Fiction for the planet: renowned authors of environmental mysteries discuss passions and process.
We’re All in This Together - by Pamela Beason
We have only one planet, and trillions of creatures need to live on it. Why should humans have the right to destroy other life forms? That may sound like a statement from Star Trek, but that’s the essence of my environmental fiction. Unfortunately, today environmental topics are controversial, so it’s inevitable that my stories will irritate some readers. In a mystery, the main character must have a distinct point of view, and my protagonist, Summer “Sam” Westin, always fights to protect wildlife and wild places. A person who strives to keep everyone happy will never be called a hero.
How does a writer explore environmental controversies without writing a melodrama? I try to work the topic into the setting, and I make Sam’s opposition characters not entirely evil, because in real life, people usually aren’t. With each book, I hope to share a small bit of knowledge I’ve gained from my research and my experience.
In Endangered, the public becomes nearly hysterical about cougars because of the misguided way the media portrays a child’s disappearance from a campground. I wanted to contrast the very rare occurrence of wild animal attacks versus the very real danger of toting guns everywhere. The fictional scenario in Bear Bait is that a large swath of land is being transferred from the national forest to Olympic National Park, and the locals are angry about the rules changing from multiple-use, including hunting and harvesting, to conservation. I described the different missions of national forests and national parks in hopes of explaining why rules vary on our public lands.
Anger against foreigners invading and changing a country is the theme of Undercurrents, which includes parallel stories of Ecuadorian fishermen trying to drive out conservation-minded marine scientists from the Galápagos Islands and US vigilantes terrorizing Hispanic migrants in Arizona. Backcountry, the 4th Sam Westin mystery, was inspired by the real murders of two women hikers (still unsolved). Although my version is fiction, I tried to show how such a tragedy could occur in a national forest. Also in that book, Sam reluctantly leads a group of troubled teens in a wilderness therapy school, where they learn the value of spending time in the natural world. My latest Sam Westin novel, Borderland, is set in southeastern Arizona by the border wall, which may slow illegal migrants but permanently stops the traditional migration of all other species in the area. Obviously, that’s an area mired in controversy from many directions, but I wanted to highlight the environmental cost of a border wall.
There will always be winners and losers in environmental controversies. But we have only one planet to share, one source of water and food and air. One home. In every book, I hope to entertain readers while exploring environmental topics. I firmly believe that if we can find a way for all species to share our Earth, we will all be winners in the long run.
Cli-Fi - by Gregory Zeigler
Shortly after reading a very positive review of my novel, The Straw That Broke (that compared it to the film "Chinatown" and the work of Edward Abby) written by renowned author, journalist and environmentalist Todd Wilkinson (Last Stand, Grizzlies at Pilgrim Creek), I was contacted out of the blue by Dan Bloom, an ex-pat living in Taiwan. In his email, Dan asked if I knew I was writing in the sub-genre climate fiction or cli-fi. I had to admit that I did not, and asked what exactly it was. Dan explained that cli-fi was any work of fiction that deals with climate change. "And I should know," he wrote. "I coined the term and it's getting traction in the New York Times and on NPR."
Since that eye-opening day, I have delved in much greater depth into cli-fi and am impressed with the growing body of work in both film and literature. The Straw That Broke is a thriller that deals with abduction, murder and corruption involving stealing water from the endangered Colorado River. The Colorado is overtaxed and oversubscribed and climate change is only exacerbating the problem because of drought. And if you think a water heist is farfetched, read "Water Bandits: How one company almost got away with draining the Mojave Desert," an article in the fall, 2019 Earthjustice magazine.
My second novel, Some Say Fire is a thriller that deals with intentionally set forest fires as an act of terror. Western forests are much more prone to longer and hotter fires because of climate change. To quote the magazine, Living Bird, "In other words, what fire scientists call a forest's 'fuel load' is not the main cause of large unstoppable fires; it's climate factors such as temperature, humidity, and especially wind."
There is no upside to a warming planet, but there is hope in the fact that what man has caused, man can reverse.
My third cli-fi thriller in the series is a work in progress. It's called The Men Who Moil ( Moil: To daub, to make dirty, to soil, to defile. Webster’s Writer’s Dictionary). And it is about corruption in the extractive industries and their deleterious impact on the climate.
The Men Who Moil showcases activists like Dan Bloom who are passionately committed to doing something about climate change. Below is the dedication.
Dedicated to the warriors for the planet, regardless of age, who work tirelessly to foil “the men who moil."
The Role of Fiction By Dave Butler
There’s no doubt that fiction has, for generations, changed the world. From novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which exposed the horrors of slavery), to All Quiet on the Western Front (about the horrors of World War I), or The Grapes of Wrath to George Orwell’s 1984, or To Kill a Mockingbird or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, fiction has provided a venue for readers to see, and think about the world in new ways.
Beyond that, however, I often wonder if fiction has an increasingly important role today as countries, regions and communities become more polarized. Does fiction have a role in bringing people together, rather than further dividing them?
I believe it does for one simple reason: empathy.
Through well-developed characters, and compelling plots, I believe that fiction offers an opportunity for readers to enter the hearts and minds of protagonists and antagonists. In doing so, they can begin to understand what makes those characters tick, what motivates them, why they believe what they believe. And most importantly, to be empathetic to their views of the world, and to the challenges, struggles and frustrations they face in navigating a very complex world. That creates emotion, which in turn creates that empathy.
The world is a complex, messy place with many shades of gray. It’s rarely black-and-white. Pick any issue in society and then listen to how it’s painted by CNN and FOX. How is it possible for there to be two such diverging narratives of the same thing?
In my most recent novel – In Rhino We Trust – I tried to illuminate the many complex layers of rhino poaching in sub-Saharan Africa. While most people are likely opposed to killing rhinos for their horns, at least in principle, when we realize that the front-line perpetrators are often men, faced with abject poverty, who are simply trying to feed their families with few other options, things become a little less clear. They’re being encouraged to kill rhinos through the greed and ignorance of other men. Does that make it right? No. But does that mean that we need to look deeper, to understand the nuances. To look for creative rather than black-and-white solutions? Absolutely, and fiction can do that.
People are the same. As former-President Barack Obama recently said, people who do good things have flaws. And people who are fighting probably love their kids. We have much in common, and yet, we tend to find ways to be divided by our differences, rather than find ways to come together over our many common interests. I believe that strong fiction can help us come together.
Keith Oatley, a professor in the department of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto, summed it up in an interview with FastCompany.com:
“…reading fiction improves understanding of others, and this has a very basic importance in society, not just in the general way of making the world a better place by improving interpersonal understanding, but in specific areas such as politics, business, and education.”
Fiction might not change people’s minds, particularly if their views are long- or strongly-held. But by encouraging readers to care about a character and his/her struggles, a good novel might, even if only for a moment, encourage them to think about things from another perspective. That, in itself, might move the dial on understanding.
As writers of fiction, we have a wonderful opportunity to do just that.