Alexis M. Smith – Marrow Island
Marrow Island, by Alexis M. Smith (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), takes place in a haunting alternate present in which parts of the Northwest have been destroyed by an enormous earthquake. Ten years later, a journalist named Lucie seeks out a secret, quasi-religious group that appears to be living in the midst the quake-caused toxic devastation on a small island in the San Juan Islands. The book is part ecological-thriller, part introspection on the nature of death and living in a toxic world, and part mycology lab.
In Ben Parzybok’s interview with Alexis Smith about Marrow Island, they talk about death, revolution, mushrooms, and the lifecycle of books. Enjoy!
BEN PARZYBOK: I feel like we have probably had a similar experience with real-world events transpiring simultaneously with our books. Or rather, to have written substantially about a thing before having that thing manifest in the world about us. This year Kathryn Schulz won the Pulitzer for her piece on the Cascadia subduction zone; your book richly imagines a place after that earthquake ‘the big one’ has come to pass. And again, the place you’ve chosen for the other half of the book, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, also dramatically entered the public consciousness this year. You appear to have some divinational magic in selecting these places/topics (I am open to investment tips, fwiw). I’d love to hear you talk a little on how that feels, how it has made you reconsider your own book, and how it may or may not have re-contextualized your work after it came out.
ALEXIS M. SMITH: This is not the first time I’ve been asked whether I’m slightly clairvoyant. It’s funny, because—as you know—we work on novels for years and by the time we’re done, the issues in them don’t feel especially “new” to us, even if they’re just entering a broader collective consciousness when the book comes out.
I certainly don’t think anyone who grew up in the Pacific Northwest was at all surprised by the details of Kathryn Schulz’s piece (even if she did offer a vivid picture of the probable devastation, which I think most of us try not to dwell on). I was finishing my last edits when the piece went viral, and it didn’t make me reconsider the novel, but it did tell me that people outside the Northwest would already have a stellar introduction to “the Big One.” I have joked that I wished her article had come out a few years earlier, because it would have saved me a lot of time researching and translating the technical articles from NOAA, USGS, University of Washington, et al.—all for a few passages about memories of an earthquake that is in the backstory of the novel.
As for the Malheur, I was a little excited, I’ll admit, that the name ended up in the broader consciousness before my book came out, even if the location in my book is actually about 100 miles away from the Wildlife Refuge, in the Malheur National Forest. When people have even a vague notion of where a place is on the planet, or in the context of other places they’re heard of, I think it helps to root the scene in the imagination. Plus: now everyone knows how to pronounce Malheur, Oregon-style. But again, the book was completely out of my hands at that point, so I couldn’t have changed anything if I wanted to.
BP: Marrow Island takes place in a region dear to me. I have lived on San Juan Island several times. And yet (as far as I could tell) Marrow Island is a fictional island within the archipelago. I thought that an interesting choice, considering the second location in the book is entirely real, though the choice feels like a right one to me. Can you talk about the reasons for fabricating a place like this, and what it’s like to overlay a fictional topography over an actual one?
AS: Yes, Marrow and Orwell are two fictional islands in the real San Juan Islands of Puget Sound. I was already choosing to rewrite geological history with the earthquake (by making a “big one” happen in the 1990s), so making up a couple of islands didn’t feel like that much of a stretch. I also didn’t want to destroy Friday Harbor, for example, or any other real town on the islands, because I think it would have limited the possibilities for me, imaginatively. I needed to believe that some yahoo actually built an oil refinery up there, but the proximity to people was a problem—imagine the people of San Juan island letting big oil set up shop there; it would never happen. Maybe an old industry baron owned an island (there are privately owned islands up there, for those who aren’t familiar), and maybe he did it back in the day when oil spills weren’t front page news, and he did it near a major shipping channel… It felt right creating Marrow and Orwell from scratch, but in the image of the other islands, with the appropriate landscape, wildlife, inhabitants, etc.
It felt risky because we Northwesterners can be sensitive to inaccurate descriptions of our hometowns and beloved natural places. But at other times I wondered whether I should risk more—if I was going to create islands and summon an earthquake, why not rename cities? Why not stray even more from the known landscape and climate, etc. Ultimately I just didn’t want to. I didn’t want to stray too far from the landscape and politics and current events that we are already familiar with in our present. I was happy to put my characters in an only slightly-altered reality.
BP: The book centers around the idea of a sort of utopia built on top of a previously apocalyptic scenario. I love this idea, and feel like it mirrors a lot of human history. Upon every ruin, we build a new civilization. And yet, in each case our ruins get more perniciously destroyed and toxic by either the weaponry or side-effects of the modern era. Do you think there’s a larger-scale death/re-birth cycle that happens at a civilization level that mirrors what happens on the biological level? And related… how important do you think the role of radical sub-groups (or even cults) are in forming the new ‘norm’ for the subsequent civilization?
SMITH: Oh, this is a good question. I was definitely thinking about all of these things as I wrote. First, yes: I definitely believe that civilizations have cycles, and that so much hinges on humans learning the lessons of the past. Or not. I think, as a species, we don’t learn the lessons very well. We don’t act in our own best interest because as a unit, we can’t think long-term. Part of the poor long-term decision-making comes from power systems. The few with the most power are making decisions for ALL, and this never works out for the majority. This is where “radical sub-groups” are necessary—you wrote about this in Sherwood Nation, too—collective action has and always will be incredibly important in making change happen, but it has to come from the fringes. Ideological change is like biological diversity in that way. If you keep circulating the same genes around a population, the population will slowly self-destruct; if you continuously circulate the same ideas in a society, the civilization will self-destruct. Our world is changing around us and we need to be able to think quickly and creatively to adapt. In the U.S. lately, it feels like we’re regressing. Creativity and curiosity, education, open-mindedness and free-thinking, have all been devalued, if not vilified. I’m hopeful about individuals and about progressive radical sub-groups creatively disrupting the status quo, being able to emerge from disasters with a new path for people. But most days I feel like we’re fucked as a species, generally, and that “civilization” might not even be a possibility on this planet within a few centuries.
BP: Almost all of my favorite scenes revolve around death, and I think some of your most revolutionary writing is on/around this topic. I think the mood ties into what I feel like is the very beginning of a (I hope) shift in our cultural response to death (I’m thinking here of recent books like Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty), where really over the last 150 years we have utterly strayed from our species-long relationship with death and burial. I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether you think we’re at an inflection point in this change, and how Marrow Island is playing with this topic.
AS: Yeah! Thanks! I loved writing about death for this book. In the course of researching whether it was possible for mushrooms to aid in the decay of human remains, I studied the whole process of decomposition, the roles that different microbes play in different stages, in different habitats. I wanted to see if there were laws about burial (so many!) and whether people can just have a backyard family burial plot anymore (nope!), etc. Current funereal and crematory practices contribute enormously to greenhouse gas emissions and the release of tons of known carcinogens into the environment. It’s so disturbing. I always thought that I wanted my ashes spread somewhere to return to the earth, but now I know that even cremation is toxic. Bodies should be allowed to decay naturally somewhere to really return from whence they came. During my research I found the Urban Death Project, which is this amazing organization started by an architect in Seattle, Katrina Spade, which has come up with a method for turning our expired loved ones into compost. I find this fascinating and whole-heartedly support the efforts. I want to be compost.
In any case, without giving too much of the plot away, in Marrow Island we find people who make particular decisions around burial which are both morally correct and legally wrong. It’s a predicament that highlights our need for a radical re-thinking of death and burial.
BP: There is a lot of great mycological (mushroom) science in the book. I’m curious about your research process — how much of the narrative was driven by this research? How did the research you do change your conception of the book over time?
AS: I did lots of research—way more than I needed—because it was fascinating and fun: reading everything I could get my hands on, going to thrift stores in search of random books on mushrooms, taking pictures of all the mushrooms I found hiking or running in the woods so that I could learn to identify them, interviewing everyone I knew about their experiences taking psychedelics. I like to immerse myself in something and then let go and write, only going back to the books or notes if I really need to. Most of the time it was just in the background as I was writing, except for the few times when I needed to know specifics of cultivation, or how one might go about remediating soil, etc. I might go to a book to make sure a certain species would grow on a certain substance or tree, or whether it would fruit in the spring or fall. Other than that, I just had fun with the ideas all the research presented.
BP: I don’t think people really understand what it’s like launching a novel, with all its ups and downs, after years of dwelling with it privately. Can you give us some details on the length of time and the cycles of angst/joy in the writing of this particular book? Which specific part of the writing/publishing cycle do you love best, and do you have tips for navigating being a novelist in the age of real-time feedback.
AS: Well, this book, from inception to publication, was almost exactly eight years in the making. That’s a long time to think, to research, to ruminate, to throw out drafts, to believe that it’ll never ever be finished. Then, the last eight months of that eight years, I had absolutely nothing to do with the book; people somewhere else in the country were making it into the physical thing you can buy in the store. So I had this weird vacation from the real work of writing the thing, during which time I forgot what I wrote and started wondering if it was all gibberish. It’s a real phenomenon: writer’s amnesia. I knew interviews were on the horizon, so I started rehearsing answers that I couldn’t be sure are true or not. You might ask: why not reread your own book, lady? To which I might reply: I’ve been looking at this book for years and all I really want to do right now is read other people’s stories and start working on my next one.
Then the publicity starts and the anxiety begins. I am deeply ambivalent about promoting myself. I know it needs to happen, so that readers know about my books, but if I had it my way, I would send my book out into the world and no one would know what my face looks like, or what my voice sounds like, or how many cats I have. Because none of that says anything about the quality of my writing.
I don’t know a single woman writer who hasn’t felt objectified in some way while promoting her work, and of those, the young, beautiful (mostly white) women are promoted in a very particular way that feels obsessed with the marketability of their youth and beauty. I am feeling this more keenly with Marrow Island than I did with Glaciers, probably because I could still have been considered young and beautiful when Glaciers came out and now I’m pushing 40. People love an ingenue—the bright, lovely twenty-something who landed the big book deal—but most of us are older, and not full-page color photograph-worthy, so book promotion can start to feel like a beauty contest, and biases against people of color, the differently-abled, queer and trans folk, and fat women are alive and well.
Then there’s the role of biography. So much of book promotion focuses on “authenticity” in a way that distracts from the work itself, especially for women and people of color: questions tend to focus on life details and how they informed the story, not your abilities, or your craft. Did you experience this? Have you been there? Was there a tragedy in your own family that inspired this? How is this about your woman-body/your mysterious non-white personhood? The questions don’t come from a malicious place, but they do reinforce this idea that only white cis male writers are allowed to make “literature” and the rest of us are writing for our “tribes” only.
This second time around I’m more aware of these patterns; I’m less naïve. I may be queer, but I do believe that being a white cis woman has given me more advantages, press, and acclaim than my black or Latina or Asian or indigenous or trans, etc., peers. For every time I feel angst at not having made a list of “best novelists under 40” or whatever, I have an equal and opposite pang of shame for the advantages my privilege has delivered. I want to be successful, to be read, but not at the expense of others I know to be equally, if not more, talented.
The saving grace is that sometimes I am invited to read with other writers, or to be in conversation with them, and I’m reminded of what is important: engaging with and inspiring each other to take risks in our work, to challenge the status quo. How we go about changing the culture of publishing is a complicated conversation, but when we’re talking about the writing itself, the words we want to put into the world, most of us become enthusiastic supporters and promoters of each other’s written work. I guess that’s my tip for navigating being an author in the current climate: concentrate on the reciprocity; inspiring others and being inspired to do your best work right back.
Purchase a copy of Marrow Island at IndieBound and a portion of the purchase price will support Late Night Library
Alexis M. Smith was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. Her first novel, GLACIERS, was a finalist for the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction and a World Book Night 2013 selection. She attended Mount Holyoke College and Portland State University, and holds an MFA from Goddard College. She’ll be Visiting Writer at the Inland Northwest Center for Writers in Spokane, WA this fall.
Benjamin Parzybok is the author of Couch and Sherwood Nation. Find him at http://levinofearth.com or on Twitter @sparkwatson