The Minneapolis-based writer’s debut animated novel tackles climate change, the plague, and salvation from space. | Nation
MINNEAPOLIS — In 2007, after the death of his grandfather, Sequoia Nagamatsu flew to Japan, where he had never been, to teach English and grieve. It was there that he began to write.
“My grandfather’s death had a profound impact on me,” Nagamatsu said in a recent interview from his home in Minneapolis. “I couldn’t really say goodbye.”
In Japan, he was surrounded by reminders of his grief.
“Japan is a country that is actively and increasingly dealing with what to do with the elderly population in terms of space and financial realities,” he said. “So there are funeral high-rises, non-traditional ways that Japanese families are starting to adopt. I was also doing this exploration because it fascinated me. I was also thinking about my grandfather.
“We don’t usually talk about death and mortality. It’s kind of a taboo subject, especially in the West.”
The individual stories he began writing over 10 years ago became his powerful debut novel, “How High We Go in the Dark.” But while in Japan, alone and isolated in a country where he barely understood the language, “I didn’t think of it as a novel at all. I was still deciding whether or not I would qualify. of a writer.”
Climate change and plague
Nagamatsu, who teaches at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, lives in Minneapolis with his wife, writer Cole Nagamatsu, in a house they bought during the height of the housing boom. The competition was tough, but the couple won over sellers with an eloquent letter about their hopes of writing books there and turning a closet into a cozy nook for books.
Neither is from Minnesota – Cole is from Philadelphia and Sequoia was born in Southern California. He grew up on the Hawaiian island of Oahu and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area when he was 12 years old.
The two met in graduate school in Illinois, and when Nagamatsu moved to teach, they stayed in touch by co-editing Psychopomp Magazine, a literary journal they founded to publish what he calls “strange things”.
“How High We Go in the Dark” is definitely a strange thing – strangely wonderful and strangely powerful, a book of speculative fiction so close to real life that its jaw-dropping events seem almost inevitable.
The novel opens at a point in the near future when scientists, probing the permafrost of Siberia – thawing due to climate change – inadvertently release an ancient and powerful virus that is rapidly traversing the planet.
The following chapters deal with both grief and hope. As millions die, including children, people find a way to give them a good death; to honor their memories through holograms, robot dogs and other devices; to save lives by genetically modifying pigs for organ transplantation and, eventually, to preserve the human race by blasting off in a rocket to find a new world.
The stories can be deeply sad, but are peppered with humor. “Humor was a big thing for me,” Nagamatsu said. “I wanted to make sure there was a bit of hope in each chapter, but also that there were nods to lighter moments. I didn’t want it to be a 24/7 mourning parade. 24 and 7/7.
“When you talk about a tragic event or you’ve lost someone, you’re going to cry but you’re also going to laugh. I wanted to acknowledge that the full spectrum of emotions is going to be there.”
“How High We Go in the Dark” drew widespread pre-publication reviews, and its publisher, William Morrow, announced an initial print run of 100,000 copies, which is unusual for a first novel.
“Our Goodreads numbers are a little crazy,” Nagamatsu said. “Unexpectedly. Over 40,000 adds on Goodreads. The buzz is happening and it’s really exciting.”
Nagamatsu’s interest in dystopian literature “goes back to the shows and novels I loved growing up. ‘Star Trek’ – at its heart it was an original and very forward-thinking series. It tackled issues of race, class and some of my favorite episodes were a deeply philosophical reflection on identity, what makes a human a human.”
The show, he said, “helped me embrace narratives where, yeah, there’s the cool sci-fi vanity — warp drives or whatever — but that doesn’t was never really the goal. The goal was to use that as a way to draw a dialogue that might be difficult to have in real life.”
Nagamatsu devotes a lot of time to research, basing his speculative fiction on fact. In one story he mentions black foliage on a distant planet, and a Goodreads reader noted that it was believable for the type of star that planet had, a red dwarf star. “So the way the plants might appear to our eyes would be a darker color,” Nagamatsu said. “It’s the kind of stuff I’ve spent a lot of time researching and that’s just one line. If people are scientific, they’ll appreciate it.”
Early iterations of the novel didn’t mention a plague, but that changed in 2014, when Nagamatsu read an article in The Atlantic about scientists finding and reviving ancient viruses frozen in Siberian ice.
“Scientists being scientists, they mean well and they push for it and try to reactivate certain things,” Nagamatsu said. “I love science, but my gut reaction was ‘Have you ever seen a horror movie? You don’t know what might happen?’ “
Nagamatsu knew this, and a raging plague eventually became a theme of the book.
In early 2020, he and his agent were about to send the manuscript to publishers when COVID-19 hit. Publishing a novel about a deadly global plague during a global pandemic seemed problematic, but after discussion, they moved on.
The novel landed with William Morrow in a two-book deal. (The second novel, “Girl Zero,” is due out in 2024.) “How High We Go in the Dark” is dedicated to another deceased family member – her father, Craig Nagamatsu, who died while working on the delivered.
“We had a sort of distant relationship,” he said. “I think it was an important time for me to work on this novel at that time. It helped me deal with my emotions.
“It kept me afloat during the pandemic. It was definitely an important part of my life. When little else was right in the world, there was this book.”