Alice RobinsonClimate fictionInterviewLiterary fictionThe Garret At HomeWriter

At home with Alice Robinson

Alice Robinson is the author of two novels. Her debut novel, Anchor Point, was longlisted for The Stella Prize and the Indie Book Awards. The Glad Shout was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award and The Colin Roderick Literary Award and won the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction.

Alice's stories, essays and reviews have been published widely in literary journals, including in Meanjin, Overland, The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue Fiction Edition, Fireflies, Arena, The Australian Humanities Review and Australian Book Review. 

At home with Alice Robinson

TRANSCRIPT

ASTRID: Alice Robinson is a highly awarded writer of literary fiction, and The Glad Shout is, in my opinion, a work that can only be described as great literature. In this interview, Alice reflects on the impetus to write The Glad Shout, how she's approaching her writing craft in 2020 and what great literature she thinks will come out of this time.

Alice, welcome to The Garret at home.

ALICE: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Astrid.

ASTRID: I'm very excited to talk to you today and that is, quite honestly, because I am weirdly obsessed with dystopian fiction. I find it gives me great solace. And I know that says many, many different things about me, Alice, but I adored The Glad Shout and I have so many questions for you. Firstly, though, you wrote and published two books before 2020 happened, and I'm really interested in how your time in lockdown, and I know that you're home-schooling and I know that life is not what you expected this year because it is not like that for any of us, but what impact that has had on your writing or maybe, more importantly, your creativity.

ALICE: I think it's had a profound impact. I feel really conflicted. In some ways it's kind of illuminated all of the parts of our lives that we were already attached to, I feel that it can bring illumination to. For people who are in partnerships that are happy, maybe it's illuminated that. For people who are separating or in unhappy marriages, that's what this moment brings out. And for creative people who are already a bit neurotic and really hard on themselves and worried about their productivity like me, that's what's kind of been illuminated for me. So, part of me kind of feels like you've been gifted this year and you can't go anywhere. And at the end of that time, what will you have produced? Which I may have thought anyway in normal life, but it's kind of ramified now. Another part of me just feels so bowled over by these events or by the lack of control or by, I don't know, the grand narrative of it all that it's very hard to make sense of. So, I suppose I feel like a complexity of feeling around that and how it's impacted me.

I'm writing another book very slowly and the nuts and bolts answer to your question is that this year has been hard because it was meant to be the year that both of my kids for the first time were at school. And so, this kind of idea of how we form our relationship to our lives and to time and to what we can expect from our lives at different stages, it took me several months to really accommodate the change because psychologically for five years, I'd been preparing for this moment when my writing would be kind of returned to me in a meaningful way and it hasn't happened.

ASTRID: I just feel for you. I want to read, so selfishly, I want to read more of your work, but also, I follow you on Instagram, Alice, and you share snaps, moments in time of what it is like to work at home and home school at home. And it looks gorgeous, but also, not necessarily what we would normally think of as productivity or writing time. I recently had the pleasure of talking to Amy Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, and they both admitted quite openly that they are behind on their deadlines and their publishers are behind on their deadlines. And while the writing industry has adapted in many beautiful ways this year, the deadlines for future books, not ones that were originally going to be published this year, but for the work that was coming down in the pipeline and was supposed to be finished this year, really maybe not be. And I don't know, I wonder will the rate of publishing go down in 2021 because no one wrote this year? I don't know.

ALICE: It'd be interesting to know. I think that probably there may be, I wonder, this could be pure jealousy talking, but I wonder if there's sort of a subset of the community, the writing community, maybe childless people or, in particular, circumstances with their work who maybe it's unfortunate to be out of work, but that might've created more time than they've otherwise had. And for others, it's created less time. So, who knows, maybe it'll all come out in the wash. It would be so interesting to see.

ASTRID: It is going to be interesting to see and it's not a silver lining, but nevertheless, we can look forward to what is left to us to look forward to at this point, Alice, so...

ALICE: True.

ASTRID: Now I do want to talk to you about 2019's The Glad Shout. And one of the reasons why I want to chat with you is I'd like to explore your thoughts on this burst of climate related dystopian fiction that has been coming out for the last couple of years. And I'm referring to works by Jane Rawson, Lucy Treloar, James Bradley, recently, Kate Mildenhall, and so many others. But before we really get into that, can you introduce the listeners of The Garret to The Glad Shout, if they haven't read it yet?

ALICE: Sure. The Glad Shout is set in, potentially, the near future. It's not articulated what year. In my mind, it was probably about 30 years into the future and part of those kinds of decisions as the writer around ... On one level, you're working very, I don't know, philosophically or creatively when you're putting your work together like this. And on another level, you're working at a real nuts and bolts level. You're just like, ‘How can I make this believable? What do I need to line up to bring a reader along with me on this farfetched journey?’

And so, in my mind, that short timeframe, but it was in some ways easier to conceive of and I felt that it maybe was more believable, but readers have experienced that in different ways, too. They come to their own ideas about that. So it's set in near future in Melbourne and a huge storm has destroyed the city and a young mother in her 30s, her home's been destroyed and she ends up basically in the MCG or a stadium not unlike the MCG with her husband and small child where she has to survive.

What was interesting in the making of that story ... So the novel also is told in two timelines, the immediate moment of the aftermath of that disaster in the stadium and it also flashes back to, Isobel is the protagonist's name, Isobel's earliest memory really, and works forward in time in alternating chapters to the moment of the storm so we get the backstory as well. And what was interesting to me was to land a Melbournian family in a stadium where it's life or death, and there's not much hope potentially, what series of events did I need to create to make that moment believable? And that was kind of the joy and the intellectual rigour of putting that book together.

ASTRID: A few minutes ago, you said the word farfetched, and I kind of want to dispute that. So I live in Collingwood, which is a Melbourne suburb, and I can just see the lights of the MCG from where I live just in the distance. And when I was reading The Glad Shout, I kind of kept looking at the MCG knowing that the stadium like the MCG was what I was looking at and trying to see how high where I live was because we're a little hill and trying to see if we would get flooded and how far I would have to go through dangerous floodwaters to take refuge in the MCG, and my imagination really went where you took it, Alice. You made me look outside at the land and the streets that I live in and imagine what I would do and where I would flee to if Melbourne experienced a nightmare storm.

And it's farfetched in the sense that it hasn't happened in Melbourne and no cyclones or hurricanes are forecast for Melbourne, but we have seen Hurricane Katrina in America and we have seen people flee to stadiums and we have seen it go really badly. And, I don't know, it hasn't happened here yet, but I just dispute your use of farfetched, I guess.

ALICE: I guess at the time that I was writing it, I mean one of the great sorrows of this book really and other books like it is that when you're writing something like this, it does feel farfetched or when I was writing that particular book at the time I was writing it, it felt like potentially it was farfetched. But unfortunately, or what I saw happen in the span of the writing, which was four years, was that public discourse drawn on what was happening in the world, public discourse is responding to or narrating events, moved on so fast. And that was because we're in environmental collapse I would say. The catastrophe is real. It's happening. It's happening globally.

It's been overshadowed a little bit by coronavirus this year, but that alarmed me because when I was writing The Glad Shout initially, going back further when I was writing Anchor Point, which came out in 2015, climate change was a kind of a little bit more niche. If you rolled out that topic at a dinner party or something, you'd be kind of deeply uncool and a bit depressing, but by 2018 or '19, it was everywhere. In social media feeds, in the everyday media, people were talking about it really ubiquitously. On the one hand, that's very comforting because it indicated to me that people were taking it seriously. And on another hand, it was really alarming because it meant that the things that I had imagined, worst case scenario kind of the things that have been worrying me for a long time, but I was happy being the weird warrior, then became a cultural phenomenon and none of us want that to be true, Astrid.

ASTRID: No. We don't. We don't want that to be true and we don't want these works of fiction to ever come close to reality. Alice, a few weeks ago, I spoke to Kate Mildenhall, who recently published The Mother Fault, and she told on The Garret a very funny story of seeing The Glad Shout come out, be published in 2019 and never having met you before contacting you and kind of basically saying, ‘I think we might've written a very similar book’. How was that for you? I mean it speaks to the fact that it is becoming part of the conversation and writers are obviously engaging in that conversation, but you tell the story from your perspective.

ALICE: Oh, I think I didn't quite realise the extent of the similarities because I hadn't read Kate's book, but she contacted me, and I mean Kate's such a wonderful literary citizen. So, to be connected to her in that way was amazing and to meet her and we're friends now... I would say we're pretty good friends and that's so delightful. But to then read her book and think this is pretty uncanny. They're different in many ways. The style's different, but essentially, they're both stories about mothers trying to survive. They both feature kind of epic boat situations and the anxieties of the books are similar. And so, I mean on one level, that's very comforting.

I love that story. I don't know if you know, if you've read Big Magic. I think Elizabeth Gilbert talks about it in there, her idea about creative ideas and the little transaction she has with Ann Patchett where they both come up with the same novel idea and that's a beautiful anecdote. I really love that book about creativity. And it's a bit like that, Kate and I didn't know each other, so we couldn't have transacted the idea between us, but somehow on opposite sides of the city, two mothers scrambling about with new little kids and climate anxiety have produced these two works that are so similar in their concerns. It's beautiful. It's like finding a lost twin or something like that where you think ‘Oh, you're out there’.

ASTRID: Absolutely. I have another bookish podcast, Anonymous Was A Woman with Jamila Rizvi and we discussed your work as a kind of a brilliant trio with Kate Mildenhall's The Mother Fault, and Lucy Treloar's Wolfe Island, again, with a mother and a very different relationship with her children and grandchildren, but women put in dangerous situations and trying to figure out how to be individuals, be mothers, and surviving worlds that are physically and culturally changing, which is terrifying.

ALICE: I think there's something... I mean that was really at the forefront of my mind when I was writing that book that I'd had these babies and I was a writer, of course. And one of the things that really startled me, which I've said a number of times in talking about this book, is that when you have a child, because of the way our culture's structured, you're suddenly shunted into a space where there aren't very many men at all because they're at work. All the mums, it's usually mums at the playground pushing the swings. And I thought, ‘Oh, this is interesting’. It's like a, yeah, world populated by women and kids and there are no men around.

And yet all of the kind of exciting adventure, survivalist kind of narratives seem to feature men in them at the heart, including Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which is a book I loved and yet it's a father. And I thought, ‘Well, where are the bloody fathers in the real world?’ And so, that to me was... And I do think that mothers are heroic. Women are heroic doing this quiet labour behind the scenes that no one cares about, the culture doesn't care, but it's profound and it felt important to me to elevate that in the work.

ASTRID: I so appreciate that you love Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I do, too, and it sounds a really weird thing to say and people look at you funny, but I am totally here with you, Alice. It is a gorgeous work. And yes, I remain irritated that he wrote the mother-wife character out really early and just went with the young boy and father. Nevertheless, Cormac McCarthy aside, I am increasingly of the view that women will save us all if the world goes to shit. And I am partly of that view because I read a lot of contemporary literature like The Glad Shout that puts women in heroic situations and they have often, so often being left out of our stories in that way. So, can you tell us about your heroine, Isobel?

ALICE: Isobel, she's grown up kind of in affluence. She was brought up by a single mother who's ... Her father's out of the picture and the mother also has an interesting mother who's a kind of a Bohemian artist character. Isobel's mother, Luna is a businesswoman, basically. She's a real estate agent. So really one of the things that I'm interested in, homes and places and where we live, the domestic space, but I'm also really interested in Melbourne in this kind of, and maybe Sydney's similar, too, might be the whole nation, this obsession with real estate, with making money in real estate. And, of course, the different suburbs and things and how we relate to those as part of our identity. But the interesting thing about that in the context of climate change is, of course, that we're all completely fixated on markets and buying and selling homes.

But, of course, there's an overarching grand narrative of destruction that's just waiting there to take it all out. And I always so often think when I drive down to Williamstown or St Kilda, all of those shore front properties, which are millions and millions of dollars, surely, they're going to go first in a catastrophe and those wealthier people who own those properties, why are they not on the front lines of the pushback against climate change because they stand to lose the most? I was always interested in that tension. So, some of that's in the story via Isobel's mother.

Isobel is someone because of her trajectory, her lifespan and her age, who has grown up just on the cusp of things going seriously wrong. And so, in that sense, she finishes high school, but by the time she finishes high school, there's not an opportunity for her to go to university. She's an autodidact. She's smart, but her life's already closing down. Things are starting to go wrong culturally and socially. It's hard to go shopping, to move around the state, although there are refugees flooding in from the country towns outside of Melbourne where resources like water is scarce so they're flooding into the city. And it's just I felt when I was writing about her that it was like she had a lot of potential, but the potential to make good on that promise was really reduced by her circumstances. Even though she has been brought up with this kind of middle-class attention paid to the things that we as sort of educated middle-class women might bestow our children.

And that's how I'm raising my kids, too, in the idea that if you get a good education, you'll get a good job and you'll be okay. You'll probably be able to buy a house in a desirable suburb, and that intergenerational wealth will go on. And those skills and those ideas about what constitutes a good life are what Isobel's been endowed with, but the problem is that the world that she then has to inhabit as an adult has changed. And yeah, that's of interest to me. I often think if I really believe the things that I believe to be true about climate change, then I should be giving my children a different education and I'm not.

ASTRID: Oh, that's such a tough thing to consider. I often think, do I really believe what I think I believe because if I did, why am I not learning how to build a bunker with my own bare hands and prep?

ALICE: Yeah.

ASTRID: I'm at that point, Alice.

ALICE: Yes-

ASTRID: But I'm not doing that, am I? I am at home in a comfortable home reading books because that's what I love doing. I question myself sometimes, but I want to ask you, Alice, The Glad Shout has now been out in the world for a year. And you did win The Readings Prize for new adult fiction in 2019. And I'm interested given that our society is moving so quickly and so many things are happening to us all, has the reception to The Glad Shout changed?

ALICE: I don't think so. I mean in some weird way, it does already feel like a historic document because yeah, the world has changed. I think that idea of us, that I was interested in when I was writing the book about, I was kind of interested in this moment before the collapse, when there's still the potential to change something so that we can avert disaster and will we all, won't we? And so, The Glad Shout is this kind of like if we don't change things, then this might be a projected future. And it all seems very speculative and possible, but now it's sort of like we've had an experience of disaster. So, I don't know if the perception of the book or the way that people are reading the book has changed, except that I hear from readers that that feels so actual and so realistic, and that is really heartbreaking to me as we were saying before.

ASTRID: We both clearly appreciate a good dystopian story. Thank you, Cormac McCarthy, but I'm interested in your thoughts about why. What is it that for some readers, and I know some readers hate the genre, but what draws readers like you and I to these speculative, what-if scenarios?

ALICE: Do you know part of it for me is a sense of, it's an incredibly privileged thing to say, but I will tell you, Astrid, it's a sense of being unburdened I think. That's what I find so kind of almost neurotic about these narratives because I think if you are privileged and you're educated and you're brought up in a culture that tells you, you can do anything you want if you just work hard enough, and all of these kinds of ideas, then the extent to which you make good on the promise of your life is your own, up to yourself. You can be a self-made person. You can draw on all of this stuff you've been given and you can do something great with your life and that is an incredible pressure to actually live under.

And, on some level, I feel like the draw to dystopian narratives is the idea that all of that pressure to get a good job or to be clever in your investments or to even have a happy marriage or lovely children or all of these things that we're told that constitute having a good life, if that was all to just get blown up and all we had to do was survive, maybe that would be in a more intrinsic way to live, there would be complexities there, but maybe there's in a sense of being unburdened. I don't have to strive in that way anymore and I can just fight to live another day.

ASTRID: That's really quite profound. Thank you, Alice. Where do you place your writing to Anchor Point and The Glad Shout in contemporary literature? And I guess I mean Australia, but maybe international literature as well.

ALICE: I guess I would describe it as sort of like literary speculative fiction. People use the term cli-fi, but I don't know how well that describes it for someone who doesn't read it. It's not generic in the sense that for me, the kind of the draw or the interest is in the language still. Although, I did work very hard with The Glad Shout to come to terms with plot. I felt like as someone who had read literary fiction and probably come to writing via poetry where the focus was really on the language and on metaphor, I really didn't have a good understanding of story. And probably even writing Anchor Point, a lot of the work was about trying to work out character and plot to get beyond just the beauty of the single line, I suppose. And I tried to think about that more closely with The Glad Shout and I will continue to do that and to bring those two things together. So, I don't know, Astrid. That's a really hard question. I feel like, in a way, it's sort of not my job and I'm happy to be unburdened from that job.

ASTRID: You mentioned earlier that you are slowly working on a new novel. And am I correct in thinking that you conceived of the idea and maybe started on the work before 2020 happened?

ALICE: Yeah.

ASTRID: So how do you as a writer and a creator navigate an obviously changing world in terms of the idea that you are working on? Do you set it before the pandemic? Do you set it decades after the pandemic? This is such a change in the world. How do you find the narrative?

ALICE: That's a really good question. I think maybe I am in a little bit of a privileged position in that sense because the project that I'm working on is set all on one day and also, the 20 years or so before that one day. It's partly historic. It goes back in time, but the one-day sort of resolves the problem of what to do about the present. So, I was lucky in that sense. And at this point, the one day that I'm working on is a day before the city locks down. So, the pandemic is present in the work, but it's not a representation of our experience of it.

ASTRID: That sounds fascinating.

ALICE: Thank you.

ASTRID: Alice, I'm interested in the idea of where great literature comes from. Now great literature is subjective. Everybody will have their own opinion. I personally consider The Glad Shout great literature and I am working on a list. My mother is going to be horrified because she listens to this podcast, but I am working on a list of great pieces of contemporary literature written by women in Australia to give to my nieces as soon as they are older. And I have a niece who is just, I can tell she's going to love dystopian fiction and The Road. And she is getting The Glad Shout as soon as she's old enough. But my question is what does great literature mean to you as a writer and as someone who has the ability to draw people like me into your world?

ALICE: Maybe at some level, it's easier to answer that question as a reader. When I consider what great literature has meant to me as a kind of a reader citizen of the world, I think there's an ability... It changes you, it doesn't. It fundamentally, I just feel like even the notion of being without great literature in our life is such a sense of bereavement about that. How would you know what you think about anything and how would you understand yourself or how would you understand the world? The idea of trying to live and survive in that context is horrifying to me.

So, on some level, there is an element of both familiarity in a great work of literature where you think ... Sometimes you read the line and you think like, ‘I've always thought this, and I've never been able to articulate it to myself in this way’. And on the other hand, it extends you, like it takes you into the unknown in some way. And maybe there is something about those two components working together well, that idea that it cracks you open in some way. And it's so transcendent, isn't it, when you read a good book. It's just the best.

ASTRID: That is an excellent phrase, it cracks you open. I'm going to steal that and I'm now going to use that, just FYI. Another question, and I know these are not answerable, there's no definitive answer to these questions, Alice, but writers now are writing in an age of coronavirus or a world that has changed and has new terrors this year that maybe didn't exist before. It famously took John Steinbeck about a decade to come up with The Grapes of Wrath and he was reflecting on the Great Depression and the drought and the horrors of the 30s in Midwest and the East Coast of America. A decade is a long time. I suspect we're all going to get books published in one, two, three years, but what type of ideas or themes do you think writers might turn to, to explore 2020?

ALICE: Hmm, that's a really hard question. It's interesting though. I think it comes back to that, what we were talking about at the start of the interview when I was saying that it's illuminating all of these things that we already hold a relationship to, and those things are personal for everyone. But, of course, the great unifying theme of this year I think is this sense of interpersonal relationships being truncated in some way or controlled or prevented.

And so, there is a sense of us all being separate from one another, but there's also perhaps a renewed focus on domestic spaces. This is one of the interesting things that I've been thinking about this year and I think it's not unique to me, but the way that we've been returned to our homes and that suddenly, our home has become the most important place and that our relationship with it ... I noticed, I live in an apartment, and that all the apartments around me that I can see from my balcony suddenly, they've all got plants growing there where before, there was nothing. Because often, apartment life is the purview of people who are going out to work. Actually, you live in an apartment because you expect not to be there that much I think on some level, and this year has changed that for me and for everyone, I think.

And I think one of the other things that I've been thinking about in this way, and maybe it speaks to your question about what kind of literature we'll get, there's this kind of cultural, historical idea and I think we can all agree it's a crap idea, but an idea that women's writing is less important than writing done by men, less literary, less accomplished, less interesting maybe. And whenever I say this, people are very quick to give examples of both genders who don't fit into these categories. But I do nonetheless think that we can all agree that women writers have been subjugated in some way because of the subject matter often, because they're writing about domestic spaces and domestic life, about love and children and marriage, and all of these topics, which are actually the stuff of life. And I often think why don't more men, especially young men, read books by women? Because if they want to know how women think and what women think about, all you need to do is read fiction. It's all right there, but... I've been thinking about this idea and I mean this is the year of the domestic. We're all at home all the time. And so perhaps, the writers who've before been instructive in ideas about politics or about even landscape and all of these kinds of things, it's not their time. It's not their purview. It's the time for writers who are writing about conversations around kitchen tables and dealing with children and unhappy marriages or these kinds of things. I wonder if it... yeah, it's the time for women writers to step up and tell those stories with authority.

ASTRID: I love the fact that you just used the phrase women writers and the word authority in the same sentence. I agree with you. Yes, there are exceptions and we could all point to them, but women's writing has been shunned for centuries. And it's only in the last couple of decades, it started to get to... come close to maybe one day seeing over the hill, the potential for equality with men's writing. And it hadn't occurred to me, that idea of 2020 being about domestic spaces and the personal interior lives that we have at home and with those people that we live with. God, that would be good. You've just made my day. Alice.

ALICE: Thank you.

ASTRID: I cannot wait to read that literature. And yeah, you've actually just given me a whole idea I've never had before, Alice. Thank you.

ALICE: My pleasure.

ASTRID: I know writers don't like to talk about necessarily their great work that they are working on at the moment. I'm not going to ask you about the novel that you're working on, but I am interested in whether you have been, I don't know, journaling or kind of chronicling what life is like in 2020. Have you been capturing it in other ways or writing for yourself, even if that's not with the intention of publication?

ALICE: Yeah. I've written lots of notes. I think the Instagram is one way of kind of keeping a record of some kind. And part of that is also about, one of the great joys of social media when it's used well and thoughtfully, I think is that it is like a portal into that domestic space that's otherwise invisible. And I think, especially in parenthood, I've found that to be really important because you're doing all of this profound work, it feels, and it does feel like work at times and it does feel profound at times, and it's invisible to everybody, but it's sort of the stuff of life. So that's one way of capturing this strange time.

Yeah, lots of notes, lots of writing to friends, trying to talk about it. I'm really interested in talking about it. I feel that there's, with some people, there's a sense of fatigue. They don't want to keep engaging about how the pandemic is for everyone, but I've found it really fascinating. And partly, yeah, because it's speaking to the things... yeah, it's elevated the stuff about everyday lives in all of these different ways that's really fascinating to me. So yes, I've been keeping notes. I can't wait in 10 years' time or however long it takes to read accounts of this time though.

ASTRID: She might keep us all waiting, but nevertheless, I'm sure it will be brilliant by the time we get it. Alice, thank you so much for chatting to me today. And can I also say for everybody listening, we are recording this on a Saturday because we are still in Melbourne lockdown and time no longer has any meaning. Thank you, Alice.

ALICE: Thank you, Astrid.