Kate Mildenhall tackles the big questions. In this interview she considers how to write about our rapidly changing world (including about climate change and online surveillance), the role of writers in this time of crisis, and whether or not there could be a sequel to her dystopian literary thriller.
Kate is a writer, teacher, and the mind behind the novels Skylarking and the utterly brilliant The Mother Fault.
Kate mentions her mentor Charlotte Wood and her phenomenal work The Natural Way of Things. You can listen to Charlotte unpick the craft behind that work with Astrid here.
* And apologies for the quality of Astrid's audio. Astrid set her recording settings wrong, and will have to live with this embarrassing podcaster tech failure for quite some time to come. Kate, on the other hand, who is co-host of The First Time Podcast, set her's correctly and perfect.
ASTRID: Kate Mildenhall is a writer, teacher, and the mind behind the novels Skylarking and the utterly brilliant The Mother Fault. In this interview, Kate tackles the big questions. She considers how to write about our rapidly changing world – including climate change and online surveillance, the role of writers in this time of crisis, and why a strong female lead is just as important as ever.
Welcome to The Garret, Kate.
KATE: Thank you, Astrid. I am so excited.
ASTRID: Now, I love seeing into your home. We are recording via Zoom, and I can see that you are in your study, that I do sometimes see you posting about on Instagram or Twitter. And you have green around you, and you have – as we all have now, one of those LED ring lights, I've got one here too – and you have all of these notes, or drawings, or scraps of ideas pasted on the walls all around you. It just looks like this creative hub.
KATE: It's so amazing. And can I just say that it was finished just before Lockdown 1, and I have never been so relieved to have a separate space with a lockable door in my entire life. Now, obviously I've shared this space, because we have two school aged children and my partner has been home as well, but it has been incredible to have this space. And I have already, like you said, we actually put pinboard on all the walls. I got it something like third hand through someone at RMIT actually, so that I could pin things all over it. And I love it, because I've never had this before, because I used to just work on a table in a very small corner of the lounge room. So, it feels like total luxury.
ASTRID: You were living the room of one's own dream.
KATE: I really am.
ASTRID: Now Kate, you have published two books, Skylarking in 2016, and now The Mother Fault in 2020. Absolute congratulations. That is…
KATE: Thank you.
ASTRID: … just wonderful. As I so often do, before I interview someone, I sit down and read their work. The Mother Fault… It's extraordinary. It's disturbing and kind of speaks to whatever comes after 2021.
KATE: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. And I didn't mean for that to happen. I didn't mean for it to be quite so timely.
ASTRID: This is not a year you want to be timely for a bunch of reasons. But, now this is a really obvious question, Kate, but I do feel that it's important, how on earth do you talk about a book, particularly a book that speaks to the moment, shall we say, in the middle of a global pandemic?
KATE: Well, it's been slightly challenging. But one of the incredible things has been like those people who had to release books in March and April, I just… apart from just continuing to kind of tweet about them, what else can you do? I think that was terrifying.
And the thing that I feel so grateful for is that, my gosh, the way the bookshops, the way that festivals, have all switched online so that I've got all these events booked. I've got lots of stuff going on, which is really exciting. The thing that obviously I am missing the thought of so much is being in bookstores and speaking to people. Zoom is great and all those events are great, but there's also that moment when they end, when you've done an event and then the little end meeting thing comes up and then it's all gone and you're like, but now I want to go to the bar and talk to everyone about everything that's happened. Both as someone with a book coming out, but also when I go to other people's launches, like that whole sense of community is what I'm so missing.
But I think, I've spoken to a couple of people at my publishers at Simon and Schuster as well, and what I think is exciting is that people are still reading, and they're reading a lot. Thank goodness. And so, publishers and bookshops and the festivals and everyone else have really just turned it around really quickly. I'm not going to use the ‘P’ word, but they've really adapted very quickly. And I think there's really exciting stuff happening. So, I'm enjoying that part of it.
ASTRID: So, give us the 30 second elevator pitch. Give us a 30 second intro to The Mother Fault, because I don't think I can do it justice.
KATE: I'm still working on this Astrid, and I've had to do this so many times and like record myself for little book videos, and I still haven't got it exactly right.
The Mother Fault is set in a not too distant future Australia. So, it's very much like Australia that we know now, except that the Department is in charge and they have a strategy of total surveillance. So, everyone is chipped in this particular society. The story is about Mim, who's a mum. She's worked in geology all her life. She's got two kids and she hasn't been working since they've been born, so for the last kind of ten years. And the book opens as her husband, Ben, has gone missing from an Indonesian mine site. So, she tries to find out where he is, ask some questions at the Department, and the Department basically threaten her. They threaten to take away their kids, and that sets Mim off on this kind of series of increasingly desperate decisions to try and keep the kids safe.
ASTRID: Now, your first book Skylarking was literary fiction, historical fiction. What genre do you yourself place The Mother Fault in?
KATE: At some stage, very early on in the piece, I was like, what do you call this literary dystopian, thriller, romance, sailing adventure. Is that a genre? Which I don't think it is. I think at the moment they're going for literary thriller. And there's this weird thing, don't you think, about the whole idea of dystopia or cli-fi or any of those genres is that people – I remember Lucy Treloar talking about this with Wolf Island – is that people are like, oh, we're not going to call it dystopia or all let's avoid cli-fi. And I find it frustrating, and it's interesting as a writer to try and work out, but that would be helpful for me to be able to explain it as such. But then there's all this other pressure that comes from publicity and bookshops and the rest of it who say no, don't call it that because then it will be put on a different shelf. So, it's really interesting.
ASTRID: Yeah. That's why I ask. I mean, I am a long term lover of speculative fiction, of fantasy, fiction of dystopian fiction, which unless you're Margaret Atwood, many writers who write in those genres get pigeonholed and in Australia sometimes sell less. Now those genres are very popular on the international market and in other English-speaking markets, but they are frowned upon in Australia. And yet Kate, so many of the most interesting, literary, just commercial bestsellers are now really viewing into that speculative fiction dystopian area.
I've seen The Mother Fault described as a futuristic thriller, as a visionary thriller. When I thought, how am I going to describe this? I came up with a new future Australian dystopia or-
ASTRID: Or near future speculative fiction set in Australia or something. But I guess what I wanted to kind of unpack with you, given this as a podcast on writing, is when you were writing it, when you were editing it, when you were inhabiting this story, there are elements to great fiction and there are elements to speculative fiction or dystopia or thriller. How did you wrestle with those elements?
KATE: Well, I really wrestled. And one of the things was, and I did this when I was writing Skylarking as well, is that I'm a rule follower. So, I wanted someone to tell me the rules. And I spent a lot of time searching for the rules of historical fiction when I was writing Skylarking and the same this time, around although I didn't know quite what I was searching for. And so, I tried to look at books that had a similar kind of problem at their centre.
One of the things that I did really early on is that I had listened to Charlotte Wood talk about how she had the concept for The Natural Way of Things, but she was grappling with the form of it and what it was going to take. And I was lucky enough to have a residency at Bundanon. And so, I was there on my own, I was completely immersed in the book and I thought, you know what, I'm just going to email Charlotte and ask if I can talk to her. And I ended up being able to do a mentorship with her.
So, one of the things she did really early on was say, ‘Just look at books that have a similar strangeness’. So, I looked at things like The Book of Strange New Things and Never Let Me Go, and things like – it's so unlike Jane Rawson's From the Wreck – but books that kind of swam in and out of a strangeness in a strange kind of time. I also looked very much at Mireille Juchau's The World Without Us, at Clade, books like that, because I wanted the reader to feel like it could be tomorrow. Like it was this close. So, I really didn't want to push things too far out into the future. And the way that I kind of came at it I suppose in the end, was to have the timeline as a parallel timeline to now, assuming that everything had gone to shit about 10 years ago and that this is kind of another 10 years in the future. That's how I kind of came at it in my head.
ASTRID: And when we say everything's gone to shit – and it really has in The Mother Fault – this is a surveillance state. There's almost like a, kind of a quasi-armed military that is policing everybody who lives in Australia. And of course, everybody has a chip. So, they are geo-located by the government, by the Department, this is all set against a backdrop of environmental and climate catastrophe that just continues. And as the characters change location and go on this gosh, quest, journey, I don't even know if the right word is, but escape as they move.
ASTRID: The environment is often compromised in every location that they go through, whether it's pollution or heat or sea level rise or whatnot. And I guess a true dystopia looks at social and political change, often for the worst. And I want to go into that with you, but I really kind of want to stop and think about this backdrop of environmental change that you have in The Mother Fault. The Mother Fault is an incredibly human story, and we need to get to Mim and her two children because they're on every single page. This is a human and female story, but it's just happening against this catastrophic backdrop. So, I kind of want to start there. You mentioned Clade by James Bradley. You mentioned Jane Rawson. I actually thought, as I was reading of Alice Robinson's The Glad Shout. How do you write climate?
KATE: It's terrifying. I've had this conversation with so many people during the writing, and I did a wonderful master class with Jane Rawson and James Bradley at one stage for Writers Victoria. And it was basically a room full of writers kind of despairing together about how on earth to grapple with it. And I knew that I had to grapple with it, but I also, as I was writing the political… the surveillance state stuff came up and was so at the forefront because it impacts Mim and the kids on every day in that way. And so, I knew that it had to kind of push back and forth. I did a lot of kind of looking at those… Is it CSIRO that has this series of maps where you can look at sea level rise over different times. And it's just so terrifying and it's so hard to be in every while you're writing it.
But I wanted to have a sense a little bit too like Stanley Robinson does in 2140 as well, this idea that, okay, we've gone past some of these huge climate issues – there's mass sea level rise in Darwin, for instance, so that as they're sailing out of Darwin, you can kind of see the old yacht club under the water. But there has also been some political change. So, the kids bring up all the time, ‘You were so shit at this mum. You and your mates. You should've done this earlier’. And so there is this sense that some things have got better and some things have got worse.
And then things happened, you think the whole time that you're pushing forward. And then I was editing over the last summer. My family and I got evacuated from a fire area and lost all our camping stuff, which is very small in the scheme of things, but we were directly impacted in that way. And I had to go back, and even though I had written the family driving through kind of a landscape of post-fire, I had to change that because I hadn't predicted forward enough how catastrophic that fire might be. So, I think that's what's so incredibly difficult for people writing at the moment is that it keeps on trumping us for one of a better word.
ASTRID: So, I want to ask where you place The Mother Fault in contemporary Australian literature? And the reason why I ask, well firstly, I really want to know the answer, Kate. But I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Tara June Winch and she was reflecting on The Yield, which she was awarded the Miles Franklin this year. And she was expressing how her work, The Yield, she feels it is part of a current and contemporary expression of First Nations literature in Australia and directly speaks to and around Tony Birch's work, Melissa Lucashenko’s work, Claire G. Coleman's work. All are exception writers and all are writing and speaking to the history of colonisation and the legacy of trauma that occurred in the past and plays out in the present. In a very different way. I feel like as a reader I found The Mother Fault slotting into a bunch of works about the future Australia. Where do you place The Mother Fault?
KATE: Astrid, you mentioned The Glad Shout before and I have to note because it's just a gorgeous story, that when I read The Glad Shout, when it came out last year, I'd already finished writing The Mother Fault and it was going out to publishers, but I didn't know Alice Robinson at the time. I know her very well now, but I sent her a message on Instagram that basically said, ‘Dear Alice, holy shit I think I've written the same book as you’.
And it was such a strange… And we've talked about it a lot, that it came out of the same soup. We both had young kids, we were both stressed about the climate stuff and political stuff that was going on. So, it came out of that soup.
And the other thing that's really strange is when I first started pitching it or talking about it straight after Skylarking was published, so back at the start of 2017, people were a little bit uncomfortable about it. Like, oh, yeah, maybe you should probably just stick with historical fiction though, because it wasn't in conversation with any other books. Whereas now you've got The Glad Shout you've got Bruny, you've got Wolf Island, you've got Ghost Species. You know, there's this huge list of books, Laura Jane McKay's, that it can sit alongside. So, I think that there's a lot of rage underneath these books. There's a lot of feeling of having to write back against the despair, which literature and art always does in any time. But I think that those feelings that have been bubbling along for people in the last five years, they all come out in a beautiful, big dystopic zeitgeist.
ASTRID: They are. I actually, I sat down, I was reading The Mother Fault, really getting into it and relatively early on, I don't know, first 30 pages or so there was just a paragraph or so that refers to shooting of footy fans at the MCG. And firstly, I thought, ‘Oh, this does sit with The Glad Shout’, because the MCG features prominently in a very different way in The Glad Shout. And I have been musing all weekend about why you had that little paragraph, but set in a stadium. Because stadiums mean certain things in really shit times in history.
KATE: Yeah. They really do. And one of the things that I wanted to do, and I've just been musing on this today actually, is that I was really struggling to make sure that it all seemed plausible that the wider public in Australia would accept widespread surveillance and instruction to really change their lives by government. I thought that that concept was implausible. And then 2020 happened. And you know what, I should have just made it a pandemic because that would have been much simpler. But at the time I was trying to work out well what would impact all these different parts of society and also be a deeply cultural blow? And so that's partly why I use the MCG. But also, that idea that you're referring to about stadiums and the political symbolism of stadiums. When I was looking at authoritarians regimes, I did try and use that idea that Atwood has talked about when she talked about The Handmaid's Tale in that there was a precedence for the types of ways the politics were used and the regime was used in The Handmaid's Tale. And in that way, I looked at how governments use disappearances as weapons, how governments use surveillance as a weapon and how those regimes work. And so that idea of stadiums as well as being so incredibly culturally symbolic was important to me too.
ASTRID: It was just a small paragraph, but it really affected me and possibly put me in a different mindset as I read the next 200 odd pages of the work.
Now moving from writing environment, which is a huge question, I'd like your thoughts on anybody writing and yourself, because I know you working on a new work writing from 2020, I mean this year is strange and there is a global pandemic, but is it possible to publish a book and not mention the coronavirus?
KATE: I don't know. And very luckily for me, I'm going back to historical fiction for my next one Astrid, so I'm just going to hold off for a little bit. But what's interesting, I don't know if you have yet, but I've got an early copy of Chris Hammer's new work, Trust, and it's the first one where I've actually seen on the line, the virus referred to in past tense. So, it's kind of like this is the new world. And it was really interesting to see it. And I thought about it a lot last night. I was like the way that he's done that, which was quite kind of for someone's still in Lockdown, it was quite uplifting to go, okay, there is life beyond this. We're going to get past this. But it's so tricky. I mean, it's like how I loved Lucy Treloar’s piece in Meanjin earlier this year, I think in the Winter edition where she was talking about how can you not write the climate crisis into anything? Like, the climate has got to be in the fabric of every single thing that we write.
And I think in some ways the virus will be too. It's just that it takes so long, I think, for me certainly, to absorb and understand the impacts of things, and in entirely different ways. So how does it feel for someone like me, who's trying to work at home with two kids, but who is financially stable, it's an entirely different thing to someone else. The incredible piece on the weekend by Jewel Topsfield in The Age, who's lost someone during this time. I'm excited about it, but I'm also feeling, I think for the entire arts community who after the fact are still going to keep grappling with this moment to try and make sense of it. I mean, we all will, but the artists will particularly.
ASTRID: I agree with you, but I like to tease that out. What is the role of writers and artists or creatives in this kind of time?
KATE: I really liked the idea that Melbourne Writers Festival had at its core, the idea of paying attention. And I loved reading all the different ways in which writers responded to it as well and talked about it, because I think that is our role – to pay attention and to take notice. And one of the things that's come up of course, because in The Mother Fault, this kind of constant surveillance is that I have been asked a couple of times, ‘Well, Kate, did you download the COVID Safe app?’ And one of the things that in one of my exchanges on Twitter that I said was, I think that people just need to be aware, to pay attention, to read the terms and conditions, which is what I've got as an epigraph in the book, because that's what I think is important. To watch and to note.
I don't know if you've had this feeling Astrid, but there's been a couple of times during this COVID time where I've been watching the news and I've thought like is this the moment that we're supposed to actually freak out? Is this where I'm going to pack the bags and go into hiding with the kids? And I'm not that kind of person, I'm not a prepper, I’m not normally a panicker, but I think that's the kind of watching without being fully anxious all the time that we need to do. To watch. When is the change of government something that we need to be scared of? I think to question and to listen as artists as well. I think, I mean the incredible time… I've been loving, listening to you talking about your reading audit as well. I think that's the other role of artists is to be in conversation with each other and to recognise what they're also missing, what we're not paying attention to as artists.
ASTRID: Another very famous dystopia that I was reminded of was 1984 by George Orwell. And I first read that, god twenty years ago, and it was terrifying then and if I picked it up today, it would be terrifying now. But the reason why I was reminded is that is a surveillance state, that is Big Brother before our contemporary world turned it into a really bad TV show. That is what the surveillance state is and could become. And you take on a near future Australian version of that, which is really deeply freaky when you spend more than 60 seconds contemplating what that means.
KATE: I think I have all of my own fears. I've got young kids. I constantly think about phones. Who's watching, who am I watching, the gaze for my girls? You know, like it's just a constant question. And I have been on the end of the spectrum, which is the ‘Oh, I've got nothing to hide, I’ll just give my data to everyone’. And then back to the other side, especially when I did so much reading. You know, I did so much reading on surveillance and about how it's used as a weapon, about how it's used against marginalised people, about how it's used against activists and how quickly I could slide somewhere up and down there. And of course, that's the way that most of us respond to those things at a personal level first. And that's partly why I needed Mim to be at the centre of this book, because I needed people to be able to see the questions like that.
I think what was so hard with it is to look at the areas in our life where surveillance is already ubiquitous and we don't really notice it. And so, to get that right, where I was going between that idea, that there's cameras everywhere anyway, our phones can be tracked, we can be geo-located anyway, and then realising too that there's pockets as there always are where that stuff isn't happening in Australia, because there's not total access to Internet or because people don't have phones or because people aren't engaging in stuff. So, I had to kind of put a balance between those two things as well.
It sounds weird to say it was fun to write, but it was interesting to look at all of the questions and the problems that came up trying to create it.
ASTRID: I can see how this would have been a fun book to write. It's an extremely strong, personal story of a nuclear family that is broken up and what a mother will do to try to fix that. But behind that, you are wrestling with existential questions of freedom and peace and stability, which don't have an answer anyway. I've asked you about writing climate. I've asked you about surveillance and I feel remiss for anyone listening, The Mother Fault is actually a really personal story. This is the story of Mim and Mim is a very finely drawn, extremely well fleshed out character who feels like she could just walk in the door, so to speak a real person. Can you tell me why it was so central to have such a strong character who can experience everything that you throw at her?
KATE: One of the things that pushed me forward when I started writing Astrid, was that I was wondering, as we all do, well what would I do in that situation? What would I do if I had to leave with my kids in the middle of the night? What would I be prepared to do? And so, the whole time, as I prepared to write, that was the series of questions that was going through my mind. And it made sense that she was a mum. It made sense that she had kind of lost her sense of self and her prior self, because I was riding with two young kids. Skylarking had been this kind of coming of age story, and I feel like in some ways is a natural progression, like now I'm writing this woman who is stuck and shitty with her life or what she's got and unsure what to do, and also feels like she has a real lack of autonomy, that she's not able to do things. And so, she was the perfect person in a way to kind of, you know, I teach young writers and I'm always telling them what all writers say, which is to chuck your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them. And that's exactly what I did to her. I put everything possible in her way.
And I wanted to explore the idea of the layers of ourselves that we have. So, this younger self, which she keeps coming back to, because she's remembering her early relationship with one of the other characters in the story. And then yourself, when she met her husband and then this kind of kid self. I think that what we tend to do, or what people often tend to do, is to try and erase self out as they go forward. Like, this is the new brighter, better me. Like this is what I've become. And actually, that can be just as destabilising. So that what I wanted her to kind of come to by the end of the novel is to understand where all those selves had a place. And that was where it was so enjoyable to play with the idea of geology and strata as well, because that's really what I had in my head when I was thinking about that.
ASTRID: The character of Mim is a mother, and she's deeply invested in her two children. And you do obviously have a child. I recently saw you post she was helping you sign all the copies of The Mother Fault.
KATE: Yes. That's my littlest one.
ASTRID: Which was really gorgeous. But do you talk to your children about your writing process? But also are they aware that you've just written this terrifying book that might be their near future?
KATE: No, I don't think so. It's so interesting. My eldest is now 9 going on 15. And so, she's quite into the idea of me being a writer, and she likes the cover of the book, and she's talked about what it's about. And of course I've told them all this is one you can't read for a while. It was sometimes stressful when I was writing, and when my husband read it, finally, he kind of laughed in recognition at some of the parts because the joy of having small children is that they are continually providing you with material. And so, there's lots of stuff which I've kind of stolen from them and put it into the book.
I think what I hope is that they see also that… Essie in particular, who's the older daughter, who's 11 in the book, she's so impressive. She impressed me and she surprised me often as well, as my own daughters do. Both her strength and her capacity to adapt to the terrifying circumstances they find themselves in, but also to know. That knowledge. And I think it's incredible to watch kids at the moment to watch my own and to talk to other parents. In many ways they're coping better than we are. They've adapted to their new school. Like it's frustrating and they want to play basketball and they want to go out. But also, they adapt because they still can and they're flexible and creative and they think big things and they think imaginatively about problems. And I think that's one of the great things that does stop my despair. And certainly in the book where I draw the most hope from as well is from those characters.
ASTRID: As I mentioned before Kate, I really do enjoy dystopia and speculative fiction. And one of the many beauties of those genres is that there are often sequels. Could there be a sequel to The Mother Fault?
KATE: I love this. Certainly there is a posse of people at the publisher who are like, so next, please. I think one of the trickiest things, I mean, lots of people have asked me for a sequel to Skylarking as well, is that it's such an incredibly in depth process while you're writing. And I've been with Mim and these characters now for four years, and that's been delightful. And I actually don't know how I'm going to kind of cope without her in a way, at the same time as never wanting to go into that world again for even one second.
So, I love the idea. And in those kinds of conversations that you have around TV and film stuff as well, I would very happily gift the story to someone else to turn into a sequel in some other artistic form.
ASTRID: I suggest that you gift the idea of making a movie to someone else while you keep the proceeds whilst you said about writing the sequel.
KATE: One of the funny things about that question too, is that I rewrote the ending of this book many, many, many times. That was for lots of different reasons, but in my head, this is kind of like what it is now, what's going out to readers is the final kind of resolving of the chord that makes sense. And because it nearly tore my insides out to get there, I'm really happy in the 1930s in the moment.
ASTRID: Absolutely. Fair enough. I'm just going to say it once again, though, the beauty of the genre is that it's not like literary fiction where you can just leave something kind of resolved, but also very unresolved. You can return, Atwood returned.
KATE: I love this Astrid. I feel like you're pushing me over the edge.
ASTRID: I'm totally pushing over the edge because I respect the genre. And I think you did it brilliantly and I like reading series. But because you're now giving me the evil eye that I can say, can I ask how you feeling working on a new novel as you know, this one, The Mother Fault goes out into the world and finds its readers and I think they will be many readers. How are you going with your current project? It is historical fiction. You can avoid the climate and COVID and speculative fiction all you want, but how are you as a creator dealing with creating in what is an unpleasant time?
KATE: One of the things I did very, very practically was that I signed up to a retreat with Sarah Sentilles, who is so amazing. A four-day writing retreat to force my bum into the seat to get writing. And it was incredible. And she's just a wizard of some sort. And I could write really well. I've had the idea for this new book in my head for a while, and I've done a lot of research and reading and prep. And the beauty of going back to historical fiction is that where it was kind of this terrifying blank canvas to write a dystopia and as I said before, lots of research and the rest of it, but I could do whatever I wanted. Historical fiction has got those anchors again, that I can go back to and read into. And that's amazing.
The thing that has been really helpful too, is that I'm writing about a place, a place in a factory, a business. And I wasn't sure which decade I was going to set it in. I was kind of 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s. And what this moment has given me was this very clear indication to dive into the 1930s, and to be able to reflect the same kinds of fears and uncertainties about change and the fears of the Great Depression. And that's been really incredible, so that I feel like I haven't turned my face completely away from the moment and that I can put a lot of those questions that I've got my own anxieties and fears and kind of compost them into this new work.
But on a practical level, it means that I'm getting up at 5:30am and coming into this studio and locking the door so that I have some words down on the page before the hellscape of remote learning begins.
ASTRID: An actually brilliant choice for your mornings, Kate.
Kate, thank you so much for chatting to me. I am really looking forward to your exploration of the 1930s. And because really I can't let this go, I'm really looking forward to the sequel to The Mother Fault.
KATE: You're absolutely divine Astrid. Thank you so much.