Climate Change Fiction and Celtic Legends: An Interview with Author David Thorpe

David ThorpeI recently came across a rather unusual book: Stormteller by David Thorpe. The premise intrigued me – the combination of two seemingly divergent themes: the Celtic legends of the Mabinogion and the issue of climate change. In fact, it’s been classed as part of a new genre called ‘cli-fi’, which stands for ‘climate fiction’ (fiction which “imagines the past, present, and future effects of climate change”). The opening is surreal, as the ancient characters of Ceridwen and her son (Afagddu) attempt to re-tell their own stories and re-direct their fate through the lives of three young people living in modern day Mid-Wales…   

Book - Stormteller by David ThorpeThe plot follows young, wealthy Tomos as he falls in love with the beautiful Eira. But she prefers the stronger, more confident Bryn, who lives in a sustainable commune further inland. Myths get tangled up with reality, and a great storm surge results in Tomos losing both of his parents. Tomos, Bryn and Eira are eventually forced into the hills, where they must flee to safety. The legend plays out again, but the ending is different this time.

I interviewed David Thorpe to find out what made him decide to write such an unusual book…

What inspired you to write a book that focuses on the effects of climate change but also takes inspiration from Celtic myths?

I have always had a passion for the environment and for speculative fiction, and have written many books and articles on environmental issues. People kept asking me why didn’t I write a work of fiction that incorporated my knowledge and interest in the environment.

But when you start writing something you feel strongly about, it is hard to stop some kind of didactic or preachy message creeping in. So I tried to use both a fact-based approach (based on research and the geography of the landscape) and to update these two myths (of the origin of Taliesin and of Cantre’r Gwaelod). By sticking to these I thought I could stop myself from coming over preachy. These particular legends are situated in the location that I wanted to write about: Borth, the Dyfi Estuary, Taliesin and the hills beyond. It was where I was living and I knew it very well.

Cantre'r Gwaelod (the petrified forest)

Petrified trees on the beach – according to legend Cantre’r Gwaelod was an ancient kingdom which was flooded and is now under the waters of Cardigan Bay

You can tell from the book that you have a lot of knowledge about sustainable living. Did you have to do much research?

I did a lot of research, talking to climate scientists and reading scientific reports about the effect of climate change upon this stretch of coast, which I discovered was the most vulnerable in the whole of Wales to storm surges and sea-level rise. In fact, some of my friends lived in the houses that give out onto the beach in Borth and at particularly high tides the sea would come in their backdoor and out of the front door into the street.

It was the first time I had written about a particular place in a work of fiction. I very much enjoyed the specificity of doing this. I wanted to write with intense accuracy about nature in particular places at particular times. I walked and walked and took lots of photographs.

abandoned house on Pumlumon

Photo of an abandoned house which features in the book

What made you decide to write it for young adults?

I wrote it as a YA novel because that’s what I do in general. I like the fact that teenagers are asking lots of questions about the world. They also like fantasy. It began as a short story for a competition, but it was obviously too big an idea to be contained in a short story.

The journey

Mapping out the characters’ journey

Were you influenced by the work of other writers?

One of my touchstones was the work of children’s writer Alan Garner, in particular The Owl Service, which is also set in mid-Wales and based on a story from the Mabinogion. I read the book when I was a child, and again when I moved to Wales in 1993.

I remember reading books like Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household as a child, which taught you how to survive in the wild, which to a young boy is incredibly romantic. I thought I could do the same thing here. So I interviewed a guy who is a survivalist, who takes groups of disaffected youngsters into the very area where Bryn and Tomos get lost, and asked him what they would eat and how they would survive.

Did you intend to write a ‘cli-fi’ novel?

'Cli-fi' panel at Hay Festival 2015

The ‘cli-fi’ panel at the Hay Festival in 2015

I didn’t know that I had written a “cli-fi” novel until George Marshall told me about the term. It was coined by an American cultural observer called Dan Bloom. Dan had already interviewed George and then he interviewed me. Then the Hay Festival got wind of the whole thing and that’s how we ended up there in 2015, for the first panel they had ever had on the subject.

Hopefully we’re going back this year to talk about a new collection of short stories and poems called Realistic Utopias. This was commissioned by the Free Word Centre in London as part of a project called Weatherfronts. Myself and the other four contributors will be going along. We are also doing the same event as part of the Llandeilo Litfest at the end of April.

Discover more of David Thorpe’s work by visiting his website.

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.