Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the upcoming release of your novel! For those who may be unfamiliar, how would you describe the book’s premise, and what inspired you to tell this story?
Grace Agnew: My novel, which explores people escaping the consequences of climate change through living in an encapsulated city, had its genesis in the late 1990s, when I was a librarian specializing in digital data access first at Georgia Tech and then at Rutgers University, where I work today. The National Science Foundation invited me to participate in grant award reviews for large data collection networks monitoring land, water and climate in the U.S. I had the opportunity to work with some of the best scientists in the country. I became abruptly aware of climate change and its catastrophic consequences. This was before Al Gore brought climate change to the public’s attention with An Inconvenient Truth. There was the occasional page 11 newspaper article on the melting polar ice caps, and we all felt very sorry for the polar bears who lived on those ice caps, but otherwise global warming seemed like nothing to do with us.
Suddenly, I was spending a lot of time with scientists who were painting a very grim picture of the hellscape that would be our planet in about 50 years, but no one else was talking about it. I felt like the keeper of a terrible secret that no one wanted to hear about. One evening during a grant review, we started talking as the wine flowed about what the next generation or two would do if our generation did nothing to stop climate change. It was disconcerting to see how readily these scientists, many with children and grandchildren, could disassociate personally from the catastrophe barreling towards us, but that night it was just an intellectual puzzle to solve. They viewed it as the most intelligent and ingenious species that ever evolved pitted against a series of cascading catastrophes that would be difficult, maybe impossible, to entirely mitigate.
The consensus was to develop encapsulated places, not as large and certainly not as built up as modern cities, but where humans could buy themselves some time to solve the physical catastrophe we had created. They cautioned that these would be temporary accommodations because nature will always overtake any attempt to isolate ourselves from it. Climate change will result in many micro and macro climates, all of which are compromised, but some will be more habitable than others, so we could buy time with these sanctuaries to effect positive changes that allowed us to persist. This dinner conversation stayed with me a long time, and as it became evident that climate change would be impacting us long before 2050, it was important to me to explore in a realistic way what climate change would look like and how we could deal with it.
BD: The novel tackles climate change and its repercussions head on. What can you share with us about your creative process in including this focus in your narrative, and what have been some of your creative influences?
GA: Two things struck me as I learned about climate change from some of the best scientific minds in the country. I was amazed that we could be so close to catastrophe and yet so few people in general realized this or were prepared for the sacrifices that would be required to change the horrific trajectory. Even knowledgeable scientists who could accurately predict what the impacts would be could detach themselves quite readily from the apocalyptic and not so distant future. As scientists, they had learned to divorce themselves from their research, to ensure that personal feelings didn’t bias the research results. I realized this dispassionate approach makes good science, but not good social change. Our emotions have to be engaged, we have to see ourselves and our families clearly in the midst of catastrophe. Data, no matter how compelling, has to become story, if we are going to galvanize real changes.
I was most focused on creating real people and real circumstances. I drew upon family, friends, and myself to create real characters who aren’t heroes or villains but just humans, with our fears, our denials, but also our courage and resilience.
I have always been an avid reader of both popular science and science/speculative fiction. I am most influenced by authors who build realistic worlds and people them with average humans. I am also influenced by books that present a clear eyed look at catastrophe but still offer hope and a way out.
A major influence all my life has been Rachel Carson. I read her book, Silent Spring, when I was ten years old. I grew up in Louisiana, when pesticides were sprayed liberally over our neighborhood to eliminate mosquitos. We children enjoyed when the crop dusters showed up. It broke the monotony of a hot summer’s day. The idea that this wasn’t a benign activity, that we were being harmed and birds were being killed, was an unwelcome revelation to me. But the book stuck with me, rather than sending me into a spiral of denial, because Carson presented her grim case, but she also presented a way out. Her book resulted in a ban on DDT. And many bird species rebounded. With climate change, some areas will be uninhabitable, but many others can be reclaimed. The earth itself is more resilient than we are. If we work with the earth rather than running from it as the enemy, we can regrow vegetation and we can coax animal species that have gone into hiding back into view. Sustainable agriculture will enable us to recover in many parts of our country and our world. As long as we realize we can’t ever go back to pillaging and exploitation, we still have a future, and not nearly as grim as we fear. I want my book to have a similar impact as Silent Spring, to encourage at least a few readers to understand climate change isn’t necessarily the end, but a very different beginning.
Another major influence was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. What impressed me about this book was how immersive and believable the world building was. I read it in the 1990s, and I could see it emerging as reality as a consequence of the “moral majority” initiatives that were gaining traction. It seems even more possible now. I want my book to present a very believable and possible future. I want my readers to see themselves as potentially living the lives of Miranda, Alex and the people they know and meet. I don’t want to give the reader the false comfort this is “only a story.” I want my readers to see that climate change’s consequences will be very bad, but that ordinary people like us can still rebuild a viable future.
BD: At Fanbase Press, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums. How do you feel that Miranda and Alex’s story will connect with and impact readers, and why do you feel that this story was important for you to bring to life?
GA: For everyone experiencing record temperatures, evacuation from forest fires, and flooding destroying their homes and cars, we are probably at the point where we should be building some resilient sanctuaries to buy ourselves some time. I’m not sure how speculative and fictional Sanctuary really is.
The characters—Miranda and Alex—are a normal mother and son. Their daily lives and stresses are a lot like ours. I didn’t want to give the reader any distance between themselves and the characters dealing with a climate changed world. I set the story in the macroclimate of the dust bowl, which we are barreling toward in many parts of the country with our profligate water use and commercial farming techniques. This is a climate we can heal and where we can persist, if we change our relationship to the land and learn to cultivate the soil, and to let nature dictate how and when we plant.
I hope every parent and child will see themselves in Miranda and Alex’s interactions. Miranda is full of fear because she one of the builders of Sanctuary, and in her heart she knows its promise of safety, at least for her son, is an illusion. I participate in a lot of climate rallies and many of the most vocal and eager participants are the grandparents and parents, often present in larger numbers than teens and young adults. We fear for our own futures, but we also carry the burden of tremendous fear and guilt for the next generations, our children and grandchildren. I couldn’t find any novels that looked at climate change from the point of view of middle aged and older people, and I needed this badly. I needed to not only see the fear and guilt but to explore ways my generation could still work to make things better. There wasn’t a book that offered this, so I was compelled to write it.
At the same time, it is clear Alex’s anger is more than adolescent rebellion. He knows that Sanctuary is an illusion that won’t last his lifetime, and he is furious that the adults around him aren’t offering more. He is determined at any cost to give his life meaning by finding a way to interact with, and hopefully begin to heal, the outside. I know many teens and 20 and 30 somethings who are full of anger because they know they are being denied the future that their parents and grandparents had. Alex and Miranda are very human people, with all the crankiness and pettiness that this implies, but they are heroes to me because they open their eyes and do their best to make a difference, almost in spite of themselves.
BD: Do you foresee expanding the novel into subsequent books or even into other entertainment mediums, if given the opportunity?
GA: I think Sanctuary would do really well as a film or as a limited streaming series. I have been very impressed with the way female actors such as Reese Witherspoon and Kate Winslett, two of my favorite female actors, have refused to be limited by the roles that the establishment entertainment industry offers them and have developed their own production companies and projects to create roles for themselves and other 40-something women that are strong and nuanced.
I would be excited to see Sanctuary in a visual medium, because seeing the “dust bowl” climate, which is one of many we will experience, will have a more powerful impact than simply reading a description. I also feel strongly that climate change is not simply the next generation’s problem. We had a major role in creating the problem, even if unintentionally, and we must have a role in solving it. This generation of powerful 40-something women actors that I admire are parents, and I know they look at their children and feel the worry and the guilt that Miranda feels. I would love to see them explore this in a film or streaming series. I would love for them to be part of envisioning a climate change solution for their children.
As a different medium, a film or streaming series isn’t going to tell the same story that I told. It will be different because it is a different medium but also because I would be passing the baton to different writers, producers, cinematographers, directors and actors who will make something new that reaches a potentially different audience. But the premise, that we can survive and even thrive by working with and not against the planet, will persist, and that would be all I ask.
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
GA: I am actually at work on the sequel to Sanctuary. It will feature Alex, Miranda, Murray and Aggie, but most prominently another character, Ada, from City of the South. Sanctuary takes place in the city of the same name and in City of the South, two very different places struggling to survive in a climate-changed world, but a third city, Asia City, is only mentioned in passing. The sequel takes place largely in Asia City, where Ada is now living. I had the opportunity to visit Tokyo for a consulting job in the early 2000s. I was really struck with what a strong role both religion and superstition played in an otherwise very modern, technologically advanced city. The sequel builds forward on a lot of the themes in Sanctuary but also brings the rituals and superstitions, the belief in luck and in a large pantheon of gods, that is a strong subterranean current in Japanese culture and is reflected in Manga and other Japanese art forms, as a tool that helps the denizens of Asia City deal with climate change.
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find more information about Sanctuary and your other work?
GA: I have pages on Instagram and Facebook, and I am working on a website. Sanctuary will be published on September 7, 2021, and can be purchased at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and many other online bookstores. My sister owns the Jem Books bookstore in Friendswood, Texas. She will be carrying the book. I encourage you to ask for it at your local independent bookstore and give them a chance to get it for you. I would love to hear from any readers at agnewsanctuary (at) gmail (dot) com.