Writing in Atlantic Books Today, Chris Benjamin says “Huebert is a gifted short story writer. His characters do contain multitudes, each story a set of worlds. Collectively, they reflect our times, and help us contemplate the most dire of threats to our singular habitable planet.”
David Huebert’s writing has won the CBC Short Story Prize, The Walrus Poetry Prize, and was a finalist for the 2020 Journey Prize. David’s fiction debut, Peninsula Sinking, won a Dartmouth Book Award, was shortlisted for the Alistair MacLeod Short Fiction Prize, and was runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. David’s work has been published in magazines such as The Walrus, Maisonneuve, enRoute, and Canadian Notes & Queries, and anthologized in Best Canadian Stories and The Journey Prize Stories. David teaches at The University of King’s College in K’jipuktuk/Halifax, where he lives and writes.
Trevor Corkum: Chemical Valley is your sophomore collection of short fiction, coming on the heels of your award-winning debut, Peninsula Sinking. What were you hoping to achieve creatively in this new work, and what pressure did you feel putting together a follow-up?
David Huebert: I felt some pressure, but most of it came from me. I didn’t want to do Peninsula 2.0. I felt that I could have kept writing close cousins of those stories, but I wanted to do something a little different. It ended up being grittier, grimier, and more nested in the Gothic.
One thing I love about short story collections is that rather than being planned or plotted, they shore up the writer’s obsessions in the form of a constellation. For me the goo that holds Chemical Valley messily together is oil. Around the time I was finishing Peninsula Sinking I became obsessed with the aesthetics of oil. I was living near Lambton County and I’d visited The Oil Museum of Canada in the small town called Oil Springs. I was astounded by what I learned about the little-known history of the Lambton County oil boom of the late nineteenth century. Oil-fires that burned for months at a time; huge wooden stills getting hit by lightning and catching fire; kids falling into abandoned wells. I just knew I had to write about that history and how it seeps into our current moment of petrochemical reckoning.
Part of the process of writing this book was also just acclimatizing to life in Southwestern Ontario, where there is simply more heat and pavement than there has ever been in Nova Scotia. There was someone on my block in London who drove a Hummer. I sat in massive lines of cars commuting on the 402 and thought about the people doing that every day, sitting there staring at taillights and exhaust pipes and Cineplexes. I saw the strange banal monstrosity of that act, of the everyday ways all of us live with petroculture. All this thinking and research leached in various ways into these stories.
I met some dear friends from Sarnia and I went there once for a writing workshop, then again for a “Toxic Tour” run by the Aamjiwnaang activist Vanessa Grey and the organization Aamjiwnaang Solidarity Against Pipelines. I saw the cluster of plants they call Chemical Valley and I was totally unsettled and amazed by that spectacle of petrochemical mecca. I sensed it was a kind of underside, powering all of our lives, and that some had to pay the immediate cost of living close to it. It was so true, so real, so wrong.
TC: The stories in the collection are set against the decline and collapse of the natural world. Despite the bleak backdrops of many stories, characters are able to find beauty and meaning in the day-do-day. Can you talk about this juxtaposition a little more? Do you consider yourself an optimist at heart?
DH: People ask this question a lot, but I think optimism might be the wrong yardstick. How about responsibility? How about skills, a plan? I want responsibility and acknowledgement.
Hope can be an anaesthetic, and I don’t want that brand of hope, for me or my children. I also don’t want a world of Total Efficiency, a world devoid of joy and art. Paleolithic cave painters who drew huge, lush, divine beasts on the walls of Lascaux took time to make beauty in a fantastically hostile world where you could still get devoured on your way to the breakfast tree. In a very real way, I am writing to them and for them.
I think it’s crucial to maintain levity in eco-oriented writing. As Nicole Seymour suggests in her wonderful book Bad Environmentalism, doom and gloom are a bit tired in ecological discourse. Climate crisis demands real, genuine grief, yes. And people are dying right now for many climate-related reasons. Still, there is an exhaustion around claims that “the world is burning” and discussions of what it’s like to live “at the end of the world.” While generally well-meaning, such claims can actually be damaging—sensationalistic and generalizing. How will we deal with this crisis? We are dealing with it. We are living it. It’s here.
One of the things I love about ecologically oriented writing, both as a reader and a writer, is its agility. There is amazing work being done in climate realism, like Jenny Offil’s Weather. Meanwhile a work like Sidney Warner Brooman’s The Pump navigates ecological themes with carnivorous beavers in a wonderful Gothic parable and works by Cherie Dimaline and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson offer crucial Indigenous perspectives that have long been ignored by Euro-descended writers. As a reader, I read everything ecologically, and I see so many productive avenues.
Ecology and environments have always been strange to us, beautiful and fundamentally with-holding. This is what I try to tap into. I don’t want to preach, and above all I don’t want to wail a song of doom. I do want to acknowledge threat and affirm the need for change while cultivating ecological love and cherishing the inherent resilience of nonhuman life. I want to sing the strange molten beauty of a pigeon as it’s tossed in the incinerator, to taste larvae with the Red Hot Chili Preppers, to hear the patter of hooves through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, watch snow melt behind a hockey rink, see the nitrogen-fed corn stooping in a river of wind.
TC: One thing about your characters is how often so many of them have extremely vivid, bizarre dreams. Why are dreams important to you as a writer?
DH: On one level, all a story is is dream. I make these things up, and their best bits come to me when I’m at the cusp of sleep. I follow the dream logic I’m given, the patterns of images, the traces of visions.
On another level (the level of craft), a dream can give a writer the most direct channel into a character’s subconscious mind. It is a place to explore the character’s deepest anxieties and to demonstrate the species of their unease to the reader in a way that remains productively indirect.
In my story, “The Pit,” Edward dreams of monstrous trees climbing up a building to devour him. I’m trying to say something about his fungus, and about the story’s thematic interest in the space between animacy and inanimacy, what is living and what is dead. Yet the dream allows me to heighten the emotional tension and develop this theme while leaving the resonance open-ended, deking a ham-fisted message.
I think both oil and nonhuman life are particularly dreamy subjects. The wilderness is fundamentally uncanny—it shares an etymological trunk with the word “bewilderment.” Woods, like stories, are places where we get lost. Oil is a darkly oneiric substance, a shadow side of our civilizations. It takes on all colour. It is bizarrely beautiful in its shimmering blackness, a poison jewel.
TC: We hear a lot lately about solastalgia, the grief and existential distress caused by living through extreme climate change. In your opinion, what obligations does a writer have to address the ecological disaster we’re living through?
DH: I don’t think a fiction writer has any obligation towards particular material or themes, but I do think everyone writing today is writing in the midst of a paradigm shift. The geological future we were promised has wobbled and melted before our eyes. What an incredible moment to think in. It’s overwhelming, delirious, intoxicating, unbearable. We know more than ever, we can map the genomes of pigs and take leisure cruises to the moon, and we are just as helpless and scared as ever. It’s a beautiful aporia.
Everyone writing today is writing the climate crisis. Of course, there are degrees of attuning to climate, to ecosystems, to nonhuman life. There are different ways it manifests, but everyone is writing in the world of exhausted capitalism and increasingly fierce competition for fewer and fewer so-called natural resources. The pressure of climate crisis exacerbates all issues of social justice, from racism to ableism to the “slow violence” (Rob Nixon) of environmental racism perpetrated against the Global South. There’s no way to write around this issue, just degrees of attention.
TC: There are so many great characters in the collection, from enforcer hockey players to teenage activists to sensitive chemical plant workers. If you could spend a day with one of your characters, who would it be and what would you do? What would you learn about each other?
DH: I’ve never asked myself this before, but it turns out I want to hold all my characters, to cradle and cry with them. I want to munch larvae with Zane, vape with Eileen, tune up Wes’ Tinder picture, straighten out Grace’s Peppa Pig pyjamas. My four-year-old says I’m a softie.
As a fantasy domain, there is one story that does draw me in more than the others: “Leviathan.” This one is set in 1862 in Canada West and the oil nerd in me desperately wants to go watch Malcolm burn his father’s body, which he finds frozen in the slashed guts of a horse. I’d love to see the gushers boom over the hills as Malcolm rides back to Enniskillen over the corduroy road. I’d love to witness that moment, the inception of our long petrochemical flood. I’d learn, from Malcolm, about the crazed, delirious optimism surrounding oil in that moment. And maybe if it was a good day I would show him how we might cradle that wild hungry want, how we might love that creature better, how we might know it and stroke it and help it calm down.
Excerpt from “Chemical Valley”
WHAT YOU MIGHT find, if you were handling a dead pigeon, is something unexpected in the glassy cosmos of its eye: a dark beauty, a molten alchemy. You might find a pigeon’s iris looks how you imagine the Earth’s core—pebble-glass waves of crimson, a perfect still shudder of rose and lilac. What you might do, if you were placing a dead pigeon into the incinerator, is take off your Kevlar glove and touch your bare index finger to its cornea. What you might do before dropping the bird into a white-hot Mordor of carbon and coke is touch your fingertip to that unblinking membrane and hold it there, feeling a mangle of tenderness and violation, thinking this may be the loveliest secret you have ever touched.
I’M TELLING EILEEN how I want to be buried, namely inside a tree. We’re sitting in bed eating Thai from the mall and listening to the 6:00 p.m. construction outside our window—the city tearing up the whole street along with tree roots and a rusted tangle of lead pipes—and I’m telling Eileen it’s called a biodegradable burial pod. Mouth full of cashew curry and I’m saying what they do is put your remains in this egg-looking thing like the xenomorph’s cocoon from Alien: Resurrection but it’s made of biodegradable plastic. I’m telling Eileen it’s called “capsula mundi” and what they do is hitch the remains to a semi-mature tree and plant the whole package. Stuff you down in fetal position and let you gradually decay until you become nitrogen, seep into soil.
Contemplating panang, Eileen asks where I got the idea about the burial pod and I tell her Facebook or maybe an email newsletter. “You click on that shit? Why are you even thinking about this now? You just turned thirty-four.”
I don’t tell her about the basement, about Mum. I don’t tell her about the pigeons strewn out on the concrete and then going supernova in the incinerator, don’t mention how it gets me thinking about flesh, about bodies, about waste. I don’t tell her about Blane, the twenty-nine-year-old long-distance runner who got a heart attack sitting at the panel in the Alkylation unit. Blane didn’t die but he did need surgery and a pacemaker and that sort of thing gets you curious. Which is how you end up lying in bed at night checking your pulse and feeling like your chest is shrinking and thinking about the margin of irregular and erratic.
Picking a bamboo shoot from her molars: “Since when are you into trees?”
She says it smug. She says it like Ms. University Sciences, and nobody else is allowed to like trees. I don’t tell her how we’re all compost and yes I read that on a Facebook link. I also do not tell her about the article’s tag line: “Your carbon footprint doesn’t end in the grave.” Reaching for the pad Thai, I tell her about the balance, how it’s only natural. How the human body’s rich in nitrogen, how when you use a coffin there’s a lot of waste because the body just rots on its own when it could be giving nutrients to the system. Not to mention all the metals and treated woods in coffins. I tell her how the idea is to phase out traditional graveyards entirely, replace them with grave-forests.
“Hmm,” Eileen says, gazing out the window—the sky a caramelized rose. “Is this a guilt thing, from working at the plants?”
I tell her no, maybe, I don’t know. An excavator hisses its load into the earth.
“Is this why you were so weird about your mother’s funeral?”
I ask what she means and she says never mind, sorry.
“Do you ever imagine they’re ducks?”
Eileen asks what and I tell her the loaders and the bulldozers and the cranes. Sometimes I imagine they’re wildlife, ducks or geese. And maybe why they’re crying like that is because they’re in distress. Like maybe they’ve lost their eggs and all they want is to get them back and when you think about it like that it’s still bad but at least it’s not just machines screaming and blaring because they’re tearing up old sidewalks to put new ones down.
“Ducks,” Eileen says. “Probably still be one working for every three scratching their guts for overtime pay.”
She stacks the containers and reaches for the vaporizer on the nightstand, asking if I love trees so much why didn’t I become a landscaper or a botanist or an arborist. I shrug, not mentioning the debt or the mortgage or the pharmaceutical bills. Not mentioning that if I wanted to do something it would be the comic store but there’s no market in Sarnia anyway.
I tell her it’s probably too late for a career change.
“No,” she coos, pinching my chin the way I secretly loathe. She smiles her sweet stoned smile, a wisp of non-smoke snaking through her molars. “You could do anything. You could be so much.” Eileen lies down on her back on the bed, telling the ceiling I could be so much and the worst part is she means it. The worst and the best all coiled together as I reach out and thumb the curry sauce from her chin, thinking about when she’ll fall asleep and I’ll drift down to the basement, to Mum.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
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