Anna Krien is the author of the award-winning Night Games and Into the Woods, as well as two Quarterly Essays, Us and Them and The Long Goodbye. In 2019 she moved from non-fiction to fiction with her first novel Act of Grace.
Anna’s writing has also been published in The Monthly, The Age, Best Australian Essays, Best Australian Stories and The Big Issue.
In 2014 she won the UK William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, and 2018 she received a Sidney Myer Fellowship.
ASTRID: Anna Krien is an award-winning journalist, essayist, poet and now, novelist. I thought about repeating Anna’s awards in this introduction but then honestly there are too many of them, so suffice to say Anna received the Australian Press Council award at the precocious age of 18 and it has only been up from there. Anna welcome to The Garret!
ANNA: (Laughs) Thank you very much for having me. I have to say, I did get a cheque with that Press Council award when I was eighteen and it went straight to paying off my best friend’s Dad’s car which I wrote off. So…
ASTRID: That’s a great use of… (laughs)
ASTRID: Well done at eighteen for even being able to pay off that kind of debt.
ANNA: Yep, true. True.
ASTRID: Now Anna, I have enjoyed your non-fiction for years. You’ve written on the environment, animal rights, the climate and coal, as well as gender in sport and binge-drinking in Indigenous communities. These are big topics and I have enjoyed everything you’ve written, but what are you most proud of?
ANNA: (Chuckles) Um… oh gosh. Um…
ASTRID: Just to start with the hard question.
ANNA: Yeah! I’m not saying this fishing for compliments or anything, but to tell the truth I don’t look back. Sometimes I have actually read some of my work just to refer to and it doesn’t even really feel like me who I’m reading, it just feels like someone who’s put some books out.
Anna: So, I don’t… I mean I just don’t feel proud of my work, but that’s not to say that I don’t value it. But I just think it’s what I do.
ASTRID: Alright, I might rephrase the question a little. Given that you do have a very impressive non-fiction record behind you, as a writer and a journalist what has been the piece or the longer work that has attracted the most attention or maybe criticism?
ANNA: I would say Night Games was my most successful work of non-fiction largely because it went into the UK as well and it got quite a big award there. So, it was widely read and even though it was an Australian story I think people everywhere all over the work recognised the same behaviour in their own sporting codes. I guess that was probably my most successful book, but it’s been quite interesting because my first book was Into the Woods where I spent time at a blockade in Tasmania and hung out with loggers and politicians and company directors. And there were quite a few people who didn’t like me when that came out, but I’ve actually just been on the road again popping into blockades for the Adani coalmine project and some of those people have actually come up to me and said hello and said that they’ve changed their minds.
ANNA: That they’ve reread the work and with a little bit of time between the work and now they’ve come around and seen it from a different perspective. And I think that was really interesting and that was quite nice to hear.
ASTRID: I can only imagine! And affirming as well.
ASTRID: And you’ve just got back from Adani? Are we allowed to mention that?
ANNA: Yeah, yeah I just got back from Camp Bimbi which has been a long-running blockade on the ground trying to stop Adani from building their railway and starting works at the proposed mine site.
ASTRID: Is that research for short-form or long-form?
ANNA: I actually just filed a piece for The Saturday Paper this morning after typing it from 3 a.m.
ASTRID: The life of a journalist!
ASTRID: (Laughs) I’m looking forward to reading that one Anna. Now, the first work of yours that I actually read was your Quarterly Essay. Listeners of The Garret know I’m obsessed with the series. That was Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals. That was a brilliantly executed essay in a series that I love. But Anna, now that I’ve met you face-to-face I just wanted to tell you that you’ve kind of haunted me—in that work I learnt that the first transgenic pig was called Astrid and that has stayed with me (laughs).
ASTRID: In a quite uncomfortable way, I have to say (laughs).
ANNA: (Laughs) Oh, I’m sorry about that.
ASTRID: Oh, totally not your fault Anna. I just wanted to let you know that you put things out…
ANNA: I’ve made a mark.
ASTRID: You made a mark.
ASTRID: And I know I’m anthropomorphising the pig etc… but nevertheless it stayed with me. But despite your track record of non-fiction which is truly superb, I want to talk to you about Act of Grace which is your first novel. It seems silly calling a debut novelist because you have been writing substantial works for a long time.
ANNA: It is weird, isn’t it? It’s a weird thing to go, ‘you’re a debut novelist,’ and I’m like well not really… but I guess I am, yeah.
ASTRID: This is, I guess your first large-scale foray into fiction, but not into writing. For listeners who have not yet read Act of Grace can you give us the elevator pitch?
ANNA: Oh my God, the elevator pitch (chuckles).
ASTRID: A bad corporate phrase that I just used.
ANNA: No. I actually tried to explain it to a friend the other day on a walk and she stopped me and put her hand her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Anna I’m going to read it because I love you, but I’m never going to read it based on that pitch,’ so… (laughs)
ANNA: So, I’ve tried to improve it since then. But Act of Grace, the actual title is based on military compensation payments which Australia is known to do and has done when we’ve been in Iraq and Afghanistan. When, say, a civilian is caught in friendly fire or accidentally hurt as a result of something Australian troops have done, they may be offered a compensation payment which is called act of grace. I learnt about these payments when I did a story on a whole bunch of veterans who’d come back from Iraq and one of them told me about the act of grace payments. And being a writer I kind of recoiled at the name of the payment, because in my mind I feel like Australia’s decision to go into Iraq, and this confected hunt for weapons of mass destruction, and the politics at play at that time were so disgraceful and I really do think put in motion seeds that we’re now reaping today: fake news, Trump politics and that kind of thing. So, when I heard that these payments are called act of grace it locked into me, I was like is it possible to have an act of grace in such a disgraceful war? And that sort of carried the book along, and I guess there’s a series of acts of grace throughout it: there are moments between strangers, brief moments of humanity and I guess through my characters searching for how we can be better and stronger people.
ASTRID: When I started reading Act of Grace, I did not know what it referred to—it becomes clear, of course, in the course of the novel. And I also recoiled for slightly different reasons. I mean, grace in its original sense is such a beautiful word implying such a beautiful and an act of grace is not—it’s a horrendous thing that happens because something else horrendous has happened. It’s just trying to paper over a deep wound which doesn’t really work.
ANNA: Yeah, and I mean just the idea that you can call a payment—say, $2500 US dollars to a family for accidently maiming a child—it’s kind of outrageous. And sometimes you have to wonder how bureaucracy comes up with this stuff (laughs).
ASTRID: I don’t know if I can force myself to wonder that Anna. I wanted to say to you while we’re recording that I read a lot and I think Act of Grace is one of the most accomplished Australian novels I read this year. And I say that because, first off you’re a beautiful writer, but more to the point in my reading there are three main narrative threads in this—maybe more—and each of those individual narratives has more depth and nuance than most whole novels that are published, so congratulations.
ANNA: (Laughs) Thank you Astrid.
ASTRID: (Laughs) No, I really mean that. I’d like to talk to you about those threads and the different narratives—how did you find them? Which ones came first?
ANNA: Hmm who came first? I think Toohey came first.
ASTRID: And he’s where you start the novel.
ANNA: And he’s where I start the novel. Toohey is an ex-soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s a scary man—he’s quite brutal, he’s very tense—and as a result his wife and son are quite vigilant around him, are very alert to his moods. He has shrapnel in his neck and his son has learnt to watch the shrapnel in his neck, and when it starts to quiver and move, and pus starts to come out he gets the sense that an explosion is coming. Toohey also has tender moments and soft moments. I think he’s a man that has never really been allowed to feel things—to express his emotions—and his lack of relationship with his son is the sad result of that kind of upbringing. When if you’re a man who’s not in touch with your feelings and doesn’t feel brave enough to express them, then you’re not going to have a relationship with your children.
ASTRID: You’re not and that’s complicated by the fact that Toohey is a returned soldier having served multiple tours at the behest of Australia.
ANNA: That’s right, that’s right. And I did quite a lot of reading about PTSD and came across some interesting points made by people in the field who said it really does have an effect if a war is moral or not. If a war is immoral, it can affect the people who have been forced to fight in it—it can affect their homecoming, it can affect the way they try and live with their experiences and what they’ve done. Yeah, I think Toohey gave life to that ambiguous service that he did in the name of Australia.
ASTRID: Yeah. There are very strong themes linking all of the narratives, including and not limited to identity, violence in different forms, and intergenerational trauma. They are strong themes. Did you know you were going to write a novel about such themes? Or did the characters come first, and were they the vehicle for the theme?
ANNA: No, I didn’t know where they were going. I did a lot of research—I got quite obsessed with the Iraq war and Afghanistan and read everything for about a year—But I’d never actually intended to write any scenes based in Baghdad, my idea was that it was all just a background to Toohey. And then one day I sat down and wrote Saddam’s horses and that was completely unexpected, I never would’ve sat down and said, ‘yeah Saddam is going to be in my book.’
ASTRID: And he is, as is his son Uday.
ANNA: That’s right, so that was actually kind of thrilling because it was such a leap from what I expected to do. There were a couple of moments [with] another character Robbie and I could kind of feel where she was going in her story and I could also feel like I was also very worried about going there. And there were a few moments when I was trying to talk myself down, going no, no, no, no, no.
ASTRID: So why were you worried?
ANNA: Well just because of, you know, there’s a lot of talk about cultural appropriation, there’s a lot of talk about—and rightfully so—about not writing other people’s trauma and stepping back and letting other people from other cultures tell their stories. So, I could blame it on the character Robbie but in reality, it’s my responsibility. But I could see what was happening and there were a few times when I actually lay in bed trying to change the direction of Robbie and I just couldn’t—I just knew that she was what I wanted to write and her journey was what I wanted to write. And I guess it was a typical me thing to do.
ANNA: I think I wanted to show that you can’t split these stories, that there’s black stories and there’s white stories and the story of Australia is very, very tangled.
ASTRID:: The story of Australia is a big mess. So, we mentioned Toohey, there’s Nasim
who of course begins in Baghdad and ends up in Australia, and there’s Robbie who you’ve just mentioned. I’d like to talk about both of them, but can we start with Nasim?
ASTRID: Also known as Sabine, depending on where we are in the novel. Her story resonated the most for me. How did you find yourself writing the story of an exiled Iraqi poet, for want of a better of a better description?
ANNA: Iraqi pianist you mean?
ASTRID: Pianist sorry.
ANNA: I don’t know, that was a leap of faith and I really just have to give credit to the process there and give credit to my obsessive nature of research.
ANNA: I must have done way more than was necessary, so much that I actually felt that I could write Baghdad and therefore Syria when she travels into Syria—not only that I also felt confident enough to write about the Saddam Hussein dynasty quite closely. It was just an incredibly liberating moment, I think. I think there was a moment of, so this is fiction (laughs).
ASTRID: (Laughs) Says the accomplished non-fiction writer. This is a strange question, but this is where I wanted to discuss with you—you mentioned before you did more [research] than necessary. I’m not sure if we can quantify what’s necessary, there’s obviously historical fact and reality that you need to represent, and I think that you do. But I had a question about Sabine when she’s finally in Australia and she decides to watch the execution of Saddam Hussein. And as a reader I was engrossed in your words and the story and what she is feeling, and I was also thinking, the little intellectual part of me is like, ‘holy fuck Anna went there! Did she really watch this?’ So, I want to ask you, in your research you describe the scene where she’s having quite a moment. Did you watch the execution of Saddam Hussein?
ANNA: Yeah, yeah.
ASTRID: This is a strange conversation that we’re having but you wrote it beautifully and it felt very intimate from her perspective and how she feels and what brought her to make that decision finally which she had been avoiding for a variety of great reasons. I guess, in addition to Robbie you are writing a different here—you’re writing the story of a refugee, of a migrant who is Iraqi—but it’s so… Anna, I don’t know what my question is here. Nasim’s story resonated and I guess maybe I’m scared for you about how people will respond as well. I don’t know (laughs).
ASTRID: Did you find yourself worrying that people would think about cultural appropriation with Robbie but not Nasim or both?
ANNA: Oh no. I mean there was a moment when a friend (chuckles) I briefly gave her a draft—and the first story’s about Toohey and his son and wife and that’s an Australian story, and the second story is about Nasim in Bagdad—and my friend, she’d just finished the second story. And she was like, ‘I just want to ask you about why you think you’re allowed to write the story of Bagdad?’ And I just started laughing and I said, ‘hey, by the way, can you just stop reading? Because it’s going to get only worse from here’.
ASTRID: Don’t say worse, I don’t think that’s the appropriate word.
ANNA: (Laughs) But if you’re going to have those questions, then they’re going to amplify as the book goes on because these are the questions that I’m thinking about as a writer. And I do love novels that I can see a reflection in which is why I love Christos Tsiolkas’ novels, because I feel like he’s writing Australia—not the Australia that is far away in a gothic town and kind of mythical—but he’s writing the ugly, in your face, brazen Australia. And I really appreciate and respect that kind of portrait and to me I felt the same way, I felt like I can’t ignore the conversations that are going on right now, but I’m also not going to resist who I am and the thoughts that I have and how they come out in my writing process. And I want to unpack that, and I think these issues do need to be unpacked and especially in a literary way. I mean, I’ve been so shocked to find that the Iraq war is not even in the literary canon in Australia. No one’s even written about the Iraq war and very few people have written in literature about the Vietnam war. It’s like we just let America have those stories, but we were there too, and we bear a responsibility. And I think the literary canon also has a responsibility to show Australia as it is—not how we want it to be, nor an easy way either. I think it’s complicated. I think the world is a complicated place and I love literature that reflects that.
ASTRID: I agree on multiple levels and I would just like to add that, for example, Toohey’s story—which as you said is the more traditional Australian story in terms of what has been written so far—his story isn’t complete without understanding it in light of Nasim’s story and Robbie’s story.
ANNA: That’s right.
ASTRID: So, you can’t just have one. The narratives collide at various points in different ways and to different extents, but they add meaning to each other.
ANNA: Yeah, as do the narratives of this country.
ASTRID: So, tell me about the structure of the work. Unless I’ve missed something, it was kind of near the mid-point of the middle chapter where those narratives did start to collide.
ASTRID: So how extensive was your plotting and planning?
ANNA: I guess that was an afterthought, in like how does this actually chronologically work? There were definitely some moments where I spent a whole day going, oh God, who was born when? and there are so many different times. So Nasim sort of spans this incredible time of Bagdad from the ‘70s through to now, and then there’s the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. So, the timing was tight especially towards the end where I write about North Dakota and the pipeline protests. So then I was like, I’m really locking myself into certain points in history and I had to make sure that all the characters actually did fit to those points in history. And that was tricky. But it was kind of fun, because I guess it’s like continuity on a film—you’ve just got to make sure everything’s in the right place. There were moments when Robbie’s mum has put a profile on an online dating service and then we realised that it had to be one of the earliest online dating services that there ever was.
ASTRID: (Laughs) Can’t be Tinder.
ANNA: Yeah so, I think we went with eharmony and that was a great moment when my editors came to my rescue, because I think I just had something like… I can’t even remember the names now.
ASTRID: A new one.
ANNA: A new one. So that’s when I had these fantastic editors looking at the work and saying, ‘nope, that’s not going to work for that time,’ and ‘a phone would actually be a brick in that time,’ and all those things had to be done. But they were afterwards, I didn’t let those things stop the flow.
ASTRID: So how long did it take you to write?
ANNA: I officially started to launch myself into it after my second boy was born, Valentino and so that was five years ago. Because I thought, hey I’ve got two babies (laughs).
ASTRID: (Laughs) Why not tackle Australia’s great story?
ANNA: My thinking was that I wouldn’t be able to go on the road so much and I wouldn’t be able to have long conversations with people and interviews, and my thinking was pretty spot on with that. But I think it took me about a year to get the muscle working—I think my non-fiction muscle was incredibly fit and incredibly trim and knew how to do a job, knew how to write a story and my fiction muscle was all flaccid and like uhhhhh.
ANNA: And I didn’t trust it and I didn’t know… it took me a year I reckon to understand how it worked again and delve into it.
ASTRID: So, in that year as you were essentially exercising your muscles, was this the work that you always worked on or did you try your hand at short stories or different ideas for novels?
ANNA: Well there were some skeleton stories that I was basing these characters on—I was sort of leaping from them. And so, Act of Grace by the end of the final draft was probably another third in size, so quite a lot of it got culled and rightly so.
ASTRID: Was that by you or by your editor?
ANNA: Both, yeah. There was a moment when my editor said, ‘Anna, this has gotta go,’ and I thought about it and took it on a chin. And there was a moment when I said to him, ‘Chris, this just has to go,’ and he actually had a moment where he wasn’t sure if he could let it go and then we realised, yep it should definitely go. So, there were about four extra chapters that went, and I think it was a good decision. And then, so the fiction muscle was working. A couple of times I got scared, so I would run off and do a Quarterly Essay and try… (laughs)
ASTRID: (Laughs) Because they’re just like an easy thing to do.
ANNA: Yeah, really easy. Yeah. (Laughs).
ASTRID: Do you have another one of those planned by the way?
ASTRID: Just checking. Anyway (laughs).
ASTRID: So, I mean you just mentioned that you were a mother again and realised that you couldn’t go on the road and therefore fiction looked a bit more manageable, but was there any other impetus in moving to fiction? I mean, it allows you to express yourself and explore things in a different way, but—this is not mean to be a leading question—but I almost read this as kind of an act of political defiance maybe? (Laughs)
ANNA: (Laughs) Maybe in hindsight, maybe there’s something to be said there. When I decided to do it, it was more of if I don’t do this now I’m just going—because the journalism just keeps stacking up and the stories keep stacking up and it doesn’t end—and I was just like I’m going to be one of those people who in their sixties says, ‘I used to write short stories, yeah. And then I got into this and this,’ so I was just like, do it now or it’s not going to happen. But now in hindsight when I think about it, and when I think about how I feel about journalism at the moment—the state of affairs at the moment is really frustrating, journalism is frustrating, it doesn’t really seem to matter even if you put the facts down on the page, corruption doesn’t matter it’s just mateship and no one’s calling anyone out anymore and that’s really frustrating. So I do think there’s something going on in my head, I’m not yet sure what but I am frustrated with journalism, I’m frustrated about the lack of respect for facts, I’m frustrated that we have a government that often lies and gets away with it as well as political players who have obvious conflict of interest. I find that really frustrating, as I think many people do.
ASTRID: Around the world.
ANNA: Around the world, yeah and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. So perhaps I could cross the line in fiction where I couldn’t in journalism.
ASTRID: That’s a really interesting point and I guess it speaks to the potential power of stories for someone to carry around with them and not react against it or engage with it in a different way than they might if they read it in the newspaper or wherever they get their news stories. We’re recording this Anna before the book is released, but I’m interested in how, if at all, you’re preparing yourself to talk about this in public given that you’re well-practised talking about facts, you’re well-practised talking about tense non-fiction stories or contested stories. This is fiction, which is safe in one sense and opens you up to criticism in a whole set of new areas. I don’t know, personal self-care, how are you bracing for it?
ANNA: I imagine people will love me and hate me but that’s sort of normal—I feel like every time I’ve put something out people love me and hate me. I imagine people who I would naturally assume to be my allies will probably be the most critical.
ASTRID: And why is that?
ANNA: Because it just always is the way with my work (chuckles). With Into the Woods I was attacked by environmentalists, with Night Games I was attacked by feminists, with Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals people tried to attack me who were vegans and stuff like that. So, I’m kind of used to getting a bit of a kickback from the people who I naturally feel comfortable with. So, I’ve just gotten used to that. But there are times when you get a bit oversensitive and I think that’s just a good moment to have a sleep and play a game of basketball and then sort of sweat it out on the court (laughs).
ASTRID: (Laughs) Why not? Now Act of Grace is published by Black Inc. Black Inc. obviously is part of the Schwartz Media stable of publications which includes the Quarterly Essay which you’ve written two of, you write for The Monthly and The Saturday Paper—all part of Schwartz Media, a company and a media outlet that I have a great deal of respect for. But I do have a question because Black Inc. is not known for fiction.
ASTRID: So, what was the process there of deciding to stay with not a fiction house for want of a better description?
ANNA: So, I basically stay with my editor who is Chris Feik.
ASTRID: You have a very serious expression on your face right now (laughs).
ANNA: Yes—where he goes, I go—and I am knitted to him in a way that even if he wanted to get rid of me, I am not going anywhere. He is such an astute, vigorous, considered editor. He’ll go to the very end of the wire with you and if he thinks there’s something wrong, he won’t let it pass, he’ll take it up with you even though every else is exhausted and just wants to go to bed. Chris Feik will say, ‘I think this is a problem, we need to work on it’. I have so much trust in him, I feel like he has my back and I feel like he holds my work with real integrity and concern. I feel like he only wants the best to go out and I don’t actually think that’s that common in the industry. I think I’ve actually found quite a special editor and so the poor guy has to do everything with me. I’ll write a poem and I’m like Chris can you read it? And the poor guy’s probably like, ‘fuck off Anna! Leave me alone’ (laughs).
ANNA: Yeah, if I’ve had his eyes on something, I feel okay. I feel like it’s ready. But I have yet to trust another editor’s eyes as much as I trust his.
ASTRID: That is a beautiful compliment for Chris and I really want to interview him. He is always spoken of by writers with reverence.
ANNA: Yeah, definitely. And sometimes I wonder if it’s because writing is not his first love—I think his first love is music. And after the election we had a big chat and we were talking about how do you stay afloat in such times? And he’s like, ‘well, I find it’s good to do something with your hands and I’ve been working on my guitar,’ and that kind of thing. I think he has a levity and a distance from writing because of those kinds of things and that attitude, and I think it gives him great perspective.
ASTRID: So, Anna, Act of Grace is now out in 2019. I know you’ll continue to write short pieces of non-fiction, but your next big work—what are you going to tackle?
ANNA: At the moment there’s so much out there to tackle in the world, it’s a bit hard to know what fire you ought to go to. It feels like there’s a lot to report on, there’s a lot to observe, there’s a lot to explore—I have a list.
ASTRID: You have a list? I’m impressed (laughs).
ANNA: I have a list (laughs). And the other day a friend said, ‘well that must feel good. Act of Grace has gone to print’. And I was like, yeah, it’s good it’s off the list.
ASTRID: So, is the list full of fiction or non-fiction ideas?
ANNA: Both and more and other things as well—other jobs as well other than writing.
ASTRID: Ooh, I’m very excited.
ASTRID: Anna, thank you so much for talking to me today.
ANNA: Thank you Astrid for having me.