Saying the “Unsayable”: An Interview with Sonya Larson ‘05
Sonya Larson’s (B.A. ’05) short fiction and essays have appeared in Best American Short Stories
2017, American Short Fiction, American Literary Review, The Harvard Advocate, and more. Her story At the Bottom of New Lake was recently published as part of Amazon’s Warmer series, a group of short sci-fi ebooks about climate change.
She currently works as Director of the Muse and the Marketplace literary conference, hosted by GrubStreet in Boston, as well as a manager of the Boston Writers of Color Group.
We caught up with her via email to discuss her time in Madison, At the Bottom of New Lake and how literature can help us think through the issues facing us today.
Tell us about your experience in the UW-Madison English department. What are your fondest memories from your time here? And how do you connect these experiences to your career as a writer?
As a kid I’d written little poems and stories, but at UW-Madison, I started to become a “real” writer. I took my writing more seriously, and started learning all the things I didn’t know that I didn’t know. In my first class, with Professor Ron Kuka, we studied books as works of art— rather than specimens to be analyzed. This, to me, felt instantly more exciting and true.
From then on, I was hooked. I took workshops with Srikanth Reddy, Rob Nixon, Ron Wallace, and Lorrie Moore– all of them exhilarating. I co-edited The Madison Review literary magazine, which meant running editorial meetings, giving feedback for our authors, designing T-shirts, throwing launch parties. It felt so grown-up! By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to pursue this art, difficulty be damned. Nothing thrilled me more.
Tell us about At the Bottom of New Lake. Where did the idea come from?
A friend challenged me to write a story about climate change, which sounded exciting until I actually tried to write it. All my ideas were trash. Predictable, didactic, and following the same basic arc: And then they realized they were doomed.
So I dumped all that, and started writing about murkier, “unsayable” things: the prevailing whiteness of the climate change movement, the resentments that younger and older generations can feel toward one another.
Eventually these ideas formed At the Bottom of New Lake. It’s about a working-class Chinese community left behind on Cape Cod, after a flood has devoured its seaside mansions. A white woman, whose heirloom home was destroyed, is desperately trying to educate the remaining community about climate change. But these Chinese families– particularly one teenage girl– are sort of happy about the flood. Their lives are better now. They have the beaches all to themselves, and they’re not faced with the daily indignities of inequality.
To write it, I had to get beyond the easy platitudes I’d first dreamed up, and into territory that’s more layered, complex, and emotionally uneasy. I didn’t want to write a simple Climate Change is Bad story. I wanted to explore moral questions that genuinely flummox me.
At the Bottom of New Lake is an entry in Amazon’s Warmer series, which is billed as “a collection of seven visions of a conceivable tomorrow by today’s most thought-provoking authors.” What issues does your story cover, and in what ways do you think fiction is uniquely suited for drawing attention to contemporary issues?
My story sheds light on the racial dynamics of climate change, as well as intergenerational fights around this issue– around many sociopolitical issues. Our culture isn’t great at addressing this stuff, but to move forward, it’s essential. People tend to carry strong beliefs, but our day-to-day behavior is far messier and contradictory. That reality can either help or hurt us as we try to achieve something together— something like combat climate change.
Fiction is uniquely suited for exploring contemporary issues because it removes us from the realm of op-eds, spreadsheets, and rational logic. Instead, fiction’s job is to move readers through the realm of emotional logic. Whether we realize it or not, emotional logic informs most of our day-to-day decisions. Sure– I can hate climate change. But maybe I also enjoy the smell of gasoline, as I heat my car on a winter morning. Maybe I’d like to join that protest, but feel self-conscious about shouting slogans. These visceral experiences– to me– are where the rubber meets the road. Multiplied across millions, they sway the course of culture (or not).
You also work with GrubStreet, a creative writing center based out of Boston. What does GrubStreet do, and what is your role in the organization?
GrubStreet is a true home for writers in Boston. As I graduated from UW-Madison, Ellen Litman (who was there for a Wisconsin Institute Fellowship) said to me, “Sonya, go to Boston. The city cares about books, there are tons of writers, and there’s a tiny place there called GrubStreet, where you can continue your education.” That’s exactly what I did. Over 13 years later, it’s not so tiny anymore– we now hosts hundreds of superb workshops, parties, events, and intensive programs, and are about to move to a brand-new 8,000-square foot space. Writers: come!
Currently I’m the Director of GrubStreet’s Muse and the Marketplace conference, which attracts 900+ writers, guest authors, literary agents, and editors each year. It was recently named “the #1 writing conference in North America” by The Writer magazine, which makes us proud. But the best part of my job may be organizing events for the Boston Writers of Color Group, now with over 700 members. Never before have I had a strong community of fellow writers of color. It’s life-changing.
For more information on GrubStreet, Muse and the Marketplace, and the Boston Writers of Color Group, visit www.grubstreet.org.