Fiction and Truth
Sandra Neily here, encouraging readers and authors to feel good about fiction and truth.
It’s a mystery to me why essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote these lines: “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” I’m just grateful that he did. These words are my writing mantra.
My fiction is based on an early truth I learned growing up in East Boothbay, Maine.
I learned that the natural world is a disappearing world.
At age six, I saw bulldozers dump fill to bury my sandbar and island to create boat storage. Not my island and not the shipyard’s either, but it was our sibling sanctuary, our pallet for adventure, and our home away from home. (We quickly learned to read tide charts my mother never mastered so we’d be “stuck” on the island as she paced the far shore. A fine way to avoid naps.)
Over the years, the wild woods and waters around me disappeared under bulldozers or behind gated driveways. These losses are my fiction’s marrow.
My seriously unsupervised childhood grew into a career deeply engaged with our woods, waters, and wildlife assets. I’ve been a whitewater river outfitter, a licensed Maine Guide, founder of a coalition to protect Maine’s Penobscot River from a destructive dam, and the director of a conservation school. Working for Maine Audubon, I researched and authored “Valuing the Nature of Maine,” and ‘Watching Out for Maine’s Wildlife,” (reports revealing the money and jobs intact resources produce.)
I’ve penned op-eds, legislative testimony, articles, and newsletters for receptive audiences, but no more. Far too often people select reading material and media that reflect their own preferences and life stories. They are trapped in narrow, information silos that isolate them from the knowledge and compassion we need to secure a future for the natural world.
And because not enough folks from all walks of life have found Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and they aren’t reading Terry Tempest Williams, Rick Bass, Wendell Berry, or even braving Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent The Sixth Extinction, I decided to leave non-fiction and write murder mysteries. I wanted to pile up bodies, and clues, and sleuths and have them all inhabit the very landscapes that could spawn a murder in the first place.
I chose the mystery genre to captivate and entertain readers, but of course I hope to seduce them toward the outdoors and have them discover some truths that “reality obscures.” My novel dives into the heart of Maine’s outdoors, its vibrant wildlife, and the reality that our forest is at risk.
When I am invited to speak, I suggest that authors who create nature-themed fiction might be true and trusted voices in the wilderness of modern life, helping us savor what is unknown or ignored or unappreciated. If writers help us fall in love with or marvel at a corner of the world, even as they pull us from page to page with their skill, we are already signed up to care about that corner of the world.
(I might have reservations about Carl Hiaasen’s marvelously lethal mosquito and snake infested islands, but then again they ravage the evil doers and his bird orchestras and Florida sunsets are persuasive.)
To share some of my favorite authors, I bring along a handout of quotes, and names, and reviews. Here’s some of what I share. (The full version’s on my website.)
“A choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. I am the forest’s conscience, but remember, the forest eats itself and lives forever.” Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
“The sigh of all the seas breaking in measure round the isles soothed them; the night wrapped them; nothing broke their sleep, until, the birds beginning and the dawn weaving their thin voices in to its whiteness.” Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
“The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.” Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” Willa Cather, My Ántonia
“When he says ‘Skins or blankets?’ it will take you a moment to realized that he’s asking which you want to sleep under. And in your hesitation he’ll decide that he wants to see your skin wrapped in the big black moose hide. He carried it, he’ll say, soaking wet and heavier than a dead man, across the tundra for two—was it hours or days or weeks? It’s December, and your skin is never really warm, so you will pull the bulk of it around you and pose for him, pose for his camera, without having to narrate this moose’s death.” Pam Houston, Cowboys Are My Weakness
Here are more voices bringing the natural world to us: Heat and Light, Jennifer Haigh. Breaking Point, C.J. Box. Winter Study, Nevada Barr. The Nature of the Beast, Louise Penny. Massacre Pond, Paul Doiron. The Weight of Winter, Cathie Pelletier. Skinny Dip, Carl Hiaasen. The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, Christopher Scotton. The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey.
Today, when truth is under relentless assault, perhaps Ed Abbey should have the last word. “Since we cannot expect truth from our institutions, we must expect it from our writers.”
Sandy’s novel, “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine,” won a Mystery Writers of America national award and was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest. Find “Deadly Trespass “at all Shermans Books and on Amazon. Find more info on the video trailer and Sandy’s website. Her second Mystery in Maine novel, “Deadly Turn” will be published in 2018.