to have.”
Triceratops: Fate of the Dinosaurs, opens March 12 at the Melbourne Museum. museumsvictoria.com.au Mammoth by Chris Flynn (UQP, $22.99). Here Be Leviathans (UQP) will be published in September.
THE BILL PLEASE
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