Author/Interviewer Alice Baynton
Using fiction to inspire real change; an interview with an activist author.
In March 2016, an independent Scottish publisher called Ringwood Press, took a chance on a debut novelist and published ‘The Activist’ by Alec Connon. It seems they made the right decision, as since its publication, it has attracted a lot of positive attention. As well as numerous fantastic reviews from other writers, it was named Coast Magazine’s book of the month and Alec Connon was BBC Wildlife’s featured author for June 2016. With all of this praise and excitement flying around I decided I had to see what all the fuss was about.
At the beginning of ‘The Activist’ our protagonist, Thomas, is at a bit of a loss; half-heartedly attending university but mostly doing a lot of drinking. Then, on a whim, he and a group of his friends decide to bike from John O’Groats to Land’s End, on rusty old bikes, without a map, and dressed as superheroes. It is during the nights spent in a soggy tent during this somewhat ridiculous challenge that Thomas reads a book that changes his life. He reads about the decimation of our oceans, and, horrified by the statistics he does what most people fail to do...and acts on it. Over the course of the novel we watch Thomas go from floundering student to passionate, driven activist, who joins up with the Sea Shepherd organisation, and among other things, braves the freezing Southern Ocean to try to stop Japan’s illegal whaling.
I am a writer therefore I am a judgemental and nit-picking reader, but I found little to distract me whilst reading ‘The Activist’. The writing is visceral, entertaining and easy to read, the narrative rattles along at a great pace, whisking you from Scotland, to America, to Japan, even to the frigid shores of the Antarctic. Alec Connon creates vivid and three dimensional characters, finds the humour in difficult situations, but also ensures that his readers are shocked and appalled by the things we as a species have managed to do to the world we rely on.
Thoroughly impressed, I decided to get in touch with Mr Connon, whose positive and pro-active attitude is something we at Eventus would like to share with our readers. Here is what happened when Eventus met the author of ‘The Activist’.
You were born and raised in Scotland, but I see you currently live in Seattle. What took you there?
Long story short, my ex. We were together for about 5 years, but broke up about a year after I arrived in Seattle. The reason I’m still here is because I was lucky enough to find this incredible community of activists that are working so hard to fight the root causes of climate change. You might have seen the 500 kayaks in the water trying to block Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs from leaving Seattle last year. Those people: that’s why I’m still in Seattle.
Have you always been environmentally aware or did it all hit at once like a bolt out of the blue?
No, I haven’t. Far from it. It really only came as I got a bit older. There’s a scene in The Activist where Tom reads a paragraph that hammers home to him the state of the oceans – that over half of the world’s coral reefs are dead or dying; that an area twice the size of the United States is bottom-trawled every year – after that his life is never really the same. It was kind of like that for me.
The story of ‘The Activist’ moves back and forth in time very successfully and as I read it I found myself wondering where it was you began. Do you remember where you were when you wrote the first sentence? And even better...do you remember what it was?
Sorry to disappoint but I don’t remember where I was when I wrote the first sentence, or exactly what it was! However I do remember when I got the idea for the novel.
I read an article about this group Sea Shepherd and how their members had tracked down an illegal blue fin tuna fishing boat. Upon finding this illegal vessel, activists dived into the open ocean and cut the nets to free all these thousands of blue fins – which happen to be one of the most stunning creatures in the ocean and critically endangered – and I thought just, wow, now that is a story. And that was what gave me my first chapter and the inspiration to pick up my pen.
Borges said 'All literature is, finally, autobiographical'. Now this is true to some extent even for people writing fantasy, and I know you based a lot of the book on your own experiences. So I wonder just how much of yourself ended up in this novel? Some, most, all?
Quite a lot. To be honest, as a first time novelist who had never attended a creative writing class and, to be frank, didn’t really have the first clue as to how to write a novel, it was much easier for me to create a character that shared some of my history, voice and worldview. That said there are a lot of differences between myself and Tom too. I never had a shiftless, violent father and I have never been to the Southern Ocean to risk my life to stop an 8,000 tonne whaling ship.
As you know, the re-launched Eventus is all about positivity. Could you tell me, and this is a tricky one, of all the places you've been, is there one place that really positively affected your life?
Nepal and New Zealand both had really profound positive experiences on me, but I think if I had to pick a single place I’d say Seattle. It was here that I started to learn that people can really affect the society around them. It was here that I was part of a people’s movement that helped stop the Keystone XL pipeline, Shell’s Arctic drilling and I saw friends of mine at the University of Washington win their fight to get them to divest from coal. Seeing those victories, actual real meaningful victories, that was really positive.
It feels at times like the world is crumbling around our ears, with one disaster after another, oil spills, climate change, forest fires, dying coral reefs. How do you keep fighting and hoping when the threats facing our environment are so huge?
The absolutely most important thing is to surround yourself with a community of people that care. Find an organization that is fighting to change the issues you care about. And if you can’t find one, create one. Finding community, people who can support you, encourage you and pick you up when you are down: that’s the only way I know of to sustain yourself in this line of work.
Some people might think, 'One person can't change anything, so what's the point?' what would you say to these people?
I’ve heard this phrase used for two different reasons. Firstly to justify not changing our personal behaviours, and secondly to justify not getting involved in the fight for change.
To those that use this as an excuse to not alter their personal choices – purchasing, dietary or other choices – I’d say that not only do our individual choices matter, but ultimately they are all that matters. There’s a lot of truth in the saying that every penny you spend is a vote for the kind of world you want to live in.
Secondly, to those that would use that as a reason to not get involved, I’d say make it local. One person maybe can’t stop Exxon corrupting politics, or the Government issuing fracking permits, but they can have an outsized voice in the issues and fights that affect their community. Get involved in those. It’s a powerful place to start.
Read more from Alice Baynton here.