Q & A with Robyn Cadwallader

Q & A with Robyn Cadwallader
Authors at the National Library
29 May 2015

Author Robyn Cadwallader arrives at the National Library on Wednesday 10 June to discuss her passion for the medieval era and her debut novel, The Anchoress with 666 ABC's Genevieve Jacobs. Below, Robyn gives us a little sneak peek into the experience of writing her first novel.

What do you love about libraries?

Oh, just about everything: the comforting smell of old books, the quietness, the endless possibilities for research, the manuscripts, the silent camaraderie of all those other people reading or researching.

What are you reading right now?

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, and I’m about to embark on Helen’s MacDonald’s H is for Hawk. For research for my next novel (and for a change of pace!), I’m reading a book of bawdy medieval fabliaux.


What was the book that most influenced your life and why?

I couldn’t name one book. I’ve been most influenced by poets: E. E. Cummings, Gerard Manly Hopkins, William Blake, Emily Dickinson … When I first encountered them at uni, I felt like someone had opened a window and said, ‘Listen, look, this is what language can do.’

What inspired you to write your first book?

My first book is a rewriting of my PhD thesis about the thirteenth-century Passion of St Margaret of Antioch. I was especially interested in the figure of the dragon and how, in the West, it came to be associated with evil. Once I found the story of Margaret I was hooked: she was swallowed by a dragon, burst out its back, and declared herself a hero—what’s not to like? But it seems that it was her virginity that gave her such power, so the book investigates attitudes to the female body and just why the Church believed that virginity, and the denial of the body, was a source of power for women. Researching for that book sowed the seeds of The Anchoress.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

The hardest part of writing The Anchoress was continuing to believe that I could do it. Beyond that, it was working out a way to evoke the close darkness of Sarah’s cell while letting in some light and space.

How would you describe The Anchoress? 

While The Anchoress is set eight centuries ago, its themes are still relevant today. It’s the story Sarah, a woman who struggles to come to terms with the things she perceives as weaknesses: her own body, her vulnerability, and her humanity.

It explores the tension between the urge to retreat and the desire to connect that we all feel, and the search for agency, especially for women, in a world where men have controlled, and in many ways still control, the structures of meaning and value. 

About Robyn Cadwallader

Robyn Cadwallader has published numerous, prize-winning short stories and reviews, as well as a poetry and non-fiction. She lives among vineyards outside Canberra when not travelling to England for research, visiting ancient archaeological sites along the way.