Hypertext Interview With Claudia Casper

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Interviewed by Christine Rice

Claudia Casper’s prescient and lyrical novel, The Mercy Journals (Arsenal Pulp Press), builds on the rich speculative canon of Mary Shelley, Claire Vaye Watkins, Jules Verne, Margaret Atwood, and George Orwell, among others, in its terrifying exploration of the future. In this case, it’s the human and environmental fallout of climate change: war, genocide, mass migration, PTSD, addiction.

And as if it wasn’t before, with leaders who continue to refer to climate change as a ‘Chinese hoax,’ The Mercy Journals suddenly becomes necessary reading.

A few pages into the novel, the narrator and protagonist, Allen Levy Quincy, nicknamed Mercy, writes:

I was sober through most of that history. I stayed sober when my ex-wife died of a deadly new variant of the hantavirus that had spread north, and I stayed sober when I took care of my sons. Sober even though they acted like I was the volatile element in their lives and looked only at each other when I spoke to them. When I left for work and listened at the door; they finally became animated and relaxed enough to be afraid of everything else in the world crashing down on them. I tried to be tender with them, to lay my hand on their heads, put an arm around their shoulders, but they’d wince or stay perfectly still. I was sober through all that.

But now I am drunk.

Casper extends the metaphor to Earth: it could only accept so much before everything came crashing down…the trick, of course, is finding the flicker of hope amidst all that chaos.

Casper is the author of the novels The Reconstruction and The Continuation of Love by Other Means, which was short-listed for the Ethel Wilson BC Book Prize. Her writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, Geist, EventBest Canadian Short Stories (Oberon), the anthology Dropped Threads: What We Aren’t Told (Vintage), edited by Carol Shields and Marjorie Anderson and Canadian Content. She is writing the screenplay for a 3-D feature film France/Canada co-production of The Reconstruction. Her work has been published in Canada, the US, the UK, and Germany. With Anne Giardini, Casper conceived the Carol Shields Labyrinth, an interactive online labyrinth that honors Shields’s life. Casper teaches writing at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and resides in West Vancouver, BC.

Christine Rice: In your first novel, The Reconstruction, your main character looks to the past to make sense of the present.

Jump to The Mercy Journals. It begins in 2047. There has been a devastating world war and the effects of full-out climate change have come to pass. The tress that remain are covered for protection against constant winds. It’s dreamily foggy and misty and cool. Over one third of the global population has died.

The main character, Mercy, struggles against his memories, tries to tamp them down, suppress them. Without giving too much away, I wanted to talk about memory.

Memory is a deep well for writers. What is it about memory – including the concept of shared memory – that draws you?

Claudia Casper: For me, memory is tied to identity, which I think is a cornerstone of being human. Without memory, we cease to be ourselves, we become a kind of very large amoeba, moving, acting, but with no sense of self. Consciousness requires memory to even exist, to create a sense of self, although I suppose meditation might suggest otherwise. At the time I was writing The Reconstruction, I was going through a lot of changes with my own identity, and the acute pain of that feeling made me question whether it even existed. By going back to Lucy, a three million year old ancestor on the hominid bush that produced humans, I felt I had found a creature that linked us all, linked all of our identities, and linked us to nature. Without the fossils, which are a kind of geological memory, we would not even know Lucy existed. In a way, memory plays an opposite role in The Mercy Journals. There, I was intrigued by how memory could attack a person, could destabilize you, and deconstruct your sense of reality. My hero, Allan Quincy, has to find a way to integrate the memories that threaten to destroy him, in order to live. In the end, it is only through a kind of Shakespearean action, counter to every instinct he has, that he is able to free himself. He can’t think himself out of it.

CR: We first at Women & Children First, a wonderful indie book store in Chicago, the week after the 2016 United States elections. Those weeks following the election felt surreal and, as we discussed, you felt the odd energy during your trip to Chicago. There is this sense that the things we write are coming to pass…quicker than we might have first imagined. As a writer and as a Canadian, what did you notice during your trip to the United States those weeks after the election?

CC: In truth, I was in Chicago and New York only for a week so it would be hopelessly reckless to generalize. But if I were to be utterly reckless, I would say there was a feeling of being at the edge of a precipice, the exhilaration and fear of trying something untested and, yes, reckless, out. One of the concepts at the heart of The Mercy Journals is that there is behaviour that has a future, and behaviour that doesn’t and that people know the difference. It’s not that difficult to figure out. Much of our behaviour is sustainable if a few people do it, but if 7 billion people do it, the species is kaput. The future I imagine in The Mercy Journals is a society just after figuring out what has to go, behaviour-wise. The election of Donald Trump, and all the policies he is pushing, seems to illustrate perfectly behaviour that doesn’t have a future, and we all know it, some more consciously than others.

CR: Did you feel a sense of urgency when you wrote The Mercy Journals? Was there one thing that served as a ‘hair trigger’ when you first entertained writing it? Or was it more of a combination of events?

CC:  It takes me a long time to write a novel and my sons were 11 and 15 when I started this one. I asked myself what was the most important question for their future, and their generation’s future? To deal with climate change, which is a global problem, not a national one, our species is going to have to work together in a way we never have before, except perhaps to a small extent through religion. I believe we are at a watershed time in human history. Up until now, all our structures have been built on a model of growth – population, economic, resource use, wealth, lifespan, colonization – and we are coming to the end of growth. This will require a profound reorganization of all our cultural, economic, and political matrices. We are coming to a hairy but exciting patch in our evolution. Allen Quincy is the man on the edge of the watershed, Leo is the man on the dark side, and young Griffin is the man on the sunny side. The drama of those three men clashing is what drives the book. And, to answer your question, yes there was a sense of urgency writing this novel, and I felt it might already be old news by the time it came out, but it still seems as though it’s ahead of the curve. As always. It will be the poor and other species that suffer the most from the effects of climate change, and those in power won’t likely act until what they perceive as their own tribe is threatened.

CR: What was it about Mercy’s character that drew you? I was really impressed by your use of research in the book. You write with such nuance and spot-on understanding of PTSD, climate change and its effects, and other issues. How do you use research in your fiction and do you allow the research to influence and/or change the narrative in any way?

CC: The first spark for Allen Levy Quincy, nicknamed Mercy, was Romeo Dallaire, the general who ran the UN peacekeeping mission to Rwanda during the genocide, a man who developed a severe case of PTSD from this experience, and then became one of the first brave spokesmen advocating for treatment of the condition. I travelled to Ottawa to meet him, and read his books, but then I realized the character I wanted for my novel was someone who was younger,  lower ranking than general, someone whose experience of atrocity would fully  upend his value system. What I love about Mercy is his fundamental decency, his self-deprecating honesty, his slightly twisted mind, and his core strength as a human being. Even during the worst, he never gives up. He’s a true hero in my mind, despite his complicity in two of humanity’s worst crimes.

Usually, I do some research, and then the story is knocking away inside my skull. I write a first draft, all the while trolling for new information. When that draft is finished, it is clear what else I need to know and I do a second round of research as I deepen the story, the themes, and characters. I read everything that came out about climate change throughout, as well as noting my own direct experiences. Funnily enough, during the final edit with the publisher, my editor observed that my only female character, Ruby, was a bit cliché, and I realized I had focused so much on making sure the male characters in the book rang true, that I had neglected her. I interviewed two dancers, and watched several interviews with choreographers, to make Ruby’s character concrete and true. She was too abstract before that. Research really helps save a writer from dull abstraction.

CR: There’s this new genre that’s emerging ‘cli-fi’ – terrible name but an interesting genre. I find fiction so important when I attempt to understand the world. What can cli-fi do to help further the facts of climate change?

CC: The question could even be – what can fiction do to effect social change? The minute a novel is a polemic, it’s dead in the water. The things that make fiction really sing, character, story, atmosphere, anomalies, paradoxes, conflicts, lyrical language, ambiguity, are all qualities that evade proselytizing. So you can’t go at it head on. One of my frustrations writing The Mercy Journals as I watched climate change ramp up its urgency for our planet, was that the novel wasn’t really about climate change. It was more about murder and killing. Really climate change is more the backdrop for the story. And then I realized that this was exactly right. That the reader, by absorbing the reality of climate change invisibly, almost like breathing the air around us, would understand more and feel more about it than through any direct prose on the subject. But there is still such a long way to go. In our last federal election in Canada, which prides itself so much on its wilderness and so-called pristine environment, climate change was number 8 or 9 on the list of voters priorities, when to me, it’s a screaming number one.

CR: So many works of fiction – by George Orwell and Margaret Atwood and Ray Bradbury and Mary Shelly and Jules Verne and on and on – foretold future events. I’m writing a book set in the future and, really truly, the future scares me. Does the writing of a future very much unlike the present give you hope for the future or simply leave you distraught?

CC: The future of The Mercy Journals felt like a hopeful future to me. It’s not hard to imagine ways in which humankind could destroy the foundations for its survival in the near future. There are so many of us, and our consciousness is largely structured on comparison. What I mean by this is that we have evolved as beings that survive by virtue of our membership in a group, and we thrive depending on our position in that group. Being ostracized, not that long ago, meant death. So our sense of reality arises largely out of where we perceive ourselves in relation to each other. Are we young? Yes, if we are in a group of 90-year-olds, no if we are among 10-year-olds. Are we smart? Yes if we are in a group at our own intellectual level, no if we are swimming with a bunch of physicists. What this means is that we define what is expected and normal in relation to our group, and to ensure a future for ourselves, at the numbers of individuals which are foreseen over the next few decades, 9 billion, we are going to have to change our perception of what is normal, what is expected. Maybe this thinking is bleeding into a further answer for the previous question. Writing fiction that assumes a new normal and shows that one can still eke out happiness and meaning and love, is helping further dealing with climate change.

Oddly, I believe that the universal basic income, which may in fact prove revenue neutral for many governments, is the most interesting and hopeful concept for our future. Technology is quickly meaning that the model of life developed after the industrial age, where most people became wage earners, trading their time and energy for money, is becoming obsolete. If consumption is no longer the added reward for spending much of our life doing work we don’t want to do, but time is the reward given by technology, a profound change in our social organization will take place, and community and culture will become more central again.

CR: You mentioned that you cut big chunks of writing from The Mercy Journals because you wanted it to move swiftly and not be unwieldy. Did I make that up or did you actually cut a lot out of the final version?

CC: I’m not sure I cut out huge chunks, but I did make the narrative as spare as I could, and I spent a lot of time cutting it down to a lean, mean fighting machine. My reasoning was that with the internet, and the proliferation of media with which to distract ourselves, getting a reader to commit the time to reading a novel was going to be more and more difficult. We are growing used to reading things in smaller and smaller chunks and maintaining focus is more challenging for everyone. I felt that the novels of the future, should they exist, would be shorter. However, novels are becoming a relief from the mind’s darting about on the internet, so maybe long novels are going to be what people want.


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