At home with Briohny Doyle

Briohny Doyle is the author of The Island Will Sink, Echolalia and Adult Fantasy. Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in The Monthly, Meanjin, Overland, The Griffith Review, The Good Weekend, The Guardian, and the Sunday Times.  She is a lecturer in writing and literature at Deakin University and a 2020 Fulbright Scholar.

At home with Briohny Doyle


ASTRID: Briohny Doyle, welcome to The Garret.

BRIOHNY: Thank you so much for having me, Astrid.

ASTRID: Now, we have never actually met in person, but way back at the beginning of 2020, you gave a speech at The Stella Prize. And I remember sitting in the audience thinking, ‘I would like to talk to that woman one day’, and here we are via zoom, not in person.

BRIOHNY: That's great. Fate.

ASTRID: You have written three novels. The Island Will Sink, Adult Fantasy, and your most recent, Echolalia. Today, I would like to talk to you about Echolalia, but first, am I saying that correctly?

BRIOHNY: Ah look, there's two pronunciations, echolalia or echolalia, it's British or American pronunciation. I've been saying echolalia but you're welcome to say whatever sounds right to you, whatever feels right to you. They're both beautiful sounding pronunciations, I think.

ASTRID: Good to know. Now, basic question, but echolalia is quite a haunting word. Before we get into the substance of your actual novel, can you tell us about the word? And I did not know the meaning before picking up your book.

BRIOHNY: So, I didn't know the meaning either before I started writing about one of the characters in the book, but echolalia is a way children develop speech or lots of different children do this kind of mimicking where you might say something and then they'll say it back to you. And this can be from a really functional way to a disordered way of learning speech. But yeah, it's about the repetition of words and phrases, and that it often occurs in young children with autism, learning to speak. And sometimes it goes away and sometimes it sticks around. So yeah, when I heard the word for the first time, I've thought, ‘Oh, what a beautiful word and what an arresting concept that we learned’. We all learned through repetitions in various ways, and some of that is what I was already exploring in the novel, so I worked the title on it. It's been a little bit divisive, I heard someone on the radio being like, ‘I don't remember everything about this novel except the title seems a bit pretentious and over the top’, and then other people have really liked it.

ASTRID: As you say that Briohny, I am looking at the cover. Now, covers can often be beautiful on novels and they actually sometimes have nothing to do with the actual story and they are not created, of course by the novelist. But the cover of Echolalia is quite emotive. It's a sun setting, it's dark reds and oranges, it maybe looks a bit painful, it looks dangerous. It does make me think of climate change immediately, which is something that is present at all times in this novel, even though it is not a direct main theme. One can't escape that feeling of impending climate change, shall we say? But I'm really shocked that people think it's pretentious. I mean, you're a novelist, you get to just call your novel what you like.

BRIOHNY: It's funny though because every book that I've done, I've had arguments with someone at some point about the title. My first novel, The Island Will Sink, me and the publisher had endless discussions about what that title would be. And Adult Fantasy, which was actually a memoir-y, autoethnography thing, but we had a huge... I was writing it before it had a title and it's a huge amounts of discussion. My editor for a while wanted for me to call it The Game of Life and do a theme or a riff on that eighties board game. So, I think your titles are under deep scrutiny. And I guess, along with the ephemera, including the book cover, including the images that are associated with it, it's the first thing people encounter. So yeah, I get it, but I don't actually... Yeah, I think a lot of the time, unless you're a gun at titles, you have those discussions with your editors and publishers. Yeah, definitely, even when the book was doing the rounds of who wanted to publish it, some editors said in the meetings, ‘Are you married to this title?’ I'd be like, ‘No, I'm not married to it’.

ASTRID: It's a funny thing, I speak to a lot of readers and a lot of writers, obviously. And I know of two books, which I won't mention, but two books and the general feeling is both are very good books but one has such a beautiful cover, people keep picking it up and buying it just because it gives them a feeling of they want it, they want to go into it. And another one, also very good inside, turns people off and it's a bit shocking and no one goes near it. Interesting.

BRIOHNY: Ah, interesting.

ASTRID: That is all obviously, anecdotal but yeah, it matters.

BRIOHNY: I think it is interesting and it does matter. And it's like the cover for Echolalia, when I saw it, I was just like, ‘Oh, it's just really beautiful’. And I did have some questions, I was like, ‘Oh, do you think that it reflects the content enough?’ And they were like, ‘That's actually not the primary purpose of a cover. You know, the primary purpose of the cover is to create emotion and have someone pick something up off the shelf’.

ASTRID: And then buy it, because that is obviously the goal. Now, I did mention that the cover of Echolalia makes me think of climate change. That is because I have constant climate grief and I get distracted by the climate all of the time. However, your narrative, your story goes way beyond that. It is about family and motherhood. It is about difference in all types of ways. It is about class and it is also about white settler colonisation and what that means and still means playing out in Australia today. Did I leave anything out?

BRIOHNY: No, except for that I feel like you can't talk about all of those things and not also talk about climate crisis, because what is it but white settler colonisation and our construction and reification of the family? And when I'm talking about the family here, I'm talking about a particular vision of the family that has put us in this position of dominance over our environment or over this land that we are calling Australia and that we are doing and have been doing and continue to do all kinds of unthinkable things to. So to me, all of that is also writing about climate crisis and a big part of that as well is, ‘What does climate crisis, as a lived experience, now we're talking about it as climate crisis, before we were maybe just noticing these things in our bodies in a really embodied way, what does that do to our psychology and how we relate to one another and how we experience our lives and take up our various social roles?’

ASTRID: Your central character Emma, is a woman, a mother experiencing quite severe postpartum depression, and she makes some choices that might shock the reader. We follow her story and that of her family. In one sense, this is what your book is about, but as you just described, and as I don't hear many authors actually describe, you can't take away that individual narrative, you can't take away the experience of the central characters, of people, from what is happening to the world around us, the climate crises. And sometimes I read a book, Briohny, and I get to the end, I'm like, ‘That was amazing but also we're all going to die of climate change. Why didn't they mention that?’ Now, that reflects on me, right? This is a very personal response I'm having, but I genuinely struggle when books don't point out the big thing.

BRIOHNY: Yeah, I agree. I mean, obviously because my first book actually does engage with climate crisis more explicitly and is a work of cli-fi and it's more science fiction-y, but I don't actually think you can do realism without engaging with climate crisis now, because I think if you do so, it's like not engaging with the Internet. It's like not engaging or it's not that you have to do to explicitly engage with the Internet or explicitly engage with climate change, but if you don't have it as a part of the story, then you're missing one of the key factors of what it is to be alive right now. It's like... I always used to get really frustrated when I'd watch zombie movies and the zombies would arrive and no one's like, ‘Oh, I wonder if these are zombies’, because they will be in a contemporary setting and everyone's acting as those zombie movies and zombie genre doesn't exist.

You know what I mean? I find realist genres that don't engage with key elements of the real, to be really baffling. And I guess, it's every writer's choice to do whatever they want, but personally I find it impossible. And you know what? I didn't really explicitly set out to explore climate with this novel. When I first was thinking about it, I was thinking about critiquing and playing with the tropes of a domestic thriller because we were deep in the domestic thriller time, and I was like, These domestic thrillers are weirdly pseudo-feminist or straw feminists in a way or something like.

They seem to say that you have a monster and the monster is some patriarch or brother or some bad dude, and then the gals get together and get rid of him, and then everything's sweet. And I'm like, ‘That's not actually how patriarchal capitalism works and I would love to do a domestic thriller where the monster is actually the co-created power relations of our enmeshed responses to an existence and becomings within patriarchal capitalism, men, women, children included. But then I found that I just couldn't do that without also talking about climate change.

ASTRID: No, I don't like doing spoilers for any book and this is not a spoiler, but I do feel it's useful to set the rest of our discussion, Briohny. The book opens with a very short piece and it's like a rubbish dump, and we realise really quickly that it's actually a dried up lake, and a town has just been leaving its detritus there, and that itself is horrifying. And we also realise that a little baby has died and is there too. And this is how you open the novel, so we opened with a family's worst nightmare, the world's worst nightmare and the horrible things we've done to our world, and the reader can escape from that moment. You don't take any prisoners, Briohny.

BRIOHNY: No, I don't. And I don't bury the lead in this novel, definitely not. So, I suppose what I wanted to do was to make sure the violence of the novel was there from the first page and then to work back from the violence. So, instead of it being a situation of normalcy disturbed, that classic move, instead it's like, ‘This isn't absolutely not normal, something absolutely terrible is going on. Now, let's jump you back into a normal domestic scene, and what does having a violent image in your head do to that domestic scene a priori?’ So, we're not waiting for it to be disturbed like, ‘Everything's perfect here on Shoreline Drive. I wonder what's going to go wrong’. Instead, it's like, ‘Something horrible has gone wrong and now here we are in this domestic scene, what is the link? What are the connections?’

I'm a bossy writer in some ways, I guess. I work my readers quite hard, I think. I think that there's nothing wrong with challenging books, I think there's nothing wrong with relaxing books either, we need all the books. But as a writer, I like to keep my reader thinking, that's a goal of my work, is to challenge the kinds of ways that we think about story structure or the ways that we think about society, that's what I'm trying to do as well as obviously to keep them turning the pages.

ASTRID: I love that you just described yourself as a bossy reader. Emma, the mother, is one of the main characters and she is a woman of about my age and in many ways, my experience is nothing like hers, but in other ways, my experience is exactly like hers. And I found that a really interesting tight rope to walk in my mind as a reader. I'm like, ‘Yeah, I'm just like Emma, but also I am nothing like Emma or maybe I am and I would be if I was put in this circumstance and had to be stuck in it for a decade or so’. I don't know where I would find myself but I found it quite a tight rope to walk, Briohny, knowing I was like her but not like her. And I'd really like to discuss how you characterised her and her storyline, not spoiling it for the reader but also take on some big stuff.

BRIOHNY: Yeah, so one thing I wanted to say about women in general we know that there are a lot more options available to women now than there were 5,000 years ago or whatever. But I also do feel as though, that there is a pressure for women to know what they want and go out there and fight for it, and I actually think that that's an immense pressure, a huge pressure. I personally, was lucky. I guess I think it's just luck and a confluence of circumstances to be a young woman in a rural town who had a lot of things she wanted and a lot of strong opinions that were fostered and nurtured by my family, but also that I just had. And Emma's not like that, it's not that she's unintelligent, it's not that she's... And this is the classic word for characters that don't run in there for the fight.

It's not that she's passive, it's just that she's not quite sure yet, which I think is a completely reasonable thing to be at age 20-21, when she finally hooks up with Robert. And they've grown up in this rural centre Shorehaven, an every rural centre of Australia. And Robert is a jock, popular guy in their private school, there then at university. And he takes interest in her and the reason he takes interest in her, I think it's because he sees her as unchallenging, he sees her as all about home and not the pushy woman that he may be is dating in university. She makes him feel a number of things that he was used to feeling in his childhood, in his home, in his big fish, small pond world.

So Emma, it's not that... She falls into this life, but she doesn't fall into this life totally uncritically. Everything in culture and in society tells young women, ‘Oh wow, go and get... If you get a good suitor and you fall in love and get married, do it’. And in fact, even Emma's mom in the book is a bit like, ‘Ah, are you sure?’ But the narrative of our culture and that Australian dream narrative is far too strong, particularly if you don't already have an argument against it. So, there Emma is, she's met this guy and he's really handsome, he's very charming. His family seem very together and supportive in lots of ways that she doesn't feel supported in her family who have a different vision, but everyone's got a vision for what she should be.

And this one seems like the most luxurious, the easiest, the one with the highest status, so she doesn't really think it all through but that's because we don't think it all through. And in terms of motherhood, for instance, there's not really a critical discourse around motherhood for women in their twenties. We definitely, obviously love to vilify teenage mothers and we love to vilify mothers who we don't think have enough money, non middle-class mothers. But we definitely don't, as a culture, vilify the idea of a white woman, a young white woman starting a family with a bit of wealth behind her. That's painted as like the perfect thing to do, and it's a thing that will fulfil you, give your life all the purpose that you need, all of this stuff. So, why would she think anything else?

ASTRID: And we certainly don't have an acceptable narrative of a woman who doesn't enjoy motherhood.

BRIOHNY: Yeah. And look, Emma starts out enjoying it, she enjoys the activities of parenting to begin with, but as things develop and then she has more children, she begins to understand the expectations that go along with that, the personal expectations. She's not just expected to be doing this parenting but she's expected to be really happy all the time, she's expected to be loving every moment of it.

And then when she has a child who is a little bit different, her second child, she gets all of this criticism and all of this negativity from the rest of her family and she begins to see that as that it's like they're saying it's a personal failing of hers. And a lot of ways, they are, so she becomes hyper protective of this child. And when she has a third child and everyone's happy again because she's given them this male heir, by that time, she's been working so hard to protect her second child to protect herself, to feel okay, to show everyone that she's okay and that she's not bringing down the family because there were real like, Teamwork, let's all just get in together and make it work’.

They don't really believe in mental health issues, they don't really believe in that thing, they just believe that you tighten your bootstraps and get going. And so, she's been working so hard by that point and she's had three children in reasonably quick succession. This family has completely overtaken her sense of identity and she's just exhausted. And that exhaustion, the encroaching heat of the town, the claustrophobia of her environment, all of that are contributing factors to her postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis, ultimately I think.

ASTRID: Towards the end of the novel, there is a resolution for several of the characters. I will not spoil it here on the Garret, but her second child who is reflecting on how he felt before being separated from his mother, there is little line in there where he basically says, ‘But I always felt loved, I didn't feel like she didn't love me’, and I almost cried at that point. Some of the kids and the mother, treated terribly by society, by members of their family, by the expectations that are dumped on everybody in different ways. And she did good as a mother and she was not helped or supported even though a different part of her did very badly as a mother. I really appreciated the way you characterised Emma and her experience of motherhood. You don't pull punches, she is not rewarded by your book, but at the same time, she's not a demon either.

BRIOHNY: I didn't even want anyone to be punished, just uncomplicatedly punished. I didn't want anyone to be uncomplicatedly redeemed. It is my assessment in my, I don't know, short amount of time on this. But that's not generally how it works, and if it does work that way for someone, it's not out of fairness or justice, it's just how the cookie crumbled. So, I really wanted to show the repercussions of what had occurred but the co-responsibility of it as well. So yeah, in lots of ways, Emma was a terrible mother and lots of ways, she's a wet blanket of a person before she takes a little bit more control of her life.

But also devastatingly, taking control of her life also involves destroying the lives of others, so it's complicated. And I didn't want a really easy out for any of the characters and I also didn't want people to just forgive her and move on. There's another character, another mother in the book, the matriarch, the mother-in-law of Emma's, Pat. And she would never forgive Emma, whereas her two remaining children forgive her to some extent. But also, Emma can't forgive herself, but she also can't deny that she would continue to live and she will continue to forge a sense of identity, which is still a difficult thing for her in her forties.

ASTRID: You mentioned a few minutes ago, the setting, this fictional town, Shorehaven. As I read Echolalia, I kept thinking, ‘This is like a small Canberra’. I know it's not the heart of politics, but at the same time there's a lake, and I just kept imagining Lake Burley Gryphon all dried up and what that would do to the place. And so my question here is, for the reader, how do you create this very real town that functions? It has a hierarchy, it has a history, it has class and divisions and the rich fancy school and everybody else in that plays. How do you make that a living, breathing microcosm of humanity where we can explore these big things?

BRIOHNY: So, I'm glad you said that about Canberra because I love hearing people say, I've heard people say, ‘Oh, is it Port Macquarie?’ The people who have said a number of different towns to me, so it is in every town. I'm really glad it functions that way because I want people who grew up in those places to recognise their towns in Shorehaven, so that's the first thing. The second thing is it is based on a real town and I did grow up until I was 13, I didn't stay but until I was 13, in a rural centre, and I do have connections there and I continue to go back. I also think that in Australian literature, there is a tendency toward romanticising rural life in a way that has always made me feel a little bit ick.

I know there's lots of great small towns and I've got nothing against small towns, I probably am going to return to a regional centre at some point in my life as well. But I can see in, especially the small town that I grew up, all of the dynamics of class, white supremacy, colonial romanticism, all of that is if there in a microcosm. It's all in the cities as well, obviously, but in the small town, it's almost tableau, it's almost performed in this way that is so clear and so easy to create scenes from. So, Shorehaven, for instance, this lake is not a natural, it's a man-made lake and it was created by directing all of the natural springs in this wetland into this lake, right? So essentially, they've laid this lake over the top of what was a completely different terrain, a terrain that was not a no man's land, that was sacred and lived in and used by the indigenous owners of that land.

And they've created, instead this lake and the lake has rowing, it has sports attached to it, people walk around it. There was an Olympic event there at one stage, all of this stuff. And then the fact of it drying up because of a long standing drought means that all the fancy houses in the town or an hour around and dried up paddock [inaudible 00:22:15] around this lake. But the lake is an act of violence. Also, because small towns are small, you often do have the really rich part of town five streets from the housing commission and the more working class areas. And so, those lines are from a aesthetic point of view, easier to write. That said, I wonder if it's... I'm in Sydney at the moment and just to clarify, and I have been thinking a lot about how class manifests here. And I'm in a suburb that is in the Southeast, so it's the end of the desirable beaches and into the just gentrifying beaches.

And it's so interesting to see that... I'm looking at it, all these McMansions, but I'm also living in this old converted corner store that hasn't seen a renovation and has cracked windows, and there's a family of five living underneath me in a two bedroom apartment. The idea was that we would be able to see all of these things. I also think that in romanticising rural towns, we act as though class doesn't exist there, that it's a great old melting pot. I'm not sure, that's not my experience of it anyway, so my experience of it in rural centres, perhaps if we're talking about a fishing village, maybe things are a little bit different there. But definitely in rural centres, I feel like all of those markers of class are writ large and really do control what goes on there in really clear ways. Or it seems clear to me as a teenager.

ASTRID: I'm so glad you said that. I've noticed as a reader in the last couple of years, more writers directly engaging with the idea of class. I mean, Australia has always had class and it manifests here differently than it does in other areas of the world and it certainly manifests differently how England tried to import class, but it's increasingly becoming a theme. And I guess I just wanted to say I'm really here for it, I really enjoy reading that interrogation of what contemporary Australian society is like. I wanted to ask about your motivation for Echolalia. Now, obviously you are a writer and a storyteller, but I mean beyond that, you deal with some very difficult subject matter with grace, I have to say. But how hard is it to write? Why do you put yourself in a situation where you are thinking through really difficult things?

BRIOHNY: Yeah, good question, I don't know why I did that to myself. I had the idea for Echolalia, I started writing it, it gained momentum, I became incredibly invested in the characters. I spent a lot of time... I always spend a lot of time and I'm sure most writers do with the characters outside the work, doing lots and lots and lots of first person monologues from their point of view, all of that stuff. And so, once I'd built this whole world, there was no choice but to [inaudible 00:25:08] and write. When I wrote The Island Will Sink, I remember sitting down for six hours at a time and having a really fun time just writing and writing. This book... Obviously, it was written at a different time in my life, I had different commitments and responsibilities.

There were times when I would sit down and I would just be like, ‘Just an hour and a half, just do an hour and a half’, because it was a heavy book to write and it was heavy to sit with the characters. And it was heavy to sit with the characters and be like, ‘What would this person do or think right now?’ And some of the characters, because this book is focalized through several different family members, it's not all focalized through Emma, some of those psyches that I'm dwelling in but probably not people that I would want to have over for lunch, probably not people that I would enjoy conversing with. Certainly, there's not very many characters in the book that I see myself in. That said, I wanted the reader to have moments of empathy and moments of being appalled by every character.

I didn't want it to be as simple as, ‘Oh, Shane's a bad guy or Arthur's the good kid and he's easy or whatever’. I wanted it to be complicated but I wanted it to be compelling, so I guess one of the things about Echolalia as well is that although the subject matter doesn't shy away from our contemporary realities. And I think that that's a better way of putting it than, ‘This is a dark book’, because it's not like I'm this person who walks around only seeing the dark side of life. Things are pretty hectic and addressing them through literature, particularly at that time, felt right to me. It didn't feel right to me to write a book about teenagers having fun at the beach, it just didn't really feel right. So, okay, I wanted this sense of realism but once I started engaging in that and engaging so closely with the characters, the book gained momentum.

So, I feel like with Echolalia, it's like, ‘Yes’, it's presenting all of the difficulties of social reality as they are in our just recent past and our just about to occur future. But also, it's pacy, there's a lot going on and the movement of the book carries the reader through as well. So, it's still a work of literary fiction that will engage readers, I'm not asking everyone... When I say I want people to think about social reality, I'm not asking them to dwell and hand-bring, pulling them through what is essentially a suspenseful story and a story with lots of pacy moments.

ASTRID: Do you read reviews?

BRIOHNY: Yeah, I do read reviews, I can't help it.

ASTRID: For the listeners, Briohny just rolled her eyes and looked very pained.

BRIOHNY: I've been really happy with the reviews that this book has gotten. I've been stoked with... There's been a couple of reviews that have quoted a horror novel, and I was reading some horror and some thrillers and being like, ‘Okay, how do I make a very banal, domestic moment, feel like something out of a horror movie or a horror novel’. So, what is it with the language and pace that does that in books?

ASTRID: I believe that was Declan Fry's review in The Age Sydney Morning Herald. I found that one, you might have too.

BRIOHNY: Yeah, and there was another one as well that was like, ‘Oh yeah, she's finding moments of horror in the everyday’. And I was like, ‘Yep, that's right, that's correct. That's what I was trying to do, I wasn't thinking deliberately about that’. Which is not to say that I think that families are horror shows, but I do think that there are horrific moments and I want it also to show what happens to your psyche when you start to see things that way. And just by describing them, I wanted to show other people how it can be, how something so normal can also be so horrific.

ASTRID: Do you have any idea what topic area you might address next?

BRIOHNY: Look, I had this whole outline for this big book, a big, heavily plotted book set in the near future about... It's fantastical in a way and a bit Spec Fic, but it was about a auction to hunt the last black rhinoceros living outside of captivity. And I have character studies and I have a plot and I have a couple of draught chapters. And I've also been locked in my house for two years, it feels like. It's only been one year but I had a horrible year of grief before that. And I just haven't been able to sit back down and get into it, so it's sitting there but I've been trying to create a little bit of spaciousness in my writing practise, which is to say, I want to spend this time when I'm locked in my house again, spend this time trying to work out if I can have a writing practise that is less structured around plot and character, so to see if I can just write and play with the things that I've been thinking about and do things in elusive vignettes.

And so far, I'm still not sure so I'm writing a little bit of auto fiction, which was going better when we had a little bit more freedom and could talk to our friends and whatnot because those conversations leak into the auto fiction. And now that I'm just still alone, it's maybe a little bit more halting, so I'm just thinking at the moment about writing as practise and whether I have an entrenched practise or whether I can experiment with that practise to produce different results. I do think that in the past, it's not like I've got thousands of books behind me, but certainly after I finished one book, the ideas might continue or the concepts that I'm engaging with might continue in the next book. But I want to shake up the genre or the modality that I'm working in and I feel that again now.

ASTRID: Briohny, I wish you the best and I am looking forward to reading whatever you choose to publish next.

BRIOHNY: Thank you so much, Astrid.