LIVE | Kate Mildenhall at Canberra Writers Festival
Kate Mildenhall and Astrid Edwards recorded this session The Hummingbird Effect LIVE at Canberra Writers Festival in August 2023.
Kate's debut novel, Skylarking, was longlisted for Debut Fiction in The Indie Book Awards 2017 and the 2017 Voss Literary Award, and her bestselling The Mother Fault was longlisted for the 2021 ABIA General Fiction Book of the Year and shortlisted for the 2020 Aurealis Awards. The Hummingbird Effect is her third novel. Kate also teaches creative writing and co-hosts The First Time podcast.
This recording took place at 2:30pm on Saturday 19 August at Kambri Cultural Centre (ANU), and thanks go to the phenomenal team at Canberra Writers Festival for sharing this audio with us. If you are interested in running festivals, judging prizes and writing reviews, we recommend this interview with Beejay Silcox, Judge of The Stella Prize and Artistic Director of Canberra Writers Festival.
ASTRID: Hello, and welcome to the Camberrra Writers Festival. My name is Astrid Edwards, and I am your host for today.
Today we are meeting on the lands of the Ngunnawal People, and on behalf of myself and everybody here today, I pay my respects, and also acknowledge the Ngunnawal People as the Traditional Owners of the land. We are gathered here to speak with Kate about storytelling and the power of passing on stories, and the Ngunnawal People have been doing that for so, so very long. It is an honor to continue that today.
Kate Mildenhall should be known to all of you. Kate is a brilliant writer, she is a teacher, an interviewer and a podcaster. We're here to talk about her third book, The Hummingbird Effect. I'm not going to give you a long bio, but I would like to set the scene by reminding you all that Kate's first book, Skylarking, not only was a beautiful book but had such an incredible research process behind it. Her second book, The Mother Fault, released during the Pandemic – sorry about that, Kate – made me so deeply happy that speculative fiction was being published in Australia. And The Hummingbird Effect really blew my mind away. Kate, welcome. It is a pleasure to be here with you today.
KATE: Thank you so much, Astrid. Thank you all for coming.
ASTRID: I have a big picture question to ask you to begin. As I said, The Hummingbird Effect is your third novel. And as a reader, as a person who loves words, it strikes me as an ambitious project, and a really, technically complex project to put together. I wanted to know, if you had had the idea a few years ago, could you have written it? Like, how skilled did you have to be to get to this point?
KATE: Oh, that's such a good question. Let me start by saying that the ambition for this novel was an accident. Because after writing Skylarking and then The Mother Fault… what I find really difficult about speculative fiction, as opposed to writing historical fiction, is that the entire world is completely possible for you, you get to make up everything, you get to make all the choices, whereas in historical fiction, the historical fiction that I've written, I'm following a true story in a small amount of time. And the research for that is quite exciting and limited.
Really, the seed for this novel, The Hummingbird Effect, began with a family story. For those of you who might be familiar with Melbourne and the suburb of Footscray, which is over in the West, my family's lived there for a long time, my uncle was the mayor for some time. And there's a big meat works there, or there was, the Angliss Meat Works. That hadn't been in use for a long time. But it went up in flames, as so often happens in the industrial west of Melbourne, there's big industrial fires. My uncle was describing what happened on the night it caught fire. He said that there was because there was 100 years of fat and saw dust in the floor. It just went up so quickly. My aunt was pregnant at the time, and they had to move out of town for a while because of the smoke. And so that for the writers in the audience, that kind of image was like, so hot for me, like, you know, I was just like, caught with that image.
And so really what I intended to do at the start was to write a straight up historical novel. I immediately went deep diving into what turned out to be this rich historical archive. There'd been a lot of interviews done, and I could listen to both to the tapes and look at the transcripts. I started deeply researching this particular year, 1933, where the chain system of slaughtering came in, brought over from Chicago. And there was a strike. I was really interested in this idea about a possible moment in history, where if that strike could have been successful things might have been different. I set out to write a straight up historical novel. And then what happened for a multitude of reasons is that I exploded that novel and turned it into something very different.
Astrid, absolutely many times, I thought that it was beyond me. I thought that the technical challenge of putting it together would escape me completely. But luckily, a few years ago now when I was writing The Mother Fault, I had the privilege of being mentored by Charlotte Wood. She said a couple of things, one of which was ‘the novel will tell you how it wants to be written’. And so, I had a confidence that the material and this real passion I had to tell the story would get me there.
ASTRID: That is an excellent answer. Let's dive into The Hummingbird Effect. But before we do, I think it's important for those who haven't yet read the book – and clearly, I think you should all not only read the book but go by it and get it signed by Kate after this session – there are five different timelines and perspectives, one of which is the 1933 Footscray, you know, meat works and strike. Can you outline the five different perspectives which will enable us to have this conversation?
KATE: Sure. We've got Peggy and Lille, who live in in Footscray in 1933. And that's the story of the strike, but it's really their lives. The novel really focuses on the lives of women in particular, so we begin with them. There's Hilda, who's an 86-year-old woman, a retired scientist who lives in an aged care facility in Melbourne in 2020, which has just gone into lockdown.
And then we arrive in 2031, so just pushed slightly forward. La and Kat are a couple, two women who live in Footscray. Laura is a singer, but she's damaged her voice during her work, and she has to find work elsewhere. She takes a job in an Amazon-esque warehouse that I've called Want, partly because of the very attractive health and well-being package that is offered to employees there, which includes egg freezing and fertility treatment, as she and her partner are considering having a baby. So that's 2031.
And then I got a bit wild. I pushed forward to 2181, where two sisters, Maz and Onyx, are young girls living in a post-collapse society. Where we begin is called Newcoast. So it's Australia, with the sea level risen according to the science, and they're navigating the group of people that they live with who are called the Last Stewards and the work that they are made to do with them.
ASTRID: It's a lot. And in addition to well actually has a fifth perspective as well, Deep Time.
KATE: Yeah, there is. There's a river in there as well, who speaks to the reader. The river was there, right from the beginning. And partly because when I was writing The Mother Fault I became obsessed with geology and read the works of John McPhee. I don't know if people are familiar with the New Yorker writer.
ASTRID: Oh, yeah, yeah, I have a shelf with his stuff.
KATE: The Annals of the Former World is this like, massive book. And it's extraordinary. He travels across the US with various scientists and people who work in earth sciences to tell the narrative history of the geology of the continent. You know, niche, but it really got me. I became obsessed with the idea of deep time. And in a book where I was asking questions about the nature of progress and where we're going to end up, I needed, I wanted something to anchor it and to be the touch point, I suppose, from where we go.
ASTRID: The questions and the answers that you come to about progress are quite affecting, and disturbing. In addition to the perspectives, there's four themes, or four areas that you interrogate, that I'd like to kind of talk to you about. The experience of women, and that is the experience of women across time and different ages. There is the experience of our very recent present, you know, 2022 and the Pandemic, but also what it's like to live in late-stage capitalism and have systems like the aged care system and others fail on us. And then our near future, where it's controlled by something that looks like Amazon, which is painful. And then, and then there is the big one, which is you know, civilizational collapse, and you go there.
Let's start with the women because they are the characters that drive this and experience everything. Where did you find their voices?
KATE: As background, one of the books dedicated to my grandmother, who we lost last year, she was 92. And as the eldest grandchild, for those of you who are eldest, you might have this experience. We had a very, very close relationship. She told me lots of stories, and certainly in the last couple of years as my children have grown up we've spent a lot of time with her. My Grandma grew up in Northgate in Melbourne and when she was 18 months old her father was killed by a tram, a very Melbourne tragic thing to happen. And immediately her mother's sister moved in with them. So, they were a household of five women, my mother, my grandmother and her sister, and her mother and her aunt. And it's, it's really a kind of a formation story, I suppose, in a way for our family the way that those women have cared for each other and continued to live together for a very long time. And so, with the women who we meet first, Lille and Peggy, I wanted to show different forms of women caring for each other, and different forms of kinship.
And I suppose throughout the novel, you know, you have sisters and friends and colleagues and lovers, and the different ways in which they form those. Hilda too came from Grandma. And I think to in those stories that we were telling at the end, or that she was telling at the end, Grandma could recall, you know, that the guy at the milk bar on the corner who sold her lollies when she was six, but then she'd say ‘I've got no idea what I did yesterday’. She was somewhat delighted, but also sad about the fact that these memories were coming to her with such clarity from different points of her life. And so partly Hilda's stories about bearing witness to a life, and also bearing witness to what we all live through and continue to live through with the Pandemic.
And Maz and Onyx are my daughters. My girls are 10 and 12 now, and they're fierce, and kind and often fight and are very frustrating. But I think, like so many people, I'm so hopeful and energized and enthusiastic in many ways about the future because of their kind of clear-eyed optimism and rage about the world around them. And so, yeah, Max and Onyx were really written for them.
ASTRID: And what about La and Cat in our very near future?
KATE: I had this thing when I wrote Skylarking, which was my first book, I worried that I was a little too earnest. I wanted to stop being so earnest and I tried a bit in The Mother Fault, you know, speculative fiction, to be a little less earnest. And then in this book, too, I was like, I want somewhere where it can, I can, have a bit of fun. And for instance, one of the things that I had a lot of fun with was La and Cat, not only this idea of selling, licensing your voice and the AI stuff, which I know we'll talk about, but also, the Amazon warehouse is terrifying. There's a section in the book where La is, you know, packing, picking and packing things to send out. I did some very fun research just looking at things on Amazon. You can buy bacon flavored underwear. Who knew? The things that are in the book are actual things that I looked up on Amazon, and you know, my brain was kind of blown away. They really were there for me to make pointed comment, I suppose, about some of the things that I think are coming for us are already here.
ASTRID: It's definitely coming for us. I would also say, and we won't go into this deeply, but all the sex scenes in the book are with La and Cat, so you definitely stopped being earnest.
KATE: I've got a funny thing. I don't listen to the audio books of my books because it's a bit weird. But I had a friend who was listening to the audio book, and for those of you who don't know Melbourne, Springvale Road is one of our arterial roads that can be a bit problematic. She sent me a message to say, ‘I got up to the sex scenes today on Springvale Road, and Springvale road will never be the same’.
I took it as a compliment.
ASTRID: That is a compliment. And I would say for the record that not bad sex scenes are actually quite good, awkward as that might be for you.
So harsh question. But where are the men? Because they don't come out of this book very well.
KATE: They don't. This is the second time in two days I've had this question. And I feel like I could make a number of different responses. My editor or my publisher, the darling Ben Ball, is a very nice man and he did at one stage say, ‘Can you make the men a bit nicer?’ And I said, ‘No, I don't think so. I don't think so’. And you know, I've got nothing against nice men. There are many nice men in the world. They're just not in my book. And, you know, more seriously, I really did want to bring to the foreground the lives of these women. You know, there's not much there in interviews with the women who worked at the Angliss Meat Works. The Meat Works were all about the Slaughtermen. They were the gods. I wanted to look throughout the book, I'm looking at invisible labor. And I wanted to, you know, bring those stories to the front.
And yeah, the men don't come off great. But I did need Jack. Jack is in 1933, he's the head of the Slaughtermen. Peggy falls for him, and I needed my readers to, you know, he's charming. He wears a shirt very well, and I needed the readers to go with that romance. But he also has his great capacity for violence. He was a difficult character to write because I go pretty close into his perspective at times. But that is who he is. That's where he was. And it's a book about women.
ASTRID: As a reader, I found reading Jack fascinating. Firstly, it's about your craft, but also, the way you depict power on the page, the power of Jack. You know, the god, the Slaughterman at the abattoir, above all of the other men. But then, you know, what he's like on the street, what is like at home, what he's like behind closed doors, just these differing the way you unraveled power and how it can manifest itself, often in violent ways. But also, he's charismatic. And that's why people like him. He was a fascinating character; he comes to a sticky end.
I teach, and I wanted to share a story with you. Kate, this week at RMIT a student came up to me, a young woman in her 20s. And she's like, ‘Have you read The Hummingbird Effect?’ And we had this great, you know, chat about your book, Kate. And she's like, ‘I need to ask you something. I cried when Jack died’. I'm like, ‘Why did you cry when Jack died? He's like, the bad guy’. And she really was affected by this storyline. And I wanted to share that with you. And I'm surprised. What's your response?
KATE: Well, I mean, I'm glad. You're always glad as a writer when your readers have any kind of big response. And I was, I am, sad for Jack too. You know, I think you become so intimate with your characters when you're writing them. And of course, there's 100,000 additional words of Jack's story and of Peggy and Lille. One of the things I was really interested in right at the start, which actually disarmed me a little when I started doing the research, is I came in expecting there to be a certain man who worked at the meat works who was able to do that work. I was quite surprised looking at the interviews, and then I went and did several interviews. I did them over the phone during COVID with men and one of them was Michael Leunig, whose father Burnie Leunig worked at the meat works. And Michael worked there as a young man, his parents met there and fell in love. And he had some lovely stories about it. But he said there was a real gentleness to the slaughter. And that often after they finished work they were somewhat broken by the work that they did.
And when you talk about power, of course, the other power dynamic in there is that between the workers and the animals in in the slaughterhouse, that was something that I was I really wanted to look at in a clear eyed way. I have been a vegetarian in my life, I am no longer, but I wanted to bring to light or pay attention to that work, which is done in very much the same way now. Probably worse, in terms of the treatment of animals. And as part of that, finally, when COVID ended, I did visit a working abattoir. And, you know, it's quite an extraordinary experience, one I hope I don't have to do again, but I’m very glad that I did to pay respect to the workers that I was trying to write about. And there is an element that I don't think that people who work in that space can be unmoved by, the environment they have, they have worked in, which has got a lot to do with power and violence too.
ASTRID: I've seen this work The Hummingbird Effect described as ‘genre defying’, and I believe the write up for this session calls this ‘genre defying’. I find myself disagreeing with that, simply because as I read, I felt the weight of the Canon, echoes of the historical fiction canon, the speculative fiction canon, you know, flowing around in my mind in this really expansive way. You're certainly not pigeonholed into one genre, but it didn't feel genre defying, it felt almost like you embraced what has come before and have, you know, woven it together differently. How do you conceive genre?
KATE: Oh, that's a good question. I suppose in lots of ways I try and defy it somewhat. You know, when I wrote my first book, the expectation was that I would go on to write a second historical fiction. That's what the publisher wanted. That's what I was expected to do. And partly because I'm a stubborn pain in the bum, I didn't. I wrote speculative fiction instead. I would like to continue to have that kind of possibility.
And I only get one idea at a time! I need to have that quite wide open in case I come up with something crazy. So, you know, in terms of genre, I see all the reasons why it's useful for readers, for booksellers, for the industry.
I did start to think about the genre that I was trying to write into as big books. Some of the ones that I had… I have a stack on my desk where I write that I keep as touchstones. I literally put my hand on them. And I go, ‘These people did it. These people did it’. And some of those were, you know, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan's The Candy House, but I also had Manhattan Beach there as well, you know, and was kind of like, well, she did both of those things. Michael Christie's Greenwood, which I really loved, which, hops from the past into the future, and also Anthony Doer’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, which came out, you know, when I was already kind of well into the book. I feel like these were the kind of books that I was desperately trying to emulate. Holding them up at one stage I even – I can't remember which of them I did, maybe Michael Christie's Greenwood – I post-it noted the sections, and I was like, ‘Okay, well, he's gone from 2050 back to here. This is how he's done it. This is how he's worked it out’. I did mine very differently, but that I knew worked, and that people, readers were prepared to go with him as well, because I wanted it to be readable. I'm not interested in writing a book that is very smart or does a brilliant thing with structure but then nobody picks up because what would be the point of that, you know? I want people to be compelled by it.
ASTRID: I would say that this book is very smart. And it does difficult things with structure, but it is so very readable. I haven't told you this before but the books, the comparisons that were going around through my mind was Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, which kind of goes forward, starts in our present and goes forward across time. And also Margaret Atwood, her Oryx and Crake trilogy, which is a pandemic in the future. And also The Handmaid's Tale, which is a big comparison, but the fertility thing, you know, like that really got me.
KATE: Thank you, Astrid. They're lovely comparisons. Can someone in the audience just write them down for me, because I forget later, to keep me warm when the next books not working.
ASTRID: I want to stay with speculative fiction for a moment. It's a big task. I imagine that many people here love and care about and read speculative fiction. I love it as a as a place to go. How do you approach thinking about our future, knowing that you can kind of go anywhere, but also where you go might influence us?
KATE: Yeah. Isn't that the hardest thing? I think that one of the things is the responsibility. When you feel like you can make a world there's an ethical weight to what you decide to do. I love that you mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson because The Ministry for the Future, and Stanley Robinson's other work, was influential, especially in interviews where I've heard him talk about pushing past the moment of collapse and apocalypse, that that's interesting. And we do that very well in lots of film and Hollywood movies, but what's interesting to him and what's interesting to me and to lots of other writers, is what we bring forward, what we choose to bring forward for the last 2 or 10 per cent of survivors and they take forward into what might be a new society.
That was the hardest part about creating this 2181 world. What did I know? I wanted to play with some big ideas. I was influenced by the work of Jane McGonigal, the futurist and writer. Her book Imaginable was a real influence. She does big speculative scenarios for government and for NASA, and for, you know, huge organizations where she talks about the importance of radically imagining possibility for the future and flipping things and doing 100 ‘what ifs’, and the power of imagining a new future.
I was so obsessed with this idea of small change, of the hummingbird effect itself, where one innovation has these far-reaching ripple effects. I was trying to think too about this, the small things that might have shifted to change this world. The group that Maz and Onyx are a part of is called the Last stewards, and that really came from research I did about voluntary extinctionism as a concept. And, you know, I'd had this idea. I was like, ‘I know, maybe this group of people just think that the best way forward for the future is for there to be no humans. That's a cool idea, Kate’. And then of course, I looked it up, you know, did one minute of Google research, and realized there is a group, of course, and a movement who already do that. You can sign up to voluntary extinction. You get a badge, I believe. If you go into the research for this, you possibly need a long cup of tea or a glass of wine. Because it's radical. But, you know, it's one idea. And there are benefits to the concept that the world would be a plate better place without humans in it. So, it's bringing forward all of those ideas and washing them up and having a play. But certainly, I felt an ethical responsibility about what I might be put in in that world, which is what I think is the hard about writing spec fic.
ASTRID: Did you end up having an idea or multiple ideas and leaving anything out? Not because you didn't think it'd make a good story, but because you didn't think it needed to be out there? Possibly being passed by AI?
KATE: Look, some of the things I wrote about – the history of the collapse of this civilization, or this society at a point. And then I decided that wasn't important to be in there. I was already putting my readers through the trauma of reliving lockdown, so they didn't really need to do civilizational collapse as well. So, there were some things like that. And as I said, my daughters are 10 and 12. And part of me, and the stubborn part of me, was like, ‘What if I can just put a middle grade adventure in the middle of this novel for adults?’ And so I did. You know, the story is grounded in these two sisters and their adventure and survival story. Everything else had to fit in around them.
ASTRID: You've just spoken to my big question in terms of the 2181 timeline, you know, well into our future. There's also a near future in the early 2030s, and it is very much recognizable as our world, but just a little bit shitter. There was a lot in there that I got a bit anxious about, sorry, quite anxious, and I want to interrogate how you imagine this kind of late stage capitalist world that you're depicting for us, where everything is very lovely, you know, you can order anything and get anything, but at the same time, it's horrific.
KATE: Well, again, this is just the reading I do. I write a newsletter called ‘The Bowerbird’, and that's partly because that is literally what I feel like my creative process is. I read a bunch of things, read articles from a whole lot of newsletters and go, ‘Well, that's a crazy idea’. I remember very clearly one day reading about the new Amazon warehouse systems in maybe in the UK, not sure maybe in the US, where you are going to be able to get one hour delivery for anything, anywhere. And it was coming by drone. And I was like, ‘Oh, you know, that's handy, I suppose, but also terrifying. And what does that involve?’ I think this idea of a following along the chain, which was, you know, a very handy symbol for me to use throughout the book, to work backwards and similarly to look at the aged care system as a chain and to work backwards along it to see where are the workers and what are they doing? And at what point, you know, what about when the Internet goes down? Like how does that go down? And how would it get back up again and then following the chain back to realize that there are massive warehouse factories in crazy places in the world where lots of people work physically to keep the Internet going.
And just this is this idea of paying attention to the to those kinds of things. The other thing about the 2031 storyline was reading about the start, the rising up, of unions in Amazon warehouses in the US. What that feels like, a push for those kind of worker rights coming back.
I used to be a teacher. Shout out to all the teachers, any teachers who are in the audience, I come from a family of teachers, and we grew up my sister and I grew up like protesting about Kennett, on the streets, and you know, and go into all those protests and that was very much in our blood. And I was interested in the cycle of how that that comes back again as well.
ASTRID: Oh, it does come back. I'm an academic and we're going on strike!
KATE: Don’t cross the picket line, never cross the picket line.
ASTRID: There are resonances between all of the stories in here. That includes the strike at the meat works, you know, almost 100 years ago, and in the rise of the workers. La, the character in the Amazon-esque workplace, I was almost cheering. Can we just talk about La for a moment, in all her brilliance and glory, but also how this played out within her relationship, because her partner was certainly not going on strike. It was really quite another interesting experience of power.
KATE: Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, the power is so fun to play with as a writer. It's where all the meaty stuff happens. And, you know, when you talked about the sex scenes before as well, they absolutely for me are about writing power much more than writing anything else.
La, she's having this, like, coming into her industrial action. The story of how I came to write that … I first handed in the novel this was pure historical fiction. One of the things that my editor said was, ‘I thought you were going to give us more real kind of a Rosie the Riveter story, and I wanted the women to rise up in the meat works’. And I was like, ‘but that didn't happen. I mean, I could write that in, but that wouldn't work because they didn't do that’. And, of course, there are gaps that you move into in historical fiction, but that didn't happen at the Angliss Meat Works. But I understood what she was asking for, and as a reader that's what she wanted, she wanted that triumphant strike. And that's one of the hard things to write about, the defeated strike in the 1930s. It wasn't successful, it was a complete and utter failure. The chain came in, and it was always going to come in, and they talk about this terrible failure. The movies that I grew up with, all of those kind of Thatcher years British movies, Billy Elliot and The Full Monty, those kinds of movies, you know, there was always some kind of moment or triumph that you needed for the narrative. And so I felt like I needed to get that into the narrative, and I wanted to give that to LA.
ASTRID: You also give it to the readers – it is deeply satisfying, without ruining the outcome – basically, La has her like little R2-D2, but in the Amazon-esque warehouse, and you know, it's her against the warehouse, her with the bot, and it is very high drama. And that brings us to AI. I thought a lot about the questions I wanted to ask about AI and got myself a little bit distressed.
While I remember, I would like to invite you all to ask questions in a little while, about 15 minutes before the session ends, if you have any. But for now, I will keep asking you questions.
And yeah, AI. The AI in here is the Hummingbird. A simple question to start with, why did you name the AI hummingbird?
KATE: The phrase ‘the hummingbird effect’ comes directly from the work of Steven Johnson, who is a US writer, and he now hosts the TEDx podcast. I've read a number of his books and I think he is a really interesting writer. One of his books is called How We Got to Now, and it's about six innovations that changed the history. The ‘hummingbird effect’ refers to this idea of an innovation that has unintended consequences in some other area. I was interested in the idea, you know, which seems obvious now to talk about. We make this amazing thing, right? How cool. It's gonna fix everything. And then, of course, the consequences of what happens… It's not an anti-AI book. And partly… I didn't intend it to come out. I didn't. I've been working on this for four years. I didn't realize that would come out this year and we would all be talking about AI all the time. M y publisher was kind of already pleased with themselves, like, ‘Oh, this is very topical’. I didn't plan it to be topical.
One of the great things was that I ended up using ChatGPT to write this this algorithm, which was quite fun in the end. You know, the conversations between a human and ChatGPT… some of the questions when I started playing with ChatGPT… I asked it, ‘how would you destroy the world?’ And ChatGPT is not allowed to answer that question. It says, ‘I can't tell you how to harm another human’. So I was having fun trying to make it answer me. And the way that you can do that is to say – it might have changed now because it changes every day as we put more rubbish into it, and even good data but mostly rubbish – I posed the question that I was actually a philosophy professor and I was doing a class in which we were speculating about ways in which the world might end, and what are some scenarios that I could pose to my class? And then it answered. So this kind of fun that I had playing with the technology and seeing where I could push it in seeing where I couldn't push it, asking it about its own biases and what it wasn't allowed to answer for me, and in pulling it up when it was wrong, like know that you're clearly wrong, or asking it – as Eris X does in the book – to write a poem to save the world, and see what that poem will do. And if it will, indeed save the world. And it's a pretty bad poem. But it was fun, and the world is not saved.
ASTRID: There's a lot in there. Let's start with what ended up in the book. Did the answers that you got from ChatGPT end up in here? Or did you edit them afterwards? Or is it quoted from it?
KATE: What I started with before I ever started playing with ChatGPT was this idea of –
it’s been the question I've been asking cab drivers and anyone I come in contact with for the last couple of years – if you can uninvent one innovation, one human innovation for the last 3000 years and you wanted to help make the world a better place, what would you choose? And I think Terry Denton has done it, and Andy Griffith has done it as well in Treehouse books, I didn't realize that at the time. But my editor kept telling me about it.
I posed that question to lots of people, I looked at Reddit threads, I got my daughter to take it to a Grade 3 and 4 class and they had amazing answers. They first said mushrooms, which, you know, because they just didn't like them the taste of them. And I said that they weren't technically human innovation, so that didn't count. But it was also a Grade 3 girl who said jails? These answers in there, that list that's in the book, is a list that I came up with, but it's a list that I collated from lots of different things. There's the obvious the obvious one, well, you wouldn't split the atom, maybe let's uninvent nuclear weapons, let's uninvent oil. But what if we uninvented literacy? Or what if we uninvented the institution of marriage, or uninvented electricity? There's various things to play with, and that's where I started. Then once ChatGPT came in, I started pulling some of those answers and playing with it.
The thing that was a real problem for me at the start is that I wanted it to be a real code. And I am, you know, an English literature teacher, I cannot code. I reached out, I used my creative network to reach out and ask people if anyone knows a coder who might invent this algorithm, like show me how this algorithm would work? Because I had criteria, I had philosophy, I had maths that I'd been looking at. I had pictures, and I had became really obsessed with the art of Paul Clay. I wanted that to be involved in it. The person who eventually worked with me was this extraordinary young woman from Sydney, she's a visual designer, Eva Harbridge. She's interested in speculative fiction and she's an exquisite designer. She created a visual design of this algorithm. We worked together for about three weeks in this… you know when you hit a really creative buzzy phase, and it's almost like a frenzy, or when you're with a friend who you haven't seen for a long time and you're just pinging off each other in conversation and you can't stop? We had that for three weeks over Zoom. She created a diagram, which I convinced my publishers to put in the novel. It's in the center of the novel.
ASTRID: That is very impressive, because it's hard to get those things printed in novels.
How did you find working with AI? If I can phrase it like that? I'm not sure of the language we use yet. But how did that influence or impact your creativity? Not just for those scenes, where you know, hummingbird is in the novel talking to Eris x, but how you then conceived all this grand story that you are telling.
KATE: I suppose that actually stood alone. In terms of its impact on other parts of the narrative, that wasn't necessarily there. But I went to a great panel The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne put on a couple of weeks back about AI and creativity. One of the one of the writers was talking about – and I might get the phrasing wrong, so I apologize if there's AI specialists in the audience – this way where you push AI into a hallucinatory phase. And so you push it till it breaks and it starts to do weird things and push odd things back to you. And so, I was in that phase where I was asking questions, the kinds of questions I might ask my partner or my writing group, you know, like, what if you did this? Or, you know, how would you wait? How would you make an algorithm that took out capital or economics as any kind of form of measurement? Like, how would you make that thing? So, asking something that, you know, ostensibly getting access to all information ever, was really fun to play with.
On the other hand, then when it came to publishing, you know, this is a really a new space. I said to my publisher, ‘Look, I know, there's no rules yet. But can we please put on the imprint page that I've used ChatGPT?’ Because there's no other formal way yet of acknowledging it. As part of the Australian Society of Authors, we're working at the moment to look at ways that issues with copyright, the fact that someone owns this, that there's some guy somewhere, probably just making squillions of dollars off all of our knowledge, the concept of rubbish in rubbish out, all those things are really important. So you know, I think opening up the conversation is also really what I wanted to do.
ASTRID: This is a question that just occurred to me, it's I'm not sure if I'm going to phrase it in an intelligible way. But have you considered the feedback loops within AI? So, you've published this novel. It's out there, it's in electronic format, I have no doubt some large-scale generative AI thing will read it and save it, and then churn…. Has your mind gone there?
KATE: Certainly, when we were at this event the other night, that idea of, you know, the data getting more and more useless as we go forward because of what it's recycling and putting back into it. And I mean, isn't that just our experience of dealing with Google everyday as well? The rubbish that we get out of it, I think, both in The Mother Fault and in this book… You know, I don't have any answers to any of this. But the thing I'm most concerned about is to pay attention to something and to say, ‘Well, this is the thing that's happening. Isn't that curious? I wonder what the different facets of that are’. So to me, I'm endlessly fascinated about the conversations around AI and learning more. I follow people who write newsletters about how brilliant AI is and I follow people who write newsletters about how it's going to end the world. I think in that way it fuels creativity and thinking about what we might be able to use it for.
ASTRID: I would like to invite questions from the audience. If you have a question for Kate, there are two mics set up on either side of the stairways. Please don't be embarrassed, please come and talk to Kate. I will invite you to come down as you are ready. But as people are thinking about their own questions, I have more questions for you, Kate.
I want to go back to what we talked about a little bit earlier in terms of the responsibility of writing speculative fiction, and I'd like to link that discussion and what we talked about with AI. I guess – to share something that I had been thinking about and where this question is coming from – the AI that has been invented today has partially been influenced by, and looks an awful lot like, some of the AI that was envisaged that is in the speculative fiction canon. I'm thinking of Ender's Game and the AI Jane you know, there's a lot out there. And people who have been working in this space have often read those works, and that influences their human creativity. So, when you are envisaging a future that has engaged with AI and is engaging with AI, how does your human brain process that and what do you want to contribute to our future thinkers?
KATE: That's a very good, very difficult question, Astrid.
You know, I think in lots of ways one of the things that's been interesting to me about the conversation about AI is that I feel like in like in so many conversations the focus ends up in the wrong spot. I suppose if AI can help us address the climate catastrophe, that'd be a good thing. I listened to an extraordinary radio interview where they were talking about using AI and facial recognition to identify bodies in in mass graves. I think what happens is that we lose the nuances of the discussion and the technology, as so often happens, in the flurry of front page news about AI.
But in terms of just moving slightly to future questions as well, because it just struck me as you were talking, I had the most beautiful interaction with a reader the other night, who was a meteorologist. He was very moved by the section of the novel about Hilda, and she's a scientist, and she works with young scientists as well. There's a section in the book where a younger scientist says to her something along the lines of, ‘Is it just our job now to bear witness to extinction? You know, is, is that what our job is to do?’ And she says, ‘Yes. Yes, that is our job, and to communicate that loss as well’. And he was saying how moved he was, the acknowledgement of that, that that's what climate scientists and so many scientists are doing right now. I think that, you know, in that way, just bearing witness to these things as they emerge is also the job of a writer, I suppose, the job of a creative.
ASTRID: Moving to your job as a writer, taking us from that big picture imagining our future to what you do as part of your day job. This book is not published into a Pandemic like The Mother Fault – I encourage you all, if you love speculative fiction read The Mother Fault, it is a brilliant, brilliant novel – was released into a difficult time. That meant that you weren't able to talk at festivals and really get that initial reader response, that feedback from a reading community and a creative community. The Hummingbird Effect is new, but it's also been out for a couple of weeks. You've had lots of feedback, I'm going to guess. What is something that is surprising you? What are people coming to you with that you didn't know you wrote into it?
KATE: You mentioned the word ambitious at the start. One of the terrifying things when your publisher starts putting ambitious in the copy that goes out is that you are terrified that maybe it was ambitious, but that you've failed to bring it home. What's been really delightful is this acknowledgement by some writers very close to me, but other writers as well, who said, ‘You know, honestly, I did worry that the ask would be a bit much of you, but you have nailed it’. So that's been very satisfying.
But also speaking to the fact that I didn't get to go out and do the whole shebang with The Mother Fault… I don't know if you can tell in the audience, but I am an extrovert. I deeply, deeply missed the opportunity to speak to readers. I got to do a lot of things on Zoom, and that was incredible. But to speak to readers, especially in those kinds of tiny little moments that you get side of stage or in signing lines, to speak to booksellers… I said to my publisher, ‘I will do anything. I don't care how much you fill out my schedule, I want to meet them all, just put me in front of all of them’.
The beautiful thing about the last two weeks, meeting booksellers in particular, is just to be reminded of the extraordinary passion of booksellers and of readers, and the breadth of what is being published and what is being read. I was speaking to a writer earlier today. And, you know, they asked me, ‘Is it worth it? When you get into a bookstore and you're signing a stack of your books at the front? Does that make the four years and all the heartache and all the difficulty? Does that make it worth it?’ And it absolutely does. But the other thing that happens is that you're in a bookshop, and your book is one of 50 new releases and it's one of the 1000s books out that month – I'm astonished and terrified by the number of books out. But what is grounding and galvanizing about that is that you realize there will always be readers, there will always be passionate booksellers and the reading community, and that the job you have is to finish your tour, then get back to the next book, get back to the page, get back to the work. That's been that's been something that was unexpected as well.
ASTRID: Is that your segue into telling us what you're going to work on?
KATE: I've done this terrible thing, because I'm not only an extrovert, but I’m an oversharer. I keep assuming that because this feels very delightful and intimate that if I tell you it will be a secret. But what what I will tell you is that, like I said, I only get one idea at a time. The thing that happens in my weird creative process is that it comes in at just the point where the energy is starting to wane on the previous project. I start a new Word document and put new ideas for a book… then I put a note to myself ‘not allowed to open till handed in edits of previous book’. And so yes, in that way this new idea has come to me. And in typical Kate Mildenhall stubborn fashion, I'm going to do a straight contemporary realism thriller, that’s what I'm going to do next. But will it stay that? Well, who knows Astrid, my books have a habit of running away from me and doing what they like, which I enjoy as well.
ASTRID: It is a beautiful thing. I do have one of my final questions. Have you let your girls read it? Or even parts of it? Like maybe the bit with Maz and Onyx that are based on them?
KATE: Yeah, that's interesting. My, my eldest daughter is now 12. She's just started reading Skylarking, my first book, because some other girls in her class have read it.
ASTRID: Maybe that is embarrassing for her. How does she feel?
KATE: Yeah, exactly. And all they're now at the phase where they're like, ‘You can google my Mum, she's famous’. And I don't tell them, ‘You can Google anyone, and they're all famous’. But she has this beautiful thing. You know, I was a teacher, as I said, and I had my kids and went on maternity leave. I'd always wanted to be a writer, but I thought that I wasn't good enough to do it. And so I'd given it up. But I had this extraordinary urge, like, I physically mean it, literally when I was breastfeeding both my children to return to writing. That's how I came back to it. They've seen me the whole time, through this phase at RMIT and when my first book was published, and for a while when they were really little, they played a game, they picked up an old laptop and laptop bag and they played ‘going to uni to write a book’, which is very delightful. And for them, oh, this is going to make me unexpectedly emotional... To see my eldest daughter now reading Skylarking and saying, ‘It's a really good Mum, like you've written a really good book’, is really delightful.
And I told them that they need to stay clear of The Mother Fault, because that's got a lot of my emotional feelings and responses to having small children in it. But also, The Hummingbird Effect is probably a bit over their head. But yes, the Maz and Onyx story in particular, there's a section where Maz tells her little sister story to help her go to sleep. I've read sections of that to them, because that feels like a very special kind of gift through the book to them.
ASTRID: That's really beautiful. I just want to check if there are any questions for Kate? Please do, you can even yell, she really wants them. Oh, yes. There's one down here.
KATE: Yes. I'm not scary.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, Kate. With this book I felt like the language in this book has just gone up a notch from the others. I could feel every slice during the butchering scenes, I could feel like all the drops of sweat, everything that was happening. Did you pay more attention to the language in this book than before? Or what was it that? Because I've really noticed it?
KATE: Thank you. That's a lovely question. Yes, I think I did in the way that this has been so worked over in those four years. You know, this has gone from a 100,000 word historical novel to a 80,000 word something else. And because I was asking the reader to come with me through so many stories, I knew that every single word had to earn its place. And so yes, I think in that sense, I feel very privileged to be in this position that I that I had, you know, I had a two-book contract. There was an expectation that my publisher would publish this though, of course, they can always say no, which has also happened to me before. But I did feel like I could take a risk with this one, that I earned the right to take a bigger risk. And on top of that, I had the most extraordinary editor, Lizzy King at Simon and Schuster, who paid such exquisite attention to every word and it's such an honor to be edited like that, to have someone who seems to know your work more than you do, and who wants to, for the joy of it, spend an hour talking about the placement of one comma. It is the most extraordinary honor to work with a team like that. And a book like this is absolutely a collaboration when it gets to the end as well. So yes, I think that I did pay more pay more attention this time. Thank you, by I love the comment all the same.
ASTRID: I'm going to back you up on that one. And, if you read them all back to back, you can almost see your development as a writer, the craft and the skill.
Because I love speculative fiction so much – this is a weird question to ask – but do you think in the future you could come back to any of these characters? Because each felt like they could be their own main character and carry their home their own novel?
KATE: Yeah, I mean, especially Maz and Onyx, just a little spin off middle grade fantasy series where they go on to, you know, save the world.
The other thing about that, I mean, lots of people were very cross with me about the ending of The Mother Fault. And, you know, in various times talking about film and television options for that there has also been the discussion, ‘You know, we can't really do such an ambiguous ending in television’. But there is also a thing about the development over time, that it's such a privilege to do this job to have this job, like, it really is the dream most days. At some point, we could work on our books forever, it's very hard to you know… an editor often has to wrestle them out of your hands to publish them in the end, because you still want to keep changing words. But the job has got to be to keep on going, for me to keep on doing something new, to push myself into something new and to keep getting better at it.
I just heard an interview with Christos Tsiolkas talking with Michael Williams last week, and he was saying, ‘Well, you know, now I'm 57. What am I going to do next? The job for me is to keep on getting better and getting better at my craft’. And so, for that reason, too, I think I'll always be pushing forward to that one new idea that comes at a time to see what I can do with that, you know, what's the possibility of that as well.
ASTRID: We can't see up there because of the light. I just want to check if there's a question…
KATE: I mean, you all look delightful, I can see that you're there. People are also very welcome to ask me secret questions in the line, you know, if you want to come up and buy a book and get it signed.
ASTRID: Kate, you are about to do an author signing?
KATE: I am.
ASTRID: I recommend everybody go and have that personal chat with Kate because she really wants to speak to you. And with that, can we have a round of applause for Kate Mildenhall.
KATE: Thank you so much, thank you Astrid.