Fragment is the latest novel from Canadian writer Craig Russell, published by Thistledown Press. Described by some as an eco-thriller, the book tells the story of what happens when a massive ice sheet the size of France breaks off from Antarctica and heads out into the open ocean, putting the lives of humans and animals alike at risk.
Fragmented into numerous points of view, this book never quite gives you time to become comfortable with a single character or perspective. Although unusual, I found this to be an effective technique to keep the reader unsettled – appropriate for such an unsettling topic.
Craig was gracious enough to do an interview about his new book, found below – as promised, question three asks him what it was like to write from a non-human perspective!
1) How much of Fragment is based in real places, conditions, and science? What kind of research did you do to give the book it’s sense of authenticity?
I can’t count the number of books and articles I read for research! I explored everything from sailing to statistics. Some sources are actually mentioned in the book. I also read some classical fiction about life at sea, to enrich my store of figurative language about waves, boats, and weather.
Naturally, I took some artistic license with the more fantastical aspects of the story (like blue-whale speech), but all of the places (like the whalebone arches in Stanley) and the conditions (like the storms in the Drake Passage) are factual.
Especially in “The Facts” sections of the book I worked hard to make sure the science was as accurate as possible.
Note – I did make one scientific error.
In the future, the moon’s orbit will be farther from Earth. Not closer. Bob MacDonald, the host of CBC’s Quirks & Quarks, wrote to say he had quite enjoyed the novel, but he kindly pointed out my mistake.
2) Would you ever want to go to Antarctica yourself after writing this story?
I would! Forty years ago, as a university student, I had a summer job where I lived and worked at an Arctic weather station on Prince Patrick Island, about five hundred miles from the North Pole. It was like another planet!
Going near to the other pole would make for a nice balance, and seeing the Ross Ice Shelf would be a particular thrill of course.
3) What was it like to write from the perspective of a blue whale? What did you do to get into the head of a non-human perspective?
Ring was a total surprise to me. I hadn’t intended to have a non-human character.
When I started the story a nameless blue whale was supposed to encounter the Fragment and die. I expected him to exist for a page or two at most.
But he was too smart. And his sensory world, of being in the water with the sounds and shockwaves, captured my imagination. So I let myself be open to the story he wanted to tell, and I found his story was far more interesting and important than the ice shelf disaster.
Some people say you shouldn’t write from the perspective of an animal – that readers won’t accept or believe it – but I hate to think of the experiences I would’ve missed if I’d followed that advice.
4) This story has a very fragmented POV – we see things through the perspective of many different characters, as well as a third person narrator. Why did you choose to write this way?
English Professor Marek Oziewicz (U. of Minnesota) remarked on this as well. I think he got it just right. Here’s part of what he had to say:
“Surprisingly choppy at the start, it gets traction one third into the book, when the choppiness makes sense as reflecting how fragmented our tunnel vision is when it comes to the complex interrelatedness of global problems. We each inhabit our small professional and domestic worlds. Often the only chance we get to see beyond these confines is through stories… what I initially saw as too little attention to character development actually makes sense if you want to break away from our habitual anthropocentrism and speciesism: habits of mind ingrained so deeply we’re unaware of the blinders they impose on us. We need that larger perspective to tackle planetary problems, for it’s not all about humans. This book treads a narrow path between advocating for human activism in the face of ongoing destruction and reminding us about the power of collective, inter-species action, for we’re not the only or (perhaps) not even the most intelligent species on the planet. What could we learn from whales, or dolphins, or elephants, if only we started to hear them? Just imagine.”
What do you think?
5) Was there anything in particular that inspired or influenced this story?
As I mentioned above, as a university student I lived and worked at an Arctic weather station. Because of that experience, I remained interested in polar events, like the Antarctic Larsen “A” and “B” ice shelf collapses.
They were dramatic, and I started the SF process of imagining “what if?”. What if that happened in the Ross Sea, to a far thicker and more solid ice shelf, the size of France?
In a sense the specific “moment” that inspired the book, took place in February 2006. That was a very cold time in Canada to be thinking about global warming.
But Canadians had, to my dismay, elected a climate change denier as our Prime Minister, Mr. Stephen Harper. Call Fragment my response.
6) Your last book, Black Bottle Man, was more in the realm of fantasy and the supernatural. Why did you choose to write science fiction this time?
In BBM, I treated Christian mythology (the Devil, etc.) as a real, active part of our otherwise ordinary world. That can only work as fantasy. You can’t ask the reader to actually believe in magic hobo signs, outside the context of the story, and outside their willing suspension of disbelief.
For a climate change story to be accepted by a reader, it has to be framed in within our understanding of science. Or so it seems to me.
7) Could you talk about your journey to become a published author? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
I came to writing late in life. I was always an avid reader, but never concerned myself with writing stories. Then in about 1997, I had the opportunity to take evening acting classes with a wonderful teacher, Nancy Drake. That lead first to acting in amateur productions, and then to directing community theatre.
Saying and hearing a playwright’s beautiful words repeated in rehearsals and in performance, you can’t help but gain an appreciation for the music of language.
Live theatre is a great training ground for a writer’s ear. It teaches you to recognize effective dialogue.
Good acting demands that you live utterly in the moment. That sense of being in the now is one of the attractions, but also one of the most poignant aspects of the performance arts.
Theatre is ephemeral. When a play is over, it’s gone forever. So, to find a balance to that recurring loss, in 2006 I turned my hand to writing.
When writing, I try to apply all that I’ve learned from theatre – trusting the intelligence of my audience, getting into scenes late and out early, and understanding that all characters are motivated by love. I believe that theatre has made me a better writer.
8) What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
Your audience is smart. Respect the reader’s intelligence. They are your partner.
Love makes the best villains. What does your villain love too much? Let that put them in opposition to your hero.
Use humour in the story. It helps the reader care about the characters. Then later dramatic moments are more meaningful. Before an audience can fully accept tragedy, they must like, even love the characters.
Emotions affect the language we use. Immediate grief makes our speech patterns much simpler.
After you’ve written, read your work out loud to yourself. Listen for the music. Rework the sentence structure. Be open to words that make your work sing.
For more information about Craig Russell and his books, visit his website at craigrussell.info.
Also, unfortunately, science fiction was hitting rather close to home around the time I was reading this book: A Piece Of Ice Weighing A Trillion Tonnes Just Broke Away From Antarctica