“Metaphor Offers the Promise to Move Us”: A Conversation with Nicole Walker, Author of Sustainability: A Love Story

by Kay Keegan

KK: In your essay “On Beauty,” the narrator observes that Michel de Montaigne inadvertently uses the concept of beauty to stitch together his vast collection of essays. When you were writing Sustainability: A Love Story, when did you discover that love would be one of the most prevalent themes in your braided collection and how did that influence your writing on the environment and sustainability as a result? (Or, was love a constraint you gave yourself at the beginning of the drafting process? Why?)

NW: I have to admit, I mean “love story” almost as tongue-in-cheekily as I mean Sustainability. My favorite band from college, NoMeansNo had a line in a song, “Real Love, on a sunny day, is a crow on a telephone with something to say. And if you feel like someone has just walked on your grave, that’s real love.” I don’t have a particularly fuzzy feeling about love or sustainability. In the second essay in the book, I spin a list of potential definitions for sustainability. To some, sustainability means being vegan, riding your bike, investing in solar panels. To others, it means sustaining the cleanliness of your rocks by vacuuming them. I write “what’s sustainable to the crawdad isn’t the same as what’s sustainable to the otter.”

But, I’m also not entirely cynical about love. I do think there is such a real thing as love just as I think there’s a real thing about caring for the planet. But the empathy and selflessness that’s required for both is an aspirational goal and I don’t know if humans are quite capable of fully sustaining the planet because they may not be capable of fully loving others.

Wait. That was entirely cynical about love and sustainability. Let me try again: It’s a lot of work, trying to see through other people’s eyes—the spouse’s, the children’s, the otter’s, the crawdad’s. But work is good.

KK: Towards the end of your book’s titular essay, “Sustainability: A Love Story,” the narrator proposes that metaphors might save us. Why do you think metaphor continues to have the power to save us in the face of climate change?

NW: Metaphors transport us. They carry over. They transfer. If a problem with love and sustainability is a lack of being moved by another’s experience, then metaphor offers the promise to move us from one thing we care about to another. In “Sustainability,” besides the underlying metaphor that love is work and love is work we must do, is the flip side, which is, without that love, we are killing ourselves. There are comparisons in the book between Robin Williams’ and David Foster Wallace’s suicide, between Philip Seymour Hoffman’s drug overdose, and my sister’s boyfriend’s suicide. To use those emotionally severe examples as a metaphor to what we’re doing to the planet is an attempt to sound the alarm in ways a more staid and reasoned argument might not.

KK: How did you approach narrative distance in your essay about your marriage, “Are We Going to Make It?”? Does that narrative distance change drastically when you write about past relationships compared to current ones, or other people’s relationships you may only be observing/witnessing? Positive relationships versus harmful ones?

NW: I think one needs to dissociate to write nonfiction—to be able to see the narrator as a character on the page. It is surely easier to see yourself separately from yourself the longer ago the events occurred. When those events have become part of your origin story, have formed the way you “see yourself” and narrate your story, the more distant and visible they become. They probably also become less real. My current self, the supposed narrator, is all over the place. Hence the comment from one member of the audience at my reading that asked, “How do you sleep at night, with your brain jumping all over the place?” The past becomes a little more solid and people aren’t very solid. But it’s much easier to render “solid” on the page than jumpy, changeable, and ethereal.

KK: It seems that a working theory you have is that climate change deniers are those who have no means to cope with the despair stemming from our planet’s dire situation. With that in mind, do you think climate change deniers are also bad at break-ups?

NW: In a way, I think we’re all having a hard time really acknowledging the vastness and badness of climate change. That doesn’t make us all climate deniers, but I do think we’re all in a bit of denial. The work is going to be so big. We are tired. We love our furnaces. Our air-conditioners. Our cars. And, it’s not that we have to give them up but we have to spend 72 trillion dollars to change the entire fossil-fuel infrastructure upon which our economic system is built. Sometimes, people stay together because divorce is expensive. We’re all bad at break-ups and this one will hurt. But we’ll emerge stronger, with a new sense of self, with a new notion of who our partners are.

KK: What practical advice do you have for nonfiction writers who want to bring personal relationships to life on the page and/or write about the environment?

NW: Just like with climate change, acknowledge that the problem begins with you. The process of writing about other people and relationships is a metaphor (see how metaphor comes around and around?) for how to write about the planet. We’re going to have to see things differently. We’re going to have to see how the world looks through other people’s eyes. We’re going to have to acknowledge that we’re bad at change and bad at seeing but that we can do the work.

KK: What does your writing process look like and how do you sustain it? Has your process changed over the course of your writing career?

NW: It’s 11:30 Wednesday morning of my writing day and I’m starting to panic. My process mainly looks like panic, which is also a good metaphor for climate change. I have a lot of things due now, which has changed from when I first started writing. People ask you to write things, which is fun but can get in the way of your projects. When I’m asked to write things, say for March Badness, or for an anthology, I try to make it align with my current book project so I can incorporate it. So, for March Badness, I’m writing about the Escape/Pina Colada song. I’m going to write about Pina coladas, marriage, and climate, since that is, and maybe always will be, my project.

KK: What reading recommendations do you have for people who like to read nonfiction, poetry, or fiction that deal with intimate relationships, friendship, familial love, love of objects, or the environment and sustainability? (After they’ve finished reading your book, of course.)

NW: I’m in the middle of, and on the way to teach, Sarah Broom’s Yellow House. I love everything Jasmyn Ward writes. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. I love the idiosyncratic, small story set in a large, overwhelming context. I’m so looking forward to Ander Monson’s new books coming out from Graywolf in on Feb 4th and Natalie Diaz’s new book, Post-Colonial [Love Poem].

Kay Keegan is a nonfiction writer pursuing a PhD at Ohio University. Her writing process includes playing music, watching baseball, sitting in hot tubs, and befriending stray cats with intermittent bursts of literary creativity. She’s been published in Essay Daily.

Nicole Walker is the author of, most recently, The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet and  Sustainability: A Love Story and A Survival Guide for Life in the Ruins. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things AreEggMicrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. Her work has been published in Orion, Boston Review, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Normal School and other places. She curated, with Rebecca Campbell, 7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and is noted in multiple editions of Best American Essays. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.


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