Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining how contemporary literature interrogates issues of climate change, in partnership with Yale Climate Connections. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter to get “Burning Worlds” and other writing about art and climate change delivered straight to your inbox.
Welsh writer Cynan Jones has long depicted the fraught relationship between humanity and the natural world in his writing. Cove tells the tale of a man struck by lightning while kayaking, The Dig is a searing novel about a badger baiter, and The Long Dry tells a beautifully sad story about a farmer on the search for a missing cow. Often described as “unflinching,” Jones’s writing rarely quails from the darker side of human nature.
With his latest novel, Stillicide, Jones tells yet another powerful story, this one set in a climate changed future where water has been commodified. Many people are displaced because of development and sea-level rise. It unfolds from several perspectives and often reads like verse on the page. The unusual structure comes in part from the fact that the book originated as a set of short stories commissioned as a podcast for BBC Radio Four.
The stories are just as powerful on the page, where they cohere into a powerful and poignant novel. In this interview, I spoke with Jones about what inspired the setting of Stillicide, how he thinks about climate change beyond his fiction, and his writerly influences.
Stillicide is set against a backdrop of a dramatically changed world, where resources are limited. Water has become commodified. What inspired this setting? Anything drawn from real life?
It seems very clear to me that cities, albeit vibrant and necessary, don’t do the basics for themselves. They need to be parented by the rural space around them.
As cities grow, the strain on natural resources will be greater, and so will the strain on the landscapes and communities who provide cities with the things they need. Food and water most obviously.
More than “climate crisis” itself, which is the matrix into which the story is set, Stillicide was inspired by the question: how will we deal with this? Populations will grow, and so will consumption without return. What if water was a commodity in the hands of the people who have historically made money from sugar, slavery, petrochemicals?
The novel also addresses wide-spread displacement. Like climate change, forced displacement is a real-life issue that people (and animals!) are facing all over the world. Was there any real-life instance of this that inspired you?
In Stillicide, city people are being displaced in order to bring people of that city water. But on a number of occasions, in the 60s for example, Welsh rural communities were forcible ejected so that valleys could be flooded to provide drinking water for English cities. The book alludes to this, but it was something BBC Radio 4, who commissioned the series of stories, was uncomfortable with.
I don’t aim to be overtly political when I bring this detail to the story. It’s another instance of the landscape having to parent the city; but I was interested in the suggestion that communities within the city itself had to make way for the greater good.
People in the book are also displaced by rising sea levels.
Barring a few years, I’ve lived on the West Wales coast all my life. I see first-hand how dramatically the sea is reclaiming the land. We have a Shoreline Management Plan here that sets out policies to address the next 100 years of rising sea levels and advanced erosion. The language that describes the options for each coastal settlement is military: Hold the line; Advance the line; Managed retreat; No active intervention. In the case of most managed retreats, the progressive flood risk means communities in the way of the sea will have to move.
This has happened before. Beneath the sea here, in Cardigan Bay, are the remains of “Cantre Gwaelod,” a region once famed for the fertility of its soil. When storms are powerful enough to carry the sand off the beaches, the stumps of petrified trees are exposed. Testament to the forests that used to thrive there. I guess growing up with a legend like this, and seeing the physical evidence of that legend, embeds the mythology of displacement, change and submergence into the psyche.
The novel unfolds from many different perspectives. Would you discuss why you chose this structure?
I’d long carried the idea of a future-story with water at its center, and at an early stage sensed the way to tell it was through many perspectives that would accumulate to deliver a wider narrative. When I found the word ‘stillicide’, in William Golding’s Pincher Martin, it reinforced my faith in that approach. Simply put, the word itself, meaning “water falling in drops,” convinced me of the structure.
I didn’t figure I was ready to write the story, but after winning the BBC National Short Story Award for the New Yorker piece, The Edge of the Shoal, Radio 4 asked me to pitch an idea for twelve fifteen-minute stories for voice. The stories needed to be effective if heard in isolation, but collectively should tell a bigger story. Stillicide was fit.
Your prose on the page often reads like an epic poem. Please discuss this artistic decision. I would love to know more about this choice.
As per the structure, the language itself, on a sentence level, was also informed by the remit of the commission. Much of my writing aims to trigger the reader to build their own details and conclusions from the prose I provide; but Stillicide would be heard first, rather than read. That meant taking a more direct approach, giving more in the text, and making sure key details were overt and easy to spot.
However, I resisted too much signposting. While a listener can’t turn the page and re-read a passage that might not have done its job first time round, I still needed to avoid over-cooking the information. It was a case of refocusing the lens I write through while maintaining faith in the listener/reader to intuit.
I also needed different stories to have different voices. I decided not to artificially bias the text too strongly with inbuilt directives to the actor who would read out the piece; I preferred to present texts those actors could inhabit. Writing like this is a risk. Ultimately, though, I hope the balance of “white space” and words is effective. The ideas came easily and quickly; the work to make sure every word did the right job, and went beyond itself to the epic, as you point out, was the most challenging task.
Your novel highlights just how precarious the real world is in terms of climate and resources. Do you think about climate change beyond what you write about in your fiction?
I take note of things around me. When insects first emerge, or migrating birds arrive, or different tree species lose their leaves. I always have. I’m fundamentally affected by the weather. Is it a good time to put out shore nets? Has the rain drowned the beetroot seedlings? Do we have enough logs to last until next month, if this cold keeps up? Very basic things that anyone who interacts directly with the land understands. I experience climate change in this way, more than through news articles and political noise.
However, while I’ve seen species disappear from here, and the seasons lose their shape, there are also things here that were not here when I was young (like woodpeckers, and peregrine falcons); and it’s noticeable that while a year might be bad for one crop, it suits another. This reinforces my faith in nature to persist, though it’s absolutely clear we have to take more responsibility for the impact we have on the planet.
As far as strain on resources is concerned, much of it is about waste and mismanagement. This is a driving element of Stillicide. It’s predicted that more water, not less, will fall from the sky over Britain in the coming decades. How we harness it, and how it’s commodified, will be key.
I’ve seen some reviewers and interviewers compare your writing to Cormac McCarthy’s. But to my eyes, there’s a poetic elegance to your prose that feels entirely original. Who are your writerly influences?
Everything I read influences me. Everything I read presents me with possibility. My task is to acquire the technical ability to write in whatever way best suits the story I choose to tell, because there are always options as to how to approach that. That’s where the greatest influence comes in. Which writers have blown me away with technique? Have taken narrative risks and had the skill to make them pay off? Those are the writers I want to be aligned with, whether I write “like them” or not.
When you first start to write, you’re a mimic. You try to write like the writers you’re most struck by at the time. If you write for long enough, just through the endeavour, you glean more and more techniques as you try to write like more and more people. Then comes a moment you just write things down your own way. Not necessarily a moment you’re overtly aware of. You’ve just reached a point of technical ability when you don’t have to labour over the words.
It’s like a piano player practising scales over and over. At some point, after enough practise, they don’t have to think about where their fingers are going anymore. Then they can concentrate on the music they’re producing, not what they’re doing with their hands. In writing terms, that equates to being freed up to keep your eye on the story.
What’s next for you?
I was a good way along with a novel when the BBC offered me the commission. Putting that novel to one side was a big call at the time. When I’m ready, I’ll go back to it.
During lockdown I’ve kept myself limber. I’ve drafted a number of short stories, and spent 26 Thursday’s writing for fun, to reengage with the thrill and adventure of writing without pressure, and with nobody watching. It was liberating. I now have a 52,000 word draft of something very different, but I’m in no rush to force that forward.
If your readers like Stillicide, they should go on to books I’ve written before, all short novels. In the meantime, as I wrote more stories than the twelve that made the collection, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them don’t make it out into the world, too.
By Cynan Jones
Published November 17, 2020
Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.