A settler writer, educator, and critic from Kjipuktuk (Halifax), David Huebert (he/him) teaches literature and creative writing at The University of New Brunswick. David’s fiction debut, Peninsula Sinking, won a Dartmouth Book Award and was runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. His latest book is Chemical Valley (Biblioasis 2021), recently shortlisted for the ReLit Short Fiction Award, the Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction, and the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award.
Chemical Valley contains eleven short stories that explore the role of toxicity in the everyday lives of working people. The book is largely set in Sarnia, Ontario, and is titled after the infamous cluster of 62 petrochemical refineries that line the St. Clair River in that area. The characters have a range of backgrounds and careers—from refinery operators to registered nurses to hockey enforcers—and they’re all confronting the question of what it means to live in this ecologically compromised age. Aesthetically, the book is fascinated by the role of oil in our lives—how it saturates us, how it permeates our social, political, and moral lives, how there seems to be no recourse to ways we might live otherwise. Oil is the imagistic backdrop of Chemical Valley, but it’s also a book, first and foremost, about struggling people—guilty people, people in crises, hilarious people, people at turning points, sick people, people seeking help. It’s not all doom and gloom, either: there’s joy and love and humour here. I’d like to think everyone can find parts of themself in one or two of these characters.
Chemical Valley joins a growing list of climate fiction narratives published by Canadian and Indigenous writers in the past few years. What motivated you to cover topics such as pollution and environmental racism in your fiction?
It was in the water. As someone reading and researching in the field of the environmental humanities for my PhD and beyond, and just as a person alive today, I found that I couldn’t set a story in the current moment without confronting this newish layer of our lives and exhausted socio-political structures. My fiction often begins as a way of working through my obsessions, though I usually try to mitigate this tendency as I edit, bringing the stories away from their generative themes and towards more concrete struggles, allowing my characters to take control and dictate the story.
I’m a little ambivalent about the term “climate fiction.” I think all fiction being written today is climate fiction—in various ways, with or without knowing it, we’re all beholden to the Anthropocene. At the same time, story has always been environmental—from Eve in the garden to The Tempest to Moby-Dick. The crisis has shifted, and perhaps it has been amplified, but it’s also just a new take on the story our species has always been telling itself (and, needless to say, not always listening well).
A few commentators have noted that Chemical Valley has an atmosphere that feels nearly speculative or dystopian, which is a response I appreciate. I like writing along that edge, that membrane between the familiar and the para-real. I think of much of what I do as “speculative realism.” I like the idea that a reader might open the book up and say, “Look at this crazy world of refineries and cauldrons and dead pigeons and grave forests.” And then that same reader has to say: “Oh, wait, this is just the contemporary world in which I already live, and I’m doing a massive amount of cognitive labour to convince myself that my lived world is normal and benign and that we live in a ‘civil society.’”
You’ve now published two short story collections and two books of poetry. The poems in Humanimus explore some similar themes to Chemical Valley, and it made me wonder how your creative process might differ when working in these two genres.
Much of Humanimus was also about oil, animals, and toxicity. The themes intersect while the approach differs massively. My poems are formally inventive, linguistically ludic, and philosophical. While I retain these features in my stories, I really try to pare them back in my fiction, relying, instead, on narrative, character, and image patterns. What draws me in is also very different. By now I usually know, very early on, if an idea/premise/impulse wants to emerge as a poem or a story. It took a lot of practice to get there, of course!
When I initially encountered your first collection of stories Peninsula Sinking back in 2017, the piece “How Your Life” was so good—told in second person with a crystal-clear sense of place and a tightly-wound narrative tension you expertly unspooled to hook your reader and pull them in—that I briefly considered abandoning short fiction myself because I felt like my writing just couldn’t compete! Eventually, I decided to try drafting a second person story of my own instead and have enjoyed employing that point-of-view in my work ever since. Are there any writers who have inspired you or spurred you to experiment in similar ways?
I’m so glad you liked “How Your Life,” and I’m so glad it didn’t stop you from writing short fiction! I have had similar barriers, writers at whose feet I have felt very clumsy—Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Paige Cooper. I have read these people and then tried too hard to imitate them and produced laughable parodies of their work. Just recently, I was doing this with Alexander MacLeod’s work! Like you, I think the best route for an artist is to internalize the influence—what can they teach you; what does it feel right to pick up on—while also deking away from it to make your own best work. Also: thanks for the encouragement, K.R.! I’m going to try another second person story—been a while!
Another one of your stories in Peninsula Sinking, “Enigma,” won the 2016 CBC Short Story Prize. How did that experience impact your writing career?
That was a very fortunate moment for me—in many ways, it was the biggest thing that has yet happened to me as a writer. Neighbours and people from the community were suddenly coming up and telling me they’d read “Enigma” in enRoute magazine. Shortly after that good fortune, I had the good fortune to be signed by my wonderful agent, Stephanie Sinclair, who promptly got me a book deal for Peninsula Sinking. I remain hugely grateful to the CBC for all the work they do to promote their winners. No one literary career is the same, but if you work long enough and hard enough you will likely find an island of recognition in the fog of rejection and self-doubt. We need to hold on to these moments, to store them away for the gloomy days when we’re called to do the real work before the pale blue glow.
Literary prizes often make a distinction between emerging and mid-career writers, but I imagine if I asked a dozen different people when that shift occurs, I’d end up with a dozen different answers. How would you describe this present stage of your own creative journey?
A while back, I listened to a WFMA podcast about “surviving creative adolescence” and it resonated. So maybe that’s where I am—I do write a lot about teenagers! But I think most artists think of themselves less in terms of a settled “stage” and more in terms of trying to push towards the next thing. I feel that I need to be always developing, trusting what I’ve learned and what I do well, but never just doing the same thing over again. That would bore me and atrophy the work.
You’ve led workshops for WFNS and taught classes at King’s, Dal, UNB, and Western. What lessons have you tried to impart on your creative writing students, and what lessons have they imparted on you?
I’ve been astonished, many times now, by the way my students lift one another up. Their generosity and sensitivity as readers of one another has been persistently baffling and encouraging. I try to teach writers to take risks, to trust their instincts, to read widely, generously, and carefully. I lean a lot on ecological writing and ecological metaphors, and one of my favourite piece to teach is Ursula K. Le Guin’s short essay, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” I can’t recommend that enough—it’s fascinating how the Darwinian “struggle for existence” approach to fiction writing dominates the classroom, and how beholden we are to the ideologies embedded in that. Recently, I’ve also loved Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses—an excellent teaching tool I’ve been leaning on. I always emphasize fun and play in the classroom. I think that if we lose that, we’re lost.
You’ve set a number of your published stories and poems in Halifax or the East Coast even as you’ve moved all around the country over the past decade. What keeps drawing you back to this region in your writing?
I have an increasingly complicated relationship to my home here in Mi’kma’ki. I’ve been returning to this place in my recent work in progress. I’m still thinking through it, and I guess I always will be. It’s a kind of sickness in many writers, I think, being drawn back over and over to the banal experiences of your youth, the way those experiences smelled and tasted and the particular, panting density of the air. This is a place with unique problems, unique history. It’s a place of war and violence, land theft and colonization, and it’s a place I want to keep learning about, writing about, and living better within.
As the weather warms up, I’ve been reacquainting myself with the outside world by reading on the porch, strolling past the blooming yards in my neighbourhood, and enjoying some ice cream on the Halifax waterfront. What are some of your favourite Nova Scotian summertime activities?
This sure is a good place to be outside. I had the good fortune to hike Cape Split last week with my mother. Mostly, these days, you can catch me on the playground circuit with my two little girls or racing them on scooters. If we’re lucky, we get to the lake—we all love swimming. Last week, my four-year-old convinced me that rolling down Citadel Hill is super fun, which induced an ornery bout of nausea. I learned to love sledding in my-thirties. Hill-rolling, not so much.