LJ Talks to Bill McKibben | Debut Spotlight

Photo ©Nancie Battaglia

Bill McKibben’s life’s work has centered on environmentalism and writing. His first nonfiction book, The End of Nature, published in 1989, is widely considered a classic in the field. Now, he’s taking a turn to fiction almost 30 years later with his debut novel, Radio Free Vermont (starred review, LJ 9/15/17), a giddy spree of a political fable that is helping to define a new genre of resistance writing.

Radio Free Vermont is a political act as much as it is a book. Did you find writing it cathartic? Can you share your thoughts on the various messages of the story?
I wrote parts of it over many years, always for fun. But this year it came into sharp focus for me, and it was fun to be able to fight back in this way. One of the things that has marked [2017] for me is the sense that the [current] president is always in one’s head—it turns out that an underappreciated virtue of all former presidents is that you could forget about them for days at a time. No such luck now. So, along with helping organize big climate marches in DC and trying to keep the United States in the Paris Agreement, I found it an exuberant escape to imagine more creative forms of resistance. I don’t think we should probably secede from the Union, but boy do I think we should organize to stand up for the common good.

Are there nonfiction techniques that helped you write this novel?
It’s true, I’ve never written fiction before (at least on purpose), but I’ve always liked telling stories. In the past, those have been real people’s stories—my first job out of college, for instance, was writing “Talk of the Town” for The New Yorker, which in those long-ago days was all about funny, oddball New Yorkers. I think I channeled some of that into telling stories about people who weren’t quite real. And then I found that groove I’ve heard novelists describe where their characters began to speak to them.

Your nonfiction is a call to action and an education. What do you want your fiction to do for readers?
Well, I hope it makes them laugh, and then I hope it sticks in their minds. I think that resistance to injustice is crucial at the moment—not everyone needs to go off to jail (though I can tell you it’s not the end of the world if the occasion arises). But we do need to stand up for each other, and we can think of peaceful but creative (and highly annoying) ways to do it!

I also hope [my novel] reminds [readers] that rural America is not just the land between the coasts, and also that even in resistance, a certain kind of civility and humility go a long way. Oh, and I hope it gets them to search out their best local breweries.

Do you plan on writing more novels?
I sure hope so. There are days when I think all I’ll ever do for the rest of my life is write more op-eds about climate change, more speeches about carbon dioxide, and more tweets. I suppose I should confess that this hasn’t entirely cured me of my bad habit of writing depressing nonfiction. I’m in the middle of a long, dark book that will coincide with the 30th anniversary of The End of Nature. But I do have a couple more characters that are speaking to me.

How do you pick which books you will read? What features attract you?
I like books that engage the larger world—the forces around us, not just the forces inside us. And if they’re funny, so much the better. There aren’t enough; humor seems to be a specialty we’ve assigned to comedians. But I like it seasoning as much as is appropriate.

Are there any novels in particular that you want to suggest others read?
I loved Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, which is an oddly cheerful account of a semidrowned New York. And over the long haul? My north star has probably been Wendell Berry. If I had to pick one of his novels, it would be Jayber Crow.

Given the recent hurricanes that hit Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean, are there books on climate change that you think libraries should carry?
I think Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is crucial. It’s the most systemic account of what climate change means. For those who want to know more about how high the sea is going to rise, Jeff Goodell’s brand-new The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World is highly recommended.—Neal Wyatt is LJ’s readers’ advisory columnist. She is currently revising The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, 3d ed. (ALA Editions, 2018) and is a collection development and RA librarian from Virginia

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt is LJ's reader's advisory columnist. She writes The Reader's Shelf, RA Crossroads, Book Pulse, and Wyatt's World columns. She is currently revising The Readers' Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, 3d ed. (ALA Editions, 2018). Contact her at nwyatt@mediasourceinc.com.

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