Welcome to Freelance and Fiction, Lorne. Tell us about your book!
Southcrop Forest is a children's book—and more. It is steeped in the natural sciences and history, made accessible through an engaging, Tolkienesque narrative. A menagerie of plants and animals parades across its pages. Threats from urban sprawl, deforestation and climate change are central to the plot.
Southcrop Forest is an animal fantasy, with a young protagonist who faces terrible dangers, daunting tasks, impossible odds and his own fears. But what a strange protagonist. He is Fur, a colony of caterpillars: a single creature, with one voice and one mind made from a collective. And his companion in this story is Auja, a young oak tree.
Auja lives in Southcrop Forest and Southcrop is in danger. Tree civilization is built upon a subterranean communication network—like a worldwide web for trees. The hubs of this web are the trees' special farms that hold the source of all power. And the last farms in Southcrop are about to be destroyed by humans. The farms of Southcrop are unlike any other. They hold a secret treasure, only just discovered: a treasure so great it could change the world for trees everywhere. But Southcrop Forest is a fragment, bounded by highways and sprawl. Since trees can't walk and their communication lines have been cut, they cannot spread their new-found gift across the land.
The adventure begins when Auja discovers little Fur amongst her branches, a legendary creature not seen for a thousand years. Though small and meek, Fur can travel through the forest and communicate with trees. Fur embarks on a desperate quest to gather the trees' great treasure and carry it across Oak River to the forests of Deep Sky. Ghoulish enemies hunt him on his journey of enlightenment as he learns about the ecology of his world, the threat of humans, and finally, the eerie secret of his existence.
Your book doesn’t fit neatly within a single genre. How would you shelve this novel?
Yes, good point, Rachel, the book doesn’t fit neatly within any genre: it’s a fictional non-fiction. It has won literary awards for Fantasy, Nature Writing, and Nature & Environment, while reviewers have placed it in genres such as Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, and Magic Realism. Maybe it is a Science Fiction: there is surely enough science and fact within the book’s pages to support a rational alternate world. But the story is quite magical, and mystical, and there is much that may appear supernatural, so Fantasy would also fit. Because the story is also about Natural History and Ecology, I would shelve this novel as Ecological or Eco-Fantasy.
I think you have created a niche genre that I'd like to explore! What is it about ecology that sparked your interest?
I’ve always been interested in the natural world, and how it works: Where do animals live? What do they eat and how do they survive and reproduce? How do they interact with other living things and their environment? I hunted bugs in the backyard, roamed the fields and ravines of my hometown Toronto, and hiked and paddled the forests and lakes of our near north. I pursued these interests through university and graduate school, to a PhD in Ecology.
For much of the science in Southcrop Forest I drew upon my years as an ecologist, and chose one of the main characters from a particular part of the animal kingdom I am most familiar with—the insects. Though the book has been used in the classroom, it is not a science book but rather a gripping fantasy quest. Why does science fiction and fantasy need other-worldly creatures? What about our world? There are so many curious creatures living beyond our front doors. I wanted to tell a story about a little piece of the natural world beyond my own front door.
Did you find it difficult to write from the perspective of a group of trees?
Yes! At first it was difficult because trees can’t move, never mind talk or see. In fact it was the special interconnection of trees in groups or forests that made writing easier. Trees could travel without moving, speak without making a sound, and see much farther, and more vividly than we humans ever could because they lived and sensed the world not only as individuals but also together as one forest.
It also became easier the more I wrote, because the characters began to take on a life of their own and developed a strong bond with each other. The main protagonists, Auja and Fur become close friends. One happens to be a tree, and the other a colony of caterpillars, but stories of friendship are familiar to us all.
What are some of your literary influences?
As Southcrop Forest is about trees, the Ents in J. Tolkien's Two Towers, with their own intelligences and ancient culture, certainly influenced me. They are the most memorable tree creatures I've yet encountered. But other animal stories also made their impressions. With meticulous yet seamless descriptions of the English countryside in R. Adams' Watership Down and the southern seas in Y. Martel's Life of Pi, I learned that it was possible to write about nature and still spin a good fantasy tale.
In the non-fiction genre I was influenced by popular science books in the area of Chaos and Complexity Theory in works such as S. Kauffman's At Home in the Universe and J. Gleik's Chaos. And so it is no coincidence that the character named Fur is a single, self-organized creature that mysteriously emerges from a collective of organisms, or that the picture on the book cover that looks like a forest is actually a fractal image from the Mandelbrot set.
I wondered about that mysterious cover image! Are you working on any new books at the moment?
Yes! I am working on a sequel in which the magic spores of Southcrop Forest are found by a twisted tree and used in a plot of revenge upon a hewman metropolis.
Sounds exciting! Thank you so much for joining us on the Freelance and Fiction blog.
Thank you Rachel for giving be the opportunity to talk about Southcrop Forest.
You can find more about Fur and the trees at the Southcrop Forest website. As always, if you enjoyed this interview, please share the love! You can find me on Twitter and Facebook.