“Coordinates are a great way to consider intersections. Mountains are a great way to think about faultlines and what pressure creates. Dominant cultures make their own impact. It gives a would-be writer a lot to write about.”
The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet (Rose Metal Press, 2019)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I was born in SLC, Utah. A place where “Place, capital P” looms large. The Wasatch Mountains tower. The Great Salt Lake can be seen from outer space. All roads flow from the central LDS Temple, which sits at the very center, ground zero. The numbers of streets begins from there. At the mouth of Emigration Canyon, where Brigham Young and his followers emerged, an entire park is named “This is the Place.” My favorite bookstore, The King’s English, is at the corner of 15th East and 15th South. Coordinates are a great way to consider intersections. Mountains are a great way to think about faultlines and what pressure creates. Dominant cultures make their own impact. It gives a would-be writer a lot to write about.
Could you share a representative or pivotal excerpt from your book? Perhaps something that that invites the reader into the world of the book?
“In 2001, my sister Valerie had a baby. Before that, she had a frog. The frog came in a plastic box full of water and nutrients. Natural Aquatics frog aquariums can house up to two African dwarf frogs in a 3.8 x 4.1 x 5-inch plastic tank. You need to feed the frog one to two pellets per week. Change the water twice per year.
It is the perfect product for those who don’t want a pet but kill their plants. Plants turn brown and brittle when they die. Frogs just sink to the bottom of the tank, blend in with the good-for-frog bacteria-producing gravel. Good for frogs. Good for decomposing dead frogs.”
Why did you choose this excerpt?
This book is an Abecedarian. David Carlin and I cowrote the book. We chose the format because it was one way to try to capture the everythingness that the climate crisis suggests without, you know, capturing everything. Every letter is illustrative, if not representative. In this excerpt, “Frog,” my choice for the letter F, I get to take the cliché of the slow boiling of a frog who doesn’t recognize how hot the water has gotten, make a planet-metaphor, and try to capture some of the tenderness for the planet, for the frog, for the babies.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
Climate change. Dogs. Cats. Flying. Well, I guess most of the table of contents includes my and David’s obsessions. Bacteria. Plasmodia. Chickens. Catastrophe.
What’s the oldest essay in your book? Or can you name one piece that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?
David and I began discussing a collaborative writing project when I was teaching a workshop in Melbourne. When I first arrived, we took a walk along the beach where the posts meant to hold up the shoreline are moved back a few feet every year to keep the rising tides from stealing ever more of the sand hills. We tossed back and forth more examples of climate change affecting our towns—burning forests in Flagstaff where I lived, penguins washing up on this same shore. We are every emotion about the crisis. Horrified, frustrated, despondent, curious, even a little amused, in a gallows humor kind of way. We decided what our project would be. An attempt to write a different kind of book about climate change where horror and warning weren’t the only topics. We’d also talk about plasmodia. And sleep. By the end of our week of walking, working, and talking, we sat down at David’s long, kitchen table and started to write our essays with the letter A. David wrote “Atmosphere.” I wrote “Albatross.” I went home to Flagstaff and the next week, we moved onto “Bitumen” and “Bacteria.”
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?
Knowing full well we couldn’t address everything there is to write about climate change, we thought that by making an abecedarian, we could write about particular and peculiar topics, paying equal attention, since the alphabet isn’t really hierarchical, to some of the biggest and smallest climate change considerations. There is a bit of chanciness to the topics—we often wrote what came to mind when we focused on the letter. But we knew that there were important ideas to cover—that one of the problems with the anthropocene is the human-based scale. We wanted to go beyond that which is easily noticeable and measurable by paying attention to the tiny things, like plasmodia and bacteria, and attention to the things we pay no attention to, like bitumen.
Which essay in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
There’s something a little predictable about an alphabet. Guess what comes after O? That’s right. P!
When I got to Z, I was so sorry to see the book end. Also, I already had an essay named after my son Max in the middle of the book. Wasn’t it too predictable to end it with an essay about my daughter, Zoe? So I called the essay “Z.” But really, it’s about my daughter, Zoe.
Which essay is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
“Catastrophe” is super weird. An Abecedarian might demand etymologies. And climate crises demand hypocrisy. “Catastrophe” does a poetic job meeting those demands.
Could you share with us a glimpse of your writing practice or process for this book?
Although the approach seems epistolary, we had a method where we would send each other our lettered essays simultaneously. So my Bitumen is not a response to his Bacteria. We wrote our essays and uploaded them to the G Drive. We would sometimes get out of sync and sometimes peek at each other’s. I like to break the rules. In fact, I have a whole series at Essay Daily where I get to talk about just that.
Are there any alphabet books or writers who use the alphabetic sequence that you might recommend?
As I was describing The After-Normal on a flight to Connecticut to the guy sitting next to me, I showed him the interview. He did the A is for Apes, B is for Bee—So many books for kids that go A-Z! He had this great idea to take the book into some classrooms and get the students to write their own A-Z about climate change. I thought, what if we assigned each kid an A? I’m going to email my elementary school teacher friends to see if we can organize such a project.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your book? How would you answer it?
This book started as a somewhat tongue in cheek survival guide. I wish someone would ask, how are we going to survive the climate crisis? The answer is, we might not. But as we either go down in flames (or ice, as Frost says) or find a way to repair the hole we’ve ripped in the ecosystem, I hope that we still find things to love and appreciate, that we do a better job of putting ourselves in other people’s shoes, that we find ways to collaborate on the big enterprise of making the anthropocene a little less anthropocentric.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a book about choice. It uses different kinds of trees as a lens through which to see how we make decisions based on individual needs versus collective ones. Truly, it’s a way to talk about apple trees and aspen trees and how migration is sometimes a great privilege and sometimes a desperate move. It begins, “The trees are moving west.”
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
I think creative writing is the best major you can imagine. You learn how to give constructive feedback. You learn how to receive constructive feedback and work it into your revision. You get to delve deep into other people’s minds and your own soul. You are an innovator. You are a philosopher, a historian, an observer with as keen an eye as a scientist. There is nothing you can’t do with a degree in creative writing. You may have to create your own path, but we’ve got a plan for that.
NICOLE WALKER is the author of the collections The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet from Rose Metal Press and Sustainability: A Love Story from Mad Creek Books. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She edited for Bloomsbury the essay collections Science of Story with Sean Prentiss and with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and teaches at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.