Bell’s Appleseed (Custom House, July.) spans centuries to probe climate change and the indelible marks humanity and nature leave on each other.
With a continent’s worth of farms and a sprawling timeline at your disposal, why did Ohio become such a central setting?
Partly because that’s where the real Johnny Appleseed worked. Also, I’m from Michigan, so partly it’s writing home. When I was younger, I felt that stories happened in other places, outside the Midwest. Now, writing into my own imaginative landscape is important. The historic, outdoor spaces of the Midwest are central to how my imagination works, to who I am.
As the world considers actions to address climate change, how does fiction fit in to the larger conversation?
Fiction is good at imagining other ways of being—other futures, other possibilities, choices we might make. I was interested in the way that the choices we have to confront climate change narrow as we go forward without doing anything—or not doing enough. I wanted to imagine a future in which our options have gotten very tight. Ursula Le Guin said: “Every utopia contains a dystopia, every dystopia contains a utopia.” Writing less positive futures allows you to imagine how it could be otherwise. That’s part of my hope: that readers are experiencing it that way, too.
Why use fantastic and speculative elements in a work so relevant to current events?
The defamiliarization brings our defenses down a little bit. There’s a way we discuss these things on Twitter and the op-ed page that raises blood pressure, that’s increasingly polarized. Encountering these things in stories surprises us or allows us to feel through it in a way we didn’t expect, to come at issues with fresh eyes.
What do you hope people will come to realize about the implications of their own actions as a result of reading the book?
One of the things I’m interested in with this book is complicity. It’s not our fault that we exist inside capitalism or that we were born in a country with a history of colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism, but we have to reckon with it. There’s a tricky emotional place we have to work through where we know the systems we’re in are bad for us and for others. They seem inescapable—but the first step of escaping them or changing them is recognizing that they exist, that the things that are good for you are often not beneficial for other people. Trying to balance that scale is part of the work, for me and for everybody.