I’ve been waiting a long time for something new from my friend Robyn Mundy, and the wait has been worth it. I couldn’t be more thrilled that she’s here talking about her brilliant new novel, Wildlight (Picador).
Robyn’s first novel, The Nature of Ice (Allen & Unwin, 2009), remains one of my all-time favourites, and was shortlisted for the 2010 Dobbie Award. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to beg, borrow or steal a copy—or preferably buy one here. After you’ve read Wildlight, that is.
If there is a link between The Nature of Ice and Wildlight, it is in the wild places that Robyn brings so beautifully to life in each—in the former, Antarctica; the latter, Maatsuyker Island.
Robyn is intimately acquainted with both. In the preliminary stage of writing Wildlight, she and her partner spent four months living and working alone on Maatsuyker Island as volunteer caretakers and weather observers. And she has summered and over-wintered at Australian Antarctic stations, working as a field assistant on science research projects.
Robyn works seasonally as an Assistant Expedition Leader on ship-based tours to the Antarctic, Arctic and other remote locales. The rest of the time, she lives in Hobart, where she writes and teaches writing.
Here is the blurb for Wildlight:
We all bow to the weather. It’s the light and dark of being at this place. You plant yourself on the edge of an ocean and you see how startling nature is, that it’s fierce and beautiful and totally indiscriminate.
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.
And now, over to Robyn…
2 things that inspired your book
1 Land: I grew up studying my parents’ wall chart of Tasmania and listening, through a crackling radio, to evening weather reports from around the state. Maatsuyker Island’s pattern of westerly storms had me picture a wind-battered outpost on the edge of the Southern Ocean; I’d see keepers trudging to and from the lighthouse to dutifully tend its light. I must have put myself in that picture, for I longed to know such a place.
2 Ocean: A second inspiration stems from a growing-up of boating: rowing down the bay to pull the net and craypot, or trips with Dad in the big boat, a packet of jaw-wrenching Minties ever at hand. I can still summon the moment of seeing the craypot reach the surface, peering down to a small haul of crayfish.
As an adult, visits to Hobart often included a walk around Constitution Dock to see the fleet of fishing boats with their craypots stacked on deck. But it wasn’t until I spent four months on Maatsuyker Island in 2010–11, looking down upon these small boats in formidable conditions, that I gained full admiration for their fishermen and women.
How and why do these formative experiences, stored in memory sometimes for decades, transfigure into story? I only know that a wild place, and the people who inhabit it, inspired the makings of Wildlight.
2 places connected with your book
1 Becoming: I’m interested in the way a wild place—far removed from the comfortable urban lives we might otherwise live—impacts upon us. I’m not talking idyll. Immersion in such a setting can be hard, uncomfortable, may even resemble an imprisonment. Stephanie of Wildlight will tell you that. But ultimately, and sometimes only on reflection, the encounter—clear and simple in its focus, removed from the thousand distractions that cluster our day—is liberating, vivid, perhaps powerful enough to shape or direct us beyond. I am fascinated with the process of becoming and its connection with place.
2 Writing at Camden Haven: In the early stages of writing Wildlight I was lucky enough to be awarded a writing residency at gorgeous Camden Haven on the Mid North Coast region of New South Wales. It came packaged with the valuable guidance of mentor Ian Templeman, to whom Wildlight is dedicated. One day Ian commented on my hosts’ home, built on a bend of the Camden River: I can imagine your character living somewhere like this. That idea put itself to creative work and evolved into the setting and trajectory of the final part of the novel. Thank you, dear Ian.
2 favourite quotes from the book
1 I really like my character Tom. He is nineteen, a deckie on his older brother’s crayboat. He wants a purpose to his life. He wants to be free of his brother’s control. Tom’s need for a future of his own choosing has him chart the point within a person where goodness ends and a darker force takes over. With sound reason Tom fears the ocean, but at the same time the awe he feels for his surrounds is something I love about his character:
On a clear morning he’d be pulling pots in the dark, the first hint of dawn the eastern horizon purpling to a bruise. Before the sun tipped above the ocean, the promise of light would amplify the sky—a curtain turned blood orange, the Mewstone toy-like against its breadth.
2 On my desk I have a piece of lighthouse glass I found on Maatsuyker Island. For such a small object it’s surprisingly heavy, the glass 10 mm in thickness. It holds its own story: a bygone storm with force enough to smash a toughened shield of glass. Throughout Wildlight the glass of the lighthouse takes a hold of my character Stephanie:
She heard herself babbling when she’d promised herself she wouldn’t; that at first the glass looked clear but when you really looked it was the most delicate sea green imaginable, each curve infused with hundred-year-old bubbles. The lighthouse glass was sunlight punching through the back of a wave and that’s how she saw it, the swirl and twist and how the ocean’s energy seemed locked inside the glass. Light set it in motion.