Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Terese Svoboda probes the prehistoric past and our possible futures in new short story collection

                         - Jonathan Keats

"Farmers invented 'climate fiction,' stories that console or haunt or condemn them to the whims of the weather. 'Climate fiction' for rest of us readers delivers the news that a little pitter patter isn't just backdrop to our lives, but a character that changes events and will change us."

The American writer Terese Svoboda is talking to me over the crackling pops and steampunk whistles of a rusty transatlantic email connection, and she's talking about her new book, "Great American Desert," a collection of 21 short stories she chose just for this paperback edition.

Kirkus book reviews website saw an early edition of the collection, set for a March 2019 release, and put it this way: "Terese Svoboda returns to her art's quintessential landscape to relate the overlapping epochs of the great American desert."

MAD CREEK BOOKS, an imprint of the Ohio State University Press, will publish the book.

Kirkus goes on: "Camp Clovis," the first of the 21 stories that make up this collection, opens in the Pleistocene era among the Clovis people, a Paleo-Indian community who live in what will become the American Great Plains. 

The community's teenage boys have been sent away to camp, where they will engage in "boy's footraces, showing off underwater, crafts with leather, spear point chiseling, campfires -- the usual," to keep them out from under their mothers' feet for the long summer months. 

When the engaging innocence of their boyhood is threatened by elements outside their control or understanding -- global climate change, overhunting of keystone species, encroachment by other cultures on Clovis' territory -- their bewildered bravado and ageless little-boyness provide a bridge from their time to our own.

The final story in the collection, "Pink Pyramid," takes place on the same land in a far distant future when almost all animals are extinct and "electronics control…even the wind, and the turning of the Earth." 

The story's unnamed male and female characters operate as a cross between scavengers and disaster tourists, drawing ever closer to the eponymous pyramid which houses the unextinguished fires of environmental endgame. In spite of their alien surroundings -- all life systems mechanized, all Earth soaked with poison -- these characters radiate a desire for connection, authenticity, and experience that is as familiar to a modern-day reader as it would have been to one of the Clovis boys at camp alongside their ancient river. 

In between, characters pack their windows against the dust of the 1930s, bury WWII's leaking munitions under the dry soil of the South Dakota plains, get engaged in snowstorms, set dogs on fire, attend their dying relatives, disregard their living children, and generally live the sort of brief, bloody, tender, or brutal lives they have always lived in a part of the world that both sustains and destroys with its implacable emptiness.

A poet, a translator, and more, Terese Svoboda has always engaged language as a tool of exploration. This new book shows how she does it.

Growing up in a family with nine children in Nebraska in the 1950s and 1960s, Svoboda, now lives in New York City.

Her enigmatic sentences, elliptical narratives, and percussive plots delve into the possibilities of form, genre, and plausible futures, but always with an eye on the vast subterranean psychologies of her all-too-real creations. 

The stories in this volume represent the author's take on the most challenging of subjects -- the survival of our species from its distant beginnings into the possible future.

And you might be wondering, as I was: where does "cli-fi" fit into some of the tales?

Terese tells me:

"Story titles that refer most specifically to climate change include: Camp Clovis,... Dutch Joe,... Dirty Thirties, ...Bomb Jockey,... Ogallala Aquifer, ...Pink Pyramid. "

''And what are some of the cli-fi underpinnings in these stories?'' I asked Terese.

Terese didn't miss a beat:

"Farmers invented climate fiction, stories that console or haunt or condemn them to the whims of the weather. Climate fiction for rest of us readers delivers the news that a little pitter patter isn't just backdrop to our lives, but a character that changes events and will change us."

2019 is shaping up to be a banner year for novels and short stories about climate change. ''Great American Desert'' joins the rising sea of climate fiction and will be published in March. It's Svoboda's 18th book.

''My book is a little doom-y but the characters are alive!" Terese told me in a parting shot.

Here's an earlier interview with Svoboda from 2015:


Btw, Terese will be doing a reading from the book in Chicago in April with cli-fi expert and professor Sarah Dimick.



Some word of mouth:

Tom McGuane: "Terese Svoboda has brought a poet's lyrical intensity and factual density to prose fiction, and writes like no one else." 

Karen Russell: "Great American Desert is a devious and extraordinary new collection of stories from one of our best writers.''

Michael Martone: "Terese Svoboda in her truly miraculous collection of alchemic fictions, 'Great American Desert,' conjures up and turns inside out that landscape of vast wastes, turning it into a teeming ecosystem of understatement. I'm blown away." 


A Guggenheim fellow, Terese Svoboda is the author of seven books of fiction, seven books of poetry, a prize-winning memoir, a book of translation from the Nuer, and a biography of the radical poet Lola Ridge.  The Bloomsbury Review writes that "Terese Svoboda is one of those writers you would be tempted to read regardless of the setting or the period or the plot or even the genre.”

The new book has already received a starred review in Kirkus Reviews.  Here’s what Michael Martone, author of Michael Martone, had to say about Great American Desert, “Terese Svoboda in her truly miraculous collection of alchemic fictions...conjures up and turns inside out that landscape of vast wastes, turning it into a teeming ecosystem of understatement.  This polished prose is bursting with serrated, smitten, sand sanded sentences that scour and wear us down and down.  This is work of sublime sublimation, crazed and cracked to let, yes, the light in.  A tome of tornadic abrasion. Read this as a new American Gothic where the endless flatness is not so much broken as broken open into utterly new dimensions. These stories grind gleefully, relentlessly, glacial texts on speed. I’m blown away.


Terese was born and raised in Nebraska. She attended local schools, then matriculated at Manhattanville College, the University of NebraskaMontreal Museum of Fine ArtsOxford UniversityStanford University, the University of Colorado, and the University of British Columbia, where she graduated with a B.F.A. in studio art and creative writing. Columbia University awarded her an M.F.A.

Terese is married to high-tech inventor Stephen Medaris Bull, and she is the mother of three children. They live in New York City.

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