Anchor Point is an emotional tour de force.
It starts with a flood and ends with a fire - such strong metaphors - the deluge that keeps on getting higher and harder to hide from and then at the end the blazing inescapability of bare truths. This was a book that had me riveted to the page and reaching for the tissue box.
Debut author Alice Robinson agreed to answer some questions about Anchor Point for our blog. This is what she had to say.
PP: Tell us about your debut novel Anchor Point.
AR: When I sat down to write Anchor Point I was concerned about climate change. But very quickly, I came to understand that an ‘issue’ isn’t really what carries a work of fiction for readers – characters do. I didn’t have any characters at the ready, so I spent years just writing and writing in order to unearth the people who would grapple with the ideas and consequences I was so anxious about. It surprises me now to find that the novel I ended up with is very much a family story, a narrative that at first glance seems small, domestic, compared to the large, global issue I set out with.
Anchor Point is the story of Laura, who is ten when the novel opens, and her little sister Vik. They live on a large rural property with their parents Bruce and Kath, who have a tumultuous relationship – Bruce is practical, a farmer, while Kath fancies herself an artist; their ideas about what constitutes “real work” differ widely, and there is a lot of conflict in the house as a result. As many children do in such circumstances, Laura attempts to keep peace between her parents, an impossible task. When Kath disappears during a flash flood, Laura essentially steps into her mother’s role in the family. The responsibility she shoulders shapes the course of her life, as does the secret she alone carries about Kath’s fate.
"An issue isn't really what carries a work of fiction for readers - characters do."
PP: The relationships between the land and the characters in Anchor Point are incredibly complex. How much of your own rural background and experiences came into forming these characters and their emotional ties or lack thereof to the land?
AR: The characters and story are fictional, but certainly my understandings about what it is to live on and look after land, and my experiences of belonging (or failing to belong) are drawn from encounters with all kinds of home places from my life – rural properties, urban houses, cities, nations – and I was actively thinking about these experiences as I wrote the book. One of the complexities in the novel is the fact that, although Laura feels very responsible for and connected to her father’s property, she is aware of (but also ambivalent about) an Indigenous presence in the community. The idea that the land she so loves and feels connected to might actually belong to another group of people is deeply troubling to her. I think this tension is probably something many Australian readers can relate to.
"The idea that the land she so loves and feels connected to might actually belong to another group of people is deeply troubling to her."
A number of readers have commented that they enjoyed the authentic-sounding descriptions of rural life and work in the novel, but despite growing up in the country (on a hobby farm and really only on weekends, it must be admitted) I am really a bookish, indoor, city kind of person. I’m not particularly handy or practical where outdoor work is concerned and I’ve never done that kind of physical, farming labour myself. So I’m not very much like Laura at all. But my father – an excellent storyteller – did grow up on a sheep farm. He spent a lot of my childhood talking about the experiences he had as a boy, and those stories became family folklore: part of my identity. If I was able to invest the novel with any rural authenticity at all then the power of story to pass down experience is not to be underestimated. It is a profound inheritance.
PP: Whilst the plot of Anchor Point starts with an absent mother, the relationship that is portrayed between Laura and her father is incredibly austere and moving. Can you tell us more about Bruce and where his character came from?
AR: In a very real way that is difficult to articulate or explain, I don’t know where Bruce came from. I think questions such as this really relate to other more fundamental questions about how fiction writing works such as, ‘How fictional are fictional characters?’ And, ‘How does writing fiction happen?’ It is such a magical business, creating people and worlds from nothing, one that I think writers themselves find troubling and mystifying, difficult to pinpoint or fully understand. Anchor Point took 7 years to write, many hundreds of thousands of words written (and mostly discarded) in that time. At first Bruce was shadowy, but over the years as I wrote and edited the text, his voice and character strengthened until I came to understand the kind of man he was: a little rough around the edges, but also loyal, hardworking. He is vey much shaped by his own inheritance: the sheep farm his parents lost long ago and which he wants to recreate, at great cost to himself and his own children. I am so interested in the gifts and burdens we inherit from our parents (and their parents) and then pass on to our own children, sometimes unwittingly: ideas, desires, moral compasses. I feel very tenderly toward Bruce, as I think Laura does, though he is certainly the product of his limitations and experiences, as are we all.
"Writing fiction..... is such a magical business... one that I think writers themselves find troubling and mystifying, difficult to pinpoint or fully understand."
PP: One theme of the book is belonging - to the land, family, community and about finding one’s place. Can you talk a little about this in regards to how the characters develop in Anchor Point?
AR: Each character has a particular relationship to the places they find themselves inhabiting – their homes and farms and towns or cities. When you look after something, including a piece of land, you become deeply invested. Laura loves and feels responsible for the land she grows up on, but I was interested in exploring the idea of an anchor as something that both protects one from drifting into unchartered waters, as well as something that can drag one down. On one level, Laura longs to get away from the farm and strike out on her own, and on another, she feels at sea when she is away from her place. That struggle: to be free, but at a cost to her sense of self, is one Laura has to grapple with. Her little sister, Vik, has quite a different relationship to the farm, partly because Laura’s dogged labour protects her from having to do much work, and so I think Vik never really develops the same kind of connection. Kath has a different relationship to the place again, in that, unlike her daughters, she is a migrant. She finds herself transplanted to this remote property, but in her own way she respects the landscape – and uses it for her own purposes – in that she creates her clay objects from the very soil of the farm. There are suggestions that Laura’s local Indigenous friend Joseph has quite a different relationship again. He knows and understands the lands in a way that Laura finds intriguing, but also unsettling. Without giving too much away, for me one of the greatest sorrows in the book is the fate of Laura’s land: for Laura and Vik, but perhaps especially (or equally) for Joseph.
PP: The environment and it’s mishandling is another strong theme - you touch on activism, land clearing, indigenous rights and climate change. What did you want the reader to take away from their reading of Anchor Point in regards to modern rural life and it’s future?
AR: Although it saddens me to admit it, I feel largely pessimistic about the future. This is an uncomfortable position to be in, because I am also the mother of two very small children – babies, really. What kind of world are they facing? When I began writing Anchor Point I wanted to believe that my attempts to explore all the issues you’ve pinpointed might have some kind of impact on the trajectory of events; I wanted to believe that fiction writing could help make change in the world. Now I’m not so sure that it can. In the time it has taken me to write the book (from the reign of Kevin Rudd to Tony Abbott) things seem, if anything, to be getting worse in Australia, environmentally speaking.
"I wanted to believe that fiction writing could help make change in the world. Now I'm not so sure that it can."
A number of readers have found the novel melancholic, which I think it probably is. I feel so much sadness about the prospect of many of the remarkable ecosystems and animals and places I love and enjoy being damaged or destroyed in decades to come as a result of our inaction. Whether readers take any of this away from the book I’m not sure, and no doubt it will impact each reader uniquely. Regardless, I think literature and ideas are powerful and important. I’m so grateful to be contributing to the conversation around Australian environmental issues in some small way.
PP: The ending of Anchor Point is set in the year 2018. Why set the ending in the future and not the here and now?
AR: The novel is set largely in the recent past and near future. The year 2018 seemed just far enough into the future to allow some creative license over events, but also close enough, I hope, to be relatable and believable. I was writing the book when Black Saturday occurred, and after that event the final scene in the book began to feel eerily possible. As I see it, the action of the novel takes place in the last gasp before any definitive, destructive or world-ending event, which means that there remains a sliver of hope for the characters beyond the pages. A novel set a long way off in the future would focus on the lives of characters surviving in a world that is already significantly altered, probably for the worse. But most of those changes haven’t happened yet in Anchor Point. To some extent, the characters can see destruction approaching, but from a distance. There is something terrifying about that, to me.
PP: This is your debut novel. Can you tell us about getting your book published?
AR: I finished the book in the months just before my first child was born. I entered it into a couple of prizes for unpublished manuscripts, but nothing came of them. I was so tired and so pregnant and a bit burned out by the whole protracted experience of writing the novel. I was really ready to put the manuscript away. “I’ll just be a mum now,” I thought. “That’s an okay thing to be.” But I happened to speak to a friend on the phone who had read the book and enjoyed it. She urged me to keep sending it out to publishers. I grumbled, but she made me feel sufficiently lazy, so I decided to send it out one more time – to Affirm Press. The first three chapters landed in their slush pile. They may have stayed there indefinitely, had their publisher Martin Hughes not taken a couple of manuscripts away with him on holidays, as a favour to his colleagues. He read my chapters and requested the rest. When he phoned to say that he wanted to publish the book, I understood what it must be like to win Tatts lotto. A sense of incredible good fortune and gratitude has never left me. After Martin phoned I also realised that, although I will always be the mother of a gorgeous little girl (and now a lovely boy too), I can have another kind of life at the same time: a writing life.
"When he phoned to say that he wanted to publish the book, I understood what it must be like to win Tatts lotto."
PP: You also lecture in creative writing at Melbourne Polytechnic. Can you tell us one invaluable piece of writing advice that you give to your students?
AR: The thing I really stress to my students is that writing well is a kind of intellectual fitness: the more you do it, the easier it gets. This goes for both quality and quantity, I think. When I am writing in a serious way every day, I notice a big improvement in the ease with which the words come to me, the satisfaction I feel with what I produce, and the pleasure I derive from the experience of writing. But when I am unable to write regularly, my skill grows flabby quickly and it all feels like impossibly hard labour.
My students normally write for an hour during each of my classes, and I can see that at the beginning of semester it is hard for them to sit at their desks for more than about five or ten minutes without getting fidgety; they can’t sustain the concentration. Writing a novel, something that many of them long to do, requires many, many hundreds of hours of intense focus, so I work with them over the course of our time together to build their writing fitness incrementally. It is amazing how much they can produce in sixty minutes by the end of semester – their surprise and gratification is a source of joy for me.
Anchor Point is published by Affirm Press and is in stock now. Rrp $25