Real-world Issues in a Fantasy Setting

Rab Ferguson talks to Stephanie Burgis about her new book The Raven Heir, which is out now.

I’ve just finished The Raven Heir, and I loved it. There’s so much I want to talk to you about in this wonderful middle grade novel! But before we get into it, how would you describe the book to a new reader?

Thank you so much! The Raven Heir is the story of three children who’ve grown up in an enchanted forest only to discover one day that everything they thought they knew about themselves and their family was wrong. Now one of them is the heir to the throne – and they’re all in deadly peril.

One of those three children is the main character, Cordelia. An element of the novel that particularly spoke to me was Cordelia’s connection to nature. She has the power to turn into different animals, and from the beginning feels called to go out into the wild. Could you tell us a little about your thinking behind that connection?

I’ve always loved the idea of shapeshifting, but of course you can’t transform into an animal in every way without being changed inside. As I was writing Cordelia’s character, I wanted to give her a really strong intuitive sense of the natural world around her that’s very much tied to the various animal aspects of her nature. There’s a strong core of personality – her essential Cordelia-ness! – that remains unchanged in every form; but some of the wild, animal elements that she’s gained through all of her animal transformations remains within her even when she’s wearing her original human form.

I found that so interesting, especially when she was in animal form and took on a bit more of that particular animal’s character. I have to ask: if you could transform into any animal, which would it be, and why?

What a great question! I have thought about this a LOT (you will not be surprised to hear!), and my answer is generally a cat, but with breaks to become a red kite so that I could fly (without any fear of being snapped up by larger predators).

However, if it REALLY has to be just one animal, I’ll stick with cat after all.

So you and I are two of many writers in the Climate Fiction Writer’s League whose work is aimed towards children and young people. What draws you to write for the middlegrade age range, especially around the topic of the environment?

I have two middlegrade-aged kids, so I can say from their experience that MG-aged kids right now are learning about climate change in school AND a lot of them are extremely concerned about it – and unlike many adults, they’re willing to consider the kind of big changes that society needs to avert a total crisis. When we address environmental issues in MG fiction, we’re not telling kids anything they don’t already know, but we are offering hope and empowerment and the reminder that it’s worth fighting to make things better for everyone!

Something I liked in The Raven Heir was that the environment itself was key to the book, and had its own personality. Could you tell us more about the importance of the landscape to the novel?

When I set out to write The Raven Heir, I knew one of the triplets at the centre of the story would be the “rightful” heir to the throne…but that is such a fraught concept to wrestle with, especially in our modern era! So the big question I had to answer was: what would actually MAKE any one person the “rightful” king or queen? WHY would they be better than anyone else for the job? And that brought me back to the old folk belief that a sign of rightful royalty was the happiness of the land; if a land was ruled by its rightful ruler, the harvests would be good and there would be no droughts or famines.

As I was working all of this out, I was also accompanying my kids on protest marches as part of Greta Thunberg’s global School Strikes for the Climate…and all of that bubbling anxiety over our own climate future and all of my admiration for the passion of the kids who actually organised those protests in our town came together in the conception of the powerful and magic-infused land of Corvenne.

Those protests and the young people behind them were so inspiring. It’s interesting that these real world issues can spark the writing of fantasy. What’s the advantage of talking about these real problems in the magical genre?

I think that when we reconceptualize a real-world issue in a fantasy setting, it gives us some much-needed distance from the fears and the day-to-day stress factors that can overwhelm us and stop us from trying to find solutions to that problem in real life. It’s all too easy to get overwhelmed on a day-to-day basis when it comes to climate change and think – it’s too big, it’s too hard to change, it’s unstoppable… But the truth is, there ARE options we can fight for on a big structural level by putting pressure on businesses and on our governments, and we CAN fight for change even when it’s hard. I hope that my fantasy adventure – where 3 kids are given the option of either hiding from the huge problems of their broken kingdom or stepping forward to try to make a difference – can leave readers feeling empowered and hopeful and willing to make the hard effort to fight our own world’s problems.

I love that. It feels so important to remember that even broken kingdoms can be changed! I’d be interesting to hear a bit about your writing process for the novel. Was it all planned out beforehand? Did Cordelia or the or the other characters anything to surprise you along the way?

I wrote the first four chapters before I stopped to do any planning at all, but then I did pause and – since this book was sold on proposal – talked through the story a bit with my editors, which mostly consisted of them asking important questions about the worldbuilding that I needed to figure out for consistency before I kept going. That was really good for me, but the truth is, I never plan books in a lot of detail – I’m very much an exploratory writer. Whenever I write a first draft, I’m always following the internal guideline: “What would be the most fun thing that could happen next in this scene/chapter? What would make things harder for my protagonist in the most interesting way?” So every chapter is full of real surprises!

That reminds me of a Neil Gaiman quote, that the first draft is you telling yourself the story. I wanted to finish by asking you three favourites. Favourite character, favourite setting, and favourite magical moment from The Raven Heir? And why, of course!

Ooh, this is such a (good) tricky question! My favourite character as I wrote completely depended on the scene. I love all three of the triplets! My favourite setting was the mysterious Mount Corve, home of the ancient spirits of the land. And my favourite magical moment might be the first time the land actively whispers to Cordelia!

Finally, where can people find you if they want to learn more about your writing?

On my website! You can read excerpts from all of my books there and also find links to lots of free short stories. http://www.stephanieburgis.com

And of course I’m on Twitter and Instagram too (as @stephanieburgis and @stephanieburgisinwales, respectively)

You can find out more about The Raven Heir here.

Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, but now lives in Wales with her husband and two sons, surrounded by mountains, castles and coffee shops. She writes fun MG fantasy adventures and has published six so far, most recently the Dragon with a Chocolate Heart trilogy and the Raven Heir duology. She also writes wildly romantic adult historical fantasies, most recently the Harwood Spellbook series. She has had over forty short stories for adults and teens published in various magazines and anthologies.


Climate Change in the News

How to write and think about a warming planet [Galaxy Brain newsletter]

Meet the BIPOC Farmers Cultivating Green Spaces in NYC [Teen Vogue]

Why publishers need to take action on climate change today – an open letter by 100+ UK authors, organised by League member Piers Torday

LGBTQ rep in Books About Climate Change [LGBTQ Reads] – by League members Sim Kern and Cynthia Zhang

#ReadGreen Campaign – Amazon KDP to switch to sustainable book printing on recycled paper [Change.org]

Facebook let fossil-fuel industry push climate misinformation, report finds [Guardian]

Democrats Seek $500 Billion in Climate Damages From Big Polluting Companies [NY Times]

A stone-age climate novel

Nabeel Ismeer talks to Claire Datnow about his new upper Young Adult novel, The Hunter’s Walk, which is published by Penguin Random House on 31st August. Generations of prolonged drought and hunger have allowed the harsher voices of the Zarda tribe to set edicts of discrimination against their fair skin members. Ghar, a dark skin cave painter and Dun, his fair skin brother, push back on this discrimination to ensure that Dun and the fair skins can take part in the Hunter’s Walk, a Zardan rite of passage.

Where did you grow up, Nabeel?

I was born in Saudi Arabia, where I spent about half of my childhood before moving back to Sri Lanka. The rest was mainly spent playing cricket in the town of Kandy, Sri Lanka

How did those growing up years shape your perspectives?

The difference in affluence and development really struck me when I used to travel back to Sri Lanka for the holidays. For the longest time I was told that the difference was work ethic. But as I got older, I learned that there were real structural inequalities in place that made it hard to move forward. The struggle between inequality and meritocracy has stuck with me.

What was the first language you learned as a child?

Although my parents were both multi-lingual, I only learned English. I would love to learn more Sinhalese, and Malay and Tamil. I speak a little bit of Sinhalese (Sri Lanka’s national language) which was only enough to take the bus around Kandy.

You build solar power plants across Asia. What inspired you to become a writer as well?

I used to write a bit early on in school and university, mostly brooding young emotional prose. I never really intended to become a writer, but then one day I was thinking about how our prehistoric ancestors left Africa and marched on into Asia. Scientists contend as they moved further north that their melanin reduced to help vitamin D production. It struck me there was a possibility that darker-skinned people met their fairer-skinned counterparts. Over the next couple of years, I thought about how intelligent the painters of the Lascaux cave had to be, and how they would have dealt with the declining ice age. I thought this was an interesting story to write, and as I continued over the years the story began to write me.

What influences inspired you to write this particular book, The Hunter’s Walk?

Although I find any kind of discrimination abhorrent, I am quite curious why it is so prevalent in human society. Skin color, race, religion, caste, gender, we seem to find a way to group certain sets of people and then treat them as inferior. Isn’t that weird? I am also really concerned about climate change. Is climate change going to expose us to racial and other kinds of discrimination, I felt exploring how climate change might actually influence us down at a human level, was a topic worth spending a decade of writing.

Why did you choose to set The Hunter’s Walk back in the Stone Age?

I was thinking about how our dark skinned ancestors might have met our fair skinned ancestors during their last ice age. Could there have been prehistoric colorism? Could ice age climate change have influenced their interactions?

Did you carry out extensive research about the Stone Age?

The Hunter’s Walk premise is that our ancestors have a common origin. It was built around how the out of Africa theory coincided with the last ice age was built around works of Spencer Wells, and Stephen Oppenheimer. The characters, their interactions were based on literature and documentaries on the San bushmen, the Chukchi tribe and the Aborignals of Australia. I imagined these native tribes, almost untouched by modernity, like a window to view our ancestors, their traditions and cultures inherited over generations.

Also I was inspired by the fictional stories from Michelle Paver, Claire Cameron, Jean Auel and William Golding and how they reimagined our ancestors as intelligent, artistic, and soulful human beings.

Lastly, for Ghar, the main protagonist, the Lascaux cave art lead me to imagine this Da Vinci type intellectual who painted the great murals, probably sacrificing time hunting and other tasks. That to me sounds amazing – a caveman Leonardo Da Vinci.

What are the challenges, Ghar and Dun, the main protagonists in your book, need to overcome?

During a time of prolonged drought and hunger, Ghar and Dun challenge the harsh treatment against the fair-skinned members and the women of the tribe, only to get expelled themselves. Ghar finds a new tribe but then sees the same forces of exclusion grow when they are struck by a never seen kind of storm – snow. Will he ever find Dun and the fair skins? Will he ever complete the Hunter’s Walk – a rite of passage?

What message would you like your readers to take to heart from The Hunter’s Walk?

I would love for readers to be inspired by this great era or art and invention that the stone age was. Also to question exclusion and discrimination, and maybe renew hope in these fearful times.

What stumbling blocks—or ‘lucky breaks’—did you encounter on the way to becoming a published writer?

I think the biggest lucky break was creating this prehistoric colorism dynamic that seemed compatible with the scientific research. I am lucky (and thankful!) that Nora Nazerene Abu Bakar from Penguin Random House SEA was willing to take on The Hunter’s Walk, it is a great privilege. There are so many stories out there that never get the chance.

What is the most difficult part of writing for you?

Structurally I find creating stories that are compatible with documented research is the hardest part, but also the most rewarding aspect. Also prioritizing writing over family and building solar power can be difficult at times, because those are important parts of my life too.

Tell us a little about your plans for the future.

I am working on a book series about justice in the time of war and advanced civilizations. I am also playing with the idea of a group of scientist moms breaking down the spy world, after a spy tries to kill one of their activist children. On the solar power front, I am looking to build more solar rooftops and hopefully be a part of a large scale solar plant in Bangladesh.

Where do you see yourself as a writer in the next five years?

Hopefully still exploring and creating stories while also reaching readers.

Why does fiction matter in a world of real-life consequence like climate change, and racism?

I think contrary to popular belief, scientists and journalists have done a great job of detailing the risks that climate change poses to humanity. I think the problem here is not so much the messenger, nor even the message. I think part of it is how we have been trained to be objective and emotionless with data. We are more likely to be moved by a picture of a little boy dead on the beach than hear about the millions of Syrian refugees fleeing war. Or a burning Notre Dame is far more saddening than hearing about the millions of acres lost in the recent bush fires. Telling the human story of climate change, is one more way of reaching people.

You can find out more about The Hunter’s Walk here.

Nabeel Ismeer builds solar power plants across Asia during the day. He spends his nights writing, centred around the question ‘What if?’. What if the stone age had a Leonardo Da Vinci, was Lascaux her Mona Lisa? What if prehistoric leaders resorted to discrimination when they had no answer to the ice age? What if mitigating climate change can also help reverse inequality and further humanity?

His writings, which include themes of climate change and inequality, have been published in print and online magazines. The Hunter’s Walk is his first book.

You can find out more about Claire’s books here.

Claire Datnow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, which ignited her love for the natural world and for diverse indigenous cultures around the globe. Claire taught creative writing to gifted and talented students in the Birmingham, Alabama Public Schools System. Her published works include a middle grade Eco mystery series, The Adventures of The Sizzling Six. She received numerous scholarships and awards, including, The Blanche Dean Award for Outstanding Nature Educator, the Alabama Writers Cooperative Middle Grade Award, and Monarch Mysteries (Book 6 eco mystery series) long listed for the Green Books Award. During her tenure as a teacher, Claire and her students developed a nature trail, recently named in her honor as the Alabama Audubon-Datnow Nature Preseve.


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Climate Change in the News

Stories to save the world: the new wave of climate fiction [The Guardian]

A Century of Science Fiction That Changed How We Think About the Environment [MIT Reader]

Chlorophobia: An Eco-Horror Anthology open for submissions

Geoengineering – what is it, and why should we be worried? by David Barker

I remember reading, twenty-five years ago, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy about the colonization of the red planet. The idea that we humans could, over many decades, terraform an inhospitable, deadly atmosphere into something living seemed very cool. Back then I had no idea that our own planet’s atmosphere might become hostile in my lifetime. If the pioneers in the Mars trilogy could use science and technology to make that planet liveable, can’t we do something about ours?

The Oxford Geoengineering Programme defines geoengineering as the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change. Two main areas are focused on to help reduce global temperatures: the reduction of solar radiation and the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. In case you hadn’t guessed from the title of this article, I’ll be considering the potential costs as well as the benefits of each below. Because guess what, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Solar Radiation Management aims to reflect a small proportion of the Sun’s energy back into space. Methods of doing this vary from the simple – such as using brighter colours or more reflective materials on buildings and roads (also called albedo enhancement) – to the more outlandish ideas such as launching massive mirrors into space. While the latter would surely work, its readiness and cost effectiveness must be questionable, especially with a shelf-life potentially limited by bombardment from micro meteors.

A more pernicious method of reducing sunlight involves stratospheric aerosols – scattering particles into the upper atmosphere or into clouds. We know this method definitely works because history is full of case studies: massive volcanic eruptions spew billions of tonnes of particles into the atmosphere and global temperatures subsequently drop for a year or two. Most famously, the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 resulted in the ‘year without summer’ in 1816, and helped create two of literature’s greatest horror stories: Dracula and Frankenstein. Volcanic eruptions even inspired the plot in the final part of my Gaia Trilogy but, somehow, I doubt that will ever become a gothic classic!

Researchers have been using computer models to stimulate the effects of stratospheric injection to figure out how much would be needed and, importantly, what side effects could arise. These might include changes in rainfall, reduced crop yields, and damage to the protective effects of the ozone layer. And if the global financial crisis or the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that computer models are rarely able to predict the full ramifications of complex systems.

So, if reducing sunlight seems like a risky or very costly method of combating climate change, what about carbon dioxide removal? We’re on safer ground here, since the aim is to reverse what’s been done to the atmosphere in recent decades rather than introducing a radical new effect into the climate. Chopping down fewer trees and planting more saplings seems a pretty obvious starting point but has to work with local land management policies and the economics of our own consumerism.

Helping more phytoplankton grow in the oceans – through iron fertilisation – could also reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and be combined with the dispersal of ground-up rocks such as limestone to help combat oceanic acidification. But research is needed into potential side effects on marine life. While we’re at it, we might have to find a way to maintain the North Atlantic drift – the warm currents that stop Northern Europe feeling as cold as Labrador. Melting North Pole ice is changing the salinity of this conveyor belt of water, potentially shutting it down for good.

Carbon capture grabs the offending gas as it tries to leave polluting power stations or factories. This can be frozen and stored deep underground in a technology already in use by the Norwegians and will surely prove popular as countries struggle to reduce carbon emissions directly. Progress is being made with machines that can suck carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. However, these methods still require huge amounts of energy and, in some cases, water to work so are not yet feasible on a scale large enough to achieve significant progress.

All geoengineering solutions come with a financial cost. As technological advances reduce those costs and the price of doing nothing rises, I’m sure we’ll see more and more of these methods being used in the years ahead. I just hope we keep an eye on those side effects. One consequence that I haven’t mentioned yet is the potential for induced behavioural changes. If we come up with a viable engineering method for combating climate change, will this lessen consumers’ willingness to make lifestyle choices or politicians’ inclination to pursue potentially unpopular legislation in the name of climate change? I hope not.

Whilst progress is being made in reducing carbon emissions, most projections show us failing to hit Paris Agreement targets. I am a big fan of Sci-FI. I’m an even bigger fan of science. Researched properly, used sensibly, I am sure that we can and should adopt some of these geoengineering solutions to climate change as well as continuing to pursue behaviour changes from individuals, companies and governments. Spoiler alert: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy has a happy ending. I hope our planet’s story does too.

David Barker is the author of the Climate Fiction Gold trilogy (Bloodhound Books) – and gives talks on water shortages and climate change. Prior to writing full time, David worked in the city as an economist where his fascination with commodity shortages began.

He attended the Faber Academy in 2014 and, more recently, completed a scriptwriting course with the National Writing Centre. When not writing thrillers or scripts, David likes to create stories for younger readers and joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in 2018.

David participates in Radio Berkshire’s monthly book show, plays tennis & golf and does amateur dramatics (when theatres are allowed to be open). He lives in Berkshire with his wife and daughter, who are both much better at acting than him.

You can find out more about David and his writing at: https://davidbarkerauthor.co.uk

Creating picture books

Author Bren Macdibble interviews Emma Reynolds about her new picture book.

Hi Emma! Can I just say Amara and the Bats is a bit of a debut masterpiece. It’s a picture book that’s a visual feast, and it’s also a heartwarming story packed with information that’ll have kids examining it more closely and reading it again and again.

This book is basically about a young girl’s adoration of bats and encroachment on bat habit. You are also the illustrator as well, so can we talk about the illustrations first off.

I adore the colour palette you’ve chosen, the colours are very natural shades of burnt orange, greens, aqua, yellows, browns and midnight blues. I particularly loved the evening scenes when the colour palette is limited to midnight blues and oranges. They’re scenes in the dark but they really pop! Later in the book purple and sky blue also appear. Can you tell us more about your colour palette?

Thank you so much Bren! I really appreciate your kind words.

Yes the colour palette was very important – I worked with three distinct colour palettes. The daytime palette of light browns and orange with highlights of red, turquoise and yellow. The night time palette of dark blues and oranges to show the moment when the sun is setting and bats appear – this was used throughout the book, even when the characters are not outside. And lastly, the green palette that appears later in the book, where nature is shown flourishing and bursting into life.

The illustrations of Amara have her looking a little like her favourite animal. Her cute little ears stick out and when she runs around pretending to be a bat, it seems like her long black hair is a cape or wings. Was that on purpose?

Yes it was, well spotted! I like using character features to help show how they’re feeling – for example when Amara is sad, her ears droop down a bit, and her hair lies more flat. When she is excited, her ears prick up and her hair almost grows as if caught by a Ghibli-style gust of wind in excitement.

There’s bonus marks for endpapers, we all love endpapers, but yours are helpful too with lots of friendly bat faces showing the features of different bat species and their names. Throughout the book, the bats all look really friendly. Is this an attempt to counteract the spooky Hollywood vampire-type portrayal of bats or is a reflection of your love for bats?

Thank you! I loved spending a lot of time drawing the endpapers. Honestly, bats ARE cute, and if you compare my illustrations to some real life photographs, especially in the endpapers, they are pretty accurate to real life. So, it was important to show everyone how cute bats really are, and to see them up close, as we never really get to experience this as we mostly see them flitting past quickly at night time. The whole book is about myth-busting, both through sharing facts, and showing how cute bats really are, and how vital to all life on earth.

How far is the character of Amara from Emma the real person?

Haha this is a very good question. Honestly, I actually did run a fundraiser with my best friend Lucy when we were nine to sponsor an endangered animal back in the 90s. We made logos and everything. This book is my whole heart, and a lot of people have told me they can tell when they read it. Which is really so special to me. There is so much of me in many aspects of the book, especially Amara.

What is one astounding bat fact that a bat enthusiast like Amara might know?

Bats are amazing pollinators, and so much of the food humans eat relies solely on pollination from bats, such as: 70% of the tropical fruit that humans eat, cocoa, and agave which makes tequila!

The dedication is “This book is dedicated to all people fighting to protect our planet,” and when it’s big companies doing the polluting, buying up land and building housing estates, and our governments refuse to install limits to protect our environments or to mandate the use of green energies, we all feel very small and unable to influence anyone. I imagine children who want to stand up for their environment can quickly feel overwhelmed, so what I really like about this book is Amara, who was sad about the loss of forest and local bats near her new home, focussed on one thing she could do. She spoke up for one solution and that rippled out into her new community and it got done. Is this a strategy for children who may be feeling anxiety around our environment, one cause, one step at a time, be active?

Yes, this was intentional. There is a scene in the book where Amara feels devastated and overwhelmed because so many things need fixing and she’s just one person. She curls up on the bed and squeezes her eyes shut. It was important to me to reflect this feeling of overwhelm and grief that myself and so many people especially young people are dealing with – climate anxiety. We cannot fix everything ourselves, but what we can do is pick a cause we really care about, start locally – think globally, and this can absolutely make a huge difference for our bats. I did this myself, I chose a cause I really care about, and made it my mission to use my skills to communicate about bats, and I look forward to using my book as a learning tool and in community outreach going forward, to directly help with conservation and rewilding.

I love that Amara was new to the community but she made friends through her cause. I was also fascinated by the idea of bat houses, I’d never seen that before. In Australia we have a lot of bats and flying foxes and they often overwhelm city locations and sometimes need to be relocated. Are bat houses a common thing in the US or the UK where you live? Should bat houses be in people’s back gardens or is it best to entice them to a nice patch of wilderness?

Yes, so in the US and UK we don’t have flying foxes AKA megabats, as they only live in tropical locations. We have microbats, which are smaller and have different needs. If you have a suitable garden or a house where you can install a bat box/house high enough up by the eaves, you can absolutely install one! It’s super important to be a responsible cat owner and keep your cat inside around sunset, especially in the summer months when baby bats are out (disclaimer: I LOVE cats, but it’s so important to care for wildlife. Cats don’t really eat bats, but they will play with them and the bacteria in cat saliva from injuries can sadly kill bats.)

In terms of installing them in the wilderness, it’s best to join your local bat group or get in touch with your local bat charity, who will most likely already have a scheme in place to install bat boxes/houses and their expertise will know the best places for them. Bat boxes/houses must be built to spec, or be purchased from a certified vendor. There is more detail on this in the back of the book!

What is the one greatest bat myth that you would like to bust wide open right now?

Bats contract rabies far less than other animals. Less than half of 1% of all bats may contract the disease, and you’re more likely to get rabies from a dog or cat.

And of course, the widespread misinformation about covid-19, summed up here by world renowned bat expert Merlin Tuttle. It’s so important we share these facts, as the biggest threat to bats is misguided human fear. Bats harbour no more viruses than other animals.

What exactly are the effects on our environment when bat habitats are lost? How are bats beneficial to our ecosystems?

Bats are beneficial in so many ways – they are the world’s natural bug repellent, eating harmful insects like mosquitos and eating crop-destroying insects saving farmers billions every year. Worldwide they are also pollinators as I mentioned above, and some flying fox species are seed dispersing ‘Keystone Species’ – without them the whole food chain would be affected, and entire ecosystems could collapse. Bats are also fantastic indicators of a wider ecosystem’s health – see the Bat Conservation Trust for more info on this.

Your book is an important asset to keeping the conversation going on protecting environments to a new generation. Do you hope that just like Amara’s mother and teacher helped her on a path to effective change, parents and teachers who read this book will find inspiration to help concerned children?

I absolutely hope so! There are so many ways people can get involved at the back of the book inspired by Amara’s journey, and I truly hope that this inspires kids, families, teachers and bat fans of all ages to get involved and see and protect bats in the wild J

You can find out more about Amara and the Bats here, and learn more about Bren’s book Across the Risen Sea here.

Good guys and bad guys: a writer’s perspective by Chris Beckett

The original prototype for my novel America City was a short story I wrote in 2012 about an American politician called Stephen Slaymaker.  I wanted to write about global warming, and the context of the story was an America in about a hundred years’ time, that was already almost completely closed off to climate refugees from other parts of the world, but was facing new stresses as a result of mass internal migrations caused by climate change: Hundreds of thousands of people from south-eastern and south-western parts of America were moving north to escape from flooding, fires, hurricanes and droughts.  And northerners were beginning to feel threatened by them and therefore to ‘other’ them, in the way that migrants from overseas are othered now.  Just as in the past, farmers fleeing from the dustbowl were derided as Okies, these new migrants were called ‘dusties’ or ‘storm trash’, and northern states were beginning to talk about building frontiers to keep them out.

The term ‘Storm trash’ was inspired by my reading of a couple of books about refugees from Hurricane Katrina: a real-life example of American refugees from an extreme weather event being briefly welcomed as fellow Americans in other parts of the country but then very quickly becoming the objects of resentment and hostility.  A detail that stuck in my mind was a mother from New Orleans who said her children were ostracised at school in Texas because, as she put it, they ‘came from the storm’.   

They came from the storm.  I felt this was a foretaste of things to come. Some people from New Orleans, made homeless by the hurricane and trying to leave, were stopped at gunpoint from entering neighbouring communities.  

My character Slaymaker was not a bad man by his own lights, but his sense of moral responsibility ended at the borders of his own country.  Later on, when I eventually wrote the novel, I’d compare him to the king described at the beginning of Beowulf, King Scyld, of whom the poet says ‘that was a good king’ because he is a ‘wrecker of mead-benches’, and a ‘ring giver’ who looks after those who are loyal to him. 

A ‘ring giver’.  I’ve thought a lot about that notion and I explore it in the book. I’ve concluded that all political leaders are, of necessity, ring givers.  And even now, it seems to me, it tends to be the case that the flip side of being a ring giver to one bunch of people is being a wrecker of someone else’s mead halls.

Slaymaker had no interest in opening the country’s external borders, but he was a patriot and he hated the idea of America itself being divided.  He wanted to become President in order to bind the country together again, north and south. 

* * *

As I say, I wrote the short story in 2012, but I realised —as probably seems obvious— that this wasn’t really a short story at all but rather the setup of a novel. 

So I began to plan a book.  In my plan I introduced, as the main viewpoint character, a bright, ambitious young British publicist named Holly Peacock, who has the idea of  winning the Presidency for Slaymaker by getting him to turn the focus of American people’s fear and resentment onto a neighbouring country instead of onto each other.  Holly also sees herself as a good person, and she defends the morality of what she does throughout the book.  Having grown up with impeccably right-on activist parents who seemed to care about everyone in the world but her, she’s drawn to the simplicity of Slaymaker’s Beowulf-style morality, which is based above all else on loyalty to your own.  

I say a Beowulf-style morality, but I suppose you could equally well call it a Homeric morality, or even an Old Testament one: a good king is a strong king who looks after his own people and defeats their enemies.  Nowadays, we could also call it right-wing. 

But then we use the words left wing and right wing to mean many different things. 

* * *

Anyway, I decided to write this novel about President Slaymaker but I didn’t pursue the idea for quite a while because I was working on other things.  It wasn’t really until four years later that I settled down in earnest to write it. 

So there I was, in 2016, writing this book I’d been planning about an American presidential election being won by appealing to atavistic tribal loyalty and hostility towards a demonised ‘other’.  And meanwhile, out there in the real world… 

No one ever thinks about the problems all this rapid change is causing for writers of speculative fiction! Sitting there at my laptop, writing America City, it sometimes felt to me as if reality was overtaking me. 

Of course I used this turn of events to my advantage, borrowing ideas for the novel from the real election as it unfolded, and from what had happened in Britain earlier that year.  I plagiarised reality.  But there were times too when reality seemed to be plagiarising me.  For instance, I came with the idea of AIs that collected data about individuals from their phones (which by that point in the future are routinely monitoring things like heartrate in order to understand the current mood of their owner).  These AIs worked out what mattered to each individual and what they wanted to hear, then tailored bespoke electoral messages accordingly, with no regard for factual accuracy, using fake social media accounts that posed as regular human beings in order to deliver them.  I called these fake social media accounts ‘feeders’, because when I invented them —and I kid you not— I had not yet heard the word ‘bot’. 

I’m not in any way technical, but one thing I’ve learnt as a writer about the future is that if you think about something that could plausibly happen then very likely it will exist, and quite probably already does.

Incidentally, though I do say it myself, my Stephen Slaymaker was a way more plausible and better-drawn character than Donald Trump.  If I’d come up with someone like Trump back in 2012, I’d have dismissed him as a lazy one-dimensional stereotype, told myself to try harder, and started again.  I still haven’t quite come to terms with reality’s sloppy workmanship there.

You may be wondering, if you haven’t read the book, which other country Slaymaker makes an enemy of?  Well, I’ll just say that one thing that’s going to become highly desirable as the world heats up is empty Arctic territory.   You may remember that earlier this year —and very spookily from my point of view— PresidentTrump tried to buy Greenland from Denmark.

I’ll make you a prophesy: Greenland will belong to America one day.  (If it happens you’ll be impressed by my prescience at least.  If it doesn’t, you’ll forget I said it.)  But, though Greenland is as big as Mexico, it’s very small beer compared with the Arctic territories to its west.

*  *  *

Let me tell you something about my personal approach to writing about the politics of the present time.  And I’d like to start with some thoughts from someone I admire. 

Natascha Kampusch is an Austrian woman, now in her thirties, and her claim to fame is that she was kidnapped at the age of 10 in 1998 by a man named Wolfgang Priklopil who bundled her into his van when she was walking to school and then kept her captive for the next eight years.  For the first six months she was entirely confined to a tiny underground room.  At weekends, when Priklopil had his mother to stay, ten-year-old Kampsuch was down there alone for three days at a stretch.  One of her great fears was that he would have a road accident and never return for her.

Gradually, Priklopil began letting her out for limited periods, making her work for him, and even taking her on trips outside the house.  He kitted out her dungeon like a schoolgirl’s bedroom, with desk, a bunk bed, a computer, and even fetched her books and magazines at her request.  But he also became increasingly violent towards her, lashing out at her without warning with his fists and with hard objects.  He shaved her head. He kept her chronically weak with hunger.  He forbade her from talking about her family.  He abused her sexually. 

Yet Kampusch to this day refuses to view Priklopil simply as a monster.  This refusal led to her being subjected to abuse and hate mail in Austria, but she remained absolutely firm on it.  In particular she angrily rejects the idea that her refusal to see Priklopil as evil is a symptom of the Stockholm Syndrome, a label which, she says, victimises her all over again.

Naturally, when reading her book about her ordeal, one identifies with Kampusch.  And that’s a very disturbing experience: my relief when she finally escaped was so overwhelmingly cathartic that I often replay it in my mind even now, years after reading the book.  But of course it’s much more challenging to do as she asks and consider Priklopil not as something utterly ‘other’, but as a human being who is on the same continuum as the rest of us.  Priklopil, as Kampusch sees it,

…didn’t want anything more than anyone else: love, approval, warmth.  He wanted somebody for whom he himself was the most important person in the world.  He didn’t seem to see other way to achieve that than to abduct a shy, ten-year-old girl and cut her off from the outside world until she was psychologically so alienated that he could ‘create’ her anew.

Natascha Kampusch, 3,096 Days.

This idea that Priklopil was human like everyone else was too much for the many people who saw fit to direct hate mail at a woman who’d spent half her childhood in solitary confinement.  Presumably they just couldn’t bear the thought that what was inside him was inside them also.  (Yet their own behaviour demonstrated this to be true of course.  What strangers we are to ourselves!)

Anyway, my thought is that, if Kampusch can manage to think about her captor and abuser as a fellow human being, I really ought to be willing to do likewise about people who actually aren’t locking me up, or beating me, but whose politics I hate.  In fact I think I see that as part of my task as a novelist: to try not to ‘other’ people but instead to understand why they think and feel as they do, both from the inside, as subjects, but also in terms of the external forces to which they’ve been subjected and which have shaped them.  

This is not to ‘excuse’ bad behaviour —seeing Priklopil as human, motivated by the same desires and fears as the rest of us, doesn’t mean it was okay to turn a child into his personal slave, or that it was anything other than an utterly vile thing to do— but, unlike those upright citizens who wrote hate mail to Natascha Kampusch, for daring to suggest that Priklopil was anything like them,  I don’t want to pretend that I can see no trace of Priklopil inside my own head.

I agree with Solzhenitzyn that ‘the line between good and evil passes through every human heart.’  Whatever a hundred million outraged voices on Twitter might have you believe, it doesn’t run neatly between us and them.

*  *  *

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the fact that most human beings think of themselves as the ‘good guys’.  I suppose there are a few people in the world who actually enjoy the idea of being bad, but my guess is that even murderers and torturers usually have some sort of story they tell themselves that allows them to feel justified in what they do, like my characters Stephen Slaymaker and Holly Peacock (who by the way I actually like.)

Most of us think of ourselves as the good guys and those who threaten us as the ‘bad guys’.  I’ve seen this happening in Britain during the endless arguing over Brexit (which incidentally is the subject of my next book): this tendency to demonise the other side, to assume the worst and most unforgivable motives to them, and to attribute nothing but virtuous motives to our own side.  Psychologists call this the attribution bias: we see only the good in us and only the bad in them.

But how likely is it, actually, that we (whoever ‘we’ may be!) really are straightforwardly the good guys, given that nearly everyone thinks they’re the good guys and has some sort story to explain why it’s so?  Many years ago, I visited Belfast, and had the strange experience of passing through one neighbourhood whose inhabitants apparently all vociferously agreed that one particular view of the constitutional situation in Northern Ireland was the only one consistent with truth and justice, and then almost immediately coming to another neighbourhood whose inhabitants apparently all believed the opposite. 

I mean — what are the odds?

But of course this isn’t just a massive coincidence.  It’s not the case that all the right-thinking people have ended up in one street and all the wrong-thinking people in another, as the result of some kind of colossal cosmic fluke.  The truth is that our political views — our theological ones too for that matter—  are not just the result of individual choices we make as free agents.  People’s beliefs, opinions and loyalties are very powerfully shaped by their history, their social context and their material circumstances, even if not completely determined by them.

The Brexit map of Britain illustrates that.  Just as Belfast people know which areas are nationalist and which are unionist, and can often tell which side someone comes from when they meet them, I’m guessing most Brits have a pretty good sense of which areas are Leave and which Remain.  I don’t need to look it up, for instance, to know that the fairly working-class Essex town of Harlow would have voted Leave, or that the attractive seaside city of Brighton will have voted Remain.  On one level it seems surprising that Dover voted Leave, given that it’s the most famous of our gateways to Europe, but on another level, I don’t find it surprising at all because I’ve been there, and I know it’s a Leave town just by looking at it.  Regardless of economic self-interest, there is something about a place like Dover that tends to make you Leavier.

As a matter of fact, Cambridge, where I live, is the Remainiest city in the entire UK. A wealthy, rapidly growing, university city with London-style property prices and booming IT and biotechnology industries, Cambridge was 75% remain.  But in the same county, and only an hour or so’s drive away, is the rural, dauntingly flat, and considerably less prosperous area called Fenland where the vote was 71% leave.  It just makes no sense to see these obviously demographic differences as purely individual choices.

So I don’t have much patience with those whose account of Brexit (or Trump) is just ‘some bad people did it.’  What kind of explanation is that?   Certainly, there are some pretty unimpressive people involved, but how did they manage to get purchase on our politics?  How did they manage to persuade people that they had their back?  Those are the interesting questions.

*  *  *

One of the things I did when writing America City was to include some vignettes of ordinary people—people involved in the great internal migration— and I tried to show how the sympathies of these internal refugees, and their failures of sympathy, are shaped by their own needs and circumstances, and change as those circumstances change.  (It’s a technique I used in an earlier book Mother of Eden, in which among other things, I tried to explain to myself why poor people often give their support to people who you’d think they’d see as their exploiters.)

It seems to me that, if you feel you need something that someone else has got, you find a way of justifying the act of taking it from them — and if that means refusing to see things from their point of view, so be it.  And if you’ve got something that other people need —and let’s face it, the money that each one of us in this room spends each year on non-essential comforts could meet an awful lot of basic human need— you find ways of justifying hanging onto it, even if that means hardening your heart.  That’s only human —in fact I think it’s quite possible that this kind of manoeuvre is an inevitable part of being in the world— but we need to acknowledge it in ourselves before we rush to judgement about the lack of generosity of others. 

Otherwise attribution bias does its work, and moral principles become tools, not for making ourselves into better human beings, but for proving how much better we already are than those other people.

*  *  *

So.  Holding up a mirror to the age of Trump, and to all the other huge upheavals that are beginning to take place in the Euro-American world as its old hegemony starts to crumble.  How do we do it?

I really hope we don’t see a lot of novels about the travails of comfortably off middle-class people whose lives have been made a little less comfortable by having to hear about Trump’s doings.  I am tired of people of my own class (the delicado class, as people call it in America City) acting like they’re the victims here. 

It is important that the real victims’ experiences are brought into the light —for instance the callous treatment of migrant children separated from their parents— but we still need to be careful not to choose atrocities selectively and self-servingly, to maintain a simplistic fairy tale about good guys and bad guys.  Immigrant children weren’t necessarily treated particularly well under Obama either, however much more charming his manners were, and however much more he resembled the kind of president we would like to be.  In fact immigration controls are always ugly, but the most liberal of countries still have them and there’s very little appetite, even among liberal-minded folk, for their complete abolition.  (I wouldn’t advocate that myself. Would you?)

One kind of novel about the rise of Trump would, I think, be one that looked under the skins of Trump voters.  I know it’s hard and perhaps some people here will think that they don’t even deserve to be understood.  But I think that’s looking at ‘understanding’ in completely the wrong way.  We shouldn’t think of understanding as some kind of reward to be given out only to people we like, or people we feel sorry for.  Natascha Kampusch needed to understand her kidnapper as a human being, not as a kindness to him, but in order to survive 8 years in which he was her only companion and the nearest thing she had to a friend— and also in order to be able to escape.     

In the following short extract from America City, I am writing speculatively about future events.  (I know that in many ways that’s much easier to do than writing about now, but I like to think that, in my own way, I am really writing about now.)  What I am specifically trying to do in this passage is to show how something as mundane and material as precipitation patterns in the mountains of California can have consequences not just for human behaviour but for the cast of human minds. And what I want to suggest to you is that what literature in the age of Trump needs to do is to illuminate the similar chains of consequences which lead in a series of steps from events in the material world —it might, for instance, be something like a reduction in global demand for American-made steel, or the invention of the internet— to changes in things like the human capacity for tolerance and empathy.

The snow used to settle up there on the Sierras, many metres deep in places, and it would form drifts and glaciers whose meltwaters flowed all summer long down into the Central Valley and into the states to the east. Some of that snow was so deep that it lasted years. But now what snow still falls will all melt off in the spring, stripping bare the rocky peaks before summer has even reached its height. And rain just runs straight off, evaporating all the while back into the air.

 It’s no big thing as far as the planet is concerned. The mountains themselves are still the same huge shapes against the sky. Earth still follows the same old track round the sun. But living things depend on small contingencies. On the slopes of the Sierra Nevada, and down in the valleys, there are plants and animals that depend on streams flowing for such-and-such a time, farmers who depend on meltwater to irrigate their crops, towns that depend on water tables being replenished every year. There has only been a small change in the air, and only a small change in the way that water comes down the mountains, but an entire web of consequences are flowing out from it.

Trees die. Animals starve, or climb higher up the mountains, or wander north. And in the human world, farmers dig deeper wells, invest in costly water-saving devices, experiment with expensively engineered low-water crops, until a time comes when they can no longer borrow the money or no longer service their debts. And then they abandon everything and follow the animals north, becoming another stream, a human stream that branches and divides across America, a river of people with no money and no home, leaving crumbling buildings and rusting machinery and empty fields.

People in the north watch their arrival with suspicion and hostility. It’s dangerous to feel sorry for them, for that might mean feeling an obligation to help them, and to give up some part of the comfort blanket that everyone wraps around themselves against the frightening world. And isn’t that blanket always threadbare? Doesn’t it already feel too thin?  Yes, and if you were to look those new arrivals in the face and really acknowledge them for what they are, wouldn’t you also have to face the thing that follows behind them, the thing that has driven them north, the thing that everyone knows is moving north itself, coming closer and closer with every year?  And who in their right mind would want to do that?

You can find out more about America City here.

Chris Beckett is a former social worker and now university lecturer who lives in Cambridge. In 2009 he won the Edge Hill Short Story competition for his collection of stories, The Turing Test.

The original prototype for my novel America City was a short story I wrote in 2012 about an American politician called Stephen Slaymaker.  I wanted to write about global warming, and the context of the story was an America in about a hundred years’ time, that was already almost completely closed off to climate refugees from other parts of the world, but was facing new stresses as a result of mass internal migrations caused by climate change: Hundreds of thousands of people from south-eastern and south-western parts of America were moving north to escape from flooding, fires, hurricanes and droughts.  And northerners were beginning to feel threatened by them and therefore to ‘other’ them, in the way that migrants from overseas are othered now.  Just as in the past, farmers fleeing from the dustbowl were derided as Okies, these new migrants were called ‘dusties’ or ‘storm trash’, and northern states were beginning to talk about building frontiers to keep them out.

The term ‘Storm trash’ was inspired by my reading of a couple of books about refugees from Hurricane Katrina: a real-life example of American refugees from an extreme weather event being briefly welcomed as fellow Americans in other parts of the country but then very quickly becoming the objects of resentment and hostility.  A detail that stuck in my mind was a mother from New Orleans who said her children were ostracised at school in Texas because, as she put it, they ‘came from the storm’.   

They came from the storm.  I felt this was a foretaste of things to come. Some people from New Orleans, made homeless by the hurricane and trying to leave, were stopped at gunpoint from entering neighbouring communities.  

My character Slaymaker was not a bad man by his own lights, but his sense of moral responsibility ended at the borders of his own country.  Later on, when I eventually wrote the novel, I’d compare him to the king described at the beginning of Beowulf, King Scyld, of whom the poet says ‘that was a good king’ because he is a ‘wrecker of mead-benches’, and a ‘ring giver’ who looks after those who are loyal to him. 

A ‘ring giver’.  I’ve thought a lot about that notion and I explore it in the book. I’ve concluded that all political leaders are, of necessity, ring givers.  And even now, it seems to me, it tends to be the case that the flip side of being a ring giver to one bunch of people is being a wrecker of someone else’s mead halls.

Slaymaker had no interest in opening the country’s external borders, but he was a patriot and he hated the idea of America itself being divided.  He wanted to become President in order to bind the country together again, north and south. 

* * *

As I say, I wrote the short story in 2012, but I realised —as probably seems obvious— that this wasn’t really a short story at all but rather the setup of a novel. 

So I began to plan a book.  In my plan I introduced, as the main viewpoint character, a bright, ambitious young British publicist named Holly Peacock, who has the idea of  winning the Presidency for Slaymaker by getting him to turn the focus of American people’s fear and resentment onto a neighbouring country instead of onto each other.  Holly also sees herself as a good person, and she defends the morality of what she does throughout the book.  Having grown up with impeccably right-on activist parents who seemed to care about everyone in the world but her, she’s drawn to the simplicity of Slaymaker’s Beowulf-style morality, which is based above all else on loyalty to your own.  

I say a Beowulf-style morality, but I suppose you could equally well call it a Homeric morality, or even an Old Testament one: a good king is a strong king who looks after his own people and defeats their enemies.  Nowadays, we could also call it right-wing. 

But then we use the words left wing and right wing to mean many different things. 

* * *

Anyway, I decided to write this novel about President Slaymaker but I didn’t pursue the idea for quite a while because I was working on other things.  It wasn’t really until four years later that I settled down in earnest to write it. 

So there I was, in 2016, writing this book I’d been planning about an American presidential election being won by appealing to atavistic tribal loyalty and hostility towards a demonised ‘other’.  And meanwhile, out there in the real world… 

No one ever thinks about the problems all this rapid change is causing for writers of speculative fiction! Sitting there at my laptop, writing America City, it sometimes felt to me as if reality was overtaking me. 

Of course I used this turn of events to my advantage, borrowing ideas for the novel from the real election as it unfolded, and from what had happened in Britain earlier that year.  I plagiarised reality.  But there were times too when reality seemed to be plagiarising me.  For instance, I came with the idea of AIs that collected data about individuals from their phones (which by that point in the future are routinely monitoring things like heartrate in order to understand the current mood of their owner).  These AIs worked out what mattered to each individual and what they wanted to hear, then tailored bespoke electoral messages accordingly, with no regard for factual accuracy, using fake social media accounts that posed as regular human beings in order to deliver them.  I called these fake social media accounts ‘feeders’, because when I invented them —and I kid you not— I had not yet heard the word ‘bot’. 

I’m not in any way technical, but one thing I’ve learnt as a writer about the future is that if you think about something that could plausibly happen then very likely it will exist, and quite probably already does.

Incidentally, though I do say it myself, my Stephen Slaymaker was a way more plausible and better-drawn character than Donald Trump.  If I’d come up with someone like Trump back in 2012, I’d have dismissed him as a lazy one-dimensional stereotype, told myself to try harder, and started again.  I still haven’t quite come to terms with reality’s sloppy workmanship there.

You may be wondering, if you haven’t read the book, which other country Slaymaker makes an enemy of?  Well, I’ll just say that one thing that’s going to become highly desirable as the world heats up is empty Arctic territory.   You may remember that earlier this year —and very spookily from my point of view— PresidentTrump tried to buy Greenland from Denmark.

I’ll make you a prophesy: Greenland will belong to America one day.  (If it happens you’ll be impressed by my prescience at least.  If it doesn’t, you’ll forget I said it.)  But, though Greenland is as big as Mexico, it’s very small beer compared with the Arctic territories to its west.

*  *  *

Let me tell you something about my personal approach to writing about the politics of the present time.  And I’d like to start with some thoughts from someone I admire. 

Natascha Kampusch is an Austrian woman, now in her thirties, and her claim to fame is that she was kidnapped at the age of 10 in 1998 by a man named Wolfgang Priklopil who bundled her into his van when she was walking to school and then kept her captive for the next eight years.  For the first six months she was entirely confined to a tiny underground room.  At weekends, when Priklopil had his mother to stay, ten-year-old Kampsuch was down there alone for three days at a stretch.  One of her great fears was that he would have a road accident and never return for her.

Gradually, Priklopil began letting her out for limited periods, making her work for him, and even taking her on trips outside the house.  He kitted out her dungeon like a schoolgirl’s bedroom, with desk, a bunk bed, a computer, and even fetched her books and magazines at her request.  But he also became increasingly violent towards her, lashing out at her without warning with his fists and with hard objects.  He shaved her head. He kept her chronically weak with hunger.  He forbade her from talking about her family.  He abused her sexually. 

Yet Kampusch to this day refuses to view Priklopil simply as a monster.  This refusal led to her being subjected to abuse and hate mail in Austria, but she remained absolutely firm on it.  In particular she angrily rejects the idea that her refusal to see Priklopil as evil is a symptom of the Stockholm Syndrome, a label which, she says, victimises her all over again.

Naturally, when reading her book about her ordeal, one identifies with Kampusch.  And that’s a very disturbing experience: my relief when she finally escaped was so overwhelmingly cathartic that I often replay it in my mind even now, years after reading the book.  But of course it’s much more challenging to do as she asks and consider Priklopil not as something utterly ‘other’, but as a human being who is on the same continuum as the rest of us.  Priklopil, as Kampusch sees it,

…didn’t want anything more than anyone else: love, approval, warmth.  He wanted somebody for whom he himself was the most important person in the world.  He didn’t seem to see other way to achieve that than to abduct a shy, ten-year-old girl and cut her off from the outside world until she was psychologically so alienated that he could ‘create’ her anew.

Natascha Kampusch, 3,096 Days.

This idea that Priklopil was human like everyone else was too much for the many people who saw fit to direct hate mail at a woman who’d spent half her childhood in solitary confinement.  Presumably they just couldn’t bear the thought that what was inside him was inside them also.  (Yet their own behaviour demonstrated this to be true of course.  What strangers we are to ourselves!)

Anyway, my thought is that, if Kampusch can manage to think about her captor and abuser as a fellow human being, I really ought to be willing to do likewise about people who actually aren’t locking me up, or beating me, but whose politics I hate.  In fact I think I see that as part of my task as a novelist: to try not to ‘other’ people but instead to understand why they think and feel as they do, both from the inside, as subjects, but also in terms of the external forces to which they’ve been subjected and which have shaped them.  

This is not to ‘excuse’ bad behaviour —seeing Priklopil as human, motivated by the same desires and fears as the rest of us, doesn’t mean it was okay to turn a child into his personal slave, or that it was anything other than an utterly vile thing to do— but, unlike those upright citizens who wrote hate mail to Natascha Kampusch, for daring to suggest that Priklopil was anything like them,  I don’t want to pretend that I can see no trace of Priklopil inside my own head.

I agree with Solzhenitzyn that ‘the line between good and evil passes through every human heart.’  Whatever a hundred million outraged voices on Twitter might have you believe, it doesn’t run neatly between us and them.

*  *  *

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the fact that most human beings think of themselves as the ‘good guys’.  I suppose there are a few people in the world who actually enjoy the idea of being bad, but my guess is that even murderers and torturers usually have some sort of story they tell themselves that allows them to feel justified in what they do, like my characters Stephen Slaymaker and Holly Peacock (who by the way I actually like.)

Most of us think of ourselves as the good guys and those who threaten us as the ‘bad guys’.  I’ve seen this happening in Britain during the endless arguing over Brexit (which incidentally is the subject of my next book): this tendency to demonise the other side, to assume the worst and most unforgivable motives to them, and to attribute nothing but virtuous motives to our own side.  Psychologists call this the attribution bias: we see only the good in us and only the bad in them.

But how likely is it, actually, that we (whoever ‘we’ may be!) really are straightforwardly the good guys, given that nearly everyone thinks they’re the good guys and has some sort story to explain why it’s so?  Many years ago, I visited Belfast, and had the strange experience of passing through one neighbourhood whose inhabitants apparently all vociferously agreed that one particular view of the constitutional situation in Northern Ireland was the only one consistent with truth and justice, and then almost immediately coming to another neighbourhood whose inhabitants apparently all believed the opposite. 

I mean — what are the odds?

But of course this isn’t just a massive coincidence.  It’s not the case that all the right-thinking people have ended up in one street and all the wrong-thinking people in another, as the result of some kind of colossal cosmic fluke.  The truth is that our political views — our theological ones too for that matter—  are not just the result of individual choices we make as free agents.  People’s beliefs, opinions and loyalties are very powerfully shaped by their history, their social context and their material circumstances, even if not completely determined by them.

The Brexit map of Britain illustrates that.  Just as Belfast people know which areas are nationalist and which are unionist, and can often tell which side someone comes from when they meet them, I’m guessing most Brits have a pretty good sense of which areas are Leave and which Remain.  I don’t need to look it up, for instance, to know that the fairly working-class Essex town of Harlow would have voted Leave, or that the attractive seaside city of Brighton will have voted Remain.  On one level it seems surprising that Dover voted Leave, given that it’s the most famous of our gateways to Europe, but on another level, I don’t find it surprising at all because I’ve been there, and I know it’s a Leave town just by looking at it.  Regardless of economic self-interest, there is something about a place like Dover that tends to make you Leavier.

As a matter of fact, Cambridge, where I live, is the Remainiest city in the entire UK. A wealthy, rapidly growing, university city with London-style property prices and booming IT and biotechnology industries, Cambridge was 75% remain.  But in the same county, and only an hour or so’s drive away, is the rural, dauntingly flat, and considerably less prosperous area called Fenland where the vote was 71% leave.  It just makes no sense to see these obviously demographic differences as purely individual choices.

So I don’t have much patience with those whose account of Brexit (or Trump) is just ‘some bad people did it.’  What kind of explanation is that?   Certainly, there are some pretty unimpressive people involved, but how did they manage to get purchase on our politics?  How did they manage to persuade people that they had their back?  Those are the interesting questions.

*  *  *

One of the things I did when writing America City was to include some vignettes of ordinary people—people involved in the great internal migration— and I tried to show how the sympathies of these internal refugees, and their failures of sympathy, are shaped by their own needs and circumstances, and change as those circumstances change.  (It’s a technique I used in an earlier book Mother of Eden, in which among other things, I tried to explain to myself why poor people often give their support to people who you’d think they’d see as their exploiters.)

It seems to me that, if you feel you need something that someone else has got, you find a way of justifying the act of taking it from them — and if that means refusing to see things from their point of view, so be it.  And if you’ve got something that other people need —and let’s face it, the money that each one of us in this room spends each year on non-essential comforts could meet an awful lot of basic human need— you find ways of justifying hanging onto it, even if that means hardening your heart.  That’s only human —in fact I think it’s quite possible that this kind of manoeuvre is an inevitable part of being in the world— but we need to acknowledge it in ourselves before we rush to judgement about the lack of generosity of others. 

Otherwise attribution bias does its work, and moral principles become tools, not for making ourselves into better human beings, but for proving how much better we already are than those other people.

*  *  *

So.  Holding up a mirror to the age of Trump, and to all the other huge upheavals that are beginning to take place in the Euro-American world as its old hegemony starts to crumble.  How do we do it?

I really hope we don’t see a lot of novels about the travails of comfortably off middle-class people whose lives have been made a little less comfortable by having to hear about Trump’s doings.  I am tired of people of my own class (the delicado class, as people call it in America City) acting like they’re the victims here. 

It is important that the real victims’ experiences are brought into the light —for instance the callous treatment of migrant children separated from their parents— but we still need to be careful not to choose atrocities selectively and self-servingly, to maintain a simplistic fairy tale about good guys and bad guys.  Immigrant children weren’t necessarily treated particularly well under Obama either, however much more charming his manners were, and however much more he resembled the kind of president we would like to be.  In fact immigration controls are always ugly, but the most liberal of countries still have them and there’s very little appetite, even among liberal-minded folk, for their complete abolition.  (I wouldn’t advocate that myself. Would you?)

One kind of novel about the rise of Trump would, I think, be one that looked under the skins of Trump voters.  I know it’s hard and perhaps some people here will think that they don’t even deserve to be understood.  But I think that’s looking at ‘understanding’ in completely the wrong way.  We shouldn’t think of understanding as some kind of reward to be given out only to people we like, or people we feel sorry for.  Natascha Kampusch needed to understand her kidnapper as a human being, not as a kindness to him, but in order to survive 8 years in which he was her only companion and the nearest thing she had to a friend— and also in order to be able to escape.     

In the following short extract from America City, I am writing speculatively about future events.  (I know that in many ways that’s much easier to do than writing about now, but I like to think that, in my own way, I am really writing about now.)  What I am specifically trying to do in this passage is to show how something as mundane and material as precipitation patterns in the mountains of California can have consequences not just for human behaviour but for the cast of human minds. And what I want to suggest to you is that what literature in the age of Trump needs to do is to illuminate the similar chains of consequences which lead in a series of steps from events in the material world —it might, for instance, be something like a reduction in global demand for American-made steel, or the invention of the internet— to changes in things like the human capacity for tolerance and empathy.

The snow used to settle up there on the Sierras, many metres deep in places, and it would form drifts and glaciers whose meltwaters flowed all summer long down into the Central Valley and into the states to the east. Some of that snow was so deep that it lasted years. But now what snow still falls will all melt off in the spring, stripping bare the rocky peaks before summer has even reached its height. And rain just runs straight off, evaporating all the while back into the air.

 It’s no big thing as far as the planet is concerned. The mountains themselves are still the same huge shapes against the sky. Earth still follows the same old track round the sun. But living things depend on small contingencies. On the slopes of the Sierra Nevada, and down in the valleys, there are plants and animals that depend on streams flowing for such-and-such a time, farmers who depend on meltwater to irrigate their crops, towns that depend on water tables being replenished every year. There has only been a small change in the air, and only a small change in the way that water comes down the mountains, but an entire web of consequences are flowing out from it.

Trees die. Animals starve, or climb higher up the mountains, or wander north. And in the human world, farmers dig deeper wells, invest in costly water-saving devices, experiment with expensively engineered low-water crops, until a time comes when they can no longer borrow the money or no longer service their debts. And then they abandon everything and follow the animals north, becoming another stream, a human stream that branches and divides across America, a river of people with no money and no home, leaving crumbling buildings and rusting machinery and empty fields.

People in the north watch their arrival with suspicion and hostility. It’s dangerous to feel sorry for them, for that might mean feeling an obligation to help them, and to give up some part of the comfort blanket that everyone wraps around themselves against the frightening world. And isn’t that blanket always threadbare? Doesn’t it already feel too thin?  Yes, and if you were to look those new arrivals in the face and really acknowledge them for what they are, wouldn’t you also have to face the thing that follows behind them, the thing that has driven them north, the thing that everyone knows is moving north itself, coming closer and closer with every year?  And who in their right mind would want to do that?

You can find out more about America City here.

Chris Beckett is a former social worker and now university lecturer who lives in Cambridge. In 2009 he won the Edge Hill Short Story competition for his collection of stories, The Turing Test.


Climate Change News

The Unequal Distribution of Covid Vaccines Is a Preview of the Coming Climate Apartheid [New Republic]

How are our cities going to look in a rapidly heating world? It won’t be long before 50C will be normal by League member James Bradley [The Guardian]

Can fiction fight climate change? [Race to Zero]

Event: Looking after our Planet with Emma Shevah & Marc ter Horst [Reading is Magic Festival]

Future weather forecast for the year 2050 [Met Office]

John Lacey talks about Hope Jones

Give me Hope, Jones.

Bijal Vachharajani talks to Josh Lacey about his Hope Jones Middle Grade series.

When I was studying climate change in Costa Rica, one of the things that stuck with me amidst all the doom and gloom we knew to expect, was that hope is what keeps the world spinning. Because without hope, how do we go on in a world that’s seeing relentless heat waves, unpredictable weather conditions, and making us all crankier? After all it is that feeling which drives human beings to find solutions, to dream big, and to aspire for change (not the climate kind).

It’s something that as an eternal climate worrier, I underscore my books with. My middle grade novel, A Cloud Called Bhura: Climate Champions to the Rescue, is about a group of teenagers who take on a brown (Bhura is brown in Hindi) cloud of pollution that has taken over their city and they do it with so much panache and grit. My non-fiction book, So You Want to Know About the Environment offers tangible actions for young readers, and to my utter surprise, many have actually filled pages and pages of the book. These books are based on my work with children, and I always come back with the feeling that they care, and in a very intense way that demands attention from us groan-ups.

Which is why I was thrilled when Josh Lacey’s Hope Jones Clears the Air came my way, right after reading Hope Jones Will Not Eat Meat. Illustrated by Beatrice Castro, the middle grade book is part of a series where the eponymous ten-year-old announces that she is going to save the world (That is also the name of the first book in the series, Hope Jones Saves the World). And she does in her own kickass way. Hope Jones is pretty much the sum of all the young people and children out there who are advocating for a cleaner future, who are refusing to settle for a status quo, and who are taking small and big steps to combat the climate crisis. I caught up with the author over email, and found out more about this cool Hope Jones who gives us all reason to believe in a better future.

So how did the Hope Jones series start? And of course, the story behind the name. 

I had been trying to write a book about climate change for some time, but my efforts weren’t succeeding. Eventually I realised the problem: I was writing about my own feelings, which are mostly pessimistic, and so my drafts were too depressing, especially for children, my intended audience. And then, somehow, a girl strode into the story, and grabbed it, and demanded to tell it herself. I started writing again, this time in the first person. The girl announced her name was Hope, and her character followed from her name: she was forward-looking, passionate, determined, and full of optimism.  

That explains the character’s first name. I think her second name comes from two very strong fictional characters, Indiana Jones and Halo Jones, no relation to one another, let alone Hope Jones. (If you haven’t come across Halo Jones, she’s the protagonist of a brilliant comic strip originally published in 2000AD. Highly recommended.) 

‘You couldn’t possibly stop pollution,’ Mum said. ‘It’s everywhere!’ ‘I can try,’ I said. – to me this was such a great example of some of the underlying stories in your books – that no one is too small to make a difference, that no one is just ordinary when it comes to the environment, and that doing something is better than nothing. Tell us more! 

I think you’ve summed it up perfectly! I don’t know what else to say, really. I suppose my books always put the child at the centre of the story, whether that’s defeating a tyrannical ruler (A Dog Called Grk) or dealing with a mischievous pet (The Dragonsitter). When writing about climate change, I wanted to describe how children can make a difference in very ordinary and everyday ways: using a bike rather than a car, for instance, or boycotting plastic. 

What made you decide to use the blog-illustration-list-letters format for this book?

Having written the Dragonsitter books in emails, I knew that I wanted to use something similar: a first-person format, which allowed me to use a child’s voice to tell the story. A blog had the additional benefit of suiting the subject matter perfectly, because Hope has a message which she wants to tell us.

What I love about your books is the threading of facts with fiction. What is the kind of research you do when writing this series, is it hard blending facts with fiction? 

Thank you! When I wrote these books, I spent a lot of time on research, mostly reading books and articles, and chatting to people. I did find it very difficult to merge factual information with the demands of a narrative. It was also hard to put facts and figures into the blog in Hope’s voice, rather than my own. The format certainly helped a lot, because I could use tables, pie charts, spreadsheets, etc., which was fun. 

How did you zone into the topics for your books – plastic, meat and now pollution? 

They’re issues that I care about myself, and areas of our lives that we can all change, however young (or old) we might be. We can all decide to have a jacket potato rather than a beef burger, or choose not to use an extra plastic bag. Children may not have the power to make many of the decisions in their own lives, but they can have a strong and important impact on their parents’ decisions through discussion and argument. 

Could you share some reader reactions with us? Both children and adults. 

I haven’t had much chance to meet the readers of these books, because they’ve been published during lockdown. However, I have had some nice emails from readers. I’ve also been really delighted that lots of teachers have been in touch to say that they’ll be using the Hope Jones books as class readers, because they fit very well with topics that children are covering in schools at the moment. 

From fantasy worlds to really real world problems, tell us about this journey in your writing. 

Actually, I’ve always written stories which are set in the everyday world, although some of them have had some more fantastical or unusual elements. My first children’s book, A Dog Called Grk, was about a very ordinary boy who finds a dog in the street, and the adventures that follow. That story had political themes: the antagonist is a dictator who punishes dissent and locks up his enemies, including the dog’s owners. Other books in the Grk series touched on climate change and environmental activism. 

Has your writing brought about green changes in your life as well? Are you active like Hope Jones in climate activism? 

I have certainly changed my own behaviour because of my research and writing, yes, although I’m ashamed to admit that I am much less active than Hope. I have been on marches and written letters to my MP, but I haven’t transformed my life with anything like her passion and determination. 

What do you hope to see more of in climate fiction in children’s literature?

At the moment, there’s an amazing number of good children’s books with environmental themes, both fiction and non-fiction. It’s the adults who really need some schooling now.  

Is hopejonessavestheworld@gmail.com active, do you get mails on it?

I liked the idea of using a real email address, so yes, I have set this up, and I do check it often. I thought I might get one or two people writing to me, but I’ve actually been surprised by the number of messages. When I reply, I always make it clear that I’m writing as myself rather than Hope, because I would feel awkward impersonating her. 

Tell us about working with Beatriz Castro. 

Unfortunately, I haven’t actually met her (she lives in Spain and I live in the UK) and all our interactions have gone through the designer and editor at Andersen. But I’ve really enjoyed seeing her interpretations of my characters, and she’s brought her own vision and ideas to the story, which has been wonderful. I’m especially delighted by her illustrations for the third book, when Hope makes a trip to Amsterdam, and Beatriz has done some lovely drawings of that beautiful city with its bicycles, canals, and Van Goghs.   

Hope Jones isn’t going to stop here. What do we hope she will tackle next?

Ah, that’s a very good question, and I wish I knew the answer. 

You can find out more about the Hope Jones series here.

Josh Lacey is the author of many children’s books, including A Dog Called Grk and The Dragonsitter.

When Bijal Vachharajani is not reading a children’s book, she is writing or editing one. She has written A Cloud Called Bhura: Climate Champions to the Rescue, which won the Auther Children’s Book Award 2020, and So You Want to Know About the Environment, and has co-authored 10 Indian Champions Who Are Fighting to Save the Planet and The Great Indian Nature Trail with Uncle Bikky. Her picture books include P.S. What’s up with the climate?, What’s Neema Eating Today? and The Seed Savers. The former editor of Time Out Bengaluru, Bijal has worked with 350.org, Fairtrade and Sanctuary Asia. Senior Editor at Pratham Books, Bijal has a Masters in Environment Security and Peace, with a specialisation in climate change from the University for Peace.

The Arctic on Fire: A Nordic Perspective on Climate Fiction by Emmi Itäranta

As I am writing this in the early days of July 2021, Kevo weather station at the northernmost tip of Finland has just registered the second-hottest ever temperature measured in Finnish Lapland since records began, and the hottest in over a century. Sweden and Norway have (once again) seen some record-brushing temperatures for June; news coverage of devastating heat waves in the Pacific Northwest in the US and across Canada has been streaming onto our screens for weeks.

Meanwhile, the Finnish Meteorological Institute is forecasting a severe draught, unusual for the time of year.

Back in 2008 when I began working on my first novel Memory of Water, set in a dystopian future in Finnish Lapland, I played such imaginary scenarios in my head, wondering how far I could go with the world-building. Would readers find it too hard to believe in Arctic winters without snow or ice? Would it seem too far-fetched to portray water shortages in Finland, known for its lakes and freshwater resources? Would a sea level rise of 50 to 60 metres sound too extreme a scenario?

Turns out I need not have worried – not about the world-building, anyway, but rather about life imitating art.

Thirteen years on, it is now long established that the Arctic region is warming two to three times faster on average than the rest of the world. The impacts of this are far-reaching. According to current estimates, Arctic Ocean may be entirely free of ice during summer by 2050, a scenario which as recently as fifteen years ago would have seemed an exaggeration. Forest fires have become more prevalent; wildlife is suffering on the level of entire vast ecosystems; the traditional livelihoods of indigenous peoples, such as the Sámi people in the Nordic countries, are under further threat after having already been compromised for centuries due to colonial practices.

It is not surprising, then, that climate change has found its way into Nordic literature. Like in the Anglo-American cultural sphere, speculative genres have been exploring environmental themes for decades, but climate fiction has only made something of a breakthrough into the mainstream in the past ten years.

As early as the 1970s, Norwegian author Knut Faldbakken depicted post-apocalyptic ecological scenarios in his duology Twilight Country and Sweetwater. These can be seen as predecessors to the novels of the perhaps most widely known and read Nordic climate fiction author today: Maja Lunde.

Lunde, also Norwegian, has reached worldwide success with her Climate Quartet – starting with The History of Bees. The upcoming fourth book explores environmental themes connected with human-made climate change. Her breakthrough novel, The History of Bees, focuses on Colony Collapse Disorder affecting bee populations and its impact on all other life on the planet.

Fewer readers may be aware that a Finnish writer, Johanna Sinisalo, beat Lunde to writing about Colony Collapse Disorder by a few years. Her novel The Blood of Angels, which came out in 2011, also has other parallels with Lunde’s book: both portray tensions and colliding world views between parents and children. Sinisalo chooses to use climate change as a backdrop and centre other ways in which humans manipulate and violate the environment, but the core thesis remains the same: insistence on seeing ourselves as separate from nature, rather than as part of it, is an act of self-destruction.

Sinisalo’s work can be seen as part of a continuum of a growing wave of Finnish climate fiction. To my knowledge, the earliest Finnish novel to directly use climate change as a major plot point was The Sands of Sarasvati by Risto Isomäki, first published in 2005. It depicts a group of scientists studying signs of a past flood of Biblical proportions around the world, and slowly builds up as an eco-thriller to reveal a future where the melting of the polar ice caps will inevitably cause a similar destruction.

By the 2010s, climate change had become a fairly frequent undercurrent in Finnish fiction, seen across different genres. The Healer by Antti Tuomainen is a crime story that would be at home on any Nordic noir shelf – save for the fact that instead of the present, it is set in a dystopian near future where climate change has turned Helsinki into a rainy, half-abandoned urban wilderness.

Published a few years later, Elina Hirvonen’s novel When Time Runs Out paints an insightful portrait of a troubled family in the late 2020s Finland. In it, the son of activist parents grows up to be a mass shooter whose motivations, anxieties and clinical depression are deeply linked with his climate grief.

Frequently, a future setting would be enough to label a novel as speculative; however, I hosted a virtual book club on When Time Runs Out a few years ago and asked the readers if anyone considered it a work of speculative fiction. Not a single person did. Climate crisis is no longer a far-future science fiction scenario. It is now our lived reality.

I am aware that my brief glance at Nordic climate fiction is somewhat biased towards Finnish books. This is simply because as a Finn, I am most familiar with what my own country has produced. Also, I have wished to keep the focus on novels that are available in English; the fact of the matter is that much climate (and, of course, other) fiction written in the Nordic languages remains untranslated.

This is the case for many Swedish climate-themed novels, such as Nattavaara by Thomas Engström and Margit Richtert, or Malmö Manhattan 1994-2024 by Catarina Rolfsdotter-Jansson. And while a number of Finnish climate novels have been published in English, there are many more I crave to see in translation, such as the European Union Prize for Literature winner Taivas (Heaven) by Piia Leino or Lupaus (Promise) by Emma Puikkonen, which explores parenthood in the face of climate crisis.

Furthermore, if Iceland and Denmark have produced a body of climate fiction to date, I have not been able to locate it (possibly because of translation issues, since I do not read either language). Philip K. Dick Award special citation winner, Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason has written about climate change, but mainly in nonfiction context in his Dreamland: A Self-help Manual for a Frightened Nation and On Time and Water.

It is clear nevertheless that climate fiction has carved a place for itself in the Nordics. Just as humans are not separate from nature, fiction is not separate from reality. It provides us with a very real space to explore what matters: our grief and fear and sense of loss, as well as our hope and dreams of what we can still save. Climate fiction from various parts of the world can support us in working together to cope with a change that may manifest differently at different locations, but will highlight the fact that all borders are, at the end of the day, artificial.

When our world is on fire, so must our writing be.

You can find out more about Memory of Water here.

Emmi Itäranta is a Finnish author of three award-winning novels. She has recently relocated to her native Finland after living 14 years in the UK. She writes fiction in Finnish and English, and often explores environmental themes and the relationship between humans and other species in her stories. Her debut novel Memory of Water has been translated into more than twenty languages, and a film adaptation shot during the pandemic is due to be released in 2021.

Climate Change in the News

The Mainstream Climate Change Movement Needs To Get More Creative [Teen Vogue]

Writing Climate Fiction with Lauren James, Bijal Vachharajani, Clara Hume, James Bradley – Youtube panel [Cymera Festival]

Climate Screenwriting Grant

Can fiction fight climate change? [Race to Zero]

Landmark £15 million woodland creation grant opens for applications [UK Government]

Petition to rewild national parks [UK]

High greenhouse gas emitters should pay for carbon they produce, says IMF [Guardian]

Jamie Mollart discusses Kings of a Dead World

League members Kate Kelly and Jamie Mollart discuss his new book, Kings of a Dead World, out now with Sandstone Books.

The Earth’s resources are dwindling. The solution is The Sleep: periods of hibernation imposed on those who remain with only a Janitor to watch over the sleepers. In the sleeping city, elderly Ben struggles with his limited waking time and the disease which is stealing his wife from him. Outside, lonely Janitor Peruzzi craves the family he never knew. Around them both, dissatisfaction is growing. The city is about to wake.

Kate: Kings of a Dead World gives a very powerful depiction of a world falling apart, both environmentally and sociologically. I was wondering what inspiration and resources you drew on when creating this world, for it was frighteningly vivid, and in light of current events worryingly convincing.

Jamie: All my stories brew over a period of time from things that are bubbling under in my head. I think this one originally stemmed from the concept of personal culpability. I work in advertising and it is something that I struggle with from a moral standpoint in relation to my concerns about the environment. As an industry we are in many ways directly responsible for consumerism; one of the biggest causes of damage to the world we share. 

We live in a throwaway culture and the thought that we have a ticking clock in which to undo the damage we’ve caused is a key theme in the book. I really wanted to explore this idea of the individual impact on a larger whole. This is one of the reasons I started playing with the idea of enforced restrictions and having a set of characters in the novel who seemingly have no-one to be responsible to. 

I was also interested in what human beings are capable of if there’s no checks and measures – something which it could be argued technological advances have enabled us to do as a society as a whole.

I did a lot of research into environmental issues, climate change, politics and revolutionaries such as the Baader Meinhof group and then pulled my visual prompts together into this Pinterest board.

All of this combined in my head and built up into the world I’ve portrayed. Rereading it during the editing process made me realise how horribly pertinent it is. The empty streets, the way we spend time, separation from our families, being faced with the impact we’ve had on the world. While I was writing the book it was ostensibly a work of dystopian fantasy, but now it seems eerily prophetic.

Kate: That’s fascinating. I did wonder if your revolutionaries were based on such groups as Baader Meinhof. Of course, when faced with crises such as those you describe, as well as those we are facing in the real world today, its is expected that those in power will come up with a solution. You describe the sea defences which have been built to defend cities like London from the rising seas, and I can see something similar having to be built in the not too distant future. But it is the solution the authorities in Kings of a Dead World come up with that is at once both fascinating and unsettling. The mere though of sleeping away most of the rest of your life makes me shudder. What was your inspiration for this?   

Jamie: The idea of The Sleep came from me trying to think of the most extreme and horribly pragmatic ways of solving the Climate Crisis we face. I began exploring how you could approach a solution to it if you were to ignore empathy and a concern for the human cost. And this was the furthest I could get and make it (hopefully) believable. 

The Sleep addresses the main problems that cause the continued Climate Crisis – consumerism, nationalism, the idea that the individual can’t have an impact, reliance on dwindling resources, population growth etc. So, if the only aim is to halt it, then The Sleep would work. It also came from the ability we have as a species to ignore something until it’s almost too late and then be forced to act in a way that is more urgent and knee jerk than it otherwise would have been.

The counter argument to all of this is that clearly, we can’t allow our species to be the collateral damage in solving the problem, which is where Andreas and his group come in. I wanted to present the two extremes of the argument, as this is central to the themes of the book – what happens to human beings when they’re pushed to their limits. The idea of what we’re capable of is interesting to me, and The Sleep and the NSF represent the furthest ends of the spectrum I could imagine around the core idea of providing a solution. 

The Sleep also gave me an opportunity to really explore time and how we choose to spend it, again at the extremes of this. How do we react if our time is extremely limited and how do we react if we have the opposite of that and nothing to constructively fill it?

Once I settled on the idea, I found it a really exciting concept to play with as it opened up so many possibilities for me as a writer to delve into and let’s face it, people with their backs to the wall are always interesting for us as novelists.

Kate: Well these characters certainly do have their backs against the wall. And yet, despite what they are going through at the heart of everything is an incredibly powerful and poignant love story. 

Jamie: That was always my intention so I’m glad it came across to you that way. There is so much horror in the story that I wanted a real human core. And with one of the main themes being use of time it was really important that the character who experiences the lack of time has a truly compelling reason to make the most of it. 

The relationship between Ben and Rose, one of love and support, needed to be a direct contrast to the loneliness that Peruzzi experiences. It needed to represent everything he is lacking and the cause of his turmoil.

I also wanted to discuss love and companionship as the centre of the human experience and how even in the most terrible of circumstances it remains as a key motivation for us as a species, and possibly even more so. 

Love, whether platonic or romantic (and I tried to get both in), is absolutely integral to the way we experience the world. Looking at everything through the prism of love adds poignancy to every story and enables us as writers to make a human connection with readers that wouldn’t be possible if we concentrate solely on events and not reactions to them.

I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, but in the context of what is discussed in terms of human culpability, I wanted to highlight the idea that human beings are capable of both love and terrible things. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s this duality which is key to our species and what makes characters interesting and hopefully believable.

Kate: Oh I agree. It is that duality which makes your characters so interesting. Nobody is pure good or pure evil and it is Ben’s great love and loyalty to Rose that gives his character so much depth, despite all the terrible things he has done. But what I found most moving about their relationship was Rose’s illness. Dementia is something that touches all of us at some point in our lives, either through family or friends and I felt you handled a difficult subject with a great deal of sensitivity.

Jamie: It was something that I felt really needed to be handled with dignity and sensitivity. Her illness is the main reason Ben needs to value every second they have,  and which makes the fact that their time is limited by The Sleep more poignant. It’s a disease that has affected me personally, as my Gran and my wife’s Gran both suffered with it, so I understand how cruel it is and the way in which it can feel as if it is stealing a person from you. 

It’s a disease that is sadly becoming more prevalent and the manner in which it acts is so quick and relentless. I wanted Rose to face it with a sense of dignity, but also to be realistic about the way it manifests. I did a lot of reading around the subject and was particularly influenced by Wendy Mitchell’s incredible memoir ‘Somebody I used to know’. The way in which she describes her fight against the desire is both disturbing and inspirational. 

Thematically it worked for me as well. Rose is drifting away from Ben and there’s nothing either of them can do about it. This sense of helplessness and the impact of something they have no control over mirrors The Sleep and I wanted to bring this tragedy to the front in the way I talked about their situation. 

Kate: You mention human culpability and we do indeed have to accept our responsibility to our planet. After all, the current climate crisis is very much down to our own actions and the throwaway society we have become. What message do you hope your readers will take away from Kings of a Dead World?

Jamie: Culpability is absolutely at the heart of the story. For Ben and Rose it is about confronting the past as well as dealing with the present they live in, and without giving too much away, also in the way in which Ben tries to resolve things. It’s central to Peruzzi’s relationship with the city, The Sleepers, his relationship with Slattery and the way in which their actions escalate. The novel explores the effect of the individual on society and the balancing of our personal behaviour and beliefs with the needs the world as a whole.

I don’t want to get preachy here because it’s not a polemic, but it does come from my own personal preoccupations around environmental issues and consumerism. In my research I read very heavily around Climate Change and this has led to some quite extensive changes to the way we live as a family. Jonathan Safron Foer’s ‘Eating Animals‘ was instrumental in us moving to a plant-based lifestyle and we generate heat for our house using an air source heat pump rather than using gas. If you read Greta Thunberg’s ‘No-one is too small to make a difference‘ she makes the case for personal culpability far more simply and elegantly than I ever could.

Literature, especially speculative fiction, to me, should always prompt thought and discussion. And if anyone reading Kings of a Dead World spends any time thinking about the individual effect they can have on their society and environment then I will have done what I set out to achieve. Of course, I want them to have a good time along the way; I wanted to write a pacey, scary, exciting novel with some big ideas tucked away in the words. Whether I managed to do that isn’t for me to say!

Jamie Mollart runs his own advertising company, and has won awards for marketing. Over the years he has been widely published in magazines, been a guest on some well-respected podcasts and blogs, and Patrick Neate called him ‘quite a writer’ on the Book Slam podcast. He is married and lives in Leicestershire with his family. His debut novel, The Zoo, was on the Amazon Rising Stars 2015 list. His second novel, Kings of a Dead World is out now.

Teaching Resource for The Last Wild

Marina Ekkel has prepared 6 worksheets for The Last Wild by Piers Torday, downloadable in PDF.

A disease called the ‘red eye’ has caused all animals to begin to fade into extinction. A single corporation runs the world, and is bent on confining the human population to cities. And twelve year old Kester Jaynes cannot speak (at least to humans).

Forced away from his family, Kester is locked away in a facility for troubled youth. There he discovers that he can speak, but only to animals. With the help of a flock of pigeons and a cockroach, Kester escapes the facility.

The animals bring him to their group in the wild and implore Kester to help them find a cure for the red eye. Kester agrees to help and begins a journey to find his missing father (a famous veterinarian) and a cure for the red eye.

The Last Wild is a fast paced adventure novel that deals with themes such as friendship, promise keeping, corporate power, and animal endangerment. The book is recommended for year 5 and year 6, but could be read by advanced readers in year 4. All worksheets and exercises are based on the U.K year 5 and year 6 curriculum. There are 6 worksheets in total each reflecting a different part (or chapter) of the book. Please adjust as you see fit for your own classroom.

Happy Teaching!

Worksheet 1 – Reading Comprehension exercise [PDF download]

Worksheet 2 – The Wolves [PDF download]

Worksheet 3 – The Red Eye [PDF download]

Worksheet 4 – Friendship and Promise Keeping [PDF download]

Worksheet 5 – Foraging [PDF download]

Worksheet 6 – The Stag [PDF download]

You can find other teaching resources created for our authors’ books here, including a water use quiz based around The Memory of Water and a discussion guide on science and politics in The Stone Weta.

Using bat illustrations to write about big issues for young children by Emma Reynolds

Picture books are powerful – they are often human’s first experiences of stories, and as such they have the power to literally shape who we are, and we carry these stories and messages into adulthood.

They are also a chance for bonding between a child and their adult, often read at bedtime snuggled up together wrapped in each other’s arms – no safer feeling in the world.

I vividly remember my favourite books that have stayed with me from early childhood.

A story about ‘Ruby’ by Maggie Glen, a bear that comes out of the factory with mis-matched fur and ears and is accidentally still stocked in the shop – but a little girl chooses her anyway. ‘Elmer the Patchwork Elephant’ by Dave McKee who one day just wants to fit in but finds value in being his true unique self. I haven’t re-read these books in over 25 years but the illustrations and their messages about acceptance of our differences and choosing kindness have stayed with me always. Picture books can inspire generations.

And so, growing up – Stories about being different and often the underdog while still being kind have especially stayed with me. And this is partly why I chose to write a book about bats. Almost everyone knows that Bats are one of the most persecuted and misunderstood animals on the planet, but it’s not common knowledge that bats are vital species that are crucial to life on earth. Despite their importance, books about bats are rare, especially children’s books.  So, thinking about bats that I’ve loved since I was a kid – I knew I had a chance here to share the truth about bats, build empathy through a sweet and relatable story, and hopefully make a difference.

Amara and the Bats’ is a picture book all about a little girl called Amara who LOVES bats. Her favourite past time is collecting and bat facts in her note book, and watching the bats with her family in the park. But when they move house to a new town, she is sad to find there are no bats living there anymore due to habitat loss. So, inspired by real life youth activists such as Tokata Iron Eyes, Dara McAnulty and Greta Thunberg, she rallies her new friends and her community to save the bats! It’s a story all about bat conservation, community action and hope.

The habitat loss and creeping urbanisation in Amara’s new town is inspired by Manchester where I live, where luxury flats are being built on every last patch of green in the city centre. The story examines these feelings as Amara feels the pressure and dread of climate anxiety – All children and adults know that feeling of helplessness against something so big, and I wanted to show the emotional toll this takes on Amara, before she becomes inspired by real life youth climate activists to try and make a difference in her community.

I wanted to tell an engaging narrative driven story and share bat facts at the same time, which encourages the reader to see how amazing (and cute!) bats really are, and exactly why they’re vital to all life on earth through highlighting their roles in ecosystems. I show through accessible illustrations bat’s roles as keystone species seed dispersers, plant pollinators, and as earth’s natural bug repellents – eating crop destroying insects and mosquitos. Did you know that bats pollinate 70% of the tropical fruit that humans eat and that we wouldn’t have fruit like bananas without them? Or tequila? Bats save farmers billions of dollars a year in pesticides, because bats eat the insects that would otherwise destroy their crops. When humans let bats do their thing and encourage them, we all thrive.

When thinking about empathy for bats which are often feared, it was important to approach this from two angles. One, was to bust the untrue and harmful myths about bats that stoke this misplaced human fear. The other, was to visually show bats in an engaging and appealing way through my illustrations, and making sure to show bats up close – something many people are unfamiliar with.

Most people outside of tropical climates haven’t seen their local bat up close, (Looking at you Australians and your ability to see your big fruit bats!). There are over 1,400 species of bats living all over the world except for the arctic regions. Of this number, around 1,200 are microbats like Amara encounters, and only 200 species are megabats AKA fruit bats which only live in tropical regions. But, most people are more likely to have encountered a fruit bat at a zoo (I recommend the bat tunnel at Chester Zoo for this – a conservation focused Zoo with the aim of preventing extinction of species) than their local, smaller microbat.

So, knowing most bats in the world are microbats, I wanted to give readers a chance to see an example of the type of bat that they are most likely to encounter in the world flying above them looks like. It was a chance to show people how cute bats are both up close and in flight in the illustrations. A chance to share awareness and celebrate that that they have these cute fuzzballs living right on their doorstep, and that they can see them flying above them if they know where and when to look! In the UK, we have 17 species of microbats that breed here – and in the US there are nearly 50 species – fascinating! All these species look different (but they share similarities – small, brown, white or grey fur, with varying faces wings and ears), and so the bat I chose to depict that Amara sees up close is loosely based on a Noctule/Brown Bat – species commonly found in the UK and US.

(And worry not! Fruit bats make an appearance in the book too.)

Joining your local bat group is one of the best ways to experience bats – as you’ll be walking in great bat watching spots with experts listening on a bat detector for their calls, and you’ll learn to identify the different species. The first bat I saw ‘in the hand’ was a Noctule on a licensed bat box check with my bat group, and I fell in love!

Bat workers often recount how they got hooked on bat work after they saw a bat up close – to see such elusive mammals up close which are usually flitting by quickly at night really is incredible, and this experience is something I wanted to reflect in the book. Amara first feels an acute connection to bats after a bat becomes trapped in her attic when she is little, and the wildlife rescue hold the bat very gently in a towel.

It was important to me that ‘Amara and the Bats’ has a human driven narrative around bat conservation, and (as far as I’m aware) it is the only book that does so. The reader can directly place themselves in Amara and her friend’s shoes as they navigate the challenges, and also be inspired to take similar positive human action for bat conservation. Bat facts are weaved in throughout the story, and there are practical guides including a guide to bat houses/boxes, a guide to making your garden/local space bat friendly, facts on multiple bat species included, and useful links to bat charities and organisations.

I hope my author-illustrator debut ‘Amara and the Bats’ inspires kids, builds empathy and understanding, and that it fills them with excitement to go bat watching! All ages can use the tools in this book to help bat conservation and save the bats! Helping the world’s only flying mammal thrive.

Amara and the Bats is out July 20th (US) and July 22nd in paperback (UK) and available to pre-order here.

Bat Conservation Trust – UK Bat Charity

Merlin Tuttle Bat Conservation – The David Attenborough of bats.

Bat Conservation International – US Bat Charity

Austin Bridge Bats – US Tourist Site

Maid of Bats – One of my favourite microbat carer accounts.

Emma Reynolds is an illustrator and author based in Manchester, UK.
Her debut author-illustrator picture book ‘Amara and the Bats’ is out July 20th 2021 with Atheneum – Simon & Schuster. Emma started the #KidLit4Climate illustrated campaign, bringing together over 3,000 children’s illustrators and authors from over 50 countries in solidarity with the youth climate strikes. She is inspired by nature, animals, adventure, and seeing the magic in the everyday.

Picture books are powerful – they are often human’s first experiences of stories, and as such they have the power to literally shape who we are, and we carry these stories and messages into adulthood.

They are also a chance for bonding between a child and their adult, often read at bedtime snuggled up together wrapped in each other’s arms – no safer feeling in the world.

I vividly remember my favourite books that have stayed with me from early childhood.

A story about ‘Ruby’ by Maggie Glen, a bear that comes out of the factory with mis-matched fur and ears and is accidentally still stocked in the shop – but a little girl chooses her anyway. ‘Elmer the Patchwork Elephant’ by Dave McKee who one day just wants to fit in but finds value in being his true unique self. I haven’t re-read these books in over 25 years but the illustrations and their messages about acceptance of our differences and choosing kindness have stayed with me always. Picture books can inspire generations.

And so, growing up – Stories about being different and often the underdog while still being kind have especially stayed with me. And this is partly why I chose to write a book about bats. Almost everyone knows that Bats are one of the most persecuted and misunderstood animals on the planet, but it’s not common knowledge that bats are vital species that are crucial to life on earth. Despite their importance, books about bats are rare, especially children’s books.  So, thinking about bats that I’ve loved since I was a kid – I knew I had a chance here to share the truth about bats, build empathy through a sweet and relatable story, and hopefully make a difference.

Amara and the Bats’ is a picture book all about a little girl called Amara who LOVES bats. Her favourite past time is collecting and bat facts in her note book, and watching the bats with her family in the park. But when they move house to a new town, she is sad to find there are no bats living there anymore due to habitat loss. So, inspired by real life youth activists such as Tokata Iron Eyes, Dara McAnulty and Greta Thunberg, she rallies her new friends and her community to save the bats! It’s a story all about bat conservation, community action and hope.

The habitat loss and creeping urbanisation in Amara’s new town is inspired by Manchester where I live, where luxury flats are being built on every last patch of green in the city centre. The story examines these feelings as Amara feels the pressure and dread of climate anxiety – All children and adults know that feeling of helplessness against something so big, and I wanted to show the emotional toll this takes on Amara, before she becomes inspired by real life youth climate activists to try and make a difference in her community.

I wanted to tell an engaging narrative driven story and share bat facts at the same time, which encourages the reader to see how amazing (and cute!) bats really are, and exactly why they’re vital to all life on earth through highlighting their roles in ecosystems. I show through accessible illustrations bat’s roles as keystone species seed dispersers, plant pollinators, and as earth’s natural bug repellents – eating crop destroying insects and mosquitos. Did you know that bats pollinate 70% of the tropical fruit that humans eat and that we wouldn’t have fruit like bananas without them? Or tequila? Bats save farmers billions of dollars a year in pesticides, because bats eat the insects that would otherwise destroy their crops. When humans let bats do their thing and encourage them, we all thrive.

When thinking about empathy for bats which are often feared, it was important to approach this from two angles. One, was to bust the untrue and harmful myths about bats that stoke this misplaced human fear. The other, was to visually show bats in an engaging and appealing way through my illustrations, and making sure to show bats up close – something many people are unfamiliar with.

Most people outside of tropical climates haven’t seen their local bat up close, (Looking at you Australians and your ability to see your big fruit bats!). There are over 1,400 species of bats living all over the world except for the arctic regions. Of this number, around 1,200 are microbats like Amara encounters, and only 200 species are megabats AKA fruit bats which only live in tropical regions. But, most people are more likely to have encountered a fruit bat at a zoo (I recommend the bat tunnel at Chester Zoo for this – a conservation focused Zoo with the aim of preventing extinction of species) than their local, smaller microbat.

So, knowing most bats in the world are microbats, I wanted to give readers a chance to see an example of the type of bat that they are most likely to encounter in the world flying above them looks like. It was a chance to show people how cute bats are both up close and in flight in the illustrations. A chance to share awareness and celebrate that that they have these cute fuzzballs living right on their doorstep, and that they can see them flying above them if they know where and when to look! In the UK, we have 17 species of microbats that breed here – and in the US there are nearly 50 species – fascinating! All these species look different (but they share similarities – small, brown, white or grey fur, with varying faces wings and ears), and so the bat I chose to depict that Amara sees up close is loosely based on a Noctule/Brown Bat – species commonly found in the UK and US.

(And worry not! Fruit bats make an appearance in the book too.)

Joining your local bat group is one of the best ways to experience bats – as you’ll be walking in great bat watching spots with experts listening on a bat detector for their calls, and you’ll learn to identify the different species. The first bat I saw ‘in the hand’ was a Noctule on a licensed bat box check with my bat group, and I fell in love!

Bat workers often recount how they got hooked on bat work after they saw a bat up close – to see such elusive mammals up close which are usually flitting by quickly at night really is incredible, and this experience is something I wanted to reflect in the book. Amara first feels an acute connection to bats after a bat becomes trapped in her attic when she is little, and the wildlife rescue hold the bat very gently in a towel.

It was important to me that ‘Amara and the Bats’ has a human driven narrative around bat conservation, and (as far as I’m aware) it is the only book that does so. The reader can directly place themselves in Amara and her friend’s shoes as they navigate the challenges, and also be inspired to take similar positive human action for bat conservation. Bat facts are weaved in throughout the story, and there are practical guides including a guide to bat houses/boxes, a guide to making your garden/local space bat friendly, facts on multiple bat species included, and useful links to bat charities and organisations.

I hope my author-illustrator debut ‘Amara and the Bats’ inspires kids, builds empathy and understanding, and that it fills them with excitement to go bat watching! All ages can use the tools in this book to help bat conservation and save the bats! Helping the world’s only flying mammal thrive.

Amara and the Bats is out July 20th (US) and July 22nd in paperback (UK) and available to pre-order here.

Bat Conservation Trust – UK Bat Charity

Merlin Tuttle Bat Conservation – The David Attenborough of bats.

Bat Conservation International – US Bat Charity

Austin Bridge Bats – US Tourist Site

Maid of Bats – One of my favourite microbat carer accounts.

Emma Reynolds is an illustrator and author based in Manchester, UK.
Her debut author-illustrator picture book ‘Amara and the Bats’ is out July 20th 2021 with Atheneum – Simon & Schuster. Emma started the #KidLit4Climate illustrated campaign, bringing together over 3,000 children’s illustrators and authors from over 50 countries in solidarity with the youth climate strikes. She is inspired by nature, animals, adventure, and seeing the magic in the everyday.