Behind “Climate Change, Nature, and the Writer’s Eye”: Q&A with Marie Arana, Literary Advisor to the Librarian of Congress

Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction winner Annie Proulx speaks with festival Literary Director Marie Arana at the National Book Festival, September 1, 2018. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Tomorrow, March 20, the Library of Congress will host “Climate Change, Nature, and the Writer’s Eye,” a program honoring 2018 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction winner Annie Proulx. In anticipation, I asked Marie Arana—the coordinator of the prize, literary advisor to the Librarian of Congress, and literary director of the National Book Festival—a few questions about the background of this annual spring prize event. Make sure to join us tomorrow at 7 p.m. in the Coolidge Auditorium for a discussion between Annie Proulx, science writer Peter Brannen, and novelist Amitav Ghosh about pressing issues of environmental change and a writer’s responsibilities to them. Marie Arana will moderate the conversation. Free tickets are required and still available.

This is the fourth of our spring events honoring the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction winner, and we’ve tinkered with the format each time. How do you feel about this year’s version—what’s different, and what are you excited about?

Like spring itself, we are full of surprises! You are quite right, Rob, each event has been different, reflecting the very different natures of our winners. Louise Erdrich was interested in introducing more Native American writers to the reading public. Marilynne Robinson was fascinated by what we all perceive to be an impossible rift between Faith and Science (she doesn’t see it as impossible at all!). Denis Johnson, who—alas!—died before the event celebrating his work, was represented by a whole panoply of writers—fiction and nonfiction—whose works take on his greatest concerns: the disaffected, the addicts, the war veterans, the forgotten and left behind. And now, to celebrate Annie Proulx, we have two authors from dramatically different backgrounds (science writer Peter Brannen, and Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh), handpicked by Annie, both eager to discuss the very focused and passionate concern they share with her: climate change.

You had the opportunity to interview Annie Proulx at the National Book Festival last September—how will this event expand on that conversation?

Annie gave us a wonderful interview at the National Book Festival, but the conversation focused on her wonderful novels and short stories, her writing habits, her characters and settings. This program will take us to a different level entirely: We will hear a great novelist’s concerns about the physical world around her—a sobering nonfiction subject that is no work of the imagination, but about the here and urgent. It brings Annie’s imagined worlds concretely to earth and allows us a glimpse into the mind of a passionately invested artist.

You do so much behind-the-scenes work for the prize and for this event. Can you talk about how you came up with the title “Climate Change, Nature, and the Writer’s Eye”?

Thank you, Rob! My greatest satisfaction in the work I do for the Library is bringing attention to deserving writers. Crafting programs, devising titles, inviting the right speakers to fill out a conversation—that is a great and abiding pleasure for me. I started out, if I remember correctly, with the title “Landscape and the Writer’s Eye,” but Annie thought it too wimpy. Landscapes are artificially created, either shaped by man or prettily represented in painted images. She wanted something more hard-hitting and immediate. Climate Change was her real concern and those words needed to be up-front and center. By adding the word “Nature,” I felt we could broaden it to what fiction writers actually work with in their created worlds. Climate Change may cover the reality, but Nature represents the actual clay a novelist uses; and, of course, the Writer’s Eye is extraordinary in itself—an eye that sees, but also sees for us.

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