Transcript: Kim Stanley Robinson and Sonia Faruqi

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 3 Episode 8.

 

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JENN

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. Today we’re joined by Kim Stanley Robinson discussing Solar Bones by Mike McCormack and Sonia Faruqi on Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

JENN

Kim Stanley Robinson is a winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. He is the author of nineteen previous books, including the bestselling Mars trilogy and the critically acclaimed Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, Sixty Days and Counting, The Years of Rice and Salt, and Antarctica. In 2008, he was named a “Hero of the Environment” by Time magazine, and he recently joined in the Sequoia Parks Foundation’s Artists in the Back Country program. His latest book, Red Moon, is a novel of space exploration and political revolution set 30 years into our own future.

KIM STANLEY ROBINSON

My name is Kim Stanley Robinson and Solar Bones by Mike McCormack is my recommended.

Solar Bones is the story of an Irish civil engineer in Northwest Ireland. He doesn’t know it but it’s the last day of his life. So, it is in effect, a kind of ghost story or the sentence, my life flashed before my eyes is the form of the novel.

I had read Mike McCormack’s requirements previous novel called Notes From A Coma, and had been very impressed by it. It’s a kind of a science fiction story of a near future Ireland where people serve prison sentences by being put into an enforced coma. I was intrigued enough that when I heard about Solar Bones, which was kind of an accident, and one of the great repercussions of reading the London Review of Books. I read a review of it, I remembered Notes From A Coma. I ordered a copy of Solar Bones and read it there, and found it to be even more exciting. I think it is his best book and a really wonderful novel.

I like reading British science fiction because it’s same but different. It’s different enough that I learned a lot from it. It’s really the best science fiction being written today as far as I can tell, but again, this is a guess on my part. And then the Irish I’m interested in because I visited there in 2015 and I gave myself a kind of a personal education in contemporary Irish literature with the help of some Irish and American friends who pointed out what was going on.

It’s interesting too, because I’ve already liked a genre that is a strange little thing, which you might describe as people who are dead, but they don’t know that they’re dead. So, it’s a kind of a ghost literature.

There’s some really wonderful examples. Humpty Dumpty by Damon Knight, or The Hereafter Gang by Neal Barrett Jr. Peace by Gene Wolfe, which is a beautiful thing. And The Third Policeman by the Irish writer Flann O’Brien. Well, these were all examples of the what you might call the inadvertent ghost story. The first person accounts of a life by someone who is looking back even if they don’t know it, and having more and more surrealistic experiences.

Solar Bone fits in that little genre. And all five of the books I’ve mentioned are superb.

Solar Bones is interesting in a number of different ways. In some ways, he’s a writer’s writer. It’s a book that a working novelist might love. But it’s not just writers because it recently won the international Dublin Literary Award, which is a big international literary prize based out of Dublin, and that is seldom given to Irish books. But in this case they made an exception.
Solar Bones is about an ordinary guy who is in late middle age, he’s got his kids, his son and a daughter are young adults. And they are a close family with the arguments and problems that I would say a close and tight knit and good family. The wife is an interesting character too. The marriage has had its ups and downs but is an extremely solid marriage.

One of the things I think is important to McCormack was that although it is a ghost story and therefore genre, it’s an absolutely normal typical middle class, Western European life and Irish life in particular, out in the Galway area in the Northwest. Then at the same time, the novel is a single sentence. At first that seemed bizarre or a party trick, but what you realize as you’re reading it, is that in every way, it’s a success. It’s rather enthralling like a tightrope walk that’s walking. You begin to forget the tightrope and realize this is part of the dance is that it goes on this single line of, there’s no periods. Yet grammatically, and rhetorically, syntactically, it’s all very successful.

But even more so emotionally, you began to get into the flow of it. The kind of hurry or the charging that all of the experience is just one flow and there isn’t really individual sentences, there’s just a continuous flow of life. It succeeds in every possible way, even though it seems like it should be just a technical trick. But as a writer, I loved it and as the pages flowed by, I got more and more enthralled at the dance of the single sentence.

But then, it’s also the content. There’s things that are happening in an ordinary life around the kitchen table or at work. The guy is an engineer who works for the county. And so his work is completely mundane. The biggest scene is an argument over which kind of concrete makes a proper foundation and indeed, a legal foundation.

So, you couldn’t ask for more mundane materials for a story. I think that was on purpose on McCormack’s part that even our ordinary lives are charged with a kind of a magical surcharge. So, this is what novels are for. Novels are here to remind us that life has meaning, and give us suggestions as to what the meaning is without there ever been any finality to it.

I am really lucky, in that I am a good reader. I mean by that, when I’m reading fiction, I forget that I’m a writer. I fall into the dream, the hypnotic spell works like a charm, and I’m just in the book, and I’m in the story. If I get cast out of it, that’s a bad sign. It’s a sign I’m not liking it. It’s a sign that I maybe even will toss the book aside and pick up another one. Because there’s an awful lot of good fiction out there, and there’s no reason to push your way through something you’re not enjoying.

So, I would say that I have the facility of turning off the critical function and just living whatever the writer wants me to live. I enjoy that thoroughly. I would hate to be always analyzing as a writer. I can turn that function on afterwards if I want to know, well, how do I think they made that marvelous effect? But well, I’m reading it first time through, I’m just in the dream.
I do get impacted by the books that I love. The novels that I love afterwards, I’m thinking wow, how did they do it? Although I won’t use that same method, is there anything I can transfer into my own methods? Is there anything I can learn from that? I’m always on the search for a great reading experience. And then if I get them, and boy, there’s a lot of good stuff out there, then I do contemplate, well, what made that good? And how could you put it to use in your own work?

I’ve recommended Solar Bones to all of my friends who read. It was quite enthusiastic. It struck me, and for me, it was the book of the year, or the book of the last three or four years in terms of novels. I like a lot of novels, and this one isn’t head and shoulders above, but it was particularly fine. And it’s also quite short, 200 pages.

So, I did recommend it all over the place, and I was glad to see it won a big award. It’s a classic story. He couldn’t find a publisher for this book. A small press in Ireland published it, and saved it from oblivion. Then now, the quality of the book itself, I’m sure the review in the LRB helped, and now a big literary prize with a big cash award and a fame.

So, for Mike McCormack, he’s got to be pleased. It’s his best work ever, and it took a long time to write and then took a struggle to get published, and a small publisher had faith in him and I’m sure they’re really happy too. So, you can’t help it like that story and share it as widely as possible.

I think anyone who likes novels should give this a try. The strangeness of the sentence structure, which is to say the one sentence aspect of it will quickly fade and you’ll get sucked into it, and it’s a short read. I’d recommend it to anybody who loves novels.

JENN

Thanks again to Kim Stanley Robinson for joining us and recommending Solar Bones by Mike McCormack. His most recent novel Red Moon, published by Orbit, is now available wherever books are sold. You can learn more about him at kimstanleyrobinson.info.

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JENN

Sonia Faruqi is the author of critically acclaimed Project Animal Farm, about the world’s food system. A skilled storyteller and speaker, she lives in Toronto, Canada. Her debut novel The Oyster Thief is both a mermaid story and a call for conservation . Two worlds collide when a mermaid and human man meet, plunging readers into a vast underwater realm brimming with adventure and intrigue.

SONIA FARUQI

My name is Sonia Faruqi, and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is my recommended.

The Silent Spring came out almost exactly 56 years on 27th September, 1962. It was about DDT and the use of chemicals, and their effect on the natural world. The book itself is scientific, but it’s also really beautifully written. And it’s influential, because it really questions the sentiment of the time–and perhaps, at this time as well–that man can and should dominate nature. The book was arguing about the often negative effect humans have on the natural world.

What she did was take science, and make it beautiful, and mainstream. To get the average person interested, and invested, in these topics. Which I know from the perspective of a writer, is difficult, but very important from a skill perspective. Being able to relate to and get others to relate to, something that they may never have even thought about before they came across the particular book.

When I first read Silent Spring, it must have been about five years ago. It wasn’t a specific time in my life, but it was a book that I had been meaning to read. And I had read snippets of it before. I decided to read the whole book.

I overall love books that are serving two different purposes. One purpose being the topic itself, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. It could be Black Beauty for instance. At that time horses were not being well treated, and Black Beauty showing life from a horse’s perspective really helped improve the conditions. I would say these books are all powerful in that they were very bold. They were expressing points of views that were not conventional at those times, even though in these times, today, they are a lot more accepted societally. There are a number of books by bold and charismatic and highly skilled writers who have changed our way of thinking, and perhaps so much that we don’t even realize it was their works that did it. I guess some of these works came out before we were born.

What speaks to me about this specific book, is that it did result in some substantial changes at that time. It resulted in essentially the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Which is of course a major agency, and it does change based on the politics of the current administration. But it led to recognizing the importance of the environment. And to just essentially making it important from the societal perspective, as well as more of a legal perspective.

It’s still very relevant. There’s still a lot you learn from it. In science books I find that because science changes so rapidly, old books don’t necessarily stand the test of time as well as some others. And I find that her book, as I was reading it, it does stand the test of time very well. Chemicals are still a very important issue that we are contending with. On the topic of the ocean–which was very important to her given her marine biologist background–chemical sunscreens for instance are really crucial today. A lot of people when they go snorkeling at coral reefs, they use chemical sunscreens, and these are the primary sunscreens that are found in most pharmacies and stores, but they’re very harmful to coral reef. Even one drop in that huge amount of water is considered deadly to coral reef. More broadly, what worries me also is if these chemicals are so bad for living breathing systems that have existed for millions of years and we’re just slathering them on at abandon on our bodies, they can’t really be good for us either. In the back of The Oyster Thief, my new book, in the note section I do mention that small things make huge differences, and when it comes to chemicals that’s certainly the case.

I also like Margaret Atwood. I’m more new to her work, but I find that environment fiction is an area that’s growing a bit these days in the form of story with an environmental subtext or premise. That’s perhaps getting us to rethink some of the things that are going on and to think of them in a different way whether it’s climate change or another topic.

My first book, which came out in 2015, was Project Animal Farm. It’s a work of investigative journalism in which I went to farms around the world looking at animal welfare. Things like antibiotics, the effect of factory farms on the environment, and while I was researching and writing this book, it was very important to me that it be factually accurate and fair. The perspective I present to be fair to everybody from myself, to the animals, to the workers, to the companies. It should also be a book that is well written and that is beautiful. I love beauty on a personal level. I love the beauty of words and the sounds of language. Beauty is important to me, as well as depth. To me, as a reader or a writer, I want a book to have both things. Rachel Carson’s work helped with that. I moved on to fiction as well in The Oyster Thief, which is a novel that features a world of merpeople. It’s a novel that features also scenes of ocean conservation as we’re looking at life through the perspective of this mermaid. In this, all the science is accurate. From everything about the oceans, like the seaweed, the seashells, the stones. While the story itself and the premise, the merpeople are, of course, fictional. It’s a science fantasy. I would say that from writers like Rachel Carson, I’ve learnt the importance, the necessity, and the interest of science, and I also really just enjoy it. Growing up, my favorite subject was biology. It was never English at all, really, but I find that books are a way to reach people and to explore scientific and other topics in a way that’s creative and imaginative and enjoyable. Perhaps more so than reading a journal paper or an academic sort of dissertation. I would say that they’ve influenced me very strongly in the idea that it is possible to merge science and art in a way that’s effective and interesting and fun.

Overall, I have loved Rachel Carson’s life story itself. And she was such a champion for the environment. Pretty much launching the global environmental movement at a very different time than the time we have today. Where recycling in many places is quite a common thing. And even composting and other things are commonly accepted. So, I think she was arguing for something very important in a time that was different and particularly difficult. Especially as a woman scientist arguing for a different relationship with a natural world. I find myself inspired by that story, and by her courage and wisdom.

I haven’t fully delved into her earlier works yet. But this conversation is actually inspiring me to read her Sea Trilogy. A series of three books she came out with before Silent Spring. And that focus on the sea from the shores to the depths. And so, I’d say she’s an overarching influence on my life for some time. And it’s probably going to continue.

JENN

Thanks again to Sonia Faruqi for joining us and recommending Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Her novel The Oyster Thief, published by Pegasus Books, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on twitter at sonia_faruqi.

JENN
Next week on Recommended, one author remembers an older book that still feels timely:

UNNAMED AUTHOR

Sometimes I joke, this is one of those books that made me a feminist which, it like obviously putting it way too simply, it wasn’t any one thing but I grew up in this household where honestly like the word ‘feminist’ was most often employed as like a joke or an insult and yet, right there in my mom’s bookshelf, which was always stuffed with paperback mystery novels, because my mother also loves the genre, there was this novel. And it was all about the lives and work and desires of women.

JENN

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