The Darryl Whetter Interview

Professor Darryl Whetter is the author of two books of poetry and four books of fiction, including the new climate-crisis novel Our Sands. His writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, The Walrus Online, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and The National Post (etc.) He teaches Creative Writing and English at Université Sainte-Anne. His new novel Our Sands was just published.

Can you sum up your novel in one sentence?

Our Sands is a novel of eco-terrorism and bike-courier love that asks how our climate crisis is impacting the heart and the family, not just the wallet and the state.

The novel came out in Asia in 2020 and is just now released in Canada. What’s the story there?

In a word—COVID-19. My wife and I lived in Singapore from 2016 to 2020. We were actually on a little trip to northern Laos in late February of 2020, just as things started to heat up. First we worried that we wouldn’t be able to get back into Singapore from Laos, then we worried we’d be stranded in Singapore indefinitely. I taught for years at this cool art college, LASALLE College of the Arts. The whole time that my colleagues were having painting shows or jazz concerts or film screenings, I kept waiting to launch my novel. Singapore was the world’s second COVID hotspot, though, after China, and we were in lockdown there long before the rest of the world. In a country that might hang you for buying drugs, I was buying boxes of face masks from guys in alleys. First my Singaporean launch was cancelled, then the Ubud Festival of Writers and Readers in Bali, where I’d been chosen to read from the novel, had to go online. Each year at Ubud I’d get a slightly better reading slot, but in 2020 I was finally supposed to have a main event—all that got wiped away with disinfectant and cancelled flights. My novel is like our last piece of luggage to get shipped over.

What inspired you to write Our Sands?

Shame, rage, terror. Most of us think we’re aware of how significant the Alberta tar sands are to Canada, both economically and politically, yet this is the first novel I’ve seen that addresses what Our Sands calls “the black mark on the national soul.” American literature reckons with slavery, and German literature confronts the Holocaust; until Our Sands, no novel in landscape-obsessed CanLit has addressed our most defining landscape. With a global climate-crisis worsening each year, I felt duty-bound to confront our biggest, and globally unique, contribution to global warming. The tar sands are the drunken uncle of the Canadian family. Wishing he would just go away isn’t enough. Beyond the environment, there are also these fascinating social issues, including drug use and sex-trade work in Fort Mac. As someone who has lived in the Maritimes for more than twenty years, I had to put into fiction that question I’ve overheard far too often at Sobey’s: “When’s he back?”

What was the most difficult part of writing the novel?

The risk of despair. I started the novel in 2012, and then in 2013 I fell head-over-heels in love. Our Sands has a birth-control plot not unlike the real people who call themselves Birth Strikers. The woman who is now my wife—who designed the book cover, actually—Gisèle and I were falling in love as I was putting my life-long concern for the environment under the microscope like never before. As a senior in high-school, in Orillia, Ontario, I helped lead a successful citizen protest to overturn our municipal government’s bone-headed plan to create an incinerator to burn all of Toronto’s garbage. After one protest I organized, the mayor went on record saying he wished he could have had us shot. How to go from that or my being the Green Party of Canada candidate in Halifax in the 2008 federal election to this Extinction Rebellion novel and have kids? To fall in love writing this novel was also to decide that we could do more for the world by not having children. That’s not all smiles over the breakfast table.

Is there really an entertaining story in all that doom and gloom?

Not only that, there’s a love story. Two young, car-free urban cyclists literally meet over the crossbar of a bicycle, not at a wine bar. There’s hope alongside the doom. Rory’s a bike courier in Calgary, paid to move oil contracts around but secretly scanning them for a group known as The Green Army. Ocean grew up the rich daughter of a former geologist turned oil executive, so there’s an ecological Romeo-and-Juliet plot. There’s a love story and a family story, as well as attention to how our tar sands are knowingly poisoning Alberta’s Indigenous. I shouldn’t give too much away, but it’s not wrong to describe the plot as “explosive.”

How do you respond when Maritimers ask how they’re expected to feed their families without tar-sands work?

By saying the b-word billions as quickly as I can. No Canadian should ever forget that ‘our’ oil industry is subsidized with what some reports cited by the CBC call more than half-a-billion dollars a year and others say is more than a billion. If you firehose that kind of public money, our taxes, at any industry, you can create jobs and provide high salaries. When these jobs are created by politics, not economics when they are a public charity, why not create jobs greening government buildings or pursuing renewable energy? If Our Sands has one main character in its ensemble cast, it’s the young woman, Ocean Janak. As Naomi Klein points out, “care” is low-carbon. Why, as a nation, have we decided that we’ll funnel hundreds of millions of tax dollars predominantly to men to work in an industry NASA’s whistle-blowing climate scientist James Hansen calls “game over for the climate,” when, as COVID has shown, supporting the women who work caring for the young and old helps the health of all of us, not just one employee? The tar sands aren’t paying all the Maritimers who work in it; we taxpayers are.

Is the novel set exclusively in Alberta?

Most, but part of is set in Nova Scotia. The father/husband character is a geologist who, his teen daughter claims, sells his soul to the devil in working for Alberta oil companies. He never fully forgets his love for fossils, evolution and extinction, so of course, he has to visit Joggins, Nova Scotia. One of my life highs was working as the editor of the Joggins Fossil Cliffs’ nomination dossier for inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. I did that editing years ago, but I’m still obsessed with everything it taught me about evolution. I dealt with some of that in my 2012 poetry collection Origins, but Joggins also deserves the broad canvas of fiction.

Do you really think a novel can stop the tar sands?

Many claim that when President Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he said, “So you’re the little lady that caused this big war?” referring to the US Civil War. We know from Sixties music and the successful resistance of American citizens to its crazy Vietnam War that art can light the match. Culture lays the tinder and kindling, but art is often the match.

This is your third novel. How does Our Sands differ from your pot-smuggling novel Keeping Things Whole [Nimbus, 2013] or the bicycle odyssey of your first novel, The Push & the Pull [Goose Lane Editions, 2008]?

Our Sands is my first epic novel, with a national story, not just a personal one, and more than one main character. It’s my first novel with a truly ensemble cast. There are five major characters here, and the contemplations run from mass extinction to geo-engineering to, “The species committing murder-suicide with the planet, that preferred crime of the jealous boyfriend.” But it’s still funny in places. Eco-terrorists still make jokes and meet someone who makes their heart go pitter-patter.

What are you most proud of in the novel?

Two things. One, that I filled the gap, that I’m shining a light on the dark heart of our economy. University researchers of all types are generally encouraged to go the research frontiers that haven’t yet been crossed. I hope Our Sands is the first of several Canadian tar-sands novels. Then, more technically, I’m proud of what I can only describe as the tantrically long climax. It just builds and builds.

Now that this novel’s done, what’s your next project?

In August, the big academic publisher Routledge will release an anthology of essays I’ve curated called Teaching Creative Writing in Asia. Boring title; fascinating subject. A few years before I taught in Singapore I was the Coordinator of the Creative Writing program at Dalhousie University. In the anglophone world, Creative Writing is one of if not the only growth areas in the Arts and Humanities. Many Asian countries are embracing Creative Writing as an example of STEAM education, not just STEM (i.e., adding some art to the sciences), but those Asian countries are the next phase of what was once the educational revolution of Creative Writing by offering it to students for whom English is a second or third language. One of my fellow Asian writing profs writes about “self-translation.” I love that. We often translate ourselves.

  • Publisher : Penguin Random House SEA (Feb. 18 2020)
  • Language : English
  • Paperback : 398 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 9814882186
  • ISBN-13 : 978-9814882187

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