BY: A.e. SANTANA

Abby Geni is the award-winning author of The Lightkeepers and The Last Animal. Her latest novel, The Wildlands, explores the traumatic repercussions of a category five hurricane when it hits Mercy, Oklahoma, and demolishes the home of the McCloud family. Orphaned, the children attempt to go on with their lives but are swept into a world of dangerous, fanatical eco-terrorism that is both frightening and understandable. Through their story, Geni examines the turbulent state of our natural world and plays with the line between saving the planet and destroying ourselves.

The Coachella Review interviewed Geni about her creative process and experience writing The Wildlands, which was named by Kirkus magazine and Real Simple magazine as one of the best novels of 2018.

The Coachella Review: Your previous works, The Last Animal and The Lightkeepers, revolve around a human–animal connection (or disconnection). In what ways does The Wildlands deal with this theme differently than your other works?

Abby Geni: The Wildlands is more direct, I think. In my previous books, I wasn’t sure how to write about the urgency and extremity of what’s happening to our planet. It seemed like such a dark thing to center in my work, and I never want my writing to be pedantic or lecture-y. The Last Animal and The Lightkeepers do touch on climate change and the current mass extinction of animal life, but those questions aren’t central to either story. Instead, both books celebrate nature and explore the overlapping borders between civilization and the wild, rather than talking about the sheer destructive force of human beings on the natural world.

These ideas are just so scary. It’s difficult to read about the melting of the polar ice caps or the death of the rain forest or the apocalyptic projections about the future of our species and then go back to everyday life. Our government is on fire, everyone is anxious all the time, and people don’t always have the bandwidth to read the latest terrifying article about climate change, too.

So in writing The Wildlands, I kept all these ideas in mind. I wanted a tense, fast-moving story about a family, a kidnapping, a crime spree, and its aftermath. And tucked inside the action and adventure, I also wanted to write about the plight of the animals. It’s kind of like how parents will bake brownies and sneak spinach into the batter to get their kids to eat their vegetables. The brownie is the wild ride of Tucker and Cora’s road trip, and the spinach is the Anthropocene Mass Extinction. That’s my hope, anyway.

TCR: The McCloud family loves animals. Tucker’s love of animals turned extreme and developed into what some may call eco-terrorism. Darlene and Jane’s love of animals became less important as they were caught up in their everyday life. Adult Cora found balance between these principles, creating a safe place for wild animals and people to connect. Where do you fall on this scale of McCloud children? Do you think adult Cora’s philosophy illustrates where we are in society—caught someplace between overdeveloped and wild?

AG: Oh, that’s a great question. Yes, that’s exactly how I see society today. I wanted to explore the different ways human beings orient themselves in relation to the natural world. And you’ve hit the nail on the head: Darlene is on one end of the spectrum (Team Civilization), and Tucker is on the other end (Team Eco-terrorism).

I think I’m closest to Cora in terms of where I fall on the scale. Like Tucker, I walk around all day with these terrible facts in my head, worrying about our planet and the future of life on earth. But I’m not an extremist. I’m a pacifist, and my activism comes in the form of writing, not blowing things up. So I live my life more like Darlene—safe in a house in a city with my family and my dog, shielded inside the borders of civilization. In other words, I ended up somewhere in the middle, like Cora.

TCR: The Wildlands is told through two alternating perspectives: youngest sister Cora’s first-person experience, and a third-person point of view following oldest sister Darlene. Why did you decide this was the way to tell their story?

AG: I tend to think about each new book for years before I begin actually writing it. I flesh out every part of it in my mind until I understand it well enough to dive in. Cora was the first character to come into focus in The Wildlands. I wrote her story in the first person because I felt closest to her. To me, the first person brings an intimacy and a connection with the character that other points of view don’t offer.

But after a while I realized that Cora’s story was incomplete on its own. To begin with, it’s a tough proposition to write an entire novel from the point of view of a child. Children see the world in a unique way. Cora’s understanding of what’s happening is both limited (she doesn’t realize how dangerous Tucker is, she can’t anticipate what he’ll do next, and she isn’t able to argue with him or advocate for herself in the way an adult could) and limitless (she believes in magic, her personality is in flux, and she’s open to new experiences in a way an adult wouldn’t be).

To create a complete, satisfying narrative, I needed the counterpoint of Darlene’s maturity and experience. And I love her character, but I never felt as close to her as I did to Cora. Darlene is stronger than I am; she’s more levelheaded than I am. I wrote her in the third person to reflect that distance.

TCR: Along with alternating narratives, The Wildlands is sectioned into months. This helps to remind us how agonizingly long Cora is missing, but also is used as a transition between voices. As a writer, what helped you to transition between Cora and Darlene’s POV?

AG: I like to use visual images or videos while I write to help me stay grounded in a particular place or point of view. To access Cora’s experience of her time on the road with Tucker, I would look at pictures of the desert or watch videos of animals in zoos or read about how to build a pipe bomb. (As a side note, I’m sure I’m not the first writer to be worried that the FBI might be monitoring my internet history.) When it was Darlene’s turn on the page, I would look at the layout of the kind of trailer she lives in, the particular make and model and dimensions. So much of Darlene’s life is tied up in that tiny, cramped box. Pictures of wide-open spaces led me to Cora, and pictures of drab trailer parks in Oklahoma brought me to Darlene.

TCR: I was shocked by Tucker’s beautiful and flawless execution of manipulation. I also was awed by your masterful representation of it. If we saw Tucker through anyone else’s POV except Cora’s, he’d be unsympathetic. Cora’s innocence, hero worship of her brother, and traumatic past made her ripe for Tucker’s manipulation. How did you prepare (or research) to create that dynamic between them?

AG: Honestly, their relationship was one of the hardest things to capture, and I was tinkering with their dynamic right up to the final draft. I’ve always been fascinated by how tenuous our hold on reality can be. We think of ourselves as immutable and solid, as though our personalities are etched in stone. But our memories are flawed and fallible. We’re incredibly susceptible to suggestion. People can succumb to Stockholm Syndrome in a matter of days, and cult leaders can lead entire groups of people to suicide.

I did a lot of research on how people can exert that kind of sway over others. Tucker uses some techniques that are common to cults and fanatical religious sects: changing Cora’s name; reframing her identity as male; telling stories that make her seem magical and special, as though the rules of normal behavior don’t apply to her; insisting that their bond is the most important thing in the world; and framing her choices as a foregone conclusion.

I read an article recently suggesting that eyewitness testimony should no longer be used in courtrooms. People put too much faith in their own perceptions. They believe they’re telling the absolute truth, and their sense of certainty convinces other people to believe them too. But the human mind can’t be trusted the way physical evidence can. We’re all unreliable narrators.

TCR: Your descriptions are breathtaking. In each new scene, you take a moment to visualize, not only the physical space, but also the current internal state of the narrator. Has this style developed naturally as a voice, or is it a conscious element you drop in when editing?

AG: First of all, thanks so much! Finding the right balance of description is really important to me. Physicality and interiority are crucial to making a story come alive, and I never want to do too much or too little. I think that now, after years of practice, that balance has become a part of my voice, but it is something I intentionally learned to do.

Every book exists somewhere between the reader’s imagination and the writer’s imagination. My goal is to offer enough description that the story feels grounded in truth, but I don’t want to give so much detail that I build a wall with my words and make a space so filled with information that the reader can’t enter it. Ideally, the reader should be able do the joyful work of imagining some of the details on their own. That engagement with the story is part of what makes it feel personal and intimate, as though you’re a part of the book and it was written just for you.

TCR: There are elements in The Wildlands that some may consider frightening: the hurricane, the escaped zoo animals, and Tucker’s violence. Yet, the voice of the novel is charming—poetic even. How do you craft your balance between this sing-song-like description and troubling context?

AG: I love contradictions, particularly when the different halves of the contradiction enhance and inform one another. Dark humor, for instance, is powerful because it’s both upsetting and funny. The two opposing elements don’t cancel one another out—the humor highlights the discomfort, and the discomfort strengthens the humor.

For me, writing about frightening or distressing things is like that. Ideally, the beauty of the language will offset and illuminate the violence, and vice versa. Scary things can be lovely if you look at them the right way.

In addition, I think my style makes it easier for me to go to dark places in my writing. It can be heartbreaking to describe the death of a beloved character. But if I’m focused on writing about that death in the most beautiful way possible, that’s easier somehow. The poetry will carry me through.

TCR: At the end of the book, The Wildlands has become a positive force instead of Tucker’s destructive desire. Yet, Cora seems to continue to suffer, on some level, from Tucker and his teachings: she seems anti-social and emotionally burdened. Although she turned her experience into a constructive lifestyle, why do you feel it’s important to show the lasting scars?

AG: Scars make us what we are. We’re all survivors of something, and the lasting impact of our traumas and failures and losses is what shapes us into wiser, better people. I couldn’t imagine an ending in which Cora walked away unscathed from her ordeal with Tucker. You can’t live through something like that and not end up with scars.

Maybe it goes back to the idea of contradictions and the balance of light and shadow. At the end of the book, Cora finds her way to a kind of happiness, but there will always be sorrow lurking around the edges. The goal isn’t to live without loss; that’s not possible. The goal is to let the pain enhance and illuminate the joy, and vice versa.

A.E. Santana is a Southern California native who writes horror, fantasy, and science fiction. She received her MFA in creative writing from the UCR Palm Desert Low-Residency Program and her bachelor’s degree in mass communications, with a minor in script writing, from California State University, San Bernardino. She taught fine art, theater, and writing at the middle school level. A.E. Santana is part of the theater group East Valley Rep in Indio, CA, as one of their founding playwrights. She is currently a managing editor and writes media content for a nonprofit organization. She has quite an affinity for cats. A.E. Santana can be found at www.aesantana.com, facebook.com/authoraesantana, and on Instagram and Twitter @foxflur.