Wild Authors: Venetia Welby

By Mary Woodbury

I had the wonderful opportunity to connect with author Venetia Welby late last year and learn about her novel Dreamtime (Salt Publishing, September 2021). Signed copies are available from UK bookshop Burley Fisher here, and here is the Amazon UK link.

I’ll admit to being distracted these days when trying to focus on a book. COVID and climate catastrophes are worrisome without clear and consistent leadership. We read about eco-grief a lot these days, and it’s real. But Venetia’s Dreamtime blew me away and kept me hooked. For that, I’m forever grateful. Seems like a good book is sometimes enough to keep me going.

This world spotlight travels to Japan with Dreamtime.

About the Book

From the publisher:

The world may be on a precipice but Sol, fresh from Tucson-desert rehab, finally has an answer to the question that has dogged her since childhood. And not a moment too soon. With aviation grinding to a halt in the face of global climate meltdown, this is the last chance to connect with her absentee father, a US marine stationed in Okinawa. To mend their broken past, Sol and her lovelorn friend Kit must journey across poisoned oceans to the furthest reaches of the Japanese archipelago, a place where sea, sky, and earth converge at the forefront of an encroaching environmental and geopolitical catastrophe; a place battered by the relentless tides of history, haunted by the ghosts of its past, where the real and the virtual, the dreamed and the lived, are ever harder to define. In Dreamtime, Venetia Welby paints a terrifying and captivating vision of our near future and takes us on a vertiginous odyssey into the unknown.

My immediate thoughts were as follows: The novel is brilliantly complex, emotional, and frightening. Venetia’s writing gets deep and challenges the reader to think about consequences of our way of life.

The story takes place in the future and follows a woman named Sol and her best friend Kit, who have grown up in a cult in Arizona. A lot of the complexity of the novel is due to humans unable to truly embrace reality in all its dimensions, including how the history of humans has changed the physical, cultural, and emotional landscape of the world through conquest, ecological ruin, killings, torture, climate ruin, and so much more.

How do humans live in such a world without some utopian climate-controlled cult where drugs and sex help one to forget? And that’s how the story begins. But Sol’s estranged mother comes to her to let her know about her real father, that he’s alive, in Japan – a missing puzzle piece that has haunted Sol forever. Because of climate catastrophe, planes are soon being outlawed, and she and Kit catch one of the last planes to Japan.

The crazy, raw descriptions of Japan are miraculously beautiful at times, full of Japanese myth and animal spirits, yet also horribly accurate and impactful when exploring the aftermath of America’s history of dumping waste and using the islands from WWII onward – and now the islands are sinking due to rising seas. There are no safe places.

Venetia propels us into a haunted world of the future, to lost worlds and oneiric places, which are in ruin, screaming of the past, present, and a questionable future. Ghosts, memories, mutations, and consequences filter into the present. Disease and pollution make the world a place where the only way to forget is to get inebriated somehow, but to truly rise above might just mean facing harsh truths, strengthening one’s will and spirit, and finding love.

The inclusion of love and care made the novel sing and transitioned the most ominous dystopia into something that might have a chance. Some of the best fiction about our natural world involves humans who inspire us and give us courage as we chart the path ahead.

A Chat with the Author

I was completely immersed in Dreamtime, but, first, can you tell us something about your previous book and the experiences that led you to write such a novel?

I’m thrilled to hear that! Thank you. My first novel Mother of Darkness was set closer to home in Soho, a wonderful part of London with a long, rackety history that’s being destroyed by luxury apartment developers and retail chains. It tells the story of the fragmenting mind – through a splintered story – of Matty, a young man in crisis who tries to run from his past and reinvent himself, with limited success. I’ve always been interested in madness and when I studied Classics, it was always the tales of insanity and early psychology that most fascinated me. I also knew a few people who, like my dubious hero, were converted hedonists, the energy trammelled into new, extreme religious stances, and I shared a flat with a psychiatrist friend. The upshot of all this was that I spent a lot of time thinking about the link between madness and epiphany, the internal experience of drifting from reality, and the Jungian archetype of the puer aeternus, the boy who will not grow up, with its links to mother and messiah complexes. I also really love old Soho and wanted to capture its filthy fading glory before it vanished entirely. As in Dreamtime there are themes of disappearing culture and the climate crisis, which is the spark that ignites Matty’s delusions of saviorhood.

Your novel Dreamtime is a story taking place mostly in Japan. When you actually traveled there, how long did you stay, what was it like, and what about Japan’s natural landscapes and history inspired Dreamtime?

Dreamtime is about two Americans, Sol and Kit, who travel to Japan to search for Sol’s GI father before a worldwide aviation ban descends. As the greatest concentration of Americans is on the island of Okinawa, this is the conflicted area I wanted to investigate. My trips have focused almost entirely on Okinawa and the other Ryukyu Islands, rather than the more familiar, contrasting mainland Japan, which colonised the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1879. I stayed a month, initially, and after a short wild burst of Tokyo overstimulation, I explored Okinawa, Ishigaki and Iriomote, subtropical islands of devastating natural beauty. The sea is alive, an extraordinary turquoise; the coral sand a pristine white; the Iriomote jungle hiding the only lynx of its kind, coconut crabs that can crush a skull, dugong in the water. When I returned a year later, I stayed solely on Okinawa: in the capital Naha, in the American Village where the military bases are densest, and in Yomitan, a more rural region. This was meant to be a shorter trip, but Typhoon Trami came along, my flights were cancelled and I had to stay put while the eye of the storm passed directly over. This was exciting, terrifying and ultimately quite boring, trapped in a room with no power for days – particularly noticeable there, where even the lavatories are electric.

Okinawa is different: different culture, religion, language, food – different indigenous people, who have suffered unspeakably under Japanese rule, rolled out on the front line of WW2 to protect Japan in a battle that killed a third of the island’s civilian population. The island was in ruins, Okinawans herded into unsanitary camps, and when the Americans released them they discovered that roads and bases had been built over their bulldozed houses, schools and graves. The American Occupation turned beautiful Okinawa into ‘the Keystone of the Pacific’, GIs seizing more land at gunpoint, building forty bases on this little coral island to stockpile nuclear and chemical weapons and fight their wars. Okinawa was sold back to Japan, but Tokyo betrayed them again and allowed the American bases to remain. The military has committed a litany of violent crimes against the Okinawan people, unleashed untold pollution – see Jon Mitchell’s brilliant Poisoning the Pacific for more on this – and exhibited a complete disregard for what the locals want on their islands. So Okinawa’s landscape is conflicted: astounding nature carved up by highways, barbed wire and military equipment, the sky roaring with Ospreys and fighter jets, the jungle ripped up by training camps and firing ranges. What drew me to the story of Dreamtime is this essential conflict – Okinawa’s troubled, persecuted soul, oppressed by Japanese law and American military culture. Its islands are split three ways.

I really loved the depth of the characters: Sol, Kit, Phoenix, Hunter, and all the rest. It’s honestly refreshing and amazing for a story about humanity and human relationships to include the state of nature around them, but also for the people’s story to be so raw, honest, longing, redemptive. Similarly, the plot was an immersive piece of storytelling. How did you come up with these people, this story?

Sol, as many of my characters and stories seem to do, came out of a place I’d been: one of my tutees was in rehab in Arizona and I stayed in the desert nearby, teaching her English and philosophy. Sol bears no resemblance to anyone I met there but my surroundings conjured her. Having explored Freudian mother issues in Mother of Darkness, I was drawn to father issues this time – Sol has something of an Electra complex and this, combined with her errant father and an impulsive, addictive nature leads the plot as much as the wider ideas of climate breakdown, the end of aviation and war with China. Sol is determined to find him, whatever the cost. Similarly, her lovelorn friend Kit can’t act other than to follow Sol, try to protect her, given his character, their history. Hunter, a marine, was more difficult to pin down, more mercurial in conception and in execution, and Phoenix, the abusive cult leader of Sol and Kit’s childhood, hovers over the whole book, his legacy inescapable, yet he is directly referred to only a handful of times.

The books I love are character-centric, no matter how elaborate the plot. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles and The Beach by Alex Garland were big influences on Dreamtime. Each has an extraordinary storyline, but it was the knotty, inscrutable characters who hooked me in and kept me in their world long after reading. There’s truth and depth in folklore and fairy tale too, and I drew on these to explore the trickster archetype across eastern and western mythology, there on an island where the cultures clash so cruelly. The story of Okinawa’s future emerges directly from its past, how it has been treated – and continues to be – by Japan and America, how issues with North Korea and China serve to justify further development of US military might there, and how islands of the Pacific at the mercy of their colonial overlords will suffer as the climate emergency progresses and migration is policed. In Dreamtime, I wanted to consider the end of aviation not as an attempt to curb climate change – but as a nationalistic government’s bid to win favor by slowing climate migration. Keep the good land for themselves while the sea swallows up the bad.

I want to mention utopia and dystopia. I always fall back on Ursula K. Le Guin’s thoughts:

“Good citizens of utopia consider the wilderness dangerous, hostile, unlivable; to an adventurous or rebellious dystopian it represents change and freedom. In this I see examples of the intermutability of the yang and yin: the dark mysterious wilderness surrounding a bright, safe place, the Bad Places – which then become the Good Place, the bright, open future surrounding a dark, closed prison . . . Or vice versa.”

Your novel really brought this home because the cult described at the beginning may have been a utopian place, whereas outside of it appears dystopian (i.e., nature’s wrath/danger), but outside does really represent freedom. What do you think?

I love this piece by Le Guin, and certainly Sol views the desert rehab Lights, where the novel begins, as a suffocating prison. Lights exists within a glass dome, even the air tightly controlled, since the temperature of the Sonoran Desert is now unliveable. The wilderness is dangerous, patrolled by what wildlife can survive the sun, waiting to commit violence against those who leave the clinical confines. Dreamtime, the cult where Sol and Kit grew up, was rather wilder than rehab, within – yet mostly safe from – the savagery of the desert, deemed utopia by a disturbed few. Things happen in these cut-off spaces. Sacrifices of humanity can be made, unobserved by the outside world. Sometimes such sacrifices must be made, to preserve their cut-offness. Once an inmate is free in nature, the inherent vice of utopia may be seen more clearly. There is risk in freedom, the sea, the desert – but liberty is worth it. Surely a prerequisite of true utopia should be living in harmony with the planet you’re on? Although they do that in The Beach and it doesn’t turn out brilliantly… And what happens when nature is no longer conducive to human life? At that point, it’s probably best to scuttle into an imperfectly utopian hole – a cave maybe – and hide.

At the start of the novel, there’s a sense of virtual reality, including the cult that Kit and Sol were raised in being a place where control, authority, lies, and ways of virtual escape (drugs, for instance) keep people from dealing with truth. Such a concept is increasingly prevalent around the world, like for instance in America where QAnon is growing. How does this happen?

In the novel, it seems our ongoing disruptions that cause climate catastrophe and loss of landscape, culture, and lives might be just too hard for humans to deal rationally with. I was particularly drawn to this line: “People have largely stopped acknowledging the quiet death sentence upon them. They have come to accept inertia and stasis in the face of climatic catastrophe and the invading seas.” And this line about what might be the seduction of escape from reality:  “’It’s real and it’s not real,’ he used to say. ‘It’s not just in your mind but a place created by all minds over all time.’” What are your thoughts on that?

Yes, I think it’s really worrying – but psychologically plausible. The truth is too painful. It’s hard to face our own mortality, let alone that of the planet, the human race. It feels too big: people don’t believe they can make a difference or persuade the big polluters to do so. It’s easier to live in denial and it’s in the interest of avarice to facilitate that denial. In Dreamtime, the same tycoon owns the news and Virrea, a virtual reality company with devices as prevalent as smartphones. Virrea’s obscuring of the truth is itself justified by the climate catastrophe: if people shouldn’t travel, VR provides an alternative. Its version of the news is now all people know – and they’re happier that way. VR is used as a tool for manipulation, for covering the government’s tracks and for one powerful nation to control the international narrative. The plight of the vulnerable, the dealings of the military abroad: it can all slip under the radar.

I do think escape is seductive. It’s innate to seek it however we can – alcohol, drugs, religion. Human brains want us to be happy: they direct us away from pain and towards pleasure. The last line you quoted refers to the spiritual teachings of cult-leader Phoenix, pillaged from his experience in the Australian outback. His commune Dreamtime is named after Aboriginal cosmology, in particular the belief in a time out of time where the great spirit ancestors of the creation may still be found – an eternal present and neverwhen. This dimension, confused with the Jungian collective unconscious, is what Phoenix’s followers seek to access through ritual and peyote. Real life is hard! Coming to terms with the idea that we’re causing the only life-supporting planet we know of to become uninhabitable is even harder. Knowledge is brutal, changing our ways uncomfortable. Both are vital.

I kept going back to this line, “In the Golden Age, gods and monsters lived alongside men. Then we all moved into cities. We banished the mythical creatures and ghosts with our bright lights and civilisation.” How do you think environmental and cultural destruction go hand in hand with building cities, settling down? It reminds me of Daniel Quinn’s novels, which greatly informed me at a younger age.

Well, it’s worth pointing out that Phoenix, who says this in one of his sermons, is a deranged criminal – but I think he had a point here. Out of sight, out of mind. We lose touch with nature almost entirely in cities – even the parks are humanised, sterilised, only diverse enough for pigeons, rats and the odd grey squirrel. Cities have their own microclimates: heating in the cold, air con in the heat; greater heat caused by the air con units, more air con units then needed. We control the weather in our own environment in cities and we do so in the country too. I went to Dubai once and when inside, was completely unable to tell what it was like outside. To go anywhere meant taking the lift down to the underground carpark, then driving to another underground carpark, then up in the lift of another weather-defying apartment or hotel or mall. Walking wasn’t possible, there was no contact at all with nature: even the beach was accessed through miles of concrete shopping centre. Is that the future? I hope not, but it was certainly inspiration for Sol’s glass-dome rehab.

Ghosts exist in the shadowlands; mythical creatures dwell on the borders, in the thin places – part of our collective psyche but increasingly lost to us. I’ve not read any Daniel Quinn yet, but have just bought Ishmael and feel it might change my life.

Can you explain your thoughts about inundating the story with ghosts, myths, and animal spirits? I enjoyed these, from krakens to whales to shapeshifting foxes. I think they lent a lot to the story, a layer that is critical, as I think we need more stories inclusive of our natural surroundings, including our narratives and myths about nature.

In Japan, and particularly in Okinawa, the spirit world is thought to be present in every-day reality. It is part of life – and Japanese fiction reflects this. In my opinion, nothing conveys a place better than the strange folkloric creatures that emerge from it, but in Dreamtime they are not simply atmospheric but actors in the story. They mirror the disturbance and chaos of the real world – the tricksters of the West invade the East; the beasts of Japan do not belong in the Ryukyu Islands. Rape, plunder, and deceit has battered this part of the world into its current state, and the mythological melting pot enacts its disturbance.

The thawing permafrost of the Siberian tundra had been playing a lot on my mind – the emergence of ancient life – unknown viruses, bacteria and god knows what else. I’d been preoccupied with the idea of humans going where they shouldn’t – mining the deep sea, mining the moon – and stirring shit up. I wondered what other ancient mysteries they might unearth in these places, as if the very creatures of our collective unconscious could be disturbed and made visible. I also wanted to explore the idea that climate change is taking us into a new era, more akin to the sweltering jungle world the dinosaurs knew. Some can survive here. Some can adapt to thrive on the heat and perhaps the poison too. Not us, obviously, and not the myriad animals already fighting extinction. Stranger, more alien beasts.

Related to the above, I was particularly moved by the old Umitu’s stories. She says, “Our island is built on sadness, terror and loss. Like so many islands in the Pacific: peaceful people living in harmony with the land of their ancestors, the spirits of animals, the sea … replaced by barbed wire, pollution and violence. Life swapped for death.” I found these descriptions naturally placed, a part of the story, perhaps a lyrical polemic but not didactic. Because ecologically aware fiction, which includes the recognition of climate change, is growing, how important is that aspect to you – and how do you think new authors dealing with this can write stories that are stories, not sermons?

I want people to be aware of the horrors that happened and continue to happen in Okinawa, and to imagine this future for the world if business continues as normal: an earth so poisoned, its immune response is to reject humans and all their creation. But I’m glad you don’t think it’s didactic. It is crucial that stories are allowed to be stories, not vessels for preaching or propaganda. We have Twitter for that. I think having a diversity of characters in a story is key to navigating an issue, and rejecting the idea of ‘the single story’ as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brilliantly puts it: “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.” So too, there is no single story for a character; no one is exclusively this thing or that, good or bad. Novels are powerful; they can effect change. But I don’t think that should be the focus of writing one. The power of a story is in its story-ness.

Are you working on anything else yet?

Yes, I’m filling notebooks, circling an idea – zoning in, yet imagining my characters further and further away, literally as far as they can reasonably go given current technology. I feel this must be a symptom of London’s never-ending lockdown. Perhaps when it lifts, I’ll be able to bring them closer to home again. Back to Okinawa would be good – I’d love to let my mind live there for another novel.

Thanks so very much for this in-depth interview, and I am looking forward to whatever is next!

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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