After writing my thoughts about Swarm by Lauren Carter a few weeks ago, I asked Lauren Carter if she would like to answer a few questions for me via e-mail. Happily, she agreed, and here is the interview:
I started thinking about Swarm when the cracks in the U.S. housing bubble first appeared during the winter of 2009. Gas prices were through the roof and I kept thinking that there had to be a connection between people paying hundreds to fill their S.U.V.s to drive from the suburbs to go to work and not being able to make their subprime mortgage payments. However, nobody was talking about that connection, except for the people who used the words ‘peak oil’. So, I began reading about peak oil and imagining what that world of a sliding economy would be like for a young person who spent her childhood expecting to have her dreams fulfilled. I wrote the first scenes – Sandy and Marvin subsisting on the island – during my MFA fiction workshop with Michael Winter. From that point, it was four and a half years until the book came out.
2. Have you been inspired or influenced by certain books or authors over the years? Or during the writing of your book?
Certainly! Writers must read (rule number one). Since I was a teenager I’ve been influenced by Joyce Carol Oates, Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood. In my adult years, I’ve been influenced by Brian Moore, Louise Erdrich, Alice Munro, Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie, Ian McEwan, Jane Smiley, Lisa Moore. Some of the books that inspired and encouraged me during work on this book were Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and the non-fiction treatise on peak oil, The Long Emergency by James Howard Kuntzler as well as Jared Diamond’s epic tome on how civilizations fail: Collapse. After Swarm came out, the 49th Shelf asked me to compile a list of Canadian books relating to the theme of survival (several of which also inspired me). It’s here: http://49thshelf.com/Blog/2014/01/09/Lauren-Carter-Survival-in-CanLit
3. In 2005, you published a collection of poetry. What is the difference, for you, between writing fiction and writing poetry? Do you prefer one over the other? How do you think being a poet influences your fictional writing?
To write poetry I feel like I have to almost entrance myself. Sometimes this must be done with fiction, as well, in order to tap into the subconscious truth of a scene but because of the sheer length of a novel and the plot demands there are times when practical scenes must be written and it’s more cut-and-dry: move Character A over to Area X so she can meet Character B and realize they’re on the same side, for example. Poetry doesn’t have to be constructed in the same way, obviously, although it does demand its own rigours of rhythm, form, meaning, metaphor – all of which are muscles that can be used in fiction. I started as a poet and Swarm launched with a single image: the child’s footprint in Sandy’s garden and the woman looking out at them. I still bring that sense of imagery and metaphor into my fiction. I wouldn’t ever want to lose that.
4. What is your writing process like?
I usually write longhand in the morning. Sometimes I don’t do much. Maybe a scene or a chapter or I transcribe my longhand work or I just think about where I’m going with the story. It really depends on how busy my day is with freelance assignments and my other two part-time jobs (subbing at a high-school and working in a gym). I try to get in a couple hours though, on a daily basis (except weekends, when I try to catch up on reading).
5. What kinds of research did you do in order to write your novel?
For one, I read the newspapers. The book is populated with bits of description of “collapse” drawn straight from the news of the day. There’s a part near the beginning where Sandy is reflecting on what things are like. She talks about people not being able to claim their dead from funeral homes and bury them because they have no money. That was from a Michigan newspaper article. She says she sees mountain lions lounging in a suburban house. That was from a California T.V. news segment. Also I read a lot about what things would look like once oil became a more precious commodity (not entirely drained from the earth but too deep, too locked away to be affordably extracted). And I used plant guides, gardening guides, the Internet, to research herbs to use, how to harvest. I took notes at the dump too for that scene where they’re mining the heaps of trash.
6. By reading your book, what message or messages do you hope your readers will come away with?
This is a tough one because while my book is about issues people need to be aware of – diminishing energy and that million-dollar question of what we do when we can’t forward the energy we’ve based our whole existence on – it is also a deeply personal story about regret and love and how life is sometimes not what you hope it will be. I’d like people to come away with a lot after reading the book – compassion for the characters, thoughts about what it would be like to live without the luxury of oil, an appreciation of the story and the writing.
7. I loved reading about the art of bee-keeping in your book. There is quite a lot about bees, and of course, the title is Swarm. Can you tell us more about the bees and your book?
This was another aspect of my research. A couple years before the idea for Swarm even sparked, I wrote a couple of articles about apiaries. For one, I dressed up in the beekeeping costume and visited the hives with the beekeeper. There were so many things about them that I found fascinating: the careful structure of their society, the role of the queen, how they manage overcrowding. It seemed like a great metaphor: this fragile community that can only withstand so much but that is also tenacious in its survival.
8. I found your characters so interesting. In particular the relationship between Sandy and Marvin. I can’t help but want someone better than Marvin for Sandy to spend her time with. What are your thoughts on these characters and their future together? Do you have one you especially like?
I think it’s important that fiction explore all sorts of characters, even (perhaps especially) those whose actions we don’t like. Sandy chooses Marvin for complicated reasons: there’s the fact that her own relationship with her father is troubled by his depression and insistence on impossible and possibly irrational justice and the fact that she’s just a baby, only in her early 20s, in the city. I, for one, was an idiot at that age, often making mistakes as far as romance was concerned. A lot of our fiction (especially dystopian YA) demands that young female heroines be tough and strong and good “role models” but I don’t think these can be the only kinds of characters we explore, especially now in an age when it sometimes seems feminism had really declined. However, it was important to me that she grow in the story and Phoenix and Thomson and Jack Bobiwash are there to show her other ways of looking at the world and educate her, so to speak. Clearly, I don’t want to speak to what happens with them, as that’ll give too much away, but I think if Sandy had lived in a different time and life had been something for her other than the difficult effort of survival, she may have had the luxury of more expansive options. I think, though, that she does the best she can within a difficult situation and that there’s hope. A character I especially like? Phoenix for her tough, grittiness covering a vulnerable, injured centre she’s so cautious in revealing.
9. Do you and your family feel at all prepared for a future like the one in Swarm, or are you as unprepared as the rest of us? How possible and close do you believe this future to be?
Well, when I was writing the book, it felt right around the corner. These days, though, with the fracking revolution and the bounce back of the economy, it seems that it’s been stalled again. I think it’s coming, and it needs to come, lest we (humans) completely destroy the world with our insatiable need to burn fossil fuels but I realize that perhaps it isn’t so easy to predict the future. Am I prepared? No. I live now in northern Manitoba where winter temperatures can plummet to minus 50. Last fall my husband and I moved three cords of split wood into our house, and it was hard! It took us weeks to finally get it all inside and it was so cold this winter that we ran out in February. So, no, we don’t feel prepared at all.
10. What new projects are you working on?
I’m working on a new collection of poetry and one of short stories, as well as a new novel which is set in 1986, those early days when we were first becoming aware of something called the ‘greenhouse effect’. The poetry collection is a series of poems about my great-great-grandparents who migrated north from the Niagara area in the mid-1800s, homesteading as they went, until they ended up on Manitoulin Island where my great-great-grandfather became the first lighthouse keeper on the island. The place became a sort of Avalon for my mother and uncle who grew up remembering it as my grandfather’s lost home and the shelter of their childhood happiness. That feeling for it was passed down, which I address in the collection as well.
Thank you to Lauren Carter for writing Swarm, and agreeing to do this interview!