I’m pleased to welcome to EcoLit Books an interview we conducted recently with Mary Woodbury, founder of Moon Willow Press and Eco-Fiction.com. Mary also played an instrumental role in getting Ecofiction added to Wikipedia!
You’re a writer and a publisher. Can you tell us a bit about your writing and how you came to found Moon Willow Press?
Most of my writing these days is in the form of nature writing and posts for my running blog and interviews and essays at the main site. However, I have written several short stories and two novels. One novel (Back to the Garden) is published under pen name Clara Hume at Moon Willow Press; it fits in perfectly with the natural-world-in-fiction focus I am building at the press and is quite Aracadian, a genre seemingly forgotten among current fears that lead to grim outlooks in fiction. I’m also writing another novel that I describe as ecological weird fiction. It’s set in futuristic Ireland, and I’m basing it off places I’ve visited and mythologies surrounding them. The novel is inspired by Yeats, whose physical poetry said essentially that embracing nature could set us free. Not just embracing it as a concept but being in it, celebrating it, preserving it, admiring its power, and understanding and accepting the side of nature that isn’t comfortable to us humans who like climate-controlled abodes and plenty of materialistic conveniences (our trappings). I have run in Sleuth Wood mentioned in “The Stolen Child,” and boated to the “Lake Isle of Innisfree” (a small island in Lough Gill). The idea of going “to the waters and the wild” is my muse.
My life-long love of fiction, and the great outdoors, led to Moon Willow Press, which not only focuses on nature fiction and nonfiction but has a strong environmental ethic regarding energy used in the office, using only recycled or sustainably acquired forest products, following a print-on-demand (PoD) model, and so on. I’ve also been donating to tree-planting programs since I opened in 2010. So far, I’ve donated to the planting of 1,312 trees, which are planted in areas that are economically and ecologically depressed.
What books do you have in the works?
I have two scheduled novels for 2017 so far and am accepting more for 2018—though I’m considering getting my masters in 2019 and may put submissions on hold then. The first, coming this spring, is Cave Walker, by Donelle Dreese. She is an author and professor of Environmental and Multicultural Literatures, American Women Poets, and writing courses at Northern Kentucky University. Her novel is about a woman who has a family secret: she can foresee the future, like the other women in her family who came before her. Each had a different way of dealing with this talent (or curse), which in several cases foretold the death of their significant others. To figure out her own future, she travels through caves, which is interesting and serves as a metaphor for walking through time. Donelle pays strong attention to the natural world’s past, present, and future as well.
The other novel, coming this summer, is by Annis Pratt, whose early academic publications studied the way poets and novelists use myths and symbols. Dylan Thomas’ Early Prose: A Study in Creative Mythology (Pittsburgh University Press, 1970), was about pre-Christian Welsh mythology. Her next book was Archetypal Patterns in Women’s Fiction (Indiana UP, 1981, published in England by Harvester Press). I’m breaking pattern by publishing the next in a series of Annis’s Infinite Games novels. I’ll be publishing volume 4. The series starts when a young girl, Clare, opens her eyes to industrialization taking advantage of her people’s marshlands. I fell in love with this adventure series, which Annis has been so far publishing on her own. She’s a terrific writer, and her style nods to the simple beauty of earlier pastoral literature.
You’re based in Canada. What’s the ecoliterature market like up north?
It’s looking good. One of the larger presses here, Talon Books, publishes a lot of First Nations authors and aims to preserve Canadian cultural and natural history through fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Another publisher in Vancouver, Arsenal Pulp Press, “asks probing questions about the world around us,” and has some eco-fiction titles.
We also have many authors who put the environment into the center of their stories: Stephen Collis (poet), Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Katherena Vermette, Wade Davis, Richard Wagamese, Eden Robinson, Naomi Fontaine, Claudia Casper, Margaret Atwood, Joseph Boyden, Katie Welch, Thomas King, and many others. I have worked with a few in the past on special projects, including in fall 2016 when we had an Eco-fiction stage at Vancouver’s biggest literary festival, “Word Vancouver.”
Tell us about your website Eco-Fiction.com.
I was researching other novels about climate change when I was writing my own novel, beginning in 2008. I found that the approach to novels about climate change ranged from dystopian to apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic to romance to adventure to fantasy to science fiction, and everything in between. It’s reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s calling climate change “everything change.” There is no one genre that can contain these novels, and authors and readers alike are drawn to a variety of different types of books, from literary fiction to genre fictions. These novels may be realistic, based upon current events, futuristic, mildly speculative, or wildly speculative.
Before ever starting the website, I wrote an article listing the novels I could find that approached climate change head-on (many other novels are far more subtle). I noticed that no other site was curating these titles, so I began to do so in the summer of 2013, after my book was published. I thought it would be an especially good resource for academics and readers of nature novels. Over the next several months I looked at a broader range of novels that were beneath the umbrella of eco-fiction and expanded the site to beyond just novels about climate change. It was (and is) a voluntary project affiliated with Moon Willow Press. All my life I have been enamored of stories that have elements of the wild in them. This project has been both a learning and teaching experiment and has drawn me close to many others who enjoy these books.
What can environmental writers do to be a part of Eco-Fiction.com?
The submission guidelines are at the site. I ask that novels be at least somewhat notable, though in the early days I was thrilled to find any decently written book about nature or the environment. I’ve become stricter lately about notability and also just began a feature specifically about prominent authors who write about climate change. And I spotlight popular books each month on a sidebar. The database has hundreds of books, and I like to be able to point the reader to the well-known works in this field.
As long as authors have a somewhat notable book, with positive reviews in the media and on book sites, they can get involved and I will add their book to the site, which also auto-adds their book to a sortable database of books. Authors can also submit a short sample of their book at the subsite Green Reads. And I interview authors whose books are getting good reviews. If the author is new, they can join our Google newsgroup or Facebook page—both titled “Ecology in Literature and the Arts,” and both with a wider range than just fiction. Members are free to post their comments and writing at either place, though it is good to get involved first and get to know the other members rather than just posting a new book and never appearing again. The Facebook community is very new, while the Google group has been around a couple years and is over 1,000 members.
What books inspire you and do you feel deserve a wider audience?
Though I do work awfully hard to get environmental books noticed, I simply like well-written books that tell a good story, and some of my favorite categories of fiction are mysteries and mythological stories. Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy was my favorite set of novels read in 2016. I think he definitely has a following already, and the novels are being adapted to film; the first should come out this year and is being directed by Alex Garland. I interviewed Jeff after the trilogy was published and began to read some more weird fiction that has an ecological slant. Jeff and his wife Ann edited The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, which had some great stories, but my favorite inclusion in that anthology was an older novella called The Other Side of the Mountain (originally La montagne morte de la vie), by Michael Bernanos—published in 1967. He had spent time in the wild forests of South America, and the beauty of the book (and yeah, the horror) mesmerized me. I like how Gio Clairval, from Weird Fiction Review (November 21, 2011), described it:
“His intent was to move us by the terrible beauty of his images, without rational explanation, only following the inspiration of an author who wrote as a visual artist would have painted. Poetry, yes, but not so much in the choice of words or the music of sentences: the interest of this novella is not on the paragraph level; it rather lies in the author’s ability to create an atmosphere of staggering landscapes, unearthly storms and constant psychological disquiet.”
These things inspire me, much like I would imagine our early Earth, before humankind began destroying it.
What’s your outlook for the next few years in regards to environmental literature?
There’s definitely a niche of readers, like me, who seek well-written environmental novels, yet I also hope that the novels are not known just for their category but for their impact overall. I’ve noted before in conversation with others that impact is greater than intent. I made the mistake of being a little didactic in my first novel, though I still think it’s a good story and the intent was unique for its time. Impressions happen, however, by subtle appeal and human relatability more than preachiness on environmental (or any other) issues, and readers will be turned off unless they are in the choir already.
I think also that we are entering a dark age, given the last presidential election, wherein we cannot stop climate change but could still avert some of it; is it even possible now with Trump at the wheel? I say this with a positive outlook: that maybe the worst won’t happen and people will rise to do the right things, but with a corrupt leader of a powerful country not even believing in climate change and promising to deregulate environmental plans in both government and corporate branches, we may be headed down a black path. I strongly believe that the candles to light this path will include art and literature.
Also, Ron Melchiore’s Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness (the most recent published memoir at Moon Willow Press) has become quite popular and is getting good reviews. The following for this book, and others like it, shows some evidence of the growing number of people seeking out information on prepping, living off-grid, DIY, sustainable living, and homesteading. Like John Muir said nearly a century ago, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home, that wildness is a necessity.” I think most of us can relate to this today, more than ever.