I first came across Tara Campbell's writing when we both had stories in the Dear Robot anthology (see my "Story Behind the Story" post about that anthology here). Her epistolary Dear Robot story, "Nickerson Interstellar Student Exchange Behavioral Contract," is brilliant, so I'm sure her newly released novel, TreeVolution will be brilliant as well. It's about genetically modified trees who start attacking people in what the book's description calls "a little eco-payback."
In this week's interview, Tara Campbell talks with me about her path to publication, eco-sci-fi, and asking "what if?" questions.
Sarena Ulibarri: In a nutshell, what was the path from manuscript to publication for TreeVolution?
Tara Campbell: It was a little over three years between the initial idea for TreeVolution and having the book in my hands. I wrote for a year and edited for another year. I thought it was ready after that round of edits and started shopping it around to agents. Turns out it wasn't ready, so I did an additional round of edits the third year and widened the query net from just agents to small presses as well. Then Carrol Fix, my editor from Lillicat Publishers, got what I was doing and took the project on!
SU: What advice do you have for young writers struggling through the first draft of a science fiction novel?
TC: I started with short stories before I ever thought of writing a novel. I found that writing stories was a way to keep myself motivated with while slogging away on the longer-term project. With stories, you have a sense of accomplishment finishing them, and you can workshop a discrete project, which informs your writing on the larger project. And you have the relatively instant gratification of publishing stories in journals while you're still working on the novel. Additionally, taking a break from the longer work always helped me to go back and see it more objectively, to cut what I needed to cut and, more importantly, to show me that it wasn't really the disaster I thought it was when I got frustrated with it.
SU: I know writers (especially those in the “literary” or “cross-genre” camp) don’t always like to put labels on their work, but how do you feel TreeVolution fits into recent ecologically-aware subgenres such as Solarpunk (i.e. the Sunvault anthology), Eco-Weird (i.e. Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy) or Cli Fi (i.e. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi)?
TC: I tend to read across genres, and to be honest, have only recently come back to science fiction after a long hiatus. I didn't set out to write in a specific genre, I really just followed questions that intrigued me. In terms of TreeVolution, the impetus was a radio segment about a team of French scientists who had devised a way to listen in on the circulatory system of trees, and could detect when a tree was not getting enough water before any visible signs of distress appeared. I started wondering what else the trees would tell us if we could understand them, and the research into plants and trees was so fascinating, I had to write about it. I guess if one had to label it, one could call it near-future eco-sci-fi. The focus is not so much on the future, but on the point at which we decide what kind of future we're going to have. Will the environment be our antagonist or our ally?
SU: You’ve published quite a lot of short fiction! How does the writing process differ for you when you’re writing short versus when you’re writing long?
TC: I think short stories are more forgiving of my writing process, which is usually to start with a "what if?" and spin out all of the ways that thing could have happened, as well as the pros and cons now that it has happened. Like what if flowers could talk? Or what if humans found a way to get nutrients from chlorophyll instead of food? Or what if the last Gashlycrumb Tiny lived? Many writers start with an outline, especially with novels, but I'm more of a "pantser." I like to take that voice or phrase that pops into my mind, like "Death sure changes a person," and think about what that could actually mean. I can just let go and follow the breadcrumbs when I'm writing something short, but writing a novel requires a larger question and a lot more planning.
SU: What books, authors, or films influenced you while writing TreeVolution?
TC: You know, I actually looked for books that were similar to what I was doing, but many of them featured dystopian wastelands or were written from a scientist's point of view, or went into the fantasy realm of Tolkein's Ents. I wanted to imagine how a transformation in the way humans interact with the environment would impact every day people. Of course there are scientists in my book, because my characters are looking for fact-based answers, but they are discovering them along with the general public rather than being the experts with all the answers. I like the idea that a relative layperson is having to get up to speed on these complex issues in the face of a looming crisis, because we all are. In that spirit, I've included a list of resources in the back of the book, lists of some of the articles I used to try to get a handle on the topic of communication between plants and trees, genetic modification and other experimentation with plants and trees. It was sometimes hard to get out of the articles and keep writing!
SU: Do you have any readings or signings coming up? Where can readers find you?
TC: Yes, thank you for asking, I have a few appearances coming up in the Washington, DC area over the next few months. I have about one reading a month on the calendar, and I'm thrilled that TreeVolution has been selected as the featured novel for Barrelhouse's Conversations and Connections conference in April. In fact, I've finally gotten organized enough to list my appearances on my website.
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With a BA in English and an MA in German, Tara Campbell has a demonstrated aversion to money and power. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she has also lived in Oregon, Ohio, New York, Germany and Austria. She currently lives in Washington, D.C. where she volunteers with 826DC and the Washington Writers Conference/Books Alive. She was the grateful recipient of two awards from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities in 2016: the 33rd Annual Larry Neal Writers' Award in Adult Fiction, and the 31st Annual Mayor's Arts Award for Outstanding New Artist.