Individual Heroism as a Story Engine

Aya de León and Michael DeLuca discuss their work in genre fiction which includes climate issues.

Michael: QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECYhas a romance backbone–I’ve seen you use this word to describe your own work so I am not as wary of speaking out of turn there as I might be. It’s also packed with people struggling to do right with what they’re given, taking responsibility for their actions, standing up for each other and for people who don’t have a voice. And giving voice to subjects that even in 2022 somehow still feel taboo in publishing: climate justice, defunding the police. For me, coming as I do from science fiction and fantasy, what I feel doing the work of a speculative element here is the main characters acting admirably even when it’s hard, doing right and speaking righteously in spaces where it’s systemically discouraged. I am delighted by this book, delighted to be made aware it is a kind of book that exists, and now I’m wondering what I’ve been missing out on. Who are the novelists out there that pointed you in the direction this book and your work in general is going–and/or the rappers and activists, if you feel more of your influences for this work came from those worlds? In what ways do you see your work breaking new ground?

Aya: In college, I read Sam Greenlee’s THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR. It was a classic Black Power spy novel about domestic armed revolution, a somber political fantasy. In my 20s, I read Mabel Maney’s Nancy Clue (queer Nancy Drew parody) and Jane Bond (James Bond’s lesbian twin sister). My work is a sort of wild intersection of these two lineages, the male-dominated Black militant legacy and the white 2nd wave lesbian feminist legacy.

Somehow I’ve figured out how to make them work together, and QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY borrows from both and uses a hip hop cultural lens to fight for climate justice. But my fiction world is born of both of these political fantasy lineages where the underdogs win. I write that because that’s what I want to see happening in the world.

A lot of these politically charged novels with victorious endings are happening in books for young readers. The other climate book that I LOVE that does this is Natalia Sylvester’s RUNNING. I was so moved that after I read it at the end of 2021, I wrote a whole Green New Deal young adult/middle grade novel inspired by what she was doing in YA, THE MYSTERY WOMAN IN ROOM THREE. Which really painted me into an awful publishing corner because the Green New Deal was way too politically urgent to go to a traditional publisher with that story.

If I waited the 2-3 years needed for traditional publishing, it would come out in 2023-24.I wanted the book to come out at the beginning of the Biden administration. I had an online outlet who was ready to publish it in late spring of 2021. The contract was on my agent’s desk and we were just negotiating about the editorial process, but then they got a new executive editor who dropped out before we finished executing the contract. So my project was orphaned but I was determined to get it out before the end of the year. I reached out to a number of outlets and–thankfully–it finally found a home at Orion [read the novel online here].

I had to get an exception from my YA publisher, because technically it was my next novel for young readers and they had first right of refusal. But they understand that I’m an activist as much as an author and signed off. I got a fraction from Orion of what I got for my other YA books, but that particular novel was my first intentional piece of climate fiction propaganda. I wanted to see if I could write a novel that was essentially promoting the GND. And then I wanted to get it published while the GND was still politically relevant as a platform that the climate movement was pushing at the national level. Moving forward with subsequent novels, I want to figure out how to push even harder with the climate justice fiction propaganda. 

Michael: I am kind of floored by this! That you’re using the word “propaganda” here–it spurs me. I want to see more like this, I want to be more like this. Thank you. I’m sure you’re more familiar than I am with discussion of “civility” as a tactic for discourse that is steeped in white supremacy. I was raised in that tradition, it is ingrained in me to be polite, respectful, non-confrontational, pretty much up to the last possible second before somebody else initiates violence. And that’s what this moment is in the fight for climate justice, I daresay: the last possible moment. But I’m still have trouble raising my voice, calling for disobedience and disrespect of the status quo.

I see Deza doing that in QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY–but only after a lot of hesitation, even knowing as she does that she’s already been pushed into the spotlight. She’s learning, seeing the consequences of her choices unfold in real time, e.g. when she gets corporate sponsorship from a clothing company that turns out to use child labor, accepting her mistakes and changing them. Did you go through a process like that yourself, one that you’re able to draw on in your writing? Do you find having an expected story framework, like a romance–or a heist for that matter–makes it easier to accommodate activist language like that? 

Aya: I come from an activist family, so I’m sort of writing the epiphany moment of politicization that I never had. I grew up in a family with a strong leftist and class and anti-racist analysis. But I really do love using these genres to write political stories. There’s a much different pressure in literary fiction to be ambiguous and explore the gray areas. But I have a very soap-boxy style with my politics. So I just set the stories in super politicized contexts and have controversial things happening to people. And then I have them taking political stands that are a reasonable result of their character development. And in the process, I’m committed to showing the movements having wins.

All these books definitely do each have a “romance backbone.” As a writer of novels with romance arcs, the form commits me to a HEA (happily ever after) ending. It’s clear that the characters are going to be romantically happy, and it also implies that the movements are on the way to being successful. But with a literary novella like yours, anything is possible.

I’m always curious about how other authors decide how to end their stories, when they don’t have any genre prescriptions. In your novella Night Roll, the character Aileen goes on a group neighborhood nighttime bike ride with an inclusive, carnival atmosphere, the ‘Night Roll’.

The momentum toward Aileen’s Night Roll built steadily throughout the story. Did you have the ending in mind from the start? Was it challenging to decide how to land the book?

Michael: The idea that Aileen would get into the Night Roll in an effort to save Virgil from the Elf was in my mind from the beginning. But I spent awhile wavering over whether to let Aileen “save” Virgil or sacrifice Christian or die in some climactic battle with Beaurein, worrying a fantasy audience wouldn’t be satisfied without a final, decisive encounter.

You’re right that the rules are different, but I think reader (and publisher) expectations do persist, and end up needing to be addressed, across genres? Anyway, yes, I did struggle with that. I wanted Aileen’s journey to be personal–I didn’t want to end up writing a “white savior”. I also happen to be a sucker for a kind of “open” ending I think of as a hallmark of literary writing, where a little more thinking is asked of the reader: what’s next, where are these characters going? 

Aya: What do you want readers to take from Night Roll? I keep telling the same story over and over: African heritage woman is going about her business and gets caught up in the climate crisis, then she decides to join the movement for climate justice. I want to leave the reader with the idea that they can join the movement, as well. 

Michael: Grace Lee Boggs, the Chinese-American civil rights activist, who was a fixture in Detroit organizing from when she first moved here in the 50s with her husband Jimmy Boggs until her death in 2012, was a huge influence on me in writing this. One thing she said that sticks with me:

“The most radical thing I ever did was to stay put.”

What that communicates to me is a repudiation of the colonizing spirit. Come to a new place not to take from it everything you can and remake it in your own image, but to listen, learn, adapt, build connections, and figure out a way to help. That was a lesson I needed to hear when I got here. And I feel like it’s something a lot of people are going to need to hear in the near future, as climate change forces all this mass migration, and as white folks begin to come to terms with colonialism and extractive capitalism’s legacy in the world.

I’d love to think Aileen’s journey could provide some kind of model or jumping-off point for that process. Put down roots, build soil and watch what grows.

Aya: The book was really grounded in Detroit. How did you pick that city as your setting? Was it because of your own relationship with the place? Was it about what the city represents in terms of the automobile industry? Neither? Both? Something else?

Michael: I moved to Detroit’s distant post-industrial northern suburbs in 2011, with my partner who had accepted a professorship at a university here. It was very alien to me at first, as it is for Aileen in NIGHT ROLL, but one of the things that helped me find footing was the amazing bike culture.

As a result of the auto industry collapse, white flight and a massive reduction in population, Detroit has a lot of wide, beautiful (not terribly well-paved) streets with hardly any cars on them that were practically begging to be converted for bike lanes, and that was already happening when I got here. So practically the whole setting and premise of NIGHT ROLL were handed to me gift-wrapped. 

Aya: As an author, I write only about the present. I have a couple of MG novels that include some time travel to the past. There’s something I seem to be called to explore there about where certain lineages of trauma and heroism come from, but I don’t ever write the future. It’s not particularly a choice–my mind just doesn’t spin any stories there. What calls to you about writing in the near future? What do you find possible to explore if you’re constrained by the present reality?

Michael: Honestly, I think I have the same trouble you do. I feel like the best I can do is look at the past, try and find the patterns and then employ those in thinly disguising the present as the future. Because the present is what I want to change! I publish a magazine that features a lot of thinking about the future, but no distant, far-flung alien world means anything to me except as a metaphor for what has happened in the past and what’s happening here and now on earth. The metaphor is important, and useful, to me. I’ve thought about this regarding what we publish at Reckoning and with respect to climate grief.

The pain of what’s happening, the injustice, the suffering, ICE detainees, heatwaves, hurricanes, refugee crises, species dying out, desertification–it’s so much that it’s enervating to try to take it head-on. So I look for another lens, weird, beautiful, maybe even a bit silly, that will let me feel my way through without getting bogged down in the quicksand of grief. Magic is great for that, and the unwritten future–like that of an infant child–helps a lot too. 

Aya: Speaking of infants, your book really took me back to my own new motherhood. In particular, the loss of biking during my pregnancy and afterwards having to wait until my own kid was old enough to ride that I could get on the bike again. (Of course, in other countries kids travel much earlier).

What was your inspiration to write a protagonist who was a woman and new mom? Were there challenges for you in writing from that POV? Did you consult with anyone?

Michael: When I started writing NIGHT ROLL, my son was less than six weeks old and my partner and I were doing the insomniac spit-up-covered zombie thing. So all the stuff about sleepless hallucinations and regular wake/sleep schedules seeming like fantasy were all drawn from life.

I’d also just watched all three of my younger sisters become mothers and go through a lot of that, including one who’s a cycling safety and infrastructure advocate in Boston. And though my partner doesn’t bike much, she was very forthcoming about how all that felt. And I was trying to be there with her as much as I could.

Aya: In the 1970s, Ms. Magazine published “The Story of X” by Lois Gould, about a baby who grew up with their gender never being revealed. Many years before the modern transgender liberation movement, it was about subverting gender roles and expectations. The way you treated Christian’s character and pronouns reminded me of that story. What were your hopes for the impact of Christian’s character on your readers?

Michael: I hope seeing Christian being allowed to grow towards and figure out their own sexuality will help normalize a little for readers the extent to which gender roles are something we as a society impose on kids. I never encountered “The Story of X”–I’m going to seek it out now! But it took me a long time, with help again from my partner, who teaches women and gender studies, to see how much work goes into maintaining those rigid categorizations and how much trauma comes out of it. 

I also meant Christian to represent the uncarved block that is Detroit’s future, and by extension humanity’s future, dealing with climate change and environmental injustice. So much of Detroit was in the process of falling into ruin when I got here, at the same time all these new things were being born, corporate “revitalization” projects alongside huge groundswell for urban community agriculture. The idea that Christian could grow up unburdened by the detrimental institutions of the past was moving for me, and representative of the hopes I have for my own kid’s future. 

Aya: What was your inspiration for the Night Roll itself? I recall watching a Critical Mass bike party roll past the corner at the end of my block one day and I was mesmerized. Do you have experience riding in or witnessing any of those mass biking actions?

Michael: Slow Roll is (was and will be again) an event organized by the wonderful cycling advocacy community in Detroit, a series of neighborhood nighttime rides with an inclusive, carnival atmosphere that were sadly derailed by COVID and are still in the process of recovering. I saw a Slow Roll going past me in the street one day, like you I was fascinated, and yes that was absolutely one of the seeds of NIGHT ROLL. And eventually I got to ride 30 miles around Detroit with a bunch of those folks in a thing they call the Tour De Troit. It was absolutely inspiring, and yes, all of that is in the book.

Aya: I am not a scholar of my myths or classic stories. Beaurein and the Elf seemed like they might be modeled on rivals from a classic story…were they? If so, which one(s)?

Michael: The Elf is an amalgam of two mythic figures. One is the Queen of the Fairies from the Scottish ballad Tam Lin, in which the fairy queen kidnaps Tam Lin and his lover has to ride (a horse) into fairyland and fight a shapeshifting battle in order to rescue him.

The other is the Nain Rouge (red dwarf), a kind of racist, anti-Indigenous trickster figure the descendants of the French settlers of Detroit dreamed up as someone to blame for their failures. The Nain’s legend has since been reclaimed somewhat, and there’s an annual Mardi Gras parade here that’s named in his honor. 

Beaurein on the other hand is just my colonizer/extractive capitalist boogeyman, a stand-in for people like Cadillac, the alcoholic French playboy and war criminal who gets credit for settling Detroit even though the people of the Three Fires were fishing and trading here twelve thousand years before, or for Henry and Edsel Ford, who in the course of industrializing Detroit also instituted all the white supremacist policies that paved the way for the race riots of 1941, redlining, Detroit’s Wailing Wall and the city’s white depopulation starting in the 80s. Beaurein’s legacy is also, unfortunately, alive in Detroit to this day.

Before we close, I wanted to ask you about the impact of this kind of political, activist speech in fiction and art. I publish a journal of creative writing on environmental justice, Reckoning, so I think about the efficacy of art in effecting social and political change a lot.

In 2015, when I started the journal, I was completely convinced that radical art and writing was desperately needed, was a worthy and admirable way to pursue activism that could produce real results, even if those results were hard to perceive. Here in 2022 that math is much harder for me, though I still believe deeply in what Reckoning is doing, and in my own writing I’m trying to engage with these issues as hard as I can.

What’s it been like for you, committing to writing as a tool for fomenting progress? How do you imagine a middle grade reader encountering your Green New Deal novel and being inspired by it–what does that kid go on to do? Write fiction? Protest? Something more?

Aya: in the past year and a half, I have become obsessed with writing about the climate justice movement, and I definitely want to inspire people to join in collective action for change. I’m obsessed with the idea of using fiction to create a literature of winning, and I wrote about it here at the Climate Justice Writers League. I really want to write more movement fiction for adults, because the young people are pretty clear about what’s at stake.

I notice that the novel as a form is often more focused on the individual—particularly the exceptional individual—and I fall into that trap in a lot of different ways. Even though all my protagonists are raised poor or working class, somehow all of my climate fiction involves some sort of celebrity or elite education. I am currently trying to figure out how to get out of that.

Of all my books that are out in the world, my most successful was THE MYSTERY WOMAN IN ROOM THREE, because the heroes were ordinary teens, the main two were undocumented. But my adult novels all have individual heroism as a sort of story engine. How do I write about people who aren’t famous or rich or doing something wildly exceptional? And above all, how do I model setting really compelling stories in the midst of collective action for climate justice. I don’t know yet, but that is definitely my goal!

Michael: Thank you very much for doing this with me! It has been inspiring and amazing.

Michael J. DeLuca lives in the rapidly suburbifying post-industrial woodlands north of Detroit with partner, kid, cats and microbes. He is the publisher of Reckoning, a journal of creative writing on environmental justice. His short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex, Mythic Delirium, and lots of other places. His novella, Night Roll, released by Stelliform Press in October 2020, was a finalist for the Crawford Award.

Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program, teaching creative writing at UC Berkeley. Kensington Books publishes her award-winning feminist heist/romance series, Justice Hustlers: UPTOWN THIEF (2016), THE BOSS (2017), THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS (2018), and SIDE CHICK NATION (2019) which was the first novel published about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.


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Solutions Spotlight

In this issue’s extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Annemarie Allan shares an extract from Breaker, her childrens adventure novel about how two children, a mad professor and the local community, come together to save the Firth of Forth from a potentially catastrophic oil spill.

The inside of the wardrobe was awash with a patchwork of sparkling greens and browns.

‘There’s no need for an external light source. The bioluminescent moss does it all for you.’

‘But what is it?’ Tom was mystified.

‘An indoor pet walker, of course!’ The professor waved at the green and brown walls. ‘A nice woodland walk even when it’s raining outside. Look!’

The children looked. The floor of the wardrobe was missing.

‘There’s a treadmill down there.’ said the professor. ‘It generates energy while you walk. Saves it up, too!’

Based in North Berwick where most of the events in Breaker take place, Fidra is an environmental charity which combats the harmful chemical contamination of the environment from consumer products, industrial processes and waste. Fidra are evidence-based, pragmatic and collaborative.

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Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is a RLF Royal Fellow, freelance editor and screenwriter. Lauren is the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League, and on the board of the Authors & Illustrators Sustainability Working Group through the Society of Authors. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide and been translated into six languages. The Quiet at the End of the World was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2022. She has taught creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands.

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