Catherine Bush and Nicola Penfold discuss their novels, which focus on wild nature.
Catherine: Nicola, one of the things I loved so much about entering your upper MG novel Between Sea and Sky was feeling uncanny resonances to my novel, Blaze Island, written for older readers yet with young adult protagonists and being released in the UK and US this spring.
At moments I felt like your platform island, built of lashed-together boats on a bay that reminded me of Morecambe Bay in the northwest of England, was on one side of the Atlantic while my wild and wind-swept Blaze Island, off the coast of Newfoundland, lay in a parallel world on the other side of the ocean.
Both novels feature resolute and protective daughters who live with their grief-stricken fathers and don’t want to leave their islands. In my novel the climate scientist father has forbidden his teenaged daughter from leaving Blaze Island. In the futuristic world of your novel, one daughter longs to take off for a life on the mainland, the other passionately resists. Both will find their lives transformed.
Fathers teach their daughters about the natural world in both novels. In Between Sea and Sky a boy arrives on Pearl and Clover’s rigged-together sea farm bearing a secret, in mine a young man tumbles through Miranda’s door in the midst of a violent storm, hiding his true identity. Both our novels gesture to Shakespeare’s The Tempest – how could you not in stories of young women living with fathers on islands?
Climate-engineering science becomes a kind of magic in my novel. And when I came upon the greenhouse, which plays a key role in your novel, as a greenhouse does in mine, my mind felt a bit blown. I was immersed in your story, by your characters, who move with such energy and vitality. And though the future world that you describe felt bleak, you also invite the reader to be beautifully and tenderly transported into wonder.
Nicola: Catherine, hello! Thanks so much! This honestly feels like such a great pairing, doesn’t it? My mind was blown in that section of Blaze Island when the storm brings in old treasures – sections of clay pipe, fragments of pottery, seaglass. Mudlarking is such a big thing for my characters. And then the use of seaweed as a carbon sink too. Our worlds have so much in common, and yes, The Tempest of course. How indeed could we not?! I love referring to other stories – I think it can give extra weight to a novel.
Blaze Island was such a seductive a setting for me. I love remote places, and characters living on the edge of society, and it felt so fitting that this was the kind of place Miranda’s father would seek refuge in, after he was cast out by climate deniers. But I was impressed with how reports from the outside world still came in, and that sense of ever worsening climate catastrophe – hurricanes, blizzards, intolerable heatwaves, forest fires, a brown sea surging through Manhattan subway stations, icebergs dying in the bay… It was genuinely terrifying, all the more so because these things are of course real. And there’s such a sense that Blaze Island won’t be a refuge for long: the bad weather is coming in.
Catherine: Yes, the bad weather is definitely coming in, and I wanted that realism. Blaze Island isn’t futuristic, it’s an alternate now. Between Sea and Sky is your second speculative, environmentally themed novel for young readers. In your first, When the World Turns Wild, two children escape from a walled city that has shut itself off from the natural world after a deadly virus released by eco-activists runs rampant, a plot that given our pandemic reality sends eerie shivers down my spine. Can you describe the spark that began Between Sea and Sky and were you writing the novel during the pandemic?
Nicola: Yes, I was writing this in the pandemic. I’d already agreed to the premise with my editor, but it was written in the UK’s first COVID lockdown. This definitely impacted my writing. It was the first time I’d lived through a period of such tight rules and regulations, and this helped build the claustrophobia of my fictional world, the loss of freedom. Then because it’s a sea novel, and I live in London and was feeling very landlocked, all my love and longing for the sea poured out into this book. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but in retrospect, I’m really grateful I had it to write!
Were you writing in the first lockdowns too? How did this influence your writing?
Catherine: I released Blaze Island in Canada during the first year of the pandemic. I spent those early months of lockdown on my own in the country not really knowing what was going to happen with the book’s publication, which was agonizing. Collectively everyone was trying to figure out how to publish during a pandemic and make the transition to online events. I was really preoccupied with that.
I found myself thinking that even though Blaze Island was written before the pandemic, there are all sorts of correspondences between Miranda’s isolated life on an island that she can’t, or won’t, leave and our lockdown lives, which left most of us feeling as if we were living on our own version of an island. So I spent time writing about this condition of feeling ‘islanded’ by the pandemic, our need to cultivate self-reliance amid isolation, and I produced a short film called “We Are Islands,” in collaboration with an experimental filmmaker and two artists from Fogo Island, the magical place that inspired my fictional Blaze Island. Like you, I’ve been haunted by the fact that I can’t get to the sea, especially because my next novel is also a sea novel. On this continent, the ocean is over a thousand kilometres from me. All these months later, I’m still dreaming!
Nicola, would you describe the future world that you create — in which the earth is poisoned, much of the UK has flooded, families live under intense social surveillance by a Central Government, grow their food in vertical towers, and are only permitted one child — as dystopic?
Nicola: Yes, absolutely. Like my first book, this is a dystopia, but with light and hope, which is important I think, for the age I write for. In my first book, Where the World Turns Wild, the characters leave the dystopic city behind, and head out to the wild. Here too, my characters quickly escape: on land, Nat and his friends explore the forbidden fields of solar panels, where nature is returning; at sea, the sisters live outside of the rules, they’ve run away from them. This is rather like Miranda and her father have run to Blaze Island in your book. They’ve left the real world behind. Actually, I’m really interested to know, how long have you wanted to write an island story? An island is a compelling setting for a writer, huh?! I almost got there with my offshore oyster farm in Between Sea and Sky, but I think I still have an island story inside me to tell!
Catherine: Oh, please write an island story. I’m already eager to read it. I will say that the makeshift island of Between Sea and Sky feels like an island – and, yes, I’ve long wanted to write an island story. In the midst of all that early pandemic isolation, I found myself thinking back to the island literature I loved as a child. Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy. Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, a classic from my youth, about a young indigenous woman left behind on an island off the California coast who learns to survive on her own while befriending a wolf. Islands are magical in part because they’re microcosms of the world. Maybe that’s why writers love them. In climate terms, island thinking is so crucial, isn’t it – because ultimately, we all live on a planetary island.
I’m curious — how do you create a world that might compel us to recognize the threats to our familiar lives but doesn’t terrify or depress young readers? I’ve been thinking recently about the place of dystopias in climate literature. In Blaze Island I try to stay close to an elastic realism, containing nothing that couldn’t or isn’t happening now – a massive hurricane barrelling up the east coast of North America, melting Arctic ice, research into climate engineering. What appeals to you about creating a speculative future in which we can see traces of our own world?
Nicola: It’s definitely that relatability. Mudlarking was a great way of weaving this in actually. Sisters Pearl and Clover find washed up toys, jewellery, crisp packets…familiar things to my readers. I wanted to reach across to them from the future world. But you’re so right, not completely terrifying and depressing readers, particularly young readers, is important! I was very conscious of this, and it felt a fine tightrope to walk – how to include enough of the climate emergency to do justice to what a huge thing it is in all our lives, but not to make readers despair. For me, the natural world is always the answer, and particularly natural climate solutions. In my first book the focus was very much on rewilding, and in Between Sea and Sky, it’s rewilding too, but this time of the seas. People retreating has given nature space to recover.
Catherine: Attention to nature feels key to both your novels and this was certainly essential to me when evoking the world of Blaze Island in which Miranda and her father, and Caleb and his mother, live very close to the land. I spent eight years returning to the actual Fogo Island for research, talking to people in its communities, living near to sea and wind. In Between Sea and Sky, I felt transported into a watery zone where nature seems on the verge of recovering from human ravages. Porpoises swim in the bay. You invite young readers to notice, really notice, the living world beyond the human.
As the novel opens, mainlander Nat discovers some small crawling creatures munching on the leaves of a plant. At first, like Nat, I had no idea what they were. You do a brilliant job creating suspense out of whether the caterpillars will survive long enough to pupate into butterflies. Perhaps there’s metaphor here, but above all there’s ardour in the way we are invited to pay attention to the natural world through your characters’ care and noticing. Can you talk about this aspect of your writing and why it feels so important?
Nicola: I loved the nature on Blaze Island! It was as alive as the characters for me. I especially loved how Miranda has been raised alongside it, how she names berries, lichens, flowers, birds. She knows the direction of the wind. She can read the clouds. She makes bread and fire. It was beautifully done. For me, reading your book, which is essentially of course a story of growing climate disaster, the natural world was the space and the light and the hope. You got the balance just right, and this is absolutely why I include nature too. I mean practically all the solutions to the climate crisis that make any sense involve nature.
I don’t want to preach or be didactic, first and foremost I’m telling stories, but I do consciously want to promote a connection with nature. A relationship with the natural world is a huge gift in our lives, it brings solace in hard times, it makes us happier, healthier. And of course, it’s been said by many more articulate people than me, we protect what we know and love. We want, we need, our leaders of tomorrow to have this relationship with the natural world.
Catherine: As I was writing up these questions I was listening to Spell Songs, created from poems by writer Robert Macfarlane, illustrated by artist Jackie Morris, in their books Lost Words and Lost Spells, in which they bring back to life nature words, and worlds, at risk of being lost. Spells play a crucial role in Between Sea and Sky. As a reader I felt both spellbound by your world and bewildered – that is, invited to be wilder, to enter a world growing wilder again. Do you think fiction can cast a spell and bring readers into closer relation with wild nature?
Nicola: Fiction does cast a spell. Reading Blaze Island, I certainly was under the spell of Miranda and Caleb as their lives adjusted to the newcomers on the island, and the incoming hurricane, and working out what all this means for them. And yes, I do think this is something good writing can achieve, taking us into wilder spaces, even as we read in our city bedrooms and urban classrooms.
Catherine: What’s your own relationship to the natural world – as you live and write? Do you live close to the sea?
Nicola: No, sadly. It’s a dream of mine, to someday live near the sea, but I live in north London, thankfully with many green spaces nearby which help restore me. I do seek out water. I swim in a nearby lido, I walk pretty much most days by a little urban waterway where I see cormorants and a heron, and ducks, swans etc. I seek wild places out like medicine. As I’ve got older, I’ve recognised this about myself: I’m happier when I’ve been somewhere green. Calmer. There’s even evidence that being outdoors in nature can make us kinder. I found this out, and many other things like this, from an amazing book by the writer Lucy Jones. It’s called Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild. I now recommend it to everyone, so am here recommending it to you!
Tell me about where you live and where you write, Catherine!
Catherine: Oh, I love this book recommendation and I just read an astonishing, horrifying statistic in the Guardian review of it: “three-quarters of children in the UK, aged five to 12, now spend less time outside than prisoners”. I hope the spell of your books helps to counteract that. I’m lucky these days to write between city and country.
Some years ago my soul said, I need more nature, and I was lucky enough to be able to buy an old stone one-room schoolhouse, set amid fields, for what was very little money though a lot to me. So I write in both places but mostly out here. The green world is my place for nurturance. I totally agree with everything you say about the need to bring us back into connection with nature. To notice and care for the aliveness of the world around us. I’m lucky in Toronto to live surrounded by trees and a nearby forested park but there’s more space for wonder and awe out here in the country — and complications, like the fields around me being sprayed by glyphosate. It’s rural but not far enough out to be wild, whatever that means these days. Still, I love it.
Nicola, can you imagine writing fiction for young readers that doesn’t somehow respond to the climate and ecological crises we face? In a recent piece for The Guardian writer Ben Okri spoke about the need for ‘existential creativity.’ I know you’re working on a new novel about the Arctic – can you say more?
Nicola: That was a tremendous piece by Ben Okri. It felt like a call to arms to creatives. Yes, I am working on a novel about the Arctic and I’m finding it a strange and tricky thing to do, because what I want to do most is to take the readers there in their imaginations, to write about the beauty and the wonder of this extraordinary landscape. Which so many people will never have seen in real life, and quite possibly won’t ever. And it’s desperately sad to know we’re losing these icy landscapes at such an unprecedented rate. But I want to write about hope, and imagine a different kind of future where we have stepped up to save our beautiful planet, where the balance has shifted in favour of the natural world. I’m still working out quite how to do this.
I was very moved by the icebergs that drift into the bay in Blaze Island. You had a line about how little time it takes for eternities to vanish. These parts must have been emotional to write?
Catherine: There was one summer when, perhaps because of wind or water currents, so many icebergs stranded in the bay off Fogo Island. The water was full of them. It was the most astonishing, beautiful and, yes, heart-rending sight. The little house where I lived, and which inspired Miranda’s house in the novel, sits on a cove on the ocean-side of the island and I could literally watch icebergs float past my back door – melting.
It’s so hard to wrap our heads around the scale of that ice, ten thousand years old or more, broken off the Greenland ice sheet that helps hold planetary life together – and you’re right it’s something that many people will never see; I’d never seen an iceberg until I went to Newfoundland. I wanted to bring icebergs to the page in a way that made them not scenery but presences, presences in time, disappearing presences; I wanted to give readers the chance to have an encounter, come into relationship with the ice on which we all depend, to imagine swallowing ice containing bubbles of ten-thousand-year-old air. As my character Frank does and I have done. If you take that into your body, you become a little bit iceberg, as old, as ephemeral, and, I hope, transformed, more open to attention and care.
When thinking about the future, we cannot bring into being what we can’t imagine, and so, even beyond offering hope, the imagination and stories play a crucial role in our path ahead. Nicola, what are your thoughts on this?
Nicola: It comes back to the natural world for me. David Attenborough said at COP26, addressing young people, “In my lifetime I’ve witnessed a terrible decline. In yours, you could and should witness a wonderful recovery.” This is what I really want to write about, the wonderful recovery of the natural world, and what a marvellous story it is to write.
Nicola Penfold was born in Billinge and grew up in Doncaster. She studied English at St John’s College, Cambridge. Nicola’s worked in a reference library and for a health charity, but being a writer was always the job she wanted most. She is married, with four children and two cats, and is an avid reader of children’s books.
Catherine Bush is the author of five novels, including Blaze Island (2020), a Globe & Mail Best Book, and The Rules of Engagement (2000), a New York Times Notable Book and a Globe & Mail and L.A. Times Best Book of the Year. Her books have been shortlisted for the Trillium and City of Toronto Book Awards in Canada. She was a 2019 Fiction Meets Science Fellow at the HWK in Germany and has written and spoken internationally about responding to the climate crisis through fiction. She is the Coordinator of the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA, located in Toronto.