Catherine Bush is the author of five novels. Her work has been critically acclaimed, published internationally and shortlisted for literary awards. Blaze Island (2020) was a Globe and Mail Best Book, also a Best Book of the Year from the Writers’ Trust of Canada and 49th Shelf. Accusation (2013) was one of NOW magazine’s Best Ten Books of 2013, an Amazon.ca Best Book and a Canada Reads Top 40 pick. Minus Time (1993), her first novel, was shortlisted for the Books in Canada/SmithBooks First Novel Award and the City of Toronto Book Award. Her second novel, The Rules of Engagement (2000) was a national bestseller and chosen as a New York Times Notable Book and one of the Globe and Mail’s Best Books of the Year. Her third novel, Claire’s Head (2004), was shortlisted for Ontario’s Trillium Award and was a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year.
What was your inspiration for Blaze Island (2020)?
Caring for the world beyond the human has always been part of how I live my life. My first novel had a strong ecological bent, there are young animal-rights activists in it, but, as time passed, it interested me deeply to look at the climate crisis head-on in fiction. I will add that my sister Elizabeth Bush is a climate information officer for the federal government (Canada). Through her I have this personal, familial, intimate, ongoing conversation about the climate emergency and climate policy, one that has been enriching and provoking. I know conversations with my sister inspired how I might write about the climate crisis in fiction. I also saw this amazing production of The Tempest (Shakespeare) at the RSC (The Royal Shakespeare Company) in England. Afterwards, I imagined Prospero, the magician of The Tempest, as a contemporary climate scientist who, in his desperation to protect his daughter, starts to think about the fabulous feats of climate engineering. To adapt The Tempest, I needed a remote island. I stumbled upon Fogo Island, off the coast of Newfoundland, most felicitously. I was lucky enough to have a residency from the Tilting Recreation and Cultural Society the first summer I went there, in 2012. I went back over eight years and talked to many people about their experience of the changing climate on the island. The novel is very rooted in place and how we build a relationship to the land where we find ourselves.
I am quite familiar with that social phenomenon from anthropology in that place is very important to people. It helps distinguish who they are, where they come from, their identity, and how they negotiate that on a societal level. The desire to live off of the island and not leave came through in the book.
Alan Wells, the climate scientist in Blaze Island, is determined to live as close to the land as possible, to be self-sufficient, off-grid, grow his own food. His daughter, Miranda, gardens and forages. Yet island thinking is also planetary thinking. The planet has limited resources. It’s a bounded world. We can venture off-world, but this is the place with the air we need to breathe in order to survive.
Almost as if Earth is its own island within space?
Absolutely. I mean it is. When Alan Wells tells his daughter that she can’t leave the island, it is a forceful and controlling thing for him to say as a parent. At the same time, we can’t leave our planetary island. Most of us can’t, and we really need to think about what it means to live on an island. I didn’t want to write a dystopic story. The novel is a little bit speculative, but it is set in an alternate now, and one of my desires was to invite the reader into this amplified landscape, where the humans are somewhat diminished by the elements: wind, water, the rugged earth. I wanted readers to really feel the wind. While the novel examines climate change head-on, one of the other things I tried to do was remove the phrase itself, because it calls up so many clichés. Once they arrive on the island, Alan won’t allow Miranda to use the word climate. I wanted to place climate change in the context of the many different changes that Miranda, as a teenager, then young adult, is confronting, to consider all the ways in which she experiences change, especially after the huge hurricane that opens the novel.
Going off of that, how do you think climate fiction will impact its readers once aspects of these sorts of fiction, speculative or not, become more of a reality?
I hope that fiction will bounce off reality in probing and uncanny ways. Climate change, in the form of wild weather, drought, flood, fires, becomes more a part of our lives every day. Fiction needs to confront and respond to that. We need to find our changing world in our stories. We need to write the stories we need to hear at this time.
Has your perspective on the situation evolved or changed in any way since you have been writing about it?
Confronting climate change in my fiction compels me to pay attention to it. For me, as for everyone, it would be easier not to think about these thorny issues. I can feel the appeal of living in a certain kind of bubble, focusing on comfort, but at the same time, I can’t do that, emotionally or ethically. I really believe in the power of stories to offer us necessary ways of imagining our world. One novel alone might be able to change things but novels and fiction can create a conversation. We need to talk about the climate crisis, and in fiction we need to see it not as something speculative but as an essential part of our now. The way we tell stories about the climate crisis will affect how we respond to the climate crisis.
Do you think there are limits to what you can and cannot say about climate change even though it’s fiction?
When I was beginning to work on Blaze Island, I had a conversation with the director of a cultural organization that brought artists and writers to the arctic to show them the effects of global warming. I told this man that I was interested in writing about climate engineering, such as spraying particulate matter into the atmosphere so that the sun’s rays bounce off the haze and temperatures (though not carbon dioxide levels) are controlled. He told me, “You can’t do that, it is too morally dangerous, people shouldn’t be doing that research”. But I’m not trying to advocate for climate engineering in the novel, only dramatize why a man desperate to protect his child and find some control in an uncontrollable world might be lured by it. I was lucky enough to have a beta reader to ensure the novel’s science is correct. I really wanted it to be right, I didn’t want to make mistakes that way.
One interesting thing I found in the book was why glacial ice is blue. It’s ancient and has been compact for so long that the air in the ice has left, and the lack of air affects the optics of seeing certain types of light refracting from the ice. The lack of air makes it so the ice only refracts blue light waves instead of red-light waves.
I really wanted to call attention to ice in the book: the majesty and tragedy of icebergs breaking off the Greenland ice sheet and floating south. Ten thousand year old ice melting. There was a piece in the Washington Post this spring about the importance of wonder and awe in our lives, and I wanted readers to feel that in response to ice. We all depend on polar ice to survive on this planet. In our southern lives, it’s easy not to think about ice much at all.
Is there anything you would like to add to what we have been talking about that I haven’t touched on, or anything that you would like to ask me?
In Blaze Island, one of Miranda’s quandaries is how to imagine a future. All the younger characters grapple with this. I suppose it’s the central question that underpins the whole novel. The only tool we have when imagining the future is the past, which may not be much of a guide to whatever lies ahead. Nevertheless we need to use all our imaginative powers to imagine the future that we desire, not the future we fear.
November 18th, 2022
Interview by Evan Mardell
Edited by Hope Latta
Canadian Writers’ Exhibition
Showcasing Canadian writers from coast to coast