Five Questions for Paul Kingsnorth

Orion friend and contributor Paul Kingsnorth has been quite busy in recent months—his Dark Mountain Project just released its fifth print journal, and his first novel, The Wake, was published in April. Paul’s essay “In the Black Chamber” appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Orion.

You’ve published three terrific and provocative essays in Orion in recent years. How has your thinking about the future—and humans’ role in influencing the future—evolved as you’ve written those pieces?

My recent essays have really been explorations of my place in the world, and my powers in the world, and the way that world is changing, and particularly the human relationship with the nonhuman world in an increasingly technological age. I suppose I’ve quite publicly moved in the last five or six years from a position of being a campaigner, who uses his writing to push particular positions, into being someone who is less and less convinced that positions are helpful. I came to see that advocacy writing required you to be more dishonest than I was comfortable being, and so I’ve ended up doing something that is a lot more exploratory and open-ended. These days, I’m more interested in questions than answers.

It’s interesting that you use the word provocative. I often hear that my writing is provocative or controversial, and I suppose when I look at it from the outside it can seem so. But I’m always a bit surprised when I hear this. I’m not particularly trying to provoke anything or anyone, I’m just seeing where my explorations take me. The writers I admire most are genuine freethinkers. I look at people like Edward Abbey or Wendell Berry or Ran Prieur, and I see writers who are trying to figure things out for themselves without falling into camps or advocating for “isms.” That’s what I aspire to.

A few years ago, you started something called The Dark Mountain Project. What is it, and where do you hope it will go in the coming years?

Dark Mountain is a loose international network of writers, artists, thinkers, and others interested in exploring how radically the world is changing and how we can adjust to it. We try to be realistic about how far this giant engine of destruction that we call civilization has taken us, and how limited our powers are in terms of trying to roll it back at this stage in history. We’re trying to look into the darkness of our current times and see what we might come out with on the other side. Primarily, we focus on stories. We ask: What failed stories have got us to this point in human history? This point where we have managed to change the climate of a whole planet and kick off another mass extinction? What do we believe—what do we think—that is wrong, and what would new stories look like?

It’s an expedition, and we’re not sure where it will end up, but the explorations we have undertaken so far have been fascinating. We have published five collections of writing and held a lot of public events, and I think we are helping to change the debate around our relationship with nature in these times.

Speaking of that fifth collection of writing, the book is now out. What can readers look forward to?

Our fifth book is our best yet. Like our other books it’s a hardback book with color plates filled with essays, fiction, poetry, and other things that don’t quite fit traditional categories. There are a lot of writers from North America, but also from Europe, India, the Pacific, and elsewhere. What’s so interesting to me about our books is that they always add up to more than the sum of their parts. This time around I think we’ve dug deeper than ever before into what those new stories might look like.

You’ve spent many years working with newspapers and magazines, as well as publishing your own writing. What do you feel is the role of writing and reading at a time like ours?

Well, just speaking personally, writing for me is a compulsion. I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s a way I have of trying to work out my place in the world and what the world is and how best to live in it. In terms of the public role of writing and writers, and books: well, there are more words in the world than ever before, and if they are good words, there is probably more need for them than ever before. I think the role of a writer is to try to be ruthlessly honest: it’s hard for all of us, because it doesn’t come naturally, but we have to try and represent the world as we see it and not as we would like it to be.

Your first novel, The Wake, was published in April. Can you tell us about the story, and about what drew you to write your first work of fiction?

The Wake is a post-apocalyptic novel set 1,000 years in the past. I seem to have an ongoing interest in what happens when things fall apart—in change and collapse and regrowth. The Wake is a story set in the aftermath of the Norman conquest of England in 1066, which was probably the most catastrophic event in our nation’s history. It looks through the eyes of an ordinary man at the relationship between personal collapse and national collapse, between past and future, between hope and reality, and weaves themes of place and belonging, and the world of the spirit, into the narrative. I have to say it’s a strange beast! Perhaps the strangest thing about it is that is written throughout in its own language, a version of the Old English that the people of the time would have spoken. I think the overall effect is to drop the reader into a strange country in which they lose their bearings almost entirely. At least, I hope so. We all have to lose our bearings now and then.

Learn more and watch a video about Paul’s just-published novel, The Wake, here.