Talking climate change and rejection with author Paolo Bacigalupi

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

Paolo Bacigalupi (BAH-cha-ga-loo-py) is a science fiction and fantasy author who writes books for adults, kids and young adults. He’s won both the Hugo and Nebula awards (big deal prizes in science fiction), and his debut novel “The Windup Girl” was a smash hit in 2009. His latest novel for adults, “The Water Knife,” is set in our very own southwestern United States. It’s about a not-too-distant, apocalyptic future where climate change and drought have forced citizens into a vicious battle over water rights. Paonia native Bacigalupi will be at Maria’s Bookshop for a signing on Tuesday, May 17.

Your new book “The Water Knife” is about drought in the Southwest. Your other books have dealt with similar environmental topics. Are you personally active in engaging with climate change issues? It’s interesting territory when you want to talk about the future. One of the things you look at with books about the future is the question of, ‘Where are we going?’ I write science fiction, so I look at what’s going on and ask, ‘If this goes on, what will the world look like?’ It seems like one of those narratives which is both ever-present and often ignored. Just because yesterday was a certain way, we expect tomorrow will be a certain way. We’re so locked into that narrative; even as data accumulates, we kind of miss the big picture. So what’s most interesting to me about climate change is this huge component of our reality that we somehow can’t quite engage with.

How does “The Water Knife” detail this issue in a regionally specific way, with climate change/drought affecting the American Southwest? When you want to talk about a big, pervasive but also intangible problem like climate change, you have to get down to a specific and local level. So I looked at the Colorado River and the states that depend upon it. We already know it was an oversubscribed river, and that its total volume has been falling for quite a while. Climate change data says that’s only going to get worse. The region is going to get more water-scarce over time. It’s about how we’ve set up water rights in the western U.S.: Whoever got here first gets it all; whoever came here second is screwed. That’s a regional peculiarity. We exist through irrigation, we’re not a region that depends on “god water” as they say, as it is back east. In terms of the specificity of this region, we’re vulnerable, we live an engineered water existence already, and on top of that we have a zero sum attitude toward water where the winners take all. In a novel, that’s all good for conflict.

When you’re writing science fiction, do you think doing extensive research and making the story as realistic as possible is more effective? If you want absolute truth, you go to a journalist. That person reports facts. But my job is to extrapolate from the facts, to make guesses and to build outwards, to create a visceral experience about what those facts might indicate about our coming century. I do take honest liberties with reality, but I stay within the lane of accuracy.

Any thoughts as to why young adult literature has seen a huge spike in popularity among adult readers? I think broadly, young adult literature focuses more heavily on plot and story than some adult literature does. So it’s a certain kind of pleasure reading. If the writer is smart, there’s plenty for an adult to connect to. It’s hard to create a blanket statement, because YA is just as varied as every other kind of literature. There’s a vast difference between MT Anderson’s “Feed” and Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight.” And I say that without scorn, there’s no judgment. But “young adult” has just become a marketing category, which you could slice again into “romance” or “sci-fi” or “fantasy.” It can get very erudite and complex. I think the thing about the cross-over readers is that it doesn’t happen for every author. The number of readers I have that read both my adult and young adult books is very small, but Stephenie Meyer and Margaret Stohl have great cross-over adult and YA readership. I feel like “Drowned Cities” is one of my most well-written books; I left a lot of blood on the page – but so few of my adult readers ever discover it. A lot of it has to do the different prejudices that people have. Some YA is dumb, yeah – but so is some adult literature.

Do you find there’s a difficulty in balancing your publisher’s or editor’s needs with what you really want to write? Right now I have a great deal of rope I can hang myself with, because my books have sold well. The issue where you’re bumping up most against the industry’s needs versus your own is TIME. They would love you to write one book per year, like 1, 2, 3, GO! Be creative! That’s hard. Sometimes I’ve written a book in six weeks and it astounds me. Then the next book takes me two years.

Any advice for young people who are trying to become novelists? I’ve talked to a lot of writers about their careers and the process they went through trying to break in. And I think what a lot of people don’t understand is how much effort it takes. When I first started, I had this idea that I’d write my first novel, it was going to be brilliant and I’d be a 25-year-old wunderkind. Four novels later, all of them having been rejected by everyone, you’re thinking ‘Maybe I didn’t quite get a handle on this thing.’ Nobody bought or would even look at those four novels. They ended up in a trunk before my fifth novel finally took off. You don’t see all the failures. So what I tell people is, you have to have a lot of stomach for the idea of trying something, failing at it, learning from it, and coming back and trying something slightly different. Then doing that again and again and again. Try, fail, learn. If you have the tenacity to go through that process enough times, good things tend to happen. Every author I talk to has this story of tenacity and relentlessness. You need enough ego to believe that you deserve to be published. It’s an act of hubris to say, ‘Look at what I wrote!’ Like, who the [bleep] are you? But you also have to have enough humility to look at your own work and say, ‘Oh, I can do it better.’ It’s not quite as mysterious as I once thought it was; it takes certain behavioral traits to make it happen as a writer.

Anya Jaremko-GreenwoldDGO Staff WriterThis interview has been edited for space and clarity.


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