“‘With Whose Blood Were My Eyes Crafted?”: An Interview with Abi Andrews
Looking for an escape from the ever-connectedness of modern life? Venture no further than than Abi Andrews’, The Word for Woman is Wilderness. But don’t be fooled, the Midlands England native, Ms. Andrews’ debut novel is more than just an escape; it’s part travel writing, nature documentary, political gender exploration… but above all, it is an adventure. The story spans thousands of miles and dozens of issues– confronting everything from gender roles in iceland to fighting bears in Denali National Park, Alaska. Pick up a copy to tag along with protagonist, Erin, a 19-year-old from suburban England, as she smashes stereotypes and seethes sarcasm in The Word for Woman is Wilderness. Read on to learn about Ms. Andrews writing process, relationship with her characters, and plans for future adventures.
Peyton Miller: In The Word for Woman is Wilderness, you touch on everything from NASA’s controversial gender choices, to Rachel Carson’s feminist work, to the battle over contraceptives, to Jack London’s writing. When you sat down to write The Word for Woman is Wilderness, did the idea always include such wide cultural references? How would you recommend, for the writers at The Mire and our young adult target audience, incorporating factual cultural references and events into fiction?
Abi Andrews: There still remains a feeling that literature needs to be ‘high brow’ to be taken seriously, and should avoid references to popular culture. By there is no high and low culture in the age we are in now, of the so-called ‘anthropocene’; now everything is touched by everything. If you are writing realist fiction, you can’t not write about mcdonalds and pollution and the way consumer choices are implicated in a so-called ‘natural’ disasters on the other side of the world, and the reliance of the communities who suffer from them, even though the consumer has never met them.
There is a particular new anxiety, you could call it millennial anxiety, as millennials are the first generation to have grown up really only knowing this. It’s an uncertain future made very present. It’s this uncanny horror, the realisation that for example your contraceptive pill is making fish hermaphrodites, that you are the impact. And the internet has changed our condition to be much more encyclopedic. I think of the way I use many cultural references almost like hyperlinking.
Writing is sharing the condition of being human. How I would recommend is just to do it honestly. Don’t write the crisp wrapper out of the scene if you see it. If you feel out links between what you are thinking around, and something that sends you off on a tangent, follow the tangent. I didn’t start with a plan that included all my cultural references. The book being a fictional travelogue meant the narrative could progress along a pretty simple a to b to c, my protagonist going from one place to another. I just had to research how she might feasibly do this, what it might look and feel like. Then I was free to weave into this, build the main crux of the text, which is her inner monologue. With this I had the freedom to go off on many tangents. The cultural references built up as I went further into my own research, finding links between things that might seem disparate like space travel and hermaphrodite fish.
Peyton: Since Erin is the main point-of-view character in the book (and therefore we spent a lot of time in her head), I felt that we were good friends by the end. I would imagine, however, that you know her even better than readers do. Is there anything about Erin that didn’t make it into the book? Do you think you would be friends with her?
Abi: I would definitely be friends with Erin even if i’d find her a bit naive at times, and would probably envy her life choices (she has more gumption than I do). There was actually a best friend of Erin, called Freya, and Freya only just didn’t make it into the book. In fact the whole journey was written with Freya in it until she didn’t come to the cabin with Erin because she was having a nice time with Stan and didn’t want to leave him! But I didn’t believe enough in Erin and Freya’s friendship, so I cut Freya. Erin is more of a loner.
Peyton: You said in your Q + A with TwoDollarRadio, that you were fascinated with Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild when you were younger and you “vowed to myself that I’d do a trip like that.” Did it ever strike you later in life to act literally on this vow, or does The Word for Woman is Wilderness fulfill it for you?
Abi: It struck me from the offset of watching that film that I really did want to go on a trip like that. And I still intend to, I just think I’d approach it very differently now, since writing the book. I think being a little older has made me much more ready for it and what I would want to get out of it. The book was in a way, a confrontation with my own naivety around what a trip like that would mean, and part of me feels like I don’t need to do that trip, that it’s already been undermined for me. I no longer feel like striving for solitude is something of a feminist act, I think more now that building community is much more radical and feminist. But I would like to do something a little like it, a solo trip where I have to rely on my own resources, only with every intention of coming back.
Peyton: Erin’s adventure gave me serious wanderlust, to which I’m sure many readers can attest. (Brb, planning my vacation to Iceland.) How did you choose the locations on Erin’s journey? Do they have a greater significance in a feminist or a natural sense to you than other places in the world?
Abi: They only have more significance for me because I have thought with them for a number of years. There are many places around the world that have mythology attached to them that could be used to story a feminist adventure. I simply chose the places in the book, aside from the destination, based on what I thought was the most feasible way to Alaska from the UK without flying.
But I was specifically drawn to Alaska as a destination because of the way we have mythologised it, how we have painted this picture of it as as a place of freedom and hardiness, which has a lot of feminist significance to it. We have a thing for the taiga of the northern hemisphere, pine forests, mountains, lakes. I wanted to look at why those places are attractive. We think of mining, gold panning, homesteading, and this trickles down into TV shows on nat geo now, about Alaska as the ‘final frontier’. You can trace all this back through the shared cultural history of the US and the UK and it all leads back to the colonisation of Turtle Island, our intoxication with a ‘tabula rasa’, which was of course a lie we told ourselves and are still telling.
Peyton: Building on that, in the TwoDollarRadio Q + A, you also mentioned that you hadn’t visited the locations from the book. If given the chance, which place would you visit first and why?
Abi: Alaska. I would like to see how those old myths sit with the newly forming ones which are feminist and intersectional. How does Alaska feel, through that lens?
Peyton: What are you working on these days? Could you give us a sneak peek?
Abi: If the end of The Word for Woman is Wilderness was about going home and returning from solitude, I’m writing about homecoming, in a place you might not think it fit to find it. I’m looking at the possibility of utopian cracks beneath the structures of capitalism. Stories of hope and their significance in bringing a hopeful world into being, even as things collapse.
Peyton: Any last words of advice for High School students planning to embark on their own adventures, literary or literal?
Abi: In writing www there was a Donna Haraway quote I came back to again and again and I think it applies as much to living as it does to writing, ‘with whose blood were my eyes crafted?’ My protagonist Erin’s journey was about learning how not to write the world like a mountain man. That applies to places she might physically visit but also to places and people she might put into words, and how she can do so respectfully.
– Peyton Miller
Blog/Online Editor The Mire Indian Springs, AL
Abi Andrews is a writer from the Midlands. She studied at Goldsmiths college, and her work has been published in Five Dials, Caught by the River, The Clearing, The Dark Mountain Project, Tender and other journals, along with a pamphlet published with Goldsmiths Shorts. Her debut novel The Word for Woman is Wilderness was published by Serpent’s Tail in February 2018, in the US with Two Dollar Radio in 2019, and will be translated into German, French and Spanish. She is working on her second novel.