What’s the Story Worth?: Anna Krien on Non-Fiction

In her award-winning 2010 book Into the Woods, Anna Krien immersed herself in the battle for Tasmania’s forests, a situation described (by Georgia Claire in Overland) as a sort of ‘catastrophe in motion’.

In this interview with Writers Victoria’s Kate Larsen, Krien reflects on what was it like to immerse herself in so much destruction, and on how a small idea can turn into a much bigger story.

When faced with situations like Tasmania’s logging industry in action, do you feel that you have to remain objective in order to bear witness, or do you think it’s important to put yourself in the story?

I think it’s a mixture of the two, if that makes sense. Objectivity is crucial and it’s also impossible. My way of dealing with that minor conundrum is to declare myself — to state my uncertainties and alliances up-front and then start unravelling the issues (and myself!) to get to the core of the story.

You originally went to Tasmania to write an essay and it turned into a book. What happened?

My dad was a newspaper editor and one of his favourite pearls of wisdom that he likes to share with me is his response to journalists when they asked how many words he wanted them to file on a story: ‘What’s the story worth’?’ he liked to reply cryptically.

This came to mind when I found the story of Tasmania’s forests to be much larger than I’d expected. Initially I had gone down to the island and thought – 2000, 3000 words maximum – only to end up writing quadruple that without even touching the core of the issue. And, unfortunately for me, once I’ve waded into a story, there is no going back. I’m mentally stuck in the story until it’s finished.

So, in a sense, the ongoing nature of the issues in Tasmania, the sausage string of bizarre political decisions and free kicks to forestry, the entrenched hate and division between the two sides, gave me little choice but to write a book about what I discovered there.

Three years after the publication of Into the Woods, what’s your connection to that place?

To be honest, I was exhausted after writing Into the Woods and needed a break from the island and its politics — which is tough because when your book is getting traction and attention, that is the time to really drive the issues home.

Also I got the sense from some of the locals who had enjoyed the book that they expected me to become a kind of advocate or activist on the forest issues — but I’m a writer, not a spokesperson — and in a sense I’d said everything I wanted to say in the book.

But that said, I recently met a Tasmanian who reminded me of the uniqueness of the people I’d met and spent time with on the island — he was ferociously engaged, vivid in every way and quite wonderful. It was good to be reminded of that.

You’ve said in the past that it’s not the job of the writer to make friends. Is it difficult to get to know people and places so intimately knowing they might not like what you write about them?

Yes! It causes many sleepless nights I’m afraid. But my obligation is to the truth of the story and that’s what I have to remind myself over and over when I start worrying about people’s reactions and feelings.

That’s not to say that a journalist should therefore stomp all over those sorts of sensitivities — but it must never restrain them from telling it as it is.

There’s been a resurgence of creative long-form non-fiction recently. What are some of the qualities of the format that you recommend emerging writers strive for?

I think narrative is important — you’re taking your reader into a dark place where they may know nothing and narrative is like giving them a rope to hold onto and follow.

Another quality I’ve noticed in the creative long-form non-fiction writers that I enjoy is their seemingly contrary mix of uncertainty and confidence — voices that are unafraid to question themselves and everything they stand for.

Do you think creative non-fiction is a useful tool to help engender social change?

On my good days, I’d say yes. For example, with my most recent book Night Games, I’ve received many emails from community club football coaches thanking me for writing it and that they’ve been demanding the players and other officials at their club to read it. From a grassroots level, I couldn’t ask for a better response.