UK Author Joseph D’Lacey has taken the literary world by storm with his recent novel, MEAT: You Are What You Eat. The transformative power of this book and the creative ways it has been marketed have together made it a phenomenon in Europe. And in 2011 it will be released in the US. MEAT has been translated into German, French, Hungarian, Russian and Turkish and was optioned for film in ’08. MEAT also secured him the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer in 2009. After numerous press appearances and 30,000 books sold, D’Lacey shares with us the fascinating background story and ideas that led to the writing of this profound work of fiction.
What were your inspirations behind writing MEAT?
At the risk of upsetting people, I’m going to be very honest with you about all this.
I’ve been a carnivore for most of my life and, until I was in my late twenties, I didn’t give the provenance of meat much thought. Around that time, I became very interested in meditation for peace of mind and the traditions where such customs originated. Although I never became a practising Buddhist – I’m not a practising anything, really – I was certainly struck by their considerations of cause and effect in an individual’s life and development; what is often termed Karma. The idea of not harming other sentient beings was simple and logical. It resonated with me. Subsequently, as part of my own development, I went through a phase of only eating meat that I had caught, killed, gutted, skinned and cooked myself. It seemed correct to me that if you use meat to prolong your existence – taking another life in order to sustain your own – you ought to be able to completely understand and engage with the realities of that process. Having involved myself in this way with my food – my meat – I saw it very differently. After that my intake of meat became more moderate and considered. But I still ate it. And I still enjoyed it.
Seeds of doubt – questions that wouldn’t go away – had certainly taken root in me by then, though. Those seeds grew and the questions nagged me:
Is it wrong to eat meat? Is it actually immoral? Will there be some kind of nasty payback in the afterlife? Is eating meat necessary? Is it healthy? Is it justifiable? Haven’t indigenous populations eaten meat since humans left the trees? Isn’t eating meat just an ordinary aspect of human life? What about the suffering of animals – can we justify that? Should we even be trying?
These thoughts and hundreds of others just like them grew and grew. Every time I ate meat or watched something about farming on TV, they were at the back of my mind; eating me in some way.
There was a large slaughterhouse in my village for many years and some days, usually in the summer, the smell of the place would waft over our house. I’d think about the queues of cattle being systematically stunned, bled and butchered so nearby. Surely a dark energy of some kind must linger around so much death.
And then came a character – perhaps the only one that has ever been inspired by a real person: driving to and from my nearest town, I often used to see a man running along the roadside. He wore a heavy pack and ran at all times of the day and night and in all weathers. He had a kind of determined smile on his face.
Something about the man’s insistence on such a punishing run collided with every misgiving I’d ever had about killing animals and eating their flesh. Maybe he worked at the slaughterhouse. Maybe he felt guilty and running with the weighted backpack was some kind of atonement. That image, of a man trying to absolve himself of the deaths of thousands of animals, was where the book really began and it forms the opening scene of chapter one.
There are other reasons, of course. More practical ones. I’m a horror author, let’s remember, and I wanted to write a truly dark and disturbing tale. I had a sense that the issues at the heart of being a carnivore would make great fiction. I also had a feeling that by writing all this out, I would understand it all better myself.
I’m glad to have followed my instincts. The book has changed my life in many ways.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
Initially, I had fantasies about gaining access to my local slaughterhouse in order to see for myself how it all worked. In the end, the slaughterhouse closed down before I could create that opportunity. So that left me the internet. It was more than enough.
I searched for footage of slaughterhouse practices, factory farming and animal transportation. I read articles on how to manage the behaviour of animals entering the slaughterhouse. I learned about captive bolt guns and exsanguination. I discovered the differences between secular slaughter practices and those of Halal and Kosher. I also read about the impact of large scale animal farming on the ecology and the planet as a whole.
I watched many kinds of animals being killed, bled out, gutted and dismembered – in videos that seemed to be outlining best practices for the industry – but it was the covert footage taken by undercover employees that was the most shocking. The brutalisation of animals farmed for meat begins long before they reach the slaughterhouse, especially those raised in so-called factory farms. And it isn’t just what we consider to be ‘farm’ animals that are farmed and killed. In the far east, they farm dogs and cats for fur and meat with even less regard for their welfare.
It blew my mind in so many ways. We’ve got everything about meat so, so wrong.
What insights came out of researching and writing the book that were unexpected or surprising to you?
Wow. Where to begin?
First and foremost, the realisation that meat is not a necessary part of the human diet. Nothing bad will happen to you if you don’t eat it. In fact, you’re likely to be healthier if you don’t.
I learned that those of us who eat meat now eat it in far greater quantities and far more frequently than at any other time in human history. This demand for meat is business-led and it’s a disgrace. Many people in the west now eat meat every day or even several times a day – bacon at breakfast, chicken or ham sandwich at lunch perhaps, maybe fish, steak or lamb for their evening meal. Not only is this unnecessary, it’s costly in more ways than most people want to imagine.
On the subject of costliness, I discovered that many animals destined for our tables eat a grain diet – something they’d be unlikely to eat in their natural state. To grow this grain, farmers use nitrogenous fertilisers – a byproduct of the petroleum industry, and therefore more and more expensive as the days go by – and use vast tracts of land to do so, often exhausting the land in the process. This grain then feeds their animals. If you think about it, that same land could be used to grow crops for humans instead, possibly making starvation a thing of the past.
Cows produce methane. Even though it is produced in smaller quantities, as a greenhouse gas, methane is far more damaging than carbon dioxide. I’d like to know how many cattle are alive on the planet at any one time and how much methane they produce. I’m curious to see how the effect of farm animal methane emissions compares to those of, say, cars. Perhaps such a study already exists. If so, I’d like to hear about it.
Animals need water to survive and grow. Once again, the amount of water required to yield a pound of meat is phenomenally greater than the amount required to produce a pound of grain or pulses.
And what’s in meat, anyway? Keeping farmed animals ‘healthy’ is big business for drug manufacturers. Antibiotics and anti-worming gels which contain organophosphates are among the routine treatments given to animals destined for the dinner plate. I don’t want to put that in my body.
These are rather cold, logical reasons for not eating animal flesh. But in times when we are concerned about the effects on the planet of our lifestyles and behaviour, it simply makes no sense at all to either farm it or consume meat.
And, of course, there are glaring reasons of compassion too. The number of animals killed for meat each day is so vast, it’s hard to fit it in your head. High levels of mechanisation are required to achieve it and any respect for the animals passing through the system is cast aside in favour of efficiency and profit. There’s no question in my mind that animals suffer to give us their flesh – how could it happen any other way?
Has the experience of writing this book changed you personally in certain ways? If so, please explain.
The most profound change was that it made me stop eating meat.
In MEAT’s afterword, I state that I’m not a vegetarian. By the time the book was on shelves that statement was no longer true. Come this Christmas, I’ll have eaten no animal flesh for three years.
I also spend a lot more time wondering what the correct relationship should be between humans and animals. I try to be broad-minded about it, not to jump with both feet into any particular ideological camp. Are we in essence, meant to be vegetarian? Vegan? Or are we meant to hunt occasionally, with a strong spiritual connection to our quarry? Should we make it a law that only those who raise animals for subsistence can eat them – thereby taking meat production away from large organisations and handing responsibility for careful husbandry back to individuals? Should we be eating meat that has been produced in vitro as brainless, nerveless tissue? – recently ‘scientists’ have achieved exactly this.
I’m probably no nearer to the answers than I ever was.
Sometimes I tell myself the only circumstances under which I would eat meat again would be if I raised or hunted the animals myself and was involved in the process at every stage. But I don’t know if I’ll ever be able do that because I just don’t see meat in the same way I used to. The moral issue of taking life won’t go away. Once you have knowledge, you can’t un-know it. Writing MEAT has certainly changed me.
If a reader walks away with just one idea from MEAT, what would you hope that idea be?
That’s a toughie.
It’s important to be clear that I didn’t set out to send a message to my fellow humans when I wrote the book. My first duty is to entertain. As a horror writer, that means the entertainment has to be terrifying – creepy at the very least. I wanted to write something so grim and disturbing that it would ‘stick’ with readers. In order to do that, I needed to know what I was talking about. In educating myself about meat, it became clear that the book would have a dimension beyond simple horror – it was going to provoke people.
I know readers – die-hard horror fans – who have reached the last page of MEAT and become vegan. Likewise, lapsed vegetarians have returned to their old ways. But, mostly, readers come away from the book having been on an uncomfortable journey; thrilled and disgusted in equal measure.
If there is an idea in MEAT, something worth bringing back to real life, it is this:
The world is presented to us as being a certain way. Organisations want us to accept the histories, faiths, lifestyles and products they hold up as the ‘true’ or ‘desirable’. We must do only one thing in response – question everything.
What if any plans are under way to adapt the book into a documentary or motion picture drama?
MEAT was optioned very soon after publication – I think its potential was very obvious.
We have a brilliant script but financial backing has proved more difficult to secure. All I know is that, if handled correctly, MEAT will be one of the most terrifying and psychologically unsettling films ever made. I can’t wait to see how it will look on screen.
What other ways has the book been promoted?
I was very fortunate to have been given a huge amount of support by my publishers – Beautiful Books. They gave the novel a big ‘push’ which is very unusual for a debut work. Full page adverts were purchased in The Bookseller magazine and the novel was the first in the UK to bear a QR Code (matrix barcode). This meant browsers in bookshops could photograph the code and be directed to a website with more information. That website was www.meatnovel.com where there’s a free first chapter and other goodies. MEAT was recorded as an audio-book and we used sections of the track as promotion too. Most fun was The Meatwagon – a specially fitted-out truck which played loud music and allowed us to talk to people in the street as we drove by. On the back of the truck was a huge glass display containing a butcher’s shop scene complete with chopping block, cleavers, cuts of meat and plenty of gore. We drove that truck all over the UK playing loud music from the speakers, doing ‘guerrilla’ signings at unsuspecting bookshops, radio interviews and talks for universities. Some of the happiest moments of my life, I can tell you. All this, and the fact that the book was showcased at the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs have meant that MEAT remains notorious and widely read – so far it has been translated into Russian, German, Turkish, Hungarian and French.
My publisher also managed to get a copy of the novel to Stephen King who not only read it but was impressed. He said:
“Joseph D’Lacey rocks!”
And that quotation remains the high point of my career thus far.
Any closing thoughts for us?
Mainly to thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak about MEAT on this site. I hope that anyone picking up a copy of MEAT will enjoy it for what it is: a horror novel with a conscience.
I’m also happy to announce that both MEAT and my other eco-horror title Garbage Man will be released in the USA in April 2011. This will ensure that both novels are far easier to get a hold of than they have been up to now.
I have been working on other books, of course, whose themes continue to explore our connection to the land and its creatures. I hope to have more news about such things very soon. In the meantime, thank you again for having me!