LITTLE ROOM FOR SENTIMENT OR REMORSE: an interview with Jane Abbott
Who are the exciting new voices of Australian literature? There’s no better place to start than Jane Abbott. A single mother of two sons, Abbott was born in the UK, raised in the leafy suburbs of Sydney’s North Shore, and now divides her time between Melbourne and central Victoria. Jillaroo, nurse, secretary, short-time teacher, office administrator (followed by a reluctant career in marketing), she has tried her hand at most things and lived in many places. Abbott’s second manuscript, Watershed, was written in 2013; it received a Commendation in the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and secured Jane a place in the ACT Writer Centre’s’ HARDCOPY professional development program for emerging Australian writers. The Australian called Watershed ‘an accomplished and highly readable debut’.
Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone
What made you want to write Watershed?
I never set out to write Watershed per se, at least not the way it turned out. I did want to write a book about climate change. I think it’s the single most important issue we face, and will become (indeed is already) a root cause of so many other problems, including food shortages, mass migration, and other humanitarian issues. It astounds me there is so little ‘cli-fi’ out there, although I do think it’s on the rise. And on a personal note, I hope the term ‘cli-fi’ sticks and becomes as well-known and as generic as ‘sci-fi’.
Originally I thought I might manage a short (more literary) novella about increased water shortages and a community in crisis, though I had no real plan – I’m not a plotter. When Jem, Garrick and Taggart appeared on the first pages I thought I’d see where they took me. As it turned out, Jem had quite a lot to say. The new world (the Citadel, the Tower and its Council, and the Watch) surfaced easily and I felt comfortable writing it. Any idea (even hope) that it might extend to a series didn’t arise until I realised the book was as much about the future we face as it is about Jem’s reluctant journey to redemption. In many ways, that became the core of the book, and he’s the perfect anti-hero, the character we hate to love, or at least sympathise with.
The novel explores a dire though plausible scenario where climate and the societies it has supported for thousands of years are upended. Did it surprise you how rough it would be for your core suite of characters, especially Jem and those who raised him?
Putting this into context, we know that the world, climatically and geologically, is in a constant state of flux. And whether or not one is a climate change believer or denier, we are currently observing too many extreme weather conditions to assume that our planet will remain the same beneficent ball that has ‘supported our societies for thousands of years’. These conditions are already affecting food production, they are threatening our coastlines and islands, rivers and reservoirs are shrinking to nothing, and over the last fifty years the world’s population has more than doubled. In another fifty, it will have tripled. Add to that the symbiotic relationship we enjoy with nature and I think it’s safe to say that our future is looking, if not completely dire, then somewhat bleak.
There’s a short scene in the book where Sarah wonders if other places might have survived better and remained intact, and Daniel replies that if there were they wouldn’t be the ones she imagines. This is an important distinction to make because I believe that if even some of the horrors of Watershed were to happen, our society wouldn’t cope very well at all. How could we, when most of us have known only privilege? So it made no sense for me to write the book while looking down from such a position; I had to let go of any shock and distaste, and wade into it. In the same way, it makes no sense to try to read it from that perspective either. Imagining the worst-case scenario meant everyone had to be tested and I wasn’t at all surprised that things got a little rough for the characters. Sarah and Daniel provide the transition from the old First World to the new Fourth, while Jem with all his pragmatism and his innate desire for survival, embodies that new world. In such a place there is little room for sentiment and even less for remorse.
You say that the world of Watershed doesn’t allow sentiment or remorse. Perhaps it’s also the case that when societies collapse and people turn on each other there’s also a distinct lack of empathy – is that how you see the novel working?
Not at all. Empathy is recognition. We empathise with an emotion, a deed, or a situation because it strikes a chord, reminding us of our own capabilities and our own weaknesses. And while the world of Watershed might not allow for sentiment or remorse, it’s not to say neither exists. Ballard’s call to overthrow the regime is driven by regret, Sarah and Daniel display sentiment, and both Jem and Alex show empathy (as well as sympathy): Jem for Connor, and Alex for the plight of women. But Ballard, Sarah and Daniel are undone because their longing for the past is stronger than their understanding of the present, while Jem and Alex find resolutions more suited to the world they know: Jem seeks retribution for Connor, and Alex offers herself as a sacrifice; both are extreme actions, both are violent, and both are entirely logical.
We know Jem isn’t immune to sentiment, guilt, regret, or love, but he’s had to bury any feelings in order to survive, mentally and emotionally, as well as physically. His initial callousness is a little shocking, and the revelation of his past deeds appalling, yet his treatment of Daniel displays an acute humanness, one that is almost admirable. We know why he does it – we empathise with his decision – but how many of us would show the same strength or conviction? The flip side is that very same humanness – this time far less admirable – also spurs his later actions with Sarah. Because none of us are completely heroic, or completely evil. Even Garrick has a past, and we know he wasn’t always the monster we meet in the first chapter. It’s this dichotomy, and the question of nature versus nurture, that most interests me: the varying degrees of good and bad within a character. Who is worse: Garrick, because his violence is abhorrently blatant, Taggart, because he’s a master puppeteer pulling all the strings, or Jem, because he submits despite knowing better? Which defines us: what we do, or the reasons we do it? Those were the questions I wanted to explore.
Can you share a little about the process of writing Watershed, especially in terms of voice and prose. It must have been tempting to work with a very pared back, minimalist style, but the writing is beautifully constructed, indeed poetic in parts.
The first couple of drafts concentrated very much on Jem’s narrative, which is plot driven, with only the letter excerpts from Sarah giving any kind of backstory. In later drafts, and at the urging of my agent, Sarah’s narrative grew and I think I struggled more with that, always aware of the need to distinguish it from the many male voices.
I think the question of voice and prose is a little like the conundrum of chicken and egg; does a character determine use of language and voice, or does their use subsequently define the character? Maybe it’s both. I do know that Jem’s voice was never a conscious process. I didn’t feel I had to keep reminding myself that I was writing from a male POV. His observances, his commentary about his world, his youthful cynicism and his humour all flowed easily. I never found myself struggling to put words in his mouth; if anything, I had to rein him in. As far as Jem’s and other male characters’ use of foul language is concerned, that also wasn’t a conscious effort. Boys swear. Men swear. (To be fair, so do many women.) I’ve sat at restaurants and cafes next to tables of young, as well as elderly, men and have been subjected again and again to loudly uttered swearing and cursing. If they communicate like that now, how much more so when any niceties of society have been washed away? It made complete sense that Jem and Garrick would talk the way they do. What is interesting is that listening to such words – either in real life, or on the screen – never seems quite as confronting as reading them.
Some people have questioned why an older female author would choose to write a young male protagonist. My reason is simple. Given the society Jem inhabits (to which he’s contributed unashamedly), where women are very much second – even third – class citizens, it made no sense to limit the story’s potential by using a female voice. Particularly given the transitional narrative is provided by a female. Perhaps it’s because I have two sons and am probably more accustomed to male patterns of behaviour, that I see so many complexities in young men. I wanted to explore those in Jem. Of course, for the sake of the story, things are taken to the extreme, but I think the comparisons are there. I’m not sure I was ever really tempted to pare back the prose and keep it spare, because this is Jem’s story and it’s always been my experience that given half a chance, men quite often have a lot to say. I let Jem speak for himself.
What are your hopes for Watershed?
My hopes for Watershed are simple: that the language and themes challenge readers, and that its audience continues to follow Jem and the rest of the characters into the next book. I’m fairly confident of the first; only time will tell if the second comes about.
Watershed by Jane Abbott is available from Vintage Books.
Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer. His most recent work is the novella The Beach Volcano (Blemish Books, 2014), which has been described as ‘Elegant and original’ (Kerryn Goldsworthy, Sydney Morning Herald), ‘Accomplished – an intense fiction range’ (Peter Pierce, Canberra Times), and ‘Utterly enthralling’ (Walter Mason, Newtown Review of Books), and was recognised with a 2014 Canberra Critics Circle Award. His previous novella, I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012), was shortlisted for the 2013 ACT Book of the Year.
In 2015 Featherstone was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium to write the libretti for a new work that is being composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featherstone is also the author of 50 stories published in Australian literary journals including the Review of Australian Fiction, Meanjin, Island, and Overland, as well as in the US. Featherstone has been awarded residencies at Varuna (Blue Mountains) and Bundanon (Shoalhaven River); in 2013 he was a Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy/UNSW Canberra. On a contract basis he currently facilitates the ACT Writers Centre’s HARDCOPY program, which is funded by the Australia Council for the Arts. Featherstone was the founding editor of Verity La. He lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. More information at www.opentopublic.com.au