The Greening of Literature

AWP 2014 was fantastic, and I’m not just talking about the weather. More than 12,000 writers took over downtown Seattle a few weeks ago and I was honored to be one of them. From the book fair to the panels, readings, and after-parties, bibliophiles ruled the weekend—in our self-conscious, frumpy way. John Yunker posted a great recap of our panel on Ecolitbooks.com and I’ll be submitting a write up of the conference in general at FictionDepot.com, but here are a few excerpts from my presentation at The Greening of Literature:

When I wrote The Dragon Keeper, I never thought of it as an environmental story. To me, it was always a love story between Meg—a young, isolated zookeeper—and Jata, the Komodo dragon in her care. Since it’s been published that’s still how I describe the book to readers: as a love story. Words like environmental and ecological are socially charged and they can be polarizing; they can scare away a reader. But a love story is a simple, compelling arc, something most of us gravitate toward. A love story celebrates the connection forged between two characters despite great odds. In my book that connection was between the human protagonist and the animal protagonist, who happened to be a member of a hostile, endangered species.

The love story pitch, incidentally, only backfired on me once, but we’ll save that story for another day. Here’s what I shared about witnessing the power of fiction over non-fiction in addressing ecological issues.

Last year I was invited to talk with a class at Cedar Crest College that had read the book. This was a freshman, general requirement composition course and most of the students were science majors, a lot of nursing, some biology, and engineering, the type of students that I expected would be more drawn to non-fiction, but I couldn’t find any evidence of that. They had a lot of enthusiastic questions about the love triangle in the book, which reinforces the old “sex sells” idiom, but they were equally curious about Komodos in general—their history, behavior, and appetite—anything I could tell them that would expand on the introduction given in the book. For their assignment, I asked them to think about whether fiction or non-fiction was better suited to informing an audience about environmental issues. In response, one student wrote, “(Fiction) is able to take a daunting task like reading and turn it into the opposite, an experience that contains adventure, drama, and numerous plot twists that keep readers on the edge.” That word—daunting—stunned me. Daunting: to inspire fear or lack of confidence. To think that reading could be a “daunting task” recalibrated my entire view of the issue. I had assumed that the major limiting factor to the readership of non-fiction was interest—you’re not going to buy a book about species conservation unless you’re already concerned—but this student added the obstacle of intimidation. Non-fiction, to her, was daunting in a way that fiction wasn’t. She went on to say, “This is why people read fiction…because they feel that they are not reading when they open a novel, they feel that they are opening another experience.” Non-fiction tends toward the macro, the entire ecosystem, which is not where most of us live. We inhabit microcosms and fiction delves into these spaces; for this student, fiction transformed her interaction with a book from the task of reading into an invitation to an experience.

As I sat down to write this post, my brother called me. He said he’d been going crazy earlier in the evening, that he just needed to give his head a little vacation, and after a while he realized what he craved was a book. He pulled a short story collection off his bookshelf and started reading. He read ten stories and his entire mood changed. The reason for his call though, was to apologize for keeping the short story collection I’d lent him for the better part of a decade. No worries on this end. I hope everyone has cracked open a good experience lately.