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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Nature as Character (ConCarolinas 2015 Writing Panel Notes)

Horned Man with Guns Pointed at Him

I wasn't expecting to be gone this long.

Real Life, for me, has been as wild and uncontrollable as the ocean Chris Jackson talks about below. But throughout the current chaos, one thing has been constant: I've been writing. (Well, revising.) Meanwhile, I'm trying to get things back on track, ConCarolinas is in a month, and I have four sets of notes from last year to post. Here's the first.

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Nature as Character
Chris A. Jackson, Faith Hunter, David B. Coe / D.B. Jackson, Nancy Northcott
Moderator: Debra Killeen

Three classic forms of conflict: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Himself, Man vs. Nature. We’re focusing on that last one.

Movie examples: Castaway, Call of the Wild, The Day After Tomorrow, or Post-Apocalyptic like Mad Max, etc.

There are so many different types of Man vs. Nature. What’s yours?
DK: Using nature as obstacle in her new series, taking characters from temperate climate to a desert climate, and the reality is more than what they expect; as a practicing pagan, has a different feel towards the nature
FH: With her Thorn St. Croix novels, the environment becomes as much of a character because there’s a mini ice-age, and dealing with that provides its own set of conflict and obstacles, and not just one problem but a variety of survival problems. In the Soulwood series, the forest on the character’s farm, what has become old growth forest because of the magic the character can bring to the world. Her 150 acres are developing their own form of sentience and a will of their own. And because she thinks she’s symbiotically tied to it, leaving for long periods of time it is a problem.
DBC: In the Lon Tobyn chronicle: there’s a magic system in which mages bind psychically with birds of prey. At the same time, there’s a very aggressive technological world interested in harvesting that natural world. Nature is both a source of power and a victim.
CJ: 35-40 years on the ocean has taught him one thing: it’s possible to love something that’s trying to kill you. He writes nautical fantasies – nature as obstacle, and nature as seductress. A reservoir of magic. And when Mother Nature wants to kill you, sending mountains of water crashing on you, trying to put you at the bottom of the sea, she can knock you flat. So strong, so scary. You feel like you have some control, but if Mother Nature decides you don’t, you don’t.
FH: Very like kayaking – some rivers are friendly and playful, some are scary as crap.

We have a long history of nature writing. Why do you think that’s so interesting, a thread that runs through our writing and our genre?
CJ: It’s something beyond our power. We can’t control it. We have to work with it or it’s going to kill us. You have to run with the storm, work with nature to survive.
DBC: The identity of this land has always been tied to the power of its natural environment. It’s no coincidence that the first big artistic statement was the Hudson River school of artists, portraying a landscape that caught the attention of the people. Tied to the power of its natural resources, and a natural frontier. It was seen as something to be tamed, harnessed, and used. Ask people in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and it was always nature. It has stuck with our identity as a country, and defined us.
FH: And yet the idea of a frontier was outright theft. Europeans came over and took away from the Native Americans. It wasn’t a great frontier; it was warfare and genocide and theft of a world that did not belong to them. It was one version of using nature replacing the native peoples’ version of working with nature. A head-to-head confrontation that changed the way it was viewed. Mankind took the forests, used them, and didn’t let them grow back. We need to regain a reverence for our land again. The Soulwood series is about the awareness and how the original peoples had a reverence for the earth, and how their way of life would have kept it alive, while our way is killing it. Deep abiding grief for our world and the whole human race. And we’re breeding ourselves out of existence.
DK: We’re raping our life-giving planet, and we can do a good job of paying lip-service (national parks, small conservation efforts), Yes, we do need to spread the word that it seems kind of obvious that we seem hellbent on our extinction. We need to respect nature because nature will win. It won’t miss us when we’re gone.
NN: The American ethos seems to be about conquering things: “There’s a challenge, let’s go get it.”
CJ: It’s not just Americans. It’s active in a lot of cultures. We’re a struggling species, and what’s happened is that we’ve always seen nature as a foe, not as a partner.
FH: And we believe it’s our right to use it.
CJ: Some believe that it is their right to take everything.

What’s your favorite book or movie that uses nature as a character, and why do you like it so much?
DK: A Perfect Storm. Extremely powerful film. This was based on a true story. Also, enjoyed Oz, where Baum used acts of nature to start adventures.
NN: The Time of the Great Freeze by Robert Silverberg. The characters have to cross this icy landscape. It’s about youth facing the challenges of their environment.
FH: Deliverance. The river had such a personality, such moments of serenity followed by such moments of incredible violence that was mirrored in the character struggles. Also, White Fang (Jack London). The setting affected her greatly.
DB: Rascal by Sterling North. About a young boy who adopts a raccoon. Also, A River Runs Through It. The river as metaphor and plot device as a family is chronicled.
CJ: My Side of the Mountain by Walt Murray. About a boy who learned to live in the mountains. And Dune, obviously, with nature as adversary and ally.

What about nature drew you to using that, and how do you use it in your books?
CJ: Nothing is more spiritual to him than being 150 miles from shore on a clear moonless night. The universe opens up around you and you realize how insignificant you are.
(DBC: You mean publishing didn’t do that for you?)
CJ: It makes you feel like a grain of sand on the beach, and you start living differently, thinking differently, once you connect. So in his books, his character longs to go to sea, but when she gets there, she’s sick as a dog. You can be terminally seasick, where you dehydrate and go into a coma. But the “what I love is killing me” that he experienced personally when younger drove him to include that in his work.
DBC: Environmental history: the duality between humankind and the natural world. As much as human activity impacts the planet, the planted shapes humanity. Conscious when worldbuilding of the way the landscape affects the history, culture, society of the people he creates. It’s important to understand that even cultures we think of living as one with nature impacted the natural world with which they were interacting, and in turn were shaped by that natural world. It’s not one-sided, it goes back and forth, and that’s the healthier kind of thinking we need.
FH: Nature has always been important to her writing because as a child she was bullied, a geek before geeks were remotely cool, a tree-hugger because she found solace in nature. Nature gave her something to hang onto because she had nothing else.
NN: Not a nature girl, but when she started to write about mages fighting ghouls in a Florida swamp, she knew she had to learn more about it. The book has a nature-based magic system because nature is always there. You can’t draw from it exhaustively, and yet you can. And energy is different in a swamp, so demons and ghouls use it. It feels like an alien landscape, because it’s a blackwater bog. (Okeepenokee swamp) The writing sucked her into nature rather than the other way around.
DK: Nature is spiritually uplifting for her (so discovering paganism was no surprise), so now she uses it in her writing, and has characters in the desert harnessing the elements with their magic. Is having fun with it.

What are the benefits and problems when you decide to make nature a lynchpin of whatever you’re working on?
DK: Be careful with limitations. Controlling magic, not getting out of control when the character is using it.
NN: The advantage is that nature is all around you, and the Okeepenokee swamp’s distinctiveness is useful. The downside is that you have to get it right. There’s also a danger of making it repetitive when you use the same setting too much.
FH: 150 acres is not that big of a piece of land, and it’s hilly, so not being repetitive is going to be difficult. Finding her subconcious awareness that she wants to make the piece larger, bring more pieces in, and there’s no way to do that that she’s found yet unless she makes it antithesis to what Soulwood is. And knowing as a writer that that won’t work. The other part of her brain is trying to twist that around, find the conflict. And to get the metaphor into the series, it’s all located in one spot, she’s got to try to make it work. It’s not easy, and she likes that. But it’s hard to rein that in. Winnowing out all the things her subconscious wants to use is a challenge.
DB: In the Justis Fearsson chronicles, the third book has a lot of scenes set in the natural environment. The experience of visiting a landscape for the first time. In the Lon Tobyn chronicles, he turned it into a polemic: it’s fine to write about a society part nature and part technology, but when you allow the fact that you’re an environmentalist creep into your narrative so that it’s ideologically driven rather than plot driven, it’s not good. He must remember that first and foremost he is a writer.
CJ: First, he gets to show people things they don’t get to see. Tropical reefs, the majesty of an ocean, with his books, essential and wonderful. The downside: he gets too close to it, and if you dive too deeply into setting you can overshadow your characters. It’s easy to get too much into the sea and to nautical terminology. Patrick O’Brien used nautical terminology heavily, which can alienate.  Pull it in and realize that you’re writing stories about people. Realistically, yes, you have nature, but it’s about character. Don’t overshadow the focus on your characters.

Audience Question: DBC and CJ: what if your audience is environmentalists and people who’d agree with you?
DBC: If you’re being true to your characters, that’s fine, the problem is when the authorial voice leaches into the characters. Was writing 21st century American sensibility into the cultures. Needed to be true to the story and the characters. As soon as you lose that trueness, then you’ve stepped over a line.

Audience Question: Have you ever written a character who has a distinct experience for the first time, and how it affects how the story is told?
FH: It’s difficult, because the sense of wonder is so intense, so strong, that there aren’t good English words to explain it, and you lose something when you do. Has never been able to replicate in text that sense of wonder the first time she had an experience with nature. That sense of absolute alienness.
NN: A concept, the idea of the holy, and the numinous: that moment of awe and things come together and you feel like you’re seeing something you didn’t realize was there.
DB: Didn’t try to recreate it; went back to old journals. Went back and read what his young self thought, because as inarticulate as it is, the emotion was there. He had the words.
CJ: It’s like looking at a beautiful painting, and looking at every brush stroke it took to make that painting, and feeling what the artist felt when he made that painting. Like seeing Crater Lake, Oregon. Gestalt moments. Putting it on paper is hard.

Audience Comment: She has a specific memory of before she got glasses, sometimes it’s just the little things. Like seeing leaves on a tree after first getting glasses. Experiences so small can still give you these experiences too.
FH: She was walking a creek, and it made a wide elbow turn, and there was a spring coming up in the middle. You could put your hand over it and feel the spring. Very small moments of wonders.
CJ: Coral reefs are like that. The closer you get, the more you see.
Other audience member: In the Eragon series – seeing the mountains for the first time, and seeing a forest, then seeing a city in the forest.