First Chapters Q&A with Alice Robinson

Alice Robinson has had fiction, essays and review published widely in literary journals including Kill Your Darlings, The Lifted Brow, Overland, TEXT, Firefles, Arena and Meanjin.  Her debut novel Anchor Point was longlisted for The Stella Prize and the Indie Book Awards in 2016.
She has a Bachelor of Creative Arts from The University of Melbourne and a PhD in Creative Writing from Victoria University, where she was award the Vice Chancellor's Award for Research and Research Training.
Alice lives in Warragul with her family.

She will be reading at First Chapters on Friday 1 March from her novel The Glad Shout.

1.  Brunswick Bound has asked you to read a piece from your published work.  Tell us what we can expect from the piece you have chosen?

The protagonist of The Glad Shout, Isobel, and her three year-old daughter, Matilda, have been evacuated to a big sports stadium in Melbourne following the destruction of their home, in the wake of a catastrophic storm. I will be reading from the first half of the novel, in which Isobel is trying to survive life in the camp – grappling with the unliveable conditions, her fear for her daughter’s life, deep grief over the loss of their home and the blind hope that things might yet somehow improve…

2.  How would you describe the kind of books that you write?

I have published two novels, and although their narratives differ, they are both literary fiction; both set in Australia - primarily in Victoria; both spanning the recent past to the near future. Both novels examine climate change and other environmental pressures – drought, bushfire, flooding etc – and both examine mother-daughter relationships in their own ways. The most recent novel is quite speculative in terms of its perception of the future, but both novels are deeply rooted in our known world as well. The next book might be quite different in terms of narrative, but the voice and the thematic preoccupations are probably going to be familiar. I seem to be drawn to family stories – to stories about people trying to untangle themselves from ideas of fate and responsibility in order to be the architects of their own destinies…but failing due to their own limitations exacerbated by external factors, like environmental collapse…

3.  What was the first book that you read (or had read to you) that left an impression on you?

So many! My parents (divorced from each other) were both teachers and prolific readers themselves and each read to me, an only child, religiously. I remember my mother reading the classics – The RailwayChildren; The Secret Garden; Little Women; Seven Little Australians; Heidi; Anneof Green Gables and so on. I remember my father reading The Hobbit and C.S Lewis’ Books aboutNarnia, and he also read poetry aloud to me at bedtime. I was very lucky. Beyond these, the first book that made a big impression on me was John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began, which became (and remains) one of my all-time favourite books for two reasons: it features a female protagonist being brave, clever and resilient, and it is set in Australia – a landscape I knew intimately and recognised, which was thrilling to me as a child.

4.  Do you believe that books should answer life’s big questions?

Not really – not if we’re talking about novels. With the best novels, I reckon, the stories are very specific (about these people) and also universal of course (about these big questions). But I think the specificity in the first instance takes away the potential for question answering…although not for question asking or showcasing. So perhaps we could see fiction ask asking life’s big questions, and showing how they might be tackled (if not answered) for these people over here...Then it’s up to the writer and each of the readers to consider their own moral compasses, their own lives and circumstances and reflect on the big questions from their own perspectives. Asking questions is perhaps more expansive and creative and valuable than getting answers. That fiction can lead people into new intellectual and emotional territory is so powerful!

5.  Do you have any writing quirks?

I’m not sure. I don’t really understand grammatical rules, if that counts.

6.  What is your favourite word or phrase?

Too hard!

7.  What have you found most surprising about publishing a book?

I’m surprised by everything.
When you’re an aspiring writer everyone says, ‘It’s really impossible to get published…it’s really competitive…don’t get your hopes up…get a day job etc’… and then when you send your manuscript in, people say, ‘The slush pile is where books go to die…’ or, ‘Some intern will probably be in charge of deciding whether it gets read…’ Then, when it gets picked up people say, ‘It’s impossible to get reviewed…the market in Australia is so small…you’ll never make any money…’ (okay, the last point is true, I concede that). But I feel like I really took those lessons to heart. I believed them. As a result, my expectations have always been waaaay down, so I’ve been surprised by the whole thing…all the way along I have felt pleasantly surprised. As another writer friend of mine likes to say, ‘WHO KNEW?! The system WORKS!’ I think keeping expectations low and committing to plugging away is a good approach. My hope has always been that whatever book I’m on just does well enough to allow me to write another book. To me, that feels sustainable.

8.  What is the question that you hope never to be asked in an author Q&A?

‘How much research did you do on…[some technical/niche aspect of the narrative]…’

9.  What question do you hope you will be asked and why?

I often get asked about climate change, which is fair because it is a dominant thematic concern of my work, and it is topical. But I am not a scientist…I’m not even an activist…and my outlook is gloomy, which is not always palatable for public discourse.
I really wish that I would get asked more about writing – which is something I do feel qualified to discuss and am passionate about.
I would like to get asked about what novels are and what they are doing. How you might make one and what makes them good. I wish I could be asked about writing practices and processes – the logistics of how work gets done. I would like to get asked about teaching writing and also learning to be a writer…both of which – along with the rest of these topics - seem somehow mysterious to aspiring and experienced writers alike, and therefore seem to me to be worth talking about.
I especially wish that people would ask me about how all of this intersects with motherhood. I know that some women/writers/feminists don’t like to be asked this question because they feel it is a hallmark of gender inequity, but I think the strain of maintaining a creative life and raising children is real and important – and it is valuable for women (myself included) when these matters are addressed with nuance and honesty in public discourse.

10.  Which author that you have read do you think should be better known or more widely read?

The Canadian poet and novelist Anne Michaels should be read by every reader and writer in the land. Her use of language is so exquisite. I felt really changed by encountering what she can do with metaphor on the line and as a structural device at the narrative level.

You can find out more about First Chapters on the Brunswick Bound website.


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