by Frederick Turner, plus a discussion between Hannah Gold and Joanne O’Connell about their new books
Apocalypse is an epic poem about catastrophic climate change in the next several decades and a parallel catastrophic social crisis. A climate tipping-point happens, the Antarctic ice sheets collapse, and the existing answers prove ineffective. But the word “apocalypse” originally meant “unveiling,” and the story follows a group of remarkable human beings who find brilliant scientific and engineering solutions that require a very different way of looking at the world. That way also opens up profound spiritual perspectives, echoing in a twenty-first century secular scientific world the poetry of the book of revelations and the Zen parable of the ten bulls.
It’s perhaps my most important book—important to me at least—and many have asked me how I wrote it. So here goes.
1. Prophecy Comes from the Mistakes
You don’t just learn, you learn that you’ve already learned a bunch of things you didn’t know you’d learned. And now that you set finger to key you find out what they are.
Which means that you have to trust yourself and plunge in. That’s what heroes do, and poets have to do the same if they want to keep up. In medias res, in the middle of things, as Aristotle said. There is no excuse for writer’s block.
The big mistake I made was in thinking that the mistakes my critics had pointed gleefully out in my earlier epics were really mistakes. In fact the mistakes were just what made them interesting. They made people argue about them and look at things from a different perspective and remember them and keep reading the book to find out what the trouble was.
Now I was writing poetry, and epic poetry at that, and science fiction epic poetry to boot. So I was naked on stage, the royal nonesuch, and a lot of fruit got thrown at me, some of it delicious, some rotten, and some, like the durian fruit, disgusting to smell but delightful to eat. I loved being called barbarous, sentimental, reactionary, camp, “troubling.” The New World prophesied the current political civil war in America; Genesis was used in NASA’s long-range futures planning for the settlement and terraforming of Mars. Prophets are a pain in the neck: that’s why they throw prophets in pits.
So for an encore I knew I had to make trouble. I had to figure out not just the conventional wisdom, but also the conventional revolution against the conventional wisdom, and piss them both off. It’s only in the uncanny valley between the two that the future lurks, and not only the future but the meaning, the spiritual goodies.
2. The Uncanny Valley
A target-rich environment, or to change the metaphor, a hornet’s nest. I’d already violated the poetry workshop values of economy and the 17 line crafted free verse lyric, by writing poems of thousands of lines in voices not my own; told stories in verse when everyone knows the prose novel is the accepted modern way; gone back to outdated forms of meter and rhyme; mingled the nasty cheap pulp populism of sci-fi with the refined elegance of modernist verse; used a lot of scientific and technological words and thus desecrated the vocabulary of Dasein and authenticity; refused to lay at capitalism’s door all the evils of life; and gloried in the thrill of battle in a form—poetry–that was the property of very nice antiwar people.
But now in Apocalypse I learned a whole lot of new crimes. The uncanny valley in between the rhetoric of conventional environmentalism and that of climate change denial is geo-engineering. Global warming deniers hate the very suggestion that anthropogenic warming may be responsible; like evolution, the fake moon landings, and women’s rights, it’s a liberal plot against God, the free market, and America. Environmental activists hate the idea that cheap dirty technological fixes might actually work, and heal the planet, thus derailing their deeper agenda: making everybody into meek green moralists, diagnosing heroism, adventure, glory, discovery, invention, contestation and fun as symptoms of ADD, and drugging us so that we don’t fidget. If I could get both sides to get mad at the book, I would know I was on the right track.
Likewise, I could mess up poetic diction by putting the most well-worn idioms into exact snapping pentameters and make them mean something completely different. I could use all the bits of language—grammar, subordinate clauses, logical inference, abstract terms from other disciplines—that are routinely cut out of beginners’ poems by conscientious poetry workshop teachers—and make them dance in an entertainingly ghastly way. The uncanny valley between the heartfelt amateur verse that good people write about a dead friend and that la-de-da articulate croon you hear in NPR book reviews—but rendered in the unmistakable pentameter of Shakespeare, Milton and Pope. Even in Genesis I had cautiously kept a certain traditional nobility of tone; now I was about making the messy language of now, with all its technical jargon and bureaucratese and media catchphrases, into something so neat, so cool, that nobility might not be far off. Maybe cool is the new beauty.
3. All Fiction Is Theater
I also learned some technical stuff that most writers always knew. Actors know it even better: whenever anyone says anything in a good play, they are trying to do something, they have what theater people call an objective. I found that the conversations only worked if each character already has an idea of what his conversational partner wants, and even an idea of what their partner thinks he wants, and is bent on altering what the other person wants, for definite ends of his own. This can obviously be a destructive process; but it can also be a way in which humans build each other into better versions of themselves. We owe it to each other to take this work on, and to allow others to work on us likewise. It’s our gift to each other. In Apocalypse there’s a character who is supremely good at this, and s/he isn’t even human in a strict sense. You’d like to meet hir.
This theatricality also implies that you can’t just be funny and witty and ironical in places. You have to be so all the time, even in the most horrifying and tragic situations, or the story will simply die, the air goes out of it, the iridescent colors fade, and people stop reading or watching the stage. Every word has to have ‘tude.
4. Change the Contract Midstream
All art is about expectations and anticipations, even ones that in a strict sense don’t change over time, like painting, sculpture, and architecture (where the eye and the foot do the action, and the artwork changes in response).
The experiencer of a work of art comes in with a sort of ticket, an implied contract with the artist. OK art fulfills the contract more or less ingeniously, and gets rewarded by the experiencers’ satisfaction as they check off another item on their “been there, done that” list. Another summer blockbuster movie or romance ended with the car chase to the airport.
But really good art does something else. It takes its guest to a place where the original contract is suddenly or gradually shown to be a big mistake or silly illusion, and the real discovery/reward/goal now begins to materialize, something one hadn’t dreamed of. And when that goal does appear, it miraculously does fulfill the original contract, almost inadvertently, as it answers a very much bigger question altogether. The Odyssey changes exactly half way through from the Arabian Nights to the Iliad, but even nastier and more splendid—and then we see that the Arabian Nights part was not a fairytale but the inside of the Iliad part. The Ten Bulls of Zen starts as an orthodox parable of how to meditate, and then goes haywire when we realize that the goal was not the goal, and that goal stuff is not the point. Beethoven’s Ninth turns from a work of art music into a gigantic hymn.
In Apocalypse the change happens in Books 6 and 7. But the new contract is really the heart of the old. The Great Flood that overwhelms us all is Time. And how do we hold that back?
5. When All Else Fails, Get Yourself a Conflicted Narrator
And let the story also be a deep study of the narrator’s own personality. This way all the implications of the story can seep their way out, and the reader’s skepticism will have its own lively voice in the argument. And also you’ve escaped from your own voice, the very thing creative writing teachers tell you that you have to discover. Unless you can escape it, you’ll be plagiarizing that voice the rest of your life.
And Number 6, which was not in the contract:
Get yourself a genius editor, like Tony Daniel at Baen and John Lemon at Ilium, and a brilliant agent, like Sara Megibow. Then you might also get a sort of publishing first, in which, for instance, the same work of fiction appears as a gripping hard-SF war story, serialized and promoted as an ebook, and at the same time as a classical epic poem, beautifully presented in a fine press library-quality book.
Frederick Turner’s science fiction epic poems led to his being a consultant for NASA. He received Hungary’s highest literary honor for his translations of Hungarian poetry with the distinguished scholar and Holocaust survivor Zsuzsanna Ozsváth. He won Poetry’s Levinson Prize, and has often been nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. Born in England, raised in Africa by his anthropologist parents Victor and Edie Turner, educated at Oxford University in English Language and Literature, he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1977. He is a Shakespearean scholar, an environmental theorist, an authority on the philosophy of Time, poet laureate of traditional Karate, and author of over forty books. Turner is Founders Professor of Arts and Humanities emeritus at the University of Texas at Dallas, having taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Kenyon College, and the University of Exeter in England. A former editor of The Kenyon Review, he is a winner of the PEN Southwest Chapter Golden Pen Award and several other literary, artistic and academic honors, and has participated in literary and TV projects that have won a Benjamin Franklin Book Award and an Emmy.
League members Hannah Gold andJoanna O’Connell discuss their new Middle Grade releases, The Last Bear (HarperCollins) and Beauty and the Bin (Macmillan). Here, they talk about what led them to write books which deal with the climate emergency.
Joanne: Hannah, how about you start by telling us about The Last Bear?
Hannah: The Last Bear is the story of 11-year-old April Wood who spends the summer on a remote Arctic island with her scientist father. The island is called Bear Island but because of the melting ice-caps, the polar bears can no longer travel so far south. But one endless summer’s night, April spots something distinctly bear-shaped. A polar bear who is starving, lonely and a long way from home. Determined to save him, April begins the most important journey of her life. On one level, it’s the pure joyful celebration of the love between a child and a wild animal, but, on a much deeper level, it’s also a battle cry for our planet. It’s also, and I’m so proud to say this, the book of my heart.
Hannah: And you could tell us about Beauty and the Bin?
Joanne: Beauty and the Bin is about a girl called Laurie Larksie, who comes from a family of full-on eco warriors. The Larksies are always off bin diving, marching for the climate and even (at a particularly low point for Lau) eating up leftover food in restaurants. Laurie loves her family and deeply shares their values, but she just wants to fit in at school. When she enters an entrepreneur competition with her homemade beauty products, Laurie has to find a way to be successful without losing sight of who she is. So, it’s about family, friendship, and values, and it’s (fingers crossed!) a funny and uplifting read.
Joanne: I’ve read that you grew up in a family where books, animals, and the beauty of the outside world were ever present. So, it sounds like your background helped lead you to write The Last Bear. Can you us a bit about your childhood and how it has inspired your writing?
Hannah: Animals have always been part of my world ever since the day my mum took me to a garden centre and we saw a litter of kittens for sale. My little eyes lit up and there was no way were going home empty-handed! At aged seven, I was young enough to think I could wear Penny round my neck as a scarf but also wise enough to know that animals spoke in the most special of languages – the language of the heart. My love of animals has just grown stronger and deeper with age – but not just the pets in our home, but animals everywhere. So, when it came to writing The Last Bear, there really was only one subject I wanted to try and capture – that mysterious, almost magical bond which exists between us (but particularly children) and them.
Hannah: You write about a family with an alternative lifestyle in Beauty and the Bin, so is any of that inspired by your own childhood?
Joanne: I think so. I grew up in a fun, loving family, where there was a huge emphasis on sharing, and community, and putting other people and the planet first. We campaigned against racism and for peace, we delivered leaflets, we wrote letters to Amnesty and so on. And the house was full of books and ideas and friends who were writers, academics, and thinkers. So as a child, political discussions flew around the dinner table. Plus, my family were part of a scheme to help care for more vulnerable children with disabilities, so there were often other children staying with us. Those children were a brilliant, important part of our lives but we didn’t have a huge house, so this involved a lot of sharing! The Larksies are all about sharing, and so yes, I think some of those childhood influences are in the book.
Hannah: So, it sounds like your family was interested in climate activism? How aware were you as a child or a teenager about climate issues?
Joanne: Pretty aware! In my family, we were all vegetarian (though I have since been vegan for years) and we were into recycling back in the 70s/80s. We baked our own bread, had a veg box and used to shop at a zero-waste independent for all our grains, and beans, flour, and raw sugar. With our re-usable bags, obvs! It’s fantastic how the eco lifestyle is now going mainstream. I kind of wish I could go back and tell my 12-year-old self, sitting eating my organic packed lunch that one day, all this would be considered ordinary … I’d have choked on my chickpea fritters if I’d heard about vegan influencers, etc. I think it’s great how much awareness there is now but there’s a long way to go until things really change. What about you?
Hannah: To be honest, as a teenager, I can’t recall it being a topic of conversation, but my love of nature has always been there and having been lucky enough to live in various places abroad, I’ve seen first-hand the unbelievable and breath-taking beauty of our planet. I think anything that we love we automatically want to protect. So, the older and more aware I’ve become, the more I started to make ecological choices that were aligned to my values. When this no longer felt enough, I stepped up to be part of my council’s Climate Focus Group to see what change I could make on a community level. And writing The Last Bear is about making change on a global level.
Joanne: When and how did you decide to start writing The Last Bear?
Hannah: In truth, I’m not sure I deliberately set out to write a climate change book but once I had chosen a polar bear as the main character (or in truth, he had chosen me) it was impossible to write about them without talking about the melting ice caps. Not just the fact they are melting at an extraordinarily frightening pace, but the affect this is having on all our Arctic animals, but especially the polar bears who rely on the ice-caps for hunting.
When looking at where to set the book, I stumbled across a real-life island named Bear Island because of the polar bears which once lived there. It’s a tiny island which does in fact have a weather station (but not staffed by one man and his daughter!) and is situated half-way between the mainland of Norway and an archipelago of islands much closer to the North Pole called Svalbard. Not that long ago, polar bears would use the winter sea ice to roam from Svalbard to Bear Island to hunt for seals. But now, because the winter sea ice has retreated so much, polar bears can no longer reach the island which bears their name.
Once I found that out – there really was only one story to tell. How 11-year-old April rescues a lonely, starving polar bear stranded a long way from home. What about you, did you intend to write about the climate emergency?
Joanne: My book is about that awkward tug between friends and family and I think making the family super aware of the climate emergency, helped tell that story. I wanted to highlight how it can be tricky (even now) to make eco choices when you’re at school, and there’s lots of peer pressure, from food to fast fashion.
Joanne: What kind of research did you do while writing it?
Hannah: I spent a long time obviously researching Bear Island itself – the geography and geology of it, the weather and its habitat. The other main area of research was into the rate at which the ice-caps are melting in the Barent’s Sea area and how this is affecting polar bears in that region. Frighteningly, these statistics keep changing. At the start of writing the book the sea-ice was melting at a rate of 12% per decade according to NASA stats but just under two years later, this had crept up to 13%. I looked at how the loss of the ice caps affected the polar bear habitat and sadly, so many are literally starving to death because the ice is coming later and later each year. In fact, the ICUN predicts that by 2050 the polar bear population could be in serious decline – that’s a little over 25 years away. A lot of the research was quite upsetting, but I needed to understand the facts before I could write my story.
Joanne: The Last Bear is a book for readers of 8+. Some children will be reading it by themselves and I know you’ve been really careful to inspire hope and warmth in the story, despite the worrying subject. I think children’s writers have a responsibility when it comes taking care of younger readers when writing about the climate. How did you achieve this?
Climate change is a scary thing on top of lots of other scary things happening right now. And yes, absolutely as an author, I feel we have a level of responsibility to our younger readers and need to be mindful of what emotions we are potentially inducing via our words. Fear, in itself is counter-productive. At the time of writing this book, there was a lot of dystopian middle-grade and young adult fiction on the market – and a lot of it, is very good. But I wanted to write something which was set in the here and now, and which instilled the message that it’s not too late. And funnily enough, that’s actually what made my submission to agents and publishers stand out – because I was telling it from a different narrative. On a personal level, I have always been interested in how we can engage children (and grown-ups!) to feel energized and engaged and books are a fantastic way to do that.
Hannah: I know Beauty and the Bin is a positive, and funny book, was that how you wanted to make sure readers didn’t feel overwhelmed by the climate emergency story?
Joanne: I definitely wanted to write a funny, light-hearted book for children. And hopefully it works, because I think humour can be a powerful way to engage people in issues. I also wanted to make sure that the message in the book was very do-able. Laurie makes homemade beauty products from discarded food – she turns squashy bananas into hair custard, and so on – and that’s a simple, affordable action for most readers.
Joanne: So, given that the subject matter is very important what message do you hope readers will take away from your work?
Hannah: There is a line in the book that many of the early reviewers have picked up on. It’s when April is defending her actions to someone who is skeptical about what difference she (who is tiny) can make. She replies, ‘But what if every single person on the planet just did one thing?’ I think that sums up my attitude perfectly – it is not about waiting for someone else to sort this situation out, it’s about being the change ourselves and leading the fight. If we’re talking dream author goals, then I would really love to see my book in schools, libraries and even on the curriculum to inspire and empower children.
Joanne: Yes, empowering children sounds great. That would be amazing. But books are amazing, aren’t they? I was an avid reader as a child and so many fictional characters have stayed with me and given me hope, fun and confidence at different times.
Joanne: Our debut novels will be published in February (whoop, whoop!) and out there, in bookshops, libraries, homes and more importantly right in the hands of readers. I can’t get over how exciting it is to hear what children think about Beauty and the Bin – big shout out to those lovely early readers! So, when it’s published, I am crossing my fingers that some more children enjoy the book. What’s the best bit about publication?
Hannah: At the time of this interview, we are sadly in another lockdown but all of this journey has just been an utter dream come true. The reaction to the book has been so heartfelt and special and I love particularly how many teachers are calling for it to already be used in the classroom. So, the best bit (aside from my own personal goals) is the thought that I really could make a difference. And that’s really what the whole book is all about.
Joanne O’Connell is a journalist whose inspiration sprang from a year-long column she wrote for the Guardian called ‘Goodbye Supermarkets’, during which she met food waste campaigners, such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and eco-chef Tom Hunt, and presented a short video about taking her children foraging on a Scottish Island. She has written for The Observer, The Times, The Daily Express, The Independent and various glossy magazines, and is the author of The Homemade Vegan, published in 2016. She occasionally appears on television and radio, most recently on BBC Breakfast and Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.
Hannah Gold grew up in a family where books, animals, and the beauty of the outside world were ever present and is passionate about writing stories that share her love of the planet. She now lives in the UK with her tortoise, her cat, and her husband and, when not writing, is busy hunting for her next big animal story as well as practicing her roar. The Last Bear is her middle-grade debut.
Climate Change in the News
Grist Magazine has launched a new climate-fiction short story contest. Imagine 2200 calls for stories (3,000–5,000 words) that envision the next 180 years of equitable climate progress. What might the world look like in the year 2200, and how did we get there? Conjure your wildest dreams for society — all the sweet, sweet justice, resilience, and abundance we could realize — and put those dreams on paper. Submissions are open now, and will close April 12, 2021. Literary judges will include authors Adrienne Maree Brown, Kiese Laymon, and Morgan Jerkins. The top three contest winners will be awarded $3000, $2000, and $1000 respectively, and nine additional finalists will each receive a $300 honorarium. Winners and finalists will be published on Fix’s website and will be celebrated in a public-facing virtual event. Join this uprising of imagination, and help turn the page on earth’s next chapter. grist.org/fix/climate-fiction-writing-contest-imagine-2200-prizes