Mary Annaïse Heglar: Why Fiction Is an Act of Hope



Mary Annaïse Heglar: Why Fiction Is an Act of Hope | Atmos


























Photograph by Laurent Fiorentino / Connected Archives

To honor the release of her debut novel, Troubled Waters, Heglar speaks with Atmos about catalyzing intergenerational healing through fiction.

Mary Annaïse Heglar is known for her sharp, narrative essays on climate and race. She’s also known for her hit podcast, Hot Take, with cohost Amy Westervelt about the media’s complicated relationship to the climate crisis. But this month marks a new milestone in her career: namely, the publication of her debut novel, Troubled Waters, an intergenerational story based on Heglar’s own family and life.

Troubled Waters follows university student Corrine who—struck by climate grief and the grief of losing her brother (who died aboard an oil boat on the Mississippi River)—is visiting family in New Orleans, including her grandmother Cora, whose own story is woven into the novel. Corrine is adamant that to move on she must right the wrongs of the past, meanwhile Cora has never divulged to her granddaughter her childhood role in desegregating Nashville’s schools in the 1950’s. As the consequences of Cora’s past reveal themselves more and more obviously in her life, and Corrine begins to plan an act of resistance in honor of her brother’s spirit, old wounds come to the surface that grandmother and granddaughter are forced to confront together.

To celebrate the release of Troubled Waters, a sincere story that examines the urgency of impending climate collapse, Heglar speaks with Atmos about moving (back) into fiction, the true story behind her debut novel, and what we can learn about intergenerational healing.

Atmos

What made you choose to move to fiction?

Mary Annaïse Heglar

It’s really more of a move back into fiction. If I look back on my life as a writer, from my childhood to my adolescence and college years, I was (always) writing fiction and poetry. The essays came much later—after I became familiar with the memoirist type of essay writing. Before that, nonfiction writing really bored me. This novel was about going back to my roots to what got me interested in writing in the first place.

When I started writing essays, people would say, You should write a nonfiction book. But I couldn’t think of anything I could write a full book about. Why do I need that many words to tell people what I want to say? But I could think of what I would need that many words to show—and I think fiction is about showing people things.

Atmos

What kind of unique opportunities do you think fiction writing creates to explore the kinds of complex issues that you bring up in this book?

Mary

I think fiction allows you to play around with things. For example: this story plays a lot on my family history with school desegregation, but there’s also a lot of that history that’s been lost to time; lots of things that I don’t know because they weren’t passed down to me or recorded in newspaper articles for me to find in archives. There are things I can take educated guesses on, and there are things that I can play around with.

Fiction allows you to make people worse than they were or better than they were; it allows you to change circumstances and to imagine how people might interact under those circumstances. It allows you to incorporate more of your imagination, and you get to have more fun in that sense.

“History books tell you what happened, but fiction tells you what it felt like. I don’t think we talk enough about what climate change feels like.”

Mary Annaïse Heglar

Author, Troubled Waters

Atmos

Does fiction provide the same opportunity to play around with the key themes here, like climate change, for example?

Mary

Yes, definitely. One of my favorite quotes is that history books tell you what happened, but fiction tells you what it felt like.

I don’t think we talk enough about what climate change feels like. I set the book in 2014, and when you look back at that time, you see how much people were in denial and sleepwalking into the world we’re in right now. Not just climate-wise—in 2014 Israel was bombing Gaza, and not enough of the world was taking note. What if we’d paid attention then? I set the book just before the city of Ferguson, Mississippi, erupted in Black Lives Matter protests, and shortly after Eric Garner was killed. If you look at all that now it seems so prescient. All the elements were there, we just weren’t paying attention.

The same is true for climate change. In 2014, if you were to say that you were scared about climate change, people thought you were being hysterical and histrionic—it was a very lonely time. I wanted to write about the perspective of someone who actually is paying attention to all of these things, and sees all of these things happening and wants to try and do something about it.

Atmos

Which parts of the story are most true to you and your own life and experiences?

Mary

Corrine being in love with Mississippi and its beauty is drawn on my experience—I think Mississippi is probably the most beautiful place on Earth. Corinne attends Oberlin university—I also went to Oberlin. We come to climate in the same year, but at very different points of our lives. She goes an activist route as a 20-year-old college student, I went more of a professional route as a 30-year-old woman, with bills to pay. In that sense we had very different experiences, but I’m certainly as stubborn as Corinne is, though not nearly as brave.

Probably the strongest way the novel is drawn on my experience is with the subplot of Cora who integrated the schools in Nashville, Tennessee. That’s a true family story.

Atmos

Can you share more about that?

Mary

In 1955, my grandfather took my mother to integrate the school in Nashville, Tennessee. He was part of a cohort of several other Black families trying to integrate at different grade levels, and they were turned away. That then turned into a lawsuit against the city of Nashville, stating that they were in violation of the Supreme Court decision. I found the lawsuit in the archives and saw my mother’s name on it.

That lawsuit eventually led to the release, in 1957, of what was called the Nashville plan, which stated it would integrate a grade at a time each year. In 1957, they would integrate first grade, in 1958 the second grade, and so on. It was so effective at stalling integration that other cities eventually adopted it too. I tried to keep things as accurate as possible because the story of Nashville has been largely lost to history because it happened the same year as Little Rock, which was more violent given the kids involved were much older.

“As much as the novel is about intergenerational trauma, it’s also about intergenerational healing.”

Mary Annaïse Heglar

Author, Troubled Waters

Atmos

How much of the story did you get directly from your family members, and how much was pulled from archives?

Mary

I tried to talk to my family members about it, but they’re deeply traumatized. They don’t remember everything, and especially not when it’s something they’ve tried so hard to forget.

Another thing that comes through in the book is that we talk a lot about these brave little children integrating schools, but we don’t talk enough about the scared children nor the traumatized adult versions of them. It’s not like these are stories that I heard all the time as a child; they were stories I begged for. It was like touching a nerve—it would come out in these explosive sorts of ways, and then you’re told to go read a book or watch a documentary. But I was like, That will tell me what happened to someone else. I want to know what happened to you because you’re my family.

My mother told me that my grandparents had told her that when they took my aunt Jackie to the school, there was a janitor there—support staff at the schools were usually Black—and he told my grandparents that if anyone harmed my aunt Jackie, she wouldn’t be the only one getting hurt because he carried a knife with him. The cafeteria workers would give Jackie extra treats because she always had to be the last one coming through the line, and they were trying to look out for her, trying to brighten her day in some little way. Those real anecdotes are some of the elements that I included in the novel.

Atmos

How did your family respond to the novel?

Mary

My family has been very supportive and proud. Even in the research process, I was able to bring back so much family history that even my mother and aunt didn’t know (because they were children at the time) and that was able to give them some closure.

They’ve also been thrilled to see the pieces of family lore woven into the story, and to see how the wild imagination and love of literature that I’ve had since I was little has developed as I’ve gotten older. They take it as an homage.

Atmos

How did you approach your family’s trauma and the general theme of trauma in this novel?

Mary

I want to be clear: this isn’t a book about trauma on its own. This is a book about healing. The thing I hope people are able to take away from this book is that even when the world is burning, when the world is falling apart, it is still possible to heal. Broken people don’t fix things, and neither do fragmented people. If we want a “livable future” and a healthy planet, I think we also need to look at the things about ourselves that we can heal in the process.

The book is also about the toll it takes to take the world onto your shoulder generation after generation, but that even in the process of doing that, it is still possible to heal. So as much as the novel is about intergenerational trauma, it’s also about intergenerational healing.

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