YA Guy: Welcome to the blog, Austin! Can you tell us about your debut, THE ISLANDS AT THE END OF THE WORLD?
Austin Aslan: Hi, YA Guy! Thanks for inviting me onto your blog. I’m excited to be here. ISLANDS AT THE END OF THE WORLD is a young adult disaster/survival novel with science-fiction elements. The story involves a catastrophic global blackout, but it takes place entirely on the Hawaiian Islands. It’s about a 16 year-old girl named Leilani who is half white, half Hawaiian. She lives on the Big Island, but she and her father are on the island of Oahu when the global blackout happens. The islands are suddenly thrust into darkness and isolation. No one knows what’s going on. As days without electricity, without airplane travel, and without food/gas shipments turn to weeks, tensions grow, hunger sets in, and the situation on the islands becomes desperate and violent. Lei and her dad set off on their own to get home to the Big Island by any means necessary. A lot of crazy things happen in this book, and there are some cool science-fiction things going on, too, but this novel is really about a strong father/daughter relationship that’s strained to the limits on a dangerous journey to get back home to family.
YAG: Let's explore the science (fiction) elements of the book a bit. Many writers won’t touch science with a ten foot pole, but I read that you’ve got a Masters degree in Tropical Conservation Biology. How does your science background gel with your literary pursuits?
AA: I lived in Hilo (pronounced HEE-lo), on the Big Island, when I was getting my Masters degree in Tropical Conservation Biology. My field sites were high up on the forested slopes of Mauna Loa Volcano. I was coming home from a rainy day of doing pollination experiments with rare Hawaiian flowers and I drove down through the clouds and suddenly had a great, clear view of the ocean surrounding the island. I was struck by how alone and isolated the Hawaiian Islands were (this is something that people in Hawaii think about frequently, and it wasn’t a new thought for me, either). The idea popped into my head that it would be really interesting to set a post-apocalyptic story on the isolated Hawaiian Islands, and the story and characters just started flowing out of me like lava!
My masters program and my background in science helped me immensely in the writing of my book, mostly in terms of identifying the powerful themes of interdependence and sustainability, which undergird the entire story. While my background helped to steer the book in certain thematic directions, I didn’t allow the scientist in me to overpower the story that I was telling. I wanted to keep my training out of the way of the narrative that was unfolding as best I could. The quickest way to kill a good plot and deaden great characters is to start using them as bullhorns for specific agendas. My main character is a 16-year-old girl. It wouldn’t make sense for her to feel and sound like a scientist. I was able to use Leilani’s father (who is a professor of ecology at UH-Hilo) as my nearest proxy for letting my science background show through. However, I was still intentionally careful not to abuse that conduit. I’m lucky, because I think most general “scientist” can’t de-couple their training from their voice, and that’s why there are so few successful scientist-novelists. I hope I can be one.
YAG: That's an interesting note about Lei's father and his relationship to you as author. ISLANDS has been characterized as an “eco-thriller.” Does that work for you?
AA: This is a great question. I honestly wasn’t so sure about the “eco-thriller” label at first, but I quickly embraced it nonetheless. I had never heard this term when I wrote the novel, so I certainly wasn’t writing with this designation in mind. I’m still not 100% sure what the label means, actually, but to the extent that it might entail a plotline that is driven by, or affected by, a problem or crisis involving the natural world, I suppose ISLANDS can loosely be defined this way. The Hawaiian Islands are more of a character than they are a set of places in this book. And the islands are innately imbued with such a great natural presence that any crisis involving them will evoke “eco-thriller” sentiments. In many ways this book channels a “Human vs Nature” dynamic, but I balk just a little bit with the “eco” aspect because this story and the disaster that sets the plot in motion aren’t caused by, or motivated by, nature per se. Geography and poor human planning are the culprits.
When I set out to write ISLANDS, I thought to myself, “Everybody knows what happens at the end of the world in New York and LA, but what would a global disaster mean for Islanders?” 95% of Hawaii’s food is imported every day. Ninety-five percent! The islands are home to 1.5 million people. If things got tough there, what would they eat? Where would they flee?
I have an even harder time with co-opting the term “Cli-Fi” for this novel. Climate and weather and global warming and climate change have nothing to do with this story. However, at its heart, ISLANDS is a cautionary tale about human hubris and too much reliance on technology and globalization to make our world work, and it begs for a new vision for a Hawaii that is much more self-sustaining and locally-operated than it currently is.
YAG: You seem to be drawn to unique and challenging physical locations, in both life and art. I know you've left Hawaii and are now living in Arizona. Can we expect a desert book from you in the future?
AA: As a matter of fact, you can! I have just begun a middle grade project that will display the Sonoran Desert as predominantly as the Hawaiian landscape was displayed in ISLANDS. I wonder if this will be one of my “shticks” as an author. Setting is put forth as an important character in all of my novels. I’m even sitting on a high fantasy epic that basically takes place not in medieval Europe, but in varied landscapes of colonial Central America. The places and the cultures and the cuisine and the climate all very much mirror my experiences as a Peace Corp Volunteer living in an isolated, high-elevation Honduran cloud forest from 2001-2004. The natural world really does come alive in all of my projects, and while this pattern was never intentional or deliberate, it doesn’t surprise me one bit that it has become a constant thread in my writing.
YAG: One last question, and it flows naturally from what you just said. You and I are fiction writers, not politicians or pundits. What’s the role, if any, of fiction in calling attention to environmental issues and problems?
AA: Last question? Dang, YA Guy! You’re like Colombo turning back to his murder suspect at the end of a conversation and saying, “Oh, just one more thing…I know how you killed the victim!” One last question, my tush! This is a HUGE question! I just took a whole graduate-level course this spring on the subject of Science Communication. We barely scratched the surface and we certainly came to no consensus! The brief answer, from my perspective, is that fiction writers have a GINORMOUS role in calling attention to environmental issues.
Here’s the deal: most scientists are actually very uncomfortable taking a stand on any issue. Most scientists want to generate data and conduct experiments and solve mysteries and answer questions—and they want to stop right there. The moment they’re asked to place a value judgment on a finding, or take sides in a political debate, they get very squeamish. Most scientists (too many, in my view) abdicate their responsibility to call for action when their findings demand attention. They’ll leave that work to others, to “boundary organizations” and “advocates” and “non-profits” and “activists.” But many of these groups don’t have loud enough voices or strong enough followings to gain critical momentum on issues. This is where popular entertainers like novelists or movie directors and their ilk can step in and carry weight that would otherwise be very heavy lifting for grassroots advocates.
Stories are POWERFUL. Storytelling is how people listen and learn new things. Data and facts and figures go in one ear and right out the other. These days, we’re all so hardwired to reinforce things we already “know” and to ignore anyone saying something that contradicts our “knowledge” and our personal experiences. But here’s the key: storytelling adds to our personal experiences! Without knowing it, we absorb and assimilate what other people and characters are going through. So, yeah, we novelists have a disproportionate share of the burden in calling attention to issues, whether they be environmental or social or cultural or whatever. The key is for our ideas to infiltrate critical minds in the smoothest possible way. As I mentioned above, I think that’s best done not by proclaiming the facts and the truth as we know them, but by getting out of the way of our own training and allowing our stories to speak for themselves, out of the vast array of experiences that our readers already carry with them when they turn to a story.
YAG: Thanks for being on the blog, Austin! Readers, if you want to learn more about Austin Aslan and his writing, here’s where to go:
Also, please follow me on Twitter: @Laustinspace
and Facebook: www.facebook.com/authoraustinaslan
and my blog: www.laustinspace.wordpress.com