A few months ago, a line in a Press Herald review of Maine author Elizabeth Hand’s latest book, a collection of stories and essays called “Fire.” caught our eye. The title story in this collection was “based on her work as a participant in a climate change think tank.” We needed to know more about the Lincolnville resident, who has won many awards for her fiction (14 novels, 5 short story collections) and is a regular contributor to the Washington Post Book World and the “Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.” We talked with her about everything from how she ended up working with that group to how “Lord of the Flies” influenced her and what dark realities like melting ice shelves in Antarctica have to do with her shift from writing science fiction to mystery.

A FAN’S NOTES: Hand had just given a talk in Lincolnville some years ago when a fan approached her. Robert Olson was a summer resident of the area, and for many years the director of research for the Institute for Alternative Futurists in Washington, D.C. (he’s a senior fellow there still). She remembers that he told her he was probably the only person in the room who knew exactly what she’d been talking about when she spoke about how environmental issues and climate change had informed her early science fiction, like “Glimmering,” a 1997 novel featuring rising oceans and a looming apocalypse. They became friends and then a few years ago he asked if she’d be willing to participate in a U.S. Forest Service study on the future of fire fighting in a changing climate. “I said, ‘Really, I don’t know about this, Bob.’ ”

Elizabeth Hand

PERSUASION: The other 10 or so panelists were “all much smarter than me. Scientists and policy people.” But Olson persuaded Hand she’d have plenty of research materials to help get her up to speed. And that she had something unique to contribute, foremost her longstanding interest in the environment, but also the grassroots work she’d been doing to try to bring vitality back to Lincolnville Center, which spoke to community resilience. “I was able to see firsthand how a small community could really come together and make things happen.” The “foresight panel” was focused on the physical means of fighting fires in the future, as droughts intensify and human development continues to push deeper into wild areas where forest fires start. “I was looking at it from another perspective, that this is what it is like when you are living in a small suburban community, and how you can prepare for a mega-fire.” The findings of the report were frightening, she said. “It is not a matter of if something like this will happen but when.” (Although much more likely in the West than in places like relatively wet New England.)

AN EDUCATION: Hand did a lot of research. “I learned so much.” About both places with successful wildfire fighting programs (Florida and New South Wales in Australia among them) and human obstacles to what is essentially a natural process. Such as increased population in zones that straddle the line between wild spaces and urban. The study concluded that “conventional fire management approaches are unlikely to be effective in the future.” Hand was struck by how many resources, both monetary and human, go into fighting fires to save homes. “In places where people really probably shouldn’t be living.” She gets it, people want to live near beautiful mountains. But as the climate continues to change, with longer, hotter seasons and more drought, “all of that is going to be obviously making a tinder keg,” especially in areas where human activity has taken a toll on the aquifer.

THIS GIRL’S LIFE: Where did her original interest in the environment come from? Partly just growing up in the 1970s, in the era of the first Earth Day, lines around the block just to get gas during the energy crisis, and revelations about how quickly the world was becoming overpopulated. Her own childhood, first in Yonkers, then later in Pound Ridge, New York, had a very specific influence. “There was an estate that was nearby, on our road, and the people who owned it would let people on it to play and go fishing. It was very beautiful, very bucolic and very rural.” At one point, the community was concerned it would be sold and developed (this didn’t happen). Hand was 10 or 11. “I can remember lying in the bed and thinking, ‘I am going to lie down in the road so they can’t do that.’ It was something that I used to brood about a lot.” The thought of the woods being cut down was unbearable. She dreamed of becoming a zoologist and on family trips to Maine, she was captivated by rural life. “It really imprinted on me.”

AIR AND SPACE: Hand studied cultural anthropology in college, and worked for seven years at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, but another love from childhood – fiction – eventually took center stage. She’d always been a reader and was devouring the likes of George Orwell’s “1984” and William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” at age nine or 10. Too young, she says, but “they both had a really profound influence on me.” So did the science fiction she started reading in college, particularly Samuel Delany’s “Dhalgren,” set in a post-apocalyptic American city. As her plans to be a full-time writer were starting to come together, so were her plans to move to Maine. “I felt like it was a now or never kind of thing.” Hand arrived jobless but with a book in the works, which she soon sold. She temped, including at National Fisherman magazine, which was then based in Camden, and raised two children with her then-partner, writer Richard Grant.


REALITY BITES: While she loved science fiction, she started moving away from it as what was happening in the natural world began, eerily, catching up with what she’d dreamed up on the page. That first book, “Glimmering,” had imagined a world on the brink of ecological disaster, and it featured, among other things, a terrorist flying a plane into a building in Lower Manhattan and an ice shelf in Antarctica collapsing. “It was a near future book, but it reads now like an alternative history.” Hand said she’d thought, as she wove gloomy plot points into her fiction, that they were just that: fictions. “Anything I could make up has been trumped by reality.” Her writing genre today is mostly dark mysteries, some of which are set in Maine, but she still enjoys reading dystopian fiction – as a teacher at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast writing program, she sees plenty of that from emerging writers. And her partner today, John Clute, writes and edits the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

THE AUDACITY OF HOPE: Olson, the friend who roped her into that study of how the United States will handle fire fighting in a landscape altered by climate change, once teased her about her bleak world view. “He said, ‘Can’t you be more optimistic?’ ” She’s trying, and her grown children help a lot. Her daughter teaches first-grade in Hawaii and her son works for SolarCity in New York. He studied sustainable technologies in college. Both of them love the natural world (and Maine) and share optimistic viewpoints about the world’s future. “So that gives me some hope.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

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