Nina Schuyler on Giving a Voice to Nature in Fiction

In her brilliantly conceived and eloquent new linked story collection, In This Ravishing World, Nina Schuyler offers us a “loud and bright and unrelenting” chorus of voices calling us to rise above despair and indifference and join together to revive the natural world at a time when the earth is in crisis. Each story offers distinctive characters, intimate moments, and surprises; interlaced within the framework of Nature’s own narrative, the collection, which won the W.S. Porter Prize for Short Story Collections and The Prism Prize for Climate Literature, offers an urgent plea for action.

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What inspired In This Ravishing World? “Several of my friends are scientists specializing in ecology and biology, and many times, they’ve said to me that information isn’t working; the despairing news about species extinction and rising temperatures and sea levels is not changing human behavior,” Schuyler explains. “We need stories. We need stories that move people to vote for politicians who will do something about the climate crisis; that motivate people to join an environmental organization and act. Storytelling was something I could try to do. I guess I also felt responsible for the earth—it’s given me so much, so much beauty and the perfect conditions for life.” Our exchange took place during a week when our shared state of California was ravaged by a wildfire season, arriving early, driven by vicious winds.


Jane Ciabattari: How did your life and work, including your writing of this new book, change during the recent years of COVID and conflict?

Nina Schuyler: The recent events led to a great shedding of things. With COVID, I felt the hard hand of death, so the question became very pressing for me: what do I want to do with this limited life? After sixteen years of teaching for the University of San Francisco’s MFA program, I decided it was time to move on. It was wonderful working with so many writers eager to learn; the little secret is that as a teacher, you learn so much by teaching because students ask the best questions. I now teach for Stanford Continuing Studies, The Writing Salon, and Book Passage, and I’m having a fabulous time.

This wonderful, amazing, astonishing earth seizes and carries things off by force…and it showers us with immense beauty.

Nature has been such a good friend, consoling and nurturing me during COVID and hard times when the world feels like it’s disintegrating. I love hiking and biking or taking the dogs to the beach, and I do more of that now. There is so much awe in nature.

When things opened up, I wanted to give more to the communities that mattered to me—the writing and environmental communities. One result was this new book that focuses on the climate crisis. Another has been finding ways to support writers by showing up at their events, helping them publicize, and sharing resources and ideas.

I also felt a strong sense of daring or carpe diem with my writing—I mean, just go ahead and risk it, write it, do it right now. If I have a short time here, what am I waiting for? As Doris Lessing said, “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”

JC: What inspired your title?

NS: I’m not sure how I came up with the title, but I love the word ravish, which, someone told me, is a contranym—a word that has two meanings that are opposite or nearly opposite. Ravish means to seize and carry off by force and also to fill with intense delight. This wonderful, amazing, astonishing earth seizes and carries things off by force through hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and tsunamis, and it showers us with immense beauty.

JC: Why did you decide to write a collection revolving around the theme of climate change and environmental activism?

NS: I tried to tell the story from one point of view, but it felt so wrong, so far from the truth. How can the hardest thing humans have ever faced be told from a single perspective? The crisis affects all of us and will require many people to solve it. The story needed more nuance and complexity with many different responses to the crisis—grief, denial, activism, escapism, on and on. I pictured the climate crisis as the axis and characters revolving around this axis.

John Gardner in The Art of Fiction calls this structure thematic juxtaposition, with the elements of a story organized according to the law of similarity rather than contiguity or causality. A blueprint for me was Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, which spins around the small town of Crosby, Maine, with Olive as both a main presence and a side presence in the stories.

JC: How did you build the characters that interact in the course of this linked collection—Eleanor, the discouraged environmental economist about to be honored with the Goldman Environmental Prize for lifetime achievement; her daughter Ava, a scientist working on eliminating plastics; son Ed, a ballet dancer, her long estranged sister, a nun; neighbors, young Lincoln, who scavenges for “free” giveaways—chairs, lamps, cups, vases—in the San Francisco’s wealthy district at night? Who came first?

NS: I learned enough about Eleanor’s background to know she had a sister, Hazel, who was a nun. I also knew I wanted to pull into this story the language from the Bible, as Eleanor says, “that terrible word dominion”—the Old Testament’s “Man shall have dominion over all creatures,” and how that view led so easily to human exceptionalism and its devastating fallout. Eleanor’s son, Ed, arrived soon after that. I’d read about the Argentine artist Eduardo Navarro, who tried to become a turtle. That inspired me to think about nonhuman intelligence, so Ed, as a ballet dancer, attempts to enter the consciousness of a rat.

The setting opened more doors to more characters. The book takes place in the Bay Area, and the wealthy areas are lush and luscious with green, but the poorer areas have very little or no green. So along came Lincoln, a boy who longs for trees and plants and finds himself running in Pacific Heights, looking for green and “free” giveaways.

The Bay Area is a hub for technology, so Hugh arrived; Hugh, who is wealthy and wants to buy his way out of the climate crisis; then Raj, who is a hacker and coder and can’t remember the last time he spent time away from his computer. Jake is a proverbial student who works as a notetaker at UC Berkeley. I had a friend who did this—took notes for students who didn’t want to go to class. He hears Eleanor speak about the ecological collapse in one of his classes, and her words are like a rash he can’t get rid of. Lucinda waltzed in, Lucinda who prefers to spend her time with dogs, not humans. All along, I was playing with Nature’s voice—and for the longest time, I didn’t think it worked.

JC: How did you develop those passages that give us the overarching narrator, personifying Nature?

NS: After one of the many California wildfires—I can’t remember which one—Governor Gavin Newsom said, Nature is talking to us. I felt a chill run through me, then my imagination happily took off. What is Nature saying? What would it like to tell us? What does Nature’s voice sound like? It’s been around for billions of years: what’s Nature’s view of things? What does it think of the Homo sapiens? It took me many attempts to find Nature’s voice. At first, Nature was just a roaring, unbridled blast of rage, but that didn’t make sense. Nature wants people to listen, and people normally walk away from endless rage. The voice had to have many notes and a big range: joy, sorrow, desperation, playfulness, on and on. Lots of pages were tossed in the garbage to figure it out.

JC: Which of the stories came first? Which came last? How did you decide the order?

NS: Eleanor, the seventy-year-old environmental economist, came first. I wrote about fifty pages from her perspective before losing the spark and sensing the story was too suffocatingly small. Her daughter, Ava, came last, and I have no idea why it took so long for Ava to show up. In terms of order, since Eleanor opens the collection, I thought one of her children should follow her story so the reader stays emotionally connected with Eleanor and her family. With Eleanor gracing the opening, I knew she’d play a big role at the end because the conversation between the beginning and the end is so important, creating a spiral shape that has great depth and gestures toward transformation. Then, it was a matter of playing around—what does it feel like to have this character next? What about this one?

JC: What sort of research was involved in writing about an environmental economist? A man who paints the Golden Gate Bridge? Climate change activists? Youngsters in grade school studying how to change human practices to make the world safer? The New Zealand golden visa? Ballet dancers? In vitro fertilization?

Nature wants people to listen, and people normally walk away from endless rage.

NS: I studied economics in college and learned about externalized costs: the costs companies don’t put on their balance sheets—air pollution, water and soil contamination, dumping waste. A couple of my friends are now environmental economists who work to convince companies to halt or internalize these costs.

I worked as a legal journalist and developed the chutzpah to just pick up the phone and call if I didn’t understand something. The Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District has a wonderful website and people who love to talk about the bridge. I belong to several environmental organizations and have attended countless postcard-writing sessions and protests. My son belonged to the nonprofit organization Children for Change. It’s student-run: children come up with ideas for creating positive change, and we, the adults, help them. My god, if you ever need a big injection of hope, go to one of their meetings. They are flush with ideas and energy.

Over the years, I’ve read many articles about New Zealand and how the wealthy are busy buying up land, presumably because they think it’ll be less impacted by climate change. I spent some days in several survivalist chatrooms, and they’re lively, anxious-ridden, teeming with people exchanging ideas about how to prepare for a total collapse of all systems. Once, many moons ago, I was a ballet dancer. Once, I danced and performed as a leaf. And in vitro fertilization? I interviewed several friends who have gone through the process, and the Internet, once again, is full of information about the process. I also want to acknowledge my science friend, who meticulously reviewed the collection and ensured my scientific facts were correct.

JC: How did you develop the philosophical underpinnings of these stories?

NS: Stanford Continuing Studies allows me to take courses for free if there is unlimited enrollment. And that means I can take all the philosophy courses I want, which makes me incredibly happy.

I am indebted to Professor Forrest Hartman, a philosopher and biologist, and his course, “An Introduction to European Philosophy: From Descartes to Derrida.” That led to my understanding of the underlying structure of how we got to where we are now. In the seventeenth century, Descartes invented the “modern subject,” the hero, who became the basis for indubitable knowledge—cogito, ergo sum. So the “I” exists, but you can’t be sure anything else exists, including the external world. The result, says Hartman, is that we alienated ourselves from nature and others, and this legacy is still with us. By the way, Descartes believed animals were soulless and akin to machines.

In my exploration of the nonhuman world, I turned to the American philosopher Graham Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology, a philosophy that rejects human exceptionalism and reminds us that reality is far more than human perception and that objects are inexhaustible. During the pandemic, I studied Heidegger’s Being and Time because, with everything stripped away, it seemed I’d been reduced to these two things. Harman builds on Heidegger’s concept that we are “beings in the world.” The very definition of a human being includes the world. Both philosophers firmly and undeniably give us back the world. All of this is fascinating to me, and it helps me understand why we think the way we do today.

JC: You mention Ursula Le Guin in your acknowledgments. Which of her works, and the work of other authors, did you turn to while working on In This Ravishing World?

NS: Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1986 essay “The Carrier Bag of Fiction” profoundly influenced me. It’s a call for different stories other than the dominant hero’s journey. I teach an alternative plot class, and I open the course with this essay. In many ways, I think of my collection as a carrier bag full of these voices and responses to climate change. I really like that image because it harkens to the need for the collective to address the issue of climate change.

When I doubted whether I could personify nature, I turned to Le Guin’s short stories “Mazes,” told from the point of view of a lab animal, and “The Direction of the Road,” from the perspective of a tree. Also, Karen Joy Fowler’s story “Us,” from the point of view of a lab rat. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer is stunningly beautiful. She enriched my world by sharing her worldview and the Potawatomi language that takes what the Western mind sees as inanimate and makes it animate. Oceans, mountains, rocks, all of them in her language are verbs, everything is alive. I also re-read Olive Kitteridge and Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love and studied their structures.

JC: What are you working on now/next?

NS: I have a restless mind and need to do something different for each new writing project, so I’m working on something experimental-ish involving nature. We’ll see. I’m in that stage of letting it unfold, trying not to judge it or rein it in. I’m back to that refrain: go ahead, what am I waiting for? Let it rip.


In This Ravishing World

In This Ravishing World by Nina Schuyler is available from Regal House Publishing.

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