By Julie Carrick Dalton
Truth hides in fissures and hollows, in broken places and empty parts. It can be buried, crushed, or burnt, but the truth will always rise. This the opening to my debut novel, Waiting For The Night Song. It also sums up the journey I embarked on when I wrote this story.
If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that the lines between truth and fiction blur easily. One person’s facts become another person’s fiction. One person’s science is another’s theory.
As a journalist trained to report the facts, recent high-profile distortions of truth infuriate me. How can we look at the same data and not come to the same understanding? Facts don’t lie. Or do they?
Lately, I find myself looking for truth in novels, short stories, personal essays, and poetry. Not facts, but deeper truths.
What I crave is truth in story.
When I first started writing my novel, Waiting For The Night Song, which launched on January 12, I dove deep into research. My book is about two estranged childhood friends who must come back together as adults to face a traumatic secret that threatens to upend the lives they have worked hard to build. When the book starts, my main character, Cadie, a forestry expert, is trying to prove an invasive beetle has moved into the New England woodlands, making the forests vulnerable to wildfire. I needed facts. I researched the mountain pine bark beetle, forest fires, and drought conditions.
I wanted to portray a small, insular town where the average temperatures were rising due to climate change, leading to a wide range of minor, slow-burning disasters such as drought, crop failures, farm foreclosures, and the beetle infestation. I sought to put the town slightly on edge but, for the most part, I wanted the characters to be living their lives as usual, not directly acknowledging the climate crisis as the reason behind the turmoil in their town.
I’m intrigued by the idea of small actions in one part of the world having unforeseen consequences in other parts of the world. I wanted to draw subtle lines connecting human activities in the Caribbean to direct effects upon New Hampshire’s ecosystem, and trace threads from US intervention in Central America in the 80’s to climate refugees today.
This is the truth I sought: We are all connected in ways we often don’t recognise.
But I kept bumping up against a formidable wall: The mountain pine bark beetle does not actually inhabit New England. At least, not yet. So, how could I tell a story that hinged on this particular insect in a town where it does not exist?
I studied novels by authors I admire, such as Margaret Atwood, Omar El Akkad, and Leni Zumas, and observed ways they altered reality in their books. They tweaked conditions in the real world to allow readers to imagine: What if?
Consider Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks, both of which imagine alternate realities where women’s rights, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights have been decimated. In American War, El Akkad imagines a future United States that erupts in a second Civil War over the use of fossil fuels and lays out the environmental devastation caused by their use.
These stories are fiction, but they are laced with truth about possible realities – realities we have the opportunity to avoid.
Fiction allows us to follow the ‘Ghost of Christmas Future’ and see what the world might become. Seeing these worlds populated by people who love and hate and grieve just like we do makes them feel real. We feel connected to the characters. Because we care about the characters and can imagine ourselves in the stories, we have a stake in these possible futures.
In Waiting For The Night Song, I made the choice to suspend reality and invite the mountain pine bark beetle to New Hampshire. I ratcheted up the local temperature and set the stage for drought, the precise conditions bark beetles love.
The journalist in me squirmed and fought against deviation from reality. But I pushed on. The beetles moved in, and Cadie fought to prove they had arrived when all scientific models said they should not be in New Hampshire. Cadie finds herself at odds with an unnamed climate denialist administration that has cut off environmental research on federal land. Like me, Cadie went to battle in search of truth.
I believe in truth, the kind with a capital T, the big universal truths about being human, about love, friendship, grief, guilt, connection, and hope. I’ve come to believe that getting at the truth often requires more than facts. Please don’t interpret this as a dismissal of facts, because we need real information now more than ever.
My search for truth in fiction has shown me that sometimes we need stories to carry facts. Stories can be the vehicle that delivers big truths to people not interested in exploring the facts.
As a fiction writer, I can play with all the what if’s. What if the bark beetle moved into New Hampshire? What if the government cut off environmental research on public lands? What if climate denialists were able to wrest control from our government and change the narrative about the climate crisis? This doesn’t seem too far from reality. I just pushed it a little further and invited readers to share my what ifs?
Allowing yourself to read someone else’s story is a profound act of empathy, because you are giving up your own vantage point to view the world through eyes that are not yours.
I can’t say I expect my book to change anyone’s mind about science or climate change. It’s a story. But I do hope someone might read my book and see the world differently. Maybe they will consider another point of view.
And, as is my desire as a fiction writer and as a journalist, I hope the truth will rise.
Julie Carrick Dalton’s debut novel Waiting For The Night Song has been mentioned in the ‘Most Anticipated’ 2021 book lists on several platforms, including CNN, Newsweek, USA Today, Buzzfeed, and Medium. It is an Amazon Editor’s Pick for ‘Best Books of the Month’ in January. Her second novel, The Last Beekeeper, is due for release in 2022. As a journalist, Julie has published more than a thousand articles in publications, including The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, The Hollywood Reporter, Electric Literature, and The Chicago Review Of Books. A Tin House alum, 2021 Bread Loaf Environmental Writer’s Conference Fellow, and graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, Julie holds a Master’s in literature and creative writing from Harvard Extension School. She is the winner of the William Faulkner Literary Competition and a finalist for the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature and the Caledonia Novel Award. She blogs for DeadDarlings and The Writer Unboxed. Julie is a member of the Climate Fiction Writers League and is a frequent speaker and workshop leader on the topic of ‘Fiction in the Age of Climate Crisis’ at universities, high schools, and writers conferences. Mum to four kids and two dogs, Julie also owns a small farm.
Truth hides in fissures and hollows, in broken places and empty parts. It can be buried, crushed, or burnt, but the truth will always rise.