An Interview with Mary Fifield & Kristin Thiel

Mary Fifield & Kristin Thiel are the editors of the anthology Fire & Water, Stories from the Anthropocene.

  1. Fire & Water is an anthology about climate change. What is climate change, what are its causes, and why does it deserve our attention?


We could give you lots of thoughts on climate change and its causes: the black-and-white (NASA’s definition of climate change); the inspirational (Greta Thunberg’s 2019 speech to the United Nations); and the humorous (but still oh so on target) (George Carlin’s “Saving the Planet”). Climate change is massive—existing across time and place. It’s part of the intersectional discussion, as its effects cross gender, race, and class lines, and mostly affect those already facing inequities. During the 2021 heat dome over western North America, climate change showed itself in a billion sea animals cooking to death off Vancouver, British Columbia, scientists estimate; climate change was also evident when one neighborhood in our hometown of Portland, Oregon, was twenty-five degrees hotter than another a mere ten miles away across town. Seeking out clear-headed information based on scientific research and findings is foundational. But specifically, Fire & Water: Stories from the Anthropocene is about humanity’s relationship with the changing climate—ways we have disrupted it and how we cope, or don’t, with the resulting destabilization and crisis for human civilization. The characters in these stories may feel distanced or close to the reader, but the stories are all intimate portrayals of human-environment interaction. And that inextricable link is why it deserves the attention of fiction writers and readers.


  1. In your preface, you use such terms as “climate crisis,” “climate destabilization,” and “climate disruption.” What insights do these terms provide into the realities of climate change?


These terms offer more precise language for what we’re experiencing. By speaking with exactness, we more accurately describe the situation and its magnitude, especially as we witness the scale and speed with which climate-induced disasters are happening.


  1. The word “Anthropocene” has grown in usage over the years. For those new to it, what does the word mean and why did you include it in the title of the anthology?


As we were brainstorming titles for this anthology, we were drawn to the word “Anthropocene,” which was coined by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene Stoermer to describe what is now widely considered a new geological epoch in which human activity is so significant that it is transforming the earth’s ecosystems. We also like this word because it reflects our belief that contemporary literary fiction writers and publishers have an artistic responsibility, and a powerful tool, to explore how a crisis of our making is affecting humans and other species in our current moment.


  1. One of the arguments of the anthology is that literary fiction can play a role in the fight against climate change. How can literary fiction contribute to such efforts? What about other art forms?


Literary fiction, reflecting the world as it is rather than a world that is imagined, helps correct one of our society’s most serious problems, our reluctance to fathom the breadth and depth of the climate crisis as we are living through it. Fire & Water speaks not only to those with the desire to tell stories but to all of us who need to read them.

We’re hardly alone. Artists in every medium are doing what artists have always done in the face of every crisis: using their work to explore, dissect, comment on, and imagine the climate crisis, its effects, and what our possibilities and opportunities are. They’re working on the individual or small-group and single-work or single-series scale, creating pieces that speak to the crisis. Artists are also working on the bigger picture, advocating for policy change and helping each other improve with sustainability audits.

We recently read a quote on the Oregon Public Broadcasting website by a wildfire incident commander. “Adjust your reality,” he said. He was telling his team to expect the unexpected from an unusually early fire in Oregon under unusually dry conditions. But that’s also what the realism of the fiction in Fire & Water is trying to do for readers—ask them to reconsider what’s right outside our windows and believe what’s changing, drastically, in our here and now.


  1. The stories in Fire & Water are set in a number of countries across multiple continents. What do these stories tell us about the global realities and challenges of climate change on macro and micro levels, for nations, regions, and individuals?

The climate crisis teaches us that human experiences (and those of other species) are myriad, multifaceted, and irreducible to the narrowly prescribed set of expectations that genres often impose. Even though the genre “climate fiction” is growing in popularity, there can be no one Thing with a capital “T” that constitutes fiction about climate disruption. Showing itself in different, and often inequitable, ways around the world, the climate crisis, and the stories about it, are too diverse to fit within one category, one region, or one group of people.

The stories in our anthology set the stage for readers to do the work of connecting the local to the global and the personal to the societal. For one character, repeated wildfires rip through his marriage and family life, exposing weaknesses in communication and understanding that have nothing and yet everything to do with the destabilizing world around him. For another group of characters, watching a family of thoughtless, entitled tourists destroy coral reefs and their own vacation brings a moment of schadenfreude, but ultimately there are no winners when the coral reefs die. Even the stories that are more allegorical or figurative invite the reader to take the material in and make meaning of it at the macro and micro levels.


  1. What roles can nations, corporations, regions, and individuals play in finding lasting solutions to the urgent issues clearly laid out in this anthology?


We’re glad that “individuals” is just one category in your list of responsible parties. Considering the depth and scale of the climate issues we face, at an increasing speed and with ever-worsening consequences, the change we absolutely need must happen on a much larger and more systemic scale. For example, one key change in business practice or policy would equal an immeasurable number of recycled cans by one person. But the things that individuals can do—recycling, consuming and investing ethically and efficiently, and participating in restorative activities (such as growing a garden of native plants)—are still important, not just because they contribute to the whole but because they keep each of us in the mindset to do more—and more, to do better. If we think to repurpose instead of to throw away, we are more likely to call on our government, religious, and cultural leaders to use their power to change systems that are destroying the climate and our home.

And this is one of the gifts of literary fiction—it invites us to take a topic as daunting and potentially paralyzing as the climate crisis, explore it in our interior lives, and manifest a different understanding that can actually catalyze exterior change. It can alchemize a change in consciousness.