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Seeking the Existential, the Intimate, and the Urgent: Essays That Model Masterful Storytelling


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30664771383_d292892029_h.jpg?resize=860%As a novelist, all the book ideas I’ve ever contemplated hinge on an element of climate crisis, not by choice, but because these stories rise up as manifestations of my own climate anxiety. Stories about our global environmental emergency are simultaneously existential and minute.

They are urgent.

I would use the same words to describe The World as We Knew It: Dispatches from a Changing Climate (Catapult), a new anthology of personal essays about the impacts of climate change on the essayists’ lives edited by Amy Brady and Tajja Isen. Stories about drought in Arizona. Invasive species that change ecosystems. Nostalgia for absent fireflies. Hurricane Katrina.

This book is urgent.

But what makes this collection stand out among other anthologies addressing the climate crisis is the sense of urgency coupled with intimacy. The quality of the storytelling elevates the content in ways that inspire me as a fiction writer.

The all-star list of contributors includes some of the most compelling climate communicators of our time, both in fiction and nonfiction, including climate justice essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar, one of my favorite voices communicating about the climate crisis. In her voice, the complicated feels personal, terrifying, tender, and memorable. She contributed an essay called After the Storm about her family’s experience during and after Hurricane Katrina which will stay with me for a long time.

Novelist Omar El Akkad (American War and What Strange Paradise) contributed an essay about the devastating consequences of climate change and development in Qatar where he grew up, and his concern not only for our future but for our ability to preserve the past. Stories layered in stories. Urgent.

I read The World as We Knew It as a concerned citizen of this fragile planet and as a reader who appreciates powerful writing, but I also read the essays to study the architecture of compelling storytelling.

I read a lot of books on the craft of writing fiction. I subscribe to a long list of writerly newsletters and podcasts. Although The World as We Knew It is a collection of essays, not a book about writing, I’m shelving it with my books on the craft of writing because as I embark on writing my third novel, I anticipate returning to these essays many times as reminders of the power of urgent, intimate storytelling.

I reached out to the editors, Dr. Amy Brady, the Executive Director of Orion and the former Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books, and Tajja Isen, the author of Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service and an editor for Catapult Magazine. They responded to my questions together, so their answers are in the ‘we’ form.

Julie Carrick Dalton: How did you choose the writers to include in your anthology?
Amy Brady and Tajja Isen: We collaborated on an initial dream list and were bowled over when most of the writers we contacted said yes! It was a mix of folks who had already published on climate, and those whose work we loved but hadn’t explicitly published in that space before. Their contributions, we felt, offered an exciting opportunity to expand what “climate writing” looks like, connecting the dots between the climate crisis and other narratives both global and personal.

JCD: Who is your intended audience?
AB and TI: We hope this collection appeals not only to folks who seek out writing about climate but who also enjoy first-person writing, both memoirs and essay collections, as well as contemporary literature more broadly. These essays are beautifully wrought, richly layered, and deeply personal. We think (hope!) the book will appeal to anyone who appreciates good, literary writing with strong first-person points of view.

JCD: Do you notice anything different in the way fiction and non-fiction writers approach storytelling in essay form?
AB and TI: It’s interesting, because all of our contributors, regardless of what traditions they’re coming out of, gave us gorgeous essays with vibrant scenes and strong narrative arcs. The nonfiction writers may have included a few more footnotes than the fiction writers, but at the end of the day, they are all telling engaging stories. We feel this speaks to the universality of the prompt–when you ask a group of people about the way the climate crisis has changed their lives and memories, everyone has an answer. Everyone has experienced some version of that gap between the world that they live in now, and the world that they remember.

JCD: What is the role of the storyteller in conveying narratives about the climate crisis?
AB and TI: The role changes, we believe, depending on what the goals of the story are. In the case of this anthology, we asked writers to tell personal stories that show how the climate crisis is affecting them in surprising, even startling ways, whether in the context of their relationships, jobs, memories, or some other area of their lives. As we write in the introduction, personal stories like these aren’t the most intuitive ways to write about climate, but we feel they’re among the most powerful. By bringing the changes wrought by climate down to a more graspable scale, we hope that the personal stories will invite readers to reflect on the ways their own lives and environments have changed and perhaps even incite them to action.

JCD: Did the essays surprise you? In what ways?
AB and TI: The range of tones and focal points surprised us. These essays take place all over the world and touch on all kinds of subjects, including parenthood, home ownership, health, travel, work, even camping. And yet, despite their differences, they hold together as a coherent whole, showing just how multi-faceted the climate crisis truly is. This multifacetedness, too, was surprising–the tonal palette we use to talk about the climate crisis can feel (for good reason!) disproportionately grim and hopeless. But we didn’t want the book to feel that one-note, and our contributors absolutely delivered in that respect. There’s a lot of hope in this book.

JCD: For you as a reader, what elements make for the most compelling writing — fiction and/or nonfiction — addressing the climate emergency?
AB and TI: We are both drawn to stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, that evoke a strong sense of place. It just makes for great writing, whether or not it’s addressing the climate crisis. So we worked to guide our contributors (as needed, which wasn’t often) toward creating vibrant, affecting scenes that really show the specificity of where the story is taking place and how that place is changing over time because of larger changes happening to the planet.

JCD: Thanks, both of you, for taking the time to answer my questions, and for this important anthology.

Does nonfiction shape your fiction? Who is telling the stories that inspire you?

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About Julie Carrick Dalton

Julie Carrick Dalton’s debut novel WAITING FOR THE NIGHT SONG has been named to Most Anticipated 2021 book lists by numerous platforms including CNN, Newsweek, USA Today, Parade, and Buzzfeed, and was an Amazon Editor’s Pick for Best Books of the Month. Her second novel, THE LAST BEEKEEPER will launch in March 2023. As a journalist, Julie has published more than a thousand articles in publications including The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, The Hollywood Reporter, and the Chicago Review of Books. A Tin House and Bread Loaf alum, 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. 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. Mom to four kids and two dogs, Julie also farms a gorgeous tract of land in rural New Hampshire. You can connect with Julie on Twitter @juliecardalt, on Instagram @juliecdalton, or at juliecarrickdalton.com

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