The Animals in That Country

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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.

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