Adriane Howell for The Stella Shortlist
Adriane Howell is a Melbourne-based writer and arts worker. In 2013, she graduated from the University of Melbourne with a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing. She is co-founder of the literary journal Gargouille. Hydra (2022) is her debut novel.
ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret. Adriane, I am so thrilled to have you here.
ADRIANE: Thank you for having me, Astrid.
ASTRID: Now, I don't really know how to introduce your debut novel, Hydra. There were five judges for the Stella Prize that decided the Stella Prize shortlist, and not one of us foresaw the climax or the ending of Hydra. And after reading more than 200 books, that is an incredibly rare feat. Can you introduce us to this quite honestly strange work?
ADRIANE: Yeah. And do you know what? I've had such trouble explaining it and putting it into an elevator pitch. What I can say is that it's about Anja, a 30-year-old antiquarian who works at a antique auction house where she specialises in mid-century furniture, but then her life begins to unravel and she finds herself on an isolated beachfront property that may or may not have some sort of presence there.
ASTRID: I mean, Anja is firstly a 30-ish antiquarian. It is quite the thing to imagine anyway, Adriane.
ADRIANE: Yeah. Look, I guess I grew up with parents as collectors, and I think that's just where I found my love for antiques. I've always found them incredibly mysterious and I've always wondered at their history. And I think when I'm asked about it, I often remember there is an antique store in Armidale called Graham Geddes. I remember going there as a kid, and it's just like a labyrinth. It's a warehouse. It's huge, and there's just so many different rooms filled with antiques of all different periods, and it's just absolutely magic. I think that's probably where I fell in love with antiques.
ASTRID: Now, that makes sense. You mentioned a presence. You've obviously mentioned your protagonist, Anja, and we haven't mentioned it yet, but there are quite a few other women in the novel, and you kind of interrogate female relationships and friendships. I'd like to go through all three, but let's start with Anja, who is difficult to understand. She is not likeable, but she is so fascinating, I don't know, beautifully defiant, and she is lonely, and she is a little unhinged. She is just quite the character. Where did you find her? And I guess more specifically as the writer, as the creator behind this, it feels like you've resisted all of the usual tropes or character arcs placed on a female protagonist.
ADRIANE: I think early on I was reading Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, and I just absolutely loved the titular character of Eileen. She was problematic and she was dirty and she was in some ways aggressive, but still, you really felt for her. I had no interest in writing a character who you wanted as your best friend or who you necessarily wanted to be. I wanted someone a bit more problematic, and I really loved writing the unreliable narrator. Yeah. I like to have the reader questioning the story that they're being told.
ASTRID: The interesting part of Anja being an unreliable narrator is not only do you kind of question what she's doing and some of her decision-making, but at least how I read it, she doesn't feel any need to answer the big questions that the reader might have. And we're not going to spoil the ending, but we find out as a reader fairly early on in the novel that she's left her husband. And she never once really explains why. We know that she did it and probably something went a bit wrong, but she doesn't articulate why. I found it really liberating to read, not getting stuck up in, ‘Oh, the relationship failed’.
ADRIANE: Yeah. And I think to explore that, for me, I would have just found a bit boring. I wasn't interested so much as in why that specific relationship fell apart. I think she does briefly touch on why perhaps it happened when she's trying to open up with her father who she has not a very supportive relationship with. I think she tries to touch on it then. But for me, the scene where they break up, it is set in on Hydra and that it goes into that potential, like not why they broke up but leading to that. It was more about her fixation with something else that was going on in the yard rather than the relationship itself.
ASTRID: It was an extraordinary thing that Anja became fixated on the idea of a natural event, squid beaching themselves, I guess that's the wrong way to say it, but squids flinging themselves to their death on the shoreline of an exotic Greek tourist beach. And she found that more interesting than the people around her, than the history of the culture, or the location, or her husband, who their relationship was falling apart. It's a really interesting portrait of a fully rounded character who is not conventional and surprising. From Anja to the other women in this work, I mean, I guess there are multiple ways to read Hydra because it is so unexpected, and I'm asking questions from my reading, I guess, but there will be many more for those listening. Hydra is kind of uncontainable, I'm going to say.
ADRIANE: I love that.
ASTRID: But I did read it as you interrogating female relationships. In the background, there is Anja's mother. There is also much more in the foreground. There is Anja's school friend, Beth. There is her nemesis, who's vying for the same role at the antique... What do we call that? The antique-
ADRIANE: The auction house?
ASTRID: The auction house. Her nemesis at the auction house, which is a very funny dynamic between the two. And then there's her new boss in the knickknack store where she-
ASTRID:... washes up at a various point. She doesn't know how to interact with anyone, and I thought that was quite a wonderful choice to put into fiction.
ADRIANE: Yeah. She is fairly hopeless with her interactions with people. I think her friend, Beth, is the person who understands her best, but their relationship is somewhat falling apart. They're wanting different things in life. I think Beth is described in the book as quite socially ambitious, which is not what Anja is at all. So they're struggling with, I guess, how their relationship looks after being friends at high school and growing up together. Beth was Anja's bridesmaid at her wedding, and Anja believes that it's a one-off duty that she has turned into a lifelong commitment. So yeah, they're just trying to reassess what it is when you've known someone so long that now that you're adults... Well, the new dynamics in that relationship.
ASTRID: And the adult world is a little bit off-putting, I have to say.
ASTRID: Moving from the adult world to all of the time that Anja spends alone. She chooses to withdraw for a variety of reasons. And she doesn't just withdraw physically, shutting the doors in her own home, but she takes herself off to a relatively isolated former Navy base, falling down house where she has really no support or even internet for half the novel. That enabled you to really put her in some quite difficult situations. I guess I'd like to talk to you about how you presented her wildness and her loneliness and her fear and also her multiple decisions to embrace all of that.
ADRIANE: It was quite easy to write a woman alone on a deserted property and make that scary. That and her fears, whether she's just jumping at shadows or whether she's jumping at something that's happening, disturbingly, I found that very easy to write. I think you just put a female character anywhere by herself and perhaps because I'm a female reader, I know the potential risks in that. So yeah, that was very easy to make very creepy.
ASTRID: Well, of course, her isolation in this area brings us to the fact that she's on a naval base, well, a former naval base, and that it's an American Navy base or a base where Americans had been stationed during World War II. And there is some kind of presence, likely an animal around her. She doesn't know if she's imagining it, if it's very real, who might be putting the animal there or what the animal represents. There's a lot in there. It's a metaphor. It's talking about wildness and freedom and the utter lack of freedom that comes with the military and naval bases and all of that. Adriane, no one could have seen that coming. I mean, these aren't things that people normally put in a book together. How did you come to this?
ADRIANE: As in how did I come up with talking about the mythology around the cat and then bringing it with the Navy, and how did they all meld together? Is that the-
ASTRID: Yeah, I mean, there are other works that have got females and animals working together, symbolising a lot of things, but the Navy base really just puts it in a category of its own.
ADRIANE: Do you know what? I'd been wanting to talk about the mythology, and not wanting to give spoilers away, but there's a mythology throughout Hydra that's been very prevalent around Australian campsites and country, Australian country, for a while. And I'd always been wanting to write about it, but I never really knew how to, especially in a way that wasn't fanciful. But then I had attended a Rick Amor art gallery exhibition at Niagara Galleries, and I think that's on Punt Road in Richmond. He does these amazing Mornington Peninsula beachscapes with these looming cargo ships and this wild ocean, and everything's quite ferocious and this abandoned infrastructure. I saw this art exhibition and I was just totally taken by it. And that was how I first thought that perhaps I could get into then writing this mythology, which is separate from the artwork completely. But just seeing this exhibition, everything just grew from that point, and I knew where I wanted to set my novel and the sinister aspect of it.
ASTRID: How deep did you go in terms of, I don't know, researching military basis bases or military history or even objects of value from the military, for example, medals?
ADRIANE: On the Mornington Peninsula, there's HMAS Cerberus, and Cerberus is the three-headed dog. So it's kind of a play on the three-headed dog. I have the three-headed Hydra serpent. I've been familiar with HMAS Cerberus for a while. And it's not far. It's on the Mornington Peninsula, just south of Hastings. I definitely drove around there a bit, may have driven onto base at one stage.
ASTRID: I love that, ‘May have driven onto the base’.
ADRIANE: Yeah. It's surprisingly easy to do so because it's this actual community there. People live there. They've got a creche there. There's a golf course. There's a cinema. I remember the cinema being open when I was a kid, and you could go and see a movie there during the school holidays. So definitely, I drove around there for a bit. And I was just on their website researching the base. I had to do a lot of research into naval hierarchy because I didn't really know any of that. And then I found these documents, well, they've now since been released, but from the war, the Navy reports, and it was all a bit boring. I thought, ‘How can I spice this up?’ And that was how I got the idea for putting in those Navy documents.
ASTRID: Oh, Adriane, you certainly spice it up. I wouldn't count this novel as a mystery, by any means, but at the same time, there are elements of the structure that kind of make it feel like that at points. So potentially unanswerable question, how do you conceive of Hydra?
ADRIANE: I've thought about this a lot in the sense that I never thought of it at all whilst I was writing it, but since it's been published and doing the whole marketing thing, I've definitely been trying to come up with where it lies. And look, I honestly don't know. It does have elements of mystery, but it's not a mystery that's ever really answered. And to me, it's a changing what the reader expects from... The mystery changes as well throughout. So yeah, I mean, a lot of people have said Australian Gothic, and I can definitely see that. But at the same time, I wanted to subvert that idea. Yeah. Well, I'm just saying literary fiction because it's a nice broad-
ASTRID: Oh, look, absolutely. Literary fiction. That'll work. I mean, I can see Australian Gothic. I can see mystery. I can see even something terrible, which is not a genre, but feminist fiction or something, but it... It's not classifiable. And that brings us-
ADRIANE: Some people said horror too, and I can see that.
ASTRID: Oh, yeah.
ADRIANE: Not total horror. There's no gore. But I hope it was scary. So that's something.
ASTRID: It's very disconcerting. That brings me to my next question. What did you want to prompt in your reader? I mean, was it fear, or thinking, or just complete... I don't know. Sometimes I felt a little bit at sea reading Hydra in the sense that I had no idea if this book was going to end up with everybody dead on the floor or with the protagonist getting a real job. It could have gone either way.
ADRIANE: Yeah. I like that description, ‘at sea’. Yeah, that's perfect for it. I think what I wanted most from the reader's reaction was for them to be unsettled in their preconceptions of what they thought was going to happen. The novel explores this idea of this trusted universal order that we all have and how that can be unravelled, and I was hoping that whilst I was unravelling the character's worlds, so too could I, in some way, unravel what the reader expected from their book, what their preconceptions of literature were so that I could tear that down. And I think the manner in which I tried to do that was through the creepy, sinister. Yeah.
ASTRID: What was your path to publication like?
ADRIANE: Hydra took quite a few years to write, but once I'd finished my final draught, I sent it to Angela Meyer of Meyer Literary. She did a structural edit for me, which was absolutely fantastic. And then I sent it to Martin Shaw, my agent, well, to see if he wanted to become my agent, and he did. He's been fantastic. He is all over Twitter, which means I don't have to be. It's not my place. I don't feel comfortable there, but he is a gun at it. So yeah, that's fantastic. He sent the manuscript around, and yeah, it was picked up by Barry at Transit Lounge. And yeah, that was an incredibly smooth and collaborative process.
ASTRID: And my final question, how were you edited? I mean, you just said that Angela Meyer did a structural edit, but Hydra is quite unusual. And I guess I'm wondering what were the conversations like as you were edited? Because so much of the novel really resists the traditional approach.
ADRIANE: I think with Angela, she wanted me to tease out the ending a bit more. So particularly the final scene in the auction house, just teasing that out and making sure all of the elements come together. Her recommendation there was vital. And I think even the first chapter as well, that was a bit convoluted, so just letting me know what didn't make sense so much to her and then tightening that. And then I did a copy edit with Kate Goldsworthy, my editor at Transit Lounge, and she was fantastic at especially stuff with the timeline. I thought I had a good timeline, but she was able to poke a lot of holes in it.
ASTRID: That's what good editors do.
ADRIANE: Yeah, absolutely. She was very good at poking holes in my internet. She's like, ‘Well, have you considered that Anja had 5G? What was going on there?’ Stuff that I just didn't want to think about. She was like, ‘But what about this?’ And so, yeah, she was excellent.
ASTRID: Do you have any other work in progress?
ADRIANE: Yeah, it's interesting. I was working on something a few months back, and I got quite far ahead with that, but I've had to stop it just recently, and now I don't know if I'm wanting to go back to that. I think I'm wanting to do something else, which is a bit annoying because it took a while to work on. But yeah, who knows? I guess I'm currently in the process of moving overseas, so everything's a bit up in the air.
ASTRID: Whereabouts are you going?
ADRIANE: I'm going to France.
ADRIANE: Yeah, which is pretty exciting. I think once there, then I'll be able to sit down and think, I'll be able to focus a bit more. Yeah.
ASTRID: Absolutely. Well, good luck with that beautiful move. I once spent six months living in Paris, and it is extraordinary.
ADRIANE: Isn't it? Yeah. I'm super excited.
ASTRID: Thank you very much for your time today, Adriane.
ADRIANE: Oh, thank you, Astrid.
ASTRID: And congratulations once again on Hydra.
ADRIANE: Thank you.