Blaze Island by Catherine Bush: Q&A with Mahak Jain
Catherine Bush (www.catherinebush.com) is an award-winning, bestselling and New York Times Notable Book author of five novels. Her most recent novel, Blaze Island, is Shakespeare-inspired and tackles issues of climate change. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Guelph and the coordinator of the Toronto-based creative writing MFA program. Below, she is in conversation with past student and writer Mahak Jain (www.mahakjain.com), whose work appeared in Issues 152 and 134.
You’ve mentioned that the idea for this novel came from a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest set in the Arctic. Still, it’s possible to read and enjoy the novel without any knowledge of this influence. How did you make the novel its own experience, distinct from The Tempest?
It was absolutely crucial to me that a reader be able to enter and be immersed in the novel without any knowledge of The Tempest. That said, Blaze Island repurposes many elements of the play and I hope there will be readers who pick up and feel these resonances both in a playful way and as a deeper undercurrent. I wish I could remember the moment when I decided to make Prospero, Shakespeare’s magician and deposed Duke of Milan, a climate scientist desperate to find a way to stop runaway global heating. It was clear to me early on that I wanted to narrate the novel from the point of view of the young characters, Miranda, the scientist’s daughter, and Caleb, my reimagined Caliban, who’s mixed race and an outsider on tiny Blaze Island in the North Atlantic. They have the most to lose from the climate crisis and I wanted to shift the focus of the play to tell their intertwined story. I’m trying to imagine, across generations, what it’s like to encounter the climate crisis now as someone who’s just entering adulthood, to reverse the lens, so to speak, and have them examine the so-called adults who are supposed to be in charge and are making such a terrifying mess of things.
At the end of the book, you explain the research you’ve done, not only reading but also travel to places like Fogo Island and Germany. How did you come to decide the type of research you would do and, more practically, how did you organize and store your research?
I am an extremely haphazard researcher. I play link hopscotch online and bookmark articles of interest. I take notes by hand in a schoolbook size, spiral-bound notebook. At any moment when I’m stuck in the writing I search for what I might need to move forward. All you really have to do to research the climate crisis is read a good newspaper, like The Guardian, which has had excellent coverage for years. One of the challenges, certainly, of writing right up against the present is that the present, along with some of the scientific knowledge, keeps shifting.
Then there was all the lived research, some of which also ends up in my spiral-bound notebook. The novel takes place on a fictional version of Fogo Island off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. I spent part of each summer there for the last eight years and would have gone this summer if not for the pandemic. I lived for weeks at a time in the house that’s the model for the house that Miranda and her father live in by the sea. I talked to people about wind and weather and language and climate changes and foraging. I went berry picking. I listened to the changeable and ferocious wind. I walked trails by the sea and listened to the voices of the novel come up through the rocks into my body.
“We need to stop entertaining a dream of flying off to live on Mars once we’ve wrecked this planet.”
Blaze Island is a remote and isolated island that has been further isolated as a result of a hurricane. How did you come to decide the story should take place on an island? Was there any point in which you considered setting the story elsewhere?
As a reimagining of The Tempest, the novel always needed to take place on an island. It was a matter of finding the right island. I’m drawn to northern places, maybe because my people come from a northern island across the Atlantic Ocean. I have a tremendous sense of being metabolically at home when in Newfoundland or on Fogo Island. I love cold and wind. I discovered Fogo Island online, before the deluxe and beautifully minimalist Fogo Island Inn made it famous (I wrote my own travel feature about the inn, which was the only way I could afford to stay in it). I heard about the Shorefast arts residencies, which weren’t for novelists like me, and Shorefast folk pointed me in the direction of Tilting, the village at the easternmost edge of the island facing the wild Atlantic, which has its own wonderful artists’ residency program; its organizers invited me to come and then, as wondrously, to return. Beyond that, there’s an essential metaphoric resonance to the island setting. Island thinking requires tremendous self-sufficiency. You need to know how to live in isolation and sustain yourself long-term. We’ve learned something of this during the pandemic. We also live on a planetary island and need to apply island thinking to our biospheric life, which is something that Miranda says towards the end of the novel. We need to stop entertaining a dream of flying off to live on Mars once we’ve wrecked this planet.
Though the effects of warming are featured throughout the novel, the novel’s subject is the cold of the north and terrific winds. Heat, though mentioned, never takes center stage. What made you want to take this approach?
One of the more compelling features of global heating is the phenomenon of Arctic amplification, which means, for instance, that dramatic temperature rises are even more pronounced in the polar regions. Here in the mid-latitudes we can ignore how dependent we are on the presence of ice and snow on a global scale but our lives are indelibly tied to the presence of the huge Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets: if they go, we go. This is the knowledge that my scientist, Milan Wells, grapples with. One of the features of life on Fogo Island, and Blaze Island in the novel, is the presence of ice: sea ice drifting south from the Arctic in the early spring, icebergs in the later spring and summer, most of which have broken off the Greenland ice sheet. Icebergs are awesome in the truest sense: they’re huge, stunning mountains and sheets of ice. They’re also small, broken ice islands. They inspire awe. And grief. It’s an incredible thing to watch icebergs float past your back door. This is ancient ice, ice from the early days of the human story. To encounter this ice is to confront our own past from ten thousand years ago and then watch the past, which may hold the key to our future, dissolve.
You mentioned early resistance to the idea you are exploring in this novel: a technological solution to climate change, or climate engineering. Can you explain the resistance and what compelled you to move forward anyway?
Beyond the risks of climate-engineering implementation or even experiments, there’s the risk that focusing on it takes attention away from reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, which is the most crucial task to ensure our survival. This may be a real-world risk, but moral dilemmas wrestled with in extremity haunt me as a novelist. I’m certainly not advocating for climate engineering; I’m using it as a lens to examine human emotion and behaviour. For instance, many who began as adamant climate-change deniers switched their tune to become advocates of climate engineering as a way to continue a business-as-usual approach to planetary plunder. I took it as a challenge to depict characters who are credible deniers and climate sceptics, people terrified of losing their lives as they’ve lived them up to this point, still avid to be cancerous capitalists. These guys also get to be the novel’s comic relief.
Climate change narratives often explore apocalyptic and dystopic elements, but Blaze Island maintains a deliberate realism. Why was it important to you to take this approach?
I’d say it’s hard to write realism these days without being either apocalyptic or dystopic. But I’ve always been interested in shifting what realism is or can be. These days I’m preoccupied with nudging human beings from centre stage to make room for other elements: wind, water, more-than-human life forms. I want the narrative balance to feel altered and possibly deranging. Historically the novel, at least in the West, has been preoccupied with individual human stories. But in order to go on living on this planet, our perception of realism as a narrative strategy has to change. We need to remake the world and let in more sentience, more biosphere, more sense of our web of connection to the rest of the living world. We can’t go on pretending, even in our stories, that humans are all that is; it’s the most dangerous fiction possible. I want to write into this new and necessary realism and discover what it might look like in a novel.
Historically, weather has been viewed through the lens of myth (“an act of God”) or as a symbol (as John Ruskin would deem it, pathetic fallacy). In a piece in the New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz argues that in recent years, weather has lost its prominence in literature in tandem with our understanding of weather as meteorological. What is it about weather that interests you–as a mythical, symbolic, or metereological phenomenon?
Like The Tempest, Blaze Island opens in the midst of a huge storm. In the novel it’s a massive hurricane that rolls up the eastern seaboard of North America smashing all human infrastructure in its wake. It’s reasonable to believe that Shakespeare had a hurricane in mind as well, because hurricanes were a New World phenomenon that Europeans were just beginning to learn about from seafaring and colonizing expeditions. So although the storm in The Tempest is magic, it’s also referencing real weather, only weather that feels fantastical. My contemporary storm is the inverse; its hugeness is realistic, shaped by humans in so far as the greenhouse gases we keep pouring into the atmosphere are having an increasing impact on weather phenomena, making contemporary hurricanes larger and more destructive than they used to be. Even if the novel’s hurricane is fictional, I want the weather throughout the novel to feel real, not symbolic, not metaphoric, to have deep presence; for the air itself to have agency in the story the way humans do, for weather and humans to be as entangled as they really are.
In the same article, Schulz discusses how the study of meteorology resulted in a shared language around weather, which didn’t previously exist. One of the characters in the novel, Agnes, says “there are people out there who don’t believe ice and snow are weather,” suggesting the language isn’t as shared as we might think. How do you perceive weather as a language?
The character of Agnes Watson is an Inuk climate scientist who works for the federal government. The incident you mention is taken from an actual incident that occurred under Canada’s former government which was much more resistant to the science of climate change than our current government. The language of climate change and therefore weather can be highly politicized. I wanted to gesture to the fact that climate-change denialism is still a force in the world. If you don’t want something to be spoken of, you can make it linguistically disappear. If you want to make melting ice vanish from public discourse, make it a thing not an occurrence. You’re basically saying the melt isn’t happening. But in response specifically to weather as language, weather has multiple languages: there’s scientific languages of weather and weather as we experience it, what it feels like on our skin. Caleb grows up with a descriptive language of weather phenomena different than the scientific names for clouds that Miranda is taught by her father. She and Caleb learn each other’s weather languages as they grow up together. Above all they come of age paying intimate attention to the weather in ways that go beyond language. I want readers to feel the wind sensuously as well.
The novel reaches into the past, the present, and the future at the same time. The characters are looking back at where they’ve been, individually but also over eons. They are also looking at where they will be, in their lifetime and the lifetimes of future generations. What is it about the tension between the past, present, and future that interests you?
Miranda remarks in the novel that we can only imagine the future through the past; what we know shapes what we can imagine. Caleb is desperate to create a future that is an extension of the past, especially the past he’s shared with Miranda. Meanwhile Miranda finds herself thrown into a series of rapid, soul-shocking changes that make her reconceive her world entirely. It’s a bit like what’s happened to all of us these last months: suddenly the past doesn’t provide a route map for the future, even though it never really did. The words change, alter, shift pulse like a bass beat through the novel. The present is an entirely fluxy place. The novel is constantly asking, How do we respond to change? But I also want to bring the reader into an encounter with deep time, time on a geological scale, which is a scale on which we also exist even though it makes human lives minuscule. We are a tiny, potentially self-destructive part of this much, much larger, longer planetary story. How can a novel incorporate this perspectival shift?
Milan Wells says to his daughter, Miranda, “I will look after you whatever the weather.” But in the view of climate change, children are both a burden (increasing the carbon footprint) and the motivation (we need to save the planet for future generations). How do you perceive climate change as a conflict across generations?
We have only to look to Greta Thunberg, the School Climate Strike movement, and Thunberg’s speeches to the UN Climate conference and world leaders at Davos and elsewhere to see how badly older generations have failed younger generations. How dare you, Thunberg shouted at politicians and economic leaders and begged them to behave like adults, though the implication that they’re behaving like children does children a disservice. Now Milan Wells, my scientist in the novel, is absolutely not ignoring the climate crisis, he’s consumed by it. And terrified as to what the future may bring. But how does one live as a parent, or any adult, and hold this terror in the presence of one’s child or, collectively, children? Milan’s overwhelming impulse is to figure out a way to protect his daughter, even if that leads him in some extreme and morally dubious directions. The collective parents in the room may not be able to save us; they may even destroy us. The children need to rise up as they have been doing and assert their agency, as Miranda does in the novel. The pandemic may temporarily have derailed a new and heartening focus on the climate crisis but the climate crisis and the crisis of ecological loss haven’t vanished. The hard but thrilling work of how to reimagine our world and how to change everything must go on. The pandemic simply makes this more acute.
I couldn’t help but think of Milan Wells as an artist, single-minded in his vocation and pursuit, living in a world apart from others. As an artist yourself, what is it about scientists that interests you?
Scientists are usually seen as these rational beings and in contemporary, industrialized societies science is understood as a pursuit shaped by objectivity in which the subjective is entirely leached away as suspect. The data must speak. What draws me to write about climate scientists is that they are pursuing research with such profound existential implications, knowledge that we seem collectively intent on ignoring. This leads to an intense crisis between the objective and the subjective. How can knowledge about ice melt or carbon build-up or global temperature rise that may lead to the collapse of the world as we know it not provoke terror? What does a scientist do then?
Like Milan Wells, you are an academic. How do you balance the expectations of you as an academic with your aims as a writer?
As a writer my relationship to academia is very different than a scientist’s. A scientist depends on academic structures to build a lab, a team, do their research. I’m looking to create a space not penetrated by my academic life. That said, my academic position supports me and allows me to write. I was the Writer in Residence at the University of Guelph when the position as Coordinator of Guelph’s amazing and then very new MFA opened up and I was asked to apply. It’s a small and innovative program in which I’m the only full faculty member — as you know since you’re a grad! What I relish about the MFA is the diverse and vital community it has created and how much I learn from my students, who are such amazing writers and then are going out and changing our literary landscape, engaging in profound acts of cultural reimagining.
I am curious how writers choose what projects to pursue. Have you decided yet what your next project will be, and if so, how did you come to that decision? If you haven’t, what is going to be your process for finding the next project?
At some point in the process of writing every novel, another idea has slowly come swimming up from the deep, so yes I have something new that I’m moving towards. All I can say is that it’s still deeply engaged with our relationship to the natural world, and to de-centring the human story. It looks like it will be historical, as in going back to the mid-twentieth century as a way to consider how we got where we are now. I don’t know how to write any more not in relation to the ecological crisis going on around us. How do we write now – this feels like the essential question.