Tag Archives: Wildlight

2016 speeches #1: Robyn Mundy’s Wildlight

Late last year, after I gave a brief talk at a function celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Battye Library for Western Australian History, a writer friend who attended suggested that I publish it here. Good idea—thanks, Ian Reid! Taking that a step further, I’ve decided to post three of the speeches I made in 2016.

The other two were on the occasion of launching books, which is always as much a pleasure as it is undoubtedly an honour. I’ve edited the speeches to focus on why I loved the books concerned, and I’m happy to have another opportunity to do just that!

Here is the first, for the Perth launch of Robyn Mundy’s novel Wildlight (Pan Macmillan/Picador), at Beaufort Street Books last March…


Wildlight front cover

As most of you know, Wildlight is Robyn’s second novel. Her first, The Nature of Ice, announced a huge talent: a superb storyteller, a writer with an ear for the music of language, a writerly architect of place, a writer capable of the beautiful and the profound.

Wildlight, too, delivers all these things and more.

To give you the briefest of sketches: it begins in 1999 with 16-year-old Stephanie West travelling with her parents to remote Maatsuyker Island, just off Tasmania’s south-west coast. The family—now only three since the death of Stephanie’s twin brother Callum—are to be stationed there for five months as volunteer caretakers and weather observers. Five months without a social life, without mobile coverage, without basic home comforts like heating, without email. Unsurprisingly, Steph isn’t there by choice.

Into this scenario comes Tom Forrest, a 19-year-old deckhand on his brother’s crayfishing vessel which works the dangerous waters surrounding the island. Tom doesn’t have much choice in his situation, either, and his predicament is made worse by the tyrannical Frank’s dodgy fishing practices.

The narrative alternates between these two characters, Stephanie and Tom, allowing us to know them both, and sometimes to know more than they do.

I’m guessing that the first thing that reviewers of Wildlight are going to remark on is the setting—Maatsuker Island—but it is a great deal more than a novel of place, however atmospherically and beautifully that place is brought to life.

The subtle strength of the novel, for me, lies in the complexity Robyn brings to her small cast of characters. This is especially evident in the young characters, young people still in the process of becoming, unsure of who they are or could be, tentatively testing what they think they want against what is expected of them. Robyn’s respect for these young people, her care for the problems they face and the decisions they make, is clear, and never more so than in the way she shows them gaining the ability to turn to the adults in their lives, seeing their flaws, and moving beyond impatient teenage judgment.

Robyn also respects her readers. We come to understand many of the whys of character and story through threads of the past looping through the present, but there is no tight stitching here, no neatly tied bows. Robyn gives us enough to work with but resists over-explanation, allowing us space to speculate on, for example, the truthfulness of Stephanie’s mother’s idealised memory of her childhood on the island when her father was lightkeeper; Stephanie’s barely formed feelings about the changes in her twin before his death; her parents’ relationship; the vulnerability in Tom’s mother, the fearfulness underlying her blind deference to Frank. This is sophisticated writing.

Wildlight is also a portrait of grief. Here is Stephanie recalling her grandmother’s words:

According to Gran, this second year should have felt easier than the first. By the second year, Gran said, you could no longer look back the way you had the first, thinking this time last year we were all together, this time last Christmas, last birthday. The last of everything, drifting from your reach. You medicated yourself on the distance of time—a sedative that dulled the sharpness, then locked you in its murk. It was a kind of worn-out grief you couldn’t easily share, not once the time allowed for sadness had elapsed.

Stephanie and her parents, Gretchen and James, are a lost and broken family, each one locked painfully in themselves, confused and struggling, tiptoeing around the others for fear of opening cracks that might let the unbearable into the light. Callum’s death haunts them individually and haunts the family. And this lost boy haunts the narrative, too—not just as sadness, but as disturbance. There are no stereotypes here, no easy emotions.

But there is breathtaking writing—images you can see and hear and, in this example, smell:

Steph stood by her bedroom window staring at the night. The fishing fleet’s cluster of lights sparked through the dark. She opened the window to the air. The moon had finally appeared, a broad silver blade pressed down on the water… The bleats and groans from seals carried through the night, mournful as a cattle yard. She inhaled the cloying smell of mutton-bird, air rancid with their oil. The endless chatter of birds. An orchestra of discord pulsating through the night.

And so to the setting, to the exhilarating creation of place that comes from a writer who has lived it and allowed it to enter her cells. The ocean, the Needles and the Mewstone emerging from the sea, the lighthouse and all the history trapped within its lens, the freezing, comfortless, ‘skanky’ lightkeeper’s cottage where the family lives, the deafening sound of those crazy, odiferous muttonbirds, the clouds, the rain, the cold. And the wind—a relentless, infernal wind that we cannot begin to comprehend.

The Maatsuyker of Wildlight is raw and wild and utterly compelling, and this timeless place cannot help but shape the lives of its characters as they head into a new millennium—and for all the years beyond.

Wildlight is a coming-of-age story, a story of first love and first flight. A story about the fragility and concomitant strength of family, and the ravages of grief. And yes, it is a story of place—wild, unforgiving, unforgettable.

Robyn talks about Wildlight here



Filed under Australian Women Writers Challenge

Robyn Mundy talks about Wildlight

Robyn Mundy author #1205CFD

Photo by Kirsty Pilkington

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…

Wildlight front cover

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.

IMG_9190 Serenity 2#1216508

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.

IMG_8394 red sunrise Mewstone_web

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.

IMG_8367 prisms & view_web

Wildlight is in bookstores now
For more information, visit Pan Macmillan/Picador
Visit Robyn’s website, Writing the Wild
Book trailer here


Filed under 2 2 and 2 (writers + new books)