AWP '19 Observations: Fabulist Fiction for a Hot Planet

Eco-Fabulism: 5 Years Later—A Guarded Update

by Damian Dressick


Five years ago, at the AWP conference in Seattle, Washington, five panelists sat down together for a session entitled Fabulist Fiction for a Hot Planet. This year’s AWP, again in the Pacific Northwest, brought together those same (for the most part) panelists to take stock of the landscape of Eco-fabulist literature at the present cultural moment.

The panel was moderated by Erin Stalcup, a faculty member in the Writing & Publishing MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and author of the eco-fabulist novel Every Living Species as well as the editor of the literary journal Hunger Mountain.

Stalcup began with a brief discussion of the initial panel—its attempts to formulate a definition for eco-fabulism as well as one of its essential questions: to what degree can art to help fight ecological catastrophe. Stalcup also stressed the urgency of the ecological situation, describing the increasing number of extinct and soon-to-be-extinct species as well as the approaching reality of an ice free artic.

The first panelist was E. Lily Yu, winner of the 2017 Artist Trust/Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award and a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards. In her presentation Yu put two ecologically-engaged novels written 30 years apart in conversation. Both Australian novelist George Turner’s 1998 Drowning Towers and Kim Stanley Robinson’s more recent (2017) 2040 describe worlds in which rising sea levels have brought about large-scale changes in the social structure and humans are forced to live in high-rises in flooded cities. Yu discussed common thematic choices in the two novels written decades apart.

Matt Bell, Director of Creative Writing at Arizona State University and author of novels Scrapper(2016) and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods(2013) and the story collection A Tree A Person or A Wall (2016) discussed his class Climate Fiction, Eco-Fabulism, and the New Weird at Arizona State. Students in the class read seven books, all from the genre of climate fiction. Bell talked about his own preparatory reading in science, environmental philosophy and history, as well as his desire create a course friendly to students often more inclined toward the production of genre fiction than literary fiction. Bell also talked about his success engaging his students with a project that asked them to craft artifacts from various imagined futures and put them on display in a “marketplace.”

Megan Cass, associate professor of English University of Louisiana-Lafayette and author of Range of Motion, took over for Christian Moody. She discussed how eco-fabulist stories can serve as calls to accountability for their readership.

Assistant professor at the University of Maine at Machias and author of Lungs Full of Noise, Tessa Mellas spoke about the last five years being particularly dark in terms of environmental impact due to ecological policies currently being pursued. Mellas suggested that the difficulty in understanding our ecological role starts when we “put nature on one side and human beings on the other.”

The panel’s overall conclusion seemed to suggest that while the road may be long and dark in terms of art making a meaningful difference in the planet’s outlook—and even though folks may see themselves as sometimes preaching to the choir—what writers can do and what writers must do is write about the things that matter to them.


Damian Dressick is an American author from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was nominated in 2009 for the Pushcart Prize for short fiction. He is the winner of the Spire Press 2009 Prose Chapbook Contest for his collection Fables of the Deconstruction. In 2007 he won the Harriette Arnow Award for short fiction

AWP '19 Observations: “Surfing the Green Wave: Engaging Environmental & Social Issues for Young Readers”

by Tanya Ward Goodman

Panelists: Shanetia Clark, Todd Mitchell, Eliot Schrefer, Sherri L. Smith, Cecil Castellucci


I went to the AWP 2019 Panel, Surfing the Green Wave: Engaging Environmental & Social Issues for Young Readers because I thought learning “how literature might engage a generation that is inheriting global problems on an unprecedented scale” might help me navigate this difficult and continuing conversation with my own teenaged children. I came away with new tools to deepen my writing as well as constructive ways to address my worries about the state of our world.

“Stories shape the way we think and act,” explained moderator, Shanetia Clark. She asked us to look at how literature changes to address new problems and wondered what might lie beyond apocalyptic fiction. She’d gathered four writers, Cecil Castelucci, Todd Mitchell, Eliot Shrefer, and Sherri L. Smith, to muse on the central question of “what now?”

By defining books as “conversation beginners,” Mitchell encourages his readers to think beyond the text. “What does this book ask you to do next?” he wondered. All four writers agreed and talked about the value of showing the effort of moving toward Utopia.

Writing from a “post crisis point,” Castelucci explained, makes the story about hope and offers a chance to re-build. She’s especially interested in showing what she calls “agency in the face of crisis.”

Smith, whose novel was inspired by post-Katrina New Orleans, offered her take. “In times of crisis,” she said, “it’s often the communities who help, rather than the establishment.” She asked us to look at the ways calamity can be a uniting force.

Schrefer broadened the idea of community to include the natural world. After researching the Bonobos ape, he was inspired to write a quartet of books. “I want the reader to think, I’m linked with this creature,” he said. In pursuit of emotional connection, he edits much of his research out of the final draft, relying instead on character and story to convey truth in an entertaining way. “I write sad books,” he said. “I need to steer this car as much as I can in the other direction.”

Castelucci finds that the world of comics gives her a broader path to tackle uncomfortable topics. “People who are resistant to climate change,” she said, “Are a lot more open when you have Wonder Woman doing something.” She believes deeply in the relationship of science and science fiction. “It’s a circular system of inspiration,” she said. “Part of our job is to inspire new inventions and encourage the pushing of boundaries.”

Smith agreed. Her recent work on the Avatar comic book series, has blended fantasy with reality and helped her understand the importance of re-orienting ourselves to nature. “Spreading our empathy to every living thing means we care as much for the planet as we care for ourselves.”

In order to avoid being preachy, Mitchell often puts what he really wants to say in the mouth of the villain. “Let the humanity rise to the surface.”

Putting character and emotion at the center of these big stories establishes a comfort zone for readers that can ease recognition of larger truths. Zombies can stand in for real-world threats. Using issues of class, social status and economic imbalance as plot points help readers connect to their own experiences and envision real life solutions. “Write to see what you don’t know,” reminded Mitchell. In this way, reading becomes a kind of practice for turning anxiety to action.


Panelist Books Discussed:

Todd Mitchell, The Last Panther

Eliot Schrefer, The Ape Quartet: Endangered, Threatened, Rescued, Orphaned

Sherri L. Smith, Orleans

Cecil Castellucci, Shade, The Changing Girl


Panelist Recommended Books:

Feed by M.T. Anderson

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Dry by Neil Schusterman.


Tanya Ward Goodman is the author of “Leaving Tinkertown.”  Her essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the Los Angeles TimesOrange County Register, OC Family, Luxe, Alligator JuniperPerceptions: A Magazine of the Arts, the “Cup of Comfort” series published by Adams Media, Literary MamaThe Huffington Post, Brain, Child and as a blogger for