Speculative fiction usually starts with a “what if”: what if there was an environmental reckoning? What if we didn’t have enough water? What if the world was running out of food? What if that was coupled with a catastrophic global financial crisis? What would Australia look like? And how would its citizens cope?
Debut novelist Sally Abbott, 57, didn’t start with the dystopian scenario, although her novel is certainly dystopian; she began with her characters.
For her protagonist, Clare, the best years of her marriage – and her life – seem to be behind her. At night she walks, with no particular destination in mind, around the town in which she lives with her mute husband, subsisting on ever-diminishing government-issued food parcels. After she returns home from her walks, she fills diary after diary with meaningless notes.
But even in these straitened circumstances, Clare has a lot to lose. There’s been an economic collapse and the government is in the process of shutting down “non-viable” country towns, forcing people to leave their homes and move to the city. The waiting list for a depressing box-like apartment on the city fringe is years and years. Even those with almost nothing feel like there is still further yet to fall.
The story of Closing Down “grew very slowly”, Abbott tells Guardian Australia. “I began it around five years ago and I didn’t really write it in a structured, linear way. It was the main characters – the main people that I played around with in the beginning – they were very real for me and vivid.”
At the time, Abbott was a student of the Faber Academy under the tutelage of the writer Sophie Cunningham. She and other would-be novelists met once a week to develop their work in progress. By the time the course finished, Abbott had about 35,000 words of a manuscript.
Abbott won the $10,000 inaugural Richell prize for emerging writers in 2015 for her partly completed manuscript. Named for the late Hachette publisher Matt Richell, the prize invites unsigned authors to submit the first three chapters of a manuscript plus a synopsis. Abbott came across the prize on Twitter and had enough of a manuscript to enter. Her work was chosen over 969 other submissions, and she was later offered a publishing contract, giving her almost seven months to hand in the finished manuscript.
Much of the work features a strong sense of place. Before moving into public relations, Abbott, who now lives in Castlemaine in central Victoria, worked as a journalist in regional areas. While Abbott says she deliberately set the novel “in a non-place”, she nevertheless “did a lot of driving through the Wimmera and the Grampians, and there are all these little towns that, unless you go off the highway, you don’t even know they are there”.
Abbott had read an academic paper that questioned the viability of many of Australia’s tiny towns, and the seeds of the book were sown.
Dystopian fiction is having something of a moment, with Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale being adapted for television and Orwell’s 1984 reappearing in the bestseller lists nearly 70 years after it was published.
Climate fiction, or “cli-fi”, a sub-genre in which Closing Down might sit, also reflects our very real anxieties about climate change and the resulting economic and social catastrophes.
In the near future of Abbott’s novel, in an echo of Cormac McCarthy, many of those that are displaced by the regional town closures take to the road, walking along the shoulder and camping out.
Abbott also imagined food shortages caused by extreme weather events, and, perhaps controversially, invokes the spectre of foreign ownership, imagining that Australia has sold most of its rural and regional areas to the Chinese government, which farms it for its own population.
“I was reading about longer-term impacts about climate change, drought, storms and famine,” says Abbott. “And there were also stories about artificial foods and meat made out of chemicals. I wondered how sustainable into the future it was for people around the world to keep eating the way we are eating.”
“I know there are bleak parts of the book but I also hoped to some extent that there was a note of optimism. It’s important that as the world gets more difficult for people – that kindness to strangers is as important as it ever has been.”
• Closing Down by Sally Abbott is published by Hachette and is available now