BEHIND THE BOOK
A CONVERSATION WITH SUSAN M. GAINES
author of Accidentals
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So far, what’s been the most surprising (and/or difficult, and/or enjoyable) part about writing your book?
When I first started thinking about the story that would become Accidentals, I was restless, looking for an excuse to leave California. I thought I might go back to southern Chile, where I’d traveled in my twenties and acquired my second language. I imagined a story about a fully assimilated immigrant—like many of my California friends—who becomes disillusioned with the US and abandons her American family to return to her native country. I was also looking for an impetus to start birding again, something I hadn’t done since I was a teenager.
It was 1999, and I was coming to terms with the end of nature as I’d understood it in the 1970s, thinking about my father’s Sierra Club activism, about my own political inertia. Thinking about climate change and trying to understand an economic system whose well-being depended on perpetual exponential growth. . . . I was surprised to find all these seemingly disparate concerns and interests merging with the stories I’d been hearing for decades from my Uruguayan friend in California. More surprised still, when I accompanied her on a visit home and found that the rice paddies and wetlands I’d started writing about sight unseen were real—and teeming with birds.
Of course, I couldn’t write a novel set in a country I’d never lived in, so I found some paid work teaching English, and stayed. That’s when the real surprise came: a deep affinity to a new home, lifelong friends. Real life following in the footsteps of my fiction.
In real life, I struggled to keep the rent paid and ended up setting Accidentals aside for many years to concentrate on writing a science book that came with a fellowship and an advance attached then on the demanding jobs that grew out of that experience… When I finally came back to the manuscript, history had changed, I had changed, the world had changed… I tore it apart and started anew. Wherewith, a fifteen-year writing process that was full of many more, albeit less life-altering, surprises.
"Of course, I couldn’t write a novel set in a country I’d
never lived in, so I found some paid work teaching English, and
stayed. That’s when the real surprise came: a deep affinity to
a new home, lifelong friends. Real life following in the
footsteps of my fiction."
You direct the Fiction Meets Science program at the University of Bremen, and Accidentals is infused with science—birds and microbes especially. Why is it important to you to bring fiction and science together?
Scientific knowledge has had such a huge impact on western civilization—from underpinning the technologies we rely on, to informing our understanding of the planet—that I don’t see how we can create literature that does not address that knowledge and the ways in which we acquire it. And yet, when I was working on my novel Carbon Dreams in the 1990s, I could find few examples of realist novels about scientific themes and scientist characters. Indeed, science seemed to be off limits for character-driven “literary” fiction, relegated to the science fiction genre, which speculated about future technologies and their repercussions, but rarely addressed the ways that individuals generate and interact with science in the world as we know it. That has, to some extent, changed in the last couple of decades, and it is this observation that has attracted the literary scholars, sociologists, and scientists involved in Fiction Meets Science.
When I started Accidentals, I wasn’t imagining it as a science novel. I thought I’d done that experiment in my first novel and was onto something else. But I spent much of my young adulthood studying and doing research in chemistry and oceanography, and I can’t seem to keep my scientific world view out of my fiction—though when I first dropped out of graduate school and started writing my first stories, I tried! So when I was writing about birds from the perspective of a nature-loving birdwatcher, I couldn’t help but bring in an ornithologist to nitpick the science. And if I’m going to have a 21st-century rice farmer in the story, then he is going to be an agronomist thinking scientifically about farming, and when I was in Uruguay researching the book I came upon some microbiologists studying the microbial ecology of the mud and it was just so interesting I had to write about it…
Describe one of your favorite places. What makes this place special to you?
Two of my favorite places are described in Accidentals: The high country of the eastern Sierras, above tree line, sparkling bald granite, crystal blue lakes. No roads, no towns, no nothing, but a horizon of ten-thousand-foot ridges, a sky so bright with stars you can make your way even on a moonless night. Scrambling marmots and Gray-crowned Rosy Finches. Patches of spring snow around the lake. And Laguna de Rocha on the northeast coast of Uruguay. Wading across it to sneak up on the Chilean Flamingos and Black-necked Swans, Black Skimmers sweeping across at dusk. And then there is the north coast of California, Salt Point State Park, where you can admire the crashing waves and wander through a fantasy world of sandstone formations and pretend there isn’t a highway a half a mile inland. OK, that’s more than one. It’s been years since I’ve been at any of them, so the descriptions are sketchy…
Tell us about your dream book launch party.
Oh, this is hard, because it is a party that can never happen, as it would bring together the people who helped support the writing of this book over so many years—but they are scattered across three continents, and the man who would have taken the most joy in launching Accidentals into the world, my dear Stephan, died suddenly last year, a few months before TH offered a contract.
Why Torrey House?
My writing reflects my upbringing in California in the sixties and seventies with a sensibility for the open spaces and environmental concerns of the western USmakes THP a natural choice. I first became aware of the inbred differences between writers of the est and the east coast publishing establishment when I read the eulogies to Wallace Stegner in the nineties. The California literary press that published my first novel succumbed to the new financial realities of publishing and distribution shortly after Carbon Dreams was published, and I’m thrilled that THP has taken up the banner of western writing and is developing a sustainable model for independent press publishing. More so, now that I see the kind of attention and professional care my book is getting from the small staff at THP. I sincerely believe that the non-profit model of literary publishing that THP is developing and perfecting is the best option for preserving what is left of our literary culture!
Help bring Accidentals by Susan M. Gaines to the page.
SUSAN M. GAINES is known for melding science and natural history into literary fiction. Her 2001 novel Carbon Dreams was an early contribution to the genres now variously known as cli-fi, eco-fiction, and lab-lit or science in fiction. Her novel Accidentals takes on both environmental and political themes, and her non-fiction book Echoes of Life combines literary prose and narrative in a scientific account of discoveries in the earth sciences. Raised in California, Gaines has spent much of her adult life in South America, where Accidentals is set, and in Europe, where she is a founding director of the Fiction Meets Science program at the University of Bremen.