Wild Authors: Katy Yocom

By Mary Woodbury

For this post we head back to India, this time with Katy Yocom, author of Three Ways to Disappear. Ecofiction is a type of literature that handles nature-oriented and human-impact plots while telling a great fictional story that imagines or reflects real environmental concerns, in this case the plight of endangered Bengal tigers.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Leaving behind a nomadic and dangerous career as a journalist, Sarah DeVaughan returns to India, the country of her childhood and a place of unspeakable family tragedy, to help preserve the endangered Bengal tigers. Meanwhile, at home in Kentucky, her sister, Quinn – also deeply scarred by the past and herself a keeper of secrets – tries to support her sister, even as she fears that India will be Sarah’s undoing.

As Sarah faces challenges in her new job – made complicated by complex local politics and a forbidden love – Quinn copes with their mother’s refusal to talk about the past, her son’s life-threatening illness, and her own increasingly troubled marriage. When Sarah asks Quinn to join her in India, Quinn realizes that the only way to overcome the past is to return to it, and it is in this place of stunning natural beauty and hidden danger that the sisters can finally understand the ways in which their family has disappeared – from their shared history, from one another – and recognize that they may need to risk everything to find themselves again.

With dramatic urgency, a powerful sense of place, and a beautifully rendered cast of characters revealing a deep understanding of human nature in all its flawed glory, Katy Yocom has created an unforgettable novel about saving all that is precious, from endangered species to the indelible bonds among family.

The manuscript of Three Ways to Disappear won the 2016 Siskiyou Prize, and the novel was published by Ashland Creek Press in 2019.

While at its heart Three Ways to Disappear is a book about family tragedies, lost connections and a seemingly failing marriage, endangered tiger conservation in the Aravalli forests forms the epicenter of the novel’s plot, where most of the action takes place … The book makes the reader contemplate on larger questions: At what cost is tiger conservation worthwhile? Can the persistent human development around forests be stopped to avoid conflict situations? Is the goal of tiger conservation without expansion of tiger territory really sustainable?

— Prathap Nair, Firstpost India

The topic of the environment must by necessity include economics and the reality of politics. Yet in these vitriolic times, how do you find words to bring disparate voices to the table without further polarizing the conversation? Literature can take that role as it bridges a strong fictional narrative to the complicated world in which we live…. Yocom’s novel achieved this with clarity and grace. Not only are the characters changed by the end of the story, we are changed for having known them.

— North American Review

CHAT WITH THE AUTHOR

Thanks so much to Katy for talking with me about her new novel.

I’m interested in your research for Three Ways to Disappear. You traveled to India, where your novel’s main character also ends up. What was your trip like?

India is an intense, vibrant place. I was there for three weeks, the first half with my mom, the second half traveling on my own but always with a guide. We were there during an intense cold spell that arrived the same day we did, which meant we hadn’t packed warm enough clothes. We spent a lot of the trip shivering, but the cold turned out to be a huge advantage, because it brought the tigers out into the open. I’d heard lots of stories of people going to tiger reserves and never seeing a single tiger. We had the opposite experience – seeing tigers, sometimes close up, nearly every day we went into the parks.

I built the trip around extended visits to three national parks: Ranthambore, in Rajasthan; Kanha, in Madhya Pradesh; and the Sundarbans, in West Bengal. Each was fascinating in its own way. Ranthambore is spectacular – the landscape itself with its towering cliffs and ancient ruins – and then you’ve got tigers and other wildlife prowling through. I’d never seen anything like it. It’s where I decided to set my novel, because the landscape is so beautiful and the tigers came out of hiding, so I was able to see how they interacted with the landscape. I also got to visit two villages not far from Ranthambore, and the people I met there and the experience of being in the villages ended up being integral to the story I was telling.

I liked reading Three Ways to Disappear because of several reasons. One is that I was born in Louisville and spent a lot of time there during my life. It’s always good to revisit the area. Another is that the story also takes place on a tiger preserve in India, which I guess most of us have never experienced. So there’s an American setting and then an entirely far-away place, which might ground a lot of readers while also journeying somewhere they’ve never been. How was the writing experience as you shifted between these places?

To be honest, it was a challenge to render Louisville as vividly as I rendered India, because India was so new to me. India was just a pleasure to write about because it brings the senses alive in so many ways. Louisville – a city I love, where I’ve lived for nearly 30 years – is the setting and backdrop of my life, and for that reason I found it more difficult to bring to life on the page. Familiarity creates this false sense of default, this sense that the neighborhoods, the houses, the cars, the topography that form your experience are basically the same for readers everywhere. It’s not true, of course, but it’s a hard trick of the mind to get past.

India upended all that. Aside from the simple need to describe people and places that wouldn’t be familiar to many Western readers, I also found that I had to render certain activities with extra care. There’s a scene in the book where Quinn, at age 10, is drawing a bath for her siblings. If that scene were set in the States, I could have described it just that simply – I’d write, “She drew a bath,” and you’d know what I mean. We can all easily imagine what that looks like. In India, though, that act becomes something completely different. Had the servants been in the house – and, of course, her family had servants; it would have been considered wildly radical for them not to – Quinn never would have been allowed to draw the bath at all. Then there’s the fact that the house wouldn’t have had hot water pipes, so she had to heat the bathwater on the stove. Drawing the bath became a huge challenge for her. That said, it also became much more interesting to write and, I hope, much more interesting for the reader.

Sarah DeVaughan, the main character, grew up in India, then moved to Kentucky with her family. She feels called back to India, as a journalist, to help preserve the endangered Bengal tigers. The book is part romance, part environmental story, part journey. How do you weave together such powerful parallels that will end up inspiring the reader?

First of all, that’s lovely of you to say, so thank you. I’d say if the story inspires readers – and I hope it does – it’s because Sarah is a deeply passionate character. Her career in journalism has kept her on the outskirts of events, and she wants more than that. So she leaves journalism to throw herself into the effort to save the tigers. She literally throws herself into a river (well, she ends up in the river accidentally, but still) to save a tiger cub. When she develops romantic feelings for one of the other characters, she throws herself into that, too. I hope readers will feel the liberation that comes with following one’s passions, even though it’s a messy thing to do. Sarah’s sister Quinn, by contrast, spends most of the book mired in fear for her son, afraid of the dangers of daily life. She’s not wrong to be afraid, given her son’s illness, but her fear stifles her and creates a drag on all her relationships and on her creative life. She has to work hard to overcome it and to begin to reshape her life. Her story is quieter, but I hope in its own way, it’s inspirational too.

There’s also some family secrets back home. This adds suspense to the story. I felt that the act of forgiveness was also an act of family preservation – so the idea of preservation is involved throughout the story. Do you have any more thoughts on that?

I love the way you put that! Is it okay if I steal that idea? I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re absolutely right. The family members have each kept their secrets out of guilt and shame. In trying to protect themselves from the judgment and rejection they fear, they’ve built walls around themselves. And you can see the way those walls have damaged them. By confessing their secrets, naming their guilt, and asking for forgiveness, they are taking enormous risks in order to open up the possibility of healing. And when the shoe is on the other foot and they’re being asked for forgiveness, and they are able to offer it, they let the healing begin.

Thank you for putting it that way. You’ve taught me something new about a story I’ve been living with for close to fifteen years. I love that.

Steal away! Environmental fiction seems to be increasing these days due to the many ecological crises we find ourselves in. What are your thoughts on how this fiction might enhance the world? And how did you feel when the manuscript won the Siskiyou Prize?

Thank you! It was such an honor to have this story win the Siskiyou Prize. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me.

I agree, environmental fiction is moving more to the fore. The world is waking up to the reality of a climate crisis that is already affecting all our lives, and that will affect the future of life on this planet. You’ve got climate strikers – young people demanding that people in power address the issue of climate change after shoving it to the side for far too long. You’ve got fiction writers like Barbara Kingsolver and Amitav Ghosh, who have both been writing about the environment for years. Ghosh’s most recent book, Gun Island, addresses climate change and human migration in a way that will appeal to readers who love mysteries and action-adventure. I think that’s key, that the fictional stories being told are not didactic, or at least not only didactic. That first and foremost, they’re good stories. I was really pleased when Three Ways to Disappear was named a Barnes & Noble Top Indie Favorite, because I took it to mean that Barnes & Noble sees my book as having fairly wide appeal. It can only be a good thing that environmental fiction is moving into the mainstream.

One of the key differences between environmental fiction and nonfiction is that you’re not likely to pick up a nonfiction book about environmental issues if you’re not feeling psychologically prepared to face news of planet-wide disaster. It’s just too overwhelming. Fiction allows us to enter into a story that perhaps addresses the same topic but takes it down to a human level. That’s absolutely key. We meet characters, we empathize with their dilemmas, we take heart from – or have our hearts broken by – their struggles. With their courage and grit, they allow us to feel the elation of their successes and imagine ourselves taking action, as they’ve done. With their failures, they teach us to mourn, which means opening ourselves up to the pain of truly grievous losses.

Regardless, it’s the particular genius of fiction to inspire empathy in the reader. And empathy is exactly what we need in order to find a way to care about the difficult truths about the natural world without succumbing to the paralysis of despair. My hope is that by creating empathy and a sense of urgency, fiction can release people from both self-protective apathy and self-defeating despair. It can create an openness that allows for action, whether that action is attending a march, making a donation to an environmental organization, or simply talking about these issues with others in our community. Each of those actions is so important.

I think you hit the nail on the head regarding the importance of this fiction. Are you working on anything else at the moment?

Right now, I’m busy traveling the country with this book. I’ve got an idea for my next novel cooking, but for the moment it’s on the metaphorical back burner.

I cannot wait to hear more; have a great time on the tour!

MORE INFORMATION

Thanks to Katy for the following links, which can give readers a place to take action as well as learning more about endangered Bengal tigers.

  • As far as links, my go-to is World Wildlife Fund, which is leading the global effort to save the tiger.
  • I found this article really interesting, about the need to involve tribal communities more in wildlife conservation efforts. 
  • At home, the issues tigers face are different – mainly the problem is that tigers are kept by private owners in inhumane conditions. The Big Cat Public Safety Act is currently working its way through Congress to make private ownership illegal, which would put an end to some of the horrors endured by captive big cats.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change(Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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