Anna Krien is a major Australian writer to watch. It’s not just Readings who thinks so - the Melbourne Writers' Festival chose her to help launch this year’s program alongside Frank Moorhouse. Chloe Hooper says her book ‘pulsates with life and truth’. And her writing has featured in Best Australian Stories, Best Australian Essays, Griffith Review, The Monthly and Frankie. Not bad.
Walkley award-winning The Big Issue editor Alan Attwood, who first published the article that sparked this book, spoke to Anna about Into the Woods for Readings.
Anna Krien arrives by bicycle to talk about her first book, Into the Woods. In an hour or so, she will start a waitressing shift at a city restaurant. The literary life is all very well, but you still have to earn a living. In the lounge of a hotel, a rather swish setting for talk of forests and camping and cold and winding tracks, she doesn’t so much sit on a comfy chair as fold herself into it.
Her book is subtitled ‘The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests’. That’s an apt summary, but the book is more than that. Asked to distil a 300-page work into one sentence, she ponders for a while and then says: ‘It’s about the environment and the economy – and will they forever be opposing each other.’ Yet that ignores her own role in the book: as narrator; interviewer; observer; traveller. Trying to make sense of the long-running dispute over forestry practices and products in Tasmania, she camps with blockaders, wanders alone into a loggers’ pub, learns the science of sawmills and has a prickly meeting with a former Tasmanian Premier.
Krien, 31, regards the project as beginning in late 2008 when she was visiting a friend (and fellow debut author) Benjamin Law in Queensland. She says she was ‘feeding eggs to a lizard’ (as you do) when she got a text message from a woman she knew, Ula Majewski, reporting that a pair of anti-logging protesters had been attacked in their car at the Florentine blockade in southern Tasmania. Krien had been vaguely thinking of ‘going down there to write something’; Ula’s text gave her a sense of urgency. So she headed south on The Spirit of Tasmania, which she describes as ‘a floating RSL and car park’.
At the blockaders’ base in Hobart, a share-house known as the Pink Palace, she is reunited with Ula: ‘Anna Krien,’ she says teasingly, emphasising each syllable. ‘You’re such a journo. You only come down when blood spills.’ This is both right and wrong, for Krien does not regard herself as a journalist. In her 20s, she landed a job at The Age. But she later walked away from it, partly because she saw few opportunities at a newspaper for the longer forms of writing that engage her. Besides, she also likes to write fiction and poetry. Her work has appeared in publications ranging from Best Australian Essays (and Stories) to Griffith Review and Frankie.
Her non-fiction style is undoubtedly poetic. Of an encounter with a cleared section of forest, she writes: ‘It is difficult to describe a clear-fell. It is like a sharp intake of breath. What you were looking at a second ago is suddenly gone, as though an enormous cartoon trapdoor has opened beneath it.’ And she has this to say about ex-Premier Paul Lennon: ‘I feel a twinge of sympathy for him. He strikes me as a man who has put all his power into his bite, his brutishness, only for it to diminish with age, leaving him a toothless tiger.’
This is razor-sharp reporting, which makes it all the more interesting that she insists: ‘I don’t see myself as a journalist. I say “writer”. But I wouldn’t dissociate myself from the profession.’ She is not alone here: neither Helen Garner nor Chloe Hooper, both pre-eminent Australian non-fiction writers, regard themselves as journalists. Krien continues: ‘I feel like I’m too slow to be a journalist. I need a long time to work things out. My best quality is my stupidity.’ This last comment evokes the title of a preface Garner wrote for a 1996 collection of her non-fiction: ‘The Art of the Dumb Question’.
However she describes herself, Into the Woods (a quaint title that is equal parts Robert Frost and Stephen Sondheim) is impressive journalism in that Krien explores both sides of the story, getting to know blockaders and timber workers. No story is black and white; the interesting stuff always lies in the shades of grey in between. This territory is what Krien explores, making herself a character in her own story. She never portrays herself as a dispassionate bystander. Indeed, one problem she has with journalism is: ‘the image of the objective and neutral and detached observer’. She strives to be fair, but doesn’t hide her subjectivity. Her heart is with the blockaders, the people prepared to use themselves as human shields for threatened trees, but she also acknowledges their failings.
‘There is an odd lack of curiosity in the camp,’ she writes. ‘People float in and out, asking few questions of one another, as if the past is erased and this, what they are now, is all that matters. I find this depressing … The men and women who started the blockade could walk in and no one would know who they were.’ But she also notes, of one tree-squatter high above her head: ‘You can almost fall in love with the stubborn childishness of it.’
Walking alone into a loggers’ pub, the National Park Hotel on the road to Maydena, she is met with silence and suspicious stares. Slowly, the ice breaks. Questions are asked. Whose side is she on? What is her opinion on the forests debate? ‘Okay,’ she responds. ‘I like nature. I like creatures. I think they deserve more rights than they have right now. I also like timber and I’m a writer. My whole career is built on paper. So I can’t just have an opinion.’
Krien says that Amanda Lohrey – whose assistance she acknowledges – told her it is interesting that women (such as Garner, Hooper and herself) are writing literary non-fiction. But Krien wonders whether it might actually help to be female if you’re going to walk into a loggers’ pub looking like a greenie. ‘Is it brave, or is there an aura of protection because you are a woman? Perhaps there’s more of an element of risk if you’re a guy.’
When she made her first trip into the forests she imagined she might end up with an article a couple of thousand words long. But no. ‘It just kept evolving.’ Her first crack at it ended up as a cover story in The Big Issue in April last year, filling an unprecedented 12 pages of the fortnightly magazine. When it came out, she concedes, she ‘wanted that to be the end, but things kept happening’. Later, evaluating all she had written, only some of which had been published, she ‘felt like I’d done the piece that everyone would have done. There were stereotypes; still a veil over everything.’
Blockaders vs. loggers was, she decided, ‘a false battleground’. The crux of the fight for the forests lay in the nexus bewteen politics and big business (in particular, Gunns). The setting is Tasmania, and many of the dealings uniquely Tasmanian, but the issues are broader. Understanding these issues meant grappling with geography, economics, science and self-doubt. In the book, Krien tells friends during a low period: ‘I’m not sure what I believe anymore.’ The exercise, she says now, ‘was a massive learning-curve, but I felt ready to write when I knew the terminology’.
Although she describes the results of her research as ‘a dog’s breakfast’, and the process of assembling it a chore because ‘I’m so picky and pedantic’, there is an impressive clarity to her prose. ‘How can so many people all be looking at the same thing and see it so differently?’ she writes. ‘The man moseying around in front of me [a timber industry spokesman] looks at a 300-year-old tree and sees a nursing home, while an activist twenty minutes down the road sees a block of flats for furred and feathered creatures.’
While she remains connected with Tasmania, Krien now sees her writing moving in different directions – not surprisingly, as the writers she names as having influenced her range from Tom Wolfe to Joan Didion, J.D. Salinger, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. She also cites Anna Funder’s Stasiland and Hooper’s The Tall Man as Australian books she admires. So what’s next? Well, there’s a collection of short stories in progress, also some poetry and (she says mysteriously) ‘something stewing in my head’. But first, there’s a bicycle to unlock. And tables to be waited on.
Author and journalist Alan Attwood is editor of The Big Issue, where the essay that grew into Anna Krien’s book Into the Woods was first published.