Caroline Ailanthus: Antioch graduate blends fact and fiction to create post-apocalyptic novel
Growing up surrounded by a family and community of writers, Caroline Ailanthus began writing and taking her craft seriously at an early age.
“My parents are both writers, storytellers, and avid readers, as are most of their friends, so it simply felt natural to engage with words in one way or another,” Ailanthus says.
As Ailanthus continued to develop her skills as a writer, she began to understand that craft wasn’t enough. As she entered university as an undergraduate, she knew she wanted to explore different interests and areas of study.
“As to how I ended up with an education in environmental science,” Ailanthus says, “suffice it to say that knowing how to communicate is not enough; one also must have something to say.”
As an undergrad, Ailanthus pursued self-designed studies in environmental science, psychology, and philosophy. When she learned that two of the more helpful authors she’d studied had both taught at Antioch, she became interested in the school.
“Creative writing is both like and unlike scholarly writing,” Ailanthus says. “The process of figuring out what to say is very different, as are the things that can be said—the two have very different cultural roles. And yet in how to write, how to get the message across, there is no difference.”
Ailanthus has always been a writer and has produced both scholarly and creative work, including two books. In Ailanthus’s own words, her latest novel, Ecological Memory, is “part scientific detective story, part post-apocalyptic travelogue.”
In Ecological Memory, Ailanthus grapples with the state of the environment and the very real situation of climate change, which we all face. Ailanthus understands the implications that a writer faces when writing about a topic like climate change. In the end, she believes that it boils down to the same ethical responsibility a writer carries when tackling any subject: the truth.
“I don’t mean factual accuracy, which the fiction writer is free to take or leave. I mean honesty with respect to cause and effect,” she says. “You can joke, you can play let’s pretend, you can use symbols and allegories, and you can simplify or obfuscate as you wish, but you can’t lie, not when you are attempting to add something to the culture, which is the awesome thing writers dare to do.”
In Ecological Memory, Ailanthus speaks the truth of climate change, and her background in environmental science helps her articulate those realities with authority. Centered around two characters, Elzy Rodriguez and Andy Cote, Ailanthus’s work deals with a future that is all too near. Yet, Ecological Memory resists categorization as a speculative novel.
“The point was never to play ‘what if,'” Ailanthus explains, “The point (or one of them) was to explore certain foundational principles through narrative—and above all to show science from the inside, the way scientists themselves see it.”
Unlike a lot of eco-fiction on the market right now, the defining characteristic of Ecological Memory is that it is not dystopian. After surviving the collapse, Elzy and Andy attempt to search for Elzy’s lost childhood home. Along the way, they must learn to deal with the traumas that followed them from the old world.
“My vision is distinctly optimistic,” she says. “In a way, the two [characters] bear complimentary wounds. Can they help each other find peace?”
More than revealing the bleak realities of climate change, Ailanthus’s novel is a story about friendship and hope. Along the way, Ailanthus explores the friendship which develops between her two lead characters. In many ways, Elzy and Andy’s connection subverts the tired and cliche narratives of female/male and teacher/student relationships.
“I have heard so many times that men can’t be ‘just’ friends with women and that professors can’t be friends with their students or even former students, yet most of my friends are men, my former professors, or both. I guess I just got tired of being told my friendships don’t exist. I issued a rebuttal.”
Salt Water Media published Ecological Memory in June 2019. On October 14, 2019, Ailanthus came back to Antioch’s New England campus to celebrate the release of her second novel with a book launch party. Ailanthus’s good friend and mentor Rowland Russell hosted the celebration, which included a reading by Ailanthus herself. The gathering was warm and friendly, exactly what Ailanthus expected.
As for what is next for Ailanthus, she is not sure. With her background in science, she questions how much further into the future she can look realistically.
“There’s the question of how much longer this unsustainable civilization of ours will last and what comes next,” she says. “Write a book about the end of civilization and questions like ‘where do you see yourself in ten years’ start to sound odd….”
For more information about Caroline Ailanthus and her work, visit her blog.