The Rumpus Interview with Benjamin Parzybok
Set in the familiar not-so-distant-future, Benjamin Parzybok’s latest novel, Sherwood Nation, delivers a what if plotline of ecological disaster. His story unfolds in Portland, Oregon, amidst an extreme drought during which water is being strictly rationed. The locals pray for rain as lawns turn brown and body odor becomes the city’s official scent. Besides a half-baked scheme by the Mayor to dig a trench to the Pacific Ocean, there seems to be little hope in sight until the heavens open up.
The crisis begins to peak when a local woman notices extra water rations being trucked to the wealthier neighborhoods of Portland. Upon hijacking a suspected rations vehicle, the woman distributes the water to the locals at hand and becomes an overnight folk hero known as Maid Marian. Thus forms a schism in which Maid Marian’s neighborhood secedes from Portland and becomes known as “Sherwood Nation.” Reading this novel is an unnerving experience of who we are and what challenges we might face in our communities as climate change becomes a pressing issue.
Parzybok live and writes in Portland and is the author of a previous novel, Couch. I chatted online recently with Parzybok and checked his water supply. This is how it went.
The Rumpus: The West Coast is currently experiencing real drought problems with a less than rosy forecast for the future. As you were writing your book, did you see your plotline as a very real possibility?
Benjamin Parzybok: The book shares some amazing similarities to current news, but it was accidental. I began writing it in 2009, well before this incarnation of the California drought. I have watched the news develop toward the book—the intense, historic droughts of California and São Paolo, Ferguson protests and unrest, and the potential South Florida secession—with a mix of awe and horror. None have yet come to the place Sherwood Nation explores, but in each of the above situations, there feels a teetering toward it as people become frustrated with the sluggishness, denial, or ineffectiveness of their governments. That said, I did intend to write a post-collapse (I try not to use the word post-apocalyptic, since the book, in my opinion, is too different than other post-apocalyptic books to use that terminology) that heaved as close to reality as I could. In part, I wanted to go to a really grim place, and then find an optimistic path out of that place. Do I see Sherwood Nation as a real possibility? Yes—but any of the above situations will have to become more grim, to the point where the citizenry give up entirely on their governments, in order to re-invent themselves.
Rumpus: Your novel could be considered as part of a growing genre known as “climate lit”—fiction that addresses climate changes and its ensuing consequences. What are your thoughts on the subject?
Parzybok: I shy away from the term climate fiction, or worse, “cli-fi.” Writers have always extrapolated what’s happening in the present in order to ponder an issue, whether it is social change or government systems—thus the speculative in speculative fiction. I’d argue that many of the fiction books that have within them climate change are not really about climate at all, but simply use a changed environment to set up a unique social situation. We live on a planet in which change is constant and many, many books have addressed that. We don’t call Middlemarch Industrialism-change fiction (not that I am comparing my book to Middlemarch).
I’d love for Sherwood Nation to be considered a book about revolution and enclaves, budding nations and maintaining idealism in the face of reality, how a community responds to scarcity (and all the parts within a community, individuals, families, etc.), the role and nature of heroism and especially about the characters within—in a backdrop of a changed climate. Climate is not the main focus here. If Sherwood Nation had to be given a genre, I’d prefer social science fiction, slipstream (sci-fi and literary), or just fiction.
Rumpus: Are there particular genres of writing such as scientific, environmental, etc., that you have delved into which have influenced your fiction writing?
Parzybok: At the moment, I’m having a ball with research, and using it as an excuse to go on various quests. I was particularly struck by the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. Honestly, I think it should be required reading for all homo sapiens—if nothing else, read the first half that takes us from the possibility of a Homo Sapiens genocide against the Homo Neanderthalensis, through how the agricultural revolution created hierarchical society, wee! I’m also loving 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. At the moment, I’m having a ball with research, and using it as an excuse to go on various quests. I was particularly struck by the book by Charles C. Mann. I recently visited an archaeological site in the middle of the Oregon desert where eighty-one sandals were found. The sandals are works of immense craftsmanship, and they’re ten thousand years old. In mid-February David Naimon (a co-writer on our book that takes place in the arctic) and I are flying to Fairbanks to huddle under the aurora borealis. And so, yes: I think one of the best parts of writing a book is the research that takes one on grand adventures (both actual and literary), which influence what comes out on the page.
Rumpus: Do you think fiction might be a better vehicle than non-fiction for raising awareness of what is happening to our planet in terms of climate change?
Parzybok: While both are vital, I think fiction is an incredibly compelling way to address issues without sounding pedantic. It allows the reader to engage on an empathetic level, placing herself within the context of the created world, without being repelled by contrary ideologies (many of which we’ve picked up from others, unexamined). Fiction also allows us a wonderful, branching, decision tree for our future—where we can play out potential possibilities and choose, one hopes, the way we want our region/nation/species to progress. Though I think big-film fiction usually fails at this, as it’s often a shallow, already popularized political viewpoint coated in a veneer of eye-candy and action.
Rumpus: I don’t understand the denial of climate change. Sherwood Nation depicts a type of class war over the unequal distribution of water rations. Do you think this is happening now with climate denial, that the wealthy are in battle with the other ninety-nine percent?
Parzybok: I certainly think there’s a war going on between the self-interested, self-serving body that is the corporation, and humans. At this point in our democracy, that’s the primary struggle we’re facing: whether corporate or constituent interests will win out. Weirdly, corporations are staffed by people, presumably, and so you’d expect they’d have some sway. But a corporation has a mind of its own, and corporate goals do not line up at all with potential longer-term goals of our species (these goals might be difficult to agree on, but surely opportunities for cataclysm might be among them). I do wish every CEO (most of whom are among the one percent) would sit down and re-evaluate his or her corporation’s goals based on long-term interests for living here on this planet. However, as the effects of climate change are born out, a class war becomes inevitable, I think, as those with means are able to afford to move away from low-lying coastal areas, for example, and ward against many of the effects we’ll see.
Rumpus: While not exactly science fiction, your book does take place in the near future. However, science fiction novels have a good track record for predicting future events, as your book may also show. What might we attribute this to? Do you think there is a sort of collective Jungian DNA in such writers that might have a special ear tuned to the future?
Parzybok: I certainly wish that DNA existed—that sounds wonderful. But I think it might be the very nature of the genre to predict potential futures. I’m sure they’re wrong as often as they’re right. Take David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest vs. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, one with a secession, media so potent it incapacitates you, and an entire region of the country targeted as a waste dump. But for the most part civilization is up and running. The Road takes place after a complete meltdown, a true apocalypse. Even though it was outrageous and satirical, I’d peg Infinite Jest as being much closer to any short-term future. Which future bore out between 1984 and Brave New World? Honestly, we have aspects of both of these in our current age, though the books are very different. Any science fiction that tackles real, present-day issues and extrapolates them out has the potential to predict the future.
Rumpus: Could you picture yourself writing a purely science fiction novel?
Parzybok: I was so captivated by the movie Moon; definitely one of my favorite sci-fi movies in recent memory. And yet, was it purely science fiction? Same goes for MT Anderson’s Feed—I loved that book. I’m not sure I know what pure science fiction is anymore. Genres are more mixed up than ever. We have science fiction quote-unquote authors like Karen Joy Fowler winning the Pen/Faulkner and getting shortlisted for the Man Booker (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves), and literary writers like Michael Chabon winning the triple crown of Locus/Nebula/Hugo awards (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union). I love science fiction, and I have a few science fiction stories in the works (one, published in the anthology Cyberpunk: Stories of Hardware, Software, Wetware, Evolution, and Revolution, which I’m considering turning into a novel), but I’m not sure I know what pure science fiction is anymore. I guess if the question is: Could I write a novel that doesn’t loll around in the joy of sentences, or revel in the inner lives of characters, and which is based only around pure, speculative science… then I guess the answer is no.
Rumpus: Will this rising tide of “climate fiction” influence how we cope and deal with this phenomenon of changing weather?
Parzybok: Art changes us, both on an individual and societal level. In the smallest sense, I think most people would say there’s a book that has changed their lives, opened them to a whole new way of seeing the world. Will it inspire some to speed action? I hope so. I do feel that the idea of climate change hasn’t registered for us. Very few people I know are taking significant action in their own lives. The scale of it, and the timeline of it, are so massive that it’s hard for us to find an angle in which to effect change. We call for government action, but within the infrastructure of our society, it’s very difficult to substantially change one’s behavior. These things happen slowly. Then again, I want to emphasize: I’m a storyteller. It’s my job to spin a compelling tale. It’d be flattered if, upon finishing the book, someone had a new perspective on the issues within. But more than that, I want people to be engrossed in a book, to feel empathy with the characters, to be moved by it. For any fiction that addresses larger societal issues to matter, it’s got to be good storytelling first.
Rumpus: If an environmental disaster wiped out human life and only one book survived to be discovered by the next generation of civilization, what book would you like it to be?
Parzybok: An interesting question with such a lot to consider. I suppose the question is, were a seed to be planted that shaped a whole new culture, what would that seed be? Is it more important to pass down a cultural legacy or a set of survival skills—i.e., the works of Shakespeare or the importance of washing one’s hands? Should emphasis be given to attempting to positively shape that new generation? And is that not terribly presumptuous? If there’s a significant gap between the previous civilization and the next, then perhaps a book of first aid, hygiene, and acquired medical and healing knowledge might be best. I was amazed to find that in the fifteen hundreds, when Europeans brought an enormous number of highly communicable diseases to this continent, cultures from both sides of the pond had no real idea of how diseases spread. The pilgrims believed the plagues were “the good hand of God,” meant to help their subjugation of the continent. And so what better way to seed a new beginning than with the knowledge of how to heal one another. They will invent their own Shakespeares. I am confident in the ability of Homo Sapiens to do that.
Rumpus: What are you working on now? Do you feel compelled to do more work that has a social conscious?
Parzybok: A lot of the activism projects I’ve worked on tend to happen along side my writing, whether it’s telling about a Sudanese detainee at Guantanamo or building a website websites for shoe string nonprofits and artists.
Right now I’m playing at a novel based around an archaeological dig in the Oregon desert. I don’t set out to write political or social issues into books, but what I care about inevitably makes it into the work. Sherwood Nation was originally about how a community responds to larger outside forces—but it became much more about secession and reforming government, and how individuals might act within that. The new book is simpler, in a single POV, about toiling away on a big project, and discovering the history of who we were vs who we are. It’s definitely not science fiction—though it might have a few supernatural aspects.
Parzybok can also be found on his Tumblr site levinofearth.com or on twitter at @sparkwatson.
Image of Fort Rock courtesy of Benjamin Parzybok.