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In a pre-pandemic universe, I planned to fly this month from Toronto to Gander, in Newfoundland, making my way 2,000 kilometres east to windswept Fogo Island. There I would celebrate the launch of Blaze Island, my new novel set on a fictionalized Fogo Island, among friends made during eight years of research trips.
As is the case for so many of us, my plans have been thwarted by COVID-19-related restrictions. I’m not in the Atlantic bubble. I haven’t left my home province, Ontario, in months. All my fall book events, along with those of every other author I know, have gone online.
Compared to other artists, we writers are still able to reach readers relatively effortlessly during these pandemic days. In those first fraught months, I kept hearing that people found themselves reading more. Books offer escapism and balm. Barely going out except to grab groceries, I read both to recognize our changed world and to propel myself as far from it as possible. Stories tell us who we are, never more so than in moments of crisis. Through them we reimagine ourselves by journeying into the perspectives of others, our world expanded and transformed.
But in order to recreate the world on the page and bring it to life for readers, writers need to mine the world around them, often one both near and far. A writer’s research is more than a matter of gathering facts, it’s a process of gleaning experience, impressions, unpredictable sounds and smells, chancing upon an unexpected yet revelatory story that sends a book spinning in a whole new direction.
Caroline Adderson, the author of the just-released novel, A Russian Sister, about the family and relationships of 19th-century writer Anton Chekov, attests to the necessity of on-the-ground research: “Before I went to Russia, the story felt made of cardboard. After I stood in the actual rooms where my characters lived, they came vibrantly to life.”
I knew I wanted to write a novel that dramatizes the climate emergency. Shakespeare’s The Tempest became my inspiration for Blaze Island, released this week. Luck led me to an artist’s residency on Fogo Island. Once there I knew I’d found my setting: I returned again and again to that extraordinary place to stay in the isolated house by the sea where I imagined my characters living. I walked the rocky landscape like my protagonist Miranda Wells and her father, a climate scientist in flight from the world. Like her I grew hypnotized by the intensities of the wind, made weather notes as she does in her father’s “Book of Storms.” I could not have written the novel without the deepened sense of place or the stories learned from others during those repeat visits. An island setting seemed essential, not only because of the novel’s Tempest inspiration, but because we all live on the island of our fragile world.
Around me, this pandemic summer, I witnessed writers grappling with how to pursue projects given cancelled flight plans and inaccessible places. While business meetings, classrooms, even weddings have adapted themselves to Zoom, writers have struggled to contend with projects conceived before our days of restricted travel.
Julia Zarankin, author of the new memoir, Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder, about her discovery of birding in mid-life, had a residency set for September that would have taken her to the island of Svalbard in the Arctic Sea. While visiting Pyramiden, an abandoned Soviet army base, she hoped to “think, dream and take frantic notes,” for a new book on lost landscapes.
In the midst of the second novel of his Prin trilogy, Dante’s Indiana, “set at a Dante theme park in an opioid-ruined small town in the middle of America,” Randy Boyagoda planned to visit Ravenna, Italy, the place of Dante’s death, near the famous dark wood that features at the start of the Divine Comedy.
Lawrence Hill intended to return to the Yukon for a month in the spring and again this fall to do further research for his forthcoming novel, The Midnight Men, about an engineer, one of thousands of African-American soldiers deployed by the U.S. Army to build the Alaska Highway in northern B.C. and Yukon in 1942-43.
Even local travel can be challenging during the pandemic. Carrianne Leung’s new novel, After, an apocalyptic urban tale, is set in the east end of Toronto, “and I haven’t gone,” she said, “though I had plans before the pandemic to do a lot of walking and writing in cafes. Even TTC is difficult, let alone plane travel!”
As the author of a book that dramatizes the climate crisis, I was already thinking about the greenhouse-gas-related issues with air travel long before the pandemic changed our relationship to it. I’d consciously cut down on the number of flights I took each year. Added to that, Blaze Island features a climate scientist who refuses to fly, a gesture modeled on one taken by British climate scientist Kevin Anderson, who hasn’t flown since 2004.
On a global scale, flying is a relatively small part of our total carbon budget, but it’s growing. Pre-COVID estimates put air flight at a fifth of all emissions by 2050, according to Dutch climate journalist Jelmer Mommers.
So, I was alive to the moral complexities of travelling to Berlin to attend an international conference on climate engineering. The large-scale interventions in the Earth’s climate system to counteract climate change are a possibility that tantalizes my fictional scientist in his island retreat.
Nevertheless there was something galvanizing about being in those Berlin conference rooms: an overheard debate sparked the experiment my scientist conducts on the island. Nor will I soon forget the climate terror voiced by an upper-level American diplomat as we stood among the dinosaur skeletons in Berlin’s Museum of Natural History.
Emma Donoghue, whose pandemic-themed novel, The Pull of the Stars, is set in a Dublin hospital during the 1918 flu epidemic, says that she rarely flies anywhere for the purpose of researching a book. “Either the setting needs to be somewhere I know well, by having lived there, or it’s in the past so archives are my flight paths. I’ve certainly been thinking a lot about other career-related travel. For more than a decade, flight-based book tours have felt absurdly wasteful to me, and now I know it’s possible to do an intense program of online events plus interviews by phone, email or Zoom, I don’t see myself wanting to go back to the old way.”
While writing Blaze Island, my flights to reach Fogo Island were often the only ones I took in a year. The glass palaces of airports have begun to look unfamiliar, a habit of the past. I wrestle, now, with how to proceed with a new book set mostly on the east coast of the U.S.
Constraint, though, can be the mother of invention, as writers know all too well. Like so many in these changed days, we’re figuring out ways to pivot.
Devastated by the loss of her Arctic residency, Julia Zarankin switched gears and embarked on a novel about Soviet émigrés, her own background. Buzzfeed culture writer and essayist Scaachi Koul, author of One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, had an in-progress book of essays derailed when upcoming trips around the United States, in Canada, to India and to London had to be scuttled. “My book will inevitably have to change, so the reporting – had I already done it – might not have been relevant now anyway. There will be time for that, when the world isn’t triaging. [Instead] I’m making a podcast called Not Great with BuzzFeed News and Embassy Row, recorded out of my closet until further notice.”
After Randy Boyagoda’s trip to Italy was called off, “the cancellation sent me writing in more local and speculative directions to end the novel. In retrospect, I’m happy with this – I think the ending of the novel is more true to the internal conflicts and needs of the story I’m telling, as opposed to a 21st-century homage and riff on Dante proper.”
I find myself wondering what the long-term effects of current travel restrictions and shifting flight attitudes will be on our literature. Perhaps a new turn towards the local won’t look like the old local, seamed with losses we’re only beginning to imagine, as we’re compelled to notice what’s missing and what lies out of reach. Focusing locally can reawaken us to what’s right in front of us, overlooked networks of relationship with others including the natural world. Meanwhile, speculative stories, either fabulous or dystopic, offer paths for reinventing ourselves as we adapt to the altering world to come.
Kyo Maclear, the author of the memoir Birds, Art, Life, gave up a fall residency to the Museum of Water, built by American artist Roni Horn on the southwest coast of Iceland, for both COVID-19-related and carbon-budget reasons. She was to work there on a new nonfiction work about plant life and kinship.
“My work has tried to question the contours of nature writing – what is it, who does it, who is it for?” Maclear says. “I believe a small, local focus can open onto large themes and connections. This autumn, it feels right to be walking around my neighborhood.”
Catherine Bush is the author of Blaze Island and four other novels, including the bestselling The Rules of Engagement.