This is part of Alaska Authors, an occasional series about authors and other literary figures with ties to the 49th state.
Gerri Brightwell is what her students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ English Department call a “pantser.”
The Alaska author finds it very difficult to plot out a novel, instead opting for a seat-of-the-pants approach.
“I find it very difficult to work with plot just by looking at an outline,” she said. “To me, the fun stuff is not what you can see in the distance. The fun stuff is, ‘Oh look, look what Nash just picked up on the side of the road. What’s going to happen because of that?’ That’s the stuff that I find really interesting.”
“So,” Brightwell added, “I infected poor little Robbie.”
Robbie is the young child whose plight ignites the her most recent novel, “Turnback Ridge,” which melds science fiction, horror and political thriller with climate change and a previously undiscovered parasitic fungus.
The fungus lies in a fossil that young Robbie picks up while stopped along the Glenn Highway at a recent landslide triggered by permafrost melt. He and his half-brother Chris are fleeing Anchorage and headed for the Yukon with Nash, their Canadian immigrant father, after their Mexican-born mother Maria goes missing amidst a roundup of legal and illegal immigrants.
Robbie keeps the fossil when the three continue to Glennallen, where it adheres to his hand and a fungus begins spreading across his body at an alarming rate. Despite a medical crisis, they can’t return to the city. And even in tiny Glennallen, someone is after them. It only gets worse for everyone from there.
“I wanted whatever I had to have an edge of horror and nastiness to it,” Brightwell said, when discussing why she settled on the fungus that infects Robbie and others. She considered several options, including tardigrades and parasites. Then she learned of fungi that infect ants and control their behavior, and “everything fell together.”
Brightwell, who is fascinated by science books and documentaries, said she took what she learned and applied it to humans. “There is stuff in the natural world that may not be able to do precisely that,” she said, but warned that “stuff is adapting as we heat up the planet.”
Climate change is a central component of the story, and Brightwell takes a restrained approach to it. Rather than create a post-apocalyptic Alaska, she offers a slowly degrading North, where summer is hotter and wetter, and the ground is eroding faster than ever. Even today, she notes, “You’ve got landslides, which are going to become more and more common. You’ve got teams of people looking through the debris of a collapsed hillside. The hillside has collapsed because it’s melted.” Nash and the boys are also dogged by heavy rains, and “that’s not normal for Interior Alaska,” she said. In the novel, climate change “hasn’t got to the complete catastrophe part yet,” but that end is looming.
While the fungus adds a good ick factor to the story, “Turnback Ridge” is primarily a political thriller reflecting on one of today’s most hotly contested issues. “The immigration stuff was really close to my heart,” said Brightwell, noting that she and her husband, author Ian C. Esslemont, are naturalized citizens.
“I thought, something that’s kind of hidden to people is that a lot of Americans, when they think of immigrants, they think of people who are coming up from Latin America, and not thinking about someone from Britain or Canada,” Brightwell, originally from England, explained. And while many assume she has nothing to fear, when the system clamps down on immigrants, “everyone’s caught up in the same net. It can happen to someone from Canada as well.”
As an example, Brightwell cited an experience she had while still a legal resident. At one point her lawyer had her fill out the wrong form for her work permit, leading to a mad scramble. Had she not filed the correct paperwork on time, she’d have lost her job, and with it her income, and health insurance for her family. That ripple effect struck her as potentially devastating. “Your whole life kind of implodes,” she said. “So I gave that uncomfortable situation to my main character.”
Brightwell did not feel she could properly portray a Latin American character, even though immigrants from that part of the world are so frequently scapegoated. She solved the problem by having Maria already missing at the outset, with rumors she might be in a shadowy corporate-run detention center hidden in the landscape. “It didn’t seem like too big a stretch,” she said, pointing out that we already have this happening at our southern border. “I was trying to take things that exist, and push them.”
Brightwell didn’t set out to be an immigrant or an Alaskan. She came first came north in 1991 to pursue her MFA at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She’d contacted several schools, and in those pre-email days received brochures from all but one. Frank Soos, in the UAF English department, sent her a two-page, single-spaced letter. And after a further exchange, where they discussed living in Fairbanks, “I thought, this seems very possible,” she said. “And also it seems like the people there are very welcoming. So I came.”
Brightwell experienced life in a dry cabin (“You kind of change your expectations,” she said) and met Esslemont, a Canadian author in the same program. After grad school, they were married, spent several years in Thailand, then went to the University of Minnesota where she earned her Ph.D., and published her first novel. “Cold Country” tells of a British woman who moves to Alaska, and explores her own culture clash upon encountering Fairbanks.
This led to an invitation to be a visiting writer at UAF in 2004. When Soos retired soon afterward, she took his position. By then she was raising three sons. “Everyone in the house is a boy except me. Including the cat and the dog.”
Brightwell, who did her Ph.D. research on crime fiction in the Victorian era, followed “Cold Country” with “The Dark Lantern,” a Victorian novel, and then “Dead of Winter,” a crime noir set in Fairbanks. Citing authors like Michael Chabon and Colson Whitehead, she said she’s glad genre fiction is finally becoming respectable after decades of being dismissed by critics and academics. “This whole idea that if you’re a serious writer, you just write literary fiction, I find that really annoying.” She says there’s a huge area between genre and literary fiction “where you can use some of the patterns and plot devices of genre fiction to propel your novel. And why not? It can be really clever.”
It was a genre plot device that launched Brightwell down the road to “Turnback Ridge,” she said. “My initial idea was a bloke who is standing by the side of the road next to his truck and he finds something in the dirt that is going to trigger the story.”
This led her into a tale of climate change, family dynamics, a murky authoritarian government and its corporate contractors, and a world rapidly sliding in the wrong direction. The book captures our current moment, she said. “I didn’t feel as though I was going too far away from reality.”