Sometimes There Are No Good Choices: The Millions Interviews Robbie Arnott

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A heron made of storm. A squid culled for its ink. A society broken by coup and disintegration. Floods, droughts, hiding in caves, and offering blood to the seas. Robbie Arnott includes it all in his sophomore novel The Rain Heron, a beautifully poetic, hypnotic, barreling ride through symbiotic characters and landscapes, churning its nimble feet with environmental and existential angst. It is as delightfully brutal as it is captivating.

Born in and still residing in Tasmania, Arnott’s debut novel Flames was released to critical acclaim in 2018. The novel was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, the Queensland Literary Award, the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, and the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. Arnott was also a 2019 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist and won the 2019 Margaret Scott Prize in the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes.

The Rain Heron is sure to garner just as much attention. It is as pitch-perfect a second novel as could have been anticipated. Bringing darkness with light, chaos tinged with resolution, and a magic and myth-encrusted world that sings and stings, Arnott displays stunning talent on every page. Connected halfway across the world, Arnott and I spoke about the influence of environment, literary inspirations, external versus internal pursuits, and the complicated notion of symbiosis between nature and society.   

The Millions: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me about this brilliant novel. The Rain Heron is a stunning blend of mythologies, grim society, and fatefully interconnected lives, and I’m curious to know, what was the origin of the book? Was it a particular line, an image, an idea?

Robbie Arnott: The writing of the book began with the first section, which details the legend of the rain heron. I was trying to invent my own myth, of a creature that was emblematic of both the beauty and savagery of nature. I tried a few different things until I realized I was trying to describe a storm, and the way a storm can be as captivating as it can be deadly. Once I figured that out, I turned a storm into the only creature that I believed could embody its grace and power: a great, wondrous bird.

TM: Landscape plays one of the largest roles in the story, particularly through weather and environmental changes, which makes me wonder how much you gravitate to the outdoors? How much does the environment around you inform your daily life, or your writing process?

RA: I’m fortunate enough to live in a beautiful, somewhat remote part of the world, where stunning landscapes and environments are all very close, so I spend a lot of time outdoors. If I’m stuck for something to write about, I start describing a landscape I’ve visited recently—a forest, a stretch of coastline, an ocean, a mountainside—and then see if a story or plot line curls off it. It’s not necessarily intentional; I’m just easily influenced by the world around me.

TM: The landscape in the novel is rendered geographically anonymous though—generalized in title as mountains, forests, rivers, seas. Is this to make the plight more universal, to drive the story forward as a more collective mythology?

RA: Absolutely—I wanted it to feel universal, and unanchored to any places in the real world. If I placed the story in my homeland of Tasmania, for example, the setting would bring along all the things that readers already associate with the island. The book would be imbued with an inherent Tasmanianness, and I wanted to avoid that. Instead, I wanted it to feel clean and new, as well as being recognizable, although not as anywhere specific.

TM: In terms of literary influences, I’d love to know what writers and artists inform and inspire your work?

RA: I’m heavily and unashamedly influenced by the descriptive prose of Annie Proulx. I think she’s a wizard. My work is also heavily in debt to Richard Flanagan, Jeanette Winterson, and Susanna Clarke, as well as many other writers. I love the clean and revelatory prose of Kazuo Ishiguro. When writing about landscapes and nature, I think I’m probably inspired by non-fiction writers as well—people like J. A. Baker and Helen Macdonald.

TM: The Rain Heron is built on minimal dialogue. Is that a style particular to this novel, or an aesthetic you cultivate across your writing?

RA: It’s probably both. I generally don’t use a lot of dialogue, probably because I’m naturally drawn more to description than conversation. For this book, I wanted to portray the characters almost entirely through their actions and reactions rather than what they said or felt. It felt right to do it that way—to flesh them out through their behavior.

TM: Does the sparse dialogue tell us something about the novel’s take on internal pursuits versus external influences?

RA: I hope so. I hope it draws out a sense of tension and conflict between motivations that can technically be justifiable, and things we inherently know to be wrong. Sometimes there are no good choices.

TM: Ren, our anchor point character throughout much of the novel, only relinquishes her solitude when the landscape around her is endangered. Is this a commentary on valuing the world itself above the individual?

RA: Yeah, I guess so, although I don’t know if I conceived of it that sharply. Human destruction of the environment is unavoidable in real life, so I thought it should be unavoidable in the book. Yet we still like forests, mountains, and rivers. I wanted Ren to experience a tension between her love for nature and her unwillingness to interact with other people. If that plays out as a commentary on valuing the natural world, then I guess I’ve done part of my job.

TM: That begs the question then: What is the other part of your job?

RA: To entertain, I think. And hopefully to enrich. I love books that both drag me in and mess about with how I see the world. If I wrote anything like that, I’d be over the moon.

TM: Throughout the book, there’s a focus on nature versus humanity, specifically society’s desire, and yet inability, to fully control or dominate nature. Do you think we’ll ever truly see a genuinely understood symbiosis between society and nature on a global scale?

RA: Many communities and groups of people have done it before, for long periods of time. It’s not hard to cast around and find examples of civilizations that existed harmoniously with their environments for hundreds of years, sometimes thousands. I don’t know if it will happen again—at the moment, it seems unlikely. But it has been done before. It’s tempting to hope lessons can still be learnt from the past.

TM: At one point Ren also says that she wishes she’d been “less cold” to other people. Beyond the influence of the environment, how much do our relationships build who we are, affect who we become?

RA: We’re just a sum of our experiences and relationships, really. And we don’t often get a say in how they affect or shape us. It’s out of our hands. I’m not a total believer in determinism, but I do think we are largely molded by forces outside of ourselves, rather than through internal machinations of the mind.

TM: Through some slick and smart perspective shifts in the novel, the notion of antagonist and protagonist is muddied. Do you see that typical dichotomy as outdated or flawed?

RA: Not necessarily—there are lots of books with typical antagonists and protagonists that I love. But I didn’t want to write a book like that. I’m interested in the messiness of people, the hesitations, the self-justifications, the swirl of kindness and selfishness. I wanted to create characters who embodied those things. I don’t think standard protagonists and antagonists need to be done away with, but I do think there’s room to write stories about people who are neither wonderful or evil, and whose singular actions don’t necessarily define who they are.

TM: Have virtual events been any sort of silver lining to releasing a book during a worldwide pandemic?

RA: I’ve met some incredible writers I wouldn’t have otherwise, and have been able to talk about my book to people who never would have been able to make a traditional bookshop or festival event. So that’s definitely been a surprising benefit. Everyone has adapted so quickly.

TM: From your first novel to this second one, what has changed in your approach, style, or intent as a writer?

RA: I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, but if my writing has changed, it’s probably because I can figure out what’s not working more quickly. I think my instincts have sharpened through experience. I’ve done away with a few styles I played with in my first book and focused more on what I believe are my strengths. Although my writing process is still a giant mess. It’s chaos. I don’t know any other way.

TM: Can you tell us about some remarkable Australian authors you think might be deserving of more international recognition?

RA: Oh hell yeah. I love the work of Ryan O’Neill, and can’t wait for his next book. Jane Rawson is phenomenal, too—From The Wreck is a work of tremendous skill and imagination. And I desperately hope the world doesn’t sleep on Laura Jean McKay and her remarkable novel The Animals In That Country. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years.

Too Beautifully Sinister Not to Indulge: The Millions Interviews Adam Wilson

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Adam Wilson’s second novel, Sensation Machines, opens on Michael and Wendy, a couple desperate to eradicate their home of bedbugs, and from there the novel quickly swoops and swarms to include a murder, a corporate conspiracy, a world-changing invention, and the rampant disquiet of global economic pressures. It’s a novel based in relationships that sprawls to a worldly view.

Wilson’s debut, Flatscreen, showcased an intrepid youth fighting through a haze of drugs and dashed sexual hopes, and his story collection, What’s Important Is Feeling, followed a host of pseudo-adults through tough though often hilarious moments. Sensation Machines likewise deals out its fair share of sad people in sad existences, but it also uncovers how much our society informs our behavior, how inundated we are by technology, and how beset we are with problems of our own making.

Wilson’s work has appeared in The Paris Review, Tin House, and The Best American Short Stories. The brilliance of Sensation Machines is in the author’s smooth and utterly believable worldbuilding, even if the future represented here is one to fear rather than embrace, one to work against instead of one to apathetically claim.

The Millions: One of the first elements that struck me about Sensation Machines was the worldbuilding risks you took, blending contemporary life with an invented future. In the novel, people still ride around in cars, but baristas are robots and food is delivered by drones. How tough was it to ride that line, to invent a future setting while staying within a realm that is so (frighteningly) close to us?

Adam Wilson: It was a big challenge, and one that quickly became more challenging with Trump’s election in 2016. I started working on Sensation Machines in 2011, and my original idea was to write a novel set around the 2008 Wall Street crash. The problem was that the more research I did, the less interested I became in writing something grounded in such a specific historical moment. Reimagining the book in a near-future setting felt freeing; I liked being able to make stuff up. But of course, then the world started changing very rapidly, and it became increasingly more difficult to imagine what that near-future might look like. I ended up having to do a lot of re-writing to ensure that my dystopia was appropriately dystopic.

TM: In a similar way, you reference historical events like the #MeToo Movement and the Occupy Wall Street protests to further feed the worldbuilding. Was this an organic development, or was it a calculated move to house the novel’s roots in the very real problems of society?

AW: It was organic in the sense that I tend to be drawn toward the zeitgeist. Fiction, for me, is in part a venue for sorting out my feelings about what’s going on in the culture. And what I like about fiction is that it feels like a safe place to explore those feelings without needing to put forward any kind of concrete thesis or answer. As I said, I started working on this novel in 2011, in the midst of Occupy, and I think I started writing about it just to see if I could figure out what Occupy was and how I felt about it. The same goes for a lot of the material in the book. There are certainly musicians–including other rappers–who have meant much more to me than Eminem has, but I wanted to write about him because I’ve never quite known where I stand on him, or what an appropriate attitude toward his music might look like. It feels inherently fraught to proclaim oneself an Eminem fan, and that makes for the kind of friction that I’m interested in exploring.

TM: In exploring those subjects–Eminem and Occupy–did the novel help you to find where you stand on each of them, how you feel about them?

AW: Well, I think Occupy is a fundamentally good thing, though I’d still be hard pressed to define it. And I’m still ambivalent about Eminem, an artist whose imagination and skill I greatly admire, but whose art will always, on some level, disappoint me. But my hope is that the novel asks more questions than it answers. Which is not to say it doesn’t have a worldview–and one of deep and abiding skepticism at that–but that I’d like to think its spirit is more searching than didactic.

TM: And yet even with all the heavy context, Sensation Machines is laugh-out-loud funny in so many places. How do you navigate the injection of humor into what is a pretty downtrodden backdrop and often despondent characters?

AW: Humor tends to be my default mode, so the challenge for me isn’t in injecting humor–it’s usually the first thing that’s there–but in making sure the humor doesn’t come at the expense of a deeper emotional engagement, and that, in fact, it works in the service of the larger story I’m trying to tell. And it is a challenge—it’s very hard to get myself to cut a good joke! But sometimes it needs to be done. Luckily, outside readers can be very useful arbiters of which jokes don’t warrant inclusion. The book’s editor, Mark Doten, is a joke-cutter extraordinaire.

TM: In the first portion of the book, the perspective strictly toggles between Wendy and Michael, while in the second we get several new characters and their viewpoints. Where did this structure come from, and what was the intent behind holding off on the rest of the cast in the beginning?

AW:  Originally, the book was going to all be in first person a la The Savage Detectives, and in those early drafts the whole cast came out right from the beginning. But navigating between so many first-person voices was a challenge, and so much jumping around at the beginning was an impediment to narrative thrust.

When I started writing the book, I knew that I wanted to use a big canvas to tell an idea-driven story, but I also wanted the novel to feel intimate and human in a way that I’m often disappointed that big canvas novels aren’t. To pull this off, it felt like I needed the novel to somehow both include a big cast of characters and be primarily focused on just a couple of them. Its success is not for me to judge, but the structure I landed on was written with this goal in mind.

TM: The third section “Parentheses” references Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and her notion of a death that is parenthetical or “just announced in parentheses without commentary.” In this section, we see the beginning of Wendy and Michael’s relationship, which took place just after 9/11. How much does 9/11 influence the characters in Sensation Machines? How much does it influence your writing?

AW: I was wary of approaching 9/11, in large part because it’s been written about so much over the last couple decades, and written about so well by heroes of mine like Deborah Eisenberg and Don DeLillo. But the farther I got into the novel, the clearer it became that this event would have been formative for my protagonists, and that to avoid it was a cop-out. But I also knew that I needed to approach it from a fresh angle, and the thing I landed on was this question of what it would be like for 9/11 to occur between this couple’s first and second dates. One of the novel’s big subjects is the relationship between individuals and world-historical events, both in terms of how these events are shaped by the choices made by individual people, and also how these events shape individual lives. Having Wendy pursue a career in advertising because she’s in awe of the media’s manipulation of this national tragedy felt too beautifully sinister not to indulge.

TM: Although you’ve written Sensation Machines into a dystopia, in the final movement of the novel, Wendy’s sleazy colleague Greg says, “We’re living in something very close to a utopia. Food is in abundance. So is medical care. Cars run on sunlight. Meat grows on trees. If you cut off your finger you can print a new one at home and fly in Drone MD to inject you with anesthetic and sew it back on.” Would you want to live in this kind of a world? Do some of us already, in a way?

AW: We’re living in some version of it, yes. The book is meant to be hyperbolic, but not exponentially so.  And certainly technological advancement can be a really amazing thing–I’m not arguing otherwise. But I think what the novel asks readers to be wary of is the way certain changes in the culture–some of which are brought about by technology–are so quickly and skillfully packaged, sold, and integrated before we’ve really had a chance to think through their possible consequences.

TM: Although in terms of characterization and relationships this book bears a striking resemblance to your debut, Flatscreen, the worldbuilding and futurescape of Sensation Machines is new. Is this departure a one-off, or something you’ll chase down again?

AW: I keep trying to make every project as different from the previous one as possible, but I inevitably end up back on my bullshit, as the kids say. It seems hard to imagine writing something set in a near future right now when that near future feels so impossible to predict, and yet, I find myself tinkering with the idea anyway, probably because I’m a masochist.

TM: What are you working on now? What new projects do you have simmering?

AW: I haven’t had any time to write since the pandemic hit. My wife works full-time at a demanding tech job, so I’ve had to be a one-man daycare for our two-year-old son. But before that, I was just finding my footing in a new novel that I’m not quite ready to talk about yet, but that I hope to get back to sometime soon.

Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: Adam Wilson