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#AceNewsDesk – Tasmanian author Robbie Arnott spent idyllic childhood summers at his family’s beach shack at the mouth of the Tamar River — kanamaluka — on the state’s north coast.
He and his cousins spent long summer days outdoors, swimming, riding their bikes, and roaming the sand dunes and the surrounding bush – a part of his youth Arnott took for granted.
“I always thought that it was normal, but I guess it’s not normal for everybody,” he says.
Today, Arnott spends weekends bushwalking at kunanyi/Mount Wellington and snorkelling on the Tasmanian coast — and they’re experiences which inform his writing, which has been described as “eco-fiction”.
Arnott’s passion for the outdoors appears on the page in his rich evocation of the natural world over three books: Flames (2018), which won a Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prize; The Rain Heron (2020), shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award; and his latest novel, Limberlost (2022), inspired by his late grandfather’s tales of growing up on an orchard in the Tamar Valley.
Set in the 40s, Limberlost unfolds over a hot summer when 15-year-old Ned West is home from school.
Ned, whose mother died soon after his birth, lives at Limberlost, the family orchard, with his father William, and his sister, Maddie.
His older brothers, Bill and Toby, are away at war, and Ned spends the summer killing rabbits – accidentally trapping a quoll in the process – ostensibly to supply the war effort with the pelts needed to make the soldiers’ slouch hats, but really to fund his secret dream of owning a boat.
As the narrative roves through Ned’s long life, it also roams the Tasmanian landscape that inspires Arnott so much, from forests of eucalypts and moss-covered myrtles to the dolerite outcrops overlooking the slate-blue ocean.
Arnott says he finds the natural world just as fascinating as the people who populate it.
“I’m really drawn to the sense of scale and smallness one feels when halfway up a mountain or looking out over a plateau. I really like that feeling of insignificance.”Cradle Mountain (pictured) is one of the settings of Arnott’s first novel Flames.(Supplied: Discover Tasmania/Luke Tscharke)none
The road to a career in writing
After graduating from university, Arnott, like so many university-educated Tasmanians before him, swapped his nature-filled life in Hobart for the skyscrapers and laneways of Melbourne.
He had realised that his dream of working in publishing was unrealistic for someone lacking the right connections.
It was “post-GFC”, and publishing jobs were scant on the ground – especially in Hobart, which lacked the larger publishing houses of mainland cities.Listen: Robbie Arnott on ABC RN’s The Book Show
“I was very naive,” says Arnott.
In desperation, he applied for a graduate program in advertising in Melbourne.
“I always wanted to come back to Tasmania, but I just didn’t know how I would,” he says.
After two years on the mainland, Arnott received a job offer from a small advertising firm in Hobart, and he returned to Tasmania in 2014.
“Everyone in the office in Melbourne thought I was basically ruining my career and making a terrible mistake, but … it’s probably the best decision I’ve ever made,” he says.
Arnott, who still works part-time in advertising, wrote much of Limberlost during a three-month fellowship at the University of Tasmania, his only experience of full-time writing. (“That was incredible,” he says.)
He writes when he can, fitting it around his day job – and now parenting, with the birth of his baby daughter in October.
“It’s like an hour at night, 45 minutes before work, two hours between cricket training and going to the pub,” he says.Richard Flanagan (pictured) called Flames “a strange and joyous marvel”.(ABC News: James Dunlevie)none
Tasmania punches well above its weight in terms of literary talent, as the home of a number of prize winners: Booker winner Richard Flanagan; Stella Prize winner Heather Rose; Vogel Literary Award winner Danielle Wood; and Miles Franklin winner Amanda Lohrey.
Arnott name-checks other Tasmanian authors whose recent books he admires: Adam Thompson, K.M. Kruimink, Erin Hortle, Ben Walter, Adam Ouston, Robyn Mundy and Jane Rawson.
“I’m also excited about what some young writers like Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn and Viv Cutbush are going to write next,” he says.
While Hobart lacks the formal writing networks found in bigger cities, Arnott says it is home to a supportive writing community.
“Any success feels shared,” he says.”I like to present the way the natural world feels, rather than just how it looks,” says Arnott. (Pictured: The dolerite columns of Cape Hauy)(Supplied: Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service)none
Arnott, like his fellow Tasmanian writers Heather Rose (The River Wife, 2009) and Richard Flanagan (The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, 2021), could be called a writer of “eco-fiction”, says Professor Jen Webb, from the University of Canberra.
She defines the genre in The Conversation as “literature in which the natural world plays a major role, and where the associations and dependencies between human and natural worlds take centre stage”.The Rain Heron won The Age Book of the Year in 2021.(Supplied: Text)none
However, what makes Arnott’s writing stand out is his attention to craft, Webb tells ABC Arts.
“He writes beautiful sentences, he writes convincing characters, and, structurally, he’s a really interesting writer.”
Cassie McCullagh, who named The Rain Heron one of her favourite books of 2020, was similarly enthusiastic about Limberlost on ABC RN’s The Bookshelf.
“This will win a lot of awards and deservedly so … [Arnott’s] description of place and nature is beyond compare.”
Such descriptions of place and nature can be found throughout his work.
In Flames, “snowgums gnarled their way out of frozen dirt, their trunks a patchwork of grey-brown-green” and “currawongs flapped, their white tail feathers contrasting against their black plumage and yolk-yellow eyes”.
In Limberlost, an adult Ned — like his author — goes snorkelling on the coast north-west of the family orchard:
“Blacklips were abundant here — their swirling, rust-patterned shells disguised among the weed and rock, but eventually discernible if you stared hard enough. Fish flicked across the reef, mostly grey-yellow wrasse, but also toadfish, orange gurnard, banded morwong. Every now and then Ned spotted the shifting pattern of a cuttlefish, tickling through the weed. Where the rocks gave way to pale seafloor there were schools of cocky salmon, flitting just below the surface. Beneath them, huge black discs glided across the sand: hunting skates, their barbs trailing on long tails behind them.”
Along with a preoccupation with the natural world, much of Arnott’s writing has a timeless, mythical quality. Flames features a fire spirit, The Rain Heron opens with the fable of a magical bird, and Limberlost begins when Ned is five years old, with the apocryphal story of a mad whale besieging boats at the mouth of the Tamar River.”Flames explores the sublime power of the Australian state at the bottom of the world,” Sarah Dempster wrote in SMH in 2018.(Supplied: Text)none
While Ned’s memories of the whale are hazy, the story becomes a touchstone, his life’s founding myth.
“It’s a story that he can never really get away from,” Arnott told ABC RN’s The Book Show.
Myth in literature has long fascinated Arnott, who devoured books on Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology as a child.
Today, he finds that same mythical quality in the natural world, particularly the Tasmanian landscape.
“When you’re standing in an ancient Gondwanan forest, and there are these mossy myrtles all around you, it doesn’t feel like a particularly ordinary … experience. It feels like there’s a sense of mythic drama at play in the landscape, and that comes through in my work,” he tells ABC Arts.
At the same time as Arnott draws upon myth in his writing, his three novels also illustrate the fraught relationship between the human and natural worlds — and between settlers and Indigenous peoples.
In Limberlost, bare paddocks replace native forests, and the unfettered use of pesticides has devastating consequences.
Ned recalls working in a logging crew felling magnificent manna gums: “ancient hardwoods ghostly in colour and immense in height, some rising a hundred yards into the air to flail their leaves against the sky’s cheek. Aromatic, bloodlike sap ran from the wounds the men hacked into their trunks”.
It’s not until Limberlost’s closing chapters that Arnott directly confronts the violence of white settlement on the landscape and on its traditional owners, the Letteremairrener people.
When Ned’s adult daughters challenge him about their family’s ownership of stolen land, he acknowledges that he has never considered inviting the Traditional Owners back to the Limberlost orchard.
Arnott writes: “He’d treated it all as history. In the course of his life, he had done nothing about it.”
Can writers solve the climate crisis?
The University of Canberra’s Jen Webb says climate change and humans’ incapacity to live in harmony with the natural world are the main drivers behind much contemporary eco-fiction.
It’s true in the case of Arnott, who says becoming a father only heightened the anxiety he feels about the looming climate crisis.
“I’m hugely worried … I’m trying to figure out what to do. But honestly, I don’t know,” he says.
Arnott’s growing climate anxiety is a fitting response to a year of record-breaking floods, preceded by a bushfire season that burned 18.7 million hectares and killed or displaced nearly 3 billion animals.A pyrocumulonimbus cloud hangs over the beach at Dunalley, a town devastated by fire in 2013.(Supplied: Jo Spargo)none
While Arnott hopes his writing deepens his readers’ appreciation for the natural world, he’s sceptical of his contribution as an author to alleviating the climate crisis.
“I’m very wary of being a fiction writer who pats himself on the back and says, ‘Oh, I’m bringing these issues to light in a new way. I’m using my artistic skills for that purpose.’ I think that’s a very small drop in the ocean.”
Instead, Arnott believes the answer lies in large-scale systemic change rather than piecemeal individual action.
“We all need to do the same thing as each other, which is to dramatically try to change the world and the way it operates in order to arrest global heating.”
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