About the Book
This month, I’m happy to re-introduce Katie Welch to Dragonfly; we’ve talked in the past about her book The Bears. Katie and I met some time ago, when I lived on Canada’s west coast. She eventually headed to Vancouver to take part in reading from, and talking about, her Bears novel at Word on the Street’s eco-fiction stage. It’s a small world, I discovered, as she lives in Kamloops, where my husband is from. Since we still had relatives in the city, we got to visit Katie one Christmas for coffee.
Her new novel Mad Honey (Wolsak & Wynn) is just out and takes place mostly in Ontario and partly in Cuba. When Beck Wise vanished, his girlfriend Melissa Makepeace poured herself into caring for the family farm, silently absorbing yet another man disappearing from her life. But when Beck reappears three months later, thin, pale, with no idea what day it is, and filled with memories of being bees, a series of layered mysteries begins to unravel. What had happened to Beck? Where did Melissa’s father go? How can she keep the farm together? With gorgeous descriptions, deft characterizations, and a page-turning plot, Mad Honey immerses the reader in a search for truth bounded by the everyday magic of beekeeping, family and finding peace, all while asking how much we really understand about the natural world.
Chat with the Author
Mary: Hi Katie. Great to talk with you again. Tell us about your new book!
Katie: Mad Honey revolves around three mysterious disappearances. Beck Wise, a beekeeper, shows up after three months with a “mad” explanation for his absence: he turned into a bee colony. Melissa Makepeace’s father had also left suddenly one day when she was eleven, and the third mysterious loss is the bees themselves; evidence of honey bee colony collapse drones under the narrative throughout the book. Mad Honey explores what happens to us when people and species we love vanish from our lives. How do we find hope and energy to carry on?
Mary: We’ve talked in the past about your writing, and even did readings at a stage at Vancouver’s Word on the Street festival one year. What sorts of work led up to you becoming interested in writing about environmental issues?
Katie: My Ottawa high school offered an Environmental Studies course that included four multi-day field trips: orienteering, winter survival, rock climbing, and canoeing. I was an awkward teenager, and the course affected me deeply. In nature my problems dwindled to insignificance. Interpersonal and ego-based concerns recede when you’re navigating rapids or building a shelter from balsam branches; in nature we remember we are animals, no different than bees or bears. Fundamentally we need clean water and air, nourishing food and secure shelter—all other concerns take a backseat to survival.
But wild spaces were threatened, so I became a young activist. It was the 1980’s and nuclear war posed enormous political and ecological danger. I was arrested on Parliament Hill while protesting cruise missile testing in Alberta. I got a summer job planting trees, saw forests being cut down recklessly, and locked myself to a bulldozer in the Temagami old growth, leading to another arrest. Tree planting then lured me to western Canada where the industry vs nature stakes were even higher: more resources, more to exploit.
My first book, The Bears, is a self-published gut reaction to the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway project. It’s an adventure, a race against time to save three bears, and an overt attempt to rally opposition against oil pipelines. The book made some friends, and brought us together at Vancouver Word on the Street, but I published much too soon. Writing a book that fizzled made me determined that my next novel would be traditionally published.
Most importantly, The Bears taught me that a novel is not a soapbox. Writing fiction is an organic process, and I allowed my convictions to interfere with the story. Background concerns can inform the narrative, but not intentionally or overtly. Direct attempts to influence your audience are like forcing a rosebud to open with your fingers. With Mad Honey, concern about colony collapse disorder acted as a catalyst for a story about a person who had become bees, but once I began writing, I followed the advice of many successful authors: get out of the way and let the story tell itself.
Speaking of the organic nature of ecofiction, to prepare for this interview I explored your archive. In your 2017 interview with Omar El Akkad, you make the excellent point that books with environmental issues / climate change settings are increasingly common because these issues are now part of our day-to-day existence. In a sense, all fiction is ecofiction. As Omar El Akkad succinctly notes, “reality seems constantly on the verge of out-fictioning fiction.”
Mary: I’m intrigued by Mad Honey. I love good mysteries, stories about family and friends, and place-writing. Where does the novel take place?
When I was eighteen, I visited a friend’s place near Lanark, Ontario. We decided to inspect her beehives while high on LSD. Insects and acid could have been a bad combination, but the experience was magical. With my senses on overdrive, the hum of bees opened proverbial doors to perception. We moved slowly, examining hives and frames, and the bees clearly knew we were there but accepted our presence and went about their business. In Mad Honey, Beck Wise can see bee vectors, golden lines connecting worker bees and nectar patches; his hallucinations are based on mine that afternoon. Interactions with wild animals are transformative; I have had a lifelong fascination with honey bees.
I was in my forties and had been living in BC for decades when I started writing Mad Honey. The impulse to write about honey bees brought me back to those beehives in Ontario. I have powerful memories of the wilderness around Lanark, steeped in feelings of freedom and possibility. Instinctively I set my stories in places I have either resided or spent impactful time. I traveled to Cuba and visited organopónicos, traditional organic farms, to enhance the section of Mad Honey that takes place there.
Mary: I want to backtrack some and talk about where you live! Kamloops, and another town in the interior of BC, Lytton, have experienced increased wildfires and rain events in the last few years. Last summer, the interior of British Columbia experienced what will surely be growing climate-change events, including high temperatures. In Lytton, for example, they set an all-time record of 49.6 C (121.3 F) and a wildfire destroyed 90% of the village. I remember seeing photos of the parts of the Coquihalla (a highway) being surrounded by wildfires, where people were trapped on the road. It made me think of Canto III in Dante’s Inferno. We were so worried about our friends and family back in BC, where we lived for 15 years. What was that like?
Katie: Living in BC these past two years has been shocking and surreal, environmental disasters layered on top of the pandemic. We needed new terminology, heat dome, atmospheric river, to describe the weather. I wondered why these new terms were necessary, and then the heat dome arrived and it was terrifying; temperatures that week were incompatible with life. Just being outside felt unsafe. Trees crisped—new spring leaves turned brown and curled up like bacon. Leaves scorched by the heat dome never detached; all winter long, the tree outside my Kamloops window has served as a stark reminder of the climate crisis. Many trees in BC sustained damage on their southwestern sides, and many more died.
My daughter and her fiancé, Lytton wildfire fighters, had just moved into their first home. Five days later, on June 30 2021, Lytton burned to the ground. Their house was one of few spared, but they were both working that day, and the calamity has fundamentally altered their outlooks on life. I have visited them since the fire, which decimated Lytton in twenty minutes, leaving nothing but vehicle skeletons and the charred footprint of every building that stood. Under those conditions, fire is unstoppable. Imagine being a wildfire fighter: your job is to get in front of those flames. Soon the whole province was ablaze. Your evocation of Dante’s Inferno is apt: in Kamloops, the sky turned blood red at noon. Air thick with smoke, flames on every horizon, evacuees huddled in makeshift shelters. It was a harbinger of summers to come worldwide.
In November, atmospheric rivers led to floods that destroyed many BC highways. Cut-off communities experienced shortages of fresh food. Knowing we were severed from the coast was disconcerting, like the foreshadowing of climate crises to come. The BC floods of 2021 were inextricably connected to wildfires; loss of vegetation and root mass in burned areas created unstable soil that gave way in heavy rain. Greedy, excessive logging contributed as well. The cascade of consequences was eerily similar to health issues in a human body, for instance obesity leading to diabetes, nerve damage, amputation, sepsis and death.
Climate change should be at the forefront of public interest around the globe, but pandemic and war compete for our attention. Before Covid, I was a climate change activist, and had organized three Red Rebel Extinction Rebellion performances in Kamloops; nevertheless, I believed the worst effects of global warming were decades in the future. We should all be frightened into doing absolutely everything possible to minimize the effects of climate change. It’s happening fast, and society is reacting WAY too slowly.
We humans pride ourselves on our enormous brains but we aren’t using them to prevent the annihilation of our species. Worse, we’re allowing other species to perish along with us. I don’t see how our big brains make us special or superior to other species, but they do give us the moral obligation to protect all species on this planet. Organizations like the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature are mounting legal challenges in order to preserve what remains of the natural world, but unless groups like these get traction soon, the changes won’t come soon enough.
Mary: Speaking of all that, how does it feel write a novel dealing with ecological issues when you’ve actually been through such climate horrors?
Katie: It’s unsettling when tragic events you have imagined, the mass failure of highways, for example, actually occur. I am reminded of George Orr, the protagonist in Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven, whose dreams change the world. Of course, no author has the power to influence reality, but you don’t need to be a prophet or have special powers to anticipate where humanity is headed; I think of Emily St. John Mandel’s imaginary pandemic in 2018’s Station Eleven coming grimly true in 2020.
The science community is continually rounding up the consequences of climate change, biodiversity loss and deforestation, and the dangers are always exponentially worse than previously imagined. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is an impressive and timely adaptation; watching the movie, it struck me how the line between Arrakis and Earth is somewhat blurred—a completely desertified planet where one must live underground to survive – isn’t that exactly where we’re headed?
Mary: You recently wrote to me that you’ve bought a new place on a BC Gulf Island, which you plan to build and move into later. Tell us about that exciting adventure!
Katie: Our decision to move to the coast began before the pandemic, but Covid emboldened us to rally our resources and buy land on an island we love. Nowhere in the world is immune to the ravages of climate change; that said, the interior of the province definitely has less appeal for us in light of recent events.My husband and I are both energized and soothed by this project. We don’t have a lot of capital so we are building an off-grid home by ourselves, incrementally. We plan to garden, raise laying hens, and keep bees! There are many like-minded people in the community and resources for people like us who want to minimize our impact on the planet. I am relishing the physical work; in a mechanized world, digging holes by hand is a balm. Mending clothes and recycling materials are necessities; in a place with zero retail options, one’s thinking quickly shifts from convenience to practicality.
Mary: Do you have any other novels in the works yet?
Katie: I’m currently revising a novel set in post-earthquake BC, as well as three YA books about survival in a climate-changed future. A memoir/biography of a high school friend who runs a circus school is in the planning stages.
Mary: I can’t wait to hear more. Thanks, Katie!
About the Author
Katie Welch writes fiction and teaches music in Kamloops, BC, on the traditional, unceded territory of the Secwepemc people. Her short stories have been published in EVENT Magazine, Prairie Fire, The Antigonish Review, The Temz Review, The Quarantine Review, and elsewhere. An alumnus of the Banff Centre’s Emerging Writers Intensive, she was first runner-up in UBCO’s 2019 Short Story Contest, and her debut novel Mad Honey was released May 10, 2022 by Wolsak and Wynn.
Katie holds a BA in English Literature from the University of Toronto (1990). Her daughters, Olivia and Heather Saya, share her passion for nature and outdoor recreation. Katie loves to cycle, hike, and cross-country ski with her husband, Will Stinson, and they are creating a remote home in Desolation Sound.