Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Magick's in the Mind: Don Bredes's New Cli-Fi Adventure

Novelist Don Bredes wants to shake you out of your complacency. 
In his new young adult novel, POLLY AND THE ONE AND ONLY WORLD, Bredes imagines the ravaged landscape and socio-political nightmare we might leave future generations, if we’re not, as he puts it, up to “the challenge of our time.”
“While I began drafting the novel, as I thought about the journey my young heroine would undertake,” Bredes says, “I envisioned Polly’s world as a stricken version of our own, a world whose dwindling goodness she might have the chance to preserve.  For me, in recent years, the carelessness, greed, hatred, and especially the willful ignorance of human beings have increasingly seemed to threaten everything we love about life on earth.”
That love of life on earth informs Bredes’s work and his life in South Wheelock, where for 35 years he’s made his home, enjoying hiking, bird watching, and cultivating impressive gardens. He includes star-gazing among his favorite pursuits. 
The author of six novels and three screenplays, Bredes is perhaps best known for his Hector Bellevance mysteries, which vividly portray small-town northern Vermont.  Author John Smolens describes the world Bredes creates in those novels as “an inviting, yet dangerous landscape where local history, long-held grudges, and intrigue lead the town folk to draw lines in the mud.”
As richly as Bredes envelops the reader in Bellevance’s Vermont scenery and milieu, in his new novel, he sets us smack into the frightening consequences of staying the course on global warming, conformity, and religious intolerance. In doing so, he calls young readers to be mindful of  “the one and only world.”
“For our purposes, this ‘pale, blue dot,’ as Carl Sagan called it, is all there is,” says Bredes.  “We have the power, if we can embrace it, to protect our fragile planet and the conditions that foster earthly life: ‘forms most beautiful and most wonderful,’ in Darwin’s famous phrase.  And we have the power to corrupt those conditions beyond any redemption if, as a species, we can’t bring ourselves to defend what we already know is good and precious.”
“The choice,” says Bredes,”is now ours to make.”

How did you find your way to Vermont?

I was born in New York City and grew up in Huntington Bay on the north shore of Long Island, where my first novel, HARD FEELINGS, is set.  In 1969, when I graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in English composition, my prospects for satisfying employment seemed limited to teaching.  One of the very few places where I could hope to find a job as an untrained, would-be teacher was the State of Vermont, where, in those days, “emergency certification” might be granted to promising candidates.  I was fortunate, late that August, to be offered a position teaching English at Lake Region Union High School in Orleans. 

In 1972 I was accepted into the MFA program at U. of California in Irvine. When I returned to Vermont two years later, I worked as a waiter at Carbur's Restaurant in Burlington while I was writing my first novel.  Carbur's, on St. Paul St., was right next door to an old gas station on the corner where I watched a couple of guys named Ben and Jerry set up their first ice cream maker in the front window.  

You’re no stranger to controversy – your award winning young adult novel HARD FEELINGS caused a local uproar.

That’s right.  My popular first novel was much reviled in some quarters when it came out in 1977.  It's still on some banned book lists.  

In fact, HARD FEELINGS provoked a blow-up in our own community in 1978, a blow-up that had no connection to the coincidence of my living here.  A freshman at LI happened upon the book in the library, took it home to East Burke, found herself shocked by all the (humorous) sex and profanity, and showed it to her parents.  They demanded that LI remove that filth from the school library.  

The story was a big one here (lots of letters to the editor)--and also in the Free Press--partly because of the coincidence.  But LI's headmaster at the time handled it well.  They would not remove the book, he said, but they would send home a notice advising all parents of its presence in the library and suggesting that parents who did not want their child to read the book should send a note with that message to the librarian.  

You’ve said that POLLY AND THE ONE AND ONLY WORLD “stands to be pretty controversial” as well. Tell us why.

The story is set in a much-diminished America called the Christian Protectorates.  The new government, formed in the wake of devastating cataclysms that are not explained, is a stifling theocracy.  The story’s villains, then, are fundamentalists afflicted by all the delusions that may sometimes be inspired by religious history and mythology.  Involuntary servitude is legal, for example, while public libraries are not. 

At the start of the novel, the Faith and Redemption Amendment has just become law, mandating that “all the heretics, apostates, and followers of false creeds anywhere in the Protectorates had 90 days to register for assignment to a ReBirthing facility or apply for bondservant status.  Anyone who failed to comply with the FRA, citizen or outlier, would face arrest and exile, consignment to a work camp, or death.”  So, Polly, a practicing witch, must try to hide, seek safety in exile, or risk imprisonment and execution. 

Needless to say, some readers are bound to be offended by the depiction of Christians as hateful oppressors—and of witches as heroic figures. 

Your friend Howard Frank Mosher calls you a realist, and has described your depictions of the Northeast Kingdom in your novels as “strictly accurate.”  In POLLY AND THE ONE AND ONLY WORLD, you’re exploring an imagined future, ravaged by climate change and social upheaval. 

Yes, I’m more than alarmed by the gloomy trends we’ve all been seeing in the culture for the last 20 years or so:  the widespread, vehement denial of scientific consensus and the ignorant rejection of basic truths about our existence--like natural evolution--coupled with the rise in religious oppression in the public sphere.  These are ominous cultural developments.  What they may portend will probably not take shape in our actual future as Americans, but the world I have envisioned for the novel will, I hope, inspire young readers to work for positive and enlightened change in our own world today.

So would you say that your latest novel is an example of the new genre that has recently emerged in popular entertainment—cli-fi, or eco-fiction?

Yes, it fits right in, no question about that—though I had never heard of cli-fi until just a few months ago.  Clearly, the changing climate and its harsh consequences are a preoccupying concern for almost everyone today.  Our problem now, as human animals on what has been a hospitable planet for many thousands of years, is that the natural world, the world that has nourished all of us in the most elementary ways, is under grave threat.  A threat that we have produced.  So we’re the ones who must forestall its consequences, if we can.

I’m curious why you gave your heroine paranormal abilities.

Polly is a true witch, a maiden Adept in training.  Her skills are not so much paranormal as they are purely magickal.  That is, with some effort and strenuous focus, and with the aid of her grimoire, The Craeft, she can cast various complex spells.  To be effective, the magick depends on her ability to influence the space and energy that hold matter to form.  So, there’s a kind of science about it, or that’s the airy notion that underlies the narrative.

POLLY is a young adult fantasy in the mold of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, DOROTHY AND THE WIZARD OF OZ, THE GOLDEN COMPASS, THE HUNGER GAMES, HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCEROR’S STONE, and many others.   The magic(k) involved in flying, shrinking, befriending talking animals, casting spells, and so on falls squarely in that literary tradition.

In POLLY, the magic also stands in contrast to religious spell-casting, like exorcism, for example, or even prayer.  Most people do not believe that magic spells are real, and yet at the same time most people in America do believe that supernatural entities, like ghosts and angels and demons, and mythological places, like hell and heaven, are real.  In the world of the novel these two categories of supernatural belief exist on the same plane, where I think they belong.

You’re best known for your popular Hector Bellevance series. Tell us about its genesis.

One day in September, 1984, two acquaintances of mine, Roland and Maram Hanel, were slain in their isolated ski chalet near Jay.  They were each shot many times with a 9mm machine pistol.  Nothing was stolen from the house, and investigators uncovered no helpful clues. The case remains open today, the Hanels’ executioners unknown.

Ten years later, when I got around to looking into the crime myself, my plan was to use the peculiar circumstances surrounding the murders (and the frustrated investigation) in a novel about stranger-on-stranger homicides and how they’re seldom solved.  The 650-page manuscript I came up with featured a Vermont dairy farmer who finds himself the prime suspect in the killings.  Even his own wife is not sure of his innocence.  So he embarks on his own stubborn and willful investigation.  The story ends after he has managed to exonerate himself–although he never does find the killers.

My agent sent THE SUGARWOODS MURDERS to half a dozen publishers. They all passed.  In the meantime, my old friend Howard Mosher read the manuscript. “Don,” he said, “I think what you’ve got is actually a mystery. But the book you’ve written is almost an anti-mystery. What the story needs is a sleuth character who solves the crime.”
That’s how Hector Bellevance was born.  I spent two more years rewriting the book, introducing Hector, a Boston Police Dept. homicide dick who has retired under a cloud, and inventing a set of motives and villains partly inspired by the factual events. The literary mystery, COLD COMFORT, came in at 370 pages or so.  A year later I sealed a two-book deal with Harmony Books for COLD COMFORT and a sequel.  I told everyone, “The good news is I sold my novel! The bad news is I have to write another one just like it.” The truth was I wasn’t sure I could write another mystery. The form doesn’t come easy to a writer like me. My stories tend to be less plot-driven than character-driven, so they’re quirkier and more surprising than the more standard, plot-driven mysteries.  And they take a lot longer to write.
Over the next three years I wrote the second Bellevance mystery, THE FIFTH SEASON, loosely inspired by the Carl Drega shootings in New Hampshire in August, 1997.  It came out in 2005.

The third Bellevance mystery, THE ERRAND BOY, came out in September, 2009.  This one was also partly inspired by an unresolved (but not unsolved) crime, the Orville Gibson murder in Newbury in 1957.  In some rural communities, like Newbury, there may live a person everyone knows to be a killer but who cannot be held to account because enough evidence to support a conviction is lacking. Gibson’s killers were known to the townspeople and the state police, but at their trial no one would testify against them. They died unpunished.

You’ve also written the screenplays for the film adaptions of two of Mosher’s novels.

Yes, thanks to filmmaker and producer, Jay Craven.  Howard and I first met when I came to Vermont in 1969 to teach high school English at Lake Region.  Howard lived a mile down the road from me in Barton.  He had just ended his stint there as a teacher.  By coincidence, he, his wife, Phillis, and I were Syracuse University grads.  And Howard and I were both trying to write short fiction. 

In 1970, Howard was accepted into the MFA Program in Writing at the U. of California, Irvine.  When they arrived in southern California, however, he and Phillis soon decided that that part of the country did not suit them.  At all.  So they came home to Vermont.  Two years later, as I mentioned earlier, I was accepted into the same program.  I liked it out there—the ocean, the newness, the time to write. 

I was at Irvine when I wrote the beginning of my first novel, HARD FEELINGS.  My work attracted the interest of a well-established literary agent, Don Congdon.  After graduation, once I was back in Vermont, I suggested to Congdon that he have a look at what my friend Howard Mosher was writing.  He was impressed and offered to take on Howard, too.  In time, Congdon found excellent publishers for our first novels.  When Jay Craven decided to make a short film of Howard’s short story, “High Water,” he chose me to write the script.  Jay and I worked well together.  Later, when he decided to make a feature based on Howard’s first novel, WHERE THE RIVERS FLOW NORTH, he hired me to do the adaptation. 

What’s your writing routine? Do you write every day?

I write every day, yes, with regular breaks to read, play tennis, or hoe the beans.  It’s a luxury, an obsession, and a sacrifice.  I haven’t had a fulltime job since I stopped teaching at Lake Region, though I have worked part-time, teaching college courses in writing and literature and working as an advisor to adult college students for Johnson State College’s External Degree Program.

What are you reading now?  Who are your favorite authors?

When I’m working on a novel, I tend not to read much, except in periodical literature, because longer, immersive fiction, especially when it’s well done, can influence what I’m trying to do myself.  That said, I have enjoyed reading James Howard Kunster’s futuristic novels and, most recently (off the top of my head), the work of Cormac McCarthy, Tom McNeal,  Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, William Trevor, and others.

What’s next?

The ending of POLLY AND THE ONE AND ONLY WORLD leaves the door wide open for a sequel, and I have a file of notes and ideas for that project. And I’m midway through the fourth Hector Bellevance novel.  For no special reason, when I began the Bellevance series, I had imagined a quartet of novels, each inspired by an actual crime and each unfolding over a week’s time during a defining season of the year.  The first three are set in foliage season, mud season, and high summer.  Next up, set in the depths of winter, is THE BIGFOOT HUNTER, which I hope to finish in 2015.

Upcoming Events for Don Bredes's
Polly and the One and Only World

Vermont-based Green Writers Press will publish Don Bredes’s new young adult novel this month. The author will appear and sign copies at these upcoming events:

October 4, Brattleboro Literary Festival, Brattleboro, 2:30 pm

October TBA, Galaxy Books, Hardwick  

October 10, Green Mt. Books, Lyndonville, October 10, 4-6 pm 

October 30, St. Johnsbury Academy library, 3 pm

November 14--Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, 7 pm 

November 15--Northshire Bookstore, Saratoga Springs, 7 pm 

This interview appears in the October issue of The North Star Monthly.  Check out their site:

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