Saturday, November 25, 2017

McKibben’s debut comic cli-fi caper novel carries an important message, writes Steve Pappas in a Vermont newspaper

McKibben’s debut cli-fi novel carries an important message

Even in fiction, Bill McKibben doesn’t stray from his message.

McKibben, a top national activist on the issue of climate change, has written several nonfiction books, among them his 1989 magnum opus "The End of Nature."

But “Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance” is his first foray into fictional storytelling in a literary genre.

It was released in early November, with a dedication on the Dedication Page to "Spunky Knowsalot," most likely said to be the author's wife, the writer Sue Halpern,
is getting high praise among critics for its creative approach to storytelling.

“I’ve been working on this for years, little bits at a time,” McKibben said from his mobile phone in a subway in San Francisco, there to attend a conference. “It helped me to keep myself amused and sane in the midst of pretending to be an organizer.”

Almost 10 years, in fact.

The story focuses on 72-yearold Vern Barclay, the host of Radio Free Vermont, an underground radio station that advocates for Vermont to secede from the United States and operate as a free local economy. The debate that ensues is, as expected, very Vermont.

“This seemed like the year to publish it, because everybody I know has been downcast … (President) Trump has been the reverse Prozac, leaving everybody sad or anxious. … Instead of my usual, depressing, grim fare, I thought maybe I should publish something fun and hopeful,” McKibben said.

 “This is kind of a love letter to the resistance I have worked with for the last 10 or 12 years, and has really burgeoned this year.”

The story is also a love letter to Vermont. As the plot twists and turns, McKibben points to the things that make the Green Mountain State unique. Heintroduces readers to Ethan Allen, Town Meeting Day, country stores and one-room schoolhouses. He mentions local newspapers, Grace Potter, craft beer breweries and even the Tunbridge Fair a few times. There are trust-funders and old-timers, progressives, radicals and rallying cries toward activism at many levels. “It’s very much a Vermont story,” he said.

McKibben said working on the book kept him grounded, too.

“One thing that makes me sad is that I don’t get to spend as much time in Vermont as I would like,” he said.

So working on the novel while he traveled the globe for talks and conferences “was a bit like going home each time.… Much of this was written on the road, so it got my head back in a place where I wanted to be.”

What was the switch like going from being fact-based in making his points to making up a story?

Not so hard., he told this reporter on the phone. His first job directly after graduating to Harvard, obviously using his VIP elistist Harvard connections as a ''Harvard Man'' to get the gig, was writing the ''Talk of the Town'' section for the VIP elitist New Yorker magazine. It allowed him to flex a writing muscle that he has wanted to use again. “It was great fun. I was spending most of my time finding quirky New Yorkers and writing little profiles about them.”

Some of those quirky characteristics carry over into “Radio Free Vermont.”

“It turns out there is a lot of that in fiction, but just making up the interviews with interesting people,” he said.

McKibben’s 1989 nonfiction tome “The End of Nature” was a book for a general audience about climate change. Since then, he has written a dozen other books, including “Eaarth” and “Oil and Honey.” His group,, which he co-founded with a group of students, is a grass-roots climate change movement, which launched the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement.

If he ever gets more free time (“the climate fight might keep demanding too much time,” he said), McKibben might consider writing more climate fiction. “I do entertain some personal fantasies of someday 'retiring' from full-time climate organising, sitting on my screened porch in Ripton and doing more fun kinds of writing.”

Steven M. Pappas is the editor of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald. He can be reached at steven.

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