by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
How do we communicate about climate change to those who don’t notice it impacting their lives on a regular basis? This important question is one that many who are concerned about the environment are asking ourselves on a regular basis; perhaps it’s a question that has crossed your mind a few times.
Author Midge Raymond approaches this question by writing a novel about Antarctica—and it’s a page-turner. Though I was reading My Last Continent (Scribner, 2016) to report about it to all of you, I found myself reading late into the night, wondering what would happen. The story itself is not overtly about climate change, and therefore it doesn’t come across as polemical, but it has just enough information to slide in under the radar, perhaps bringing a reader to a deeper level of awareness of the plight facing Antarctica’s penguins and other species, as well as the impact a melting Antarctica can have on us all.
The story begins with the chapter, “Afterwards,” in which we learn about the sinking of a cruise ship off the coast of Antarctica, and the survival of our narrator, naturalist Deb Gardner. Subsequent chapters move us closer and farther away and closer in turn from the fateful shipwreck, revealing pieces of the story as we get to know Deb and her colleagues—in particular her romantic interest, Keller Sullivan. Along the way, we learn quite a bit about penguins, the fragile ecosystems of Antarctica, what it’s like to live at McMurdo Station on Antarctica, tourism in the waters of Antarctica, and the changes scientists are noticing on the continent due to climate change.
My Last Continent recently came out in paperback, and I recommend it as we turn the corner into the colder months of the year: cozy up and read about someplace even colder. Recommend it to any of your friends who enjoy fiction, and who may not have as much of a concern about the environment as you do, because they can’t see it.
Midge Raymond is also co-founder and editor of Ashland Creek Press, a “vegan-owned boutique publisher” with a bent for environmental fiction and literature. We talked with Raymond recently about her book, and about her experiences at an environmentally-themed press. She also shares information about her press’s Siskiyou Prize for environmental authors.
Whole Terrain: I’d love to hear a little bit about what sparked the idea for My Last Continent. What inspired you to write a novel about Antarctica, penguins, and climate change?
Midge Raymond: I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit Antarctica back in 2004. I was a tourist on a small expedition boat that is very much like the Cormorant in the novel. While I was there, so many things about the continent struck me. It was a life-changing experience, because it made me realize how vulnerable our planet is to human impacts, and how everything we do—even far up north in my regularly scheduled life—affects the continent down there. Antarctica is really ground zero for climate change. Sea level rise is the big concern with Antarctica: once the ice sheets start melting, and the glaciers start flowing into the ocean, that will affect every continent on the planet, not just the continent of Antarctica itself. So, it really struck me how connected the entire planet is.
But what inspired the novel itself was when I saw a man fall on the ice. He slipped and fell and hit the ground pretty hard. He jumped right back up, completely fine, but that was the moment I realized, “We are at the bottom of the world. And if he had not been OK, that would have had serious consequences.” That moment inspired a short story, and it also inspired the character of Deb, and she and the continent stayed with me over the years. About 10 years after that trip, I began working in earnest on the novel. I’d been thinking about it off and on for a long time.
The shipwreck story was based on what I’d heard from the naturalists on our expedition boat. We were on a small ship of fewer than 100 people. At the time, back in 2004, some of the large cruise ships were starting to venture down into Antarctica, carrying thousands of people. All the expedition staff and the crew had concerns about this, because as they said, and it’s still true today, if something were to happen to a ship of that size, there are simply not enough people to rescue you. Everything is unpredictable down there: the weather, the ice, everything is pretty much uncharted because the ice is always moving. You have to have a very experienced captain and crew; everything just has to go right. It’s very safe to travel there, but given the unpredictability, it’s always a risk.
They crew members I spoke to were concerned about these massive cruise ships coming down. Back then, the large ships were mostly not members of International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), an organization that pledges to take good care of the environment, and to practice safe, responsible travel. The big concern was that all these big ships are just cruising through Antarctica to show passengers a good time, and they’re not following these guidelines that are very important for the safety of the environment. Since then, of course, a lot has changed. Most major tour companies have gotten on board with IAATO, which is great, and tourism is generally very safe—but the fact is, anything can happen.
In fact, when I sent the book to one of the naturalists I tracked down years later, she said, “That’s still one of my biggest fears.” She’s been going to Antarctica for more than a dozen years, studying penguins, and she said, “If anything like this shipwreck happens, it will be even worse than what’s depicted in your novel.” That really inspired the novel: a sense of urgency to tell the story of what life is like in Antarctica, and how it’s a place worth seeing, but it’s a place we have to be very careful about seeing when we do go down to visit.
WT: Could you tell us a little more about your experience in Antarctica?
MR: I was there for about 10 days. I was just there as a traveler, but being a writer, I took a lot of photos and journal notes. I had no idea I would write about it, but the impact it had on me was profound, so it stuck with me. I had good notes to work with later, when I decided to write the novel.
After the trip, I stayed in touch with the penguin researcher that I met down there. She works at the University of Washington. A few years later, my husband and I did some volunteer work with her in Argentina, where she studies the largest Magellanic penguin colony in the world. There’s a little bit of that in the novel as well. So that really helped a lot in terms of getting into the life of a researcher, since I lived and worked with them for a while. It was enlightening and inspiring, and helped a lot in terms of firsthand research.
WT: That sounds like an amazing experience to be able to help with that kind of research!
MR: It was! And we, as volunteers, did so little compared to what the researchers do. It gave me such a huge respect for the importance of what they do. Their studies have huge impacts on conservation, because they are gathering data that proves just how fishing impacts penguins. When we eat seafood, we’re literally taking food right out of the penguins’ mouths. Penguin researchers have helped so much in establishing guidelines to give penguins protected areas where they can find food. Research data established how much farther penguins have to go for food, and the impacts on their breeding cycles. Penguins co-parent, and so if one parent can’t find enough to eat and make it back so that the other bird can go out and forage, the next generation dies off. So, the penguin researchers’ work is very important. They’re also showing the impact of pollution and climate change on the penguins.
WT: What did you enjoy most about writing this novel?
MR: Even though science is not my background, I found myself really enjoying the process of creating a scientific character. I just have such admiration and respect for what they do.
It’s really fun to meet readers and to hear what they have to say, like, “Oh, I didn’t realize this was going on, and it’s really interesting.” It’s exciting for me as a writer to be able to put that research into readers’ hands in a way they might never see it otherwise. Fiction can be very powerful that way.
WT: That was actually my next question: How do you think environmental fiction can impact people differently from other environmental writing, such as scientific work or other nonfiction pieces?
MR: Scientific journal articles can be hard to read, because it’s like they’re written in a different language. The penguin researcher who’s studying the colony in Argentina, Dee Boersma at the University of Washington, is probably the foremost penguin expert in the world. She is incredible with the media, and she does such a good job of interpreting her work for “lay people,” if you will. She can put penguins into human terms, and talk about them so we can understand how they live and the results of her research. But I think for most scientific journal articles, the media does not always interpret them very well. Often, they take one key point, but we don’t get the whole story.
Fiction can portray the whole story in ways that make it palatable for regular readers, and I think it’s really important to do that. Of course, with fiction, you have to take it with a grain of salt as a reader. For example, my character, Deb, is very opinionated. In the book, I try to balance that out with other opinions and give a broad overview of all the issues. Fiction isn’t perfect, either, but I think what it can do is get people interested in an issue, and it can inspire change. I’ve seen people who love penguins and don’t realize how much overfishing is a problem, and it has made them think about what they eat and how they live in the world. Fiction has the potential to be beneficial for animals who we otherwise might not know enough about to alter our lifestyles.
WT: Tell us about Ashland Creek Press and how you hope it will raise readers’ environmental awareness in the ways you’re talking about.
MR: The nice thing about storytelling is that everyone loves a story, and so first and foremost we’re looking for really good stories. What we want are stories that teach us something, help us learn more about the world we live in, and how to be better citizens of the world and better stewards of the planet. Those are the books that appeal to us, and which we hope will also appeal to readers.
We have published a variety of books. We love fiction, and have leaned toward fiction in the past, but we have gotten a few wonderful nonfiction projects as well. One of our authors, Jacki Skole, has a background in journalism and was inspired to write a book called Dogland, based on her adopted puppy who had a lot of strange, quirky little issues for an 8-week-old dog. That made her wonder where her dog really come from, and she realized it had been brought up from the South, which has a lot of shelters with high euthanasia rates. These shelters often send dogs up the eastern seaboard for adoption because they simply can’t house them all down there. So this led her to a big exploration of the shelter system in America. She wrote a fascinating book that any dog lover should read. We just loved it.
Around the same time, we published a young adult novel, Strays, about rescue dogs by an author in Los Angeles, Jennifer Caloyeras who wrote a great story about a girl with anger management issues who ended up getting assigned to community service working with dogs. She was afraid of dogs, but she ended up bonding with a pit bull who had anger issues as well. So there are so many ways to get these stories out.
People seek out nonfiction if they’re curious, and are interested in fiction mostly because they want to hear a good story. By way of a good story, we can raise awareness of these issues. And again, it has to be well told, because it can be challenging to write about these issues in a way that doesn’t feel preachy. Most of the time, embedded in a good story can be all kinds of interesting issues that inspire conversation.
WT: What do you feel like are some of the pros and cons of running this kind of press at this particular moment in history: this moment in publishing history, and the environmental situation as it is?
MR: At this time in history, with the government turning its back on the environment, literature and art of all forms is going to be very important. I think people are going to be seeking out ways to help make change on their own, because it’s up to us. We have to be the ones to save the planet. I hope that knowing there are authors out there tackling these issues is something that will inspire people. I’m certainly very inspired, when I read about all these EPA rollbacks, to read a book where I realize there are people fighting the good fight, and there are people writing about this, and we are going to be able to make a difference. I think that sort of solidarity is really inspiring, and I hope we can be a part of that.
In publishing in general, it’s very hard to be a small press, because it’s hard to get our books out there in the world. It’s hard to get them seen. We have to go about it in ways where we build on our readership and then always look for new readers, and stay connected with people like you who are doing the same thing. Sharing ideas and sharing all the good work that’s out there and helping each other is important, because I do think more and more readers are going to be looking for books like this, and it will be nice that we’re there to provide them.
WT: What else would you like people to know about your book and press?
MR: My Last Continent just came out in paperback, which is really exciting. That’s the news about the book.
About the press, our Siskiyou Prize opened up for submissions in September. It’s an annual prize, and this will be our fourth year. It’s open to all writers and book-length projects, and it includes published works as well. We have an awesome judge this year: Jonathan Balcombe, author of What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins. We always get incredible submissions and we’d like anyone who’s working in environmental literature to be aware of the prize. It’s $1000 plus a four-week writing residency at PLAYA Summer Lake, which is a gorgeous place in Central Oregon for artists and writers.
WT: That sounds like a great opportunity. Thank you very much for sharing with us about your book, your press, and the Siskiyou Prize.
Bio: Midge Raymond has more than twenty years of experience in writing, editing, and publishing. In addition to being a published fiction writer and journalist, she has worked as an editor and copywriter with several New York publishing houses, including Penguin and St. Martin’s, and she is now a co-founder and editor at Ashland Creek Press.
She has held classes in writing and publishing at Boston’s Grub Street Writers, San Diego Writers, and Seattle’s Richard Hugo House, and for six years she taught communication writing at Boston University, where she earned her master’s degree in international communication. An award-winning writer, she has published dozens of short stories in literary magazines, including Bellevue Literary Review, TriQuarterly, Indiana Review, North American Review, Ontario Review, and the Los Angeles Times magazine, and has written articles about the art and craft of writing for such publications as Poets & Writers magazine and The Writer.
In addition to two books for writers, Everyday Writing and Everyday Book Marketing, Midge is also the author of the novel My Last Continent and the award-winning short story collection Forgetting English.