It took twenty-five years for Vicki Turpen and daughter Shannon Horst to bring their debut novel, The Delicate Balance (Terra Nova Books, 2019), from story idea to publication. During that time, they have seen their fictional plot regarding climate change begin to play out in the world. Both authors live in an intentional family community on a farm in Albuquerque’s South Valley and strive to do their part to replenish spaceship Earth. You can connect with Vicki and Shannon on Facebook.
What is your elevator pitch for The Delicate Balance?
In The Delicate Balance, people all around the world try to do what has never been done on a mass scale—change the way they live their lives to avert what they believe is certain impending death. When atmospheric data from around the world indicates the delicate balance of gases that make up air has begun to shift as a result of climate change, United Nations’ climatologist Jesse Forester lands in the hot seat. To avert mass extinction, Forrester and Hannah Koenig, Senior Counsel to The Secretary General, create Operation World Salvation—a worldwide mandatory (on threat of being shot) shutdown of all use of fossil fuels and burning. Amid the chaos that ensues (abandoned hospitals with patients still inside and hordes of roving, starving people), Forrester and Koenig search for ways to put some semblance of civilization back together. Just as they discover pockets of people who have long been living carbon-neutral lives that are rich in many ways, new data appears that indicates the original figures on gases were falsified. Who would do that and why? And, does it matter?
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
We wrote the book with the hope that readers will love the story and the characters. And if climate change does exist, it is an outcome of the way humans live their lives. If that is true, it is entirely within our power to reverse it. There are solutions we can implement right now, no more research needed. If we had the political will, we could restore soil carbon on a massive scale. This would offset huge portions of the legacy load of carbon and the annual increase load. It would also rebuild fresh-water aquifers, increase food production, produce healthier food, restore wildlife habitat, contribute to human health, etc. To reverse the course we are on will require that we all live simpler—but in many ways richer—lives. When people quit pursuing consumptive material things and focus on relationships and restoration of habitat and caring for creatures, their lives aren’t poorer, they’re richer.
We also hope the reader will choose to quit finger pointing, being a victim or allowing others to be victimized. Very few people get up every day and say, “I’m going to destroy biodiversity and throw carbon into the air.” All of us live our lives doing the best we can. We are all in this together. There are people already living rich lives with carbon-neutral or carbon-negative footprints. The reader will meet some of them (or their fictional twins) in the book and ask, “Why aren’t we replicating this on a grand scale?”
Who are the main characters in the book?
Jesse Forester is a tree-hugger and the chief atmospheric scientist for the United Nations who watches ozone levels and trends in climate change. As a result of the worldwide mobilization to halt all use of fossil fuels, he sends his spouse and two teenage boys to his childhood farm in Iowa where he hopes they will be safe. He is then thrown into a working relationship with Hannah Koenig, chief legal counsel to the Secretary General of the UN. Their task is to create and implement a worldwide ban on all fossil fuels and all burning (agricultural, industrial, etc.). And then to find ways to rebuild civilization without repeating the patterns that created climate change. Jesse and Hannah are a mismatched pair—even antagonists—at first. But they quickly build a bond out of the intensity of the chaos they are creating and then attempt to mitigate. They try to make ethical decisions in a world where everyone is just trying to survive. They face dilemmas we may one day face. Do you let prisoners go before you run out of gas to transport them or just let them starve in situ? What about hospitals? Assisted living facilities? Jesse is also faced with the very real prospect he will never see his family again. He is too aware that Hannah is beautiful and intelligent and, if they survive at all, someone he might build a new life with.
What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
The many challenges included: 1) trying to make sure the book read smoothly and not like it was written by two different people; 2) making the story simple—but not simplistic—around the science of climate change; 3) challenging each other many times over what had to get cut, added, or changed in the manuscript (and probably wanting to kill each other, but we survived in the end and remain good friends to this day); 4) being willing to let go, to be okay with the possibility of never getting published; and 5) when we began this 25-year journey, we both had full-time jobs (one of us still works full time), so writing, editing, pitching, and getting published was a real labor of love.
What sparked the story idea?
The kernel of the story came from a conversation one of us had with a colleague who had been working on issues related to the loss of biodiversity, desertification, and the inevitable result of climate change. We brainstormed ways to tell a compelling story about the relationship between soil carbon, soil carbon destruction, the attendant release of carbon to the atmosphere, etc. At the time, we also looked at the fact that most of the movies about global warming proposed it was going to come as just a big series of climactic events that destroy civilization. We considered that we have never mobilized to ward off a tragedy we could see coming. Generally, we wait until the crisis happens and then clean up the mess. Our plot came from all of these musings. There were already plenty of technical books, but the average reader doesn’t read them. So, we put together a mystery plot. As the years went by, the fictional plot we created began to play out around us—increased extremes in weather, increased diseases related to breathing, etc.
Tell us how the book came together.
We divvied up the major characters and the settings where they appear. Vicki wrote most of the short snippets where a character appears only one time but tells the reader things like what really happens when a zoo can no longer feed its animals because there is no fossil fuel. The full manuscript was ready after about 15 years. We edited and reworked it for another five years while also trying to get it published. We sent letters of inquiry, went to various conferences where we pitched the book, etc. Vicki did most of the pitches because she was already retired. And she kept her ear to the ground through SouthWest Writers (SWW). Vicki signed up to do a pitch for two publishers at an SWW conference in 2018. The editor from Terra Nova/Golden Word Books showed sincere interest. Within about a week of the pitch, we had an agreement for them to publish The Delicate Balance, and it was released in 2019.
What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
Our favorite thing about writing this book was the fun times we had together. For example, one time we were working on the book while on a trip and Vicki was updating Shannon about the plot. Vicki had murdered a couple of characters along the way and after the third murder, Shannon (a bit put out) said, “How many of our characters are you going to snuff out?”
What are you most happy with in your writing?
Vicki: I love discovering characters. There is a wonderful world out there of interesting, fascinating people. Once I latch on to one of them, I allow him or her to do the talking and acting for me. Characters in my authored works have said and done things that came from them, not from my own experience. As a long-time drama teacher and director, I visualize the story, scene by scene. I may argue with my characters, but so often they are more creative and ingenuous than I could ever be.
What has writing taught you about yourself?
Vicki: We all learn and remember more when we sit down with a pen or open a computer and write. That is a fact. If we are forced to edit what we write, we discover the myriad ways to say the same thing. We discover what is clean and valuable, or worth thinking and writing about, and not just flotsam and jetsam. During my master’s program in education at UNM, I loved writing for the class about the students I was teaching and learning more about teaching from the vast variety of other teachers in the class. One morning at home after breakfast, I went to write in my study. Later I decided it was probably time to eat lunch only to discover it was already 5:00 pm. I thought, this is fun, and I would love doing this when I retire.
What writing projects are you working on now?
Vicki: Right now, I have in the works a short young-adult novel based on my real experience with #MeToo when I was fifteen. I have a historical novel about what it was like to be a woman in the late 1800s/early 1900s, if you didn’t bend to the rules created by men for women. Lastly, I have a few chapters of a memoir about my 51-year marriage and raising five children.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.