Apex Magazine Interviews Nina Munteanu About Story, Ecology, and the Future—Part 2

Issue  #128 of Apex Magazine featured an interview that Rebecca E. Treasure did with me, posted on December 10, 2021. We discussed the power of story, the use of dystopian narrative, and the blur between fiction and non-fiction to create meaningful eco-fiction. Here’s part two of the interview. For the complete interview go here:

INTERVIEW

Nina Munteanu, author of “Robin’s Last Song,” is a prolific creator with multiple books, podcasts, short stories, and nonfiction essays in publication. Her work spans genre, from eco-fiction to historical fantasy to thrillers, and of course, science fiction. Her work as an ecologist informs all of her writing, which circles around an essential exploration; the relationship between humanity and our environment.

 At the top of Nina Munteanu’s website, there is a quote: “I live to write, I write to live.” This sentiment is reflected in her fiction, which is not just about characters in compelling situations solving their problems with compassion, but is about all of us, our planet, our environment, and our future.

Nina Munteanu sat down with Apex for a conversation about story, ecology, and the future.

APEX MAGAZINE: Your novels and short stories examine the role and evolution of humanity in the context of nature and technology. As an ecologist, what do you believe needs to happen—internationally, nationally, locally, and personally—to restore our planet and move forward in a sustainable way?

NINA MUNTEANU: All things animate and inanimate naturally oscillate toward equilibrium or balance in a kind of stable chaos of polarities. Goethe and Hegel told us this long ago. Our actions have exacerbated this oscillation through massive extraction, habitat destruction, and pollution with associated conflicts, take-over and subjugation. Everything is connected and all have contributed to climate change and habitat change. Our mission—given that we’re responsible for much of that imbalance—is to help the planet return itself to balance. That means ensuring that Nature’s natural checks can do their job to ensure functional forests and phytoplankton, a healthy ocean, a resilient biodiversity—all systems that we rely on for our own healthy existence. Restoring our denuded global forests, and the oceans will need the concerted and united efforts of all nations and individuals. We have the knowledge, the science, and technology; all that is needed is the will. And that can only change as our own narrative changes. That’s where storytelling plays a key part. Surveys have proven that fiction can be deeply persuasive through character journey that convinces at a deeper more emotional level (as opposed to a litany of facts that appeals only at an intellectual level).

AM: Do you believe industry and sustainability are compatible? What about colonialism and sustainability? Capitalism? In other words, is sustainability something we can achieve with our current systems, or is global systemic change required?

NM: Some people—mostly economists—would say definitely yes to the first question; 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 the need to be profligate and fast-growing to successfully establish. 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. He promotes a regenerative economy based on true reciprocation.

And moving forward we can take a lesson from Robin Wall Kimmerer who promotes 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 [our] 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.”

AM: The language in your stories is richly thematic, using strong description to weave the subtext into the piece. For example, “killing two squirrels with one stone.” Is that something that comes about organically as you compose a piece, or a more intentional part of editing?

NM: I use both processes to achieve a final narrative that is multi-layered with metaphor, symbols, and deep meaning. The first process is through intuition derived through intimacy; the second process is more deliberate and generated through objectivity. Insights from intimacy come about organically, during moments of true inspiration, when my muse connects me to the deeper truth of a character’s voice and actions. Given that the inner story runs many layers (some of which I, as writer, may not even be overtly aware) and links in a fractal relationship with the outer story, those moments of inner inspiration happen as if of their own accord. That’s what writers mean when they admit that their characters “talk” to them and instruct them on what to write. When a writer achieves that level of intimacy and understanding, they can let the muse guide them.

Much of the description that is woven into story is generated through the editing process when I read the manuscript as a reader. The process involves letting the story sit for a while so when I return to it, I am reading more objectively. During this process, I apply my knowledge in storytelling craft to showcase combustible moments in plot, and work in foreshadowing, subtext, and compelling metaphor. A writer can’t add metaphor without context related to story theme (otherwise this may result in what the industry calls “purple prose”). Metaphor—given its roots in the deeper psyche of a culture—must arise organically from a deep, sometimes intuitive, understanding—where the personal meets the universal.   

AM: Your work takes complex topics that are nonetheless critical to humanity’s future and pulls stories with compelling characters out of them, making the science accessible, the warnings personal to the reader. This has always been one of the callings of science fiction. What is the role of stories in the climate action movement?

NM: Our capacity and need to tell stories is as old as our ancient beginnings. From the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux to our blogs on the internet, humanity has always shared story. Story is powerful in how it helps us define who we are, what’s important to us, and where we are going. Stories compel with intrigue, stir our emotions, connect with our souls through symbols, archetypes and metaphor. Stories inspire action. We live by the stories we tell.

For too long, our stories have promoted a dominant worldview of exploitation and capitalism. We’ve been telling the patriarchal story of “othering” for too long; we need a new voice and a new worldview to replace our old stories of conquering and taming a “savage land” and “savage people.” When Copernicus proclaimed in 1543 that the sun did not revolve around the Earth, it took a long time for the world to accept and let go of its Ptolemaic Earth-centered view. But the world did come around eventually to the point now that this is common knowledge and lies embedded in our daily lives and language.

Storytelling about how the Earth takes care of us and how we can take care of Earth is urgently needed. This means shifting our stories from an exploitive capitalist narrative of separation toward an inclusive partnership narrative. This means embracing a more eco-centric worldview; a worldview in which humanity is not central, but lies embedded within greater planetary forces and phenomena. A worldview that sees humanity only as part of a greater entity, as participant in a greater existential celebration of life and the elements. A humanity that must learn to play along, not bully and take over. A humanity that must embrace compassion, respect and kindness; a humanity directed by humility—not hubris. It is my firm belief that until our worldview embraces humility in partnership with the natural world—until we cast off our self-serving, neo-liberal, capitalist ideologies—we will remain hampered in our journey forward. When we change our stories, we change our lives and we change the world along with it.

This is already happening with the emergence of a strong eco-voice by writers through the feminine voice, the gylanic voice, the voice of the marginalized, of ecology and the environment itself. Authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Proulx, Margaret Atwood, Richard Powers, Emmi Itäranta Cherie Demaline, Grace Dillon, and Cormac McCarthy give Nature a face and voice to care about. And caring is the first step.

AM: Your stories also bridge fiction with nonfiction, using speculative fiction as a lens to bring your subject into focus for the reader. How does that work? Why do you approach story in this way?

NM: Marcie McCauley with Temz Review observed that, “[Munteanu] does not appear to view fiction and non-fiction as separate territories; or, if she does, then this book [A Diary in the Age of Water] is a bridge between them.” In Herizons, Ursula Pflug called the book “a bit of a hybrid, and Munteanu a risk-taker.” Buried in Print wrote of the same book, “ultimately it exists in an in-between place, some mystical elements of the generational tale possibly alienating the dedicated science-y readers and the instructional elements possibly alienating fiction devotees. And, yet, I read on: strangely compelling.”

I find that I enjoy this in-between place that blurs fiction with nonfiction. It’s more edgy, gripping, and believable, albeit fantastical, even playfully challenging at times. For instance, I may subvert facts, creating semi-facts to tease the discerning reader (e.g. when the diarist in “A Diary in the Age of Water” observed that President Trump had gone blind from staring at the sun during an eclipse; while Trump did stare directly at the sun without eye protection during an eclipse in 2017, he did not go blind—yet). Readers have told me that the story was more impactful; they honestly didn’t know what was taken from fact and what was fictionalized. Such narrative reads like a true story and there is little more tantalizing than eavesdropping on another’s real experience and intrigue. The risk—that the blur will either confuse the reader or invalidate its truths and message—is hopefully addressed through compelling narrative that engages the reader. But this is also why I tend to include an extensive bibliography at the end of a novel or short story.

Readers have told me that my fiction/nonfiction storytelling trope, like “mundane science fiction,” grips my stories with a more keen sense of relevance. Given that I am writing mostly climate fiction and eco-fiction these days, that sense of relevance is exactly what I wish to achieve. 

AM: A last question. Both “The Way of Water” and “Robin’s Last Song” showcase the relationships women have with each other, the importance of human connection, the damage that disconnecting from each other can do and, inversely, the power of connection. In your view, what is the role of individuals and local communities in the climate crisis?

NM: There are many things we can do as individuals and as part of a community. I was recently asked this question by the Toronto Star and I responded with three things:

●      First, plant a tree; make an actual difference through action. By doing that, we get out from hiding under the bed and face the monster of climate change and show that we care and that we are not alone.

●      Second, vote for green politicians. Politicians need to hear directly from their communities. They need you to push them to act on climate change.

●      Third, find your tribe and create a movement. Everyone says that people have the power, but that power comes best through numbers and solidarity. Find your tribe and you’ll find yourself more motivated. So, start with you and your home: plant trees; put in a rain garden; put in permeable driveways and solar panels; lower meat intake, especially beef; don’t buy bottled water. Then connect with your physical community and social media community. Let them know what you’re doing and why. Work with your community. All members of a community can help change how your street looks and behaves by communicating with your local government, attending meetings, and having a voice. Initiate a tree-planting program in your parks and street greens. Do stream or lake cleanups. Let the leaders of your community know you care and are willing to do something about it. The wave of change starts local and ripples out into a global phenomenon. Change comes from the heart and heart is where the home is.

For the entire interview, go to Apex Magazine, December 10, 2021.

Birch trees and marsh on a foggy morning in winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Rebecca E. Treasure grew up reading science fiction and fantasy in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. After grad school, she began writing fiction. Rebecca has lived many places, including the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Tokyo, Japan. She currently resides in Texas Hill Country with her husband, where she juggles two children, two corgis, a violin studio, and writing. She only drops the children occasionally. To read more visit www.rebeccaetreasure.com.

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 Power of Diary in Fiction—with Focus on “A Diary in the Age of Water” by Nina Munteanu

Last August I was invited by the University of Saskatchewan to give a talk at 20/21 Vision, their conference on Speculating in Literature and Film in Canada. My presentation was entitled “The Power and Relevance of Diary in Near-Future Mundane Science Fiction.”

The use of mundane realism through setting and events—particularly through letters or diary—creates powerful narrative that uniquely engages the reader with metaphor, allegory, and archetypes through additional sensibilities and personal connections. Devices such as POV, tense, and voice help create this form of storytelling.

What Is a Diary?

Diaries are first person accounts of real events relevant and meaningful to that person’s life experience. They are written in casual conversational language, usually a chronological account of daily life over lifetime, have wide scope; and are autobiographical.

If the scope is more narrow and focused, we have a memoir. The memoir is often focused by theme (e.g., addiction, loss, parenting, war, etc.). Memoirs are usually written in scenes and may trade accuracy for dramatic effect (emotional truth over historical truth). Anne Frank’s diary is a mundane account of her tragic short life in Nazi Germany; Yoko Ono experienced Hiroshima during World War 2.

If the focus is by topic, we get a journal (e.g. nature journal, grief journal, travel journal). Henry Henry David Thoreau’s journal became a manifesto for living simply with Nature; Sister Gargi’s journal was an ode to a spiritual movement.

Examples of memoirs and journals

Non-Fiction in Fiction

The play of non-fiction in fiction is achieved through several tools. This includes:

  • use of point of view such as first person or second person; writing as an epistolary novel—or a series of letters—such as The Colour Purple
  • displaced narrative such as The Great Gatsby
  • detached autobiography such as To Kill a Mockingbird
  • interior monologue such as Finnegan’s Wake.
Examples of fictional diaries

Fictional diaries play on historical truth through emotional truth through narrator voice and use of metaphor. This provides authenticity, meaning, relevance, and impact to the story. Reality and fiction blur through realized premise that provides a gritty realism to the dramatization and intensifies the experience The diarist’s ability to introspect provides great insight for the reader to the protagonist’s inner voice, their eccentricities, and self-delusions. These provide great intimacy with the character.

Most fictional diaries are memoir-like because they are usually based on THEME which carries the meaning of the story. In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver effectively uses several first person voices—of the mother and her four daughters—to provide more perspectives of the story.

Mundane Science Fiction

Mundane science fiction is a niche literary movement from 2004 focused on near-future realism—also called speculative fiction or literary SF. The focus is on already existing technology and plausible extensions—no ray guns, warp drives or time travel. The premise lies in existing circumstances and events. It has similarities with hard science fiction, cyberpunk, ecopunk, ecofiction and climate fiction. Mundane science fiction incorporates elements of literary fiction and mainstream fiction to achieve a strong sense of realism.

Examples of mundane science fiction

Mundane science fiction is the literature of near-future realism that explores how environmental and technological changes will change our lives. Christopher Cokinos calls mundane science fiction the “science fiction that functions more as compass than chimera.” Examples include cautionary tales and dystopias, all predicated on and launched from real events and phenomena—and including my own recent climate fiction “A Diary in the Age of Water.”

“A Diary in the Age of Water”: Mundane SF with Fictionalized Diary 

A Diary in the Age of Water” is the climate-induced journey of humanity through four generations of women, each with a unique relationship to water… Centuries from now, in a dying boreal forest in what used to be northern Canada, Kyo, a young acolyte called to service in the Exodus, yearns for Earth’s past—the Age of Water, before the “Water Twins” destroyed humanity. Looking for answers and plagued by vivid dreams of this holocaust, Kyo discovers the diary of Lynna, a limnologist from a time just prior to the destruction. The diary spans a 40-year period in the mid-21st century and describes a planet in the grips of severe water scarcity. Lynna in her work for the international utility that controls everything to do with water, witnesses and records in her diary the disturbing events that will soon lead to humanity’s demise.

The story begins and ends in the far future with the blue being Kyo, who finds the diary of the limnologist, Lynna. The story is hard SF with a strong basis in science. This is obvious through the narrator, who is a scientist, and the form of the diary itself, in which each entry has an epigraph from a science textbook related to the experience in the entry. Lynna also includes sketches, formulas and other references to science and these appear in the entries.

The diary portion of the book is a first person narrative nested within the larger 3rd person narrative of Kyo in the far future. Its SETTING is based on many real events with dramatized fiction stitched in. This blurs what’s real and what’s fiction. VOICE and POV are used to achieve differing scope and time perspectives between the diarist’s world and that of the future being. We get insight into the inner voice of the diarist through 1st person voice; this is contrasted with the 3rd person voice of the future being—they remain on the outside, looking in. The PLOT is essentially that of a young future human “in discovery”, a metaphoric coming of age for humanity.

The diary format includes the use of:

  • short entries with epigraphs and quotes from fact
  • conversational voice of intimacy with introspection, opinion, and judgment
  • outer conflict with family and colleagues
  • inner conflict with motivations and truths
  • metaphoric connections with water
  • illustrations embedded in the diary entries
Two pages with illustrations in ‘A Diary in the Age of Water’

The diarist is a real and flawed protagonist—this makes her more like us and we are more likely to empathize with her despite her considerable flaws … Lynna makes mistakes and does some terrible things, but the diary allows the reader to find out more about why she does these things, what motivated her and how she feels, including remorse and regret. This allows the reader to forgive Lynna, even as her own daughter cannot, even as she cannot. This becomes key to the story, which is about forgiveness. The diary abruptly ends with pages torn out and Kyo is anxious to know what happened to both Lynna and her world. So is the reader.  

Responses to “A Diary in the Age of Water”

Readers and reviewers had interesting responses, some paradoxical:

The blur of real events/history and fictional action brought the story into living colour. Several readers confided in me that they often did not know what was non-fiction and what was fiction and that this confusion made the book more gripping. Several reviewers, caught up in the blur of non-fiction with fiction, accused the book of being overtly polemic, when it was the fictional diarist who was proselytizing and being protective and narrow-minded; one need only look to the diarist’s daughter and her actions to see another voice).

In their analysis, reviewers gave the following visceral responses:

In her review of ‘A Diary in the Age of Water’ in The Temz Review, Marcie McCauley writes:

Munteanu “invites readers to recognize themselves in the ‘historical’ story and to project themselves into her imagined future…the diary…operates as a doorway…Munteanu combines methodologies, familiar literary motifs with text and images from non-fiction…She does not appear to view fiction and non-fiction as separate territories; or, if she does, then this book is a bridge between them.”

That blur with reality makes readers both love and hate the novel and it is precisely this that makes them read on. They are thoroughly invested. They need to know how it turns out, as though this is real lives at stake.

Red maple leaf sits on mossy log of old growth forest, 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.

Nature’s Archetypes in Story: Part 1, The Herald

Pine-cedar forest in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The early fall breeze stirs with the pungent vanilla scent of pine as I walk the damp forest.

Giant white pines rise high above me like columns of a sacred cathedral. Their deep green canopies sway and creak in the breeze as they strain toward the heavens. Below, at my feet, a profusion of ferns and forest plants lie in the dappled light of the understory. My boots crunch and squelch on the spongy ground.

A sound stops me. I halt to listen.

It’s the song of a bird. The ethereal trill of a hermit thrush offers its tender ode to the forest. A pure song that opens from a singular note into successive waves of pure light.
The light of heaven.

Hermit thrush

The hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) is a reclusive indistinct brown bird that lurks in the understories of northern forests; yet its echoing flute-trill celebrates the forest like no other sound. It is a prayer to beauty, stirring one’s heart into celebration. This aptly named bird is not often seen, though its flute-like song carries far into the forest. It is the unseen messenger. Some call her haunting song melancholy; others think it heavenly.

The song of the thrush fulfills the herald archetype of catalyst. They enhance whatever stirs you at the moment. If you are sad, they might stir you to tears. If you are feeling joy, they will stir you into ecstasy. If you are neutral—of little mind and emotion—their song will stir you to feel deeply alive.

When I was growing up as a child, I remember every spring looking forward to the sweet fluting song of the robin–another thrush. The robin was my herald of spring. It still is. I adore this bird for all it evokes of my glorious childhood, filled with the wonders of thrilling adventure.

Robin’s egg, left by mother far from the nest to deter predators, cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Just fledged robin resting on a patio chair, Mississauga, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

Nature’s Archetypes

Psychology mavens suggest that the existence of archetypes can only be deduced indirectly through story, art, myths, or dreams. This is because an archetype is linked to a universal (subconscious) understanding that is often best expressed through metaphor, icon and symbol. Carl Jung understood archetypes as patterns and images that originate from and are shared within the collective unconscious (e.g., mother archetype or mentor archetype). Archetypes are the psychic counterpart of instinct

Old growth eastern hemlock, Catchacoma Forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Instinctive behaviour (behaviour in the absence of learning) expresses an innate inclination toward a complex behaviour or pattern. Newly hatched sea turtles automatically move on the beach toward the ocean; honeybees communicate by dancing in the direction of a food source without prior instruction; a marsupial, once born, climbs into its mother’s pouch. Imprinting is another instinctive behaviour. Shaking water off fur is an instinctive action. Other examples of instinct include animal fighting, animal courtship behaviour, internal escape functions, and building nests.

Psychologist Michael McCollough argues that environment plays a key role in human behaviors, such as forgiveness and revenge. He theorizes that various social environments 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 smell.2

Old growth eastern hemlock forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The world of fairy tales and myth (which most stories use in some form) is peopled with recurring character types and relationships. Heroes on a quest, heralds and wise old men or women who provide them with “gifts”, shady fellow-travelers—threshold guardians—who may “block” the path, tricksters who confuse and complicate things and evil villains who simply want to destroy our hero. Jung adopted the term archetypes, which means ancient patterns of personality shared by humanity, to describe these as a collective unconscious. This is what makes these archetypes, or symbols, so important to the storyteller. Assigning an archetype to a character allows the writer to clarify that character’s role in the story as well as to determine the overall theme of the story itself. Archetypes are therefore an important tool in the universal language of storytelling, just as myth serves the overall purpose of supplying “the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.” (Joseph Campbell).1

Given their relationship to the “story” of a whole system, Nature’s ecosystem components may correspond loosely to archetype in story. We already use some of these in classic stereotyping, based on habits and general qualities we’ve (often erroneously and ignorantly) assigned to representative species. For instance, pigs are associated with slovenly behaviour, sharks with sociopathic predation, horses with unquestioning service, foxes with clever and crafty manipulation, and sheep with gullibility. George Orwell used animal stereotypes to create archetypal characters in his allegorical satire, Animal Farm.2 

Scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell drew on Jung’s archetypes to provide seven main archetypes in the mythic hero’s journey. These include: hero, herald, threshold guardian, mentor, shape-shifter, trickster, and shadow. The journey acknowledges archetypes in story and embedded within each archetype is a role in moving the story toward its inevitable conclusion. In this way we see how important world and place are. They too can serve as archetypes in story, particularly if personified.2 The most powerful of these are always drawn from Nature.

Nature’s archetypes in story express metaphorically and literally through functions and niches. An example is the strong solitary oak versus a young social stand of beech. The oak honestly comes by its iconic symbol of solitary strength, resistance, and knowledge.

Oak wood is very dense (about 0.75 g/cm3), providing great strength and hardness. Its wood resists insect and fungal attack because of its high tannin content. Its bark is strong and coarse, easily withstanding outer wounds, such as lightning strikes. “Whereas beeches last barely more than two hundred years outside the cozy atmosphere of their native forests, oaks growing near old farmyards or out in pastures easily live for more than five hundred,” writes forester Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees. “Even severely damaged [oak] trees with major branches broken off can grow replacement crowns and live for a few hundred years longer … a storm-battered beech is able to hang on for no more than a couple of decades.” 

Alan Bates plays stalwart Gabriel Oak in Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd”

Metaphoric “roles” may provide an allegorical association with a major character in something as simple as a name: the solitary strong-minded shepherd Gabriel Oak in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Gabriel Oak not only embodies the metaphoric characteristics of an oak; he is also, like the oak, strongly connected to the land. The metaphor may carry through into a character’s very nature and journey: in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, Dellarobia Turnbow reflects the title on several layers, from her own “flight” to her discovery and connection with the flight of the monarch related to climate change.2 

Monarch butterfly (photo by Merridy Cox)

A small shift between cloud and sun altered the daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame. “Jesus,” she said, not calling for help, she and Jesus weren’t that close, but putting her voice in the world because nothing else present made sense … The mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave. Like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze. “Jesus God,” she said again … Trees turned to fire … The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in shows of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked. The sparks spiraled upwards in swirls like funnel clouds … It was a lake of fire, something far more fierce and wondrous than either of those elements alone … She was on her own here, staring at glowing trees. Fascination curled itself around her fright. This was no forest fire. She was pressed by the quiet elation of escape and knowing better and seeing straight through to the back of herself, in solitude. She couldn’t remember when she’d had such room for being … Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became brightness rising.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
Eastern hemlock forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Herald as Catalyst

The herald brings in a new force, usually in Act One of the story. This force is usually a challenge for change. Heralds announce the coming of significant change, whether the hero likes it or not (and usually s/he doesn’t).

In Act One, we usually find the hero struggling, getting by in her Ordinary World; yearning, like Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, for “more”. Often not even realizing it. The herald is a new energy, a catalyst that enters the story and makes it impossible for the hero to remain in status quo. The herald tips the scales, so to speak. This could be in the form of a person, an event, a condition or just information that shifts the hero’s balance and changes her world, as a result. It is a turning point, obvious or subtle. Nothing will ever be the same. The herald delivers the call to adventure. In Star Wars, Ben Kenobi, who also serves as Luke Skywalker’s mentor, issues the call when he invites Luke to join him on his mission to Alderaan. The herald also provides the hero with motivation. In Romancing the Stone, the herald for Joan Wilder comes in the form of a treasure map in the mail, and a distressed phone call from her sister.1

Nature’s heralds can be as subtle or as wild and brash as Nature herself; this will depend on the plot and theme of the story. How the writer weaves in the natural elements in storytelling depends on the type of story and the role Nature plays. Nature’s heralds may brood and simmer in dramatic irony like Egdon Heath and its microclimates in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native or the giant Douglas firs in Richard Power’s The Overstory. Or they may descend in a bluster of violence as in Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood or in startling beauty like the sea of monarch butterflies in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.

The opening of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins combines subtle to obvious images of an ‘unwelcoming’ wilderness—as dark behemoth—to foreshadow (herald) the forest’s eventual destruction by settlers intent on conquering Nature. The forest is a potent character.

Within the first ten pages we gain a rich and potent collage of first impressions by the settlers of “the moody darkness” of the New France forest, previously only seen by the “sauvages.” The barkskins “tramped up the muddy path toward a line of black mist … In a few hours the sodden leaf mold gave way to pine duff. Fallen needles muted their passage, the interlaced branches absorbed their panting breaths … evergreens larger than cathedrals, cloud-piercing spruce and hemlock. The monstrous deciduous trees stood distant from each other, but overhead their leaf-choked branches merged into a false sky, dark and savage …They walked on through the dim woods, climbing over mossy humps, passing under branches drooping like funeral swags,” hearing pines hissing in the wind,” and crossing “snarling water,” and “swarms of mosquitoes in such millions that their shrill keening was the sound of the woods.” These bleak impressions of a harsh environment crawling with pests such as bébites and moustiques underlie the combative mindset of the settlers to conquer and seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource. By page seventeen, we know that mindset well. René asks why they must cut so much forest when it would be easier to use the many adequate clearings to build their houses and settlements. Trépagny fulminates: “Easier? Yes, easier, but we are here to clear the forest, to subdue this evil wilderness.”2  

Rachel Carson and her iconic book Silent Spring

In Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem, a herald for main character Ye Wenji was not so much Nature as a book on Nature: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Ye Wenjie is already cynical about human behaviour from the violence and destruction of the Cultural Revolution. Yet, it is a contraband copy of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring and its revelations that set in motion the pivotal shift in her life trajectory: 

More than four decades later, in her last moments, Ye Wenjie would recall the influence Silent Spring had on her life. The book dealt only with a limited subject: the negative environmental effects of excessive pesticide use. But the perspective taken by the author shook Ye to the core. The use of pesticides had seemed to Ye just a normal, proper—or, at least, neutral—act, but Carson’s book allowed Ye to see that, from Nature’s perspective, their use was indistinguishable from the Cultural Revolution, and equally destructive to our world. If this was so, then how many other acts of humankind that had seemed normal or even righteous were, in reality, evil? 

As she continued to mull over these thoughts, a deduction made her shudder: Is it possible that the relationship between humanity and evil is similar to the relationship between the ocean and an iceberg floating on its surface? Both the ocean and the iceberg are made of the same material. That the iceberg seems separate is only because it is in a different form. In reality, it is but a part of the vast ocean … It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race. 

This thought determined the entire direction of Ye’s life.

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
Apex Issue #128 and 2021 anthology

A profoundly terrifying herald from nature in my short story Robin’s Last Song occurred when the birds suddenly began falling from the sky.

Robin’s Last Song first appeared in the #128 Issue of Apex Magazine in 2021. It tells the story of Robin, a blind elder whose digital app failed to warn the world of the sudden global loss of birds with disastrous ecological consequences. After years of living in self-exile and getting around poorly on sight-enhancing technology, a discovery gives her new hope in rekindling her talents in the field of Soundscape Ecology:

May, 2071

I rock on the cedar swing on my veranda and hear the wind rustling through the gaunt forest. An abandoned nest, the forest sighs in low ponderous notes. It sighs of a gentler time. A time when birds filled it with song. A time when large and small creatures — unconcerned with the distant thrum and roar of diggers and logging trucks — roamed the thick second-growth forest. The discord was still too far away to bother the wildlife. But their killer lurked far closer in deadly silence. And it caught the birds in the bliss of ignorance. The human-made scourge came like a thief in the night and quietly strangled all the birds in the name of progress.

Robin’s Last Song by Nina Munteanu

Resources:

  1. Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” Starfire World Syndicate, Louisville, KY. 266pp.
  2. Munteanu, Nina. 2019. The Ecology of Story: World as Character Pixl Press, Vancouver, B.C. 200pp.

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.

Integrate Place in Fiction To Deepen Meaning

This past August, I participated in the When Words Collide Online 2022 Writing Festival.  one of Canada’s prime writing festivals in Calgary, Alberta. I was a featured writer, sitting on several panels and conducting presentations and lectures.

My presentation on the role of place in story kicked off the festival.

The role of place in story is a topic close to my heart and one I wrote an entire writing guidebook on: The Ecology of Story: World as Character. In my coaching sessions with writers and in my writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto, I’d observed in the novice writer a need for more effective integration of setting and place in story. All too often, the lack of meaningful integration translated into a lost opportunity to explore the POV character and the story’s theme.

The lack of meaningful use of place in story can result in a lacklustre story, overly vague characterizations and a story that lacks metaphoric depth and relevance.

Nina Munteanu

The presentation and following discussion drew from my guidebook Ecology of Story and was also featured in the WWC recorded panel called “What is Eco-Fiction and Why Should We Care?” The presentation overviewed topics covered in the book, such as:

  • Place as character & archetype
  • Place as metaphor (personification, symbols, allegory)
  • Place and first impressions (openings)
  • Place and emotion (over time and by POV)
  • Place through the senses
  • Place as environmental force (including climate change)

We also discussed how characters connect with their environment and I introduced the metaphoric connection between the white pine forests and the Mi’kmaq in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. Both are exploited by the white settlers, with intentions to subdue and controll:

The Gatineau forest was noisy, echoing with ax blows and the rushing crackle of falling timber, with shouted warnings and orders. The axmen cut the great pines, but only a few in each plot were suitable for squaring. The rest were left to rot on the ground … unwanted trees lay prostrate, severed branches everywhere, heaps of bark and mountains of chips … There were so many trees, what did it matter? Maine men were used to waste—it was usual—but this was beyond anything even they had seen. 

In the Penobscot settlement, the trees fell, tracks inched through the forests, only one or two then seven, then webs of trails that over the decades widened into roads. The roads were muddy, sometimes like batter, sometimes thick and clutching until late summer; when they metamorphosed into choking dust so fine it hung in the air long after a horse and carriage passed, settling on the grass as the English people settled on the land … Fields of wheat and hay took the land, these fields enclosed by linked stumps, the root wads of the forest that had once stood there turned on their edges to bar the white man’s cows and sheep. 

I concluded the presentation with a writing exercise asking participants to write about the psychology of a place and how they related to it.

Writers attending the presentation / workshop eagerly participated and produced some evocative narrative that contained good metaphor and sensual writing. Here are a few:

Freyja on their high school gym: “I remember rallies and lectures and sweating, running in circles for an hour and a half. The gym stayed the same but the population of people got smaller and smaller over the years. One year a kid hit his head on the wall and went into a coma. Longest seven seconds in my life.”

Roma: “As soon as I get a whiff of old pages in a book, I am reminded of Uncle Leo. The coffee coloured leather jacket he always wore had seen better days and like him, still retained most of its luster. He was the youngest of my dad’s nine siblings, born during a storm and considered a tempestuous child. Our family just didn’t understand his passion.”

Angela: “I stood on the bridge in Moscow. My mother was talking with a friend. She couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be posted here. I looked down at the river. And at the bridge. It would be so easy to just jump over the fence and land in the water. It was a sunny day. The heat was oppressive. I wanted to do it. But I stood still.”

Kylie: “The stuffy air was full of the smell of bodies and heat. The din of laughing and talking, and yelling surrounded me.”

To find out more on how place can add depth and meaning to your writing, see my third writing guide, The Ecology of Story: Place as Character.

The Ecology of Story: World as Character is presented in two parts: Part 1 provides a comprehensive summary of the science of ecology, the study of relationships, and links to useful metaphor; Part 2 discusses world and place in story. Here I discuss how the great writers have successfully integrated place with theme, character and plot to create a multi-layered story with depth and meaning. Part 2 also contains several exercises and detailed case studies.

Boat dock at sunset, Ladner Slough of Fraser River, BC (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.

Mistakes Authors Make (When We Don’t Pay Attention to Place and Things

Marsh outlet of Thompson Creek, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

In “A Dance of Cranes” (Dundurn, 2019) author Steve Burrows erroneously describes the actions and motions associated with canoeing. In the following scene, the protagonist Jejeune is canoeing on a river in the boreal wilderness of northern Canada:

The low sun seemed to light the stand of birches from within, flickering through the trunks like a strobe light as Jejeune rowed past. 

One does not row a canoe; one paddles—with a paddle.

You might think that this is a small error, hardly worth mentioning; however, the friend who pointed out this mistake to me, was thrown out of the novel by it. She is a naturalist and has often gone canoeing in the lakes and rivers of Ontario. This mistake suggested a lack of professional attentiveness from both author and editor of the publication. By compromising the authenticity of the fictional setting the error stopped the reader from participating. We were no longer paddling with Jejeune; we were looking at the book.*

Some of you may rail at me for being overly harsh. You would remind me that this is a work of fiction, after all, not fact. You’d remind me that fiction is a work of the imagination, of characters and journeys; not a dry documentary.

I would agree with you—up to a point. Certainly, in fiction we can and do take liberties with “facts” so long as the narrative keeps the reader moving in the “fictive dream.” Authors have managed to successfully bend reality considerably in the past to great effect because the reader was fully engaged in the narrative and the characters.

But ultimately, beginning-to-end factual accuracy remains important in a made-up story for various reasons. While some “fake facts” or mistakes (such as the example above) may slip by many readers unnoticed, someone will notice. Guaranteed. And, as with my naturalist friend, it can make the difference between a seamless read and a jarring one. Writer Dorian Box shares that, “Some readers may even post reviews criticizing your book on that basis.” Dorian adds that when they spot large factual inaccuracies in a novel, “it detracts from the reading experience. I start to question other things. Credibility is damaged.”

All good fiction is anchored by consistent and believable world-building, whether the story is set in contemporary New York City or a made up planet in some made up solar system. The key to this believability is the use of grounding ‘facts’ or world-consistencies that immerse the reader in the story world. The reader relies on the author to realistically represent the world they are reading about. This allows the reader to experience the story as though it was real. Representing the facts accurately enables the writer to take liberties with other aspects of the story. Because the reader is nicely embedded in the world through accurate depiction, they will follow your characters through it eagerly.

Forest and marsh on Ontario (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The Importance and Ease of Research in Fiction Writing   

To prevent what happened in the example I gave above, authors must exercise due diligence in world building, in representation of setting and place, and in other elements of the story. Writers have easy access to so much knowledge about so many topics through local libraries, local experts, the internet, social media, and more. In other words, no excuse.

In the novel I’m currently working on I needed to understand what it felt like to handle, load and shoot a particular make of shotgun. I had handled one in the past but not actually used it. The internet provided exceptional instructional videos and sites that I could use to come close to the actual experience. I paid particular attention to nuances and sensual aspects such as texture, smell, weight, as well as mechanical aspects, like recoil; anything that would more viscerally help me experience it. When I had written the scenes, I showed them to someone who had handled a shotgun for their verdict on accurate depiction.

For more examples and discussion on place and doing research, check out Chapter H and R of my first book in The Alien Guidebook Series “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and Part 2 of my third book in the series “The Ecology of Story: World as Character.”

*There is such a thing as a rowing canoe; canoes can be set up for rowing with oarlocks and sockets, oars, rowing seats and even forward rowing contraptions such as foot brace for efficient rowing. However, this was not the case in the book I gave as an example.

Fence post covered in vines on water’s edge, 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.

How to Structure Your Short Writing—Fiction and Non-Fiction

I recently gave a webinar through the Immigrant Writers Association on how to structure an effective, compelling and meaningful short piece of writing, whether fiction or non-fiction article.

All good writing requires setting up a purposeful narrative that directs the reader seamlessly from the lead hook to the fulfilling conclusion. I went over the process and necessary steps from idea (premise) through introduction/set up (what’s at stake) and development (the journey/theme) toward a fulfilling end (message).

I used two examples (one that needed work and one that was superlative) to explore hooks, paragraphing, overall narrative structure and development, and tips on how language can enhance or detract from compelling story.

Heron in marsh of outlet stream, 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: How to Keep Going When You Really Don’t Want To

Country road through Kawartha region, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow’

The Talmud

There will come a time when you just don’t feel like writing in your journal, when you are blue or frustrated or angry, even. It may be that you’re just bored with your journal, with your work and school and life in general. It may be simply that you have nothing to say, your muses have fled to Tahiti or someplace far away and you are left with a blank page or more importantly—and alarmingly—a blank mind.

Chasing the Journeying Muse

Here’s my solution: don’t sweat it. Embrace the emptiness and something wonderful will fill it. I said something; not necessarily what you expect. I believe that when your muse “leaves” you, it is on a journey. More to the point you are on a journey. You’re living. More often than not, our directed muse leaves us because something has gotten in the way. What you probably need to do is pay attention to that something. It’s telling you something. Ironically, by doing this, you open yourself to something wonderful. Okay, enough of somethings!…

Writing is a lot like fishing. In order to write you need something to write about. So, when the world gets in your way, you should pay attention. This is what you’re here for. A writer is an artist who reports on her society. A good artist, at least an accessible one, needs to be both participant as well as observer. So, take a break and live. Chances are, you will have much more to write about after you do.

Dealing with Writer’s Block

I’m not a very patient person. I make no time for writer’s block or lingering in useless limbo over some plot issue or misbehaving minor character. I write pretty much to a tight schedule: this short story to that market by this date; edits to this book to the editor by that date; blog posts created by such and such a time; an article to another market by another date. It goes on and on. When I go to my computer to write, I write

Then there’s Sammy. My cat.

Who likes to jump on my lap, make himself all comfortable and then lie over my arm — trapping it along with five of my typing digits. Now what??? Some of you would advise me to simply pull out my pinned arm and/or shove him off.  But how can I disturb such a blissful creature? He is so content furled on me, so satisfied that he has captured that wandering appendage of business that is all his now. Content in the bliss of now.

Pinned in the moment, my mind first struggles with the need to pound out the next line. My mind then rephrases and teases out nuances of that line. Finally, it wanders out with my gaze and I find myself daydreaming in a kind of trance.  It is here that magic happens. In the being; not in the doing.

This is the irony of writing and the muse. To write we need to live; we need to have something to write about and we need to be in that state of mind that allows us to set it to print. I am at my best as a writer when I am focused on the essence of the story, its heart and soul beating through me with a life of its own.

My cat Sammy isn’t the only vehicle to my magical muses.    

Waking Up The Muse

Here are a few things that help me entice those capricious muses into action:

Music: music moves me in inexplicable ways. I use music to inspire my “muse”. Every book I write has its thematic music, which I play while I write and when I drive to and from work (where I do my best plot/theme thinking). I even go so far as to have a musical theme for each character. You can do the same for your journals.

Walks: going for a walk, particularly in a natural environment, uncluttered with human-made distractions, also opens the mind and soul. It grounds you back to the simplicity of life, a good place to start.

Cycling: one of my favorite ways to clear my mind is to cycle (I think any form of exercise would suffice); just getting your heart rate up and pumping those endorphins through you soothes the soul and unleashes the brain to freely run the field.

Attend literary functions: go to the library and listen to a writer read from her work. You never know how it might inspire you. Browse the bookshelves of the library or bookstore.  Attend a writer’s convention or conference.

Visit an art gallery, go to a movie: art of any kind can inspire creativity. Fine art is open to interpretation and can provoke your mind in ways you hadn’t thought before. If you go with an appreciative friend and discuss what you’ve seen you add another element to the experience.

Go on a trip with a friend: tour the city or, better yet, take a road trip with a good friend or alone (if you are comfortable with it). I find that travelling is a great way to help me focus outward, forget myself, and open my mind and soul to adventure and learning something new. Road trips are metaphoric journeys of the soul.

Form a writer’s or journal-keeping group: sharing ideas with people of like mind (or not, but of respectful mind) can both inspire you and provide the seeds of ideas.

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

Nina Munteanu enjoys a snowstorm in Ontario

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.

My Story … And My Dream

Nina, age four, pretending to read, Granby, Quebec (photo by Maria Munteanu)

I started writing and drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil. Even before I could read, I wanted to become a “paperback writer” like in the old Beatles song.

It was an incredible moment of clarity for me and despite being challenged by my stern and unimaginative primary school teacher, who kept trying to corral me into being “normal”, I wasn’t going to let anyone stem my creativity and eccentric — if not wayward — approach to literature, language and writing. I was a little brat and I knew it. She and I didn’t exactly get along. But I did okay and, despite her acidic commentary, Miss House awarded me some A’s and B’s…

Country road in late fall, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I wrote some fan fiction but quickly found my own creations far more interesting and less limiting.

As a teenager, I wrote, directed and recorded “radio plays” with my sister. When we weren’t bursting into riotous laughter, it was actually pretty good. She and I shared a bedroom in the back of the house and at bedtime we opened our doors of imagination to a cast of thousands. We fed each other wild stories of space travel, adventure and intrigue, whispering and giggling well into the dark night, long after our parents were snoring in their beds.

Those days scintillated with liberating originality, excitement and joy.

(Photo: Nina Munteanu and sister Doina Maria Munteanu at Grouse Mountain, BC)

My first attempt at a graphic novel (pencil and ink drawings by a very young Nina)

I also enjoyed animation and drew several cartoon strips, peopled with crazy characters. I dreamt of writing graphic novels like Green Lantern and Spiderman. My hero was science fiction author and futurist, Ray Bradbury; I vowed to write profoundly stirring tales like he did.

I had found what excites me — my passion for telling stories—and I’d inadvertently stumbled upon an important piece of the secret formula for success: 1) having discovered my passion, I decided on a goal; 2) I found and wished to emulate a “hero” who’d achieved that goal and therefore had a “case study”; 3) I applied myself to the pursuit of my goal. Oops … the third one, well … it went downhill from there … Life got in the way.

The Beeches area of Toronto after a heavy snowstorm, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I grew up.

Well, that, and the environment intervened. In several ways. It started with my parents. Recognizing my talent and interest in the fine arts (I was good in visual arts), they pushed me to get a fine arts degree in university and go into teaching or advertizing. They didn’t see fiction writing as a viable career or a strength of mine (I was lousy at spelling and, despite my ability to tell stories and my love for graphic novels, I didn’t read books much). I can still remember my father’s lecture to me about how perfect the teaching or nursing profession was for me. I wasn’t enamored by either. The second blow to my author-ego came in the form of a school “interest-ability” test, meant to prepare us for our career decisions. I remember the test consisting of an IQ portion (spatial, English and math), and a psychology portion (including problem-solving and scenarios meant to tease out our affinity for a particular career). Secretly harboring my paperback novelist dream, I filled out my forms with great excitement. I still remember the deflating results, which suggested that I was best suited to be a sergeant in the army. “Writing” as a career barely made it on the graph, and scored well below “computer programmer” and “mechanic”; none of which interested me.   

Country road in a heavy snow, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I got involved in the environmental movement, while quietly holding my dream of being a paperback novelist close to my heart. I got several degrees in ecology and consulted for various companies to help protect the environment. I wrote a lot in those days, although it was more about the ecology of creeks and about industrial pollution. But my passion for writing fiction continued to simmer. Magazines started publishing my articles—my first sale was to Shared Vision Magazine in 1995 on environmental citizenship—and my published articles became my entrance into the world of fiction. Once I began publishing fiction stories—my first short fiction sale was “Arc of Time” to Armchair Aesthete in 2002—I never looked back.

Eventually, I was publishing a novel and several short stories every year. My fiction most often focused on environmental issues, humanity’s relationship with the natural world, and how we reconcile our reliance on technology with our respect for the natural world.

Publications of long or short eco-fiction that include my writing or editing

Throughout my writer’s journey, and particularly early in my journey, I weathered the threshold guardians, tricksters and shadows: friends and family who called what I did a hobby, something I did just to pass the time; people who didn’t believe in me, envied my drive or simply thought I was wasting my time; even industry scammers who preyed on my dreams and wanted my money for nothing in return; and ultimately my own fears and frustrations on query after query and rejection after rejection. Throughout it all, I never stopped dreaming.

Nina’s family hiking and boating in British Columbia over the years

I’ve travelled through Europe, Africa, parts of Asia, and Australia. I raised a family and lived all over Canada from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast. I worked as a barista, shopkeeper and science lab instructor, then as environmental consultant, writing instructor and writing coach.  During these wonderful life-adventures, I never stopped writing. 

Nina Munteanu in the castle at Gruyères, Switzerland (photo by Jane Raptor)

To date, I have written and sold over three dozen eco-fiction, science fiction and fantasy novels, non-fiction books, short stories and articles. I have sold short stories to magazines in Canada and the U.S. with translations and reprints in Israel, Poland, Greece, and Romania. My short fiction has appeared in Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine, Chiaroscuro, subTerrain, Apex Magazine, Metastellar, and several anthologies. I’ve seen my short stories nominated for the Aurora Prix Award (Canada’s premier award for writing science fiction and fantasy) and the Foundation of Speculative Fiction Fountain Award. Recognition for my work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice Award.  

Nina celebrates her adventures in Toronto (left) and Paris (right)

I’ve published nine novels with nominations for the Aurora Prix, Foreword Magazine Book of the Year (several times), and various Reader’s Choice awards.  My non-fiction book “Water Is…” (Pixl Press)—a scientific study and personal journey as limnologist, mother, and teacher—was Margaret Atwood’s pick in 2016 in the New York Times ‘The Year in Reading.’ My recent eco-novel released in 2020 by Inanna PublicationsA Diary in the Age of Water“—about four generations of women and their relationship to water in a rapidly changing world—was a silver medalist for the Literary Titan Award, the Bronze winner of Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year in 2020, longlisted for the Miramichi Review’s ‘Very Best Book of the Year Award,’ and a finalist for the 2021 International Book Award. Reviewers have described it as “lyrical…thought-provoking…unique and captivating…insightful…profound and brilliant…unsettling and yet deliciously readable…” One reviewer described it as a “a bit of a hybrid” and the writer “a risk taker”—which I quite liked. Another reviewer acknowledged that this was not a book for everyone and yet she found it “strangely compelling.”—which I found delicious.

It’s been twenty years since I seriously started my writing career with my first publication in 1995; my work is now recognized and translated throughout the world and I frequently get writing commissions from reputable magazines and publications. I am also frequently invited for speaking engagements and radio/podcast/TV interviews about my science and my writing. In short, I’ve come home; I’d taken a rather long detour but I’ve acquired some tools along the way. It’s been and continues to be a wonderful and exciting journey; and part of what made it so was that I never stopped dreaming and writing.

“…If you have nothing at all to create, then perhaps you create yourself…”

Carl Jung
A sampling of literary publications up to 2021-end that have included something of mine (short fiction, long fiction, non-fiction)

Two people walk through snowy path after a fresh heavy snowfall, 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.

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.

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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.

What I Love About Teaching How To Write

Path leading into a mixed gnarly forest in a December fog, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

During a recent professional development session for writing instructors at UofT, I got a prompt to share what I loved about teaching how to write. We had eight minutes to write what first came to us. I found myself writing easily and quickly. Here’s what I shared:

Path through a gnarly forest in a December fog, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I love how fluid it is. I used to work as an environmental consultant (as a limnologist) and what I loved about that job was the lack of structure and the diversity of projects. No day was the same. And—like a box of chocolates—I never knew what lay in store for me. I flourish in that kind of chaotic problem-solving.

Teaching how to write is like that.

Teaching how to write is about process. It’s about the journey and the relationships, not just about things. It’s more about how they fit together, why they work, and where they go. The act of teaching is always changing. It’s fluid, like water. And how apt, considering that our bodies are over two-thirds water. Just like water, we like to flow.

Teaching how to write is more than teaching how to use a tool, how to string a good sentence together or choosing the best word; it includes “voice”, expression, identity, freedom, and autonomy. Writing is power and I am empowering when I teach writing.

What a cool thing to do!

Path along the edge of a small woodland in the December fog, 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.