Last weekend I was at Word on the Street Toronto‘s pop up event at Evergreen Brickworks, where I got to walk through an old industrial site and talk about climate change fiction, and read from Arboreality. I also signed a stack of The Talosite for Undertow Publications, so I met my editors and publishers for the first time.
It was a good afternoon. Our walk was interrupted by rain pouring down on the corrugated roof, which is a beautiful sound that also required me to shout when I was reading from the novella. But my audience was patient and afterward I chatted with a few of them, talking through the tension between hope and dread that defines so much climate change fiction.
And now Arboreality is out in the world, full of hope and dread and officially available for sale. And I can’t quite believe it.
Second, I’m going to be at ConQuest 53 in Kansas City next week if anyone wants to come and say hello. I’ll be talking about weird fiction, body horror, climate change fiction and on other things on a couple of panels.
Stelliform Press is going to publish my novella, Arboreality this autumn. It’s an expansion of my novelette “An Important Failure,” which was both challenging and wonderful. I got to return to characters and places I love, and explore the possibilities of a world that’s falling apart. Because new things grow out of the crumbles, don’t they? After the wild fires, the fireweed. “An Important Failure” was about a craftsman trying to preserve something precious while the world changed around. Arboreality has a few characters like that, but also characters who are picking up the remnants and making them into something new.
Stelliform publishes fiction about climate change that rejects apocalyptic visions– or visions that are exclusively apocalyptic. Their mandate is hope, and they celebrate resilience, both ecological and human. And not just resilience, but the ways we might all flourish in a re-made world.
I admire this. Having grown up on the nuclear apocalypses of the 1980s, where destruction was absolute and doom inevitable, it is a welcome challenge to write hopefully about the future, and to use the tools of speculative fiction to imagine beauty. I want to be a good ancestor, and to write about people who resist despair (even if they, like me, are inclined toward gloom). Arboreality is about the small ways we might be good ancestors, leaving tools and messages behind for people we won’t ever know, in a world we can’t imagine.
Like a lot of my work, the novella is set in the Cowichan Valley. It’s about people and trees: the Garry oak savannahs of the southern Salish sea, arbutus trees growing out of the rocks around Saanich inlet. My mother is a painter, and she’s been studying these trees for her whole adult life, leaving a record of these marginal landscapes, narrow ecological niches that are easily disordered, and so very beautiful. These are some of her paintings of Arbutus menziesii on the south coast of Vancouver island. Arboreality takes place under these trees, and on these rocks:
The first appeared in the March/April The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. “The Bletted Woman” is a story of material transformation and the intimate effects of climate change on our microbiome. It’s about re-imagining death not as a spiritual shift, or an absolute ending, but as a physical transfiguration. So, you know, a super cheerful story.
The second appeared in the November issue of Clarkesworld, a novelette about the fears of parenting and different sorts of not-exactly-linguistic communication. It’s called “The Language Birds Speak.” If you’re going to read it, I suggest you listen to Kate Baker’s excellent audio version (available here and over at youtube), since the story plays with communication and the power of sound.
It’s been a long, sad, exhausting year. I hope you’re all well and safe.
I have a new novelette in the November issue of Clarkesworld: “The Language Birds Speak.” It’s about parental anxiety. And communication. And the way having a child changes the way you understand your own childhood. I started this story when my son was an infant, so three or more years ago, but only finished it in September and it’s another attempt to describe the strange mental transformations of motherhood. It’s also about children, too, and the neurological consequences of neglect, which I read about while my son was in utero. In those months I learned that we are creatures of collaboration: that we quite literally create one another as we interact. The hormonal changes of pregnancy transformed my brain. All the songs and cuddles and nose-boops of babyhood changed my son’s brain, too.
She’d been bent over a smartphone, absorbed, her face unresponsive. He’d been six months old, dozing in her lap, and seen that blank nightmare mask of a mother. Her disregard had permanently scarred him. The core trauma of his life already underway and unstoppable: parents so busy with their work and themselves that he, little visitor, found himself too often alone, a social animal in unnatural isolation, like an orca in a tank at Sea World. Or a rhesus monkey snatched from his mother and consigned to the stainless-steel pit of despair, surrounded by nothing but the distortions of that mirror, the reverberating cries of his isolation. For science.
The story is also about how we process sensory information, or fail to process it, or ignore it. It’s the most I’ve ever written about misophonia, and the terrible skinlessness I can feel when my senses overload. It’s about instinct and insight, too, and about fear.
But it’s hard to write about any of these things– the first wordless communications of infancy, the painful brain-overload of misophonia–through language, since the whole point of the story is that profound experiences resist language. I kept thinking of incompletely-remembered French feminist theory from undergrad, especially Julia Kristeva’s “the Semiotic.” The idea that meaning and language don’t exactly intersect, and that communication is far more elusive than black words on a white page. The idea of an original, divine language: Enochian, Adamic, the language birds speak.
The answer lay not in theory, but in poetry. For years I have loved Anne Carson’s translation of the Sappho fragments, If Not, Winter, not only for the words on the page, but also for the way she represents absence in her text, using square brackets [ ]. Framing the white space that way gives me such a wonderful, thrilling sense of possibility, that meaning spreads out from the words that survive, rather than being limited to them. That’s where I found the tools I needed to write this story.
Back when I was a kid who read everything, there are two places I spent a lot of time: the Duncan branch of the Vancouver Island Regional Library, where the YA section was full of Andre Norton and Edward Eager; a used bookstore in Duncan run by an old guy who liked cats, potted plants, and magazines published by the Canadian Marxist-Leninists. I was unpacking books this week, to put them on our new shelves, and I found paperbacks with his distinctive handwriting in them, and a unicorn stamp. The prices were low: I got all my John Wyndham paperbacks for 50 or 75 cents. Same with my Ursula le Guin short fiction collections, and my Nancy Mitford novels, and lots of modernist poetry. It was rich in there, dusty and full of cat fur, and you came out a little wheezy, but it was a good place to search while your Mom looked for Elizabeth Gaskell novels.
Anyway. Among the books I bought there was The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 2A which contains “Baby is Three” by Theodore Sturgeon. I loved that story.
It’s strange to find your name associated with all those writers you once uncovered in a bookstore, or on a library shelf. I make up stories while staring out the window, or lying on an old couch while my kid makes LEGO rocket ships on the floor. It’s difficult to believe that’s as “real” as anything I found in that bookstore, or at the library. But here we are.
Last month I signed a contract with Undertow Publications for my novella The Talosite. There’s a lot of work still to do, but I know that in the end it will be a beautiful book because that’s what Undertow does.
For good reason. The First World War has been a kind of intellectual touchstone in my life for decades, but my sense of it is not intellectual. It’s visceral and impressionistic, like poetry. It’s an undifferentiated landscape: living/dead, past/future, modern/antimodern, liquid/solid, interior/exterior, subject/object are blended into a single substance, seething and amorphous. From this materiel without distinction,The Talosite arises, full of characters navigating the physical and political chaos of the western front, which consumes the bodies of the living as Saturn devoured his children. And– it’s not exactly a spoiler– regurgitates them again.
As I’ve said a number of times, it’s always interesting to see what stories catch in readers’ imaginations. “An Important Failure”— Clarkesworld August 2020– seems to be one of them. So far it’s collected attention from a few quarters. It’s been acquired by the Polish magazine Nowa Fantastyka for translation (it should appear later this year). It’ll be in Jonathan Strahan’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Volume 2.
And, finally, it found its way onto the Aurora Awards ballot in the novelette/novella category– this is a Canadian speculative fiction prize administered by the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association, so someone in the CSFFA must have liked it. In fact, if you’re a member of the CSFFA, you can vote for it, too.
I wonder what it is about the story. That it’s about adjusting to straitened circumstances as the world shuts down around us? That it’s about creation in the face of climate change? Maybe because it’s full of longing & fear for the woods, and none of us could go anywhere much this year.
All three reasons? None and something else I can’t identify. Once again, I’m just grateful that people want to read it.
I don’t know if there’s anything I can say about 2020. We endured it. I wrote a lot, because there hasn’t been much else to do and it was one of the few things that made me feel a little better. Though technically the province– and our region– has been into and out of and into various shades of lockdown, we haven’t left our bubble since March. Everything happens at a distance, separated from us by a thin film of dread, hand sanitizer, and masks.
I’ve published a few stories this year. One was completed in lockdown, so it very much belongs to 2020. Once again, I am happy that Clarkesworld has such a fast turnaround for both acceptances and publication: it means that the magazine is a record of the moment.
If you’re a reader or a voter, please consider the following:
In near future Vancouver, a luthier named Mason tries to build a violin, but the wood he needs (old growth spruce, ebony, willow) is harder and harder to find. My defiant celebration of skill and survival while the world falls apart. It’s also available as an audiobook.
This was written for the special Orwell-themed issue (#84) of sub-TERRAIN. It’s about forgetfulness, both collective and private. It’s a slightly totalitarian future full of climate change and denial, and it’s about a woman who slowly loses her words. The world around her is losing things, too.
In “Dysnomia” and “An Important Failure” I lit wildfires on the Pacific coast. In this one I hit it with a megathrust earthquake. Mark works in a call centre in Ontario, and he’s burnt out and miserable when he gets a call from a woman just as the tremors start.
A young pregnant woman tries to make a safe place for her child, while the neighbourhood (and her abusive ex) get increasingly weird. The whole anthology is brilliant and strange, just like everything Undertow publishes.
In addition to the conventionally published stories above, I also posted a couple of things on Curious Fictions, stories I love but which are a little out of step:
So, my 2019 story “The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest” has won the Sunburst Award– a Canadian prize for speculative fiction. This is a surprise. It first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction‘s May/June issue last year, and it will also be in Paula Guran’s The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror.
Like everyone else, I write alone, and ninety percent (or ninety-nine? or ninety-nine-point-nine?) of my work is invisible: private, excised from a draft, or just a dead-end kind of story that’s best left on my hard drive. Of the stories that eventually make it to publication, most surface for a few moments, then disappear again. This is as it should be– there is always something new to read, and we are in a moment that’s rich with wonderful stories.
But every once in a while a story catches with people. An editor like CC Finlay at F&SF decides to publish it, and maybe a few readers take time to read it and respond to the strange thing I’ve made. It’s rewarding to see it happen because it means I’ve found a way to talk about something important or unusual, or maybe I’ve found a new(ish) way to say something familiar. I wrote this particular story to capture the disorientation of childbirth and newborns. That’s important to me, and it’s good to know it’s important to other people, too. And given the isolation of writing in general, and of our terrifying, exhausting moment in particular, I am so very very grateful to hear that someone, somewhere read the story and heard what I was trying to say. And valued it, too. That’s about the best I can hope for as a writer.
Well, and being on a list with Amal El-Mohtar and Richard van Camp, winning a prize that’s also been won by A.C. Wise and Nalo Hopkinson. That, also, is pretty wonderful.
(oh, and I get a medal. A MEDAL. Guys. I’m going to have a medal. Not since I got a silver Canada Fitness Badge in seventh grade have I had anything like a MEDAL)