Why bleaker is better

Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Alice Robinson interviewed by Cath James

Photo of Alice Robinson
Alice Robinson

How can writing about the end of the world also offer an insight into the hidden, private spaces in other people’s lives? Alice Robinson shared her thoughts with WV Intern Cath James in the lead up to her summer school cli-fi course about writing the end of the world.

Why write about climate change?

Novels feel like an appropriate place to express and engage in my worst fears about all manner of disappointment and despair, including the terrible futures I really hope won’t come to pass. When I write about environmental catastrophe, I’m putting into words (thereby containing) the ideas and fears that haunt me. Sometimes family members ask wistfully, ‘Will you write a happy book next?’ But from a purely craft-based perspective, disaster works so beautifully. Fiction is fuelled by conflict and desire. The threat of apocalypse is perhaps the most compelling conflux of these. When everything is stripped away, either we want to survive, or we don’t.

What are the appeals of reading about a potentially bleak future?

Not all readers enjoy apocalypse – tragedy isn’t for everyone – but for me, the bleaker the better when it comes to literature. It can be unsettling – even distressing – to be immersed in sad material as a reader, but there’s catharsis too, relief that it’s ‘just fiction’. I can stow a book on a shelf and remain safe in the story’s aftermath.

But this question also makes me think of a broader question, too. Why read? The answer will be different for everyone. Some people like to read for entertainment, others to acquire information. I read to feel something, to go into the hidden, private spaces in other people’s lives and minds that I’m not able or welcome to access in reality. Being human is intrinsically lonely – we are all trapped within our subjectivity with the most imperfect of tools at our disposal for communication, the mouth (and sometimes the hands). But when we read fiction we are invited to go beyond dialogue, to delve into a character’s thoughts, and even deeper still, to the ideas and beliefs and experiences they don’t even realise lie at the heart of their behaviour. On some level, I think we all fear that our futures will be ‘potentially bleak’. Will we find love? Secure the career we long for? Stay healthy? And, of course, will the world remain stable, safe, so that we might find these answers out? To me there is nothing more compelling than following a character into the darkness of these questions.

Did you set out to write about climate change, or did it emerge in response to your characters?

In the case of my debut novel, ‘Anchor Point’, I knew I wanted to write about climate change from the beginning. I had begun to pay attention to what people around me were saying about the weather –that rain was coming too late or failing to arrive; that there was too much snow, or too little. These anecdotes were deeply unsettling to me – particularly because they seemed to fit with what scientists were beginning to predict, but at odds with the ‘business as usual’ approach of the media and government at the time (sadly I don't think a whole lot has changed since then). So, I had a theme, but the characters and story took a while to develop. I have always been an avid reader, but I did not possess good knowledge of structure and plot and so on when I first started writing (the difference between an appreciation of music, say, and a composer). All I had going for me was a grinding fear of failure, which kept me at my desk, and the conviction that if I kept writing something workable would eventually emerge. I am surprised by the story that surfaced –it isn’t what I thought I would write – but the narrative is also familiar (inspired by the old family stories of farm life). Emerging writers are always instructed to write what they know, but I think it makes more sense to say, ‘You will necessarily write what you know – whether you mean to, or not.’ I set myself the task of writing about something that seemed a grand, important topic – climate change – and ended up writing into a space that is, in the end, surprisingly personal.

Can writing fiction about climate change be part of the solution?

At one time I believed it could, but I’ve stopped thinking in these terms now. As I age and become more centered in my writing practice, I’ve come to see the job I have to do as being less about social or environmental activism and more about the creation of an aesthetic object – the best approximation of the thing I have in mind to make in the limited time I’ve got. For now, my writing is centered on climate change, and perhaps this will always be the case, but I’m not necessarily making this work to change minds or impact policy. I’m making it because climate change offers such a poignant way of entering into the subjects I’m most drawn to: home places and their potential losses, families and inheritance, belonging. This isn’t to say that I don’t care passionately about the environment and life on this precious planet. I do. I have very small children who will have to live in the future we are creating now, so of course I do. But I’ve become gentler with myself, I suppose. I’ve grown into the assurance that I don’t have to be and do all things: writing is enough. I began ‘Anchor Point’ the best part of a decade ago thinking about delivering a message. But over time, and as I shape the second novel, I’m just thinking about constructing a good book. 

About Alice Robinson

Alice Robinson is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her debut novel, ‘Anchor Point’, was longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize, the 2016 Indie Book Awards (debut fiction), and was named one of 25 Best Book Club Reads in the Herald Sun. She has a PhD in Creative Writing focusing on climate change in Australia.