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.

On Writing: The Gestalt Nature of Passion & Success

Marsh and swamp forest in a blushing sunset, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

What is to give light must endure burning —Victor Frankl

Says Keyes: “Any writing lays the writer open to judgment about the quality of his work and thought,” writes Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write. “The closer [the writer] gets to painful personal truths, the more fear mounts—not just about what he might reveal, but about what he might discover should he venture too deeply inside. But to write well, that’s exactly where we must venture.”

So, why do it, then? Why bother? Is it worth it to make yourself totally vulnerable to the possible censure and ridicule of your peers, friends, and relatives? To serve up your heart on a platter to just have them drag it around as Stevie Nicks would say?…

Welcome to the threshold of your career as a writer. This is where many aspiring writers stop: in abject fear, not just of failure but of success. The only difference between those that don’t and those that do, is that the former come to terms with their fears, in fact learn to use them as a barometer to what is important.

“Everyone is afraid to write,” says Keyes. “They should be. Writing is dangerous…To love writing, fear writing and pray for the courage to write is no contradiction. It’s the essence of what we do.”

Marsh in the Kawarthas, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Unravelling the Secret…

How do you get past the fear of being exposed, past the anticipated disappointment of peers, past the terror of success?

The answer is passion. If you are writing about something you are passionate about, you will find the courage to see it through. “The more I read, and write,” says Keyes:

The more convinced I am that the best writing flows less from acquired skill than conviction expressed with courage. By this I don’t mean moral convictions, but the sense that what one has to say is something others need to know.

This is ultimately what drives a writer to not just write but to publish: the need to share one’s story, over and over again. To prevail, persist, and ultimately succeed, a writer must have conviction and believe in his or her writing. You must believe that you have something to say that others want to read. Ask yourself why you are a writer. Your answer might surprise you.

Every writer is an artist. And every artist is a cultural reporter. One who sometimes holds the world accountable. “Real art,” says Susan Sontag, “makes us nervous.”

The first step, then, is to acknowledge your passion and own it. Flaunt it, even. Find your conviction, define what matters and explore it to the fullest. You will find that such an acknowledgement will give you the strength and fortitude to persist and persevere, particularly in the face of those fears. Use the fears to guide you into that journey of personal truths. Frederick Busch described it this way: “You go to dark places so that you can get there, steal the trophy and get out.”

John Steinbeck, author of Grapes of Wrath, said:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader.  

Marsh of cattails, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Finding Success Through Meaning

Victor Frankl survived Auschwitz to become an important neurologist and psychiatrist of our time and to write Man’s Search for Meaning.

Blogger Gavin Ortlund wrote: “What gripped me most about [Frankl’s] book, and has stayed with me to this day, is not the horror and barbarity of his experiences in concentration camps—when you pick up a book about the holocaust, you expect that. What really struck me was Frankl’s repeated insistence that even there, in the most inhumane and horrific conditions imaginable, the greatest struggle is not mere survival. The greatest struggle is finding meaning. As I was reading, I was struck with this thought: going to a concentration camp is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. The worst that can happen to a person is not having a transcendent reason to live. Life is about more than finding comfort and avoiding suffering: it’s about finding what is ultimate, whatever the cost.”

Victor Frankl wisely said:

The more you aim at success and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.

Frankl is talking about passion. “If you long to excel as a writer,” says Margot Finke, author of How to Keep Your Passion and Survive as a Writer, “treasure the passion that is unique within yourself. Take the irreplaceable elements of your life and craft them into your own personal contribution to the world.” It’s what has you up to 2 am, pounding the keys. It follows you down the street and to work with thoughts of another world. It puts a notebook and pen in your hand as you drive to the store, ready to record thoughts about a character, scene or place. “For the passionate, writing is not a choice; it’s a force that cannot be denied.”

Finke says it astutely: You need to be passionate about everything to do with your book—the writing and rewriting, your critique group, your research, your search for the best agent/editor, plus your query letter. Not to mention the passion that goes into promoting your book. Nothing less will assure your survival—and success—as a writer.

“Follow your inner moonlight, don’t hide the madness”

Allen Ginsberg

This article is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! by Nina Munteanu

References:

Finke, Margot. 2008. “How to Keep Your Passion and Survive as a Writer.” In: The Purple Crayonhttp://www.underdown.org/mf_ writing_passion

Frankl, Victor. (1946) 1997. Man’s Search for Meaning. Pocket Books. 224 pp.

Keyes, Ralph. 1999. The Writer’s Guide to Creativity. Writer’s Digest, 1999.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now. Starfire World Syndicate. 294pp

Ortlund, Gavin. 2008. “Frankl, the holocaust and meaning.” In: Let Us Hold Fast. http://gro1983.blogspot.com/2008/02/frankl-holocaust-and-meaning.html

Slonim Aronie, Nancy. 1998. Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice. Hyperion. 256pp.

Marsh near Millbrook, 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.

Anachronisms and Ambiguity in Spec-Fic: “Dreams of the Moon”, a guest post by Lorina Stephens

“Petawawa River” by Lorina Stephens (7″ x 10″ watercolour on Arches 140 lb hot pressed)

I first met Lorina Stephens some years back when I joined SF Canada, the organization of Canadian professional science fiction, fantasy and horror writers and publishers. Lorina was already the publisher of Five Rivers Publishing, a highly successful small book publishing house out of Neustadt, Ontario. What I didn’t know at the time was that she is also a consummate landscape artist, using watercolour to create evocative art. And, of course, a consummate storyteller.

She’s here today to talk about her latest book Dreams of the Moon, a new collection of ten fantastica short stories, described by writer/reviewer R. Graeme Cameron as “Darkness and light. Wonder and sorrow. The ambiguity, sometimes, of reflected illumination … In this new collection of both previously published and new short fiction, Lorina presents a progression from darker, sometimes horrific stories which explore religious mythology, mental health, and the beloved dead, to the more light-hearted explorations of spirit guides and illustrations made manifest.”

Lorina’s previous short story collection And the Angels Sang published in 2008 was described as “a provocative [collection] of speculative short fiction, from dystopia to utopia, written over the past 25 years.”

“the Angels Sangis a cornucopia of fractal glimpses into the mysterious, the fantastic, and surprises that lurk beneath the surface.”—Midwest Book Review 

“It is often the case with contemporary Canadian authors that they have a tendency to punctuate their novels with long, psychological dissertations on mundane subjects. It’s as if they feel that each everyday occurrence is fraught with deep sociological undertones. Lorina Stephens, fortunately, is free of such meanderings. She has a good economy of words and each paragraph contains vital information.”—Dan Pelton, Orangeville Citizen

Here’s Lorina’s post:

The last collection of short stories I published was in 2008. It’s an eclectic mix which I entitled And the Angels Sang, named for the lead story. To my delight, it’s met with quite a bit of positive reaction from both readers and reviewers.

In the ensuing years, I’ve crafted a number of other short stories in between operating a publishing house and all the demands of being an administrator in our other business, one which pays the bills. A lot has happened during that time: our son married his life-buddy, three major surgeries, a failed attempt at elder care, renovating this old stone house which was built c1847, and as I write this, into the second year of a global pandemic. 

And somewhere in all that still writing, still exploring ideas and what-ifs. I do have to admit a reluctance to writing short fiction. The literary form seems so restrictive to me, perhaps more having to do with the fact I have too much to say and want to make an epic out of everything. But short story writing is good discipline.

Having said that, I’m giving you 10 short works of fiction in this collection [Dreams of the Moon], spanning the boundaries of science fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, magic realism and absurd fantastica. Apparently, I don’t much like writing in just one genre, either. Creative fences drive me batshit crazy, although I do very much appreciate fences around this sanctuary we are privileged to call home. But there is a theme to this collection, a common thread I think you will find through all the stories. What it is, I will leave up to you to decipher, and thus we will have a silent communication.

I’ve arranged the stories in some loose graduation of dark to light, and again have chosen to use the lead story as the title for the collection. But the title Dreams of the Moon is more, because as a child, and then an adolescent, I firmly believed if I arranged myself just so in the bed, so that when the moon shone in my window, something wonderful would happen. It never did. But I still felt compelled to answer the call of that pale, eerie light. 

And then there were all the moonlight walks in the deep of the night which took place well into adulthood. Wonderful moments. Moments I remember with clarity and wonder, whether moonlight so bright on a winter’s night that the trees by the river cast indigo shadows across the snow, or a brace of geese rising up and across that silver face. And as with all things, there is the dark side of the moon: a sleepless night fraught with sorrow and a desperate attempt to rescue someone I dearly loved.

All of these moments influence and underscore what I write. It’s there in these 10 stories. Darkness and light. Wonder and sorrow. The ambiguity, sometimes, of reflected light. Dreams of the Moon.

The third story in the collection, Gravity, slides from the horrific to a quieter, perhaps oppressive literary piece of speculative fiction. As in At Union, the second story in the collection, Gravity deals with the loss of a child, in this case a daughter who dies while on a scientific mission at the edge of a singularity. 

I do like playing with anachronisms, because somehow they are a metaphor for many of the ironies in our lives. So it is in this story the main character is a woman of age who is a maker of old world automatons, and in this case she’s working on a silver niello owl. 

I chose an owl because of both the dark mythology which often surrounds owls, and because of their sheer beauty. They are amazing raptors. Silent. Deadly. Reticent creatures. Amazing fliers through dense forest. 

There is also an eerie spring in the story, which is inspired by a sulphur hot spring not far from our home. It flows at a constant temperature 12 months of the year, which is remarkable given our geographic location. It’s also a very eerie spring to view. The water is a pellucid turquoise, flowing with force out of a deep funnel, and in which nothing grows. There is just this volume of warm, clear water fountaining up out of the bowels of the earth and spilling out into the Saugeen River complex.

Of course, you’re likely scratching your head at this point wondering how the hell did I weave together the death of a daughter, a singularity, a mourning mother, a hot spring, and a clockwork owl? Well, at the risk of being coy, you’ll have to read the story in order to find out.

Dreams of the Moon is available in trade paperback and ebook, either directly through my website or through your favourite online bookseller wherever you live in the world. It’s also available through elibrary services globally. 

“Big Sky” by Lorina Stephens (7″ x 1o” watercolour on Arches 140 lb hot pressed)

The Art of Lorina Stephens

Lorina tells us that the two watercolours featured here “are both part of a series I’ve been exploring the past three years since my mum died,” says Lorina. “Painting was one of the few things we shared throughout a difficult and often shattered relationship. So, in this series in particular, I have been trying to capture the sense of peace, of belonging to the planet, of harmony.”

Lorina primarily paints in watercolour: “I prefer to use transparent pigments, carefully glazing from warm, light pigments to cool, dark, which allows light to travel through those microscopic films of colour. I think that creates a clarity of colour, which then adds to the sense of luminescence I want to imbue into most of my art. I do also work in oils, acrylics, and pen and ink, as well as pencil and pastels. But my heart lies in watercolour because it’s such a precise, unforgiving, technical medium. It makes me slow down, consider. And I like that meditative process. It’s also something I do in my writing: think a lot. That’s essential to being creative, at least for me.”

Lorina mostly works in landscapes, often with lakes and rivers, icons of a water-rich nation. “We are such a remarkable land of water,” she says. “Our geography is breathtaking.”  Atmospherics—weather—fascinates Lorina. “I love the challenge of bringing that sense of fog, or mist, or rain, or even crisp, clear air to a painting, of making the viewer feel they are there, without resorting to magic realism. I like to tuck my work somewhere comfortably between realism and impressionism.” 

Biography on Lorina Stephens

Lorina Stephens has worked all sides of the publishing desk: writer, editor, publisher. From freelance journalist for regional and national periodicals, to editor of a regional lifestyle magazine and then her own publishing house, she’s been at this professionally since 1980 and has witnessed publishing evolve into the dynamic form of self-expression which exists today. For 12 years Lorina operated Five Rivers Publishing as a house which gave voice to Canadian authors. Due to life circumstances, Lorina had to change direction, and so now the house exists as a bit of a vanity press for her work.

Lorina’s short fiction has appeared in literary and genre publications, novels under her own house, Five Rivers Publishing, non-fiction under Boston Mills Press and an anthology co-edited with Susan MacGregor, Tesseracts 22: Alchemy and Artifacts.

Mostly Lorina is an introvert. You won’t find her at conventions. On social media she mostly lurks. If you really want to know what Lorina is about, read her work. It’s that simple. If you’re curious, email her at: lorina@fiveriverspublishing.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 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.

Paradox in the Details: The Role of Place in Story

Nina Munteanu at When Words Collide 2021

A few weeks ago, I (virtually) participated in When Words Collide, one of Canada’s prime writing festivals in Calgary, Alberta. I was a featured writer, sitting on several panels and conducting presentations and lectures.

One of the two presentations I did was on the role of place in story

The role of place in story is a topic close to my heart and one I recently 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’ve 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.

The presentation and following discussion drew from my guidebook Ecology of Story and I used many examples from a wide range of literature to overview 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 Mi’kmaq and the white pine forests in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, among others.

I concluded the presentation with a discussion on the “paradox in the details”: the more specific description is, the more universal its appeal. This is because the details can establish relevance and realism to the scene and the POV character experiencing them. Vagueness and lack of tangibility are avoided through specificity. The key, however, is to use details that resonate with the theme and tone of the book: as metaphor. Details as metaphor is what you want to achieve. 

Because, as Ray Bradbury once told me, “everything in story is metaphor.” 

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 writing exercises and detailed case studies.

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.

To Boldly Go Where No Human Has Gone Before…

A while ago I was approached by Robert Gooding-Townsend, Science in Society editor for Science Borealis for my opinion on a persistent idea that post-Star Trek sci-fi is more pessimistic and less technologically imaginative. 

Whether this perception is true I can’t definitively say but there is a reason behind it, which I believe reflects a subtle shift in our cultural paradigm and worldview in the past decades since Star Trek. A shift involving a growing awareness of ecology and the emergence of the “feminine archetype” in storytelling.

I think two things are happening in concert: science fiction is maturing as a genre: 1) in its actual breadth; but also 2) in our perception of it.

I think this is partly: 1) a reflection of a more diverse, sophisticated and mature audience (what The Economistterms “mass intelligent”); and 2) the result of a wider acceptance of SF as literature by “non-genre” writers embracing what literary critic Ted Gioia calls “conceptual fiction” (e.g., Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins; Thomas Pinchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow; Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada; John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Emmi Itaranta’s The Memory of Water; David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, etc.).

Our shifting worldview, along with science fiction’s gradual blending with strong literary elements is reflected in a perception of higher pessimism with less focus on technological “wonders”. When asked to describe SF today, colleague Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel series, argued that, “SF is mainstream now … It has grown up, emotionally, from being about wish-fulfilling technologies … to embracing the social implications of change.”

Today, SF is recognized more as “real” literature rather than being dismissed as “escapism.” Williams shares that SF’s roots are as old as myth. “Like myths and bible stories, SF is an instructive literature, pointing out how things can go wrong (or right) and why. The growing up SF has done since the 1950s lies in an increasing recognition that [humanity is its] own worst enemy and a better understanding of human nature is crucial to the problems we face, not just the hard sciences.”

For the past few years I’ve been following a trend in the science fiction writing courses I teach at university: more and more students (male and female) are bringing in WIPs on ecological and global environmental issues. Many of the stories involve a premise of environmental calamity, but not in the same vain as previous environmental disasters that depict “man” against Nature. These works give the Earth, Nature or Water an actual voice (as a character). And a protagonist who learns to interact with it cooperatively. For me this represents a palpable and gestalt cultural awakening in the realm of the “feminine archetype”. One that is focused more on the sociological and ecological consequences of humanity’s evolution.

I believe that ecology—the science of relationships and consequence—best parallels the literature of science fiction, which studies the world and the consequences of our actions (advances in and impacts of science and technology) through metaphor. The literature of science fiction explores large issues faced by humankind and is foremost a literature of allegory and metaphor; one deeply embedded in culture.

Stories of doom and gloom have populated the science fiction genre since its inception. What appears to be changing is the increased sophistication of this assessment and humanity’s place—and technology’s place—in it. Editor and Publisher of On Spec MagazineDiane Walton shares that she is seeing a lot of Post-Apocalyptic submissions, “mainly because it’s interesting to put your characters in a setting where the rules don’t apply any more. They have to try to rebuild the life and security and order they used to have, or else revert to savagery, or else adapt to a whole new set of circumstances.”

Environmental fiction has been written for years. But I believe that now—partly with new awareness of climate change and with the genesis of the term eco-fiction—the “character” and significance of environment is being acknowledged beyond its metaphor, for its actual value. It may also be that the metaphoric symbols of environment in certain classics are being “retooled” through our current awareness, much in the same way that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four are being re-interpreted—and newly appreciated—in today’s world of pervasive surveillance and bio-engineering.

The stories I’m seeing more and more—whether by established writers or by my own students—reflect an emerging worldview of participation, responsibility and accountability. It is the worldview of Jung and synchronicity; of David Bohm and “implicate order”; of Rudolf Steiner and “cosmic intelligence”, of biochemist Mae-Wan Ho and “quantum entanglement”, of Frans de Waal and “empathy”, and of Matt Ridley and “altruism”.

Whether told through cautionary tale / political dystopia (e.g., Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy; Bong Jung-Ho’s Snowpiercer), mundane science fiction (e.g. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl), my own A Diary in the Age of Water, or a retooled version of “alien invasion” (e.g., Cixin Liu’s 2015 Hugo Award-winningThe Three Body Problem), these stories all reflect a shift in focus from a technological-centred & human-centred story to a more eco- or world-centred story that explores wider and deeper existential questions. 

So, yes, science fiction today may appear less technologically imaginative; but it is certainly more sociologically astute, courageous, sophisticated, and relevant. As for the question of pessimism, I’d suggest that rather than being more pessimistic, current SF literature is more realistic and meaningful.

Swamp forest in Kawartha region, 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.

“A Diary in the Age of Water” Reviewed in Alternatives Journal

Shanella Ramkissoon reviews my latest eco-fiction mundane science fiction novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” in Issue 46 of Alternatives Journal (Playbook for Progress):

Rain falls on the Otonabee River, 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.