In August 2020 we chatted with Doreen Vanderstoop, author of the brilliantly heart-rending Watershed, a fictional look at Alberta’s parched-climate future that could be right around the corner. Below is a transcript of the twitter interaction, edited for maximum blog-readability. To interact with the original thread, click here.
WOTS: This is your first book, congratulations! As a work of climate fiction, this might be a bit obvious, but we’re curious: what inspired you to write Watershed?
Doreen Vanderstoop: Thanks, Maya! So great to be with you! You’re right—the cli-fi genre says it all, but at its core, this is a story about family and what extreme external stressors can do to family dynamics. As far as extreme external stressors go, climate change is right up there.
In 2015, Margaret Atwood attended a literary festival and asked, Where are all the Canadian writers who should be addressing climate change—the greatest crisis of our age? That was a clarion call that said to me, Watershed is an important story and you need to get it done. Atwood’s Maddaddam series paints a picture of a world altered by human negligence. Human negligence leads to the circumstances in Watershed in 2058 Alberta. I’m grateful to Margaret Atwood for the nudge and to Freehand Books for seeing value in this story.
WOTS: Watershed flips the picture of Alberta from an oil-rich province to a water-poor province—how have readers in Alberta (& elsewhere) responded to this imagining?
DV: Yes my beloved home province takes a beating in Watershed. Water scientist Bob Sandford was skeptical about the transformation of N. AB from oil sands tailings dumping ground to a bastion of environmental renewal but added, why not, it’s a novel after all. Renowned scientist David Schindler actually chuckled at the prospect of oil pipelines carrying water and a reversal of the flow from AB to AB. Other readers told me they now see their tap water in a whole new grateful light. I can’t ask for better reviews than that!
WOTS: This is the freedom fiction gives us! To imagine & inspire a new way of thinking about problems.
DV: Right! The place where truth and imagination converge. I think Stephen Hawking said that but don’t quote me. Did a quick search… Hawking said eventually truth and imagination arrive at the same conclusion.
WOTS: The two main protagonists, Willa and Daniel, are fighting for the same dream from different approaches. Why was it important to illustrate this generational divide?
DV: There is definitely a generational divide in this story, as you say. Willa and Daniel have very different dreams and are really stuck in them, as we often get stuck in our own points of view. But there’s another divide there too – the divide between the macro and the micro… 1/A big picture approach can lead to great change ie Daniel’s dream. But what we do in our own day-to-day lives ie Willa’s dream – also impacts the world. Watershed explores the tension between the two, but, ultimately, I think it’s important to see the value in both.
WOTS: No spoilers, for those who haven’t picked up a copy, but the way you resolve / braid these two perspectives by the end of the book had us in tears.
DV: Seems a little cruel but that’s music to my ears!
WOTS: You are also a professional teller, in what ways do you find your storytelling practice folds into your writing practice?
DV: I love that you asked me this. You have a thriving storytelling culture in Toronto (@storytellingTO), which is fantastic! For me, the two practices inform each other. The writing is my foundation for the oral story eg story arc, how detailed the descriptions will be, etc. Then the oral story comes off the page in rehearsing it and that’s where it gets massaged and honed in the repeated telling. Conversely, I try to add the immediacy of the oral tradition and its sharp focus on getting to the heart of the story into my writing.
WOTS: That sounds like a very holistic approach to making sure each part of the process flows – and yes, we love working with the folks at Storytelling Toronto!
DV: I figured you probably knew each other!
WOTS: What are some of your writing rituals, and what inspires you when you feel blocked?
DV: Well, you’ll often find me at my computer between midnight and 3 am! When the whole world feels quiet and I have the house and my head all to myself. I don’t have a lot of writing rituals but I do love to read a bit of poetry before I sit down to write. The language of poetry is incredibly rich and spare and isn’t that what all good writing should be?! Two of my favourites: Micheline Maylor-Kovitz and Amy Leblanc. The way their vivid imagery drills down into the desire and pain and heart of being human is truly awe-inspiring.
WOTS: Your landscape descriptions in the book were particularly poetic, and now we know why!
DV: Haha, high praise! Thanks! To be honest, I’m not a fan of the word “blocked.” It sounds so boxed-in and I don’t think it has to feel that way. If I stall, it’s often because I need to explore a topic or character or plot point. So I might do research or read or go hiking or do a writing exercise.
WOTS: More of a drilling down, pardon the pun, than a breaking out of a box. That’s a great way of reorganizing that feeling, and turning it into something productive!
WOTS: Who is in your current to-be-read pile?
DV: I never seem to have enough time to read but I have about 5 books on my nightstand at any given time that I can’t wait to get to. And a few books on the go at once in different forms— usually one paper or e-book for before bed and one audio book for my walks… I’m re-listening to Margaret Atwood’s The Year Of The Flood right now and reading A Mind Spread Out On The Ground by Alicia Elliot. Next in my stack is Motorcycles & Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor. Also in the pile: Five Little Indians by Michelle Good and my brilliant scientist friend Bob Sandford’s The Anthropocene Disruption. Bob has a hopeful proactive eye on the future, which is a nice counterpoint to dystopia, actual and literary.
WOTS: This is a great list! Thanks for sharing. Our final question is upon us: what are you working on next?
DV: My life right now is filled with oral stories and making sure we value the stories of our seniors. I am President of Storytelling Alberta and we are working on a project called StoryShare. We bring stories to isolated seniors and hear theirs in return if they like. It’s been incredibly rewarding, and we’ve recorded some of the seniors’ stories and posted them on our Storytelling Alberta YouTube channel. I recently had an 88-year-old gentleman read me two chapters of his as-yet unpublished novel. Never too late to be creative, right!?
Beyond that, this fall, I intend to dive into my next novel that will look back in time instead of forward. As far as genres go, historical fiction is right up there with cli-fi in my view. Thanks for the chat. So fun!!
WOTS: Thank you, Doreen! We look forward to following your work with Storytelling Alberta, and will be on the lookout for book #2!