Aussie Indie Artists: Roanna McClelland talks The Comforting Weight of Water

Roanna McClelland

Aussie Indie Artists is a series of interviews with lesser known Aussie creators across all forms and fields. The goal is to share exciting new works, find new angles towards the art, and peek behind the scenes.

The Comforting Weight of Water is a spec-fic, coming-of-age story in a world of endless rain. Tools have rusted beyond repair, the people have grown skittish, contemptuous, or simply empty, and soon the rivers will flood all.

Author Roanna McClelland has created a world devastated by not the disaster of drought, but of drowning in rain. The Comforting Weight of Water won the Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award, and was recently featured on Julia Gillard’s A Podcast of One’s Own.

I talked to Roanna about the birth of this waterlogged world, its icons, and its dreams.

Your PhD work has been studying rivers and water scarcity, so I can imagine that work influenced this work. Was there a moment of inspiration when the book was born?

The PhD was actually born at the same time as the book, so in that way they influenced each other. I had been working for years in the water and environment space, first in environmental law, then as a political staffer.

I think I had all these ideas and questions about nature and water whirring around in my head and assumed the PhD research was the only way to explore that further.

But one day, I was trailing around behind my kids in the rain, and the voice and idea for the story came to me. I had no idea that I was writing a book at that stage, but I felt really compelled to get the story down on paper. 

What made a world with too much water so enticing?

We focus so much on drought and barrenness, especially in Australia, so I was really intrigued by how different a world of endless rain might feel to the remaining humans. That visceral sense of damp and suffocation and a world full of slippery surfaces was something I hadn’t come across in speculative fiction before, and I wanted to explore that further.

It’s also something we know about climate change – in addition to droughts, there will be extreme periods of rain and flooding, so it wasn’t a huge stretch to imagine the wet world I have created. 

Do you have an aim or a goal for this book, like you would for your research?

An early review called me something like “the depressed voice of a generation angry that their future has been stolen” which I thought was really funny, but also isn’t what the book or my work is about at all. I don’t advocate depression or nihilism in the face of climate change!

For me, speculative fiction and literature allows you to question the present by examining an imagined future. It should be – and is – a future that is entirely avoidable if we unpack and change some of the ways we relate to the world around us now. 

The book, and particularly the child-narrator, is also a vehicle for interrogating other binaries and structures in society that we take for granted. 

I saw your research article on safeguarding rivers, which is dense and informative. Your book, on the other hand, is imaginative and exciting. Is it difficult to switch between such different modes of writing?

Thank you! It has been entertaining introducing audiences of my academic work to my creative work and vice versa, but I love having different outlets for my thinking.

The academic work is dense and rigorous and satisfies a part of my brain that needs that stimulation. And I have learned so much from other academics. Writing creatively, on the other hand, feels organic and liberating, and brings me joy. It’s not always easy to balance the two modes, but I think they complement each other at the end of the day.

I’ve read that you were inspired by other dystopian YA books and authors, who were your guiding stars or big icons during the writing?

I grew up on a diet of dystopian and science fiction: Isobelle Carmody, John Marsden, Brian Caswell and Gillian Rubenstein to name just a few.

Also – and don’t judge me – brilliant/terrible movies like Tank Girl and Waterworld stayed with me from childhood. I couldn’t possibly list all the works that influenced this book but some that come to mind outside of the YA space are The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean Mckay, The Ice People by Maggie Gee, Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve, Terra Nullius by Claire Coleman, and all Margarget Atwood, but particularly the Maddaddam trilogy.

Finally, the decision to create an insular world around two main characters probably owes a lot to The Road. In fact, when I first met my Editor I described the book as “like The Road, but funnier!” and she said “yeah, we definitely won’t be marketing it like that”. 

And this being your debut, what has it been like entering the world of authors and publishing?

I didn’t have a door into that world so it has been a wild ride. The Comforting Weight of Water was the first time I had written creatively, so I had no idea what to expect during editing or the release. I did a lot of googling at various stages of the process. Fortunately, a group of debut authors reached out to me recently and invited me to their chat group (see #debutcrew2023), which has been amazing – they are supportive, wonderfully kind, and share their experiences and tips with each other. I’d recommend other debut authors band together in the same way. 

Can you share a memorable moment from behind the scenes, something from the writing process?

I was very shy about sharing my work, and in fact didn’t tell most people in my life that I was writing a book. I entered it into the Arts SA Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award, and got a call about four months before the official award announcement to tell me that I had won.

I was in such disbelief that I immediately decided I had misunderstood the phone call, so I didn’t tell anyone – I sat on it for four months in case I was wrong about winning. It was only when they emailed me a week before the award announcement with the program that I finally believed I had won and told people. My parents were pretty bemused.

And how about a favourite moment from the book?

I love all of the lighter moments between the child-narrator, and the other main character who is an old woman named Gammy. Their relationship is fraught in the way a co-dependent relationship between a young teenager and an older woman would be today, but placed in a world entirely unlike our own. A particular favourite is when the kid entices Gammy outside to play a game, and we see Gammy’s competitive spirit start to flicker. It’s a nice, playful moment in a very dark world, but also shows who Gammy might have been before the rains came. 

Thank you for the peek into The Comforting Weight of Water, and for the writing insights. And I’m excited to see what you write next!

The Comforting Weight of Water by Roanna McClelland is available now from Wakefield Press. Grab yourself a copy from Booktopia, Planet Books, or Dymocks.

And to follow Roanna’s work, check her out on Instagram, Twitter, or Threads