Alissa York is the author of three previous novels, including Fauna, Effigy
(short-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize) and Mercy
. York is also the author of the short story collection Any Given Power
, whose stories have won both the Journey Prize and the Bronwen Wallace Award. The Naturalist tells the story of an expedition to the Amazon in the mid-1800s by a trio -- Rachel, Iris and Paul -- who embark on the trip despite the death of the naturalist patriarch who planned it.
“The role of this book is to contribute to the side of the struggle that is helping people to be alive and awake as opposed to being the walking dead.”
MW: Was removing this patriarch something that you knew would happen from the start?
AY: It came to me later actually. The sources I was using included these accounts of 19th-century naturalists who were absolutely fascinating to me and I began to develop my own naturalist -- and at the same time this other kind of shadow naturalist started to grow up and claim space for herself … I was interested in not only how grief was working for that trio but also what parts of them could develop and evolve given that space when he was removed from the mix.
MW: Where did your fascination with the natural world come from?
AY: My childhood in Northern Alberta is a big part of it. My parents came from Australia to Northern Alberta. As small kids, we spent a lot of time in nature and I also grew up with a lot of stories about Australian nature … animals loomed large in the stories I grew up with.
MW: How did you end up doing research along the Rio Negro?
AY: I was applying for the Chalmers Fellowship which is given out to artists of all kinds in Ontario for artists to really stretch and grow. When I asked myself that question the answer that immediately came back was the Amazon.
MW: What kind of writing did you do on the boat?
AY: I was taking notes and ideas for scenes, noting down what I was thinking about, what was catching my eye and ear and asking a lot of questions to my guide. I did a lot of staring into the jungle…
MW: What was the most striking thing you saw?
AY: Our guide took us to see a gargantuan bird-eating tarantula. He lured it up out of its den with a little piece of raw chicken and I could marvel at it because I was far enough away from it. If one of those jumped on me I would completely lose it, but I could marvel at how huge and beautiful it was.
We weren’t in primeval forest that has never been cut, but even the secondary jungle –at the center of biodiversity on the planet-- you do have this pulsing sense of life force around you everywhere so that I was really delighted to see that that is still there in spite of everything that we humans have done.
MW: What is the role of a book like this in the context of climate change?
AY: I feel like the role of this book and maybe everything I’ve ever written is to contribute to the side of the struggle that is helping people to be alive and awake as opposed to being the walking dead; to be connected to themselves and the world around them. For me one of the major sources that I draw on for that sense of connection -- but also for hope -- is art, be it literary or otherwise. More specifically with The Naturalist, there is an arc that happens for Rachel where she starts by being the old kind of naturalist, where the eye of the naturalist is something separate from the specimen, and she moves toward a place of living-with rather than living-over these creatures.
Don’t miss the rest of the interview, where Alissa discusses more on climate change, how she pieces together a novel, and what her writing routine is like on OUR PODCAST.