Hope and Rapture in the Anthropocene: A conversation with Julie Carrick Dalton
Julie Carrick Dalton and I debuted novels on the same date in January of 2021. Not only did we launch in a pandemic, but both of our novels tackled climate change and environmental degradation with hard science—not enticing to the average book buyer. (We were gluttons for punishment in other words.) The best part of an otherwise terrible time was meeting my book twin. Julie is generous, intelligent, and earthy in all senses of the word—even literally. Julie famously brought homegrown, homemade peach jam and dirt samples from her organic farm to the first in-person meeting with her publisher Macmillan.
It’s been a couple years since Julie launched with Waiting for the Nightsong, and her writing career has only grown more fruitful. I got the chance to meet her face-to-face in Philadelphia for AWP 2022. It was a thrilling four days when writers that I had only known as pixelated squares on Zoom descended on my home city and popped up in familiar haunts. Our conversation eventually turned to our works in progress. Her second manuscript was a more daring departure from our present reality with a more urgent message. This wasn’t too surprising. Carrick Dalton is successful within book club circles, but that never stopped her from broaching difficult topics for the right reasons.
After her second novel, The Last Beekeeper, launched last month, I was able to catch up with the author about her new book, a near future story about a beekeeper and his daughter as the world’s pollinator population collapses.
The Rumpus: Could you start us off by telling us what readers can expect in The Last Beekeeper?
Julie Carrick Dalton: The world of the novel is a very recognizable world, and I don’t put a date on it so that it could be tomorrow, it could be in twenty years. I set it in the near future so that it feels very comfortable and very uncomfortable at the same time.
The story follows Sasha, who is the daughter of a man infamously known as the last beekeeper. It’s told in two timelines. When Sasha is eleven, she’s living on a farm with just her and her father. It’s this idyllic, loving family. She’s raising bees, she’s playing in the woods, and it’s wonderful until all the pollinators start dying off much more rapidly than we’re expecting.
In the second timeline, Sasha’s twenty-two and it’s a decade after the pollinators disappear, her father’s gone to prison for reasons related to his beekeeping practices, and she finally, after a decade, goes back to this farmhouse where she had grown up in search of some research she believes her father hid there. When she gets there, she encounters squatters. That could be a very terrifying thing in this dystopian, anarchy kind of situation. But they end up becoming a family to her. Sasha finds community and love that she didn’t think she’d ever find again after her father went to prison. She’s faced with a conundrum of, Do I continue chasing down my family’s history and secrets, or do I look forward to the future with this new family? Just when she’s getting comfortable with the new family, she sees—or she thinks she sees—a honeybee, which are supposed to be extinct. This throws everything up in the air and she has to make a decision: Is she going to chase down what she thinks might be the truth, but could be a manifestation of her trauma and grief, or is it really a bee and what does that mean? Chasing down the bee could either disrupt and destroy this whole new future she’s imagining for herself, or maybe it could save all of them. So that’s the decision Sasha is working through in the story.
Rumpus: You dedicate your novel to your parents with a really touching and fun paragraph at the beginning. Can you tell us what your parents taught you?
Carrick Dalton: So much! My parents are fantastic. They’re still alive and healthy and together, and we have a great relationship. They had a bazillion different jobs when I was growing up, which I mentioned in the dedication. My parents were very resourceful and very entrepreneurial and my dad had a “garden”—I’m doing air quotes—that was ten acres, and that is a farm to me. They grew tons of vegetables and we had a whole canning kitchen in our basement. There’s a scene in the book where I mentioned a larder which is full of preserved food. I had a larder in my house.
We had every vegetable you can imagine. My mom made tomato sauce, tomato juice, everything. They were just very resourceful people and made good use of the resources they had. They were super creative. I think there’s a lot of creativity in Sasha; she’s a very resourceful person. My parents were both that way. They cleaned houses. My mom ran a puppet theater where she wrote all of the puppet scripts. When other kids were out riding their bikes on weekends, I was going around as my mother’s puppet theater assistant.
I think they just ingrained in me a resourcefulness, creativity, and storytelling. I think I owe them pretty much everything.
Rumpus: With your debut Waiting for the Night Song, the evidence of climate change was either real and lifted from your first-hand experience of rural New Hampshire, or it was realistic in that it could happen, or had happened in other parts of the US. Why the leap to a speculative apocalyptic event with this book? Did you feel a stronger sense of urgency?
Carrick Dalton: It was really a big What If question to me. Like, What if all of our pollinators died? We talk about it all the time. We see SaveTheBees hashtags everywhere. But what if it happened faster; [what if] we aren’t prepared? So I set in motion this speculative element that makes them die off faster. And I engaged a beekeeping expert from Tufts University to help me formulate how this could happen in a realistic way and she was phenomenal in making suggestions. She didn’t just sign off on ideas, she contributed ideas to this plot. I wanted to be as realistic as possible. I wanted to set it in the future and I wanted it to be something that we’re afraid of because, it might not happen exactly the way I laid it out but we are losing our pollinators.
Rumpus: Let’s discuss the event you call the Great Collapse. It is caused by the death and disappearance of nearly all pollinators. You are a former beekeeper. Did you witness hive death? What is your firsthand experience with these pollinators and what did you learn from research?
Carrick Dalton: I’ve kept bees over the years. One day, all forty thousand of my bees died in a single day. That was what triggered the What if question: What if all the pollinators died? The next year, I stocked the hive again. They all died again the same week in August.
It was really traumatic. I was really proud of my bees and I had built my own hives with hammer and nails. They were thriving, healthy hives. There was a lot of honey, the cells were filling out, and then in a day they all died. It wasn’t Colony Collapse Disorder where they disappear and don’t come back. It wasn’t bacterial, fungal, or viral, because it would have worked through the hive, and they would have slowly died. It was a single day. It was clearly an event. That’s why I wanted to speed up the loss of pollinators in the book. In the beginning, I had this amorphous idea that our pollinators are threatened, and then I was suddenly staring at a pile of dead bees that I had cared for. That cracked open the story. It wasn’t just, What if the pollinators died? It was, What if it happens right now, all in a pile, like my bees died literally in a pile in my yard?
After the second year, I came to understand that my bees had been poisoned by landscaping chemicals that someone in my neighborhood was using. The poisoning was unintentional, but it made me realize how fragile our pollinators are, and how much we were actively killing them off. But we can’t give up. I’m getting new bees. We used to live in a big, rambly house in the suburbs outside of Boston, which is where all these chemicals were on people’s lawns. Last year, we moved to an apartment in downtown Boston and we’re putting bees on the roof. I’m very excited. There’s hope. We have to keep trying, fighting, and looking for windows of opportunity.
Rumpus: Once the pollinators disappear, there is an agricultural collapse and near economic implosion. Congress passes an Agri New Deal, similar to FDR’s New Deal during the Great Depression. The Agricultural Department tries to combat widespread hunger with projects like industrial greenhouses where workers have to pollinate crops all by hand. I thought that was excellent speculative worldbuilding to remind readers how vital pollinators are to our food chain. Was that your intention, and are you more aware than most because you were an organic farmer for fifteen years?
Carrick Dalton: On my farm, I didn’t experience a loss of pollinators. I actually had a pretty active pollinator population when I was farming for a long time in New Hampshire. It was more about imagining the situations we have right now. There are so many government programs that have good intentions that don’t always pan out the way that we want them to and I imagined this.
Pollinators are responsible for a third of the food that humans eat. So, if we lost a third of the food in the world, and we only have two-thirds left—and there’s already hunger now, before we lose that—how would we make up for that? I was trying to imagine different ways that we would try to fill in that gap, and what I couldn’t help coming back to was, it was going to create more inequality. Like the inequalities that already exist now are going to be exacerbated; who gets the food that’s left; who gets to eat the food that’s grown in the greenhouses, and is it the workers?
I did a lot of worldbuilding on the concept of a livable wage for these greenhouse workers who were pollinating this food but couldn’t actually afford to buy and eat it. I think that feels very real. It’s an imagined scenario, but it feels like something that could happen in this country, or anywhere. I created a new currency system so that there was a dual currency for this working class and the rest of the United States that were in conflict, and it created a class war. Their currency kept going down while the US dollar went up and so it created this huge divide and social class. It was so detailed initially that my publisher was just like, This is great but it’s too granular. So I had to take it out, but it was always in the back of my mind that we are constantly creating divisions, economic, social, and anything we can imagine.
Unfortunately, I had to dial it back but I still love the idea behind it.
Rumpus: The protagonist Sasha in the present timeline gives a historical recap in dialogue:
“We’ve changed so much in the last decade. We banned the ag chemicals killing insects…We’ve nearly eliminated fossil fuel use. Twenty years ago, that seemed inconceivable.” Did you want to show that humanity can do what is necessary?
Carrick Dalton: I’m really glad that you picked up on that. I don’t date this book so it’s floating in the near future. If you imagine that this book happens in a year, twenty years ago would be in our past. Or, maybe it’s twenty years in the future and we are about to eliminate fossil fuels. I wanted to create a scenario without any explanation of how it happened. That yes, we did it: We have moved away from fossil fuels; we as a species are capable of good things and we are capable of banning chemicals. In Europe, all those chemicals are already illegal. We have some catchup to do, but I didn’t want to go into this backstory of how we did it. I just wanted to put my fist down and say we did that, and if we banned fossil fuels, we can do anything. I wanted to create this element of hope that we are capable of doing good things.
Rumpus: What do you hope readers will take with them after they finish the book?
Carrick Dalton: Hope. I think that this book tackles dark material: the loss of our pollinators, the collapse of our agricultural systems, and food insecurity. It’s pretty dark stuff, but I really believe in hope. I don’t think it’s a manufactured Pollyanna hope. I think there is real hope. As a society and as individuals, I think we tend to glom onto only the bad news and the grief and the losses that we’re suffering. It can be really paralyzing. That’s a real theme in my book. Sasha’s father tells her not to be paralyzed by the grief and loss. I feel like it’s easy to mired down in the grief and not look up and see what’s still in front of you. If you are used to having twenty birds at your bird feeder every spring, and then you have ten, and then you only have three, it’s easy to sink into grief over the birds that didn’t return instead of looking at those beautiful birds that are still there, and protecting them.
I also wish readers would maybe fall in love with an element of nature: fall in love with honey bees, or fall in love with the forest, or just look up and see that, as much as we’re losing, we have so much left to fight for. If we don’t have hope, why bother fighting?