Q+A with Abi Andrews about The Word for Woman Is Wilderness
In March, we will publish the debut novel by Abi Andrews called The Word for Woman Is Wilderness, an eco-feminist take on the Mountain Man myth. The story follows a young woman named Erin as she takes off from middle England, across Iceland, Greenland, and Canada, to Alaska, where she hopes to explore the wilderness from a feminist perspective. Her digressive journey touches on the writings of Rachel Carson, Ted Kaczynski, and Thoreau, and topics as varied as evolution, Nuclear War, the Letters of Last Resort, and the moon landings. It is a new kind of nature writing — one that crosses fiction with science writing and puts gender politics at the center of the landscape.
What follows is a Q+A with Abi about her book. Don't forget to mark your calendars for March 19, and if you're a bookseller, librarian, or interested in reviewing the book for a media outlet, you may request a review copy.
Q: How did you initially come up with the idea for The Word for Woman Is Wilderness?
Abi Andrews: Like my protagonist Erin I was watching the Jon Krakauer film Into the Wild, the biopic of Chris McCandless who infamously died in the Alaskan wilderness in a botched survivalist experiment. Being younger and more impressionable I was very taken by the film and vowed to myself that I’d do a trip like that, challenge myself to go off alone into the wilderness and cast off society at least for a short time.
But then I started to think about how at each step of his journey, it would have been a completely different story if you simply change the gender of the person doing it. A story about a women doing that kind of trip wouldn’t be just that, because women shunning society to go AWOL, instead of seeming heroic, would be considered unsettling. We think women are social creatures. We would be more inclined to worry about a woman’s capabilities, and the additional layer of danger that would surround her because she is considered more vulnerable. I think we would be more inclined to ask why would she put herself in danger, what’s she trying to prove? And how selfish! Her poor parents/ children/ dependants. So I thought I would write what I thought the McCandless story would be with a woman as its protagonist.
Q: Why do you believe that portrayals of female truth-seekers are missing from the literary canon?
AA: Patriarchy is far more pervasive than just men being paid more than women or men controlling women. It’s the valuing of men above women, the masculine above the feminine. This puts limits on what we think women can do, which extends to abstract thinking, and making valuable work. Women’s genius is tainted by our preconceptions of their capabilities, so their work has traditionally gone unnoticed.
Women who truth-seek and make work about this often have their work reduced to being about how women truth-seek as women. When a woman writes, her work is framed as writing about women’s issues, rather than issues of humanity at large. This is even truer of other even more marginalised groups- a woman of colour has the further limit imposed of writing of experience only from the point of view of a POC. Only the straight, able-bodied white man was ever free enough from other concerns to write as an unmarked body. So the canon mostly only holds space for them.
Q: Is there a part of you that is still holding out hope you’ll be able to make a documentary about a female twist of the Chris McCandless/Into the Wild story, or did writing The Word for Woman Is Wilderness satisfy that desire?
AA: Any documentary on the themes I wrote would have to be about the unmaking of the documentary — because I came to believe that you can’t make a truly feminist documentary about the McCandless story, if you get right into the nitty-gritty of it. Can you make a film about the unmaking of a film? Maybe. But writing the unmaking made so much more sense, because it gave me the tools to be outside looking in at the documentary itself, so was the best way I could think to approach this. Perhaps there is a film there, but one that’s somehow critical of its own lens- it would certainly be fun to try it.
Q: Have you traveled to the places — Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland — that you’ve written into the story? If not, how did you go about making them feel both tangible and realistic?
AA: I haven’t been to any of the places I wrote about, but I wanted to pass off the story as a travelogue as best I could. In the beginning I went to the extent of faking two travel-writing pieces (which appear in the book) for a weekly travel writing competitions in a UK newspaper and got a small prize for both. I thought it was both funny and interesting to take an experience I had had in one case, and transfer it to another place (writing the desert and passing it off as the arctic because they are in many ways analogous), and just plain make it up. I was thinking at the time more about being critical of travel writing as a genre, its colonial implications.
I wanted to write something that was more about the writing of place than it was writing the place itself. Especially with the Alaska half of the book — I wanted to weave and dissect our myths of the place, which really, we construct around it, rather than them emanating from it. So this made it unnecessary to have been to the place, really. It was intentionally sardonic, and maybe it will piss some people off a bit, they might feel cheated. But I wanted to coerce the reader into thinking on some things that are uncomfortable about our ideas of freedom and travel and wilderness.
It was also important in approaching the paradox at the heart of the McCandless story; it wasn’t McCandless himself, but Krakauer and the film that blew up his story and brought hoards of people to his ‘wilderness’ as copycat truth-seekers, ultimately making it a place that no longer was ‘wild’ in the sense of being untouched by people. Even if the idea of wilderness as pure and apart from humanity is problematic, it’s opposite is also not good — that of saturation of people. This is a problem of travel writing — you write the place, it inspires others to follow, who as a mass, change the place. The act of writing lived travel experiences is also often one of ownership — it’s got a creepy colonialism to it — it’s this desire to say ‘I got here first!’ and draw the map.
The way I wrote the places in practice was to read lots and lots about them, watch lots of documentaries, spend hours on google street view. Much less glamorous perhaps.
Q: You talk in the book how based on tests, NASA scientists believed that women would be better-suited for space exploration, but because of societal norms instead sent male astronauts into space first. While this book tackles issues that could be considered timely (especially here in the U.S., sadly), it also feels cumulative and timeless. How did you approach addressing these issues within your story so that it could have this desired effect of feeling both timely and timeless?
AA: The moon landings happened long enough ago that you would think it common knowledge that the Mercury 13 was a group of potential female astronauts who could have peopled the Apollo missions, had NASA and society at large not been so sexist (there is a really great documentary about this called Mercury 13- I think it’s on Netflix). But it isn’t common knowledge! By and large people don’t know this, and that’s because of limits to our expectations for women. We barely see contemporary women as fully competent and capable of the same things as men, and so it’s not surprising that we miss stories of women from before the mobilisations of later waves of feminism. When we look at most of history we only remember men. I really wanted to go into why we miss those stories.
Erin sets out and misses those stories also — she is writing as though no other women have done what she does, which, of course, isn’t true. But that’s because I wasn’t looking at the actual facts of what women have done, but the stories that we tell ourselves about people in nature/ ‘the wild’ in the west. The stories that we tell ourselves about people in nature are about men. The issue isn’t that women aren’t doing stuff, it’s that they aren’t recognised for doing it and their work isn’t in the canon. I could have instead written a bunch of biopics about women who have done great things in nature/ adventure/ truth-narratives or whatever, but that wasn’t what I wanted to look at, and it’s already been done. I wanted to look more at why we ignore them, and why their voices aren’t part of the canon, rather than writing about them.
Q: The Word for Woman Is Wilderness was published in the U.K. by Serpents Tail, and this fall in German. Your U.K. editor described the book as “Walden meets I Love Dick,” which feels fitting. We have math formulas on our website, and I’m curious how you would write your book’s math formula?
AA: I think ‘Walden meets I Love Dick’ is hilarious and can’t be matched. Maybe White Fang + Blood and Guts in High School/ Jack London + Kathy Acker??
You can now preorder a copy of The Word for Woman Is Wilderness. The book drops March 19.
If you are a bookseller, librarian, or interested in writing a review for a media outlet you may request an advance review copy.
John Riding - February 11, 2020
I’ve been travelling this globe since 1953, and Abi Andrews does the best adventure I have ever read; I’m pretty much in disbelief that she has not done this trip herself. I re-read her twice a year at least:)