Ever-Present Emergency: Madeleine Watts Interviewed by Liza St. James

On writing a porous character and the crises that shape her.

The Inland Sea7

“Emergency police, fire, or ambulance?” This refrain punctuates the narrator’s days in Madeleine Watts’s debut novel, The Inland Sea (Catapult). An aspiring writer, the narrator has just graduated from university and taken a job in the call center at Triple Zero, dispatching emergency calls from across Australia. Many of the calls she fields are related to extreme weather such as fires, floods, and heatwaves—all of which are based on real weather events from 2013, the year in which the book is set.

Adrift and inclined toward “abandon[ing] the everyday project of [her] safety,” the narrator gets blackout drunk and has unprotected sex with strangers and with her ex. Her job begins to take an emotional toll on her, and she attempts to make sense of her place in a crisis-filled world by keeping a record. She takes notes at work, while she reads, and as she reflects on the notebooks of her great-great-great-great grandfather, the surveyor general John Oxley. His 1817 search along the Lachlan River for the mythical inland sea mirrors her own search for love, belief, the self, her future. The narrator acknowledges the hubris in her ancestor’s quest and leaves us to consider how our descendants might see ours.

Watts and I met in graduate school, and over the past several years I’ve enjoyed walking and talking with her in our shared neighborhood, which is bordered on two sides by water and sits above a decades-old petroleum plume left over from one of the largest recorded oil spills in the country’s history.

—Liza St. James


Liza St. JamesThe narrator of The Inland Sea dreams of moving away from Australia, and when she decides on the United States, her friend says: “I was so sure you’d go to Europe. Why California?” The narrator responds, “Because it has nothing to do with me and I have nothing to do with it.” How do you relate to this—or do you?

Madeleine WattsI think that was definitely how I felt when I left Australia. I moved to New York in 2013 not knowing a single person, and essentially started fresh. It’s maybe a little different now, I’m a bit older. I feel very settled in the United States. (I’ve been in Berlin since August because my boyfriend is here, and the pandemic being what it is, with the new laws put in place, he can’t come to the US with me.) 

The places I want to go now are places I feel most myself, which are all in the American southwest. I spend a lot of time on real estate websites lately looking at houses I can’t afford to live in in California, the Sonora Desert, the Catskills. I found a dream house in Woodstock recently, with a wood-burning stove and a big claw-foot bath, but it was way out in the woods, and I can’t drive. But I can learn! 

LSJWhat I would do for a claw-foot tub! I drove through the southwest last week and stopped by the Salton Sea for the first time. I’d always wanted to see it—one of the biggest inland seas in the world, it even gets a mention in your book—and I felt immediately haunted by it.

MWI loved the Salton Sea! Isn’t it eerie—all those old mid-century billboards along the road advertising jet-skiing and pleasure cruises and date shakes that aren’t there anymore? I’m not precisely sure what it is about the southwest. My husband was from there, and before we split up we spent a lot of time in Arizona and Vegas and Southern California. I used to joke that I liked it because it was like the east coast of Australia, but without any of the emotional baggage. I feel a sense of rightness and belonging there that I’ve not felt anywhere else in the world. 

LSJVisiting the Salton Sea, which has been called “the biggest environmental disaster in California history,” led me to read about the prehistoric Lake Cahuilla on the same site. And this, of course, reminded me of your book and its narrator’s remark that Oxley might not have been wrong about there being an inland sea in Australia, but rather that “He was just 110 million years too late, and a couple hundred years too soon.” How did the idea occur to you to consider the macro view of this colonial myth? 

MW I was thinking a lot about water level rises when I started writing the book, maybe especially because living in New York right after Hurricane Sandy made me constantly attuned to conversations about flooding, and there have been conversations for years about building a sea wall around New York Harbor to stop the tides from overwhelming downtown Manhattan. But because I was writing about Australia I was thinking about the rising oceans in that respect. I went down morbid rabbit holes which tracked what neighborhoods would look like with different levels of ocean rise, how the city’s geography would change. So much of climate change discourse is about what will or might happen, it’s worry about the future. When I looked at the inland sea in particular, it was eerie to see the ways in which this stretch of water—which didn’t exist—had once existed in some form many millions of years ago, and might again if the oceans rise very high. There’s a perverse kind of circularity to it that I find ghoulishly interesting. 

LSJ Your book feels very much set in Sydney, and your descriptions of the landscape are vivid and particular. You include names of streets, landmarks, train stations, flora and fauna.

MWWhen I was a kid I felt a lot of confusion about the fact that where I was from—Sydney—wasn’t depicted in any of the books or films I was exposed to. There are cities that are written about so often, like New York and Dublin and Paris, that when you visit them, you have a good sense of them already. Sydney isn’t like that. I’ve always been interested in the literature of cities—the flaneur and the flaneuse, city symphonies, big works of modernism—and I liked the idea of applying those techniques to Sydney, to do what Virginia Woolf did for London or Dos Passos for Manhattan: depicting the specificity of a place. I left Australia when I was twenty-three, and didn’t go back to visit for five years, so a lot of my homesickness got channeled into writing about Sydney. I would spend hours listening to recordings of Australian birdsong, or on the City of Sydney Council’s website looking at their public tree ordinances, walking through parts of the city on Google street view.

LSJCan you talk a bit about your process with this book? 

MWI started writing the first bits and pieces of it at the beginning of 2015. To some extent it came out of a novella I wrote, called Afraid of Waking It. Initially I thought it would be a development and extension of that project, but it became its own thing after a few months. In 2017 I had a full draft. It was not, however, a very good draft. It took me doing two big structural re-drafts where I printed out the book and jigsaw-puzzled it around on the floor to get it to its final shape in 2018. 

LSJIt’s a coming-of-age book with the narrator in a state of limbo. What was it like working on this over a period of years? Did you have a kind of distance from this perspective that proved useful?

MWWhen I first started I was fairly close to the age the narrator is, and by the time I was through redrafting I felt very far away from that perspective. But I wanted her to be young and half-formed and not capable of reflection, with very poor boundaries. I always wanted the focus to stay quite close, and to not give her much space to grow, or grow-up. That was frustrating the older I got, but I tried to keep coming back to why I wanted to write somebody at that age, when we’re most porous. The lack of boundaries is what makes her a conduit for everything that happens around her.

Madeleine Watts Author Photo C N A 1

Photo of Madeleine Watts courtesy of Catapult Books.

LSJAnd despite being affected by everything around her, or maybe because of it, she seeks safety in Lachlan, a love interest she’s named after “a river full of promise that leads nowhere”: “As he spoke the rivers swelled, the water tanks re-filled, the pollutants and the sea snakes were cleansed from the storm surge, the Maldives rose above the waterline, the melting glaciers were restored to their rightful form.” This seems like a smart—and aspirational!—way of seeing the potential power and comfort of relationships.

MWTo some extent this is like something I talk about in therapy. It’s hard. I think trying to find safety in the wrong things, looking for safety at all, is sometimes a fool’s errand. At the same time, that’s one of best things about romantic relationships—the feeling of coming home to somebody, the familiarity of it, the safety. It’s not just romantic relationships, obviously—there’s a line in Marilynne Robinson’s Homecoming I always think of in relation to this: “Having a sister or a friend is like sitting at night in a lighted house. Those outside can watch you if they want, but you need not see them. You simply say, ‘Here are the perimeters of our attention. If you prowl around under the windows till the crickets go silent, we will pull the shades. If you wish us to suffer your envious curiosity, you must permit us not to notice it.’ Anyone with one solid human bond is that smug, and it is the smugness as much as the comfort and safety that lonely people covet and admire.”LSJI love that line. The Inland Sea has some uncomfortable, honest-feeling sex scenes in it. There’s hyper-awareness of the body, stray hairs, blood clots. You also have this scene in which the narrator brings Lachlan with her to buy the morning after pill. How do you go about writing these scenes? 

MWThere’s this wonderful essay by Eimear McBride where she writes that she’s not interested in art that has no sex in it. I think about it all the time. The life of the body feels so important to the writing I love best, and I try to use sex to illuminate the interior lives of the people I’m writing about, the way in which the body and the mind are intertwined. Sex writing is good when it’s specific, and when it doesn’t follow a narrative arc (which we kind of learn it should, from pornography). The best writing about sex always does something special with language, with interiority, with non-linear time, which are all tools available to writers which aren’t available to, say, filmmakers. Actually one of the things I always think of as being really good sex writing is a short story you turned into workshop once—there was a paragraph about two women fingering one another in a cupboard, before having to attend to some professional engagement. The sex was part of the story, part of everything else. You couldn’t understand the relationship between the characters or the protagonist herself without the honest depiction of the sex they were having. 

LSJAw, thanks, I can’t believe you remember that! As in many books I love, your narrator is also a writer. Did you ever want her to be something else? 

MWI did. I’m not a fan of books about writers. I think they’re a cliché. But having her trying to become a writer allowed me to introduce a lot of the essayistic parts of the book, which were important to me. She makes notes and records information, and she isn’t sure why. I resisted making her a writer until about the fourth draft, but in the end it became the easiest way for me to include sections about history and ecology which were important to the book as a whole.

LSJYes! Those parts feel integral and exciting—and the way you weave in colonial and environmental history through Oxley’s search for the inland sea is powerful. How did you go about researching, incorporating, and arranging the nonfictional sections?

MWThe most strictly non-fictional parts of the book are the weather events. I don’t use quotation marks when there’s dialogue between characters. Everything that’s in a quotation in the novel has a source, whether it’s a book or a newspaper. I was hugely influenced by Amitav Ghosh’s book The Great Derangement, which I read half-way through writing the novel. It changed the way I thought about structure, and how I was writing about nature and landscape. 

So much climate change literature is set in a “near-future,” edging into science fiction. It was important to me to write about what was happening right now, the reality of climate change as we’re already experiencing it. So, I made sure that everything was non-fictional in that respect, and then I really enjoyed the constraints. 

The most fun I had in maybe the whole book (and I realize how dark this is as I think about it) was writing the opening of the “Flood” section. That’s about Cyclone Oswald, which hit Queensland in early 2013 and led to major flooding. All the details were real, and I got them from digging through some Australian newspaper digital archives. So to some extent it was like writing a reconstructed scene in a piece of reportage, but with more creative license. I really loved the way that, say, Eduardo Galeano makes narrative out of history in his Memory of Fire trilogy, and he was very much in my mind as I wrote those parts of the book.

LSJThe narrator also has certain authors very much in her mind. Pliny the Elder comes up as a guiding force. You’ve written beautifully on Patrick White, whose portrait hangs over Lachlan’s bed. How did the literary touchstones within the book come to be?

MWPartly, it’s just how my mind works. I’m always reading between four and seven books at once, and my way of thinking is referential and associative. I was also reading a lot of creative non-fiction while writing the book, and writers like Eula Biss and Helen Garner were a big influence on me. I was excited by novels that adopted non-fictional techniques and played around with them like, Sleepless Nights and the novels of Annie Ernaux. I was thinking a lot about Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, which is very referential and engages with the texts she quotes from, and Claire Vaye Watkins’ novel Gold Fame Citrus, a rare novel with a bibliography at the end.

LSJAt one point the narrator says, “In the beginning all the world was America, said John Locke, long ago.” At another point she notes that, “People were meant to dial 000, but every single person who called was in a panic, and some people who had been confused by watching too much American television would slip up and dial 911 instead.” 

MW Yeah, I have a complicated relationship with the extent to which the book engages with America, because there was a sense when I was at university in Australia that it was bad form to court favor with the Americans and the English, that we were done with that, and to do so was evidence of Cultural Cringe. Having cultural cringe is very passé, very 1950s. You could argue that explaining Triple Zero in terms of 911 is evidence of ‘translating’ things for an American audience, and it could be argued that by doing so I’m trying to court favor. It’s also the easiest way of explaining it to anybody outside Australia. But then I’m somebody who takes the ‘u’ out of favor now, and ten years ago I would have been shocked that I would ever do such an un-Australian thing. It’s quite complicated!

LSJ Through her work at Triple Zero the narrator plays a role in a system put in place to respond to individual crises which then become collective crises. Given the variety of emergencies fielded by the narrator, I wonder whether you see this book as part of a bigger conversation around crisis management? 

MW Emergencies, like the many we are living through now, can cause a kind of shutting down and turning-inwards, a focus on the individual and the family, conservatism. But the crises we are facing are structural, and they can only be addressed structurally and collectively. The novel to some extent is an attempt to try and keep in focus both perspectives—the day-to-day life of one individual, and the environmental emergency everybody is living through. The emergency of climate change I think is partly hard to fathom because it’s happening so slowly, and so incrementally. Trying to find different structures and narratives to depict the day-to-day-ness of emergency, the tedium of emergency, feels like an important challenge for artists.

LSJ“To find a form that accommodates the mess,” as Beckett put it. I so admire the form of your book and the many ways it departs from more common narrative structures for the novel. Can you talk a bit about the book’s complex relationship to narrative? 

MWI wanted to find a way to write this book without the kinds of narrative structures we’re so used to—the character arc, the redemptive turn, the realist narrative itself. I’ve found those kinds of narratives really frustrating—they don’t feel honest to me, they don’t feel like they’re up to reflecting and responding to the conditions of the present moment, what it means to be a person, what it means to live in the political climate we live in, the way our lives are changed by the internet, by the pernicious forms of capitalism we live under, by climate change. 

I also know that those kinds of narratives are really comforting, it’s what we’re all used to—I don’t want to knock narrative completely, because whenever I have a cold or I need to spend a day in bed, that’s exactly the kind of thing I want. They’re comforting because we know what to expect. But I didn’t want this book to have a neat narrative. I didn’t want much of a beginning, nor an end—to that extent the whole book mirrors the effect of the emergency calls on the protagonist. 

Towards the beginning of the book there’s a passage about how she finds herself thrust into the present tense, into the intensity of these singular moments—“After just a week I had already began to adjust to a life where there was no time to analyse information if you were going to be one of the ones who could hack it, and where three seconds was all it took to get gone. I was primed for gut reactions. I was attuned to all the reflex-tests of the psyche: hot-takes and pop ups and ‘Act Now’ demands.” The whole time I was writing the book I was trying to find a structure to hold that feeling. 

LSJThe narrator says, “If working on the phones had taught me anything, it was that emergency could not be avoided. Emergency would come for you no matter what you did.” Do you agree?

MWI don’t think that’s necessarily the general condition of human life, but if anything, the last year has brought home the sense that life can really turn on a dime. History just happens to you.

The Inland Sea is available for purchase here.

Liza St. James is a senior editor at NOON and editor-at-large for Transit Books. She lives in New York.

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