On Fiction Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Caroline Ailanthus

On Fiction Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Ecological Memory

Caroline Ailanthus
is a science writer; from blogging about climate change and editing scientific papers to her meticulously-researched fiction, her projects blend science and story. She grew up in Delaware and attended various small, odd schools, mostly in New England. She now travels often, but usually lives in Maryland with her husband and assorted animals.
Caroline has a BA in Environmental Leadership and an MS in Environmental Studies. When not writing fiction or walking her beagles, she works as a free-lance writer and editor. She is the author of two novels and three blogs, and her short non-fiction, and occasionally her short fiction, has appeared in multiple publications, including Pangaia,

Dreamstreets, and Appalachia, among others.

Links

Climate in Emergency (blog) (https://climateinemergency.wordpress.com/)

News From Caroline (blog) (https://newsfromcaroline.wordpress.com/)

School with No Name (blog) (https://schoolwithnoname.blogspot.com/)

Ecological Memory (novel; both print and ebook editions)

(https://www.amazon.com/Ecological-Memory-Caroline-Ailanthus/dp/1628062215/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Caroline+Ailanthus&qid=1567799817&s=books&sr=1-1)

To Give a Rose (novel; both print and ebook editions) (https://www.amazon.com/Give-Rose-Caroline-Ailanthus/dp/1628061219/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=Caroline+Ailanthus&qid=1567799899&s=books&sr=1-2)

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write fiction?

I don’t know. I can’t remember ever not creating stories, even before I could write.

2. Who introduced you to reading fiction?

My parents; they read to me a lot when I was a kid.

3. What is your daily writing routine?

When I don’t have anything else pressing, I write (or sometimes waste time on Facebook). It’s not a routine; it’s a default option.

5. What motivates you to write?

The people in my head knocking to get out….Seriously, I make up stuff all the time, and if I don’t share it somehow I don’t feel right.

6. What is your work ethic?

In some ways I have a very strong work ethic, but I have trouble focusing. I have to maintain a lot of projects because I need to switch gears often.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

Certainly they give me a sense of what good writing is supposed to look like. Sometimes I notice more obvious inspiration, vague similarities between what I write and certain things I have read. And Ursula K. LeGuin is a personal hero of long standing, and I still go back to her work often to see how she did things, like the equivalent of studying the brush strokes of a master.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I don’t know what you mean. Does someone have to be currently alive to count as a writer of today, or do you just mean not someone from the 1800s? Does LeGuin count? There are a lot of living writers whose work I really like, but none are currently literary heroes of mine. There are also living people I greatly admire and who write, but that’s not exactly what I admire them for.

9. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

I’d say “by writing.” That’s really all it takes. To become an excellent writer, write A LOT and always seek to be better. Don’t ever think you’re good enough.  Read a lot—talking to younger writers, I’ve realized there is so much I know about writing and almost take for granted because I learned it by accident while reading. Also get other people to edit your work; the value of a ruthless editor whom you trust absolutely cannot be over-stated. You will not get better beyond a certain point unless someone shows you where you need to improve. You won’t see it on your own.

It’s not that I see natural talent as unimportant, but it’s presence or absence is irrelevant to the writer—because no matter how talented you are, you still need to work to get better, and no matter how untalented you may be, you can still get better with work. So the question is never “Am I good enough to be a writer,” but, rather, “Do I want to write?”

Also, learn not to take your writing personally. If someone says it’s good, they don’t mean you’re good. If someone says it’s crap, they don’t mean you’re crap. If you can’t grasp that on a deep, fundamental level, you won’t be able to benefit from a ruthless editor, and you won’t reach your potential. Learning to grin and bear criticism isn’t enough—if you feel like your writing is you but just decide to let people criticize you, you’ll leave yourself vulnerable to abusive jackasses. You need to know the difference between you and your work, because real friends tell you to improve the latter, not the former.

How to earn a living writing? That’s a related question, and the answer changes over time. Decades ago, you could do it by writing short fiction for magazines while you tried to convince a big publishing house to give you a nice, fat advance for your next novel. That’s why we have such wonderful short fiction by the old greats, like Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Ernest Hemingway. But magazines have switched to non-fiction, for the most part, and publishers seldom offer much marketing support any more—so getting published is just the beginning of figuring out how to sell your work, not the end. Many writers these days pay the bills with a combination of free-lance writing (mostly web content) and editing. Writing books loses money for many people, but we do it anyway because we must. It’s a pretty dark time for writers, frankly.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I have two novels published, and several more on the way. My first book, To Give a Rose, is about a community of proto-human ape-like beings (australopithecines) and a modern human woman studying their bones. The two timelines interact and comment on each other thematically. Ten years of research went into creating a plausible vision of the African Pliocene and the australopithecine mind. There may someday be a sequel or two, but I’m currently focused on sequels for my second book, Ecological Memory.
Ecological Memory is part post-apocalyptic travelogue, part scientific detective story. It’s not a dystopia—my view of the world after the collapse of civilization is distinctly optimistic—but the central theme I ended up exploring is resilience in the face of loss. That’s what “ecological memory” means. It’s a technical term for the capacity of an ecosystem to regrow. In the story, ecosystems are indeed regrowing, but so are the human survivors—rather imperfectly. The book is the first in a series, but each book in the series will be able to stand on its own.

I also have various free-lance jobs going (care to hire me?) and I maintain three blogs. News From Caroline is about my work and the craft of writing. Climate in Emergency is about various aspects of climate change, from politics to science. School with No Name is the serialized first draft of a group of novels about an Earth-centered spiritual community. It’s an interesting project, writing a first draft in public like this, not really knowing what I’m going to write until I write it!

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