The stories found in Marian Womack‘s collection Lost Objects haunt the reader from a number of angles. Whether she’s writing about climate change and environmental catastrophes writ large or about subtler and more personal betrayals, Womack creates worlds in which the ground is constantly shifting–sometimes both metaphorically and literally. Her fiction blends a fantastic sense of place with a haunting glimpse of the near future; it’s work that’s difficult to shake–which is the point. I asked Womack some questions about her work via email, covering everything from the science of her stories to the role of translation in speculative fiction.
Environmental changes and genetic manipulation are running motifs in Lost Objects. What first drew you to these as subjects for your fiction?
It’s hard to remember the first time I felt that these were topics that I needed to write about. I think they have been there as a background to my reading, to my life in general, for as long as I can recall. Little hints, worrying news stories (and remember that it is more than a hundred years since the first effects of greenhouse gases were noted), a general sense that there was something wrong with the world … There are no seasons any more. And as for genetic manipulation, I think that’s tied up with these ideas: it’s an obvious enough thing to want to change the world that you see falling apart around you. In my stories, environmental change is the problem, and genetic manipulation is what people see as the cure. Although it is not, as I hope I show, a cure … there are no cures.
Some of these stories have very particular, very striking images–I’m thinking in particular of the use of discordant colors in “Black Isle.” When you have a strongly visual element like that in a story, does it usually precede or emerge from your prose?
I have a very visual imagination. I have a certain degree of synaesthesia: colours and words connect very directly in my mind, and I usually have visual analogies to my ideas. Place and setting are very important as well: ‘Black Isle’, to use the example you gave, was started in a house set very close to where the story itself is set. So the visual aspects of a story are essential, I think, and feed into the prose: the prose is an attempt to describe the images in my mind.
When writing fiction dealing with climate change, to what extent are you working from actual science and to what extent is it more speculative?
I don’t have a scientific background, but I feel a very strong sense of responsibility towards the truth. In some of my earlier stories, I think I wrote about things that I felt were emotionally effective and didn’t care as much about the science, but I have become more and more certain that if there is an element of advocacy in my fiction, then I owe it to the reader to be as accurate as possible. This is not to say that I allow science to overwhelm the rhetorical efficiency of my fiction, but you don’t want to leave any space for critics to say that you have fundamentally misinterpreted the facts, especially not when you hope, as I do, that your fiction is a way of changing people’s minds.
Structurally, Lost Objects is divided into two sections, the latter of which only contains two stories. What led to this organizational decision?
I always wanted to write a longer short story for the book, and writing “Kingfisher” was a deliberate decision on my part, to have a story with a single emotional and environmental focus that allowed me to expand on and develop certain of my ideas outside of the 4,000 – 6,000 range that was the natural home for the rest of the elements of the collection.
What is the experience like of writing fiction dealing with the challenges of climate change even as new information is released about climate change’s effects on the globe?
I’m scared to read the newspapers most days, although I really can’t afford to be, and I manage to keep up with the flood of bad news that comes out most weeks from all aspects of the current global crisis. But I think that the most ‘positive’ aspect of fiction about climate change is that we all know now what is happening: there is not much news that will come out over the next few years that will change the big picture; certain subtleties about the precise way in which we are lost, of course, but we know the broad outlines of our ruin all too well. And this makes writing fiction about the climate crisis easier: the moral of every story is known from the start.
As someone involved with publishing speculative fiction in translation, have you read anything that’s had an influence on your own writing?
A lot of things. I would name a few authors here who have had a firm influence on me, chief among them Jeff VanderMeer, the author of the Southern Reach trilogy, who first taught me how apocalypse and the environment could be woven into coherent and clinging stories. I have published and translated into Spanish a few fascinating women writers who have altered the way I approach fiction: Nina Allan and the Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck above all. Karin’s work, in particular her novel Amatka, has taught me a great deal about how the Weird can feed into a way of writing the current situation we inhabit, and how human consciousness can be shown to still persist even through the existential collapse we face and are very bad at facing up to.