In this spotlight, I look at how ecology intersects with weird fiction. This has been an interest of mine, but I have done only one similar spotlight – on Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy – two years ago. It’s good to come back to this subject.
I am honored to talk with the amazing Marian Womack about her new collection of short stories, Lost Objects. See Weird Fiction Review for a detailed review of Lost Objects, including a link to read “Orange Dogs” online. Jeff VanderMeer says of the book, “An intriguing and illuminating first collection, chockfull of interesting ideas about the natural world and ourselves.” Published by Luna Press (July 2018):
These stories explore place and landscape at different stages of decay, positioning them as fighting grounds for death and renewal. From dystopian Andalusia to Scotland or the Norfolk countryside, they bring together monstrous insects, ghostly lovers, soon-to-be extinct species, unexpected birds, and interstellar explorers, to form a coherent narrative about loss and absence.
What led you to the writing of this short story collection, and had you traveled to the various places within?
Lost Objects wasn’t originally planned as a collection. The stories it contains were written over a period of several years, roughly from the birth of my son in 2012 onwards, and I hadn’t thought of writing a thematic collection as each of these stories came to me. But it became clear in retrospect that these individual narratives did add up to something that deserved to be seen as a whole, a collection of different perspectives on the same or similar issues, and – with a little tweaking – the collection fell together out of disparate and apparently unconnected materials. As far as traveling to the environments I write about is concerned, on one level none of these places exist, yet. But their present-day iterations do: some of the stories are set in Cambridge, UK, where I live and work; “Black Isle” is set to a certain extent near where some of my family live, to the north of Inverness in Scotland, and “The Ravisher, the Thief” is set in Barcelona, a city I know well from my years living in metropolitan Spain. Other stories are set in environments I have visited in my youth.
What kinds of lost objects did you see in these areas, in real life?
From an environmental perspective, we are losing everything, all the time. I live in suburban Cambridge, and over the course of the last few years the visible diversity of, for example, bird life has declined enormously. This is not just anecdotal; there are statistics to back it up, but even speaking from a personal perspective you see the old certainties changing and failing all around you. I am writing this in the middle of an astonishing heatwave, and talking heads on the television say this could now be the new normal: seasons are failing, crops are dying, and the tendency is still to think about this kind of radical change as something that will happen just beyond the horizon of our perception, in a hundred years’ time, or a hundred and fifty. But it is happening now, and here, and it is terrifying.
The short stories in Lost Objects explore the unsustainable worlds of our society, and the losses therein – cultural continuity, people, animals, plants, clean water. How did you come about imagining the what-ifs, or maybe more appropriately, the what-if-this-continues types of settings, which are varied among these stories?
I think that in a lot of these stories I am not really writing speculatively. The scenarios they describe are plausible extrapolations of the current world. (Parenthetically, I am a firm believer in the idea that science fiction is never really about the future, but is about the present as we experience it.) But from a technical standpoint, I think that what I do is to take an environment as close to my real world as I can, and then develop it with little “tweaks” here and there until the final result is a world that is both ours and not-ours, both now and not-now.
Great point. I’ve run across the phrase (particularly in weird fiction) “charnel grounds” when describing our world, as it is losing these sorts of objects. We do seem to be in a place now where regret and loss result in a discomposure. We feel ghosts, see ruins and skeletons at our feet. Symbolically at least. Did the concept of charnel grounds, or anything similar, occur to you when working on this book?
To give a short answer, not really, no. But it’s interesting and appropriate to think about it: the current extended meaning of “charnel grounds” is a little vague, and is generally applied to a space of disorganized destruction and death, which is a little apocalyptic for my tastes. But charnel houses were originally spaces for storing “overflow bones” when graveyards got too full. Old bones were dug up so that new bones could be put in their place. The old bones were still treated with respect, still counted as consecrated, were as valuable as they had been before, just put to one side. I think that’s the way I like to understand the symbol perhaps: my stories are filled with death and loss, but it’s a loss that connects us to the past, that is set aside but still valued. I think that over the years to come we are going to have to have to learn to mourn in a way we haven’t needed to since the Victorian era, and the concept of the charnel house might help us here.
I see more and more fiction that addresses climate change, environmental losses, and extinction. There is a big diversity of stories being told. I think of eco-fiction, a term I’ve heard you use as well, as a way to intersect environment, humanity, and literature. Have you seen much of this in weird fiction, and if so, can you talk some about that?
Well, the intersection between ecology and the Weird is one of the things I’m writing my doctorate about, so I could speak about this for hours. But in the interests of concision, let me just say that one of the key tenets of the Weird is the idea of the irruption, the entry into apparently “normal” space of the abnormal invader. This corresponds to the Lacanian idea of the Real: the abnormal invader is actually a glimpse of the unmediated, unvarnished, incomprehensible “truth” that stands outside the symbolic and imaginary interpretations of the world we throw up around ourselves. What eco-fiction is giving us is a world in which the Real (environmental forces that are beyond the control of any single individual) is more absolutely present, and this incomprehensible cosmic truth that previously we only saw in glimpses is now breaking through to display itself to us on a day-to-day basis. Of course, this is not to say that in the world outside of fiction there aren’t people whose devotion to the symbolic or imaginary order of things isn’t strong enough for them to live their lives in a state of denial…
I wish I had hours to talk with you, because the Weird is also so interesting to me in how it connects with our natural world. In Lost Objects, you deal with tough emotional reactions to the changing world around us. It’s so important to recognize this as it’s hard for all of us to watch what’s happening. I talked with poet Lorna Crozier, author of The Wild in You, a while back, who said that as we grow older, we grow lonelier. Part of it is that as we age we begin watching friends and family pass away. But loneliness is also born of saying goodbye to the wilderness left on the Earth. “It’s the loneliness that comes from wiping out of songbirds, salmon runs, and old-growth forests. It comes from trophy bear hunting…” etc. I think the characters in your stories feel this most vividly. How can writers continue to share this without coming across as didactic?
Nothing wrong with being didactic, in my opinion… There was a post gaining traction on Facebook this morning from a climate scientist who had been invited to appear on the BBC, and who refused because he was going to be interviewed alongside a climate-change sceptic “in the interests of balance.” This is not a balanced issue, and shouldn’t be seen as one. And any tool for raising consciousness, whether it is emotional or scientific or statistical or whatever, is valid. I realize that saying this runs the risk of continuing to further entrench fixed positions, but I don’t think there’s a divide to speak across in this instance. If the house is on fire, there’s no point arguing with the person who says it isn’t. As far as representing the problems of climate change in an emotional fashion is concerned, I think maybe one way to avoid manipulativeness is to show the continuing validity of Donne’s “no man is an island,” to represent the fact that we are all – from the level of the planet down to that of the community, the neighborhood, the family – connected to one another, and our actions cause joy or pain to those around us.
I agree with you. To end, are you working on anything else at the moment?
I have just finished (to the extent that you ever think these things are finished) a supernatural detective novel, an uncanny story set in London and Norfolk. I’m quite pleased with it. And as far as the future is concerned, I am working on another novel that I’m not quite ready to talk about yet, as well as some short stories. The things that interest me stay the same, more or less: the way that the planet is changing, and our role on it as custodians or parasites, embodying the problem and the solution at the same time.
Thanks so much, Marian. I hope we stay in touch, particularly about your studies and new works of fiction.
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 the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.