An Interview with Philomena Van Rijswijk

Interview with Philomena Van Rijswijk

 Philomena Van Rijswijk talks about living in Tasmania, the importance of Antarctica, the research involved in writing The World as a Clockface, major themes, her writer’s retreat at Varuna, and lots more.
(photography credit: Ray Joyce)

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena: How did The World as a Clockface come about?

Philomena: I guess one of the main things that made me write it was living in Tasmania over the years and aware of having such a vital link with Antarctica. How the Antarctic explorers left from here, and how many of the Antarctic researchers still live here. As I read books and studied a map of the world, it became clear to me that we are so close to Antarctica, and to me I started to see the world in a different way. That is why I chose the name of the book, and I wanted others to see this relationship to Antarctica. I suppose it was a shock when I read about the whaling boats, those small convict boats, and the adventures they had. It was a real surprise to me – I wasn’t expecting to find that. This is a whole part of the world which has been neglected from a literary perspective. I suppose it comes from that European orientation, and the feeling we have in Tasmania of being stuck out in the middle of nowhere, even though we may not be directly conscious of it, it still has an influence on us. You’ve only got to put your foot in the water to be reminded of the proximity to Antarctica

Magdalena: You cover a lot of ground in the novel, from sea birds, to boat navigation, the flora and fauna of many countries, puppetmaking, etc. Tell me about the kinds of research you had to do for this novel.

Philomena: I guess I did do a lot of research, but research sounds a bit boring. I think wool gathering is a better description – picking little bits up here and there until I have something. it is just something I do and love to do it, and when I’m writing a book, I just gradually build up a store of knowledge. It is usually the facts that fascinate me. I guess that has a fairly interesting outcome in the end. As I go along I do research – I’ll write for a week or two and do research for a few weeks. I also do other things. I collect books and put pictures on the walls, to surround myself with the material I’m working with.

Magdalena: Why the pseudonyms Esmania and Incognita? You don’t use mythical names for Tierra del Fuego or Paraguay?

Philomena: I chose Esmania because I came across it in an old Irish poem. I think it was the name of a goddess, and it was too good not to use it. In a way I probably would have chosen a name that was quite different from Tasmania, but I felt it was as if it was telling me to use it. I chose Incognita because when you live in Tasmania, the mainland feels like that – a large uncharted territory.

Magdalena: Did you feel constrained by magic realism?

Philomena: When I wrote the novel I wasn’t thinking about magic realism in the slightest. I suspect that the book really doesn’t fit in to a magic realism genre. It doesn’t have enough realism. But I knew that when I wrote it would be considered unusual and require a handle of some sort.

Magdalena: Do you feel your readers are now expecting it of you?

Philomena: Well they might but I don’t know, maybe I’ll invent a whole new genre that they’ll be happy to put up with. You can’t really worry about expectations.

Magdalena: Were you influenced by the masters of the form – Borges, Marquez, de Bernieres?

Philomena: I have read a little Latin American magic realism, but no more than any other author. I feel that my influences go back into my Irish roots more. Perhaps the link is the Latin American tradition – the Roman Catholic side – where some of the connections lie. There is also that other matter of the Irish irreverence and a macabre sense of death and things like that.

Magdalena: Talk to me about some of the big themes – male vs female; ice vs fire; light and dark.

Philomena: One of the reviews I read recently said that magic realism tends to focus on post-colonialism and it pointed out that it wasn’t part of my book. Some of that has to do with male colonising – femalehood, and the parallels drawn between colonisation. When Walter Stolzkin claims the island by firing his harpoon into the soil, he was doing what people did. This was how real people claimed parts of the Antarctic. It is not my imagination. That is actually how different countries have claimed pieces of the pie. In a way a lot of the book is about- maybe not post-colonialism and the idea of claiming countries, that is right, but I suspect that this idea of magic in writing and what it has to entail- maybe some of the reaction is a male thinking thing. I think that this myth telling and writing of legends is a primal thing/archetypal, female, and maybe it comes as a bit of a shock to a fairly modern thinking male sort of oriented world where those things aren’t considered as intelligent.

Magdalena: You book covers a broad geographical terrain. Do you feel that there is a common Australian sensibility in it though?

Philomena: Well I think that there is a very strong Tasmanianness in it. I feel that there is. That is part of the reason why I wrote the book, and then there is that global feel. Yes, I’m glad that I’ve attempted to do that because what I’ve tried to do is to work on the theme of humanity as the common theme and that, in a way in the real heart of the book. I realised after I invented Lavinia Chomsky – I thought about Noam Chomsky’s quote about how all languages have an innate basis. That Lavinia could go around the world and still speak everybody’s language is an important part of that theme. It is our humanity that is common to us, and which makes literature meaningful regardless of place. I think it is important to capture place, but also to recognise that there are common things. I really didn’t write the book with the thought of it being read around the world, although that would please me immensely.

Magdalena: When you write, do you have a particular audience in mind?

Philomena: Well I’ve thought about that and I’ve thought maybe my great great grandchildren. My books are maybe classical enough to hang around for a while. I’d like them to be long living novels, so I hope that there will be a few generations still interested in my work long after I’m gone.

Magdalena: Tell me about the Varuna Centre (writer’s retreat) where you did some of your work. Did it help to take yourself away from home?

Philomena: Well Varuna was great but I must say it was stressful. When you have a small house full of people and things to do, it is quite a shock to have a whole day to yourself. I did eventually manage to sort my time out. By the time I sorted that feeling of having too much time, I really did get heaps done and still have time at the end of the day to mix with other writers. It was a retreat mainly. You’d work by yourself, and I was such a workaholic I just got heaps done because that is what I was there for.

Magdalena: What are you working on at the moment?

Philomena: Well I’ve finished another book and it is a bit different. It is called Pioneer and is actually set in a place called Lake of the Woods in Canada, although in the story, Canada is Pioneer. I have a strong feeling towards those people who were pioneers – these are perhaps common things which people in Tasmania and Australia might share with them. Now I’m working on a new novel which is back in Esmania, set in Frenchmen’s hollow which was mentioned in The World as a Clockface. Some of the same characters are mentioned and some new ones appear too. I felt compelled to return.