“The trouble started when the woman with the shaking hands came to the apartment,” begins Anna North’s new novel, America Pacifica. Darcy, who answers the door, is an eighteen-year-old struggling to survive with her mother, Sarah, on a remote Pacific island. Thousands of miles away, the continental U.S. has entered a new ice age and become uninhabitable. When Sarah mysteriously disappears, Darcy’s quest to find her brings her face-to-face with bitter truths about the previous generation’s hasty escape from the mainland, and their ideological battles about human response to climate change. The following is an edited version of a conversation with author Anna North, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and an editor at Jezebel.com.
In your novel America Pacifica, the continental United States has entered a new ice age and become uninhabitable. Of the possible disasters that could have beset the country, why did you chose cold weather?
A couple of reasons. One is that I was interested in environmental degradation and climate change, but people already talk a fair amount about global warming. So I was interested in the flip side. I also had been having dreams about disaster scenarios involving the weather. I had a dream in which Los Angeles flooded and I was canoeing around it, canoeing around the base of the library tower. That was an inspiration for the climate change aspect, but also for the sea-faring parts that happen later in the book.
I wanted the opportunity to write about cold: both the cold itself and different qualities of cold, and also the side effects of the world being really cold — things like people not being able to get enough nutrients, not being able to grow crops or livestock, not being able to get vitamin D from the sun, not being able to go outside. All these things were really fascinating to me.
I grew up in Los Angeles and I wrote a lot of the book in Iowa City, where it was really, really cold. I was fascinated with how difficult that made things. I remember realizing that you couldn’t have an outdoor ATM in Iowa City. For a lot of the year, you can’t take a glove off to punch numbers. It will hurt too much. So all of the ATMs are indoors. From that, I got excited about snow and ice.
Do you think that people are more receptive to a story about climate change precisely because you chose cold instead of hot?
In some ways extreme cold feels more frightening than extreme heat, although of course extreme heat can also kill you. It’s possible that the ways in which extreme cold could disastrously affect societies and people are easier to visualize. It’s hard to visualize people not having enough air conditioning, or crops wilting in the field. These things are really bad, but maybe not as easy to picture as everything getting frozen over, with people’s teeth chattering and their children growing up with rickets and things like that.
In the novel, refugees from the continental U.S. flee to an island in the Pacific in order to survive, where they set up a new society that mimics, in many ways, the life they left behind. What constraints does an island setting place on the story?
There are a lot of material constraints. An obvious one is space. Certain types of agriculture are not really possible, particularly livestock cultivation. They have some cows, but I imagine them having one tiny stockyard, and maybe a couple of pigs and some chickens. But it’s not something they can do on a large scale, which is true to an extent in island nations in the real world. They rely a lot more on fishery than on livestock, depending on how small they are. I talk a lot about various materials that they are able to make from seaweed or from ocean bacteria, things like that.
But I also thought a lot about the constraints imposed by what they could bring over from the mainland. I thought a lot about metal. I pictured this as a volcanic island. If it’s a volcanic island, there’s not going to be a ton of mining that you can do. So all of their metal would have to come from the mainland and they would have to ship it over. There’s some mention in the book of stripping down old ships for scrap metal. I imagine them shipping over some cars and larger machinery. But certain metal-intensive things are just not available, nor are certain things that call for specialized metal. One thing they don’t have at all on the island is cameras or film, because that requires specialized metals that you wouldn’t be able to find or ship across in significant amounts.
They don’t have the internet or phone service. I imagine a lot of satellites being down in the wake of this huge environmental disaster and social breakdown. Those are also non-essential uses for metal, less essential than things like electricity, which is already a little bit scarce on the island; and plumbing, which is already not so great. A lot of the things that we take for granted would be super-scarce over there.
Tell me more about the flyers that people on the island use to communicate.
This is something I thought about: how does the news happen in a society without the internet? Obviously, we used to have newspapers, we still do. But I thought of a more general way of disseminating information of various kinds. So there are news flyers, but there are also porno flyers, and comic ones. I imagine there being political ones, too, that might have to be mimeographed underground.
I mention a Pacifica Flyers building at one point in the book. I imagine the flyers being centrally produced on one relatively small printing press that’s printing on Seafiber. I thought of these as a really low-tech way for people to find out what’s going on.
In the modern world, we have many forms of communication that are tailored to particular audiences. You can get only the news that interests you. The flyers in America Pacifica are so different. They are blasting the same news off to everybody.
There are a couple of media on the island like that. Another is street shows. There are street shows in various developing countries, and it can be a form of social protest. The advantage of doing social protest in that form is that you can scatter really quickly — as opposed to printing something out which can be held against you as evidence. If the cops show up, suddenly you’re not doing a show anymore.
One thing I thought about a lot, that I didn’t end up using, was radio. Radio is still quite important in a lot of places where there is no reliable internet or cell phone access. For example, there was talk a few years ago about how to more effectively use South African regional radio shows to transmit HIV prevention messages. I ended up not using radio in the book, but I did think a lot about the kinds of media people use when they are afraid of their government, and the alternative media that people use when regular media aren’t available.
Factories on the island use a special process to convert ocean bacteria into solvent, which powers the buses that serve the island’s different neighborhoods but also gets used as a street drug. What role does solvent play in the story, and how is it different from the role that petroleum plays in actual U.S. society?
It’s similar in a couple of ways. One is that it’s really destructive to the environment. Tyson, the founder of the island, thought up this technology as a way of preserving a mainland-ish way of life, which is his number-one priority as a leader.
But of course, it also produces a mainland-ish form of pollution. In this case, the solvent doesn’t pollute the air, it destroys the ocean. There are scenes where solvent is eating away at various things on the coastline, and eating away at the coastline itself, causing bits of the coastline to fall into the water, and major cave-ins. There’s a sense that the entire island may be devoured by its own corrosive by-products. So that’s an obvious parallel.
On the other hand, people don’t use crude oil as a drug. But people do huff gasoline. I’ve read about kids huffing gasoline because it’s an appetite suppressant. For a little while, you won’t be hungry.
The island is structured around solvent power. Solvent is part of the reason why there are these really intense class divisions on the island. And so the fact that it becomes a drug for people, primarily used by people who are working-class or not working at all, is connected in some ways to the fact that it’s also destroying the island more explicitly.
It’s also a case of resource scarcity. I was trying to imagine: what kind of drugs could you even cultivate on this island? You wouldn’t be able to cultivate anything that requires you to keep secret, large farmland. There’s no way to keep a big secret in terms of land area.
Darcy, the novel’s protagonist, is a high-school drop-out who works in the kitchen of a nursing home. One day, her mother Sarah goes to work and doesn’t return. Darcy’s dogged search for her mother eventually gets her tangled up with the highest levels of power and politics on the island, and brings her face-to-face with Tyson, its founder and supposed leader. Why did you use an uneducated, politically apathetic character to tell this story?
A couple of reasons. One is that I wanted her to be able to find out about the most corrupt parts of Tyson’s government along with the reader. I didn’t want her to know a lot of insider information beforehand. So her status as an outsider — she’s not part of any radical group, and she’s not highly educated — she wouldn’t know a lot of these things.
And then I was really interested in Darcy’s journey toward political awareness, toward an awareness of what are the best ways to run this island, what are some the ways that power corrupts, what are some of the problems that the islanders confronted. I was interested in tracking that and having that occur gradually. I didn’t necessarily want her to be passionate about things outside herself at the beginning because I wanted her to more slowly come to a passionate interest in these issues, more slowly come to a larger-scale heroism. Whereas at the very beginning, she’s mostly just interested in her own and her mother’s survival.
Sometimes readers get frustrated with a book because they can’t identify with a character. You’ve offered a counterpoint to that. Characters aren’t necessarily in a novel so that readers will like them, or identify with them. Characters sometimes serve a bigger purpose in the story.
For realism’s sake, I was interested in having Darcy be right on the edge of adulthood. She’s already in a pretty difficult place when the book begins. Her mother’s still there, but they don’t have any money and they have a lot of problems. Darcy’s quite young. Putting myself in her shoes, her priorities would be getting through the day and paying the rent. I wanted to acknowledge that. I wanted to acknowledge that yes, she has a lot of day-to-day concerns to deal with.
It’s only when Darcy is forced to deal with larger concerns that she does so, which frankly I think is true for most people, no matter what their status is on the social ladder. Maybe the more leisure time you have, the more ability you have to learn about some things outside yourself. But I still think we see a lot of apathy everywhere and in everyone until someone is forced to pay attention.
Darcy eventually pieces together her mother’s story using information she gets from patients in the nursing home. The story isn’t pretty: her mother has been kidnapped by government agents because they suspect she’s involved in revolutionary activities against Tyson. What did this setting — the nursing home — allow Darcy to accomplish that might not have otherwise been possible?
I’ll come at that by talking about what it allowed me to accomplish as an author. It allowed me to introduce characters who had been at the island from the very beginning. I thought of the nursing home setting really early on. I didn’t even fully think about how I could use it, because I was just interested in having Darcy talk to people who were old. The differences between people who are young on the island and people who are old on the island would be really striking. I thought it would be interesting to contrast people who had only known the island with people who had known the mainland, and I was interested in the idea of nostalgia. What kind of things people would miss? Would they grow to miss the winter at all?
It turned out that these characters also worked well as ways for Darcy to find out what happened on the mainland, and to find out what happened at the beginning of the island. I liked having her find out from people who had been there, as opposed to finding it out from documents or third-hand. I liked the immediacy of her being able to ask Yuka, one of the nursing home residents. Yuka, it turns out, has this visceral story that Darcy is quite connected to. I found this a more exciting way to give that story, rather than having Darcy learn it in a documentary way.
This is cliché to say, but you can learn a lot about the past from people who were alive during it. At a nursing home, there’s an air of people who have been forgotten by society, but who are at the same time carrying the image of what society used to be like. That’s an interesting contrast.
Certain aspects of your novel recall the European settlement of the New World — for instance, the islanders re-create the social structures and conveniences of the Old World in a “wilderness” setting. One piece is missing: apparently, there are no native inhabitants of the island; that is, no equivalent to the Native American Indians.
But we do learn about Daniel, a character who had argued vehemently that people should remain on the U.S. mainland and learn to adapt themselves to the new climate realities, rather than trying to re-create old customs in a hot island setting. Can you comment on Daniel and the role he plays in the story?
I thought a lot about whether the island should have an indigenous population or not. I even wrote some chapters with an indigenous population. I felt like it made the novel too politically complex. So I ended up making the decision that the island had not had prior inhabitants.
But in terms of Daniel, I saw him as someone who recognized that contemporary systems of society were pretty flawed. He recognized that the climate change they faced might have been brought about by petroleum use. To simply create another society based on a similarly dangerous form of energy might not be a great a idea. Daniel believed that when things change, you should change also, rather than trying to force the present into the past. I think of him as someone who feels like humans have a responsibility to adapt to their environment — and as someone who is profoundly anti-nostalgic.
Daniel’s world-view is something positive, but it comes with costs. If you were to follow his ideas, nobody is ever going to eat a hamburger anymore. Nobody is going to eat an apple anymore. And probably everybody is going to be cold. A lot of the things that Yuka says about Daniel’s worldview are true: people may die and there may be a lot of vitamin deficiencies before people start to work things out. The upshot is that his society will be more equal and better adapted to its surroundings than Tyson’s is, but it’s not like there’s no trade-off.
Daniel never makes an actual appearance in the book. Why do keep him offstage?
I don’t have him appear for a lot of reasons. I think in every case where I had a big, legendary figure in the book, I shied away from giving that person a large role onstage. Some of that, I have yet to psychoanalyze about myself as a writer.
I was really interested in seeing Darcy moving into a role where she would one day become legendary. For that reason, I wanted to keep the legends of the previous generation a little bit at arm’s length, so that I could give her space to fill that role.
Toward the end of America Pacifica, we see how the legend of Darcy gets repeated, and quickly distorted. This implicitly raises questions about the truth of some of the legends surrounding Tyson and Daniel.
It does. I do end up addressing a lot of the things around Tyson pretty directly. But in terms of Daniel, some things seeemed like they would be distracting to work out on the page. Things like: What is Daniel like as a person? Is he nice? Is he mean? Is he going to be disappointing? These were things that I wanted Darcy to have to wait to find out. And I wasn’t sure that I wanted to let the reader find out.
I talk about this when I’m teaching. If you’re making a horror movie, you shouldn’t show your viewers the alien or the monster until the last possible second, if you even show it at all. Whatever you show them is going to be less scary than what they had in their minds. I think that’s also true with characters like Daniel who are good — it’s always going to be less than what readers think. Any time you show this person, you have to deal with these dashed expectations.