Monday, December 12, 2016

The Heatstroke Line: an interview with novelist Edward Rubin


The Writer’s Life



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Q: Welcome to ''The Writer's Life''.  Now that your novel THE HEATSTROKE LINE has been published, we’d love to find out more about the process.  Can we begin by having you take us at the beginning?  Where did you come up with the idea to write your book?


EDWARD RUBIN: I was talking to a colleague at Vanderbilt Law School who is one of the leading legal experts in the U.S. about climate change and its potential consequences.  Frustrated by the failure of Congress and the American public to listen to experts and take the issue seriously, he suddenly exclaimed: “I wonder if a work of fiction would be more convincing than academic articles of the sort I’m writing.”    That evening, when I was working at my computer, I remembered what he said and started sketching out the situation for a novel about climate change.  I worked on it off and on for a few days, not knowing whether I would continue, and then, all of a sudden, the situation and the characters came to life for me. The rest of it just flowed.



Q: How hard was it to write a book like this and do you have any tips that you could pass on which would make the journey easier for other writers?


        What made the book easy for me to write, once the situation and the characters took shape, was my familiarity with science fiction, the genre to which the book belongs. I’m a life-long reade and now I teach a political science course called “Visions of the Future in Science Fiction” to undergraduates at Vanderbilt.  I got some specific ideas from the books I’ve read, a few borrowed and others reconfigured, but even more importantly, I felt that I was able to draw energy and power from the current of collective creativity that the genre as a whole provides. 

I think nearly all literature, in addition to being about the subject matter it presents and the society to which it belongs, is about literature itself.  As soon as you start writing – and this is true of fiction or non-fiction -- you are in dialogue with all the people who have written related works before you.  So my advice to any writer would be to immerse yourself in your field and read as much of it as possible.  As you do so, I think, you will find that certain works seem to speak to you, and these deserve particular attention.  In my case, the book that energized and inspired me the most was The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth.  It’s the first book, as far as I know, depicting a negative future that results from resource depletion.  Written during the McCarthy period, and featuring characters called “Consies” (short for conservationists) who start out as terrorists and end up as the heroes, it is also a courageous book that speaks out against the hatreds and short-sightedness of its time.  I hope my book can do the same.


Q: Who is your publisher and how did you find them?


     I wrote a blog piece for Salon about climate change and the unwillingness of the American public confront what Al Gore has correctly called “an inconvenient truth.”  In the blog, I noted that the current public seems to have an enormous appetite for disaster stories -- books like Earth Abides, Oryx and Crake, The Road, and Station Eleven, or movies such as Max Mad, The Postman, Planet of the Apes, and Waterworld.  Why then, I asked, are we so averse to thinking about the real disaster that awaits us.  My speculation was that these post-apocalyptic books and movies, good as many of them are, use the disaster they envision to clear away the government control and technological complexity of the modern world so they can tell an adventure story with long journeys by foot and hand to hand combat.  They don’t deal with the reality of a disaster like climate change that will degrade our lives and destroy our hopes without freeing us from the intricacies of modern existence.  A few days after the blog appeared, I received an email from Dan Bloom, who invented the term “cli-fi” and runs a blog about the subject.  “Why don’t you write a novel of the kind you tell us isn’t being written,” Dan wrote.  I wrote back and said “I have” and Dan wrote back and said “Send it to me.”  He read it, liked it a lot, and got it published two weeks later with Sunbury Press.


Q: Is there anything that surprised you about getting your first book published?


Once I saw the book in print, some of it seemed to mean something beyond what I had intended when I wrote it.  I’ve written many non-fiction books and articles, but I hadn’t experienced this before.  For example, the main character, a professor of entomology, travels to the American South (below “the heatstroke line”) to combat an infestation of two-inch long flesh eating insects.  Once there, he is captured, forced to work in a laboratory, and placed in the private home of a family with two daughters.  The older one, named Deborah, is an enigmatic, astonishingly perceptive person who is able to make the main character realize things about himself that he never knew before.  She is in the process of writing a novel of her own and a portion of that novel appears as one chapter in my book.  Her novel is a piece of typical post-apocalyptic fiction, envisioning a world where small groups of people live inside an enormous underground computer that controlled a previous society, while the surface of the planet has returned to being a primitive jungle. I used this story-within-a-story to provide a contrast with the book I was writing, and alert the reader to the way in which my book deals with the reality of climate change disaster, rather than using it as a device to tell an adventure tale.  But when I saw the book in print, I realized that it also described my own views about personal enlightenment and paralleled the famous cave analogy in Plato’s Republic, which I teach to undergraduates at Vanderbilt.  So Deborah made me realize things about myself that I never knew before.  


Q: What other books (if any) are you working on and when will they be published?


I’m writing another science fiction novel, which will also be published by Sunbury.  The main character is a man who runs a French restaurant in a human settlement on a distant planet, and whose sister happens to have become the dictator of a newer settlement on a neighboring planet. The action also centers on people’s response to an environmental disaster, although in this case it’s something other than global warming.  For my day job, which is as a professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University, I’m writing a book about the theory of democracy and a treatise on administrative law for Oxford University Press.



Q: What’s one fact about your book that would surprise people?


The small number of people who are clinging to life below the heatstroke line, and who capture the main character, turn out to be frenetic, obsessive American patriots.  Even though they are barely surviving, they spend a great deal of their time and energy trying to convince themselves that America can be great again.  They mount an elaborate parade to celebrate the Battle of the Bulge, and the man in whose home the main character is placed (Deborah’s father) runs a government agency that makes sure that people only cook American-style food.  This might surprise many readers, but it has a basis in reality.  When a nation has experienced a catastrophic decline or is dominated by another nation, its people often resort to excessive patriotism as a means of denying their current reality.  This often leads to tragedy, and it does so in my book as well.


Q: Finally, what message  are you trying to get across with your book?


The book is centered around a message, which is that our country will suffer catastrophe if we fail to take action to slow down global warming.  I think many of the climate change deniers, who now include the President of the United States and a majority of the U.S. Congress, think that increased temperatures will only cause suffering in remote tropical places. They are tragically wrong; if the process continues at its present pace, our coastal cities will suffer repeated inundations due to storm surges, average temperatures during the summer months will render the southern part of the country (where climate change denial is currently most prevalent) nearly uninhabitable, and droughts will devastate our agricultural production.  The resulting population dislocations, economic decline and disaster-related fatalities will subject our political system to enormous stress.  I doubt it will be able to survive in its present form, and that is what I depict in the book. If there are any nations that will benefit from increased temperatures, it isn’t the U.S. but more northerly ones, such as Canada, Greenland, and Russia.  I also depict this in the book.  The U.S. has broken up into small, warring principalities and it is dominated by a more populous Canadian nation, which has taken Alaska away from us.  The book was written to confront people with the reality of the oncoming disaster, and to induce them to take action to prevent it.



Q: Thank you again for this interview!  Do you have any final words?


Although my day job is as a university professor writing factual work (at least I hope it’s factual), I believe fiction can be a powerful force for good.  It can encourage people to sympathize with those who are different from them, alert people to dangers that they may not recognize, and impel them to take beneficial action.  I hope my book can serve that function.

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