An Interview with Flourish Fiction Founders Blake Atkerson, Anya Lamb, and Ben Soltoff

By Amy Brady

This month, I have a fascinating interview for you with the founders of Flourish Fiction. Blake Atkerson, Anya Lamb, and Ben Soltoff launched the project earlier this month to give a platform to fictional stories about climate change that are optimistic, and solutions-oriented.  

In our interview below, we discuss what inspired this work, their interest in climate fiction more generally, and the kinds of stories they’re looking to publish. There’s also information below on where to submit your stories.

Tell us Flourishing Fiction’s origin story. How did it come about?
 
Anya: Blake, Ben, and I met through the On Deck Climate Tech Fellowship, a remote program bringing together climate tech entrepreneurs, investors, and professionals. We initially connected over a shared interest in writing and got a Slack channel going. The idea for Flourish came a little bit later, after a storytelling workshop led by Roope Mokka of Untitled. The workshop reminded us of the importance of storytelling for imagining and inspiring the kind of social transformation that climate change demands. We started chatting about our own storytelling aspirations and about our desire to see more inspiring climate fiction stories from diverse perspectives. At some point, we said, wait a minute – the fellowship is a diverse community with different perspectives on climate solutions. Why not encourage our cohort (and other climate professionals) to share their visions for the future? 
 
Blake: Going into the fellowship, I had this idea that developing a collection of climate fiction short stories would be a fantastic project. I first spoke to Anya about writing, and we felt like something that allowed people to write short stories and poetry would be a great way to promote innovation and imagination in the climate tech space. Once I posted in our fellowship Slack, I was overwhelmed by the interest in writing climate fiction. 
 
Ben: Like Anya and Blake have mentioned, it all goes back to the On Deck program. Given the nature of that fellowship, we knew that we had at least one thing in common: we had chosen to center our careers on solving the climate crisis. But we soon realized that we also shared something else: a passion for creative writing that wasn’t incorporated into our so-called day jobs. I think it’s fitting that we started this project in a program mainly about building startups, because entrepreneurship is an inherently creative endeavor, and with Flourish, we took that creative impulse in a different yet complementary direction.  

Tell us about yourselves, as well! How did you become interested in climate fiction?

Anya: I read fiction almost constantly when I was growing up, but with the exception of a fantasy series or two and a few sci-fi books my Dad recommended, I mostly stuck to historical fiction and classic literature. Questions of why the world is the way it is and what’s universal in the human experience have always fascinated me. I’ve always cared deeply about nature, and when I got to Stanford, I ended up studying climate change. Since then, I’ve tended to think of climate change (and the flawed economic systems, cultural assumptions, and incentives that underpin it) as the overarching challenge of our time. And yet, for most of my adulthood, climate fiction – and indeed the topic of climate change – has been more of a void than a presence. 

After a first job in environmental consulting, I got discouraged by my limited impact (and career prospects) and took a decade-long detour into startup land. In 2018, fires here in California gave me a visceral experience of the effects of climate change that I could not ignore, and I began pivoting my career back towards addressing climate change. Since then, climate has become a lens through which I view most things. I’ve seen climate themes in much of the contemporary fiction I’ve read recently, from NK Jemison’s Broken Earth Trilogy to Richard Powers’ The Overstory

I suppose I first began thinking seriously about writing climate fiction in the summer of 2020 when I felt the sudden urge to write a novel imagining how we return to a state of balance in our social and economic systems and with the natural world. Although I may still write that novel, I know that whatever I might write would be limited by my own perspective. And I believe that we all have a unique perspective and we all can play a role in imagining and creating a better future. That’s why I’m so excited about the idea of creating a fiction collective. 

Blake: I was writing a fantasy novel, still in progress, and was looking for a different project to give me a break. I saw a post for Grist’s climate fiction competition online. I started reading climate fiction anthologies, and it really clicked that I had stories to tell in this genre. I work in the climate tech space, and I am surrounded by exciting ideas everyday. I also wanted to write something that only I felt I could write. As a member of the Osage Nation, I wanted to bring awareness to the rich history the Native Americans have as stewards of the environment. 

Ben: I’ve loved creative writing since I was a teenager, and I’ve been drawn to good storytelling for much longer than that. I think that telling and listening to stories is a fundamental human need. However, for a long time, I saw these passions as parallel or even secondary to my professional and academic life, which has been focused on climate change for over a decade. I’ve worked at environmental organizations in India and Washington, DC, and I’ve also advised and supported a wide range of environmental startups. Fiction just seemed so removed from that work. I’ve written short stories, and I’ve also increasingly dabbled in climate tech journalism, but I had never figured out how to make creative writing more of a priority. That’s why I jumped at the chance to be part of Flourish Fiction. For the first time, I could see how these different interests might actually feed and strengthen one another.

What kind of fiction are you looking for? Given the wide range of climate fiction, are there particular types of stories, tropes, or characters that you want to see more of?
 

Anya: We’re looking for short stories (5,000 words or less), flash fiction (500 words or less), and poems that imagine ways we might address climate change, adapt, and thrive. We see creative writing as a way to begin exploring ideas that may seem too “out there” to put into practice today, but that might inspire problem solvers of the future. I think it’s also worth noting that despite our backgrounds in climate tech, we aren’t just interested in “technical” solutions. Many of the solutions that exist today to help us live in better harmony with the natural world aren’t especially new or technical at all, but they will require widespread cultural and economic transformation if they are to take root at scale. Although climate change is a global phenomenon, both the effects and solutions tend to be highly specific to place. If a writer wants to submit a story but isn’t sure where to start, I’d encourage them to think of a specific place they know intimately and project into the future the trends that they see or can imagine in that place and among the people who live there. Then ask, what would have to change along the way to make that projected future more positive?

Blake: We call the pieces that we publish “Flourishes,” and we’re looking for Flourishes with emotion, innovation, and hope on the horizon. We are familiar with dystopian futures, but Mad Max is just one view of the future. There is so much potential for humans to return respect to nature and heal the planet with both love and creative solutions.

Ben: Like Anya and Blake have said, we’re looking for Flourishes imbued with hope, drawing some of our inspiration from the Grist Imagine 2200 competition. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everything needs to be dripping with sunshine and rainbows. It’s possible to be hopeful while also being sad, satirical, or just downright bizarre. However, at the end of the day, we want to publish fiction that’s more about solutions than problems. Many members of our community work in the growing field of climate tech, which lies at the intersection of climate action and technology, so we’re enthusiastic about the role of technology but also wary of its limitations. And critically, we want to share stories from diverse perspectives. We’re seeking stories by, for, and about all the strange and wonderful people who live on this planet, especially if their stories have been largely ignored or excluded from other narratives.

What role do you think fiction can play in our wider discourse on climate change?

Anya: Stories are among the best tools we have for making abstract and unfathomable realities more human – more relatable and immediate. The bigger, scarier, and more insurmountable a challenge, the more we need stories to motivate us, inspire us, and show us that our tiny individual actions can (collectively) make a meaningful difference. And what challenge today is more intimidating and confounding than climate change? In the realm of fiction, we are less constrained by critical notions of what is, and can enter a more expansive realm where we have the freedom to imagine what we wish could be and what just might be possible, given an amount of time, vision, and effort that we often struggle to imagine in our day-to-day lives. Fiction can also give us the necessary distance to reflect on our own time, place, and culture with objectivity and more clearly discern possible paths forward. 

Blake: We need everyone for climate solutions to work. In a divided country like the U.S., it is a challenge to get everyone rowing in the same direction. Stories have the power to reach new audiences that either never thought about climate change, or were against taking action for whatever reason. Stories can touch an emotional chord and just might turn the tide in the adaptation to and mitigation of climate change’s negative impacts. 

Ben: I’m a film buff, and I once tried to make a list of climate change movies to recommend to friends. It ended up being a very short list. Climate change has massive consequences for humankind, but it’s often conspicuously absent from our fictional narratives. There are of course some wonderful examples of climate fiction out there, but there’s so much room for more. If you can reach people through their imaginations, that’s such a powerful thing. You know how a smell has a unique tie to memory and emotion? I think imagination works similarly. It shortcuts past our rational brain and right to our feelings. The nonfiction channels for information about climate change – stuff like research reports and policy papers – can be filled with technical jargon and grim prognostication, neither of which is particularly inspiring. Fiction cuts more to the core.

What do you hope readers take away from the stories you publish?

Anya: One thing I want readers to take away from the stories is that they can imagine and tell their own stories, too. I want readers to realize that it isn’t up to experts or elite visionaries to save the planet for future generations; it’s up to all of us. I’ll also add that I’m a firm believer in the power of hope, or faith, if you want to call it that. When we despair, we fail, because we fail to act. But when we have hope, when we believe we are capable, we make ourselves more likely to succeed because we are more willing to take the actions necessary for success. If we can imagine that a flourishing future is possible, then that will make it easier for us to act to make it possible. I’m reminded of a journal prompt I love – a day in the life of your dream – in which you write a journal entry as if you are writing in the past tense about the day you had in your imagined future dream life. It’s easier to imagine our dreams and the paths towards them if we begin writing as if they’ve already happened. 

Blake: I want readers to have hope for our future and the inspiration to be part of that better future.

Ben: We want readers to truly believe that a better world is possible. It’s so easy to feel pessimistic these days, with a seemingly endless pandemic, glaring inequality, systemic injustice, democracy in peril, and the specter of climate disaster looming over everything. All of that is very real, and none of it will be fixed within a given news cycle or election cycle. Some of it maybe won’t even be fixed within our lifetimes. Fiction can let us see ahead to a repaired world. I hope that readers will see something in our Flourishes that moves them and then find something they can do to make that imagined idea a reality.

Anything, in particular, you’d like my readers to watch for, beyond what you publish on the site? 

Ben: Flourish Fiction is not just a site that publishes creative writing. It’s a community of writers and readers. We aim to provide feedback on every submission, and we help our community members to improve their craft. We recently held a climate poetry workshop, and we’re developing other skill-building workshops as well. We’ve finished our events for this year, but keep an eye out for a new slate of activities in 2022! Subscribe on Substack or follow us on social media (TwitterLinkedInInstagram, and Facebook) to stay in the loop. And please submit your writing! We look forward to reading it.

(Top image: Photo that accompanies the story “A Land of Rivers and Stars” by Shilpi Kumar. Photo credit: “Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River, Montana” by Bureau of Land Management, via Flickr.)

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

___________________________

Amy Brady is the Executive Director of Orion Magazine, and the former Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books. She is also the co-editor of The World As We Knew It: Dispatches from a Changing Climate (Catapult) and author of Ice: An American Obsession(GP Putnam’s Sons). Every month she edits the newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. Amy holds a PhD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

———-

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Powered by WPeMatico

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: