On Writing: Nina Munteanu Interviewed by Lisa Haselton

The Otonabee River glints in the sunlight in the midst of a snow flurry, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

This time last year reviewer Lisa Haselton posted an interview with me on New Year’s Day of 2021 on my latest release “A Diary in the Age of Water.” 2021 saw incredible sales for my clifi eco-novel, along with several appearances on radio shows, podcasts and TV stations. It would seem that water is on everyone’s mind and what better way than a limnologist’s diary to learn more about it.

Lisa and I talked about what inspired me to write this novel and about my writing process. What follows is part of that interview. Check out this link for the complete interview with Lisa Haselton.

*****

Lisa: Please tell us about your current release.

Nina: The book tells the journey of four generations of women who have a unique relationship with water, through a time of extreme climate change and water shortage. The book spans over forty years (from the 2020s to the 2060s) and into the far future, mostly through the diary of a limnologist, which is found by a future water-being. During the diarist’s lifetime, all things to do with water are overseen and controlled by the international giant water utility CanadaCorp—with powers to arrest and detain anyone. This is a world in which China owns America and America, in turn, owns Canada. The limnologist witnesses and suffers through severe water taxes and imposed restrictions, dark intrigue through neighbourhood water betrayals, corporate spying and espionage, and repression of her scientific freedoms. Some people die. Others disappear…

Ultimately, the book carries themes of hope and forgiveness—of ourselves and each other—and compassion for all things, starting with water. Each character carries an aspect of that theme, from the diarist’s activist mother, to the diarist’s own cynical protectionism, her spiritual anarchist daughter, and lastly the innocent storm of the last generation.

Lisa: What inspired you to write ‘A Diary in the Age of Water’?

Nina: It started with a short story I was invited to write in 2015 about water and politics in Canada.  I had long been thinking of potential ironies in Canada’s water-rich heritage. The premise I wanted to explore was the irony of people in a water-rich nation experiencing water scarcity: living under a government-imposed daily water quota of 5 litres as water bottling and utility companies took it all. I named the story “The Way of Water.” It was about a young woman (Hilda) in near-future Toronto who has run out of water credits for the public wTap; by this time houses no longer have potable water and their water taps have been cemented shut; the only way to get water is through the public wTaps—at great cost. She’s standing two metres from water—in a line of people waiting to use the tap—and dying of thirst.

The short story and the novel that came from it explore the nuances of corporate and government corruption and deceit together with global resource warfare. In this near-future, Canada is mined of all its water by thirsty Chinese and US multinationals—leaving nothing for the Canadians. Rain has not fallen on Canadian soil in years due to advances in geoengineering and weather manipulation that prevent rain clouds from going anywhere north of the Canada-US border. If you’re wondering if this is possible, it’s already happening in China and surrounding countries.

Lisa: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Nina: After astronaut, actress and a drummer in a rock and roll band—seriously—it was paperback writer. That’s been my dream since I was ten. I told stories long before I wrote them and long before any of them was published. I told stories in the form of cartoons. Since I was a small child, I wanted to be a cartoonist and write graphic novels (back then I knew them as comics). I created several strips with crazy characters that I drew, blending my love for drawing with my love for storytelling. My sister and I used to make up amazing adventure stories in the universe, peopled with aliens and crazy worlds. I wrote my first complete novel when I was fifteen (“Caged-In World”—which later served as a very rough draft for my first published novel, “Darwin’s Paradox” in 2007). My first published work was a non-fiction article “Environmental Citizenship” which appeared in Shared Vision Magazine in 1995. My first fiction work was a short story entitled “Arc of Time”, which was published in Armchair Aesthete in 2002.

Heavy snowfall in the forest in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Lisa: When did you first consider yourself a writer?

Nina: I’ve considered myself a storyteller since I was a child when I wrote and directed plays that my older brother and sister played in and drew cartoon adventure stories. My dream was to be a paperback writer (like the Beatles tune). But I didn’t think of myself seriously as an author until my first short story was published in 2002. It was called “Arc of Time” and appeared in a small magazine with a circulation of about 200. That story went on to be reprinted several times in larger magazines and led to a career of award-winning short stories—the latest appearing in the literary magazine subTerrain in 2020.

Lisa: Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?

Nina: While I don’t write full-time, my career is all about writing. Every day I write and research my next novel; I also write commissioned articles and short stories for magazines and for my several writing and science blogs. When I’m not writing, I teach writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. I also coach writers online to publication. Finding time to write has not generally been a challenge. I’ve embraced an opportunistic process in my writing and research that allows me to write considerably. The process recognizes that there are many ways to “write” from observations and note-taking, to reading and research, to writing short vs long and fiction vs non-fiction. For instance, I can fill a short break time with meaningful research, editing, or the start of a short article; this saves longer break times for my current novel, which requires a greater stretch of uninterrupted time.

Heavy snowfall in the marsh in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Lisa: What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

Nina: That I am both a pantser and an outliner—with the same book. My writing process has always been a tandem kind of ‘fish and cut bait’ scene / sequel scenario with research following a premise followed by vigorous writing, which in turn engenders more research, which often reveals another plot or sub-theme that needs inclusion. It may seem a haphazard way to write, but I find it very fulfilling, fun and revealing—especially when the Universe provides with serendipitous discoveries (just when I need them). 

Lisa: What exciting story are you working on next?

Nina: I’m currently researching and working on the sequel to “A Diary in the Age of Water”—a thriller about how a phenomenon brings together four lost and homeless people through a common goal to free the Earth from the manacles of human greed. The story takes place throughout Canada—from Halifax to Vancouver and the Arctic. It takes place mostly during the 2050s, and features a few ghosts, the Halifax 1917 Explosion, experimentation on humans, espionage, murder, and—of course—a plague. I’m calling it my COVID19 novel…

Use this link to read my entire interview with Lisa Haselton.

Sun emerges after a heavy snowfall at the marsh, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Journal Writer: Why Keep a Journal?

Old maple tree under snow dusting in a mixed cedar-pine forest in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

There are as many reasons for writing a journal as there are people in the world: to express, to heal and clarify, to create, learn and influence, to record, to celebrate, to share with friends or the world even…and everything in-between. The journal is a way to connect—to yourself and to others—with gentleness, compassion and deeper understanding. It’s a “safe home” where your deepest thoughts can reside without fear of judgment, blame or need for justification. A place where you can be just you.

Late afternoon sun glimmers through cedar-pine forest in winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

What is a Journal?

Most people think of a journal as a bound notebook with text, sketches and pasted-in mementos. But it can also be a binder full of memorabilia and notes, a collection of digital information on a computer, CD or flash drive, or an audio tape. According to Ron Klug (2002), a journal is essentially a “day book” where you record daily happenings. But it is much more than that. The journal is a tool for self-discovery, an aid to concentration and finding clarity, a “mirror for the soul”, a training ground for a writer and a good friend and confidant. It is at its heart a place of learning and being.

Mary Louise Holly (1989) describes a journal as “a reconstruction of experience and, like the diary, has both objective and subjective dimensions, but unlike diaries, the writer is (or becomes) aware of the difference. The journal…is a book that someone returns to. It serves purposes beyond recording events and pouring out thoughts and feelings. Like the diary, the journal is a place to ‘let it all out’. But the journal is also a place for making sense of what is out.” The journal helps you assess the next step and help you find direction. I talk more about this in Chapter 5 of my guide The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice.

Swamp forest reflected in icing pond, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Some reject journaling as too self-absorbing; the truth is that most of us during some part of our lives are too little connected to ourselves. We keep so busy, filling our lives with activities, filling our senses with stimuli, running at full tilt. We may be constantly communicating with others through cell phones, computers, notebooks, at school and at work. But we aren’t communicating with ourselves. For that to happen we need to quiet our minds and our environment to have a meaningful self-dialogue. This is the gift that journaling brings to us.  It helps us find the depth of ourselves and lead richer more truthful lives. The key is to use it to learn.

A journal need not be the dark brooding place many people envision when they think of diaries and journals. A journal can be a happy place, a place to celebrate one’s explorations and achievements and self-education. Here’s what journal writer Jennifer Moon (1999) says about her journal:

A journal is a friend that is always there and is always a comfort. In bad moments I write, and usually end up feeling better. It reflects back at me things that I can learn about my world and myself. It represents a private space in my life, a beautiful solitude, the moments before I go to sleep just to stop and note what there is about the day or about my life at the time. I think that it has enabled me to feel deeper and more established as a person, more in control and more trusting of life. On a less introverted note, I think that it contributes to my ability to write in general, and it underlies an interest in poetry and creative writing which awaits a quieter time in my life for fulfillment. 

–Jennifer Moon

Remember, it is just as important to record your happy, wonderful, scintillating and inspirational experiences as those dark moments.

Moss-covered base of a cedar tree under a light dust of snow in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Why Keep a Journal?

Writer Louise DeSalvo shared an interesting story about what expressive writing means to her. Here’s what she said:

“Many people I know who want to write but don’t (my husband, Ernie, for example) or who want to write more than they have but say they can’t find the time (my friend Marla) have told me that taking the time to write seems so, well, self-indulgent, self-involved, frivolous even. And that finding the time to write—even a diary, much less fiction or memoir or poetry—in their busy schedules is impossible. I’ll write when I have the time, they say.”

–Louise DeSalvo

DeSalvo adds, “what if writing weren’t such a luxury? What if writing were a simple, significant, yet necessary way to achieve spiritual, emotional, and psychic wholeness? To synthesize thought and feeling, to understand how feeling relates to events in our lives and vice versa? What if writing were as important as a basic human function and as significant to maintaining and promoting our psychic and physical wellness as, say, exercise, healthful food, pure water, clean air, rest and repose, and some soul-satisfying practice?”

Journal writing encourages engagement and reflection. It helps you deepen your self-understanding and make added sense of your life and what you believe. It can provide you with added perspective on you and the world, by giving you a greater awareness of what is happening to and around you in your daily world. Writing a journal can help you write better and help improve your skills in observing, recording and interpretation. It can also help you set goals and manage your time and priorities.

Give yourself the permission to write. Give yourself the gift of expression.

Beech tree with marcescent leaves in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

This article is an excerpt from The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice (Pixl Press, 2013) by Nina Munteanu.

The Journal Writer is the second writing guide in the Alien Guidebook Series. This comprehensive guidebook will help you choose the best medium, style and platform for your expressive writing. The guide provides instruction on issues of safety, using the computer and electronic devices, social media and the internet.

Engaging, accessible, and easily applicable…Brava, Nina, brava.”—David Merchant, Instructor, Louisianna Tech University

Straight up, fact-filled, enriching, joyful and thorough…Nina is honest, she is human and she wants you to succeed.”—Cathi Urbonas, Halifax writer

References:

Baikie, Karen & Kay Wilhelm. 2005. “Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing.” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. 11: 338-346.

DeSalvo, Louise. 1999. “Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.” Beacon Press, Boston. 226pp.

Holly, Mary Louise. 1989. “Writing to Grow. Keeping a personal-professional journal”. Heinemann. Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Klug, Ron. 2002. “How to Keep a Spiritual Journal: a guide to journal keeping for inner growth and personal discovery.”Augsburg, Minneapolis, 4th ed.

Moon, Jennifer. 1999. “Learning Journals: A handbook for academics, students and professional development.” Kogan Page. London.

Munteanu, Nina. 2013. “The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 170pp.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Witch’s Hat and Other Fungi Tales

Witch’s Hat (Hygrocybe conica) by cedar tree, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In my recent wanderings in the small cedar forest by the river near my house, I chanced upon a community of emerging reddish-orange fungi. They sat among the cedars in a crowded aggregation. Some pushed their way up through the duff like little buds, barely visible; others rose up with pointed steep caps; and others had opened further into tiny ‘witch’s hats’ and blackened.

Several stages of Witch’s Hat, including blackening stage, cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

According to Frank Dugan, fungus plays a key role in many folktales and fairy tales. “They appear as foods, poisons, diseases, decorations, dyes or tinder, and even in insults, compliments, graffiti and video games,” says the author of Fungi, Folkways and Fairy Tales: Mushrooms & Mildews in Stories, Remedies & Rituals, from Oberon to the Internet.

Fungi figure in wonderfully with stories of and about witches. “Witches have long used fungi in their potions in Europe,” Fungal Folklore tells us. Even ferry rings are called “Hexen Rings” in Germany; Hexe means witch and this refers to “the dancing of witches on Walpurgis night (the eve of May Day) when the old pagan witches were thought to hold high revelry,” writes Dugan.

Baba Yaga (Wikipedia Commons)

Baba Yaga

In the Slavic folktale, Baba Yaga is an ancient swamp witch; she’s a cruel ogress who steals, cooks and eats her victims, usually children; OR offers them help. It’s complicated; she’s either a maternal helper or a cannibalistic villain; or both. Certainly a trickster.  Baba Yaga is guardian of the fountains of the water of life and lives in a forest hut perched on bird’s legs, surrounded by pine trees and glowing skulls. She can manipulate earth and wood, and can mesmerise. Baba Yaga has lately become something of an icon for feminism and the power of the feminine.

Says Marissa Clifford in Vice: “Like other witches, deistic Baba is agent of transformation, who, according to Kitaiskaia, exists ‘kind of outside of the things which constrain human society, like time and morality.’ She may well be so compelling for women today because of her rejection of social standards, and the power that comes from that. She’s an outlier with power that isn’t derived from her beauty, or her relationships with others. Instead, it comes from within her—earth, hut, and firey stove.”

Baba Yaga (illustration by Tatyana Chepkasova)

Witches, Fungi & Potions

“Witches have long used fungi in their potions in Europe,” The Fungus Among Us tells us. According to Dugan, the dung-loving Panaeolus papilionaceus (Petticoat Mottlegill) was used in witch’s concoctions in Portugal. The entheogen Amanita muscaria (Fly Agaric)—the elixir of ancient alchemists—is known as Hexenpils (‘Witches’ mushroom’) in Austria.  Among German tribes, it is associated with Woton/Odin, god of ecstasy, war and shamanic knowledge.  Puffballs were reportedly used in potions by witches in the Basque country. Witch’s butter (Exidia spp.) also figures in folklore. “Stabbing, burning or otherwise destroying these fungi were believed to harm the witch herself,” writes Owen. The Witch’s Hat (Hygrocybe conica) is aptly named for its blackening witch-style ‘hat’ that starts bright red-orange and turns coal black.

Many country folk through the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries performed rituals to protect their crops from the devastation wrought by witches and spirits. Thiselton-Dyer discusses the malignant Roggenwolf (‘rye wolf’ of Germanic folklore) who stole children and fed on them and the various rituals peasants used to appease these Feldgeister (field spirits), such as leaving a sheaf of rye in the fields over the winter. The Roggenwolf is, of course, the personification of ergot, the fungus Claviceps purpurea, which caused convulsions, burning, “massive-appetite”, and “the sense of becoming an animal.” People who contracted ergot poisoning from the contaminated rye were accused of being witches and brutally killed.

Young Witch’s Hats push up through the cedar forest floor, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Ergot and The Last Summoner

In my historical fantasy “The Last Summoner,” young Vivianne Schoen, Baroness of Grunwald—accused of being a witch—is chased by her father’s guard to be burnt at the stake. Blamed for the sudden stupor of her father and the chaplain who both love their rye bread, it didn’t help that Vivianne possesses unnatural powers in metal manipulation, has weird markings or blemishes on her back or that suspicions of her preternatural mother being a witch precede her. Then odd things start to happen; cattle stop producing milk and other farm animals behave strangely. At a feast to celebrate her own coming nuptial to a foreign stranger and just after she is falsely accused of adultery, people suddenly succumb to fits of convulsions, facial distortions, hallucinations and paralysis. Targeted as the obvious candidate to blame, she must flee her home or be burnt alive at the stake:

…With a final unintelligible gasp that wet her cheek with flying spittle, he convulsed violently and pitched to the floor, shaking and vomiting his dinner.

Vivianne stared at her father, rolling and twitching in a seizure on the floor and crying out gibberish. She turned to the castle community, who were now pointing and shouting at her. Their faces had twisted from transfixed revulsion into fear and anger. Somehow they blamed her for both the stranger’s accident and her father’s sudden paroxysm. Perhaps for losing them a battle in the bargain too. Even Père Daniel’s face looked stricken with confused accusation. Until now Vivianne hadn’t realized how much his opinion of her meant to her. She felt his faltering faith drive like a blade into her heart and would have burst into tears had the crowd not suddenly grown very surly, which demanded her sudden attention.

Gertrude, the new dairymaid she’d assisted earlier, flung the first accusation: “She’s a witch!”

“Witch!” another echoed. “You heard her father call her one!”

Another servant swiftly followed with, “Just like her mother! She’s bewitched the baron! Put a spell on him with her wicked look!”

The crowd ignited to a raucous mob and a spate of accusations gushed out like a dam breaking: “My butter failed to churn because of her!”

“Look at the witchling’s eyes! They blaze with the devil’s own fire!”

“She appeared in Weikhard’s dream and now he’s ill!”

“She touched my cow and afterwards it couldn’t stand!”

“I saw the nursemaid bringing her a daily potion of nettle, mustard and mint with wine to make her lustful!”

Oh, no! They were implicating Uta along with her!

“I smelled basil and cloves in her bed chamber!”

Vivianne had used both to mask the rank odor of Uta’s anti-plague potions, completely innocent of their aphrodisiac properties. Vivianne stared in anguished despair as Père Daniel stood by, mutely sanctioning their actions. She’d thought him her champion once. But obviously this was too much for him to bear. He’d lost his trust in her. As their eyes met briefly, he suddenly gasped out strange words of gibberish. A violent shudder convulsed through him. It threw him forward, as if the devil itself were animating him, then felled him to the ground where he vomited alongside her retching father.

“She’s taken the priest!” someone shouted. “He’s doing the Viper’s dance!” Another screamed in a panic, “Watch out for her eyes!”

Vivianne turned back to the crowd. Whomever her gaze alighted upon shrank back and averted their face in terrified alarm. They were convinced that she could strike them down with a glance. To her horror a few of the castle servants jerked out of their seats with startled cries of gibberish then fell writhing to the ground; some began to vomit. Vivianne recognized the true onslaught of an epidemic. The same illness that had inflicted her father and the chaplain was attacking the staff. And again, the timing was impeccable, thought Vivianne with wry cynicism. As though God was plotting against her.

Gertrude pointed to her. “Seize her! Burn the witch! Before she kills us all!”

“Someone find her demon cat too!” Vivianne heard the doctor shout.

Several of the baron’s knights surged forward, swords drawn. As if suddenly awoken from a stupor, the Teutonic Knights at the high table leapt into action and drew their swords.

NO! Vivianne backed away in alarm. She envisioned their swords suddenly pointing back toward themselves. To her amazement, their swords flung back and the knights dropped them in shocked fright.  

In that surreal moment, as the world staggered into slow motion, Vivianne saw the entire castle household draw in a long breath. Still on the floor, Père Daniel’s shakes abated long enough for him to fix lucid eyes upon her and silently mouth, “Cours, ma petite! Cours! Sauves toi!”

After a last glance at her convulsing father, Vivianne took the Père’s advice and ducked through one of the curtained archways behind the table to the kitchen stairwell, and pelted down the stairs.

“After her!” she heard the booming voice of Doctor Grien. “The witch is getting away!”

*****

Vivianne later discovers what caused the sudden ‘bewitchment’ of members of her community: all the people who became ill had eaten the rye bread. She learns about ergot poisoning of rye by the fungus Claviceps purpurea. Conditions had been ideal for ergot to thrive: damp and rainy cool weather.

Young Witch’s Hat with peaked cone-shaped pileus, amid cedar duff, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Witch’s Hat

Witch’s Hats are a small agaric (cap from 1-4 cm across) that start out bright red to orange, sometimes almost yellow as they thrust up through the cedar duff, looking like buds.

The conical pileus is often curved steeply with a fairly sharp top and sometimes with edges that curve slightly inward. The stem (stipe) is often white at the base blending to yellow and will stain black with age.

Witch’s Hat mushroom showing inward curve of cap, with key to show size, cedar tree, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

As the waxcap mushroom develops, the cap spreads out with a discernable brim while maintaining the hat peak of a witch’s hat. As it ages, it turns a deeper red-orange that blackens, often from the edges inward.

Three stages of Witch’s Hat, from early conical to spreading and blackening hat, cedar tree, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

This tendency to blacken from bruising or with age is a good diagnostic for this mushroom. Very few others show this trait. Its gills “have the consistency of soft wax when rubbed between the fingers,” Fungus Fact Friday tells us. The gills start white to yellowish and gradually yellow and stain black.

Stages of Witch’s Hat from budding to opening cap to blackening cap and gills, cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Blackened and blackening Witches Hat caps and stems, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Hygrocybe conica well-represents its common name Witch’s Hat as it keeps its peak and turns totally black, cedar in Ontario forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Witch’s Hat (Hygrocybe conica), also known as Blackening Waxcap (for the obvious reason), shows a diversity of habitat preference and high variability. It tends to grow on the ground under hardwood and conifer trees. The community I stumbled upon fanned out from a few cedar trees in a small mixed cedar forest. The Witch’s Hat also likes mossy areas, where I found several near the river. The saprobic Hygrocybe conica is also a mycorrhizal fungus, sending tendrils from tree to tree.

Mycorrhizae are symbiotic relationships that form between fungi and plants. The fungi colonize the root system of a host plant—in this case some cedar trees—providing increased water and nutrient absorption capabilities while the plant provides the fungus with carbohydrates through photosynthesis.

Mycorrhizal network (illustration by Charlotte Roy, Wikipedia)

References:

Dugan. 2008. “Fungi, folkways & fairy tales.” North American Fungi 3(7): 23-72.

Morgan, A. 1995. “Toads and Toadstools: The Natural History, Folklore, and Cultural Oddities of a Strange Association.” Celestial Arts. Berkeley, California.

Munteanu, Nina. 2012. “The Last Summoner.” Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY.

Owen, E. 2003. “Welsh Folk-Lore: A Collection of the Folk-Tales and Legends of North Wales. Kessinger Publishing. Whitefish, Montana.

Thiselton-Dyer, T.F. 1898. “Folk-Lore of Plants.” D. Appleton and Co., New York.

Young emerging Witch’s Hats through cedar duff, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Witch’s Hat in cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

On Writing Hopeful Dystopias and the Blur of Fiction with Non-Fiction

‘Hopeful dystopias’ are much more than an apparent oxymoron; they are in some fundamental way, the spearhead of the future—and ironically often a celebration of human spirit by shining a light through the darkness of disaster. I discussed this in a recent interview on Solarpunk Futures Podcast.

In a recent interview on the CBC Radio show Ideas “Beyond Dystopia”, Canadian author Margaret Atwood (who penned the dystopic The Handmaid’s Tale and Maddaddam trilogy) said much the same thing. Atwood argued that dystopias and cautionary tales ultimately embrace an element of hope, through a character’s experience. Dystopias can serve as a road map for individual endurance, resilience, and triumph through disaster.

I talked with Solarpunk Futures about how the purposeful blur of fiction with non-fiction in my latest eco-novel A Diary in the Age of Water produced a heightened relevance to the dystopic journey for the reader.

Solarpunk: Your latest book is an eco-novel, or rather something of a fiction-nonfiction hybrid perhaps, called A Diary in the Age of Water. Tell us a bit about that novel and the role that water plays in the story.

Nina: A Diary in the Age of Water follows the climate-induced journey of Earth and humanity through four generations of women and their battles against a global giant that controls and manipulates Earth’s water. The book spans over forty years (from the 2020s to the 2060s) and into the far future, mostly through the diary of a limnologist, which is found by a future water-being. While A Diary in the Age of Water is a work of fiction, its premise and much of its story are firmly based on real events, people and phenomena. The dramatization of these through four main characters carry the reader into consequence and accountability. Water’s relationship with each character provides four different perspectives on the value of water to humanity—from the personal and practical to the spiritual and existential. For readers with an evidence-based approach to learning about water’s importance, the diarist provides interesting facts on water in each of her entries in the form of epigraphs (mostly from Robert Wetzel’s Limnology). Things like: watershed, hypolimnion, aquifer, thalweg, clapotis gaufre, and petrichor, to name a few…

I chose a diary format to purposely blur the fiction with non-fiction. I was writing about both the far and the near future and much of it was based—like Margaret Atwood and her books—on real events and real people. I wanted personal relevance to what was going on, particularly with climate change. I also wanted to achieve a gritty realism of “the mundane” and a diary felt right. Lynna—the diarist—is a reclusive inexpressive character, so I thought a personal diary would help bring out her thoughts and feelings. There’s nothing like eves-dropping to make the mundane exciting. The diary-aspect of the book characterizes it as “mundane science fiction” by presenting an “ordinary” setting for characters to play out. The tension arises from insidious cumulative events and circumstances that slowly grow into something incendiary. The real events are the fuel that incite a slow-burn fictional drama that blurs the reader’s perception of reality and heightens its relevance.

Solarpunk: Can you give us an example of an event in your book where the lines between fiction and nonfiction get blurred?

Nina: In the diary entry entitled “Watershed,”, for July 14, 2049, Lynna writes:

Today, CanadaCorp announced that the collection of rainwater was illegal. As of today, I could be arrested for using my rain catcher and cistern. I’ve decided to continue using the cistern, and I’ve warned Hildegard not to breathe a word to anyone at school about what we’re doing with the water. Thankfully, I have time to train her in the art of subterfuge before she starts Grade Two in the fall.

What follows in the story is a series of greater water restrictions that mimic some of the currenet ongoing scenarios in other parts of the world (e.g. illegal rainwater collection in parts of the USA; shutting down of home water taps in Detroit; required and restricted water collection at public water taps in parts of the world).

Lynna’s August 13, 2051 diary entry in my 2020 novel seemed to predict the atmospheric river disaster that befell British Columbia in November 2021:

In the mid- to late-twenties the west coast succumbed to massive atmospheric river storms. San Francisco. Los Angeles. Seattle. Even earthquakes seemed to follow climate change’s lead. The earthquake / tsunami that hit Vancouver Island in 2029 shifted the Earth’s axis by three inches, Daniel informed me. The American military stormed over the border with swift aid. “Did you know that they never left?” Daniel asked me. I hadn’t known that. But I wasn’t surprised either.

Of course, these “predictions” were really just good research into the current scientific knowledge and what current circumstances may naturally generate in the future. I was just doing a good job at reading water.

Thompson Creek marsh in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Given that cli-fi features climate change, environmental destruction, and species extinction, you must think ‘how can it not be all doom and gloom?’ But dystopias often do reflect—in their depiction of terrible circumstance—an element of triumph, of overcoming adversity, and ultimately of hope. In fact, dystopias generally draw on a writer’s optimism; else, why would we write these cautionary tales? A strong belief in humanity underlies much of eco-fiction. Solarpunk is a rising light of eco-fiction that has emerged recently in response to the denial-despair dilemma many of us face when we think of climate change. This kind of eco-fiction features ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community. And it ultimately leads us through it all toward the light. A Diary in the Age of Water is in fact a dystopia with elements of solarpunk.

You can listen to the entire podcast interview on Solarpunk Futures: Imagining a New World here.

Thompson Creek Marsh in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Overcoming Climate Change, One Story at a Time: “Stories for Earth” Interviews Nina Munteanu

I was recently interviewed by Forrest Brown on his podcast Stories for Earth, a site in Georgia devoted to entertaining and informing its audience on matters to do with climate change and environment and how literature represents and influences our understanding and behaviour in the current and future issues of planet Earth. The site’s mission statement reads: “Stories for Earth seeks to foster hope and emotional resilience by discussing cultural narratives that contain parallels and takeaways to our current predicament. Cultural narratives provide stories for our past, present, and future, and Stories for Earthcritically engages with these narratives through all mediums.”

This is what Forrest says about how and why he started his podcast:

I founded Stories for Earth in the summer of 2019. As a writer and lifelong lover of stories, I never suspected my two biggest interests might have something to do with fighting climate change. That is, until one day when I came across an article about an interesting class at the University of Washington Bothell.

This class, taught by senior lecturer Dr. Jennifer W. Atkinson, sought to help students struggling with the emotional effects of climate change, specifically with the feelings of hopelessness and despair associated with climate grief. Atkinson is a professor of environmental humanities and American literature, so naturally she chose to do this by examining climate change through what she knows best: literature.

After I read this, something clicked. Of course literature can help us face climate change, I thought. Literature and stories in general have helped humanity overcome countless struggles throughout the course of our history—why can’t they help us overcome climate change too?

Stories for Earth is my personal realization of that idea. I want to read books, watch movies, and engage with stories through any other medium out there that can better prepare me to fight climate change in my own way without losing my mind. This podcast is my way of sharing what I learn with you, the listener, and I hope you’ll follow along. If anything you hear sticks or helps you in some way, consider sharing it with a friend who might also benefit from it. We must take care of each other.

Here’s the blurb on the site for our interview

Nina Munteanu is a prolific and insightful Canadian science fiction writer who has published nine novels, including her most recent novel A Diary in the Age of Water. This novel imagines a Canada in the not-so-distant-future where water is becoming increasingly scarce, partially because water sources are drying up and partially because the US and China are buying up water from all the recently privatized Canadian utilities. As a limnologist–literally a fresh water scientist–it makes sense for Nina to be the one telling this story, and our conversation ranges from water shortages in the present day to Ray Bradbury to the need for a new paradigm for living.

We also discuss the connection between exploitive capitalism/colonialism and climate change, then move onto the new paradigm for living by looking at regenerative cultures, the gift economy used by many indigenous peoples, and the creation of an ecological civilization. 

Here’s the interview:

Here’s part of our interview:

  1. Tell me about yourself. How did you become a writer? Why do you think stories are important in the climate action movement?

I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid. While my older brother and sister devoured The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series, I hid myself in the back corner of Williams General store and read comics: Superman, Supergirl, Magnus Robot Fighter. I was obviously enamoured with the fantastic. When I earnestly started to read things other than comics, I came across the SF classics: Huxley, Orwell, LeGuin and Asimov to name a few. Ray Bradbury moved me and his “Martian Chronicles” made me cry. I wanted to write science fiction like him and move readers like he’d done with me. But I’d also discovered the sensual classics like Thomas Hardy. So, like most beginner writers, I started by imitating my favourites. Imagine the genre-confused chimeric stuff I was writing: Thomas Hardy crossed with Ray Bradbury? It wasn’t until I found my unique voice, which blended these with my passion for the environment, that my own voice emerged. The environment and how we treat it (and ourselves by extension) has always been something important to me since I was a kid when littering was a pet peeve—it still is… I think that the stories we tell help us define ourselves and our role on this planet. Climate fiction and eco-literature and solarpunk provide us with important narratives that both entertain and educate: from cautionary tales to constructive visualizations of a potential future.  

  • Your new novel A Diary in the Age of Water is the story of a young girl in the future who discovers a diary from a Canadian woman who wrote about her experiences living in an increasingly water-scarce Canada in the 2040s. What inspired you to write this story?

It started with a short story I was invited to write in 2015 about water and politics in Canada.  I had long been thinking of potential ironies in Canada’s water-rich heritage. The premise I wanted to explore was the irony of people in a water-rich nation experiencing water scarcity: living under a government-imposed daily water quota of 5 litres as water bottling and utility companies took it all. I named the story “The Way of Water.” It was about a young woman (Hilda) in near-future Toronto who has run out of water credits for the public wTap; by this time houses no longer have potable water and their water taps have been cemented shut; the only way to get water is through the public wTaps—at great cost. She’s standing two metres from water—in a line of people waiting to use the tap—and dying of thirst. The short story begged for more and that inspiration came when I attended a talk by Maude Barlow on her book Boiling Pointabout the water crisis in Canada. We were in a church and I noticed a young mother and her little six-year old daughter in the balcony; I wondered what kind of mother would bring her little girl to a political talk about water in Canada? The diarist character, Lynna, and her mother, Una, were born. It went from there with Lynna—the diarist—writing about not just water shortage but water related phenomena such as climate change, habitat destruction, hormone disruption and the alarming increased infertility in humans.

  • Coincidentally, I just interviewed another author, C.C. Berke, about his novel Man, Kind, in which people also become infertile in the future. I’ll be honest, this isn’t a problem I was really aware of until recently, but humans are indeed becoming less fertile with every new generation. Is this something you hoped to raise awareness about with your novel?

The short answer is yes! I hope it helps spark the much needed discussion. Rising infertility is an issue that seems to embarrass us … something we feel we must hide under the rug, so to speak. Like our misbehaving Uncle Zeek. But if we don’t talk about it, we can’t understand the underlying reasons for it, many of which are environmentally induced—things we should be addressing. 

  • Politics and big business play huge roles in your novel, as they do in real life as well. Canada has privatized its water utilities after the Conservative Party comes into power, and a giant company called CanadaCorp removes municipal water connections from people’s homes and imposes strict water rations, all while selling off Canada’s precious water to US states like California that would otherwise be uninhabitable. Given that Canada is home to a huge portion of the world’s freshwater, what role do you see Canada playing in the coming years when many prominent people—including the Vice President of the United States—have predicted that wars will one day be fought over water?

She’s right. But this isn’t just in the future; water wars are occurring right now and have for some time. Perhaps not between our two countries. Certainly in the middle east and Asia. There are tensions between Egypt, and nine upstream countries for control of water in the Nile watershed; the Sudanese and Ethiopians are building dams and Egypt plans to pump water from Lake Nassar into the Sahara. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China are in conflict over control of rivers such as the Indus, Ganges, and particularly the Brahmaputra. India’s River Link Plan impacts Bangladesh. Meantime Pakistan, Kashmir and India fight over more and more water, as the Indus dries up and no longer flows into the ocean.

But let’s move closer to home, to North America and the premise of water conflicts here… Considering what you mentioned about Canada’s huge water storage of freshwater, water conflicts are inevitable. Canada and America border some significant water bodies such as the Great Lakes and various rivers like the Columbia River in the west. We’ve formed joint commissions along with treaties to manage these trans-boundary water bodies. They’ve often been highly electrified politically. The book by Eileen Delhanty Pearkes—“A River Captured”—explores the controversial history of the Columbia River Treaty and the huge dams built on that system that impacted ecosystems, indigenous peoples and local cultures in the Pacific Northwest. That didn’t go very well for Canada and particularly not for some of its indigenous peoples.  Another example that my book features is from the 1960s: the NAWAPA project, a plan by Ralph Parsons Company and the Army Corps of Engineers to make the entire Rocky Mountain Trench into a giant 800-km long reservoir to hydrate the US by inundating a fifth of British Columbia’s prime habitat, several towns and indigenous communities and literally destroy a fishery. But guess what? Congress was seriously looking at it and the plan keeps resurfacing among corporate entrepreneurs, engineers and politicians.

  • Going back to big business, do you think industry and sustainability are compatible? I know some cultural movements like solarpunk emphasize DIY and more small businesses over mass production and giant corporations. Do you have any thoughts on this? This is one of the defining questions of our time, but can we have both capitalism and a livable planet?

Some people—mostly economists—would say definitely yes; we just need to be conservationist in our approach to doing business. But the very basis of capitalism is exploitation, not conservation. The driving force behind capitalism is fear and uncertainty and its main process is exploitation. From an ecologist’s perspective, this makes sense for a community during its early succession and growth stage… when it first colonizes a new area. Ecologists call this approach r-selected (for rate), based on profligate and fast growth. But as we reach a climax community and our carrying capacity—where we are now—this r-selected approach no longer works. We need an economic model that better matches this new paradigm. NOT based on continued growth! A climax global economy, one based on cooperation not competition. Elisabet Sahtouris calls this ecological economy ecosophy. In his book “Designing Regenerative Cultures” Daniel Christian Wahl talks about changing our evolutionary narrative from one based on fear defined by a perception of scarcity, competition, and separation to one based on love defined by a perception of abundance, a sense of belonging, collaboration and inclusion. 

And moving forward we can take a lesson from Robin Wall Kimmerer who talks about a gift economy—an economy of abundance—whose basis lies in recognizing the value of kindness, sharing, and gratitude in an impermanent world. This is what she says: “Climate change is a product of this extractive economy and is forcing us to confront the inevitable outcome of our consumptive lifestyle, genuine scarcity for which the market has no remedy. Indigenous story traditions are full of these cautionary teachings. When the gift is dishonored, the outcome is always material as well as spiritual. Disrespect the water and the springs dry up. Waste the corn and the garden grows barren. Regenerative economies which cherish and reciprocate the gift are the only path forward. To replenish the possibility of mutual flourishing, for birds and berries and people, we need an economy that shares the gifts of the Earth, following the lead of our oldest teachers, the plants.”

  • The diary entries in your novel make frequent reference to the post-truth era we seem to be living in. I feel like we’ve been heading in this direction for a while (it seems as though books like Manufacturing Consentby Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman and 1984by George Orwell have documented this), but I think many people feel as though we officially entered the post-truth era when Kellyanne Conway used the term “alternative facts” in a Meet The Pressinterview in 2017. Again, this is another huge question of our time, but how do those of us pushing for climate action make progress when entire political parties like the Republican Party in the US and the Conservative Party of Canada are in blatant denial of reality? (Actually, it seems worse than denial of reality—they use the fascist tactic of disregarding reality and replacing it with their own reality, even though they know what they’re doing.)

I have absolutely no answer for that! LAUGH! ARGH! But seriously, how do you convince someone about an evidence-based truth when they are living by a faith-based or agenda-based truth? As a scientist who has lived most of her life doing research and learning to accept the truth of evidence, I find this belief or stance incomprehensible. So you weren’t asking me a question, were you? Well, I’ve heard some great advice on this actually and that is to appeal to a person’s compassion, their kindness, their links to family and friends and find some common ground through their humanity in the phenomenon—say a local manifestation of climate change—then work from there. Keep it local and practical and nonthreatening. In other words, take the science out of it and the belief out of it and appeal on humane grounds. You can’t convince someone to change their belief, but you might be able to persuade them to accept an aspect of something if it doesn’t threaten their belief. 

  • I’d like to talk about the persistence of colonialism and how it’s tied to the climate crisis. In your novel, enormous swaths of British Columbia have been turned into reservoirs to store water to sell to Americans. Doing this displaces lots of people, especially indigenous and First Nations people. But things like this are happening even now. In Minnesota, the Canadian energy company Enbridge has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars paying local police departments to stop Water Protectors from blocking construction of Line 3, which would desecrate indigenous land and transport tar sands oil to US refineries. Could you talk a little about the importance of protecting indigenous and First Nations people’s rights, especially in the climate action movement?

You cite a great example of capitalist exploitation in the fossil fuel industry, which is occurring everywhere on the globe. As I mentioned already, Local and Traditional Ecological Knowledge lies at the heart of preserving this planet’s health and balanced climate. And Indigenous people around the world are regaining control of their territorial environments to reinvigorate food security, governance, social relations and economies. To quote Steven Nitah of the Dene First Nation, “because of their attachment to, and dependence on the land, Indigenous Peoples have been establishing their own protected areas for millennia.”

Luckily, we’re getting on board with this on a grass roots level and even government level—where it needs to be. An example of this are the Indigenous-led conservation movements like the Indigenous Guardians and the IPCAs (the Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas) where indigenous governments have the primary role in protecting and conserving ecosystems through indigenous laws, governance and knowledge systems. This is linked to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)—specifically Articles 29 and 32—to govern themselves and their territories and to conserve and protect them. British Columbia in Canada sees many examples of Indigenous-led conservation leadership such with the Tla-o-qui-aht and Haida. 

An example I’m following is the Heiltsuk Nation on the Great Bear Sea who have enacted an Oceans Act to protect their ocean relatives and particularly the Pacific herring—a keystone species. The Heiltsuk-herring relationship have thrived over millennia through a system of traditional ecological knowledge, gwee-ee-las, and sustainable harvesting practices. Under current legislation overseen by DFO, commercial fisheries have pretty much destroyed the herring fishery through unsustainable practices. While the Heiltsuk’s stewardship and governance of this area was recently recognized by Canada’s provincial and federal governments, DFO continued to operate separately through settler law, opening herring seine fishery in violation of Heiltsuk constitutional rights. Then they finally collaborated. We’re working it out. It’s an ongoing conversation. 

  • We live in a time where it is so hard to decipher what is true, what is propaganda, and what is conspiracy theory. Your novel deals with this theme a lot through the character Daniel and his obsession with a social media-like platform called Oracle. Could you talk about writing this character and what inspired his creation?

Daniel is a kind of twisted hipster version of an oracle. Young. Wise. Naïve all at the same time.  I brought him in as a trickster archetype, and a kind of foil to Lynna, the main character in the diary part of the book. He’s her technician and work mate and ends up being her link to the world of gossip and dark truths repressed by the corporations via the traditional internet. He finds these gems in the quagmire of the net to share with her over coffee. He’s really a very bright and astute technologist, but he also seems naïve in some ways. For instance, he’s a researcher who dabbles in conspiracy theory. He’s all about health but he smokes. So, a man of contradictions. So, even though he is Lynna’s coffee companion and amuses her, he also unsettles her. In true trickster fashion, he finds out her secret and pays for it. His character allows me to explore the best and worst of the diarist character Lynna. 

  • I hope I’m not giving too much away with this question (we can skip it if you don’t want spoilers), but I want to talk about one of the central themes of the book: is it possible to save the Earth while saving humanity? The author of the diary, Lynna, writes about her water activist daughter, Hilde, a little over halfway through the book: “Does Hilde realize that she’s an oxymoron? To fight for water and the environment is to fight against humanity. Because at the root of Daniel’s question—would you save the planet at the expense of humanity?—lies the deeper question: can humanity exist without destroying the environment? And has Hilde made her prognosis? I know Una still believed in her heart that we could. I always thought her optimism was naïve.” For a long time, it seems like a narrative of the environmental movement was that humans are a virus. But now, there’s a big pushback against this narrative, with activists pointing to the systemic players who bear the most responsibility for the climate crisis. What do you think? Are humans the root problem?

On the surface, I’d say yes. Of course we are. But that is a far too simple and easy answer. It’s the easy way out. It isn’t so much that we’re human that created the climate crisis. It is that we— most of us—live and subscribe to a worldview and belief system that came from a place of great uncertainty with a perception of scarcity and an existential model based on fear and separation. Ancient peoples and most indigenous people today do not hold themselves as separate from the land; they already live in ecological civilizations. An ecological civilization is both a new and ancient idea. Buddhist, Taoist, and other traditions base their spiritual wisdom on the deep interconnectedness of all things. According to Robin Wall Kimmerer “In indigenous ways of knowing, it is understood that each living being has a particular role to play. Every being is endowed with certain gifts, its own intelligence, its own spirit, its own story…The foundation of education is to discover that gift within us and learn to use it well.” I think we’re starting to do this. Partly through listening to the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of our indigenous peoples.

I do believe that human nature is basically empathic and cooperative over selfish and competitive; I think we are born the former and taught to be the latter. That is what needs to change. How we are taught. 

  1. On a related note, the issue of overpopulation is a highly controversial topic in the environmental movement. This has led to some fear-mongering from Conservative politicians who tell their constituents that climate activists want to make a “one child” law like the draconian one-child policy in China that began in the late 70s as part of a government program to curb population growth. Yet, overpopulation is an enormous problem, with Project Drawdown saying, “Education lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families, and their communities. It also is one of the most powerful levers available for avoiding emissions by curbing population growth. Women with more years of education have fewer and healthier children, and actively manage their reproductive health.” Do you think overpopulation needs to be part of the conversation in the environmental movement? Do you think there are times when pointing to this issue as it relates to climate change is problematic?

It certainly can polarize and spark conflict. Reproduction and the right to reproduce is an innate impulse of all life: to make more of itself. So, we’re in conflict with ourselves already. I agree with Project Drawdown. But how to enter into a rationale and productive discussion on this issue relies on the players, their rationale, perspective, and their personal feelings on the matter. We kind of know there should be fewer of us but how to achieve that is another matter. It comes down to ecological footprints and living lightly on the earth and other philosophical considerations. You and I talked earlier about infertility. It seems a macabre kind of irony going on with habitat degradation caused partially by over-population sparking infertility in humans through endocrine disrupting chemicals in our drinking water…

  1. Change is another big theme in your novel, reminding me of Octavia E. Butler’s masterpiece Parable of the Sower, in which she writes, “God is change.” In your novel, Lynna writes, “Trapped by our preordained notion of change, we no longer see what we’re not prepared to see. And that’s the change that kills us.” The problem with climate change is that everything is happening too fast for biological evolution to keep pace. There’s a lot of buzz about transhumanism right now—do you think we’re approaching a point where humans will have to take evolution into our own hands, so to speak, if we want to survive?

It isn’t our intelligence—our cleverness—that will save us; it is our kindness and compassion that will do that. We don’t need to invent some techy thing or reinvent ourselves or implant some intelligent virus into us. What we simply need to do is accept ourselves with humility, find and express joy. Give in to the beauty of our world and our own part in it. Become a participant. Embrace the feminine. Respect Nature and all that lies in it. Find something there to love, cherish it and protect it. The rest will follow. 

Nina Munteanu and Forrest Brown on “Stories for Earth” Podcast

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Nina Munteanu Talks About ‘Water Is…’ and ‘A Diary in the Age of Water’ with Dr. Steven Miletto

Nina Munteanu appears on “Teaching, Learning, Leading, K-12” Podcast with Dr. Steven Miletto

I was recently interviewed by Dr. Steven Miletto in Georgia on his podcast “Teaching Learning Leading K12”—Episode 401. We talked about my two recent books on water,Water Is…and A Diary in the Age of Water. The 1-hour interview covered a range of topics from why water makes us feel so good, to the study of limnology, and writing both non-fiction and fiction about water. In the latter, I talked about water as a character in story. We also talked about how characters form in a story and how to keep going when the muse or the joy buries itself.

Jackson Creek, ON (photo and dry-brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Aroma of Story

Old cabin behind seeding goldenrods, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

One of my favourite smells is of pipe tobacco smoke. 

But here’s the thing:  I’m really not a fan of smoking. Both my parents were chain smokers (who wasn’t back then?) and I quickly discovered that cigarette butts carried thousands of ugly toxins and lasted years on the ground. In the one rebellious occasion that I skipped school with two school mates to spend the day in the forest, I accidentally lit my hair on fire trying to light the cigarette. Taking the karmic connection seriously, I decided that was the end of both skipping school and smoking for me.   

Cigarette butt found near a river in a park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

So, why the allure with pipe smoke?

Well, to begin my rationalization, pipe smoke is nothing like cigarette smoke. Cigarette smoke squeals up my nose and mouth, choking my breath with an acrid burning that lodges like a smothering cancer in my throat; pipe smoke coils heavy and loose into my nostrils with lazy notes of fermenting cherry or plum.

There’s more to it, obviously . . . 

Left: Four-year old Nina Munteanu pretending to read; Right: Rue Principal in Granby, Quebec in the early 1960s

When I was little, one of my favourite things to do was hide behind the comic stand in the back corner of William’s General Store and read comic books. Superman, Supergirl, Green Lantern, Magnus Robot Fighter. So many more . . .

Mr. Williams knew I was there. I was, after all, hiding in plain sight, as kids generally do. But he was a kind man and let me stay and read for free. He recognized someone who loved story. 

The store was a typical general store of that era. Long and narrow, dark wood walls covered in paraphernalia. Shelves and stands cramped full with stuff. Anything from toys and penny candy to games, puzzles, watches, newspapers, pocket books and magazines, household necessities, shoeshine kits, canned goods and preserves, pocket knives, to cigars, pipes and the tobacco and lighters to go with them. A smoky mist settled on everything in the store and the place gave off the complex scent of old polished wood with a tobacco undercurrent. Williams might have smoked a pipe himself; I don’t recall. However, my sense-mind has wonderfully coupled that evocative aroma with a sense of freedom to immerse myself in fantastical worlds of imagination. And, in turn, to imagine my own worlds. 

That place and my experience in it not only gave me an abiding love for pipe smoke; it made me the storyteller I am today.  

Taste and smell appear to linger most in memory and yet are often neglected by writers. According to the California Institute of Technology, smell is generally considered the sense tied most closely to human memory. Smell profoundly influences people’s ability to recall past events and experiences. “A smell from your distant past can unleash a flood of memories that are so intense and striking that they seem real,” says Dr. Karl (Kruszelnicki), author of Great Moments in Science. “This kind of memory, where an unexpected re-encounter with a scent from the distant past brings back a rush of memories, is called a ‘Proustian Memory’.”

In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust writes: 

When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls.

In this excerpt of The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl, fragrance permeates with meaning: 

The flower shop was here and it was my father’s domain, but it was also marvelously other, this place heavy with the drowsy scent of velvet-petaled roses and Provencal freesias in the middle of winter, the damp-earth spring fragrance of just-watered azaleas and cyclamen all mixed up with the headachey smell of bitter chocolate. 

In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, his main character recalls the following memories, through several evocative smells: 

I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer— and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich. 

Barrels of aging bourbon in Kentucky (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In Part 2 of my writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character, I discuss how the various senses—not just smell—are strong tools in storytelling and provide examples and working exercises.

Psychologist Michael McCollough argues that environment plays a key role in human behaviors, such as forgiveness and revenge. He theorizes that various social environments can cause either forgiveness or revenge to prevail. McCollough relates his theory to game theory. In a tit-for-tat strategy, cooperation and retaliation are comparable to forgiveness and revenge. The choice between the two can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on what the game partner (or organism) chooses. The brain’s limbic system processes external stimuli related to emotions, social activity, and motivation; these then propagate an instinctual behavioural response. Examples include maternal care, aggression, defense, and social hierarchy; these behaviours are influenced by sensory input, such as sight, sound, touch, and—of course—smell.

Parts of this article are excerpted from the third book of The Alien Guidebook Series:The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Nina Munteanu Talks Books, Water and Climate Change on Warren Lawrence’s Morning Show WKNY am Radio Kingston

I recently appeared on Warren Lawrence’s Morning Show on WKNY am Radio Kingston, New York, where we talked about water as a life-giving substance and a force of climate change. We talked, of course, about my recent eco-fiction novel “A Diary in the Age of Water”, which Warren had totally enjoyed and recommended to his listening audience (to my delight!) 

Warren asked me to share my process of writing this particular book as a diary and a work of “mundane science fiction:”

I was writing about both the far and the near future and much of it was based—like Margaret Atwood and her books—on real events and real people. I wanted personal relevance to what was going on, particularly with climate change. I also wanted to achieve a gritty realism of “the mundane” and a diary felt right. Lynna—the diarist—is a reclusive inexpressive character, so I thought a personal diary would help bring out her thoughts and feelings. There’s nothing like eves-dropping to make the mundane exciting. The diary-aspect of the book characterizes it as “mundane science fiction” by presenting an “ordinary” setting for characters to play out. The tension arises from insidious cumulative events and circumstances that slowly grow into something incendiary. The real events are the fuel that incite a slow-burn fictional drama that blurs the reader’s perception of reality and heightens its relevance.

We talked at length about the blur between real events and the fiction of this book and how the diary conspired in that felt blur for the reader. To Warren’s question of what I expected my audience to get from the book, particularly on the importance of water, I responded: 

While A Diary in the Age of Water is a work of fiction, its premise and much of its story are firmly based on real events, people and phenomena. The dramatization of these through four main characters carry the reader into consequence and accountability. Water’s relationship with each character provides four different perspectives on the value of water to humanity—from the personal and practical to the spiritual and existential. For readers with an evidence-based approach to learning about water’s importance, the diarist provides interesting facts on water in each of her entries in the form of epigraphs (mostly from Robert Wetzel’s Limnology). Things like: watershed, hypolimnion, aquifer, thalweg, clapotis gaufre, and petrichor, to name a few. 

Regarding whether Canadians see water, deforestation, pollution, or climate change differently than Americans, I responded:

My first response to that is no, we’re all North Americans. If there is a noticeable divergence, it is between North Americans and the rest of the world, based on our shared capitalist worldview and mixed settler and indigenous heritage. But Canadians do share some subtle differences from our southern neighbours. We are a northern people; much of our land lies in the unsettled northern boreal forest. Our population is far more sparse at five people/km2vs. close to 40 people/km2in America. With a majority of our population occupying the most southerly ten percent, Canada has large regions of pristine natural environments. I once entertained a ‘romantic’ metaphoric notion of Canadians resembling the settlers of Winterfell in the Westeros of Game of Thrones; a people more attuned to their land. Canadians profess to place environment high on our list of values and concerns. And yet we share a legacy of appalling forest management, rampant clearcutting of old-growth forest in British Columbia, insufficient federal and provincial water legislation, and environmentally-catastrophic mining practices in the oil tar sands of Alberta, the northern boreal forest of Canada and abroad.

Warren and I also talked about New York state and NYC, particularly to do with climate change, and how NYC fared in the novel (not well, I’m afraid). As example, I read a portion of the book from the diarist’s entry called “Climate Change”:

When I was growing up, we were already feeling the effects of a changing climate. The most obvious change was in the hundred-year floods calculated by engineers; they started to occur every other year. When I was five years old, Houston suffered a devastating flood and the city and surrounding area basically crashed under the wind and rain deluge of Hurricane Harvey. They lost power. Then their sewers backed up. But it didn’t get ugly until they lost their drinking water.

Five years later the Category 3 Hurricane Norma stormed though New York City with a twelve-metre-high wall of water. Manhattan drowned. Subways and car tunnels drowned. Kennedy Airport drowned. Homes drowned. People drowned.

The same storm put Providence, Rhode Island, under twenty feet of water.

A few days ago, Daniel told me that New York City water is still unfit to drink. “New York will be the new Pudong District,” he quipped with churlish humour. All of Florida south of Orlando is already there. “Like they weren’t warned,” he scoffed.

–A Diary in the Age of Water
Pond lilies in Thompson Creek marsh, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

I Became a Climate Activist in the 1960s

Two cedar trees entangle their roots in a cedar forest in Warsaw Caves Park, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

In 1969, I completed my first novel at the tender age of fifteen. Caged in World was a hundred-page speculative story about a world that had moved “inside” to escape the ravages of a harsh post climate-change environment. 

1969 was the year that humans first stepped on the moon and the first Concorde test flight was conducted in France. But I was concerned by the environment and what was happening on our planet. It was seven years since Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring, which warned of our declining bird and bee populations and impacts to human health from unregulated pesticide/herbicide use (such as carcinogens and hormone disruptors). It was just a year after Paul Erlich’s Population Bomb warned that attempts to stretch the Earth’s resources to support the ever-growing population would result in mass starvation, epidemics, and, ultimately, the breakdown of social order. 

In the 1960s it was already apparent to me that environmental imbalance and destruction were global concerns and we were on the brink of an environmental crisis.  Unchecked deforestation was destroying forests around the world, including the boreal and old-growth forests of my own country Canada. Brazil had already begun cutting down trees and burning forest at an alarming rate. Unregulated use of pesticides, herbicides and growth hormones created toxic contamination of our natural world and our food and water supply—despite Carson’s dire warning with Silent Spring. Our waterways were being contaminated by mining wastes and industrial effluents. Killer smog. Noxious algal blooms. Oil spills. Dead zones. The list was growing.

Rachel Carson and her iconic book, Silent Spring

I joined S.T.O.P. (Society To Overcome Pollution) and marched in protests to call for responsible behaviour by governments and large corporations. I tried to raise awareness at my school about our deteriorating environment and likely consequences to human survival; my own teachers tried to silence me! I wrote my first dystopia, Caged in World.  The eco-novel was about a subway train driver and a data analyst caught in the trap of a huge lie. The story later morphed into Escape from Utopia. Several drafts—and years later—the novel became the eco-medical thriller Angel of Chaos, set in 2095 as humanity struggles with Darwin’s Disease—a mysterious neurological environmental pandemic. Icaria 5 is one of many enclosed cities within the slowly recovering toxic wasteland of North America, and where the protagonist Julie Crane works and lives. The city is run by technocrats, deep ecologists who call themselves Gaians, and consider themselves guardians of the planet. The Gaians’ secret is that they are keeping humanity “inside” not to protect humanity from a toxic wasteland but to protect the environment from a toxic humanity.

I spent several years shopping Angel of Chaos to agents and publishing houses. Although I received many bites, all finally let go. In the meantime, I did several things: 1) I started writing short stories, some of which were cannibalized from the book, and several of these were published; 2) I wrote Angel’s prequel, The Great Revolution (never published, The Great Revolution sits in a drawer hibernating) and Angel’s sequel Darwin’s Paradox, (which was published).

 

Angel of Chaos and Darwin’s Paradox Duology by Nina Munteanu

I thought of going into environmental law at university then decided that I didn’t have the temperament for it and instead pursued ecology and limnology. I taught limnology at the University of Victoria then found work as an environmental consultant. In 2007, Dragon Moon Press in Calgary made an offer to publish Darwin’s Paradox; the sequel became my debut novel. Dragon Moon Press later picked up Angel of Chaos and published it in 2010 as a prequel. I haven’t stopped publishing since (with a book pretty much every year).

A selection of eco-Fiction stories / novels Nina Munteanu wrote or edited

My whole career-life has been dedicated to helping the environment, doing field studies as a limnologist and ecologist, publishing papers and reports, giving talks about water and the environment. I feel strongly that stories can go much farther in bringing not only awareness but direction for people to act on behalf of the environment and the planet. The narrative we give one another is the key. 

What story do we tell of ourselves and each other?

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Nina Munteanu Talks about Writing—Passion, Process, and Publication—with Mandy Eve-Barnett

Fantasy / SF writer and interviewer Mandy Eve-Barnett recently interviewed me about my recent eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” and on my writing process and evolution. When did it all begin and what choices did I make along the way? she wanted to know. Here are some of her questions and my answers (embellished here) for your reading pleasure. For the full interview go here:

Mandy: When did you first start writing?

Nina: Not until I was a teenager when I wrote my first complete novel (“Caged-In World”—which later served as a very rough draft for my first and second published novels, Angel of Chaos and “Darwin’s Paradox”). My first published work was a non-fiction article “Environmental Citizenship”, which appeared in Shared Vision Magazinein 1995. I was already a young mother then with a family in Ladner, BC, and working for an environmental consulting firm in Richmond. My first fiction work was a short story entitled Arc of Time, published in a small circulation magazine Armchair Aesthete. That story was later reprinted several times throughout the world, including my short story collection Natural Selection.” Before writing stories, though, I told stories—I shared wild stories of galactic adventure with my older sister; we used to share them late into the night when we were supposed to be sleeping and our parents were snoring in their beds. I also told stories in the form of cartoons. Since I was a small child, I wanted to be a cartoonist and write graphic novels when I grew up. I created and drew several strips with crazy characters on wild adventures, blending my love for drawing with my love for storytelling. I haven’t stopped that form of storytelling and still have a yearning for that form. This is one reason why I’m so delighted with my latest book “A Diary in the Age of Water,” which features some of my limnological sketches, which stand in for the diarist’s sketches:

Pages from “A Diary in the Age of Water” by Nina Munteanu

Mandy: What made you decide on science fiction as a genre?

Nina: That goes back to my love for comics. I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid. While my older brother and sister devoured The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series, I secreted myself in the back corner of Williams General store and read Supergirl, Superman and Superboy, Batman, Magnus Robot Fighter and Green Lantern, among others. I was obviously enamored with the fantastic. When I earnestly started to read more than comics, I came across the SF classics: Huxley, Orwell, Heinlein, Clarke, Silverberg and Asimov to name a few. Bradbury sent me over the moon and his “Martian Chronicles” made me cry. I wanted to write like him and move readers like he’d done with me with something that mattered. 

The reason I continue to write in this genre is because of its ability to encompass the creative imagination and application of metaphor to story. Given science fiction’s wide range of possibilities in creating a believable reality of the fantastic, science fiction provides a compelling platform for metaphoric storytelling on a grand scale—the story large. Possibilities for powerful archetypes abound. Where else can you make water an actual character?

My environmental themes and eco-fiction lie in the sub-genre of ‘mundane science fiction.’ This is just another form of speculative fiction. Mundane science fiction focuses on existing technology (no ray guns, warp drives, or time travel). Its premise lies in existing circumstances and events to create a near-future realism. My recent dystopian eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” by Inanna Publicationsfits this description perfectly. Examples by other writers include Margaret Atwood’s “MaddAddam” series, Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl” and Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Ministry for the Future.”  

Mandy: Was the ecological aspect of your stories a gradual realization or your primary objective?

Nina: My primary objective was always to tell a compelling and meaningful story and hopefully to move readers in some way—like Ray Bradbury and other writers had with me. The ecological aspects slid in unannounced like a shadow character. It made sense: the environment and how we treat it (and ourselves by extension) has always been something important to me since I was a child. Both my parents were connected to Nature. My father took us on camping trips and picnics in the country; my mother was an amateur ecologist and botanist. From quite young I’ve been an environmental activist; chasing after people who littered, promoting recycling, participating in environmental protests. So, while I was writing science fiction, it was also eco-fiction. When the brand became more known, I realized that this was the kind of fiction I was writing most of the time. So, in some ways, I’ve come full circle with my quest as a youth: to tell impactful stories about the environment—whether this is here on Earth or on some planet in the outer systems—which make people think and feel and question. 

Mandy: Can you tell us a little about your newest book “A Diary in the Age of Water”, how you came up with the concept, and your writing process for it?

Nina: The book follows the climate-induced journey of humanity through four generations of women, each with a unique relationship with water during a time of calamitous change. The book starts and ends in the far future in the dying boreal forest with a blue water being, Kyo, who finds the diary of a limnologist, Lynna, from our near-future Toronto. The diary spans a forty-year period and contains a series of entries; each entry begins with an epigraph—quote from the textbook “Limnology” by Robert Wetzel. During the diarist’s lifetime, all things to do with water are overseen and controlled by the international giant water utility CanadaCorp—with powers to arrest and detain anyone. This is a world in which China owns America and America, in turn, owns Canada. The limnologist witnesses and suffers through severe water taxes and imposed restrictions, dark intrigue through neighbourhood betrayals, corporate spying and espionage, and repression of her scientific freedoms. Some people die. Others disappear.

Inspiration for the novel started with a short story I was invited to write by my publisher in Rome in 2015 about water and politics in Canada.  I had long been thinking of potential ironies in Canada’s water-rich heritage. The premise I wanted to explore was the irony of people in a water-rich nation experiencing water scarcity: living under a government-imposed daily water quota of 5 litres as water bottling and utility companies took it all. I named the story “The Way of Water” (“La natura dell’acqua), about a young woman (Hilda) in near-future Toronto who has run out of water credits for the public wTap; by this time houses no longer have potable water and their water taps have been cemented shut; the only way to get water is through the public wTaps—at great cost. She’s standing two metres from water—in a line of people waiting to use the tap—and dying of thirst. “The Way of Watercaptures a vision that explores the nuances of corporate and government corruption and deceit together with global resource warfare. In this near-future, Canada is mined of all its water by thirsty Chinese and US multinationals—leaving nothing for the Canadians. Rain has not fallen on Canadian soil in years due to advances in geoengineering and weather manipulation that prevent rain clouds from going anywhere north of the Canada-US border. If you’re wondering if this is possible, it’s already happening in China and surrounding countries.

I chose to use a diary in the near-future part of the story to achieve a sense of gritty realism of ‘the mundane.’ The diary-aspect of the book characterizes it as ‘mundane science fiction’ by presenting an ‘ordinary’ setting for characters to play out. The tension arises more from insidious cumulative events and circumstances that slowly grow into something incendiary.

Many of the events and circumstances that the diarist reports on are real events and based on real people. That they serve as premise for the fiction effectively blurs the fiction with non-fiction. Readers have told me that they often couldn’t distinguish the two in the book and this achieved a real urgency for the reader, who both hated and loved the book for it and couldn’t stop turning the pages as a result. 

Hardwood forest backlit by sparkling Otonabee River in spring, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.