Alison Layland’s environmental mystery, Riverflow, has just been published, and she writes here about the issues raised and the lengths to which an author can go to get into the skins of her characters.
The border between fiction and reality
Fiction can have a strange habit of becoming reality, whether it’s due to the experience of research changing us in some way, our fiction being overtaken by the events it describes, or even strange coincidences. All three certainly happened to me when I was writing my psychological mystery, Riverflow.
As the saying goes, it’s not the things you’ve done that you regret, but the things you have left undone. The road protests of the 1990s are referenced in Riverflow, and while I fully supported them from a distance, when looking back, I have regretted not being there. So it was inevitable that my research would lead me to get more actively involved in environmental protest.
Many of the important themes in the novel are connected to the threat of fracking in my fictional Welsh borders village, and the involvement of my characters, Elin and Bede, in the protests. Part of my research involved going to support the protestors at the Preston New Road fracking site in Lancashire a couple of years ago. And it was inevitable that when Extinction Rebellion emerged in late 2018 – after I’d completed the main draft of my novel – I would get involved. In the April 2019 rebellion, our group, together with others from Wales and the borders, blocked the streets around Oxford Circus to enable the now iconic pink boat to be brought in.
I had never taken to the streets before, and as I faced the police over our banner, slept overnight on Oxford Circus to occupy the space, watched friends get arrested on Waterloo Bridge the following day, I often thought about my Riverflow characters’ opinions and experiences with protest and the law. Which is the greater crime, non-violent trespass and obstruction, or the ecocide and ongoing failure to address the climate and ecological crisis that drives people to take action?
Overtaken by events?
A problem with writing a topical novel is that it can get overtaken by events. I was concerned that this might be the case with Riverflow: part of my motivation was to use my characters’ passions and preoccupations to raise awareness of environmental issues. The months leading up to publication have seen the actions of Extinction Rebellion, David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg and the young climate strikers, among others, bringing environmental issues to mainstream attention. Some details mentioned in the novel that were relatively unheard-of outside environmentalist circles are now much more widely debated than when I was writing it. Towards the end of 2018, as the test drilling in Lancashire gave rise to ever-increasing earth tremors, it even seemed as though fracking might finally be stopped in the UK. Believe me, I would rather see this, and a concerted international effort to tackle the climate crisis, than for my novel to remain relevant. But despite the rise in awareness and the growing concerns of huge numbers of people, fracking continues to be developed.
This is not all: local, national and international climate emergency declarations are an encouraging step forward, but they still have not been backed up by actions. There is movement, but not enough, with target dates that are far too distant and a great deal of stubborn inertia. In the week prior to the novel’s publication, the continuation of plans for the expansion of Heathrow airport were published at a time when we should be massively reducing air travel instead of facilitating its growth, a new drilling rig set out to prospect for North Sea oil despite the efforts of Greenpeace protesters, and the climate and ecological crisis was barely mentioned in political leadership campaigns. “Business as usual” is certainly still the order of the day, and there is still a lot of awareness that needs to be raised.
The weather plays its part
The novel begins with dramatic events during a winter flood, but the main story plays out against a backdrop of spring rains and summer flooding a year and a half later. I had in mind the spring and summer of 2007, which resulted in serious flooding of the river Severn along its length from the Welsh borders to the sea. Similar conditions have not occurred since, but climate change means such freak conditions will be ever more frequent. It was therefore uncanny to observe the weather a few days prior to publication, when around two months’ rain fell in two days, and there was flash flooding on the Severn floodplain in the area where my fictional village is located.
So although I hope that we can build on the progress we’re making on tackling global heating and species extinction, and that the actions of protestors worldwide will be increasingly heeded, I’m sad to say that the issues raised in Riverflow are far from being overtaken.