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Author Chuck Collins answers questions about his debut novel, Altar to an Erupting Sun

Q: Why did you write Altar?


A: I had a story to tell and a character I wanted to develop (Rae Kelliher). I aspire to fictionalize meaningful social movements and explore ideas around death and dying, community resilience, and how to face the challenges of the “critical decade” ahead, including climate disruption.

Q: Are you concerned this book advocates violence?


A: I reject violent action as a moral or tactical consideration and try to dramatically portray the negative consequences of Rae’s choice, the significant personal costs to her loved ones and the political blowback.  I have attempted to fictionally depict someone’s realistic choice without condoning it.


Q: Are you implying that nonviolent action is unable to respond in this moment to the scale of crisis?


A: My fictional character Rae Kelliher has reached that point.  She believes that most efforts to avert climate change are failing because of the power of big oil and their capture of our political system. She thinks the global Paris Agreement and all the myriad solution efforts will be blocked or subverted by what she calls the “carbon barons” and “OIL-garchs.”  But she’s also becoming slightly unhinged at the end of her life as she confronts her own death. She believes her own body is under assault –both by cancer and industry-fueled climate change.  She views the fossil fuel industry as attacking her and her planet and she is acting in self-defense.


Q: While you say you reject violence as a strategy and depict negative blowback resulting from Rae’s murder of a fossil fuel executive, you also imply that her actions have a positive transformative impact.


A: Well, that is the speculative part of speculative fiction. Clearly my goal here is to be provocative about what is required to address the climate crisis.  I want readers to be shocked and even repulsed by Rae’s murder of a fossil fuel executive –but then to ask the question: what am I personally willing to do to save our one and only home, Mother Earth?


I was thrilled to have sci-fi great Kim Stanley Robinson write this endorsement for the book: “This is a very provocative book, dangerous in the way it makes us think hard about what we might need to do to save Earth’s biosphere, our only home, from a mass extinction event that is being caused not by all of us, but by some of us in positions of power. We have a wonderfully articulated rhetoric for arguments in words, but we don’t have a good rhetoric for actions in the world.  What would work best?  What would be morally justified in the fight for the Earth, our extended body?  These are the questions that Collins explores here, and as we live these urgent questions through his characters they tug at our hearts and minds.  We need more books like this one.


I would like to advance the “rhetoric for action.” I also want people to lazer focus on the truth that a powerful fossil fuel industry has used its power, wealth and influence to lock us into a trajectory of earth destruction.  This pushes past the “we all contribute to climate change” view to lay primary responsibility at the door of a small number of powerful industries and their leaders. And as Rae points out, they used their power to block alternatives, promote climate denial, muddy the science, and run out the clock. If the wider public –and our politicians –knew what Exxon knew in 1970, we would have responded differently and be in a very different situation, with more options today.  And as we are talking, these corporations continue to invest in new fossil fuel extraction that will blow us past any emission limits that real scientists have clearly stated are no go zones.

Q: What are the political implications of this understanding? (that a small but powerful industry has subverted democracy, knowingly destroyed our ecosystem, etc.)


A: We would appropriately treat them as we would an illegal global drug cartel.  Pass laws outlawing certain behaviors and actions, arrest lawbreakers, hold them to account. Seize their assets and prevent them from being consumed. Sever them from their corrosive political influence. Vote out their elected enablers. In the case where they are nation states (Saudi Arabia), sanction them and treat them as pariah states.   (More on this later!)


Q:  There are references in Altar to change happening in the wider society, but a large focus is about things that are happening locally in Rae and Reggie’s community in Vermont.  Why the focus on local action?


A: One of my intentions is to point to a positive future vision for how we can live in harmony with earth.  A lot of future fiction depicts a techno-dystopia or a wasteland “Bladerunner” or “Mad Max” future.  I wanted to depict a very different vision rooted in reconnecting with land, community connection, resilient practices, simplicity.  You will barely see a cell phone in this book, let alone any futuristic techno-gadget solutions to the climate change.  This is deliberate. I think that many people in the U.S. need to greatly simplify our lives and power down, dramatically reduce our consumption of fossil fuel and other resources (while others excluded from wealth and security, both globally and the U.S., should have more resources to have decent lives).


Q:  Most speculative fiction is a set farther out in the future.  Won’t your book be sort potentially be irrelevant and probably wrong in a couple years?


A: You are right.  Even Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future, is set over the next forty years showing a variety of possibilities for change.  There is a reason my book starts Easter 2023 and ends in 2030: this is the “critical decade” as they say in the climate debate. What we do in the next seven to ten years will determine the trajectory and fate of the planet.  So, being a “person in a hurry,” I wanted to envision what a pivot would look like in the near term. Risky, but hey.  And Rae Kelliher is a big believer of the power of manifestation, of creating a vision, setting an intention, and living into the change.  Here we go!


Q: This book is not explicitly religious, but you use title sections of the book “formation” and “discipleship” and at the end Reggie talks about Rae believing that their life at Hidden River Farm is the new discipleship.  What do you mean?


A: One of my hopes for this book is to point toward a modern sense of “spiritual formation” and “discipleship.” This is essentially a book about Rae’s formation –the experiences, people, books, ideas that shape her, starting as a young adult.  She is an intense and disciplined person…but also embodies joy and celebration. 


In the Christian tradition, “spiritual formation” is the process of inner transformation -- how we shape our lives to live, love and act, inspired by the radical life of Jesus.  It includes the practices, disciplines, and political actions that align ourselves with our higher truths.  I go easy on this, as some of my readers might be turned away by explicit Christian references, given the baggage accompanying organized religion.  And Christianity, with a few side exceptions, fails to incorporate a full ecological “we are one with nature” perspective that Rae believes.  For example, her view and practices around consumption and death and dying are rooted in this new spirituality. I do think we need an updated sense of “discipleship,” of what it means to live a life of meaning in harmony with the earth.


Part 1 is called “Formation” about her young adult formation. Part 5 is called “Discipleship” as they move to Vermont, witness the hurricane, and Rae’s decision to act.  At the final birthday observance, many years later, Reggie addresses the question: Was Rae a religious person? He says essentially, “in an earlier day, Rae would have been in religious life…a nun.”  She believed that the Hidden Springs Farm community is what the “new discipleship” would look like.


Q: It seems you’re also interested in new ways of thinking and rituals about death and dying –including the practice of building and keeping altars. What are you getting at here?


A: Rae believes that our cultural attitudes about death and dying are part of what keeps our society from facing realities, such as those around climate change. In one of my epigraph quotes…I quote Omar Torrijos, “If the people don’t look after the dead, they won’t look after the living.”  Rae believes we will act differently if we understand we are part of a great chain of life, that what comes before and after us are part of a great flow.  And that includes the keeping of an altar, observing anniversaries, and very different practices than what we have in our culture. The death “ministry” at the Hidden Springs Farm is an attempt to encourage new practices and rituals from celebrations of life while people are still alive (“livin’ shivas” as one character Rachel calls them), to green burials with willow-woven coffins, public “day of the dead” altars, etc.


Part of the significance of altars is how we honor our ancestors and the forces that shape us.  In many traditions –and mine is the Celtic Samhain (sort of the Irish “day of the dead”) –we are deeply connected to our ancestors and able to communicate with them (especially during the “thin time” around Halloween). I think part of how we face the future is to honor our elders and ancestors, to ask them for guidance, to understand the struggles they endured and draw sustenance and inspiration from them.


Q: You have a lot of real people, some of whom are living, as characters in this novel.  Why is that?  And how do they feel?


I may go overboard here. Rae is a bit of an “activist Forest Gump,” always showing up at historic moments or interacting with interesting people (that most people haven’t heard of…yet). 


Clearly one of my motivations for writing this fictional story was to lift up the lives and work of many real people and social movements. Think of this book as a personal altar to some important heroes and heroines, and the movements that have made a difference in our lives.


I know my own interest in history is sparked sometimes by historical fiction –where I’m drawn in and motivated to learn more.  That is certainly the case here (and that is very true about Rae, who goes on “learning binges” often inspired by fiction).


I would be thrilled if readers of all ages read this novel and said, “Did that really happen?” “Did Sam Lovejoy knock down a tower in real life?”  “Who are Wally and Juanita Nelson and what is their legacy?  Are Brian Willson and Norman Morrison real people?   And what is the history of the Clamshell Alliance and its efforts to stop nuclear power –and the efforts by ordinary citizens to stop the U.S. from invading Nicaragua in the 1980s?  Were they successful?


Q: The main characters in these stories are activists, people actively involved in organizing campaigns around anti-nukes, peace, and environmental struggles.  Is this unusual?


A: I live in this activist world and I rarely see it well-depicted in fiction.  There are many people who have a sense of agency and passion for change, working on racial and economic justice, environmental protection….  I’m stumped to think of any works of fiction that accurately represent their stories.  When they do show up, they are sort of cartoonish characterizations. And I realize that a character like Rae may not be attractive to all readers. She and other characters might remind them of the people they try to avoid at social events and family reunions. But the reality is organized people are who make history.  The Clamshell Alliance was part of stopping construction of nuclear power plants. The Pledge of Resistance helped stop a US invasion of Nicaragua.  Anti-pipeline activists are stopping new fossil fuel infrastructure from being built. 


If we want to fix the future, we’re going to have to engage with our neighbors and build social movements. Here’s the good news –there’s a whole world of people out there that are engaged –and I want to honor that world in this story.


Q: Is this book autobiographical?


A: P.D. James said “All fiction is largely autobiographical and much autobiography is, of course, fiction.”  I’ve drawn on my life experience since that’s all I’ve got.  But this is truly a work of fiction.  The most autobiographical section is Rae’s travels in Central America.  I cut a lot of onions at a Mexican soup kitchen after the 1985 earthquake.  I was also evicted from a FERC meeting in pretty much the exact way I depict it in the book.


There are some real people but they have been fictionalized.  And Rae is a composite of many amazing people I know, including the person I am married to.  But there is no single person that Rae is modeled after.


Q: Are there other books that influenced your book?


A: Yes. And books and ideas are influential in this book.  The protagonists even have a “transition book” club to consider the coming decades and inform their own choices (and I include a list without trying to be too annoying).  For some people, books are very influential in their lives, especially if they are stepping out of the social circles and norms they grew up in.  But there are limits to “book learning” and a lot of what we know comes from engaging with people, falling in love, riding buses in unknown lands, and engaging in conflict and contested movements.


I’ve read a lot of the new climate fiction genre which is really interesting and inspiring.  But I should say that first and foremost I’m a campaigner, a veteran organizer who thinks about human agency and how we can come together to make a difference.  And I’ve written this book in the same spirit that I might be part of a campaign to stop a pipeline or pass climate legislation.  This is one way that I’m similar to the protagonists in the book.  We are not passive leaves falling on the ground.


Q: You invoke The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey, which inspired eco-sabotage and the environmental organization, Earth First. Is this book in the spirit of The Monkey Wrench Gang?


A: I do deliberately invoke Abbey’s work. Abbey indirectly gave me permission to write fiction that may not be of the highest literary value but is aimed at influencing a conversation.  I’ve said, this is more “Monkey Wrench” than “Desert Solitaire” -Abbey’s more literary success. And close readers will note that Rae and Reggie’s dog Hayduke is named after one of Abbey’s main characters in The Monkey Wrench Gang.


Q: Most of the meaningful political changes will require wider public support for an energy transition away from fossil fuel and significant reductions in energy consumption.  In our current political environment, with our current Congress, how is this possible?


A: First, as we talk about solutions, you may not like what I’m going to say. Because there is no one-minute elevator speech or silver bullet.  I am a campaigner, a solutions-oriented person.  But I think a key ingredient to fixing the future is to understand how we got to where we are –and the ways of thinking and being that brought us here.  You can call it colonial, neo-liberal thinking, etc. But let’s keep it simple and look at the politics of energy, which drives so much.


When we look at the U.S. Congress today, we have to appreciate that we are looking at the end product of almost a century of industry manipulation and political capture.  When a powerful industry -oil, gas, coal – use their wealth and power to shape and warp our current political environment for over 70 years, this is what it looks like.  This industry intentionally thrust energy issues into the U.S. political culture war logjam of the present moment. This industry has effectively captured one major political party and neutralized the other from effective action.  The industry groups funded campaigns to block renewable energy alternatives.  They funded climate denier think tanks and political leaders to manipulate public opinion.


In the novel, Rae goes to a meeting at FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) and says, “I have met the authoritarian fist of US energy policy.”  It is an entirely captured regulatory industry and has been since it was created in the 1930s.  They’ve written the rules and the laws.  Take away decades of warping and manipulating politics and public opinion – and the fear-mongering of “the enviros are going to take away your 12-mile per gallon vehicle” –and we have a pretty different political environment with wholly new possibilities for popular change.  It’s hard to imagine a political system uncorrupted by their power -but that’s where we need to go.  A separation of oil and state.  Once we understand that, there’s an entire program of changes that needs to be implemented.  We pretty much know what needs to be done.


Q: Most action in today’s political environment seems futile.


A: Rae Kelliher’s advice is: Prepare for the moment, prepare for the trigger events that are coming.  In Altar, Rae has this important experience in her youth.  She is campaigning against the construction of nuclear power plants.  It is 1973 and the US is having an energy crisis and there are plans to build 200 nuclear power plants. She is involved in a don quixote type campaign to stop two power plants in New England. They are organizing, agitating, educating, lobbying but not much is changing.  Then boom, the accident at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant happens and their campaigning takes off.  And no new nuclear power plant licenses are granted for decades. They win big changes.  Rae and Reggie are then part of a meaningful movements to stop direct U.S. invasion of Nicaragua in the 1980s, shut down the School of Americas in the 1990s, stop evictions in her neighborhood, and unsuccessfully stop construction of a fracked gas pipeline Boston. She’s part of these experiences that win and lose but inform her sense of the importance of movement building in preparation for trigger and transformational events.


In The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR), the trigger event is a horrific heat wave that kills an estimated 20 million people in India.  This galvanizes the world to address climate disruption and ecological destruction –and gives spark to a global agency formed after the fictionalize failure of the Paris Agreement called the Ministry for the Future.  Decades ensue where people debate and implement a variety of tactics.  And in KSR’s fictional future, humanity turns the corner.  It’s a vision worth considering.


We are living through a pandemic, but this is just the one manifestation of several polycrisis (ecological, economic, political) that will keep whacking humanity over the head until we either go extinct or figure out how to live in harmony with the earth and one another.  Each month, we will be offered up new disasters, new “trigger events” at the local, regional and global level: fire, flood, drought, famine, disease…the proverbial four horseman. We will be presented with innumerable opportunities to wake up and advance needed changes.

Q:  Are you going to write more fiction?


A:  Nope. I don’t think of myself as a fiction writer. I just had this story I wanted to tell and as you can tell, I have an agenda.  Before March 2022, no part of this book existed.  I wrote it in two and half months.  It did go through some excellent editing (thank you Rose and Mike and many friendly readers!). And my editors had a lot of suggestions as to how to make this an even better enduring work of fiction. If I was a youthful aspiring literati, I might have pursued these suggestions. But I was like, ah, I’m not going to spend another year or two on this.  We don’t have a lot of time.  I’m a campaigner, organizer and an activist, writing a book to engage people and make a few key points.  I need to get back in my lane –which is campaigning and organizing.

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