SciFi Wire – M.M. Buckner Interview
Please talk about the genesis of WATERMIND, how you came to write it, where the idea came from, etc.
For many years, I’ve worked with environmental organizations to help protect water. Watersheds, wetlands, aquifers, rivers and streams, lakes, oceans, I’ve supported these groups with time and money. I’m a scuba diver as well as a certified instructor of both whitewater and sea kayaking. Any water activity, I love it. Water is the stuff of life.
Naturally, with such an interest, I was drawn to the idea of a water-based science story. When I began to read about the Mississippi River – the size of its drainage area, the tonnage of pollution it carries, and the complex manmade structures built to control its flow, well, that inspired me.
Then when I discovered Devil’s Swamp with its long history of toxic dumping, murdered bodies, birth defects, ghosts – you can see, that place is a writer’s dream. Next, I found the Bonnet Carré Spillway, the beautiful green strip of parkland used about once every decade to shunt Mississippi floods through Lake Pontchartrain and out to the open Gulf, into a polluted dead zone the size of New Jersey. After that, the story just sort of wrote itself.
Did the writing of this book present you with any significant challenges (i.e., was it particularly difficult to write, or did you have to do a lot of research, etc.)? If so, please tell me about that.
I like to give myself writing challenges. From a craft standpoint, I wanted to experiment with omniscient point of view. You’ll see right away in Chapter One, the POV alternates from one character to the other. That’s something writing teachers tell you not to try, so of course, I had to do it. I worked hard to make it smooth, and I learned a lot. Of course, there’s always more to learn about writing.
Also, this book has a fairly large cast of characters, each with different skill sets. I have scientists, regulatory agents, news reporters, musicians, hazardous cleanup workers, corporate executives and many others. Dealing with that diverse cast was quite a challenge, and again, I learned a lot from the experience.
Another challenge was my choice to set WATERMIND in the present. My previous three novels were set in the future. A present-day setting requires factual descriptions of real places, knowledge of government agencies, shipping channels, river vessels, and a decent grounding in available technology. The research was much more involved and detailed.
Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?
My belief is that all lifeforms have a purpose. In us humans, it takes the form of an irresistible drive, something we might call passion. My passions are to learn, to create and to feel. So I give these passions to my characters – then I see what happens. Of course, my characters are very different from me. Their backgrounds and personal traits are all fictional. They come alive in the process of writing. I’m constantly surprised by what they decide to do. They teach me.
Also, I feel a reference for what we call “the environment.” But it’s not something far away in the wilderness. It’s everything. Every speck of matter in the universe – from dark energy to the bacteria living under your tongue. I grieve at how we humans are altering our world, making it more ugly, less wholesome. But I know we are a force of nature, too. We do not stand outside. We’re just doing what comes naturally. Writing WATERMIND was a way for me to explore ideas about man’s relationship to nature. I’m sure that exploration is not yet finished.
What kind of research did you have to do for the book?
Researching this book was a joy, but it did take quite a while. First, I read many books and articles. Then I traveled through the area, talked to locals, walked over all the main sites and took photos. I couldn’t enter Devil’s Swamp though – I had to use a fly-over web site to see it from above. It’s a real place, you’ll find it on the map.
But it’s a toxic EPA Superfund site with a long notorious history. Most of what you read about Devil’s Swamp in my novel is literally true. The Bonnet Carré Spillway is also real, but it’s a beautiful park. The ranger, Skip Jacobs, was immensely helpful. He showed me a video of the last time the Spillway was opened to divert Mississippi floodwaters, and those images inspired the climax scenes in my novel. I also read Creole cookbooks and dictionaries, and I listened to quite a bit of zydeco music. As I said, the research was a true pleasure.
Tell me a bit about the technology and science and/or worldbuilding used in the novel (if you didn’t cover that above).
The world of WATERMIND is a real place, so all I had to do was discover it. Southern Louisiana is beautiful, a rich savory melting pot. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the place and some of the people, then describing them in my pages.
The science in WATERMIND is especially fascinating because it’s real. Advances in chemical engineering, genetic modification and micro/nano-technology are changing our world faster than most people realize. Add to that our uncontrolled pollution – and kaboom!
The novel also involves aquatic biology, electromagnetic radiation, meteorology, and musicology – not to mention Creole cooking. It was total fun to write. I’m not a professional scientist, so my novel is not meant as a factual treatise. I do hope it may inspire some readers to go out and learn more.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m currently finalizing my fifth novel, THE GRAVITY PILOT, under contract with Tor. We hope this will come out in 2009. This novel unfolds in the mid 21st century in the Pacific Northwest, mainly Alaska and Seattle. Pollution and climate change have driven people into subterranean cities, where they turn away from nature and focus on web-based activities. The Gravity Pilot is a rare young skydiver who still loves the outdoors. Wearing special gear, he dives from the stratosphere, then later from the ionosphere. However, his girlfriend becomes addicted to the web, so he must give up the sky and go underground to search for her. This is a futuristic retelling of the Orpheus myth. There are lots of skydive scenes, and as part of my research, I made a skydive myself. Wow, I couldn’t stop smiling for days.
Also, I’m thrilled to announce that my first three novels will be re-released in 2009 by E-Reads. They’ll be available for download to a Kindle, Sony or other bookreader, and they’ll also be available in print. They are HYPERTHOUGHT, THE COIN GIVER (originally published as Neurolink), and WAR SURF, the winner of the Philip K. Dick Award. I’m very excited about the new electronic formats. E-books not only save trees. They also save fossil fuel shipping, and they cost less. I think e-books will soon revolutionize the publishing industry.