Combining a real-life shipwreck and an alien octopus doesn’t seem an obvious way to explore the impact of mankind on the environment, but, for author Jane Rawson, the message in From the Wreck couldn’t be more imperative. “We’re very keen to look elsewhere and say, ‘Oh, this is terrible in developing countries’ … We seem to be blissfully unaware that some of the worst deforestation in the world is happening in Australia … We have one of the worst extinction records in the world.”By Justine Hyde.
‘From the Wreck’ author Jane Rawson
As the sun sets on a Melbourne weekday evening, the pre-theatre crowd gathers in Fatto, a Southbank bar overlooking the Yarra River. It is in the thick of this human buzz that I meet Jane Rawson, whose fourth book, From the Wreck, has, at that point, just been long-listed for the Miles Franklin.
I order us a glass of red wine each. Rawson offers to let me record a sample of interview so I can check that it plays back. I reassure her it will work. I have the feeling, as our conversation progresses, that I am being very gently and deftly managed. Often before Rawson commits an answer to my questions, she asks herself, “Do I want to say this on a recording?”
From the Wreck is set in 19th-century Port Adelaide and tells the fictionalised story of Rawson’s real-life great-great-grandfather George Hills, a survivor of the SS Admella shipwreck. The novel started out as straight historical fiction but two failed drafts later Rawson introduced “an inter-dimensional octopus alien” into the story. “It wasn’t a plot question that introduced her, it was a fascination with octopuses,” she says.
This character was the starting point for Rawson to explore writing in the voice of another species. “That’s something I’m really interested in. Is it possible to write like another species? I mean, no, obviously, is the short answer.” The alien is a metaphor. Rawson says, “I realised once I’d finished writing that she stands in for all the other species that humans just don’t give a rat’s arse about.”
The human impact on the environment is a concern that much of Rawson’s writing returns to, both in her fiction and in her day job writing about energy. “It’s something that … I worry about quite a lot,” she says. Rawson has an essay in a forthcoming edition of Meanjin looking at how few wild animals there are left in the world. She says the causes of their deaths are so entwined in the way we live that it seems unlikely we will ever do anything about it. I ask what she thinks the impact of this loss will be on humans. “What will it mean to us when there are no more wild animals?” she asks back. “We won’t care enough to do anything about it. It will be some kind of horrible existential loss but we will probably just carry on.”
Australians in particular are apathetic, she says. “Our animals are so precarious and we’re so careless with them.” Rawson throws out a jarring statistic to make her point: “We’re killing one animal a second in Queensland with deforestation. We’re very keen to look elsewhere and say, ‘Oh, this is terrible in developing countries’ … We seem to be blissfully unaware that some of the worst deforestation in the world is happening in Australia … We have one of the worst extinction records in the world.”
How is our attitude tied up with our colonial origins? Rawson pauses to select her words. “White culture in Australia sees the land as something hostile, something dangerous, something to be feared and defeated. It’s a very 19th-century attitude.”
She points to how the country is represented in our literature. “The land isn’t fragile, gentle, in trouble and in need of our care. We don’t seem to have at all absorbed the idea that we’ve completely defeated the land.” Rawson is not hopeful that her writing will make any difference. “I think my book is far too oblique to be any sort of rallying call for people,” she says. “Also, what are they going to do, you know? Smash capitalism?” She admires how Richard Flanagan uses his public profile to talk about environmental issues. “If I won [the Miles Franklin] and got on stage, I would never shut up about this stuff. People would stop inviting me to things.”
From the Wreck won the science fiction category of the 2017 Aurealis Awards – Australia’s premier speculative fiction prize – making it the first novel to be listed for both that prize and the Miles Franklin. “To me, it is a big deal,” Rawson says. “Because it feels like Australian literary culture is shifting to be a little more comfortable with the idea of speculation … shifting slightly towards more blurry ideas of what reality is and what truth is.” According to Rawson, the world is so weird that anyone writing realist fiction is, in fact, writing fantasy. She mentions Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Alec Patrić’s Black Rock White City as Australian novels blurring the genre boundaries of speculative and literary fiction.
In the same week that Rawson’s novel was long-listed for the Miles Franklin, it was picked up for publication overseas. Breaking out of the local literary scene is an important career milestone. “I’ve often thought the first thing I need to do when I write another novel is to get the hell out of Australia,” she says. “I guess I’m feeling slightly less antagonistic against Australian literary culture now that I’m long-listed for the Miles Franklin.” She recalls something Helen Garner wrote about Australians wanting to feel sure of their footing in a book. She says that is not her thing, that Australian readers feel tricked by her writing. “My feeling with the kind of stuff that I write is that it’s not Australia’s bag.”
Rawson grew up in Canberra, which she describes as “one giant suburb”. Reading and writing came easily. Books were a big part of her family home. Her mother is a keen reader, and her father a natural storyteller. “My mum, if anything is wrong will just sink into a book and just ignore everything around her, a tactic I have absolutely taken up.”
After school, Rawson studied journalism and photography before moving to Melbourne and then heading overseas to work as a travel writer, wandering between California, Phnom Penh and Prague. Broke, she returned to Canberra before settling in Melbourne. Plans to relocate to the Huon Valley in Tasmania, where she owns a house, are temporarily on hold. Her dream is to live there and make more art among trees, “before the whole world goes to hell”.
Rawson is a member of Kanganoulipo, an experimental Australian writing collective whose other members include Ryan O’Neill and Julie Koh. She is working on a nonfiction book project off the back of a successful blog series with Perth writer Annabel Smith, and has collaborative artwork showing later this year in an exhibition called Contour. After our interview, I see Gerald Murnane has released a vinyl album, and I jokingly suggest she should do the same. She responds by sending me a link to the Bandcamp page for Hilfenhaus, music she records at home on an eight-track with her husband.
Being a novelist in Australia is not for the faint-hearted; the financial rewards are paltry, the accolades few and the market small. I ask Rawson why she does it. She claims to not know. “Pretty much all of my problems would go away if I stopped writing,” she says. “I would have spare time. I wouldn’t be worried about people loving my stuff. I wouldn’t be worried about validation.” When I prod further, she concedes she enjoys it. “You’re making this magical, beautiful imaginary thing out of absolutely nothing that you could share with other people if you want or you could just do it for the joy of finishing it … It doesn’t hurt anyone.” She adds that it creates no waste products and that it is fun to do things that you are good at. “It’s a thing I can keep getting better at … You’re not going to get paid for it, no one is going to love you for it. If you’re going to keep doing it, why would you bother unless it was to keep improving at it?”
Rawson says her first two fiction manuscripts were fun to write, but as she started to take writing seriously it became more challenging. With From the Wreck, she was determined to develop new skills and write more honestly. “My previous writing relied a lot on smart-arsery … a lot of snappy dialogue ... a lot of jokes, a lot of clever tricks.” With this novel she “wanted to feel more deeply what the characters were feeling, to have them be a little more complex”. She invests in them. “None of my characters are there to move a plot along. Once they exist they are real people,” she says. “I write realist fiction. It’s just that there are improbable characters in it.”
In this novel, Rawson asks her readers to empathise with a shapeshifting alien and to feel the alien’s pain in losing her home to human activity. Rawson says this was technically difficult to write. She spent a lot of time figuring out how implausible things would work so the reader would not find any cracks in the story, “even if the whole thing is total bullshit, it’s got to hold together. That’s very important to me.” The novel was personally risky because it revealed something of herself and of her deep feelings about the environment. She did not expect it to find readers. “I am still so surprised by that.”
Was she happy with the end result of the novel? “It was absolutely the best it could be with the level of skill that I had,” she says. “Maybe in 10 years I would think, ‘Oh, you could have done that better.’ ” She pauses. “I don’t know, what do you think? What didn’t I do very well? You’re a critic.”
Rawson names Ali Smith and George Saunders as writers she admires, for their distinctive voice and intrusive storytelling. “I really like writers who have a strong voice and a very tender, rueful attitude towards humans; those who know what a fucking disaster we all are.” Ethical literature is also important. “It means a lot to me to feel like you’re trying to make the world a little better with your writing,” she says. “It’s arrogant but also, why wouldn’t you, why wouldn’t you want to do that?”
Australia’s literary community is small and tight-knit. Within it, Rawson is known as a generous supporter of other people’s writing. She calls out Rubik by Elizabeth Tan and The Book of Dirt by Bram Presser as brilliant, deeply felt and technically complex recent Australian novels. I ask what advice she might have for young writers. She asks me to rephrase my question “because a lot of new writers are old, not young”. Her advice is to give it up as a waste of time and go into dentistry because “people need better teeth”. When I suggest people also need better literature, she offers two pieces of advice. First, “don’t make excuses for not doing it. If you want to do it, go really hard at it for a while, just write, write, write, write. Just give it a red-hot go.” Her second piece of advice is, “If you want something, ask for it. Don’t wait for someone to offer it to you, they never will”.
What’s next for Rawson? “What I think I’m writing about and will inevitably be proven wrong is authoritarianism and individualism in society.” She wants to examine how close Australia came around the time of World War II to choosing the other side, and to write about that from a female perspective. The central question, she says, is: “What if Australia was fascist?” She laughs: “Oh, yes. Actually, it already is.”
Visible relief washes over Rawson when I say the interview is done. She lets out a sigh and her shoulders relax. I turn off the recorder. In a few weeks, she will find out her book did not clear the short-list. But for now, she is a Miles Franklin long-listed author and it is good. “I forgot to eat pizza,” she says, “I’ve discovered it’s not good to not eat.” She checks her watch, knocks back the last of her wine and packs up to head to ACMI, where she is meeting a friend to see the film Desperately Seeking Susan. A while after Rawson leaves, I happen to glance under the table. She has left behind her laptop.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 23, 2018 as "Rawson’s entreaty". Subscribe here.