Paula Cocozza is a staff feature writer at The Guardian and has covered everything from soccer to fashion to fourth-wave feminism. Her writing, which has also appeared in Vogue, the Telegraph, the Independent, and the TLS, received the 2013 David Higham Award. Paula lives in London with her husband, two children, and a garden full of foxes. How to Be Human is her first novel.
Q. What gave you the idea for this book?
A. I had been thinking for a while about the hankering of humans who live in cities for nature. I see this when I walk out my front door at the weekend: guys in plaid shirts, people spending a fortune to learn to split logs or weave baskets, a host of farmers’ markets, and wildlife themes in all areas of fashion and homeware. I felt stumped by the way we so often relate to nature as consumers.
Then one day I was helping some neighbours clear a patch of wasteland. I became aware that I was being watched. A fox had fixed his or her sights on me through a tangle of brambles and chin-high nettles. After that, the fox began to interest itself in our work. When we dug a hole, the fox dug a hole inside the hole. When we put down turf, the fox lifted it up. I became fascinated by the way the fox could be pure fox, but a human could feel addressed in a kindred language of gesture and action.
Q. Why a fox though?
A. Well, there really was a fox, or (more likely) a couple of foxes. But foxes are incredibly common in the UK, especially in cities. It is estimated that 33,000 foxes live in London alone. For many people, the fox is the largest untamed animal they come across. Most people have had some kind of encounter with a fox, and typically the fox will stare at the human, and the human will feel that something has been exchanged. This is not always because people often meet foxes on their way back from the pub (and not just the pubs that are called The Fox - it’s a pretty common name for them).
Q. Your book is about a woman who becomes obsessed with an urban fox. Is she having a psychological breakdown, or is there a real relationship between the two of them?
A. A lot of people have got in touch to tell me that they related to Mary and her thought processes. The magnifying glass is really laid over her in the novel - I believe a lot of people have that sort of hyper self-vigilance these days. She is very observed, and it is for each reader to decide whether she is experiencing a breakdown, or whether her thoughts are actually pretty reasonable.
There is no question in my mind that the fox is real. I wanted him to feel physically plausible. The book contains proofs of his presence. So there is a relationship, but as in all inter-species relationships - we have access only to the human’s understanding of it. Dog - or any pet - owners may disagree about how far their sense of any relationship is accessible only through the human side, mind you. But in the book, it was really important to me to allow the fox to elude detection up to a point, to escape with wildness intact, to preserve his unknowability. (I still think of the fox in the book as male, but readers will have to decide on that too for themselves…)
Q. What are you saying about wildness and captivity?
A. This is really a story of territory and control - of who owns what, and whom. No character is exempt from this consideration; not the fox, not the baby who lives next door. It is impossible to enter into a relationship with any living thing without operating, in some way, as a restraint on that other creature. So I wanted to explore the element of captivity in all human relationships. And I wanted to do that in the context of a human character with a strong desire to reconnect with wildness.
There is a lot of research being done at the moment, in the US and other places, into the connection between mental health and contact with nature. In this technological age, it is easy to lose touch, to forget to look up, to walk past a bird on the sidewalk and not notice it because you’re reading something on your phone. Mary, the protagonist, doesn’t want to live like that. She wants a serious, meaningful contact with her own wildness and the process she goes through in the book is a kind of personal, emotional rewilding. There is a point in the book where she says, or thinks, that no matter how lonely the city becomes, all you have to do is open a window, or even an eye, to hear a mass of wildlife listening back.
Q. What was the most interesting thing you learned in your research about foxes?
A. I spent a day with a fox rescue service, which transported injured cubs in the boot of a hatchback. It was a crash course in fox smell. I can now walk around east London and point out, by smell alone, the places where a fox has been. I am thinking of offering myself as a tour guide.
I also learned that most foxes in cities don’t live beyond two because they get run over, and that you can tell a fox’s age by examining a tooth: they have rings, like tree trunks. They have a notch in their tail from which they release scent. They like eating not just insects, rats, and whatever they find in city bins but also jam sandwiches and apple pie. They have an amazing memory for where they bury food and can pick out the spot even after weeks have passed.
Q. Was it difficult to bring your fox’s perspective to the page so realistically?
A. The funny thing about the way the fox sometimes has the point of view in the book is that this was entirely unplanned. But the first time I sat down to write, there came a point, late in that first chapter, where the sense that the fox was going to take the point of view surged in me. I felt my hand buzz with the certainty that that was going to happen. Foxes take things, it’s part of their nature, and the book needed to express that nature in as many ways as possible with the limited resources of type. I tried all kinds of ways to make the fox voice feel foxlike. He has some passages that are ranged oddly on the page, or lie between chapters in a kind of no-man’s land. I tried to think not about how a fox sounds - they are actually pretty silent creatures - but how they move, their sudden changes of direction, pauses, jumps and disappearances. It was fun to use punctuation very differently, to make up words, to think about what the fox saw and how he or she saw it.
Q. Are you a planner?
A. No! After I had the idea for the story, I sat down in a deckchair with my old Nokia phone and in the Notes section thumbed in 11 things that would happen in the book. That was the plan. I later typed it up and it grew a bit, but I basically worked from those very brief bullet points. Before I started each chapter, I’d spread out a large sheet of paper and work out what might happen. Then I’d write the chapter, and quite often find that entirely different and unforeseen things happened.
Q. Do you write each day or set yourself word counts? Can you describe your writing process?
A. I had two young children and a job while I wrote the book. The only time to write I could guarantee myself each week was on a Friday between 9 am and 4:45 pm (4:15 when the kids joined gymnastics club). I raced back from school drop-off to sit at my desk. I stayed there for all the time I had, barring trips to the toilet and the kettle. I’d put on thick socks that wouldn’t fit in shoes to make sure I wasn’t tempted to go outside. I’d pull down the blind, and write. In practice, I also managed to steal a couple of evenings a week and sometimes a few hours at the weekend, but each Friday I sat at the desk with an absolute despair to write.