Interview: Alice Robinson Author of Anchor Point

Affirm Press

In spare, elegiac prose, Australian novelist Alice Robinson unfolds a family saga in the shadow of devastating climate change. 

Shelf Unbound: In your acknowledgements at the end of the book, you write, “That the landscapes and natural beauty I have so  adored and been inspired by may not endure, due to climate change, is a loss too great to articulate.” Why write a novel addressing climate change?

Alice Robinson: You don’t need to know very much about science to deduce that if things go seriously wrong with the environment, as climate scientists are predicting they will, then life as we know it will be severely impacted. We know things will change, but we don’t really know the specificities and nuances—we don’t know what those changes will be like. Perhaps more importantly (at least to a fiction writer), we don’t know what those changes will feel like, what they might bring to or take from the lived experience. Fiction rushes in to answer some of those unanswerable questions, going where science is forbidden from going: into conjecture, into the imagined. It might sound odd, but I take comfort from apocalyptic depictions of life in a climatically altered future—and especially from writing them. There is comfort in creating a seawall around my worst fears by putting into words what otherwise remains a nightmarish, unarticulated anxiety, and calling it fiction.

I also wanted to write about climate change because although it is positioned as a scientific problem, it is really an issue about people. We are the ones impacting our environment, and we are also the ones who have the power to mitigate the extent of the damage. To me, the question at the heart of climate change is: will we act to save ourselves? People—characters—sit at the heart of fiction too. I wanted to hone in on the individual, lived experience of environmental decay and destruction, to make it personal. Fiction takes the reader into the home, and even into the head, of a character. It makes one feel. When it comes to an issue like climate change, something so global, large and looming, something abstract, scientific, ‘out there,’ what could be more powerful?

 Shelf Unbound: The novel begins as Laura is 10 years old and ends as she is approaching 50. Where did the character of Laura come from and why did you choose to tell her story over almost 40 years?

Robinson: Although I was aware that I wanted to explore climate change when I sat down to write Anchor Point, I began working without any real plan, without a distinct narrative even. My process involved just sitting at my desk day after day and delighting in (or despairing about) what would emerge. I wouldn’t recommend this approach to anyone—and I would certainly avoid working this way again, if I could. But I suspect that every novel imposes its own writing process, and this laborious flailing in the dark was mine for Anchor Point. Eventually, after months and years of writing and drafting, what emerged was Laura’s voice and her story. Like many (if not all) writers, there are probably parts of Laura that probably come from within me, and parts that are invented. I’ve never done hard manual labour, the kind of work that forms the backbone of her experience, but I do understand what it is to work hard—partly because writing the novel over seven years taught me that. A lot of Laura’s experience was inspired by the stories my father told me about his childhood on a sheep farm. I was surprised to find, during the writing process, that these stories were surfacing in my work, because I certainly hadn’t consciously thought about writing about sheep, or farming, or even families, necessarily. I think that’s what people are gesturing at when they say, “Write what you know.” What they really mean is that you will write what you know, whether you mean to, or not, or are aware of doing so, or not. The narrative grew quite organically to span a number of decades. In a way, the thematic concern (climate change) required such a span of time because I needed to convey the slow slide into environmental decay that Laura and her family experience—I was interested in that slow process and in their culpability and response to it, rather than just the outcome of it, which is probably more common in apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic fiction about climate change. 

Shelf Unbound: Laura keeps a big secret about the disappearance of her mother, and the secret has great power over her. What did the device of the secret allow you to do as a novelist?

Robinson: A secret is like a question that needs answering, and there is narrative tension inherent in that—a reason to keep reading. But more than that, I was really interested in the secret as an opportunity to talk about the impacts of the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and who we are. Laura’s secret embeds in her like a tick. I feel as though at first she can’t unburden herself from it, and then perhaps she doesn’t want to. I’m interested in the many ways that we sign up to make our own lives harder than they need to be, the ways we curtail our own freedoms, and the burdens we carry from childhood into adulthood. I’ve come to believe really strongly that all fictional narratives are really centered around one question: “Why are we like this?” Meaning, why are we the people we are? Why is the character that kind of a person when the story begins, and as it unfolds? What character-shaping events and ideas and experiences have come to bear on them, and what have they inherited from their parents, and their parent’s parents? Laura is bequeathed a certain kind of mother, a certain father, a certain temperament and circumstance, and all this plays into the way she handles, and keeps, the secret. 

Shelf Unbound: Laura’s father, Bruce, develops Alzheimer’s. Why did you choose that fate for him?

Robinson: I know that the percentage of people with Alzheimer’s is a concern with Australia’s aging population, and that was in the back of my mind as I was writing. But in relation to the narrative, I am always looking for ways to explore themes across a number of levels: in the landscape, through character, with repetition of motif. I was thinking a lot about the question, ‘How does the past come into the future?’ as I was writing—partly because climate change is not only an issue about what the future will be like, but also a question about what kind of past gives rise to such a future. One of the ways I think that we understand ourselves and our pasts is through story, and through memory, both of which help to ground and emplace us in our lives and in the world. In a relatively new settler society like Australia, just over 200 years old, we are still coming to terms with the land we live on, still getting to know it—and doing a fair amount of ecological damage as we go. I wanted to explore Bruce’s connection to his piece of land and the impact that story and memory were having on his ability to work the land and connect to it. I feel like Bruce’s struggle with Alzheimer’s helped illuminate the ways that his sense of self, his true, deep knowledge of the world, was really rooted in that specific place. 

Shelf Unbound: You end the novel in 2018, with Victoria, Australia—where you live—in flames and modern technology rendered useless. Why did you choose this ending?

Robinson: In Laura’s case, I wanted to explore the struggle she endures to chart her own destiny, her own life—or else embrace the life she inherits on the farm—against a larger environmental trajectory. I’m fundamentally interested in the moment that occurs just before apocalypse, when there is arguably still time to turn things around. There are a lot of narratives that explore the post-apocalyptic, but I wanted to follow my curiosity into the time just preceding disaster, because I feel like that is the time we are living in now. It’s as though we are on a collision course, like we can see the crash coming—that really is a moment of heightened feeling, and it seemed an impactful and perhaps even poignant place to end the story. In the real world I’m always wondering, will we act to avert environmental disaster? Or will we simply close our eyes and brace for destruction? 

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