This month, I’m delighted to share with you an interview with novelist Matt Bell, whose latest novel, Appleseed, hit shelves earlier this month. The novel spans centuries, touching upon how climate change, colonialism, capitalism, and other forces have shaped – and re-shaped – the Earth and our societies. Matt’s also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. His short story collection is called A Tree or a Person or a Wall, and he’s also the author of a non-fiction book about the video game Baldur’s Gate II. He currently teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.
What drew you to the subject of climate change, and what inspires you to explore it in your work?
At this stage, it seems impossible to write a novel without writing about climate change, but I know that’s not what you’re asking! As a teacher, I often tell students that one way to subvert the clichéd writing advice of “writing what you know” is to “write what you’re afraid to know,” and there’s an aspect of that to Appleseed, I’m sure. I grew up in rural Michigan among people who loved the outdoors, and have spent so much of my life in nature at home and in state and national parks, hiking and backpacking and trail running. Wildlife has been a source of wonder and imagination for me as long as I can remember – one of my most treasured childhood possessions was an illustrated encyclopedia of animals that I read A-Z, over and over – and the prospect of a world without such life thriving in abundance is truly one of the worst outcomes I can imagine.
I think there was a time when climate change and all the problems associated with it were so overwhelming that I felt a kind of nihilistic paralysis whenever I thought about it. But one reason to write a novel is to think and feel your way through a problem, and I do feel like writing Appleseed made me feel productively engaged (in my own way) in necessary learning and thought instead of indulging in further avoidance or denial.
Your novel spans more than 1,000 years. Please discuss this artistic decision. What are you hoping to show readers?
I began with the 1799 storyline, with the idea to retell Johnny Appleseed as a half-human, half-animal faun or satyr, but as I continued writing about the wilderness of that time (and about that era’s settler colonialism), I began drafting parts set in the future as well. One of my fascinations is the inexhaustibility of myths and fairy tales and folk tales, the way retelling them in no way diminishes them – there’s an immortality to such stories, and so maybe also to their characters, who can often be put in stories set in different times and different places than they originally did without any lessening of effect. I was also thinking about Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects, one of the most useful ideas I’ve come across in the last ten years: for anyone reading this who hasn’t heard the term before, it’s essentially any event or phenomenon that is massively dispersed through space and time, impossible to know in its entirety from any one place or moment. Obviously, climate change is one such hyperobject, as are unlimited growth capitalism, manifest destiny, settler colonialism, industrial agriculture, the fossil fuel economy, and other topics Appleseed touches on. Writing a longer time span lets me show those forces as they appeared in different times and places, linking their different manifestations to each other.
It was also, of course, fun to write a thousand-year-long book! It was an exciting problem to tackle, and hopefully it makes for an entertaining read.
You’re originally from Michigan but live now in Arizona. Has living in the Southwest shaped how you think of nature or humanity’s relationship to the environment?
When we moved to Arizona, I had to relearn the seasons, the plants and animals, even how just to be outside during the day. Living near Phoenix changed my whole routine: in the summer here, I get up at 4am to go running in the dark, something I never would’ve done in Michigan, which means I’ve probably seen more sunrises in seven years in Arizona than in the rest of my life combined. But the real shaping happened when my wife Jessica and I started spending a lot of time in the Sonoran Desert, trying to learn as much as we could about the plants and animals here. At first, it was as much about trying to feel at home here as anything, but we quickly discovered how the more you learn to see about a particular landscape, the more you see: as you learn the names of the most obvious plants and animals, you start to see the next layer, and then the next and the next. Jess is a birder and a certified master naturalist, and getting to spend time in the desert alongside her particular form of attention and knowledge has helped me see more of it too. Later, when we returned to visit Michigan, we found that our newly trained attention came home with us, and made additional things visible even in the places we’d spent most of our lives. It’s been a transformative experience, and I’m so glad to continue to get to know both of these landscapes I think of as home.
Do you think about climate change beyond what you write in your novels?
I don’t know how anyone alive in this moment could honestly avoid thinking about climate change. Where I live in Arizona, there’s been a wildfire burning more than fifty miles away for weeks now, filling the air with brown smoke: I smell it when I go out running, even though it’s so dark out I can’t see the smoke yet. How could I not think about it? Living in Phoenix the past few years has been an obvious place to think and write about climate from, because causes and costs are so apparent here, but being back home in Michigan for part of the summer didn’t mean getting to avoid it. I’m writing this from my in-laws’ place in Michigan’s Thumb, where a tornado last week hit a lakeside town that has never had tornado damage before: afterward, I watched the fire chief on the news talking about how they would change the way they prepared and responded to extreme weather in the future. That’s climate change too, even if no one involved says the words.
Appleseed also touches on genetic engineering of food. As someone from Kansas who protested Monsanto in high school, I understand the issue is complex. What did you learn about this subject while writing the novel? Did writing Appleseed change how you think of genetic engineering?
You probably knew more as an engaged high schooler than I did starting out: I had a lot of things I thought I knew, but it was a jumble of news stories, things people I grew up with said back in Michigan, and scattered bits of reading. I’ve been a vegetarian for a little over a decade now, a decision I made because I decided I no longer wanted to eat factory-farmed meat, but for a long time I didn’t look into where the plants or processed products I was eating instead came from.
In the year before I started Appleseed, I started reading a lot more about industrialized agriculture in general, research that eventually provided a good chunk of the plot and the political worldbuilding in the near-future storyline. Among other questions, I earnestly wondered how companies might try to drastically engineer crops or even animals to survive in the future we were making, because it seems so likely that it has been done and will be done to greater degrees in the future. So maybe now I know more than I did when I started, but I think there are still a lot of complexities I don’t see easy answers to, especially as the climate crisis brings new challenges to agriculture everywhere. All those complexities, however, don’t change how angry I feel about companies like Monsanto trying to be sure they control the future, in effect deciding these questions for everyone else.
I realize this is a funny question for someone whose book is just hitting shelves, but what’s next for you?
Next up for me is a craft book on novel writing, rewriting, and revision titled Refuse to Be Done, which will be out from Soho Press in March 2022. After that? Hopefully the novel I’m writing now, if all goes according to plan.
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.