On June 2, 2016, a volcano sprouts in Central Park, Manhattan. On June 4, a little boy in Mexico City accidentally time travels to the ancient past and meets a cloud that’s full of rage. On June 10, 2016, Dr. Aithne Elgin, a researcher, leaves her lover’s apartment in Tokyo to fly to the US to study the mysterious New York volcano, which is being dubbed “Fuji 2.” Fuji 2 grows larger by the day. In Hawaii, a trans man composes an apocalyptic lemonade commercial while hiking Mauna Loa. In Mongolia, a shepherd is stung by a bumblebee and becomes the avatar of a vast, green hive mind. Across the world, llamas are dying. Old Otherwise is in Alaska, preparing herself. Preparing for eruption.
John Elizabeth Stintzi’s second novel, My Volcano, out now from Two Dollar Radio in the US and from Arsenal Pulp in Canada/The Commonwealth, was written for a reader with a range of interests. This book contains multiple genres and themes, and short, punchy chapters paint a vast, weird portrait of our world that spans concurrent timelines. My Volcano has romance, queer becoming, body horror, cli-fi, resistance, and even commercials. Stintzi described the book as “doomscrolling in novel form,” but “with more heart than the algorithm.” I caught up with them on Zoom to talk about what it took for them to pull off this remarkable book.
The Rumpus: So what did you know, from the beginning, that you didn’t want this book to be?
John Elizabeth Stintzi: For a long time, I didn’t necessarily know that this was going to turn into a book. But once it started taking some book-like form, I was conscious that I wanted to have speed bumps and jostles for the reader. That was the biggest, earliest important craft decision. I needed to make sure that someone couldn’t go through this book without being slapped every now and again. Whether because of something that doesn’t quite add up or just something that’s abrupt and in their face, like the commercials or a news bulletin about someone who was actually murdered in the summer of 2016.
Rumpus: The Sun Chunk Juice Co. commercials startled me. It felt like I could remember them, even though I know they’re totally made up. I was wondering how many commercials you watched to write those scenes.
Stintzi: They were inspired by these Jif commercials that were set during the apocalypse. There’s a commercial where this person gets to a bomb shelter but they only have shitty peanut butter in it. And the person’s like, I guess I’ll just go back out to the nuclear apocalypse because they don’t have Jif. I found it so interesting, this doomsday capitalism. I wanted to riff off that.
Rumpus: “Doomsday capitalism” is a really good descriptor for a lot of this book.
Stintzi: Yes. A lot of doomsday and a lot of capitalism in this book, for sure.
Rumpus: You said that it didn’t start as a novel. I’m wondering what came first?
Stintzi: There was always this sense of the volcano not being the main volcano. It’s representative of all these little explosions that are happening in the story. That was what I expanded on when it became a book. The absurdity and the strangeness of the volcano growing and the metaphor of the pressure building to eruption stood as the metaphorical elephant in the room, while all these characters were having their own little dramas very unrelated to the volcano.
Rumpus: The scale of My Volcano is really a triumph. You have this global narrative and then all these interlocking stories. I’m curious how much of that fell into place and how much work you had to do to bring everything together?
Stintzi: People are going to eventually kill me for saying that this is probably the easiest book I’ve ever written. I mean, there was a lot of work that happened near the end, where I had to do some editorial things. But so much of it, I was just writing. The benefit of writing a book like this was that everything I wrote could be so Gonzo weird and that somehow fit into it. That was the premise, that I was going to write something weird.
I decided to write a story about someone who wakes up inside of a giant insect instead of as a giant insect. I was like, I’ll just write that story and see if it’ll fit in there. And some of the work was deciding what was too much, what wasn’t, and what was blank satire rather than having any heart. The difficulty was probably wrangling that tone, which I had help identifying from my friend, Tony Wei Ling from Nat. Brut. His notes were really helpful in terms of making sure the satire had guts underneath it.
But the book was intuitive for me to write. It was really a joy to write these stories and be like, Oh, I’m gonna have this character be watching this person’s live stream. I’m gonna have this character see this character and not even realize that they’re seeing this character. It was a lot of fun. The writing process was all over the place. But that was another decision I made early on, that I wanted it to be fun. And weirdly enough, this book, as angry as it is, and as serious as it is, it was always such a joy to work on it.
Rumpus: I love that you’re describing a book about the end of the world as a joy. I think it’s the heart behind the characters.
I’d like to talk about how there are multiple timelines in the book, too, because you don’t just span places and characters. There are all these different stories going on and all these private and public dramas, and then we’re also jumping through time, and we’re jumping through different universes. Suddenly, something that happened a few chapters ago now never happened. It’s destabilizing, but you still manage to keep it together. I think part of that success is how much I wanted the characters, like Ash and João, to succeed and be okay.
Stintzi: Yeah, those various universes, they’re parallel universes. The manner in which the volcano is coming up through Central Park is there as an anchor to help the reader figure out which of these scenarios they’re in. Sometimes it’s rising without sound and without really interrupting anything, without breaking anything. And then in another universe, the volcano is literally shaking its way out of the earth, which is a lot more realistic, aside from the obvious improbability. Like, if a fucking volcano or mountain were to grow out of the middle of a place it would be devastating, so that storyline is more accurate. There are other touchstones for the reader, too. But yes, there are a lot of little branches where you have to figure out which one you’re in. It’s, hopefully, an interesting experience, but it does take a bit to figure out what the hell’s going on sometimes.
Rumpus: You warn us with your epigraph, “‘Reality is nothing but the opinion of power,’” – An old witch’s proverb.” There’s a lot in this book that’s about truth and the nature of reality, or maybe the un-realness of reality. Where’s the witch’s proverb from?
Stintzi: It’s from my noggin. It was a sentence that jumped out of nowhere at some point when I was writing the book, and I thought: That’s what this book is about. Originally I attributed the epigraph to the character Old Otherwise, but then I thought that was maybe a bit too much. But if I said, “Old witch’s proverb,” people would believe it was real. I like the fact that I tricked you, at the very least.
Rumpus: I wasn’t sure! I did search for it online. I love that mixing of the boundary between fiction and nonfiction, which you do all through this book. With the witch’s proverb being something that you created but present as a separate epigraph, with the commercial breaks throughout, and then the way the novel sometimes talks directly to the reader. Also, there are these news bulletins throughout that are memorials for real people who died in the summer of 2016. Every time I stepped away from the book, it made me question the boundary between art and reality.
Stintzi: That was really what I was going for. I wanted the reader to get whiplash. Like, you’ve got this bizarre story about a Mexican boy who goes back in time 500 years and then also a real bulletin about a real thing that happened in 2016, which are largely Black men shot by police, or queer people who were murdered. Putting those two things next to each other created an interesting effect. It feels like when you’re online. Like when you’re scrolling and you’ve got a person posting a silly meme and then this story about this horrible thing that happened. Doing that, putting the bizarre next to real life, felt really honest. It’s the way that I think a lot of people these days ingest information or engage with society, especially during the pandemic.
Rumpus: That was actually my next question. I know some things were in there that fit so neatly with the pandemic but which were written before 2020. In the parallel universe where everyone is ignoring the Central Park volcano, they’ve even built billboards on it and everyone ignores those, too. That really struck me. There’s that sense of frustration with people, like, can’t you see how wrong everything is? Why is no one paying attention? No one’s talking about it!
Stintzi: I think that feeling’s emerged so much in the last year. That feeling specifically where we’re two years into this fucking pandemic and we’ve just stopped thinking about this as a real thing. The world is very much like, Nah, whatever, we’re just gonna keep barreling onward. We’re just gonna live life as if it’s normal. There’s a fucking volcano out there! Get the fuck outta there! What are you doing? The book has both sides of that.
This book seems really related to the pandemic, but that wasn’t intentional at all, as most of the book existed, in my head or on the page, before 2020. I think maybe I intuited something about human nature or societal nature from stuff that we’d already seen. Like, looking at the summer of 2016, all those bulletins in this book are a selection of the horrible shit that was going on back then. What I did write in 2020, I finished just before George Floyd was killed. And that was like, Oh, finally, we’re looking at the fucking volcano a little. Suddenly, we can’t look away. So it’s interesting that, in some ways, the pandemic has proved my book right. And in some ways it’s proved my book wrong. Or it’s at least a complicated thing. And that’s positive-ish.
Rumpus: You do something really complicated with your running theme of the collective: collective attention, and collective action. Normally in fiction, joining a hive mind is a horrifying, negative thing. But in this book, this hive mind that Dzhambul the shepherd is making might be the answer to climate change. But then this collective of green plant people and creatures create too much oxygen and the air becomes more flammable, which isn’t something you want with volcanic eruptions. There’s this tension between individual action and collective action. How do we solve anything?
Stintzi: Oh, don’t ask me how to fucking solve anything.
Those are the parts that I find the most interesting about the book. There’s a section that’s pretty much just a horror story where this person is being chased through a lemon grove by a green being. But as a depressed person who’s generally kind of lonely, I am somewhat seduced by the idea of this horribly terrifying force that absorbs every living thing that comes near it. The green in the book is alluring, which comes up later when people start to realize what it is and decide, I want to be a part of this thing. I want to surrender myself to being one with the universe. But I don’t think that there’s any one thing that’s the right approach to solving humanity’s problems.
I do think that collectivity and absolving ourselves of ego are important. That’s something that we need to get used to. We need to think less about “me” and more about “us.” But I don’t think it’s a painless experience. I don’t think that it’s a bloodless or an innocent experience. There’s a lot of violence in that. It was a compelling problem to think about and play with in this book. Dzhambul turning everyone into a collective hive mind could be read as one solution to climate change in the book, and then the golem, which goes around destroying city centers spewing pollution into the air, is a different solution. Neither of them are completely positive or completely negative. In terms of the climate stuff, they’re definitely both working to the same ends.
Rumpus: You have a lot of horror in this book; it’s not just someone being chased through a lemon grove. I’m thinking about the body horror with the white trans writer. There’s a scene where there are little cat legs sticking out of their tummy and they’re plucking these wriggling legs out of their skin. It’s so violent and visceral.
Stintzi: Yeah, it’s very crude.
Rumpus: It’s very Cronenberg, but if Cronenberg was a trans person.
Stintzi: Yeah, there’s a bunch of weird horror in the book I forgot about. It’s probably kind of a horror story to wake up inside of a giant bug like Galina does. It all depends on what you think and who you are. With the lemon grove scene, I was definitely trying to give it those classic horror vibes: A person emerging from the dark through the rain with big purple eyes and the sound of the bees growing. I tried to play with writing something that felt like one hundred percent horror, but there’s definitely a lot of body horror throughout, too.
Rumpus: You pull so many things into this book. Like genres, obviously. It reminded me of the frenetic energy of Through the Arc of the Rainforest by Karen Tei Yamashita. Was that on purpose?
Stintzi: No, I didn’t read that book until Tony, who I talked about earlier, sent me his notes and was like, “You must really love Karen Tei Yamashita.” I said, “I don’t know who that is. I’m gonna look her up, though.” I’m so glad that I didn’t read Through the Arc of the Rainforest until I’d already written My Volcano. It might have taken some of the wind out of my sails. I mean, they’re not all that similar, but there’s a very similar kind of scale, a similar weirdness, and Through the Arc also has a weird geological thing at its center. There are a lot of interesting comparisons between the two. They’re both a little bit absurd and kind of funny.
Rumpus: With a lot of heart behind them.
Stintzi: Yeah. But those similarities were incidental. I was glad once I read Through the Arc of the Rainforest, though. I was like, Okay, I have a proof of concept I can point to now that I’ve already written my book. Through the Arc is the only book that I’ve ever found that’s similar to what I’ve done.
Rumpus: So, what were the conscious literary influences on My Volcano?
Stintzi: I answered this question recently in something and I compared my influences to my being like a parrot who’s been passed around to so many households. I don’t remember where each phrase came from. I was parroting all these things that I’ve been consuming my entire life.
All said, I think there were a few clear influences. There’s the book, Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King.
Rumpus: I love that book.
Stintzi: I was influenced by the mythic-ness of that book. And it also has a lot of characters who revolve around each other and touch each other. I think in terms of the structure, Green Grass is a bit less Gonzo than My Volcano. It’s a lot more contained. But, specifically, the spiritual-ness of King’s book inspired some of the weird spiritual-ness of My Volcano.
Rumpus: Who do you imagine is the ideal reader for this book?
Stintzi: It’s probably people like you and me that are a little bit more on the side of, Who the fuck knows what’s going on? A little bit queer, a little bit anarchist. I have this sense of it speaking to people who’re exhausted by the ways that we interact with each other. Which is a lot of people, probably, so maybe there’s broader appeal to this book than I think.
You’ll really love this book if you have the opinion that reality is weird. And if you think, like me, that the fact that so many people believe that there’s even a steady thing that we could call reality is fucking insane. If that’s who you are, this book is definitely for you.
Rumpus: So many people are going through that, I think. In 2016, we saw a lot of people experience that shift of Oh, okay, everything’s not what I thought it was. That’s another thing I really liked about this book, that it feels like it was written for me. It feels like a novel that is on the reader’s side, so long as that reader is somebody who is willing to look at things honestly.
Stintzi: I think as dark and weird and scary as the book could seem, I don’t want it to feel like it doesn’t care about the reader. As much as I admittedly wanted to fuck with and jostle the reader. I wanted to fuck with the reader in order to show the reader something, not because I don’t like the reader. This book is also my love letter to stories in general. I got to rip off Kafka, I got to write a horror story, I got to write witches, and even an anime-esque fight between this green person and a giant stone golem. My Volcano has all these homages to all these things that I love. But, yeah. I wanted it to feel like it’s on the reader’s side. It doesn’t point fingers at any single person. I mean, there are some people it points fingers at, but…
Rumpus: But they deserve it?
Stintzi: Yeah. If you’re on board with the book, then you’re part of the collective. You’re among us. If you’re on the side of the book, you’re gonna feel in community with the book, especially with the way that it ends.
Rumpus: It’s striking me now that some of the endings for some of these characters made me so sad. Some endings are so tragic. But I still walked away with this overall sense of hope. Like, well, maybe there is something worth saving in humanity. Maybe there are things I can do.
Stintzi: Yeah, and maybe the universe is on our side a little bit as well.
Author photo courtesy of John Elizabeth Stintzi