Doreen Vanderstoop is a Calgary-based writer, storyteller and musician. As a storyteller/ musician, she intersperses songs among tales of all genres, including her own original stories. Doreen performs for audiences of all ages at schools, libraries, festivals, conferences and more. She leads workshops to ignite in others a passion for the power of story — oral and written.
Watershed, a debut novel by Doreen Vanderstoop, is set in the near future. The glaciers have melted. Alberta has become a dustbowl and the need for water is a daily struggle, both on farms and in the cities. Political tensions add to the widespread strife.
Interviewed by Nancy Pearson.
Nancy Pearson (NP): With this, your debut novel, you’re now a member of the cli-fi authors group, which includes auspicious writers such as Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Barbara Kingsolver and others. Do you see this genre becoming more prevalent as countries struggle with climate change? And do you think you’ll continue to write cli-fi?
Doreen Vanderstoop (DV): I do believe that the star for this particular genre is ascending, absolutely. I think the urgency around climate change is constantly increasing. I think we’re seeing more and more evidence of the fact that climate change is a serious problem around the world. And I think there are going to be more and more people writing about it.
It was Margaret Atwood who actually provided the clarion call for me to finish Watershed. She actually appeared at a literary festival in Barrie, Ontario, at a high school in and around 2015 or so, and I was well on my way through writing the novel, but I had been putting it aside for family commitments, and taking courses and workshops. She talked about the urgency of climate change, and she talked about Al Gore and The Inconvenient Truth and how Stephen Harper wasn’t signing the Helsinki Agreement. And then she asked the question: Where are all the Canadian writers writing about this crucial issue of our time? And I thought, “My gosh, I’ve got to get Watershed done!” She really inspired me to kick things into high gear. She really helped me out in that regard. Definitely, I think it’s in its ascendancy.
I’m not certain at this point [if I’ll write another cli-fi novel]. I do have another novel in mind that’s actually kind of burning in the back of my mind. It’s based on a short story that was published in Prairie Fire a few years ago. So, this novel would actually look back. It would be historical fiction, which I’m also keenly interested in. As a performing storyteller (I perform as historical characters) that’s definitely a pull for me, too. I’m pulled forward and back.
NP: It’s clear in Watershed that you researched the theme thoroughly. Can you tell me how you went about that research.
DV: Yes, I did quite a bit of research to the point where I actually had to instruct myself to stop researching because it was a bit of a procrastination tool after a while because the sources, the availability of information is absolutely endless. I went in lots of different directions. I accessed lots of different writers. Robert William Sanford was a favourite source of mine because he writes about the mountain west and is an expert on water issues; he works with the U.N. (And he happens to live in Canmore, Alberta, very close to me.) I also read many articles by David Schindler, and I read books by Andrew Nikiforic. Kevin Van Tigham is another environmental writer who used to work for Parks and he writes amazing articles.
So, yes, I really accessed all the information I could to learn about what’s happening now. These are people who are my heroes because they write about the science of the now. And that really helped give me a grounding to be able to project my story into the future. That was essential for me to do that reading, to do that research in order to be able to tell this near future story. I didn’t want it to be sci-fi. I didn’t want it to be too far into the future. I wanted people to be able to relate to it. So, these authors and scientists helped tremendously to try and put my story in a very near future context.
NP: Willa’s hallucinations provide an interesting parallel to a world that’s off kilter and out of focus with reality. Could you talk about that and why you chose that approach and that disease in particular?
DV: Yes, that was important, a really critical part of the story for me, exactly for the reason that you mention, that things are definitely off kilter. They’re out of focus for her and I was looking for some way to convey that. And this is where sometimes the universe gives you gifts and in this way it’s not a pleasant gift because it has to do with a disease. But I did find out as I was researching Parkinson’s that there’s a related disease called Lewy Body Syndrome, and people do have hallucinations when they have that particular condition. That led me to poor Willa and giving that to her as a way of furthering that whole notion. That kind of worked well with the story, added to the dystopia of it.
NP: There are several other serious and thought-provoking themes in Watershed, such as assisted dying; homelessness; and the questioning of faith. And yet, the book ends on a hopeful note. I’m wondering if you could elaborate on the theme of hope in a cli-fi novel. Is it a necessary element?
DV: I see it as quite critical. First of all, things can be seen as very dire because a lot of what I talk about in Watershed, there’s a reasonable probability that these things could happen. It is a grim scenario, I recognize that, but I do believe there’s much hope in humanity. Even for dealing with these huge crises of our time and into the future. I’m not a scientist. I don’t know when the glaciers will melt. I don’t know when our first oil will run its course, but I do believe that we have a really strong ability in humanity to make really difficult decisions. As long as we do that based on science, and as long as we are able to listen openly to each other’s truths and that we can adapt—adapt and do so courageously over time. I guess one word that encapsulates that would be resilience. I think we have the resilience to deal with these issues.
Interestingly enough, the pandemic has given us a glimpse of that because we’ve seen—through this time that many are calling The Great Slowdown—that the earth can heal. As long as we give it that chance to. This is an opportunity for us to get a glimpse into what’s possible. We just have to, now, put effort into making sure that happens and that we don’t fall into old habits and squander this opportunity.
NP: Okay, enough of all those heavy, technical questions! This is your debut novel and you’re launching it in a pandemic. Do you think you might have a second, in-person type of launch when restrictions are eased?
DV: I would love to. I was so looking forward to travelling, especially through my beautiful home province of Alberta, to share this book with people. And just to celebrate this wonderful place we live in. I had book launches planned in Pincher Creek and High River and Red Deer, Edmonton, Calgary, even Warburg, which is near Leduc, Alberta, where the farmers live, the goat farming family that I befriended while I was researching the novel. They live up near Warburg on this beautiful goat farm I visited and actually recently visited them—socially distanced, of course. They’re just the most wonderful people. They took me in for five days. They showed me everything they know about goat farming. So, we had actually a big lunch planned in Warburg with them and all of their friends—there was going to be about 70 people.
I think it would be tremendous fun to resume [the book launch] once things are normal again and, hopefully, there’ll still be some interest. These things tend to be a bit of a flash in the pan, but I’m hoping, definitely, to get out there just for the sake of celebrating our beautiful province and talking about these really, really important issues. If this book can help give a sense of urgency to people about things, that’s just a bonus for me. There was one reader who contacted me recently from Ottawa, Ontario She said she loved the book, which, of course, is wonderful. But she also said, “I look at my tap in a whole different way now. I’m so grateful for the water that comes from my tap. And when I look out my window, I see water in the canal. I look at it all so differently and I’m so grateful for it.” I can’t ask for a greater compliment than that.