As we begin to steady ourselves in another year rife with unsteady circumstances, a parallel urgency emerges within. The questions arrive slowly, then in quick succession: Are we safe? What future could one have in this country? Are we drinking too much? How could he do that?
Madeleine Watts’ debut novel takes place in 2013—a year of similar-scale catastrophe in Australia: floods, tropical storms, rising water-levels, fires everywhere. The Inland Sea (Catapult, 2021) tells the story of a young woman searching for her own convictions in a year of escalating emergency. Our unnamed narrator spends her days fielding emergency calls at Triple Zero, connecting people to police, the fire department, and the ambulance. All the while, she untangles herself from her own personal disasters, secreting money away to leave for America, where things will hopefully be different. But The Inland Sea is more than a book about climate change—it’s a masterful and relatable study of grief, loneliness, disquiet, and what it means to be a woman trying to hold herself together in a world that’s constantly falling apart. It’s about a state of perpetual emergency, “broken up and punctuated by the sudden calm tones we were forced to adopt every time we recited the script.”
Below, I speak with the author about the beginnings of her debut novel, the process of fusing real climactic events into fiction, and emergency as a structuring principle.
Hi Madeleine! Thanks so much for taking the time out to chat with me! Where are you writing from, and how are you holding up?
Right now I’m in Berlin. I usually live in New York, which I’ve called home for the last seven years, but the pandemic being what it is, I came to Berlin a few months ago to be in the same city as my boyfriend. I’m hoping it will be safe enough to travel back to New York soon, but it looks like I might be stuck in place for a while longer yet. It’s been a little stressful, but others have it far worse.
The Inland Sea is due out from Catapult in just a few weeks! How does it feel to have your debut novel almost out in the U.S.?
It feels lovely, if not a little surreal. I’m hoping to be able to see it in an actual bookstore, or bookstore window display. That was always one of the things I most looked forward to.
Could you tell us a little bit about your publishing journey with Catapult?
The book had been sold first to Pushkin Press in the UK early in 2019, where I worked with my editor Laura Macaulay. Then in October of that year my agent got an offer from Catapult for US publication rights. My book is the first acquisition my editor Alicia Kroell made at Catapult, which is lovely. Catapult have always been one of my favorite independent presses, and they were one of my ‘dream publishers’, so to speak.
The Inland Sea focuses on the brutality of climate change and a woman adrift—could you tell us a little bit about the novel’s beginnings? When did the idea take root?
Climate change and nature were things that were becoming increasingly present in my thinking as I wrote the first draft of the book. Originally, I didn’t think they played a part in what I was writing, but as I drafted and re-drafted the book the natural world and the idea of ‘emergency’ itself became the dominant theme in the book, and the structuring principle. It took a few drafts for me to see clearly what the book was ‘about’.
How long did the book take to write, from start to finish? Did you start work on The Inland Sea during your MFA at Columbia? At what point did the book start feeling ‘done’?
I started writing the first bits and pieces at the beginning of 2015. When I started at Columbia later that year I was already a fair way in, and that was basically all I worked on while I was there. I have a few short stories that came out of my time at Columbia, but they were all written, initially, with the idea that they were part of the novel. When I realized they weren’t, I worked them into stories. The book felt ‘done’ so many times. I had known what it was like to feel ‘done’ with a story or essay, and I had written a novella previously, which felt ‘done’. But the novel was a whole different ball game. I took about four months away from it in 2017, and then went through two very vigorous structural re-draftings over the next year, where I printed out the whole book, cut pages in half, and rearranged them on the floor like a jigsaw puzzle. I honestly don’t think it felt ‘done’ until it went to the printers, and even then there were some changes made to the US edition in the process of copy-editing. Perhaps the best indicator that it was done was when I began to feel like I wrote the book a lifetime ago.
A lot of the climactic events referenced in the book are real events that transpired in 2013—could you tell us a little bit about the process of fusing these events into a book of fiction? Did you happen upon any roadblocks?
Not really. I actually found that non-fictional constraint immensely generative. I decided on 2013 because it was the last year that I lived in Australia before moving to the US, and so the most immediate in my mind. All the climactic events that happened in the book are verifiable, they all happened in 2013. To some extent they helped me pace the book, and the ways in which it becomes increasingly intense and claustrophobic. The pressure of the accumulating natural events builds and builds until the fires, which I had very clear memories of from that year.
One of my favorite aspects of the book—the narrator’s part-time gig at Triple Zero—really synthesized what it feels like to be alive today: a thin layer of mundanity cast over this ongoing sense of urgency. In the piece you wrote for The Irish Times last March, you mentioned you were working Australia’s emergency call center, similarly connecting people to the police, the fire brigade, and the ambulance. How did you go about collecting and cataloging your experiences at the call center?
I did work at Triple Zero during my first year out after university. But I never, ever wrote down what I heard on the phones, unlike the narrator of the book. Aside from anything else, it would have been a violation of privacy. When I came to write the book I realized that particular job was a good tool for placing the narrator, who tells us the story, within the wider context of the country and the slow, accumulative process of climate change in our everyday lives. It let her be a kind of vehicle through which fragments of other stories could flow. Every call in the book is fictional, drawn from the kinds of things I heard on the phones, but never anything specific. It helped, in that way, that I never wrote any notes when I was working there.
John Oxley and Thomas Maslen, the original proposers of the eponymous Inland Sea, crop up a number of times in the book. Could you tell us a little bit about your research process? I’m especially curious about the decision to make the narrator a direct descendent of Oxley’s.
I had been reading a book about the Australian landscape called The Bush, by Don Watson, and he writes about Oxley there. It sent me down a rabbit hole, and I began reading Oxley’s journals. I was shocked at the sheer hubris of assertion of the existence of an inland sea in the middle of the Australian continent. His journey west to find an inland sea was a product of colonial-settler ways of viewing the landscape, an arrogance which resulted in not only enormous violence against indigenous Australians but has contributed to the way the land is thought about and experienced today. There is a thread that runs through centuries of environmental thought, which links colonial history to the ways we are experiencing climate change. The narrator is a descendent of Oxley’s in part because it ties her directly to that history, and implicates her in its consequences.
Let’s talk about Pavement. “Cut Your Hair” serves as a kind of refrain in the book—what pulled you to this song in particular?
‘Cut Your Hair’ is a song I’ve always liked, but it was also, more importantly, played on Triple J, the radio station both my parents listened to separately when I was little. The narrator is roughly the same age as me, and so I wanted to have something she had remembered abstractly from childhood, which repeated itself as though it had significance. So much of the book is about trying to find meaning or significance or sense where there is none to be found, and the refrain from ‘Cut Your Hair’ is just that.
Do you have a regimented process when it comes to writing? Perhaps a time of day, or space, where you prefer to sit down and write?
Theoretically, yes, but you have to make it work around the conditions of your life. I tend to think I write best between five in the afternoon and ten o’clock at night, but that can be hard to manage. I have a lovely desk, but before the pandemic I loved libraries. I would still go uptown to write at the Starr East Asian Library and the Burke Library on the Columbia campus, and sometimes to the Rose Reading Room at the NYPL, or Poet’s House downtown. Any day that I wasn’t at work at my day job was a writing day, which meant I never had a day off. Things have been different this year, and I’ve learned I have to take days off. The most important thing when it comes to a writing routine is that my phone must not be in the room, and the internet must be turned off (I pay for a program called Freedom, it does wonders).
You work at (one of my favorite bookstores!) McNally Jackson. Do you find that your experience working as a bookseller helps with writing?
I think being deeply knowledgeable and familiar with a lot of books makes me a better writer. McNally Jackson’s sections are managed by different staff members, and that means you develop a very deep knowledge of the books in your sections. I managed British, Irish, and Australian literature, as well as Creative Non-Fiction and Nature, among others. Those are my babies. It’s a cliche that half the work of writing is reading, but it’s a cliche for a reason – to write well I think you have to read deeply and broadly. You need to read a lot of backlist. What sells, and what’s popular changes all the time. You can’t control it, or predict it, which is nice to know as a debut writer.
Could you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on at the moment?
I am working on another novel but I won’t say too much about it, because I’ve spoiled other projects before by talking about them too soon.
What are some books you’ve read and loved recently?
The best things I’ve read in a long time were the books in Elizabeth Jolley’s Vera Wright trilogy, which sadly are out of print. I had a lovely time re-reading Sebald’s Rings of Saturn recently, which I hadn’t read in a decade, and just finished The Baudelaire Fractal by Lisa Robertson and This Happy by Niamh Campbell, both of which are wonderful. I am also reading Two In The Far North, a memoir by the Alaskan conservationist Margaret Murie, which is very soothing right before bed. I am always reading, at a minimum, four books at once.
Lastly, are there any independent bookstores you’d like to recommend to our readers?
So many! Spoonbill & Sugartown was my local bookstore for years, and reliably excellent. Community Books in Park Slope and Unnameable Books in Prospect Heights are lovely, and Book Culture on 112th Street is the only bookstore, aside from McNally Jackson, where I’ve lost multiple hours at a time. Skylight Books and Stories in Los Angeles are wonderful, and Point Reyes Books north of San Francisco feels like a bookstore designed specifically for me. My favorite used bookstores are DG Wills in La Jolla, California, and Bookstop in Tucson, Arizona. The best used bookstores in New York are Codex Books on Bleeker Street, and Westsider Books on Broadway and 81st, where you can find reliably beautiful editions of just about everything if you’re prepared to climb to the top of a precarious ladder.
Thanks so much for your time, Madeleine!
The Inland Sea is out now from Catapult, and available wherever books are sold.