My saga to make art to help address climate change has been four years – but really a lifetime – in the making. I don’t know if it will penetrate the collective consciousness the way I hope, but trying to explain to my daughter over the years the magnitude of what I fear her generation will confront has been so wrenching that I was compelled to try. For me, the change that is needed, for her sake, requires more than cutting down on single-use straws or switching to LED lightbulbs. It requires a large shift on a global scale. Science has convinced me of that, but science needs help from the arts to bring this change about.
My first inkling that something was amiss came at the San Diego zoo, when I was about four. I asked my father if the animals were happy in such small cages, and while he offered reassuring words, I was not convinced (I doubt he was either). About the same time, as my mother and I waited at a stop light, a truck belched exhaust into the air. My mother reassured me, “there is plenty of sky.” Unconvinced. Years later, I noted the ever-cool Sting campaigning for the rainforests, and in college I listened to a professor say we were driving full-speed toward a cliff.
As the youngest of four, I also spent a fair amount of time drawing, undoubtedly from my parents’ desire for some peace and quiet. In high school, painting entered my consciousness when my copy of Brave New World featured a painting by Lyonnel Feininger – one of the most haunting depictions of the future I had ever seen.
Writing came later. The youngest of four has to spin stories quickly to get through the bedlam. Putting stories into writing was another thing altogether. Read a story for my 5thgrade class. Go to a school writing competition. Convince some professors to let me do fiction instead of essays.
These interests didn’t really come together, though, until some years later, when I realized that the science wasn’t resonating enough to shift the public. I started looking to the arts, and being of the Star Wars generation, my first stop was Sci-Fi. I found smatterings and hints, like Blade Runner, Mad Max, Elysium, Interstellar. Further back, Soylent Green nailed it (“It’s people!!”), but most went too far – or not far enough. Too many involved nuclear holocausts, alien invasions, space escapes, or dealt with the climate aspects cursorily. There is quite a bit more in literature. But I wanted something realistic and gritty.
So I decided to write a novel. I should say, I noodled on the idea of a novel. But it was always eclipsed by the pace of life with a job, a child, and all the things people do. As my daughter began to get older, though, and the world she was going to inherit was so clearly degenerating, the dawdling started to wear on me.
Then one day, my father spontaneously bought me a laptop and said simply, “write your book.” Guilt from the zoo incident? More likely, he saw what I saw: an opportunity to leverage my skills (feeble as they may be) to try to do something. A few hours later, with the blessing of my wife – who couldn’t have had any idea what she was signing up for – the quest began.
It started with a torrent of pent-up prose. That bit in A Christmas Story about the words “pouring from my penny pencil with feverish fluidity”? That was me.
Very soon, I realized it had to be a saga. Not just because the story was practically writing itself, but also because a saga speaks to what I think we are really dealing with: a problem that won’t start and finish like a normal book. The earth isn’t going to warm up a few degrees, cause some problems, and be done. It is going to get warm, and it is going to stay warm for a very long time. Decades. Maybe centuries.
During those years, it will unleash a lot of pain, and that will put stress on people. We have seen how humanity responds to stress, and it often hasn’t been pretty. It will also affect different people in different ways. Urban and rural, rich and poor, American and foreign, etc. The story had to capture this too, so I committed to writing a multi-character road novel akin to Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead.
I later realized that the cover had to be special too. It had to deliver the same deep and seductive unease I felt when I first saw Feininger’s painting. I next found my painting, always heavily influenced by Feininger’s, starting to shift toward more climate-oriented (and darker) motifs.
As I enter the home stretch of this saga, I confront challenges I hadn’t anticipated when I started. Sagas are long, and publishers don’t like long books, at least not from new authors. Getting a “buzz” going, so the book actually reaches an audience, is inextricably linked to social media – a different saga in itself. I decided to “crowd-source” the cover, stemming the risk of getting “Boaty McBoatface” by limiting choices to my own artwork, but heightening the risk of not using a professional cover-designer. I also realized that the aesthetic I love – at least as I have implemented it – doesn’t lend itself to sexy novel covers, and yet the darker climate themes now in my paintings may never generate another buyer again, but I don’t think I can go back.
I found some luck when I reached Dan Bloom, the man who coined the termed “Cli-Fi” for Climate Fiction. He agreed to read an early daft and urged me on. My friends helped too, including one who agreed to edit the first draft for only one bottle of Prosecco.
Most importantly, I have enjoyed the patience and encouragement of my wife and daughter, whose support was nearly boundless. I jest sometimes that they maybe benefited from my many hours of absence, but in truth, this saga would have ended much sooner were it not for them.
In February 2019, I will complete part 1 of my saga, entitled Embers: Ruin and Wrath, once the cover-selection vote on SurveyMonkey ends. Book 2 is already underway, because despite the challenges and frustrations of the trek, I believe that art must join ranks with science. For my daughter’s sake, I will stay in the fight, so the saga will continue.
Born and raised in Southern California, Matthew Taylor earned a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees in San Diego before moving to Arlington, Virginia in 1999. Now a senior executive, he is an avid writer, music lover, and artist. More importantly, he is a devoted father and husband. His debut novel, Embers: Ruin and Wrath, will be published on Amazon.com in early February 2019. He can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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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