Dr Laura Jean McKay took the $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature for her debut novel, The Animals in That Country. She also won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for fiction, worth another $25,000.

Mckay is currently residing in New Zealand, where she has been lecturing in creative writing at Massey University for the past 18 months. She began writing the novel six years before the world had heard of Covid-19. The work centres around a “zooflu” epidemic that enables its infected victims to communicate with animals.

The idea came to her during a prolonged battle with chikungunya virus – a mosquito-born disease she describes as “dengue on crack” – which she contracted while attending a writers’ festival in Bali. She told The Guardian “I was living with this strange disease and it just started to infect my book,” adding that “It gives you a sort of polyarthritis and I couldn’t move very well for about two years. All my skin peeled off my body.

“I felt like I was turning into a mosquito and I was having these very strange hallucinations. And out of that I started to write this novel; that’s when the disease started to really take off on the pages – as it was taking off in my body.”

Large tracts of the book were written using voice-to-text recognition technology; it was too painful for McKay to use a keyboard.

McKay had earlier completed her doctorate focusing on literary animal studies from the University of Melbourne, and went on to become a co-presenter for ABC Listen’s Animal Sound Safari. The title of the book is taken from a Margaret Atwood poem of the same name. She says about Atwood “Her poetry is very real, very true and quite brutal and honest, and I love that about her.”

Although this is McKay’s first novel, her 2013 collection of short stories, Holiday in Cambodia, was shortlisted for three national literary awards. McKay’s book, which was published in April 2020 as coronavirus swept the world, imagines a possible near-future Australia where a ‘zoo flu’ sweeps the country, giving infected humans the ability to understand animals.

In the fiction category, McKay’s novel was up against The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan, Our Shadows by Gail Jones, and The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham.

McKay has already decided that the prize money will mean she and her partner (writer Tom Doig, a New Zealander by birth) might be able to “finally lay our hats down somewhere” and put a deposit on a home.

The Animals in That Country begins when disturbing news arrives of a pandemic sweeping the country, Jean realises this is no ordinary flu: its chief symptom is that its victims begin to understand the language of animals — first mammals, then birds and insects, too. As the flu progresses, the unstoppable voices become overwhelming, and many people begin to lose their minds, including Jean’s infected son, Lee. When he takes off with Kimberly, heading south, Jean feels the pull to follow her kin. Setting off on their trail, with Sue the dingo riding shotgun, they find themselves in a stark, strange world in which the animal apocalypse has only further isolated people from other species. Bold, exhilarating, and wholly original, The Animals in That Country asks what would happen, for better or worse, if we finally understood what animals were saying.