“As a woman writing, you are part of a movement building traction, carving out a space for consciousness that is other than white-western-male. It seems to me important to make the very best of that platform you can. I completely believe the personal is political.”
Abi Andrews’ new novel follows 19 year old Erin. Having never really left England herself, she begins to wonder why it always seem to be men who are known for embarking on adventures into the wilderness. Consequentially, Erin sets off on a journey into the Alaskan wilderness on a solo adventure to challenge the archetype of the male explorer.
From the gender politics of Iceland, to the first explorers of space, Andrews explores all kinds of topics, as she offers the adventure narrative from a young woman’s perspective. Read The Muse had the pleasure of speaking with Abi Andrews on her new book.
How did you find the process of writing The Word for Woman is Wilderness?
It was a dream to write, I think mostly because I didn’t come up against too much writer’s block (wish I could say the same about my next project) as the plot was always sorted from the beginning. There wasn’t exactly a plot to build, because the text is almost a travelogue, it was just a case of her getting from A to B. That element of research took a lot of time, finding out how she could feasibly do each step of the journey, but I didn’t have to think about it too hard which allowed me to just use things that cropped up in research as jumping off points. As it was more to do with her thoughts and character development as she went along, and I had this framework to put them in, I could just enjoy cultivating them, like I had a petri dish to grow lots of little molds in.
You write so incredibly vividly about the journey that Erin takes. Where did the inspiration come from – have you taken a similar trip yourself?
It started very simply, as in the book, when I was watching Into the Wild, the biopic of Chris McCandless based on the book by Jon Krakauer while I was still in uni. I got to the end of the film and was completely moved by the fact that Chris McCandless had gone to Alaska on a quest for something that seemed to be authenticity, and that in dying he had followed through on it completely. I decided I needed to go on a similar trip, as you do, but then as I started to imagine myself in his place, it struck me that had the trip been taken by a girl, its reception would have been completely different. So I started to think about why that was, and about what would have been different. We have this whole tradition in literature and film of young male runaways going on romantic adventures, with no parallel for women. I started to realise that the entire premise of a quest for authenticity in the wilderness would mean very different things for a woman, both in the way the experience would be different, and especially in how the story would be framed.
I’ve done a fair amount of solo travelling but never been anywhere near the Arctic Circle, and I’ve certainly never gone on a grand trip to a cabin in the middle of nowhere alone. I think I’d like to, though I’m not sure I’d be brave enough. The book took a vast amount of research, I tried to get myself into the heads of people who had done journeys like that. I watched a lot of polar expedition documentaries and every film about Alaska I could find, and the same with books.
To what extent do you feel that your protagonist, Erin, shares your personal voice, if at all? How might she differ?
She’s a fictional character and it’s my right to be a dead author, so I will say she is not my voice at all haha. Let it be said that the themes in the book are things I really care about, and to an extent I have presented them in the ways that I feel about them. Being a fictional character, Erin allows me to probe things from different angles, put them in different lights, pose them as questions. She’s a device, and not always an altogether reliable one, so obviously not all the things she appears to think will be contingent with how I feel about them.
It was important for Erin to be at an age where she was waking up to the world and her place in it. I wanted the book to be a coming of age novel about a young woman. She needed to be young, ambitious, belligerent and a little naive. It seemed important that this was her first time leaving home, so she had not moved away from uni or anything yet. She also had to have something of the runaway about her – her background had to be comfortable so that her reason for seeking could be to do with a disconnection from nature. Runaways are usually teenage and tender and brave and worrisome; I wanted there to be some vulnerability and risk about her.
What is your personal relationship with writing?
I kind of think of writing as lots and lots of reading that has been consolidated and then refracted through a prism or something. Or maybe it’s like being a bird feeding its babies – not to say the reader is a baby bird, so much as I think I take ideas from elsewhere with good intentions, I think they’re great and important, and then I kind of mash them up and hope they will be somewhat nourishing.
How would you describe your writing style?
I think a lot about how to write as a feminist, in terms of the use of the master language, and the female gaze. So I think my style is trying to enact these ideas, so that not just the themes but the form of the writing is attempting to be feminist. This can mean a lot of things, can result in different stylisations. I don’t know if I really have a style yet, as I don’t have a body of work, but I guess it’s the key undercurrent unifying what I write at the moment.
Is there a particular theme you try to convey in your writing, be it societal, cultural, moral etc.?
I think most of what I have written so far in some way touches on the ideas of contemporary ecofeminism, I mean it must do, because it’s most my reading and thinking.
Would you say your writing is political? To what extent do you believe that personal is political?
Absolutely. I don’t think you can write without being political. Even when you aren’t mindful of it, that’s political. But I really think it’s crucial to be mindful of it, and I try very hard to be. As a woman writing, you are part of a movement building traction, carving out a space for consciousness that is other than white-western-male. It seems to me important to make the very best of that platform you can. I completely believe the personal is political.
What is the biggest challenge you find as an author, both in the creative process and navigating the publishing industry?
I can’t really say I’ve navigated the publishing industry, because I just have this one book, published very recently, and it was pretty smooth sailing. Serpent’s Tail are a great publisher. Creatively, maybe the biggest challenge is finding a story that’s important, but also that you are placed to tell. I think a key thing about feminist story writing is being very aware of the power at play when you are telling a story. This can be a difficult thing to navigate, as it indeed should be.
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