Thursday, April 18, 2024

Q&A with Maryann Lesert




Maryann Lesert is the author of the new novel Land Marks. Her other work includes the novel Base Ten. Also a playwright, she lives in Michigan.


Q: What inspired you to write Land Marks, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: In the early to mid-2010s, fracking (horizontal hydraulic fracturing) came to Michigan’s state forests, and I set out to learn as much as I could: about drilling and fracking, the science behind the chemicals used, and the extreme water withdrawals.


But what I really wanted to write was the sensory story of fracking—the roar of compressors, the blue-black clouds of diesel power, the screech of the drill rig and the whisper-screams of rock being ground.


I also wanted to tell the stories of the people I had met across the state, people I had fallen in love with, in a sense, due to their tenacity and their belief in the power of story.


Here were young families, elderly couples, organic farmers living with fracking, yet they believed that if I (and others) told their stories, if the public knew what fracking had done to their sense of home and place, that we would all want to stop it.


So, many of my characters are built from the friendship and solidarity I experienced as people around the state—educators, doctors, water well drillers, members of Indigenous communities, students, and artists—came together to tell the story of fracking and to protest when the public was left out of decisions regarding oil and gas development on public lands.


Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: For two years, I visited every active frack well site in Michigan, which I refer to now as my “boots-on-well-sites” research phase. I also devoured research on the chemicals used and so-called “secret” chemicals that the industry does not have to disclose.


One of the surprises in my research was how much I loved learning about geology. I have always had a close relationship to the natural world, and growing up in Michigan, I learned to love places where water and land meet, where water brings constant change.


But learning more about geology and geological history, about the bedrock and the shale layers below us, was pretty fascinating.


I remember being on a panel at a public meeting (I was asked to share my research about fracking often). We were discussing geology, how the mineral rights that the oil and gas industry leases, when they lease land, often include rights to water and any other mineral that can be extracted.


A Department of Natural Resources manager added that mineral leases can include anything “from the surface to the core.” He held up his hands and carved a pie-shaped slice in the air to demonstrate. I responded, “We don’t even know what’s at Earth’s core.” And he answered, “Well. We know it’s hot!”


This is one of many baffling experiences that didn’t make it into the novel. So, thank you for asking, and I hope my retelling conveys the oddity and audacity of the moment. 


Q: The writer Bill McKibben said of the book, “This compelling novel gets at the emotions that undergird activism—the love, the, fear, the feeling that something somehow must be done. I recognized much that was familiar, and learned much that was new.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love this description because it captures the essence of why I wrote Land Marks – to honor the everyday people who decided to stand up when they felt that something was wrong, even though they didn’t known what, exactly, they could do.


They stood up out of love for land and water, love for their communities, and love and respect for the more-than-human world, too.


I like the way this description calls attention to the idea that being an activist doesn’t mean you have to have some special skills or some super-human motivation. You simply have to care and refuse to rationalize away your sense of caring.


Our culture tends to make fun of people who care deeply (ex: tree huggers used as a derogatory term). Challenges to the status quo are framed as ideal or naïve, as in, “How is your one, little act going to change this huge system?”


The answer for me, is, “It’s not.” Alone, we can’t change huge and powerful systems. But together, we can keep “Kickin’ ‘em in the shins,” as one of my characters says. We can chip away at a flawed system, one stand-up at a time.


I also feel honored that Bill McKibben, an author/activist who’s been educating the public about climate change since his 1989 book The End of Nature, and the co-founder of, the nonprofit that taught us all about levels of carbon in the atmosphere, learned something new from this story.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Actually, I made a major change in the novel about three years into it. Land Marks has two parts: “Showing Up,” which follows the characters through their own learning curve as they visit frack well sites, attend public meetings, and participate in protests.


In Part Two, “Showdown,” the main characters and several others join together in direction action, trying to stop a dangerous new frack well site.


Initially, when I was writing the novel, I thought “Showing Up” was the whole story. But then I realized that I could harness the power of fiction and go all the way with this story, that I could do, in the novel, what one of the character’s says in an early chapter: “Imagine what we could do if we all came together.”


Land Marks is what it is because of the “Showdown” that happens in the second half, and I had a lot of fun writing the joy of solidarity that blossoms in an action camp. That’s when this novel really took off as a story of resistance.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My next novel is a story about grief and the friendship between two very different but extraordinary women living in a difficult time. It features a landscape damaged by humans, and how the damage we due to our places brings damage to us. Still, it is a story of hope based on deep relationships with place and how a place can call us home.


Q: Anything else we should know?               


A: Before I wrote novels (my first novel, Base Ten, was published by the Feminist Press in 2009), I wrote plays. I loved the active, collaborative nature of writing and staging a play: doing initial readings with actors around the table, revising by moving around the house, trying out lines and feeling filled with energy.


The last play I wrote and had produced was a full-length adaptation of a memoir that I wrote in a partnership with a local symphony. (It was a play with music.) So many layers of collaboration!


I love the solitude that comes with writing a novel, the stillness and the “forgetting” about your actual, physical life for a while. Time in nature and me go together well, when I’m writing fiction. But I sometimes miss the energy and the physical work of staging a play.


I’m staying open to the possibility of writing a play, next, or perhaps a script for the screen.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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