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Michael sits down with Robyn Davidson, famed author of Tracks (1980), to discuss fear, loneliness and how she completed her self-proclaimed “impossible memoir” Unfinished Woman.

Robyn Davidson and the Impossible Book

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Robyn Davidson was just 27 when she trekked across the Australian desert. This epic journey was captured in her 1980 memoir Tracks, which became a national and international success. Her new book, Unfinished Woman, is her attempt to grapple with both her own life before and after Tracks, and with the story of her mother, who committed suicide when Robyn was only 11 years old. This week, Michael sits down with Robyn to discuss fear, loneliness and how she completed her self-proclaimed “impossible memoir”. 


Reading list:

Tracks, Robyn Davidson, 1980

Unfinished Woman, Robyn Davidson 2023


See below for some of the First Nations Writers that Michael recommends reading:
Tara June Winch, Melissa Lucashenko, Alexis Wright, Ally Cobby Eckerman, Tony Birch, Anita Heiss, Evelyn Araluen, Chelsea Watego, Kirli Saunders, Ellen van Neerven, Larissa Behrendt, Aileen Moreton Robinson, Jackie Huggins, Kim Scott, Jane Harrison, Nardi Simpson.


You can find these books and all the others we mentioned at your favourite independent book store. Or if you want to listen to them as audiobooks, you can head to the Read This reading room on Apple Books.


Socials: Stay in touch with Read This on Instagram and Twitter

Guest: Robyn Davidson

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For me, like I imagine for many readers, my first encounter with Robyn Davidson was through a battered paperback edition of her 1980 memoir Tracks. I remember reading it and being utterly captured by the story of her walk across the Australian desert, striking out for the coast. I remember the camels. And I remember her dog, Diggity.

This wasn’t your standard travel narrative and for whole generations of readers, not just in Australia but around the world, it captured imaginations and inspired great passions. More than just the “camel lady”, Robyn became a feminist icon and one of our most consequential literary figures.


Almost three decades ago, she started work on a book that at times she thought she might never finish: her “infinite book” – as she put it – was her attempt to grapple with both her own life before and after Tracks, and with the story of her mother, who committed suicide when Robyn was only 11 years old.  


That book, Unfinished Woman, has just come out, and it is every bit as beautiful and powerful as you might hope. It tells of the many lives of Robyn Davidson; of houses lived in and books read, of travels and struggles and love. 


From Schwartz Media, I’m Michael Williams, and this is Read This, a show about the books we love and the stories behind them.


Tracks began its life as a commission by National Geographic for Robyn to produce an essay about her epic journey across the desert. But the story was so rich, so unforgettable, and so beautifully written that people wanted more.


ROBYN: The reason I wrote Tracks was not because I thought of myself as a writer and not because I'd ever wanted to write about that journey at all. But because I was so flummoxed by suddenly becoming a public persona. And famous in inverted commas, and so suspicious of it and wary of it. In my innocence I thought, “Well, if I write a book. The limelight will fall on the book and I will be left alone to get on with my life in some, you know, in some less distorted manner.” I'd been asked to do the book by a publisher in London. I didn't know whether I should or could write a book. At that stage, I was in a correspondence with Doris Lessing – I'd written her a fan letter. And she was canny and astute enough to – and generous enough – to respond to those letters. 


MICHAEL: Honestly, it's one of my favourite things about your writerly story is that role Lessing plays not just as landlady, but as fairy godmother effectively. 


ROBYN: Yes, as someone to admire and respect. And there were very few women like that in my era. There were very few of those women who'd been out there on the front lines. 


MICHAEL: But from what I understand about her, you know, she was not, she was no pushover, you know? 


ROBYN: Oh, no. 


MICHAEL: She was someone who had a very acute sense of judgement. And to single you out to see the talent and the promise that she did... 


ROBYN: Absolutely, I mean, it's extraordinary when you think about it. And she got a lot of fan letters, but she smelt something on mine. And, you know, I'm eternally grateful that, again, that she was generous enough to take up a waif, which is what I was. So I wrote to her and I said, “Do you think I should write a book? I don't want to write a book.” And she said, “Robbie, if you can write a good letter, you can write a good book.”


MICHAEL: One of the themes that comes up many times in Unfinished Woman is you as the youngest member of a social group, of a found family, and you moving from a kind of mascot status to a revered status again and again. Because you're there to do that and you're at the fringe. And then at some point, you know your role in that community becomes more integral. How important was youth in finding those opportunities when you did? 


ROBYN: Well, I've never thought of it like that's very interesting you say that. I mean, I was very conscious of being the youngest, the greenest, the most ignorant, the most hanging on, the most desperate to learn, the most in awe, the most troubled, and very aware that those older people – and often it was only a matter of a few years, but, you know, when you're young that means a lot – their generosity, their extraordinary generosity in taking up what was obviously a young lost girl and bringing her into the fold. So I was very aware of my status as the youngest, so to speak. I've never thought that I evolved into being integral. In my own mind I simply absorbed all that I could and then moved on to the next thing. That's how I would see it. 


MICHAEL: The “moved on” is clearly a crucial thing in your story, and it's clearly a kind of recurring pattern. How much when you were turning your life, when you were turning these memories into a book, into narrative, were you unearthing memories that had previously been lost to you, or how much of it was you laying down things that were a narrative that underpinned your life?


ROBYN: There hadn't been a narrative and there hadn't been memories that I was aware of, and that's a strange thing to say. But it's as if I'd simply turned away from the past and put a layer of concrete over it and just headed for the future in order to make a person, to create a person of myself. But then in my 40s, these sort of shreds of memory started coming back. They were keyed by music – music was essential to the dredging up of these memories. And then I realised that actually I had quite a lot, a lot of memory. It's just that I'd never bothered to look at them. I'd never bothered to bring them up, but they were there, some of them very strong and powerful. Some of them weak and fragile. But I understood also that memory is not narrative, at least in my case. It was geographical, perhaps, but there was never a timeline linking it all together. It was more like there were these staged enactments on a dark landscape and a light would fall on some scene. And then it might fall on another scene, but that scene might exist to that scene, but be 20 years later. So that's how I saw memory as this very strange, strange phenomenon that we take for granted. And then what the mind tends to do is to make a narrative, to forge a narrative out of all that. It is a creation, that narrative. It is not actually how the mind conceives the past. 


MICHAEL: One of the great achievements of the book is that it does resist the linear conventions of memoir. And that seems clear to me what a deliberate and I imagine what a difficult task that must have been. 


ROBYN: Very difficult, technically very difficult to make it try to seem natural and effortless. Believe me, it was not. And that was made more complex, I think, by the sort of life that I lived, which was physically enacted in different places with different selves, brought forward in each different place, so my Indian self felt quite different to my London self, to my Australian self, to my travelling self. But consequently, I ended up with boxes and boxes of stuff that had never been put together, that was very disjointed, out of time, unremembered or misremembered, so that when eventually I kind of came to terms with the fact that I was going to have to put this beast together – and that coincided pretty much with coming back to Australia roughly ten years ago, and I bought the house in Castlemaine, which was like this refuge where I could bring all the bits of the comet tale together and try and make it make it coherent – it was like doing the worst 3D jigsaw puzzle you could imagine. 


MICHAEL: How do you feel about those different selves, those different Robyns emerging at different points? Are they familiar to you or are they like a dream figure at one remove? 


ROBYN: Slightly dream figure-ish. Some are more at home in me than others. But I think that's a lot to do with the passage of time as well. Those younger selves seemed quite remote to me. I sometimes look back at the girl who crossed the desert and think, Who the hell were you? I wish I had your chutzpah.” Whereas the Indian self because it gets replenished by returning to India, she's much more integrated, I'd say. 


MICHAEL: What about the self who lives on her own in an abandoned house in Sydney and works in an underground casino? Do you feel fearful for that girl? Do you feel protective?


ROBYN: No not fearful, I just, I admire her. I. I have no idea how she got the nouse to do what she did. Just some innate drive, it's all I can think. I think I was frightened all the time, but I was so used to being frightened that it was just, you know, it was just being alive. 


MICHAEL: So funny because if I think about all of your work and reading you, one of the adjectives I would most ascribe to you is fearlessness. You know, like it is — 


ROBYN: Ain’t it true, Michael? Oh no, I'm governed by fear. 


MICHAEL: Yeah. And yet striking out nonetheless. 


ROBYN: Well, one has to. I mean, if you want to make a life. You have to work against that fear, it doesn't make the fear go away. But you have to just plunge in. And I don't know why I do that and keep doing it, but I see it as a necessity to live properly, to live well. 


MICHAEL: Part of what's moving in the book and part of what filled me with anxiety reading it is that you are – to a certain extent you embody the idea of someone who has mastered solitude in your life, mastered what it is to take time where you're not. It's not about dependency on other people, it’s not about anything else. For me, if I'm solitary, I'm in my own head in ways that are not necessarily helpful. What goes on in your brain when you're alone? 


ROBYN: Well, it varies a lot, of course, so there's mood. But I do treasure solitude. It can be very uncomfortable. But I can put up with a fair bit of discomfort. Because I think that loneliness, that understanding that we are alone, can lead you to a different kind of understanding of what consciousness is and what it's capable of doing and being. It's very rare, but if you can put up with the discomfort, you can on occasion reach a place where you understand that you’re actually not alone, ever. You are fundamentally part of everything. And that's the opposite of loneliness. 


After the break Robyn reveals why Unfinished Woman felt like an impossible book to write and she shares the joys of pausing her travelling lifestyle to settle down in country Victoria over the past decade. We’ll be right back.




Robyn Davidson began her memoir Unfinished Woman a quarter of a century ago, which seems completely understandable given the vast territory it covers, both geographically and emotionally. Just a warning to listeners that this next section of our conversation in part concerns suicide and suicidal ideation. A reminder to take care while listening.


MICHAEL: You in an earlier interview referred to this as your impossible book. Why Impossible? 


ROBYN: Because really right through the writing of it, from the conception of it, before I'd even started writing, until I kind of folded up the last draft and sent it off, it had seemed to me an impossible task and one that I just thought I'd never be able to finish because I was working against such extraordinary internal resistance. Because I think the form of memoir is very difficult for all kinds of reasons: moral, structural, tonal and I suppose emotional as well. So even at the beginning, when I was starting to think about writing about her, about my mum, I wasn't even sure it could turn into a book. It was more kind of, “Let's see what memory is dredging up.” And because I'm a writer, I took notes. And eventually I wrote an essay on why memoir is such a difficult form and why this memoir would never be written because it was impossible to write. And I sent it off to my then agent in London and he said, “You're mad. This is the beginning of the book.” So I felt then that I was trapped on all sides, you know? And I had also the feeling, I mean, I say in the book that it's like a fairy tale task, that it has this quality of being impossible, and yet it has to be done. And I think at the beginning, because I was getting so many returning memories of my childhood and of my mother, it was as if she was demanding that I write this book because she could no longer speak for her life and I was the only person who could or would speak for her life. 


MICHAEL: One of the senses in the book, is it culminates the book more or less culminates in a moment of crisis for you in the narrative. It builds to a moment when the accumulation of memory and the attempts to navigate the different bits of your life while holding the previous bits, somewhere helpful, kind of collapse in on themselves.


ROBYN: There is my mother's suicide that has been denied for a very long time. Then there is my own inverted commas “breakdown” in London, which you're referring to. And then the sort of penultimate part of the book is the true explanation of the grounds for that breakdown, which was not so much my mother's death, but what happened just afterwards. So in my own collapse, I was suddenly dealing with all of those memories that I was in a very stressful part of life anyway. My life was very complicated, full of insecurity and stresses, and my mother was coming back to me. There’d been a lot of deaths, a lot of losses, all of which I'd simply not allowed myself to deal with, and they all kind of all those chickens just came home to roost and down I went. But even at the worst of it, at the most truly diabolical – and I wouldn't wish it on my very, very worst enemy – there was some part of me that stood aside and observed, and I think of that as the writer part. And certainly a part of me that knew I wouldn't suicide. And a part of me also that felt that while I was the one suffering it, in some sense, it didn't belong to me, in some sense I was living through what my mother had to live through, um and it was hell. So there is that section of the book. And then towards the end, when I talk about this sort of partial insight or vision that I had as a kid about the nature of reality. When I was much, much too young to be able to make sense of it. That nihilism, was the thing that did govern my life in all sorts of ways, much more than my mother's actual death. Although the death precipitated the vision, it was the vision itself that I can see has been such a force in my life because I've had to refute that vision over and over and over and over again. 


MICHAEL: The counterweight to the intensity of the stuff we're talking about before and the book feeling like it culminates in your breakdown and in that realisation. The big counterweight to that is the creation on the page for the reader, presumably for yourself, for the world of the figure of your mother, and that the other great project of the book is to bring your mum up to the surface in a way that's been denied her, in many ways. 


ROBYN: Yes. 


MICHAEL: I mean, it strikes me that one of the great tragedies of suicide is not just the loss of life, but the loss of a story. It completely hijacks…. 


ROBYN: Yes. 


MICHAEL: …that person's story ever after.


ROBYN: Yes. She becomes a tragedy whether she was before or not. And also, it kind of bleeds into her past as well. I think I say in the book at one point that my childhood, which was so exquisite. Oh, it was a wonderful childhood. Imaginative and rich. Solitary, but wonderful. But her death and the manner of her death sort of bleeds back backwards into history. So it sort of casts a shadow over everything. 


MICHAEL: It's so moving and beautiful in the book those moments from your childhood where you do honour those memories, as fragmentary as they are, of who your mother was. It's not a picture of someone suffering, it's a picture of someone loving, loving, intensely. 


ROBYN: Loving, funny. Um, I don't have my mother. I will never have her. I don't know who she was, not really. All I have those fragments of memory that I've been able to find and to make some sort of sense of. I remember her laughter, her wit, her talent. But what I am very sure of, what I've become sure of, and this is the great gift of this work that I've done, this delving around and messing around in the past is that I loved her and she loved me. And more than that, I liked her and she liked me. 


MICHAEL: Does that mean that to a certain extent you don’t want the impossible book to be finished. That while you're writing it, and it's an open, ongoing process… 


ROBYN: Yes, I wonder about that. Look, I'm very glad the writing process is over. I'll be equally glad when I don't have to speak about it anymore. And it is truly behind me. But of course those things are never completely behind you. There's always the fact of my mother's death in my life. There's always the fact of all the losses and things that have gone wrong or right in my life. They're all there still. So I guess it is an interminable process, really. But I feel also that I've done as well by her as was possible under the circumstances. 


MICHAEL: Tell me before I let you go, tell me about the house and the process of making the house what you wanted it to be?


ROBYN: I knew I couldn't afford what I wanted in Melbourne. I knew that I wanted an old house that had lots of rooms in it; plenty of room for guests, where I could make a garden, where I could get good coffee within 5 minutes, and where I could see a kangaroo within 2 minutes. And I got the lot. 


MICHAEL: That's a pretty good set of criteria. 


ROBYN: I thought so. 


MICHAEL: My guilty confession that I've often thought the times I've been lucky enough to meet you, I've wanted to have the courage to say I. I've never had the courage to say: I can't stand camels. Oh, I've never been around a camel that I liked. They make me very uncomfortable. 


ROBYN: It's because you didn't meet mine. Look, people think I love camels. I couldn't care two hoots about camels. But the camels that took us across Australia, they were individuals with personalities, with high intelligence who had bonded with me and I with them.


MICHAEL: That does make sense. I mean, I don't like a lot of people too, so saying that the camels, their personhood might not redeem them for me, but it’s definitely a start. 


ROBYN: I'm sure if you met Tookie, you'd be a sucker. 


MICHAEL: Well, I believe it. Well, it's, you know, having been typecast for so long as the camel lady…


ROBYN: What can you do?


MICHAEL: Well, I think the new book makes it clear how much that is only one small fragment of an extraordinary life and it’s such a privilege to talk to you.


ROBYN: And you, Michael, thanks very much. 

MICHAEL: So much fun.


Unfinished Woman is out now and available at your local independent bookstore.




Before we go, a list this week. A resolutely personal, far from comprehensive list.


Tara June Winch, Melissa Lucashenko, Alexis Wright, Ally Cobby Eckerman, Tony Birch, Anita Heiss, Evelyn Araluen, Chelsea Watego, Kirli Saunders, Ellen van Neerven, Larissa Behrendt, Aileen Moreton Robinson, Jackie Huggins, Kim Scott, Jane Harrison, and Nardi Simpson. 


I could easily go on. These are just some of the first nations writers who have formed a fundamental backbone to my reading life, and to my sense of what story and literature can do. The outcome of the referendum on the Voice to Parliament is devastating, not least because it’s a reminder of the limitations of the deeply colonial and racist construction that is Australia. But the writers I’ve listed above, those Blak voices that make up the best of contemporary Australian literature, suggest a future beyond those political and democratic limitations. They’re a voice to society and culture. Read them. 


And that list of names is going to be in our show notes, as well as all the other books we mentioned in the episode. Then go get them from the library. Or buy them from your favourite independent book store. Or if you want to listen to them as audiobooks, you can head to the Read This reading room on Apple Books at apple.co/readthis. There’s no shortage of options.


That’s it for this week’s show. If the episode raised difficult questions for you, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.


Next week on Read This we chat with the effervescent Trent Dalton about how he got the voice for the main character in his latest novel, Lola and the Mirror.


TRENT: You've got to start from the inside out on everything, right? You want to explore a human being, a young woman of 17, start with her heart. Go to her brain. Understand that. And then listen to what she has to tell you. And I did exactly the same thing with the 17 year old here at the heart of Lola.


Read This is produced and edited by Clara Ames.


Mixing & original compositions by Zoltan Fecso.


And subscribe, review and share us through all your channels. Thanks heaps, and thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.