Readings Prize spotlight: Q&A with Alice Robinson

The Glad Shout by Alice Robinson is one of the six books shortlisted for this year’s Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Here, we chat with Robinson about parenthood, the very real threat of climate change, and what she’s reading now.

Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction! Can you tell us a little bit about your book?

Thank you so much! I’m absolutely stoked to be included on this shortlist! I’ve been buying books at Readings since I was a child (I grew up down the road) so this is a wonderful dream come true for me.

My novel, The Glad Shout, is set in near-future Melbourne. After a catastrophic storm destroys much of the city, Isobel and her daughter Matilda find themselves in a sports stadium with other survivors. The novel explores the immediate wake of this disaster, but also the slow unfolding of ecological and political collapse across Isobel’s lifetime. That description makes the book sound quite speculative, and it is on one level. But it is also a story about family. Specifically, intergenerational mother-daughter relationships.

Can you tell us about how this book came to life? Did you set out with the intention of writing a climate story that turned into a dystopian novel, or a dystopian novel that turned into a climate story?

I’ve been writing and thinking about climate change for about a decade. Given current political apathy, it’s easy to imagine what a utopian future might look like, but hard to believe it will come to pass, heartbreakingly. I hope I’m wrong about that.

It worries me that so many readers have reported back to say that they can’t believe how plausible The Glad Shout feels to them. When I was writing the book, I used it as a repository for the fears I have been harbouring about how climate change might impact our very comfortable lives in Australia, if we fail to act radically to reduce emissions. I thought, ‘Gee, I hope this isn’t too out there and weird!’ It really concerns me that we have arrived at an historical moment where what I’ve written isn’t all that out there, it isn’t all that weird. Many readers seem to have almost accepted that the future I’ve painted is even likely. That signals a level of cultural resignation that’s devastating to me in terms of what it means for our planet and the lives of our children, grandchildren and beyond.

In The Glad Shout, we see parenthood pushed to the extreme. As a parent yourself, was this confronting to explore? Did you find yourself thinking of how you would care for your children in similar circumstances?

I’ve always loved stories of adventure and survival, but the thrill of such narratives is certainly tempered when children are in the mix. To some extent, the mechanics of writing are a protective agent against the full emotional impact of the thing you’ve created. In other words, I was probably thinking more about how to make the story work than I was about the imagined realities I was writing about. I did do a lot of reading and thinking about the refugee families who are currently suffering globally as a result of war and crisis. I find it unbearable to imagine their suffering, and especially to consider the part that Australia’s heinous border policies are playing.

My own children are very privileged. They lead ridiculously happy, safe, comfortable lives. But I do worry about the kind of skills and education I’m bequeathing them in the context of climate change; whether they are really being raised to adequately adapt to what is coming.

One of the most painful parts of the novel, to me, is a tiny moment. The characters find themselves in a boat on the open sea, and the protagonist, Isobel, observes a father with two children. She wonders what this man will do to save them if the boat sinks, given that he has two children to protect and only two hands. I have two children, and the implicit threat of this fact, my potential inability to save them both in a life-and-death scenario, is one of the mother-anxieties that haunts me.

In some respects, this is a feminist take on a genre frequently populated by male protagonists. What drew you to write a cli-fi dystopian novel through the lens of a mother/daughter relationship?

I was really shocked by the almost instant polarisation that happens in many heterosexual couples when a baby arrives, though I needn’t have been. For all kinds of reasons, our society makes it very easy for women to stay home and be involved parents, but it does not extend the same privilege (or burden, depending on the view) as seamlessly to men. What I found when I had children was that I was instantly shunted into a world populated almost exclusively by women and children during business hours. In those early years, I quickly came to harbour deep admiration and respect for the quiet heroism of mothers. The women I encountered in playgrounds, endlessly pushing swings and fretting about serving healthy snack foods and keeping tabs on the size of their children’s shoes seemed to me to be the real champions of our world. The labour they do largely happens behind closed doors in domestic spaces and therefore goes unnoticed and unremarked upon. I wanted to to write about this, and at the same time, I wanted to capture how the ordinary work of mothering would be going on – boring perhaps, but necessary – even in the midst of a crisis.

On a practical level, in the context of the plot of the novel, placing a mother at the centre of the story offers such a lot of scope. I was constantly thinking, ‘If things are really this grim, what’s stopping these people from simply giving up?’ But no one has cause like a mother to keep striving, even when the chips are down. In this way, a child offers something to a dystopian story that is really powerful: a reason to hold on to hope.

Global warming is breathing down our necks and the effects of climate change are rearing their ugly heads near and far. Should your suburb disappear underwater or burst into flame in the next couple of weeks, do you have an action plan?

I live in regional Victoria, where bushfire is a very real threat. We have had to evacuate two or three times in the last eight years. For this purpose, our family does have a go-bag stocked with clothes and important documents, food and water, blankets and so on, so we can leave in a hurry if we need to. That’s different to what happens in The Glad Shout of course, because for now we still have any number of safe places to evacuate to.

One of the ideas explored in the book is that in Australia we are forewarned – we know that climate change is real and that it is likely to bring a cavalcade of changes to the way we live in coming decades – but we are not forearming ourselves. Very few of us are making any changes to the way we live at all. Few of us are preparing meaningfully for a climatically altered future. We just go on, year after year, leading the lives we were promised, even as disaster approaches.

That said, I am a bookish, city person at heart. While I like to think that I could survive catastrophe on the strength of my wits, the truth is that the skills I’ve worked hard to develop (like writing) probably wouldn’t be all that useful in a scenario like the one Isobel and Matilda face in The Glad Shout. If I was serious about preparing for climate change, I would be turning my resources to learning (and teaching my children) the practical skills that might actually prolong our lives: hunting, fishing, construction, farming, bush medicine and so on.

And finally, what books have you loved lately? And what is in your to-be-read pile?

I recently read Deborah Levy’s incredible memoir about developing a creative life without compromise after divorce, The Cost of Living, and was so profoundly affected by her assessment of marriage and writing and patriarchy that I feared I might never love another book again. Every woman – especially women who write – should read it.

I’ve also loved reading Stephanie Wood’s Fake; Three Women by Lisa Taddeo and Islands by Peggy Frew in recent weeks. (So I needn’t have worried… good books are never in short supply!)

I am looking forward to reading Lucy Treloar’s new novel, Wolfe Island, next.

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