All year I have been looking forward to interviewing Robyn Mundy about her brilliant new novel, Cold Coast. Robyn is the author of The Nature of Ice, set in Antarctica, and Wildlight, set on remote Maatsuyker Island, off Tasmania’s southern coast (read a post about Wildlight here), and this new novel takes readers to another of the wild places of the world: Arctic Norway. As the photos below show, it is as rugged as it is stunningly beautiful.
Among many endorsements for Cold Coast is this from award-winning novelist Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites:
Cold Coast summons the raw beauty of Svalbard with achingly evocative prose. At once visceral and lyrical, I was totally absorbed in the story of Wanny Woldstad and her yearning for wilder freedoms.
When Robyn is not writing or travelling (in the days when that was possible), she teaches writing and works as a volunteer marine radio operator. She shares her home in Tasmania with a penguin biologist and a Blue Heeler.
She is also a dear friend of so many years that they can probably be measured in decades now, and is one of my favourite writers.
Perth readers: Robyn will be in conversation at Beaufort Street Books on Tuesday 30 November. Bookings here
In 1932, Wanny Woldstad, a young widow, travels to Svalbard, daring to enter the Norwegian trappers’ fiercely guarded male domain. She must prove to Anders Sæterdal, her trapping partner who makes no secret of his disdain, that a woman is fit for the task. Over the course of a Svalbard winter, Wanny and Sæterdal will confront polar bears, traverse glaciers, withstand blizzards and the dangers of sea ice, and hike miles to trap Arctic fox, all in the frigid darkness of the four-month polar night. For Wanny, the darkness hides her own deceptions that, if exposed, speak to the untenable sacrifice of a 1930s woman longing to fulfil a dream.
Alongside the raw, confronting nature of the trappers’ work is the story of a young blue Arctic fox, itself a hunter, who must eke out a living and navigate the trappers’ world if it is to survive its ﬁrst Arctic winter.
A cabin with a story
AC: Robyn, while Cold Coast is a work of fiction, Wanny Woldstad (pronounced ‘Vonny Volstad’) was indeed Svalbard’s first female hunter and trapper. How did you come upon her story?
RM: I spend several months of each year working as a ship-based guide on tourist expeditions to the polar regions, north and south. Our voyages include Svalbard, an extraordinary archipelago in the High Arctic, way north of Norway. A favourite site to visit is Hornsund in the south-west corner of Spitsbergen, Svalbard’s largest island. At the inner end of the fjord sits a pint-sized trapper’s cabin, set at the foot of a mountain with cliffs and ledges alive with the shrieks of breeding seabirds. When I discovered that the cabin was used by Wanny Woldstad in the early 1930s, and that she was Svalbard’s first female trapper and hunter, I wanted to know more. How did a woman—a young widow—break into a fiercely guarded male domain? What was the experience of months of winter darkness in bitterly cold conditions? Those questions set me on a course of research and writing that became Cold Coast.
A scaffold for imagination
AC: Creating a character drawn from real life, a novel inspired by a true story, is not without its challenges. Wanny published her own story in the 1950s, and I’m wondering whether this was a help or a hindrance to your development of the character we read about in Cold Coast.
RM: Wanny’s published memoir, First Woman Trapper on Svalbard, proved utterly invaluable. It took me six months to get hold of a copy through a local library document delivery service (hallelujah for our fantastic libraries and the services they provide), and several months more to have it translated from Norwegian to English. While I often craved more of Wanny’s internal world—her thoughts and feelings, her anxieties and misgivings—she offered a sparkling window into the day-to-day life of an Arctic trapper: the practical challenges, the physical exhaustion of the work that meant trekking 20 kilometres a day to check and reset fox traps, rowing a leaky boat six hours in dodgy weather to reach their outer cabin, crossing a glacier on foot in the dead of winter, encountering polar bears. Just as importantly, I gained an intimate sense of domestic life inside the hut—the room where they cooked and ate and slept, the same space where Wanny set aside her embroidery to flay fox and bear pelts. Her memoir provided the scaffolding that gave structure to my own story and ignited numerous scenes.
Tougher than bears and blizzards
AC: There are many journeys in Cold Coast—physical, into a wild place that poses life-threatening challenges; psychological, testing mind and spirit in the pursuit of a formidable dream. And with only two main characters for most of the narrative, there’s also the journey of a complex relationship. Could you please tell us about Wanny’s trapping partner, Anders?
RM: I hope readers will pay a nod to Anders Sæterdal who, despite his grave reservations about a woman trapper and having to withstand derision from fellow trappers, afforded Wanny her chance to go north. Anders acknowledged two crucial qualities in Wanny: as Tromsø’s first taxi driver, operating her own cab, he saw a get-up-and-go, self-made woman; and she had formidable skill with a rifle—Wanny regularly won target shooting championships. That blend of independence, determination and practical prowess was Wanny’s ticket to the Arctic, yet Anders immediately regretted the decision to take her. In turn, he proved an unyielding taskmaster. Out in the field he expected Wanny to take care of herself, get herself out of trouble; she had to learn fast and work hard. I suspect the effort of proving herself to Anders Sæterdal was a far tougher undertaking for Wanny than it might have been for a first-time male trapper.
AC: There are other stories circling Wanny’s during her year on Svalbard that give us a different perspective on the world she and Anders have entered and what they are there for. I found the main interleaving narrative—the chapters headed ‘Fox’—utterly compelling, and a remarkable feat of imaginative engagement with the non-human world. What was behind your decision to include these other narratives?
RM: Thank you, Amanda. From the start I wanted to offer a contrasting experience to that of the human hunters. I chose the perspective of an Arctic fox. The fox itself is hunter and hunted, a small animal prized for its pelt, needing to eke out sufficient food to survive its first Arctic winter as it navigates the trappers’ perilous world. The fox chapters are purposely concise, adhering to the fox’s ‘creature-ness’. I wasn’t sure how this strand of the narrative would play out, only that the interplay offered the capacity for affection between Wanny and this small Arctic fox, along with the inevitable tension for a starving fox tempted each and every day by a trap baited with its favourite ptarmigan meat.
Imagining beyond the human
AC: Staying with the ‘Fox’ chapters for the moment: they are so detailed in their minute observations of the animals’ behaviour that it feels like we are there, watching, feeling, seeing through their eyes. How did you, as a writer, enter that space?
RM: One of my cherished experiences of travelling regularly to the Arctic has been encounters with Arctic fox. I won’t forget standing on the slopes right beside Wanny’s hut, watching a family of fox kits romp through snow and tussle together, as playful as puppies or kittens. I am fascinated by Arctic foxes—their speed and agility in navigating death-defying mountain ledges and near vertical slopes in order to hunt, their capacity to snooze in a howling gale, their ability to vanish then reappear in an entirely different place. Some of the old trapper accounts talk about having a house fox each season, an animal so tame it would stay around the cabin and take scraps of food from a trapper’s hand. In writing from a fox’s perspective, the characterisation of the fox comes solely through its actions; I loved falling into the fox world and imagining those moments.
A receding landscape
AC: Svalbard—situated between mainland Norway and the North Pole—is one of the stars of the novel, fully alive on the page. Climatic extremes, plant and animal life, geographical features, rare phenomena—beautiful, often surprising descriptions that come from your own intimate knowledge of place are among my favourite passages. Here are two examples, but I could give pages of them:
…it is neither night nor day. Soft, it feels to Anders, this silky in-between, the sky all lilac and butter.
Leaves of Arctic willow turn gold and russet; they wither, consumed into the permafrost’s water-logged skin.
How different are they, the Svalbard you know and the Svalbard of Wanny’s time?
RM: Part of my research was to pore over maps, terrain and distances, and to investigate changes to the glacier that Wanny and Anders regularly crossed on foot. Now could be a moment where a picture paints a thousand words. This map shows the extent of ice in Wanny’s time in 1932 (dark green), the recession of the glacier by 1990 (mid green) and further diminishment through to 2010 (light green). Sadly, the melting of ice from increased global temperatures is consistent across the Arctic latitudes.
Contextualising the visceral
AC: There is no getting away from the gruesomeness of the trappers’ work, and readers have to be prepared to set aside the modern lens through which we view the trapping of animals for their skins today. Some scenes are confronting to read, but I know, from having myself written of a horrific historical murder, that it can also be confronting to write of such visceral things. How did you approach that aspect of the writing?
RM: Vivid scenes of trapping and hunting represent a small part of the novel, but as you so capably know, Amanda, often the most visceral images reside in the unspoken. Nonetheless, there was a stage of writing where I needed a break from tackling the more gruesome aspects. One scene I wrote never made it to the final cut, the publisher deeming it too confronting. I simply had to be true to the trappers of the time, to the pragmatism of their work, to their reason for being in Svalbard. On reading Wanny’s memoir, seeing her overt disapproval of the ‘one-sided nature’ of trapping, along with her mention of ‘the vanity of women providing we trappers an income’, I suspect that the work, for her, came second to simply experiencing the Arctic and its wildlife.
Author photo by Matt Horspool