An Interview with Rebecca Campbell
Rebecca Campbell is a Canadian writer of weird stories and climate change fiction. She won the Sunburst award for short fiction in 2020 for ‘The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest’ and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award in 2021 for ‘An Important Failure’. NeWest Press published her first novel, The Paradise Engine, in 2013. In 2022, Stelliform Press published her climate change novella, Arboreality, and Undertow Publications published her First World War horror novella The Talosite. She mostly uses her PhD in Canadian Literature to make up sad ghost stories.
Author and reviewer Ariel Marken Jack spoke to Campbell about resilience, body horror, and what we inherit from the past.
Ariel Marken Jack: You’re releasing two novellas in quick succession later this fall–near-future climate fiction novella-in-stories Arboreality with Stelliform Press, and WWI alternate history The Talosite with Undertow Publications. Were these books also written in quick succession, and/or did the process of getting them ready to be published around the same time create interplay between the ideas you were exploring?
Rebecca Campbell: I began them both in 2019, within a few months of one another. Arboreality started out as a novelette in Clarkesworld, and then – with encouragement from Selena Middleton at Stelliform Press – became a novella. The Talosite also began its life as a short story, but as I explored the material, I realized it needed more space. It is entirely by accident that the two books – which have quite different histories – will be published within two weeks of one another.
Conveniently, Michael Kelly and Selena Middleton managed to time their edits so I alternated revisions on them. It wasn’t until I started reading your questions that I thought about the interplay between the two stories.
Ariel Marken Jack: I was struck by the way each book is tied together with threads of nonhuman life – the golden arbutus in Arboreality and the Armillaria lazarites in The Talosite. Both tree and fungus spread through their respective books as pervasively as befits fast-growing root systems and mycelial webs, their significance becoming ever more apparent as the stories develop. Do these types of interconnections in the natural world and the places where it borders and interfaces with human life tend to inspire you when you’re beginning a new story, or are they more likely to emerge as themes when you’re finding out how the story comes together?
Rebecca Campbell: This is one of those connections I hadn’t realised until I read your questions, but I can see it now – and connect it further to concerns elsewhere in my work. I noticed last year that many of my stories end when my characters dissolve into something no-longer-quite-human, or not exclusively human. Sometimes that’s because they merge with something larger, or they’ve ruptured in some way and become a new kind of being. I’m interested in the limits of human, and also the ways that the entity we think of as ‘I’ is temporary or conditional. I’m drawn to ideas that let me explore those margins, whether that’s alien parasites (in ‘The Glad Hosts’) or the transfigurations of pregnancy (in ‘The Fourth Trimester is the Strangest’ and ‘Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita) or decay (in The Talosite and ‘The Bletted Woman’).
I grew up reading the kind of literature that describes a familiar human subject: sprawling social novels of the nineteenth century, or modernist stream of consciousness, or romantic historical novels. Now I want to explore the edges of that way of thinking, and the way it centres a very specific and limited conception of the human. I’m interested in the ways that we – our ‘I’ our ‘self’ – are collaborations with the world around us, whether our body’s microbiome or our social context or our epigenetic history or any of the other forces working upon us and through us. The natural world you mention in your question is probably the most important of those contexts, and the one that matters most in these two stories. Who are we when climate change fractures our communities? Who are we when death and decay overtake our bodies?
Ariel Marken Jack: Something I find compelling about each of these books – though they take it in different directions – is the sense of hope that permeates their characters’ choices in the midst of challenging and often devastating circumstances. What does hope mean to you, as a writer and as a reader, here and now in 2022?
Rebecca Campbell: I’ve thought a lot about hope, and I keep returning to Jennifer Atkinson’s contention that hope is not the same as optimism, but is rather an action, a stance you choose to take. Hope is the idea that your actions matter, even if you fail. I am not an optimistic person – in fact, I’m pretty gloomy (that’s probably why I write such sad and weird and horrific stories). I’m also full of dread right now for myriad reasons, political, environmental. But Atkinson’s definition of hope doesn’t require that I feel better – it only requires that I take action as though my action matters. It’s hard. It doesn’t come naturally to me. But it’s the best of a bad lot. I want to be a good ancestor.
My characters aren’t optimistic, but their actions matter, if only in the tiny spaces afforded them: a garden, a family, a battlefield.
Ariel Marken Jack: One reason I find this hopefulness so compelling, particularly the way it manifests in Arboreality, is that in the face of disastrous current events and terrifying possible futures it feels almost like an act of joyous rebellion against the easy option of giving up. A fair bit of the climate fiction I’ve read slants more toward a focus on devastation than on resilience and growing forward; is this something you were conscious of wanting to push back against?
Rebecca Campbell: Yes! Especially with the guidance and thoughtful feedback from Selena Middleton at Stelliform. I had to find my own way to hope, which wasn’t necessarily going to be rainbows and unicorns (dammit). I did it while also exploring the things I am most afraid of, for my family and friends, and for the kids I know (my own son included). I had to imagine a future that satisfied my sense of realism, but also left room for joy. I had to imagine transformation that wasn’t only loss, but also the possibility of a new, not-yet-imagined way to live in our world.
If there’s hope at the end of The Talosite it’s in the two main characters’ acceptance of change and grief as an inevitable part of the world, rather than something to be resisted or controlled. It’s that they embrace whatever might come next.
Ariel Marken Jack: I’m also compelled by the intersection of hope and horror in these novellas. There is something at the centre of both books that feels very much of the same substance to me, this idea of taking something dead – specifically, something that has been killed, whether it be an ancient and irreplaceable tree or the body of a soldier – to bring something new to some kind of life. How conscious were you during the writing process of this relationship between the states of horror and hope, life and death, and the transitional spaces between them?
Rebecca Campbell: One thing that’s preoccupied me the last years is what I think of as material afterlives. What do we leave behind, both figuratively – in the effects we have on people – and literally in the world we’ve inhabited. How can we be good ancestors? What do we do with our inheritance from the past?
It might be macabre, but I find something hopeful in the raw transformations of horror, particularly body horror. And not to be too coarse, but if you’ve ever looked at a compost pile, you know that death is also rich with life, though not the life we might prefer. In both Arboreality and The Talosite, the old world is falling apart, and the new world hasn’t quite been born. We only see it enough to know that it won’t be anything like the world that once was. In each case the characters are brought to their particular endtimes by institutions that failed them and their communities. It’s terrifying. It’s full of grief and dread. But it’s also rich with possibility. If I’m hopeful about anything while writing climate change fiction and body horror, it’s that: the possibility that our next transformation will be better.
Ariel Marken Jack: Both Arboreality and The Talosite take their readers on intense emotional journeys. What was your emotional journey while writing these books? How did bringing their stories to life change you?
Rebecca Campbell: Arboreality is driven by the complex of feelings we call ‘climate anxiety’: grief, guilt, hypocrisy, hope. It was therapeutic to explore these emotions in fiction, not only to understand them, but also to set them in a larger context. Climate change is both viscerally terrifying and difficult to grasp – it’s happening right now, but here in the Canadian suburbs, my life is largely unchanged. If you look away from the news at the right time, or you follow the right climate-change-deniers, you can insulate yourself from any knowledge of what’s happening, which makes it feel even stranger, like we’re living in different worlds from one another. My emotional journey in writing Arboreality echoes the journey of many of the early characters: how do we understand what’s happening to the world I once knew? How do we survive that? The challenge of writing this story was finding ways to talk about a change so vast, and so tiny, my brain couldn’t quite understand it.
The Talosite emerged from my graduate research on Canadian war literature, during my MA and PhD, specifically trench poetry of the First World War. As I read both famous trench poets and the many other, obscurer writers, this horrifying and visceral image emerged in my mind: living bodies indistinguishable from the mud they can’t escape, buried alive in a battlefield that is made of the dead. These poems described no-mans-land as its own sort of place, an exception from the national and imperial narratives that existed outside the battlefront.Reading that poetry is deeply unsettling, but the intellectual work is compelling: you’re both observing suffering, and making academic arguments about it. I think a lot of The Talosite is part of my ongoing attempt to make sense of that strange position, in which my professional research arose from other people’s suffering. I’m still not sure if that’s witness or exploitation. That combination of fascination, empathy and a little guilt is literalized in The Talosite, when scientists resurrect the ‘glorious fallen’ of the trenches and return them to combat. So often military commemoration makes the dead mouthpieces for national rhetoric. Reading war literature, I often wondered what the dead would make of this ventriloquism: what words are we putting into their mouths? What would they say if they could speak? ∎
Ariel Marken Jack (they/them) lives in Kespukwitk. Their fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Bikes in Space, Dark Matter Magazine, PseudoPod, Strange Horizons, and more. Their non-fiction columns on speculative and horror literature appear in Fusion Fragment and at Psychopomp.com. They also curate the #sfstoryoftheday. Find their writing at arielmarkenjack.com.
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