Festival Muse: Question time – Robyn Cadwallader with Irma Gold

Robyn Cadwallader, Irma Gold

Cadwallader (L) and Gold in the Muse bookshop

Introducing the first event of their Sunday afternoon program, Dan, co-owner of Muse, commented on a peculiarity of Canberra: when they offer sessions on politics or history, they are packed out, but when the focus is fiction, the events are more intimate. Fine by me! I love small, cosy events. But it’s interesting, eh? Anyhow, we then got down to the event, which involved local author and editor, whom you’ve met several times here before, Irma Gold, interviewing local poet, essayist, novelist, Robyn Cadwallader, about her debut novel The anchoress (my review).

It was excellent. Gold structured her questions beautifully, starting with some background questions, moving through well-targeted questions about the book itself – well-targeted for me anyhow because she focused on historical fiction and feminism – and then ending with Cadwallader’s future plans. There was something for everyone – though I suspect most of us were interested in it all.

Gold commenced by providing a quick bio, which included the facts that Cadwallader migrated to Australia with her family when young, and that her background is academic writing. Gold shared Cadwallader’s shock that, when she moved from academic writing to fictional, her struggles with the dreaded term structure followed her! That made me laugh because I love thinking about structure in fiction. Gold also told us that The anchoress had been published in the USA and UK as well as Australia, and has been (or is being) translated into French. She said Marie Claire described The anchoress as “the book the whole literary world can’t stop talking about”. Wow, eh?

The interview commenced then with a brief discussion of Cadwallader’s early interest in books and writing, but let’s get to …

The anchoress

Robyn Cadwallader, The anchoressThe discussion started with Cadwallader doing a reading – and she chose the Prologue. That was great not only because it’s always (hmm, mostly) good to hear authors read from their own work, but also because it refreshed the book and some of its themes for me.

Gold said she’d never heard of anchoresses and asked Cadwallader what sparked Sarah’s particular story. Cadwallader responded that she’d come across anchoresses in her research for her PhD and, like Gold, was both horrified and fascinated by the concept. She said the inspiration for the story came from sitting in an anchorhold, unable to leave it, for an hour or so. It got her thinking about how it would feel to be in such a place forever. What would be the experience? She said her poetry is “about taking a moment and investigating it”. In this book, she took a small space and investigated it. Reinforcing her interest in focusing on the “experience”, she said she’d started writing the novel in 1st person but felt it wasn’t working, so tried 3rd but that didn’t work either. She then realised she had to be there to share the experience. She also made the point that she didn’t want Sarah to speak for all anchoresses.

Gold then honed in on the book’s genre, historical fiction, and asked Cadwallader how she went about separating her research from the writing. Cadwallader said she was lucky because she’d done so much research on the period before she started writing. She had to do a lot of thinking, however, and when she started writing she needed to do extra research on aspects she knew less well, such as village life and monasteries.

Next Gold moved onto how Cadwallader approached incorporating the history into the story. Cadwallader said she knew people would know little or nothing about anchoresses – how right she was! – but didn’t want to do exposition. She used the example of the section where Sarah stands in her cell (anchorhold) for first time. This was hard to write she said without “describing”. She tried to write it from Sarah’s experience in a way that would “show” modern readers, too, what it was like.

Some of the questions at the end concerned the historical fiction issue, so I’m sneaking them in here. Responding to what next, Cadwallader said that some people assumed she’d do a sequel! No, she said, as far as she’s concerned she’d wrapped up Sarah’s life and didn’t have anything more to say. Love it. This points, I think, to a difference between genre and literary-fiction. Genre tends to focus on plot, on the story of characters’ lives. Readers of genre love to get lost in – escape into – the characters’ lives and want to follow them, on and on. Readers of literary fiction – and they can be the same people, so I’m not suggesting a “snooty hierarchy” here – look for different things. They tend to be happy with ambiguous endings, and look forward to moving on to something different. I tend to be one of these readers. You could call me fickle.

Other questions picked up the relationship between fact/history and fiction, about the degree to which historical fiction should focus on the fact versus the fiction. Again, I loved Cadwallader’s considered response. She described historical fiction as an engagement between the present and the past. Writers, she said, need to balance what will communicate effectively with contemporary audiences and what’s accurate. She cited swearing as an example: a medieval oath, like “God’s teeth”, would not convey anger to a modern audience the way a modern swear word would.

Back to Gold now. Her next question concerned feminism. Yes! Was Cadwallader conscious of feminist issues from the start or did they emerge through the writing process. I loved Cadwallader’s answer. She said she was aware of feminist issues and theory from the start because her research had brought her face-to-face with medieval thinking about women, including the belief that women represent the body, and tempt men. However, she is concerned, she said, about historical fiction that wants to be positive about women. Such fiction needs to create strong, feisty women, but she wanted to explore what ordinary women experience.

So, her Sarah pretty soon finds her experience of her body starting “to bump against” the rule that tells her that her body is terrible. Cadwallader wanted to tell about ordinary women doing things that are not “spectacular”. She thinks some readers expected a “spectacular ending” but that would have plucked Sarah out of her context. Her approach to feminism was to describe these women’s experience, to honour them. She didn’t want to exploit them, but explore who Sarah was. She then talked about the village women. (They’re wonderful supporting characters in the book.) She didn’t want them to be “campaigners”, but wanted us to “see” them. It’s too easy for us to miss and not respect the ordinariness of women and what they do.

Muse bookshopGold ended with questions regarding how Cadwallader has handled her success and what her future writing plans were. Cadwallader talked about ongoing feelings of self-doubt and how easy it is to buy into criticism (rather, it seems, than praise). She described it – and being a writer, she used a metaphor – as being a headwind that you just have to keep walking into! And yes, she is writing another book. And yes, it’s mediaval-focused – to do with illuminators.

There was a brief Q&A, then it was over. We might have been an intimate group, but what a privilege to have been present at a conversation between an intelligent, warm interviewer and a thoughtful, open interviewee. Lucky us.

24 thoughts on “Festival Muse: Question time – Robyn Cadwallader with Irma Gold

  1. I read The Anchoress last year and enjoyed it
    very much. I would have been daunted to write
    a story like this with so little scope to move characters
    from place to place but Robyn Cadwallader told the story
    Thanks for sharing the interview. I wish I’d been there.

  2. Reading this post I wanted to exclaim, “God’s Teeth! That was interesting.” Again, someone I was not familiar with. It is nice you get events such as this near your home. We haven’t had too much interesting going on here in Hobart but I’m sure that will change over the winter months. Enjoyed!

  3. Sue, thanks so much for this. What a thorough account of the conversation! I’m delighted that you enjoyed it and that my comments made sense — it’s easy to wonder afterwards … And yes, what a great interviewer Irma is. It was a particular pleasure to be able to speak about the feminism in the novel and, as I realised this morning, so close to IWD as well. Thanks again!

    • Sue, I wanted to add my thanks here. You always do such a fantastic job of accurately capturing events, and so quickly, too! I only wish we’d had longer to tease out the feminist issues, but I loved Robyn’s answer, and I have been thinking about it a great deal today. We are fortunate in Canberra to have a place like Muse to foster these conversations. Let’s hope the festival becomes an annual event.

      • Thanks Irma, but I have to do it quickly, while it’s fresh! You and Robyn gave us so much to think about. And yes, I hope it worked well from Muse’s point of view so that they do make it annual.

    • A pleasure Robyn. It was touch and go whether I add make it, but I’m so glad I did. I knew I would be glad, of course! There’s so much to talk about in the book. It was great to have some aired. So, thank YOU!

  4. You (and Cadwallader) address one of my concerns with historical fiction – the difficulty for modern women writers of portraying women who are strong without being ahistorical. I liked RC’s answer.

    • Thanks Bill. Yes, I loved her response. So articulate, so thought through. That said, I don’t think feisty women are automatically ahistorical. They are the ones who, over time, fought for the rights. But they weren’t the norm. I loved Robyn’s desire to show everyday women’s experience, loved that that was the story and character she wanted to tell.

      • It sounds like it was a fascinating session. I too liked Cadwallader’s description of what historical fiction is about and what it can do – an interesting take on it might be the comparison between what a novelist like Cadwallader does and what historians of mentalities attempt.

        • Good question Ian. I don’t know much about historians of mentalities, but I’ve heard of emotional historians (I suppose you could call them). I suspect that Robyn’s interest in what the ordinary people experience would align more with these sorts of historians? Is that what you were suggesting?

  5. I suppose a book like Montaillou is asking the same questions about human motivations and world views that a novelist might. I remember reading Orlando Fige’s history of the Russian Revolution, A People’s Tragedy which has the rather novelistic device of highlighting 5 (I think) individual lives and setting their stories aside from the general narrative.Important caveat that the historian is bound to original sources that are optional for the novelist!

    • Thanks Ian, that’s what I understood you to mean. That example you gave could fall into what we call creative non-fiction? But, yes the difference is being bound to the sources. Particularly where the sources are sparse, which they can be in terms of the “ordinary” people and in terms of experience, the novelist can explore some gaps more easily.

  6. What a great interview! And I am so glad you mentioned it was published in the US because when you reviewed it originally it wasn’t. Sadly, they took away the beautiful swallow cover and put a woman on it instead. My library has it so I have added it to my list 🙂

    • Great Stefanie. Maybe one day it will make it to the table. Silly people – I hope it’s not a woman’s back. (I guess they think that will sell.) I’ll check Goodreads – they usually show various covers. (Covers were discussed at the Charlotte Wood event – she said she did NOT want a woman on her cover – but authors also have little control over this issue don’t they?

  7. Can’t resist a comment here, Stefanie and WG! Like Charlotte, I told all the publishers I didn’t want a woman on the cover, and I pointed out that we never ‘see’ Sarah anyway. The US pub’s agreed, and used a bird, but then said that their pre-pub market research showed that people didn’t know what an anchoress was and so a woman was needed. They hunted for medieval images of a woman but said they looked too romantic, and decided on the Italian one. Such interesting processes! I prefer not to have a woman, personally, but the markets vary, of course, and the US is different. And I’m grateful that it’s not a headless woman or a woman from behind. But the French cover is part of a woman’s face and it’s gorgeous, and very French (!). I love it, despite my other thoughts about not having a woman! http://www.denoel.fr/Catalogue/DENOEL/Denoel-d-ailleurs/Une-autre-idee-du-silence

    • Always happy to have the author comment on discussion Robyn, so thanks. Love hearing about the cover discussions. Have had a look at the French and American covers – as covers with women go, they are good, I agree. And, in the end, you have to trust that the publishers know what they are doing (though occasionally you see a cover that suggests a book is a genre/form that it’s not.)

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