Debbie Urbanski is a writer from central New York who wonders what trees are thinking. She has nearly finished her first novel, which is about climate change and extinction. Her story “You Are Our Witness” appeared in our April 2019 issue. We asked her about letting go of her characters, blending realism and fantasy, and more.
The characters from “You Are Our Witness” were first introduced in “What Will You Save Today?” [February 2019]. What makes a character hard for you to let go of? Do you think in terms of sequels and trilogies?
I generally write long. I think I’m a novella writer at heart, which is so impractical, as almost nobody publishes novellas. So writing a series of short stories lets me examine, in a more practical way, characters and themes at my ideal pace. I enjoy trying out thematic variations in form and plot, like the portal stories I wrote a few years ago. In the two stories you mentioned, I was interested at first in the tension between how Nan’s two mothers love her, yet they make a decision to leave their daughter behind. I think often we have such preconceived notions of what a mother’s love can look like, and what sacrifice must look like, and I wanted to examine how someone can love a person but also desert them. I ended up caring a lot about Nan herself in the end. She reminds me of my daughter in another timeline. In fact, she reminds me of my daughter’s whole generation, a generation whose future is being determined by the questionable decisions that my generation and earlier generations are making.
There are two more stories from the Nan series out there — “An Incomplete Timeline of What We Tried,” which gives some history to Nan’s society, and also “Games to Play at the End of the Anthropocene.” The names are a little different but they’re the same characters.
Your fiction often combines realism and fantastical elements: aliens, portals, and the like. What does this combination allow you to accomplish?
There’s a great video of Kelly Link via the MacArthur Foundation in which she says, “Fantastic is not a one-to-one substitute for talking about the complications that people have in their lives. The fantastic is . . . I think of it more as an intensifier.” I love the word intensifier. The fantastic in a story helps me intensify the story’s themes and helps me make the story feel more emotionally true. The tension of having genre tropes and genre expectations and then straining against them also adds an energy that I find both satisfying and powerful — kind of like writing a sonnet but then breaking out of the rhyme pattern or the iambic pentameter. That said, I’m always grateful when I go back and write straight realism now and again. I feel like I’m strengthening different muscles that then help me write better speculative stories.
In addition to the fantastical, your work also touches on the very real harm we’re doing to the environment. Do you feel duty bound to bring up real-world issues in your fiction?
I started being drawn toward writing about the environment when I finally realized, a few years ago, that climate change had gone beyond the personal to something much larger. That all my recycling, all my making yogurt at home, riding my bike, being a vegetarian, etc., would not be enough to prevent the catastrophes of climate change. I don’t know why it took me so long to realize this, but it did, and I began to question the optimistic can-do attitude that has sometimes surrounded our public discussions about climate change, the assumption that we or somebody else will surely adapt or create adaptations that will save our way of life so we don’t need to worry too much. Not that some optimism isn’t necessary or warranted. But I do think optimism has, in the past, distracted from the severity of the situation. I didn’t give up hope, nor do I think anyone else should, but I did feel called to examine, in my writing, where we might be headed in an extreme scenario.
I do think we’ll adapt either the world or we’ll adapt ourselves. But I’m doubtful whether those adaptations will be made with the best interests of the entire planet in mind.
Are there others who write about climate change in a way you admire?
I love Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. In those books he gives nature this weird, horrific, but, at the same time, beautiful agency. Also, to me, his books suggest there might be something better out there than humans — that we aren’t necessarily the best that the universe can create. The writer Amitav Ghosh mentioned in a panel discussion how The Grapes of Wrath is one of the great climate-change novels, so I reread that book and totally fell in love with it. I had never thought of the Dust Bowl in context of human-caused climate change, but that’s what it was, and Steinbeck’s descriptions of the natural world are heartbreaking and precise. I recently read Dry (by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman) with my son — it’s a book for teens — and I loved it on a lot of different levels. It’s a great and alarming read about what might happen if/when severe drought hits California, but also it got my son to really think about what his near-future world might look like due to climate change. The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes) is also fascinating — two historians of science imagine the world after the disintegration of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet led to the Great Collapse of 2093.
Your stories often present individual characters within their broader communities. What is it about group dynamics that interests you?
Part of that comes from my love for Shirley Jackson’s stories and novels. She finds such depth and tension in pressing individuals up against a closed community and seeing what happens. There’s power and fear and often violence radiating beneath her small towns. I’m interested in how group thinking affects the decisions we make, how we present different selves for the public and private spheres, and what we might reveal to others versus the secrets we keep.
You’ve said that you wrote “You Are Our Witness” in response to the unnerving heroism in most post-apocalyptic stories. Some readers might find its ending bleak, but there’s a case to be made that it’s comforting to know the world can go on without us. How do you want readers to feel after they finish the story?
My hope is that this story gets readers to think differently about our priorities as we address climate change in the decades to come. Right now our top priorities appear to be about preserving ourselves. How do we protect our current way of life as much as possible? What decisions will require us to change the least? I question whether these should be our priorities. Why are we humans more important than all the other species of the earth? I find the vast geologic perspective of paleobiologist Doug Erwin to be comforting: “Humans are going extinct eventually. Everything has, so far. It’s like death: there’s no reason to think we’re any different. But life will continue. It may be microbial life at first. Or centipedes running around. Then life will get better and go on, whether we’re here or not.” (from The World Without Us by Alan Weisman)
Would the world be better off without us? Would this planet be more beautiful without us? Who or what should be defining beauty? I find these questions interesting and worth asking, in the very least as a thought experiment, so that we might be able to find more value in the parts of the world outside of ourselves and make better and more holistic choices moving forward.