Erin Hortle’s first novel is about the relationship between a breast cancer survivor and some octopuses at Eaglehawk Neck, on the Tasman Peninsula.

The Octopus and I,  excepts from which won her the Young Writer's Fellowship in the Premier's Literary Prizes last year, also tells of the friendship between two adolescent fur seals, the collapse of a family of mutton-birds, and an abalone diver’s beef with recreational tuna fisherman. While this manuscript is still in search of a publisher, Erin's interest in aquatic lifeforms is not a new obsession.

Under the sea

"The other day, in the carpark of the Humanities Building at UTAS, someone shouted: ‘Hey, Octopus Girl!’ I turned around; they’d seen me give a talk on writing about octopuses and wanted to tell me about an article they’d happened across."

And The Octopus and I  is far from Erin's only sojourn into octo-lit. She recently wrote a piece of expermiental non-fiction about a childhood encounter in a rockpool.

She hesitates, and then reaches down and gently strokes a finger along the orange arm that is still coiling about her legs. The octopus stills a little to let her, and it almost seems to butt up into her touch, much like a cat arching its back against its human’s hand. 'Guess what? The octopus just touched, tasted and saw you in that moment of contact....'

READ: The Octopus and The Eyes by Erin Hortle, published by The Lifted Brow in April 2018.

Ambergris on the west coast of Tasmania, image by Erin Hortle.

A sensory surprise

But there's more to life than Cephalopod molluscs.  "I’m currently working on an experimental history of ambergris, which is an integral ingredient of perfume and commonly misunderstood to be solidified sperm whale vomit." Erin has recently written a shorter piece on that subject too.

When it’s fresh, ambergris smells like briny cow shit, or it smelt like that to me when I sniffed this piece, pictured here. This wasn’t what I expected, considering ambergris is an integral ingredient of perfume. It is unsurpassed as a scent stabilizer and fixer and at times it has been worth more than its equivalent weight in gold....

READ: Ambergris by Erin Hortle, published by Everyday Futures.

Catching a wave

Still from Breath, based on the novel by Tim Winton. Courtesy Roadshow Films.

Erin even finds inspiration in the water itself. "I love surf, and surfing makes me a better writer. I spend so much time watching water move and thinking about which words match those shifts in hue, that curl of the lip, that shock of spray. It brings a kind of mindfulness, which draws me into a world of words and the surf simultaneously. It sounds so naff, but sometimes I feel like the ocean taught me to write as much as chain-reading novels did."

I’m also aware of the fact that the ocean is typically associated with masculinity in Australia, and so I find myself constantly wanting to tell stories about women in the water, I guess because it interests me, but also as a feminist intervention.

"When I was growing up, I loved to read Tim Winton, but I yearned to find myself in his books and I couldn’t, because even though his writing so often critiques masculinity, it doesn’t carve out a space for women."

Erin's friend Viv Cutbush drew a portrait of her after a recent writers retreat.

The means of production

Erin is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Tasmania.

It's a pathway that invites curiosity, she's found. "I was sick of people asking me 'Oh, a creative writing PhD? What even is that?' and, frustratingly, “What’s the point of that?” So I wrote an essay, both explaining what a creative PhD is, for me at least, and making a case for the value of the creative arts in the academy."

Think about how you feel when you hear a piece of music that stirs something in your belly and throat; think about how you feel when you read or view a piece of fiction that paints a picture of a world or moment or character so sublime or terrifying or mundane you can’t not be affected...This is art; this is a knowledge type, which has been produced through painstaking research....

READ: A Case for Creative PhDs by Erin Hortle, published by Overland in April 2017.

Apply to study a Bachelor of Arts with a major in English at the University of Tasmania's School of Humanities. 

Hero image: illustration by By Kovaleva Galina/Shutterstock