The Melbourne Museum’s newest resident, the world’s best-preserved and most complete fossilized Triceratops remains, makes its public debut this weekend. The acquisition of the specimen, described as “the mona-lisa dinosaurs,” is a massive hit, a guaranteed blockbuster. But like other institutions, the Museum has been working on ways to bring its collections to life, and Horridus, as the Triceratops has been called (from its scientific name), will be much more than just a static display; he will even have his own account on social networks.
Author Chris Flynn is the (initially surprised) man in charge of this unusual work.
The protagonist of Flynn’s best-selling novel of 2020 Mammoth – re-released this month in a smaller format – is the fossilized remains of a 13,354-year-old extinct American mammoth, which is called Mammut. Stuck with a group of other artifacts slated for auction, he regales his fellow fossils (among them a pterodactyl from Nazi Germany, the mummified hand of Egyptian queen Hatshepsut and a tyrannosaur from Mongolia who learned English in Florida and therefore speaks like a 90s slacker) with his life – and after his life – story.
“The Museum contacted me out of the blue,” Flynn said when we met for lunch. “It didn’t occur to me – but it should have – that the only demographic group of people who would like Mammoth would be people who work in museums, paleontology, etc. – all the paleontologists in the museum had read it. It’s their world.
He didn’t know what to expect from his encounter, but was thrilled with the outcome. “They told me they bought the Triceratops and they wanted it to have a ‘personality’, bring it to life and interact with people on social media – and they wanted me to create that personality.”
It is, he concedes, a “strange” gig – he has just finished writing a style guide for the remains of the 67 million year old dinosaur. “I could never have predicted that I would take this job away from Mammoth.”
But Flynn has plenty of experience with quirky jobs; the reason our lunch is at France Soir is because he loves French food, having lived in France for a few years. He was not a writer at the time.
“I worked as a runway model for Hugo Boss,” he says.
“I know it’s hard to believe looking at me now, but it’s true – I was there just on a trip, when I was approached by an incredibly handsome guy who asked if I’d like to do a parade.”
He had done medical experiments for money and was, he said, “shabby”. “I must have looked like an orphan,” he says. “I couldn’t keep the clothes, but it gave me an appetite for fashion.”
And French cuisine. We order starters from the intimidatingly beautiful servers at France Soir – scallops for me and the pork terrine for him – then we panically order the snails as well. “They don’t appear very often in your life, so why not?” he says.
Flynn opts for the peppercorn steak for a main and I have the fish. He’s given up on alcohol — in the middle of the pandemic, no less — so it’s sparkling water, and I sneak in a glass of white with my main. “I’ve never been a heavy drinker, so I don’t miss that much,” Flynn says. “Everyone thinks because I’m Irish I have to be an absolute lush.”
Flynn grew up in Northern Ireland, his parents having moved the family from Belfast to Antrim when he was young during the height of The Troubles.
While he had long wanted to be a writer, it was not an easy path: his parents, he says, were illiterate.
They have, for research purposes, all these super-venomous spiders, and weird lizards and snakes. It’s brilliant! The museum is actually a zoo.
Chris Flynn, author
“We didn’t have any books at home – well, we had three. We have had The Illustrated Bible – you can just look at the pictures, we had AA Milne’s The Pooh Corner House and then we had William Peter Blatty The Exorcistso these are the first books I read.
It was the local library that ignited her love of reading and words. “Librarians adopted me from an early age. My parents never knew what to think of me. When I was a child I thought, 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, traveling through Europe and Asia before arriving in Australia in 1999. He was on the shore, never expecting to see me again,” he says. “Every time I come back, they tell me, what do you want? Every time I go back, they’re like, ‘So…what do you want?’ ”
During his travels he “carried on the Flynn tradition of never having money and taking any odd job”.
His CV ranges from standard backpacker jobs – working for car hire companies, a stint as a garbage collector in St Kilda (including run-ins with local pimps) – to data entry for the Treasury Department and working in a factory pillow. Foam pillows, not down, for memory. “You had to be there 10 years before you could go to feathers,” he says. “I had to stick my arm into this machine to fit them, still expecting to come out with a bloody stump.” It was, however, more interesting than entering government data.
“Then I worked for an event company where I was the referee for kids’ sumo wrestling games – the one where they put on the giant costumes,” he says. “I made them fight, then I picked them up. I still can’t believe I got this job.
He worked at the RSPCA and then Borders bookshop for years after that, writing all the time and sending his work. “But no one was interested. I ended up coming into the industry through the back door, helping out at the Melbourne Writers Festival and other festivals, so when I sent in my stupid ideas, people were at least like, ‘Oh okay, Chris, we ‘I will read it’.
He became a regular panelist at various festivals and worked as a book reviewer and editor at The big problem. Her first novel, A tiger in Eden was released in 2012, followed by The realm of glass two years later. And came Mammothwhich, despite the confusion of some in the publishing industry, has been shortlisted for the 2021 Indie Book Awards and the Russell Prize for Humor.
“When my agent pitched him, everyone liked him but nobody wanted to sign him because as soon as marketing had an idea, they were like, this is too weird,” Flynn says. about her gender-defying book. “I think I’m straddling a really tricky position in publishing, between having commercial potential but also being a little weird.”
But it found an audience – it was the best-selling book of 2020 for its publisher. “There’s obviously an appetite for slightly offbeat stories,” he says. “There are only so many ‘mercies’ we can go through before we despair.”
Although Mammoth are not all wise fossils; the story also touches on, among other things, the checkered colonialist past of the natural sciences, the prevailing natural history auction laws that allow Hollywood celebrities to outbid museums for megafauna and dinosaur fossils, and the role of humanity 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 this roller coaster of emotions,” Flynn says. “Laugh one minute, cry the next.”
His next book, Here are the Leviathans, a collection of short stories, promises a similar mash-up. “These are stories from an animal perspective, and there’s a hotel room that tells a story, an airplane seat, that tells how awful workplaces can be, and a grizzly bear that eats the brain of a teenager on a fun run then absorbs his memories and has a better understanding of the human world.
He was definitely the man for the Museum’s editor-in-residence. Which I didn’t even realize was a job. ” This was not the case ! I’m the first.”
Flynn, who lives on Phillip Island with his partner Eirian, an illustrator (and their two cats), spends a few days a week at the Museum and can’t believe his luck. “From a writer’s perspective, what a job to do – I’ll never have to come up with an idea for a book again,” he says. “I will work on other exhibitions and with elements of their collection, which I will explore. There are a million stories in there.
Every day he’s there, he discovers a “weird new thing”. “Someone will walk past and start telling you about a mollusk, or ask if you’ve seen the hummingbird collection.”
On one of his first days on the job, a colleague stuck his head over the wall and asked Flynn if anyone had ever shown him the spiders. “He took me into the bowels of the museum where they have, for research purposes, all these super poisonous spiders, and weird lizards and snakes. It’s brilliant! The museum is actually a zoo.
In addition to bringing Horridus to life, Flynn wrote a children’s book, Horridus and the Hidden Valleyand an accompanying coffee table book of the exhibition, Horridus: Voyage of a Triceratopsfor which he interviewed experts and paleontologists from all over the world.
“I don’t think anyone understands exactly how important Horridus is yet; there are never been a complete Triceratops ever found,” Flynn says. “I spoke to the director of the Natural History Museum in Berlin, and he said to me, ‘I don’t think you know how many people are going to come to 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 everything, the toilets were overflowing. There were so many people coming that they couldn’t keep up.
And their dinosaur didn’t even have a Twitter account.
“It will be great for people to have and see, after everything we’ve been through,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing for Melbourne to have.”
Triceratops: the fate of the dinosaurs, opens March 12 at the Melbourne Museum. museumsvictoria.com.au Mammoth by Chris Flynn (UQP, $22.99). Meet the Leviathans (UQP) will be published in September.
THE CHECK, PLEASE
France Soir, 11 Toorak Road, South Yarra. (03) 9866 8569. Open 7 days a week, noon-midnight.
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