It’s my pleasure to talk with Catherine Bush, fellow Canadian and author of the new novel Blaze Island. It’s just a coincidence that we moved to the Maritimes and experienced our first hurricane shortly after Catherine and I began talking. The hurricane had weakened to a tropical storm and headed north of us, so we did not feel the worst of it. The island depicted in the novel is inspired by Fogo Island, Catherine tells me, which is just off the northeastern coast of Newfoundland, northeast of my new home. Catherine spent a lot of time on the island, which you can read more about below.
Blaze Island opens in the midst of a terrifying hurricane that has torn up the coast of North America. During this wild night, a stranger washes up on the doorstep of Miranda Wells and her father, a climate scientist whose academic career was destroyed by climate change deniers. In the wake of this personal disaster, Milan Wells flees to a remote island in the North Atlantic where he is desperate to protect his daughter from the world’s worsening weather. There, they embrace an off-grid, self-sufficient life, walking the island’s rocky shores and keeping daily weather records. But the stranger’s arrival breaks open Miranda’s world, compelling her to wonder what her father is really up to with his mysterious weather experiments and a series of elusive visitors. How, she wonders as her life transforms, will she create a future in a world more unpredictable than she has ever imagined?
CHAT WITH THE AUTHOR
This is not your first novel based upon moral quandaries, as your website states. Can you tell us about some of your previous novels and the issues they explored?
I’m intrigued by moral dilemmas that expand beyond the personal, and I’ve long been drawn to write about ecological loss. I’m also attracted to intersections of science and literature. My first novel, Minus Time, has been getting some renewed readerly love and is going into reprint, gratifying because it feels eerily timely almost thirty years later. It’s about a young woman finding her identity amidst environmental cataclysm and a family that splits apart. Helen Urie gets involved with a group of animal-rights turned eco-activists while her mother, an astronaut, tries to set a record for space habitation. In The Rules of Engagement, a woman in the mid-90s navigates her relationship to risk, in the context of personal and military interventions, her field of study; she grapples with the psychic legacy of having had two university students fight a pistol duel over her as a teenager. Claire’s Head enters the consciousness of an extreme migraine sufferer. And Accusation, in which a female Canadian journalist pursues the truth of allegations of abuse in an Ethiopian children’s circus, explores how we come to believe accusations, even extreme ones, about each other.
In Blaze Island – based on Fogo Island off the coast of Newfoundland – you built a story around a fictional community facing the disastrous results of climate change-based weather events, including a Category 5 hurricane. You spent many summers on the island writing this novel. What was that like?
Blaze Island takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, so I needed to find an island and I love cold and northern climates. I was also thinking hard about the problem of global ice loss and its effect on our planetary future. I stumbled upon Fogo Island online, discovered the artists’ residency program in Tilting, the farthest village on the island’s Atlantic side. The landscape on that side of the island is one of rocky promontories and barrens. Offshore, in summer, icebergs float past, carried south along the Labrador current. One of the residency houses, Reardon House, sits alone in a cove outside the village, and as soon as I set foot inside I knew this is where my characters, Milan and Miranda Wells, had to live. I returned over the course of eight years. I would walk the shore trails and listen to the characters’ voices coming up through the rocks into my body. I watched melting icebergs with utter awe and grief. Fogo Island is a place where “wind decides everything,” and I learned to live in intimate relationship to its force, its complexities, its shifts. I gathered stories from locals about how the weather is changing: more unpredictable winds, stranger storms, less winter sea ice.
When you were developing the story, how did you bring climate change into it without being too preachy? One of the characters insisted he could not use the word “climate” to describe his work based upon rampant denialism as well as the backlash for climate scientists from the fossil fuel industry. Do you also worry about this as a writer working with an artistic medium to heighten awareness of climate change?
When Milan Wells and his daughter arrive on Blaze Island, he tells her not to use the word climate or identify him as a climate scientist. He goes to ground, shucking off the remains of his career, wrecked after an email hacking very similar to what happened to actual climate scientists in the U.S. and UK in 2009. Back in 2013, writer Nathaniel Rich talked about not wanting to use the phrase “climate change” in a novel because it’s a cliché – tired language that invokes a predictable response. I was interested in the formal challenge of describing our swiftly altering climate without using the stock phrase.
Anyway we don’t experience climate, we experience weather, ever more unpredictable weather, and we experience change, both internally and externally. A storm can be psychic as well as atmospheric. I wanted to write pressed up against the experience of micro and macro, incremental and cataclysmic change, weather penetrating all our relationships. I don’t worry about climate denial extremists in relation to my own work. I was keen to have a bit of fun with the characters in the novel who are the more rampant denialists while not making them ridiculous. What they morph into is men longing for a techno-fix to our climate catastrophe. I also challenged myself to dramatize more quotidian habits of denial. Miranda, the climate scientist’s daughter, is content to live in the beautiful bubble her father creates for her, until the arrival of Frank Hansen, a stranger who asks too many questions and presses her to ask her own.
We’re now realizing that apocalyptic, speculative fiction blurs more and more with realism. Author Richard Flanagan wrote in the New York Times, “The bookstore in the fire-ravaged village of Cobargo, New South Wales, has a new sign outside: “Post-Apocalyptic Fiction has been moved to Current Affairs.” What are your thoughts?
Just now, I opened Blaze Island to a random page and found a mention of California wildfires. The novel is not meant to be futuristic. It’s set in an alternate now of hurricanes and melting Arctic ice, minus a pandemic. This is the world I read about in newspapers daily. I didn’t need to be prescient to write about it. These events were already happening; they’re just amplified now to the point where they’re becoming un-ignorable. But how do we make stories out of the crisis or in response to the climate emergency? This is the question.
I want Blaze Island to have the seductive air of an almost fairy tale yet to be highly realistic. Even the more fantastic climate engineering science in it is real. I didn’t want to depress people but invite them to consider how we might reimagine ourselves and our relationship with the natural world, our greater landscape of kinship, in order to create a livable world. It’s crucial that the climate crisis enter literary realism. Whether our stories admit it or not, we are writing in relation to this, the greatest existential condition of our time. How does the crisis enter our world experientially? Weather isn’t scenic backdrop. Part of a new literary realism is that we must de-center the human from our stories, let in the more-than-human as a realm of life and agency. We’re collectively discovering how our need for air to breathe is an intersectional issue, uniting Black Lives Matter, climate activists, Indigenous activists, not to mention all of us affected by a global pandemic. Atmosphere and breath are essential for all life on this planet.
What an insightful way to explain that! Your novel is inspired by Shakespeare. Can you explain that to our readers?
Blaze Island reimagines Shakespeare’s late play The Tempest in a contemporary setting, but you don’t need to know the play to enter the novel. Prospero, the play’s magician, controls wind and weather; he loves to be master of his world. This seems an apt metaphor for our own desire to control our environment. Prospero is driven by the desire to take care of his daughter, as is my climate scientist, Milan Wells. How far will an idealistic climate scientist, distraught at the human failure to take action to stop global heating, go to protect his child? This is one of the novel’s central questions. Will he be lured by the prospect of climate engineering, large-scale interventions in the world’s climate systems to counteract greenhouse gas warming? Or has he got another plan up his sleeve?
Blaze Island has young adult/teen main characters but will also be thoroughly enjoyable for adults. How important do you think it is to create young literary heroes fighting climate change? What inspired you to create Miranda and Caleb?
In re-imagining The Tempest, I wanted to create a strong female presence, in part by employing Miranda’s perspective. I also brought Caliban’s mother back from the dead in the form of Sylvia, a forager and herbalist. Miranda, a young woman who has lived an isolated island life, discovers her agency. Growing up means finding her own way forward, not her father’s – her way to take action and establish community, which feels essential to our path forward. Frank Hansen, the young man who lands on her doorstep in the midst of the storm, is an activist. Like Caleb, Sylvia’s biracial son who grows up on the island with her, Miranda is extremely sensitive to the natural world. She initiates Frank into this deeper landscape of kinship while he challenges her to broaden her horizons and fight for the world she believes in.
We’re all islanders on this planet, Miranda comes to realize. How we respond to the climate crisis demands deep and even painful conversations across generations. I hadn’t seen the crisis dramatized as an intergenerational issue before, at least in literary fiction, and that was another impetus for the novel. We see this struggle playing out in the world in ways that have only grown since I began writing Blaze Island – with the school strikes and youth climate action movement, Greta Thunberg calling out world leaders. We can’t depend on the young to save us but we need their forceful inspiration and galvanic energy and the novel gestures towards that.
Best of luck as you and your wonderful publisher, Goose Lane Editions, produce this novel during COVID-19. How is the pandemic affecting your book release?
All my book events, like those of every other writer I know, have moved online. Learning how much book promotion you can do from home is one silver lining of the pandemic cloud for a novelist writing about the climate crisis. It feels especially fitting because the climate scientist in Blaze Island refuses to fly. Collectively, we’re realizing how much book promotion can be done virtually, from your own living room. That’s not a bad thing.
Thanks so much for your time, Catherine!
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.
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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