Time lays out unexpected juxtapositions. I must have met Robyn when I was five or six. Fifty years ago. She was the friend of the older sister of a friend of mine. In one room, while we swooned to distorting and scratched records of The Partridge Family, in the few silences we afforded, from the next room we’d hear Robyn and her friend listening to the sounds of silence, or taking tea with the Tillerman and the Firecat, deep, nuanced things. Robyn was always the silent watcher, her blue, blue eyes take in everything.
Robyn’s writing speaks to her fascination with wild places and their sway on human lives. She has summered and over-wintered at Australian Antarctic stations, working as a field assistant on science research projects. She works seasonally as an Assistant Expedition Leader on ship-based tours to the Antarctic, Arctic and other remote locales. At home in Tasmania, she writes and teaches writing.
Robyn has just released her second novel, Wildlight. I thought we’d take some time to chew the fat about its creation and grapple with the gristle of the creative process.
Has writing always been part of your life?
Books and reading, daydreams and stories, have been a constant through my life. I didn’t formally study writing until my 30s, and even then it turned out to be a circuitous route: I’d decided to switch from a career in graphic design and train to become a speech pathologist (that’s a different story). I did a year of study at a community college as a prerequisite to university enrolment and won the college English prize. I duly ignored my lecturer’s suggestion to consider an Arts Degree instead of Speech. I spent two semesters beavering away at Speech Pathology, realising by the end of it that it was not for me. It was the stories of people facing life challenges that I was captivated by. In desperation I switched to an Arts degree but then became ignited by creative writing, thanks to the teachings and encouragement of key tutors and lecturers. My writing life escalated from there.
What was the first inkling you had of Wildlight? And how did it proceed from there.
Having grown up in Tasmania, Maatsuyker Island, situated off the SW corner of the state, always held a fascination for me. At the family shack (where I spent a childhood of summers and school holidays with blog host Greg Johnston!) I would listen on Dad’s crackly radio to weather reports of wild storms and winds at Maatsuyker Island. Back then the Maatsuyker Island Lighthouse was still manned. At some point I remember seeing an old black and white film of Maatsuyker Island and its light keepers, which further bolstered my intrigue. I wanted to write a novel set on Maatsuyker, but I knew I had to physically experience the island to write about it with authenticity and authority. In 2010–11 an opportunity came up for my partner Gary and I to spend four months on the island, entirely on our own, as volunteer caretakers and weather observers. Ideas for the story grew and Wildlight became a reality.
What are the main themes you wished to explore in this novel? And why?
As a writer I am preoccupied with wild, remote places and their sway on human lives. It comes down to identity and the forces that shape it. At 16 and 19 my two main characters Stephanie and Tom are still in the making. Steph loathes Maatsuyker Island. She has been dragged there by her parents still coming to terms with their grief over the death of Steph’s twin brother. Tom is a deckhand on his brother’s crayfishing boat that works off Maatsuyker Island. Tom fears the ocean and holds a premonition that the sea will one day take him. Wildlight is a collision of young lives set against an unforgiving environment.
At what point of the writing do you start to think of the structure, detail and character?
Character: I had the good fortune of beginning preliminary writing during a residency at Camden Haven, NSW. My mentor Ian Templeman encouraged me to write a detailed character biography for each of the main players, and to write vignettes of those characters in action. Elements of the biographies changed, but the process afforded me a solid platform from which to consider my characters and the forces that drive them. Plot: I had several plot points I wanted my characters to arrive at, though I had no idea how they would get there. Even during the final stage of writing the first draft I had no clue of how the story would end. As it turned out I made a significant change to the end section of the novel quite late in the process. Point of View: I started out writing the book from multiple points of view, but pared these back until it was just Steph and Tom’s stories, presented in third person point of view via alternating chapters. You can appreciate just how organic the creative process is, and how much writing happens in the subconscious. From some intangible, deep-seated place within, the unexpected emerges. Occasionally these moments feel magical.
I’m exceedingly keen on a chapter summary. Some start with a summary and expand. Others write and then summarise. As you’re working, do you work with a chapter summary?
The writing begins with an image: the character in action, in conversation, in conflict, a feeling. The chapter muddles along from there and finally comes together in draft form (I spend a long time revising). That unstructured process of chapter planning, using only a handful of plot point, sounds fraught, which makes me think that there must be organisational processes ticking away in the subconscious. Sometimes the most productive writing I do is in my head when I’m off taking a walk.
Dog walking is essential to writing. The tall tale/tails we find… I didn’t want to suggest a summary is necessarily rigid. It has to be a tennis match, ideas pitched back and forth and forth and back between the novel and the summary. But one can hold a summary in the hand which affords a quick overview. I’m interested/terrified that while you were writing you had no idea of the ending. Some theorists suggest you should know the ending first and then plot towards that. Whilst I applaud the tightrope walker, would you write another novel in this manner?
I would write in the same way because I like that process of unearthing the unexpected along the way. I need to qualify that statement because I always want my character(s) to finally shift to some kind of new beginning. As a reader, too, I want an ending of a novel to hold some glimmer of optimism, no matter how dire the circumstances.
Describe the environment(s) you write in? What do you need to evoke the Blarney?
My grand plan to write oodles during my four months at Maatsuyker Island was curtailed by chilly temperatures. We lived in the unheated former head keeper’s cottage and quickly discovered that there is only so much sitting still that a person can manage at 14°C before the need to run around outside to thaw out. The bulk of the writing was done on my return from Maatsuyker, in my office at home. It’s a space where I can dress casually and comfortably and feel relaxed. I try to look on writing as a full-time job, whether or not I’m feeling inspired on the day. I don’t always succeed and can lay claim to a Very Large Array of procrastinating measures. At one stage our lawn was entirely dandelion and weed-free thanks to a compulsion to avoid my desk…
I don’t know where my writing would be without the dishwasher and washing machine. How does your Tasmanian past figure in your writing present?
Growing up on a small island, distanced from ‘the mainland’, still inhabits my imagination. I believe that those formative experiences of place are imprinted on our DNA.
Tasmania taught me appreciation of the three Ws – Water, Wilderness and Words. What is your least favourite part of the writing process? And your favourite?
Least favourite: that strident voice of self-doubt.
Favourites: creating something that has the capacity to be bigger than me; having the thinking time to express myself in a way that I fail to do in everyday life.
What major insight did you have into the writing process during this novel’s evolution?
To lay faith in the creative process, even as it leads you astray. Only on reflection can you understand that nothing is wasted.
What’s next on the horizon?
A glass of wine. Two.
Let’s all drink to that! Something highly effervescent.
WILDLIGHT: BACK COVER BLURB
You spend your whole time on an island looking out to sea. Perhaps what you are facing is yourself.
Sixteen-year-old Stephanie West has been dragged from Sydney to remote Maatsuyker Island off the coast of Tasmania by her parents, hoping to recapture a childhood idyll and come to terms with their grief over the death of Steph’s twin brother. Cut off from friends and the comforts of home, exiled to a lonely fortress with a lighthouse that bears the brunt of savage storms, the months ahead look to be filled with ghosts of the past.
Steph’s saviour is Tom Forrest, a 19-year-old deckhand aboard a crayfishing boat. When the weather allows, Tom visits the island, and he and Steph soon form an attraction. But Tom must conceal at all costs the illegal fishing he takes part in, orchestrated by his tyrannical brother. And he dare not dwell on his fear of the sea or his deep-worn premonition that the ocean will one day take him.
Wildlight is an exquisite, vividly detailed exploration of the wayward journey of adolescence, and how the intense experience of a place can change the course of even the most well-planned life.