Daisy Hildyard’s first book, The Second Body, announced the presence of a curious figure: a deeply emotional writer of great intellect whose mindfulness of micro- and macro anxieties affords her work an exquisite tension. When she writes of the body, the body is both the self and the entire Earth, making her in many ways a perfect ambassador for the Anthropocene. Our Winter 2022 issue features a short story she’s written that’s ostensibly about the later years of Princess Diana, but ultimately is about the climate crisis and the entire human species and, basically, everything. The story’s push-pull from intimate detail to epochal drift is a distillation of her new book, a beautiful novel called Emergency. We had the chance to sit down with her recently and talk about the novel and the role of art in the midst of crisis.
Helen Whyrbow: While reading Emergency I was struck by the intricate, minutely detailed descriptions, particularly of sound. You write, “what feels like a tidal wave of random information crashes over me every moment. I like to think that I would go mad if I tuned into everything, all the time, the squirrel’s heartbeat or the roar of growing grass….” Is this your experience of the world, too, not just your narrator’s, and is this book partly an effort to hold onto that richness of experience in the natural world?
Daisy Hildyard: Yes, a feeling of richness in the world is what I want – I want it for myself, and I want to write in a way that will create an experience of liveliness and richness around a reader. There are many ways of being in this world, human as well as other-than-human, that haven’t been captured or cared for much in my culture’s narratives, and there’s also a powerful – and interesting – fear of allowing these outsider experiences into our stories.
HW: In all of your writing you explore themes of our boundaries with the natural world, with time and space and the particular forms of matter. In this you have a basic distrust of language, and of the filtering and prioritizing that it requires. Can you tell me more about what the writing process is like for you, and how you translate your relationship with the natural world into words?
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DH: People have different feelings about language, but I get a sense that many of us, perhaps especially those who are invested in environmental or ecological relationships, dislike and mistrust it at the moment. Language is a problem because of the fact that it segregates humans from other species, and it’s corrupted/corrupting because of the ugly histories that have formed and shaped it. (I’m writing about English here. I can’t speak for other languages, though I’ve read about very different relations with the environment that come through indigenous grammars.).
I can understand why you would dislike language on these terms, but personally, I’ve never been able to feel it. I like talking with people and I like listening. I also I like writing and reading. Even the faults of language and the volatility of trying to put things into words are flaws to appreciate – I think – in a culture that has a scary love of perfection. The idea that language divides human from nonhuman has never felt very real to me, either. Sometimes next-door’s cat comes into my yard to piss. This morning I tried using words to tell her to stop and she got the message. (Maybe it’s in the way I spoke to her, my body and so on, but every articulation has its way and its physical form, words are always placed.)
So I like words and I think they’re usable within and beyond the human world, but the particular ways in which they filter and prioritize are a concern, yes, very much. Samuel Beckett has helped me to think about this, because he has this way of charging his writing with a negative awareness. I mean that his language calls attention to its own shortfall, the spaces it doesn’t reach. I’ve been thinking about that – about how language can draw attention to what lies outside it and make that absence have power and presence. Over the past few years, I’ve been writing, on and off, stories that use language to describe or imitate other forms of communication (like echolocation or chemical sensing) to try to feel that out, or make it felt.
HW: I really admire the bold experiment with form in this novel – the collapsing of past and present and of voice, and the way that seemingly unconnected events run into one another without separation. It flows, and yet I know it was probably difficult to construct. There is also a memoir quality to it. I’d be fascinated to hear more about how the structure of the book came to you, and why it felt important to call it a “pastoral novel.”
DH: In the US, my book has been subtitled, ‘A pastoral novel.’ That wasn’t my idea, but I was happy for the book to be described like that because I see it as a belonging to the tradition of its form, it’s a respectful and loving extension of this, rather than a critique or a different mode entirely.
When I started writing Emergency, something had been troubling me about the novels I was reading and their way of inhabiting the world. I read a lot of autofiction because I like a feeling of plainness in a story, but I noticed a similar structure in several books. They moved digressively, from one subject to another, via associations in the author-narrator’s memory or consciousness. It started to feel to me as though the world beyond the narrator was like this half-chewed substance, always pushed through the digestive system of the narrator’s thoughts. I wanted to tell a story that didn’t swallow the world in that way, one whose connections and encounters happen outside the human mind. And I had this sense of life pouring or rushing, with many different beings colliding with one another, stories converging and diverging. So, Emergency is a digressive novel which tells different stories about many characters (human and nonhuman), but each story takes off from a physical meeting. I thought of the book as a map. A story is set running, and we follow it until it crashes into something, where something else is going on, and then we follow that. We watch what happens to a litter of fox cubs during the days after their mother’s disappearance, and then move down to the stream that runs along the hill below their den. On the banks of the stream we encounter a solitary young man who has run away from the army and is hiding in the woods in a nylon tent. When he moves on he leaves behind an empty plastic noodle pot and we stay with that for a while… I imagined that over time, a picture of the area, and its workings, energy, and relationships, would emerge. It’s a novel and I made it up, but writing it felt like exploring something bigger than myself in a way that I couldn’t get at through another experience.
HW: You write unflinchingly about suffering and torture in the book. The young girl’s need to love and protect a baby bird or animal and the need to manipulate or hurt it are collapsed together. Would you say why this is an important theme in the novel?
DH: The natural world, including the human world, is full of sex and violence, and also full of many differing expressions of love, desire, and care. I needed that to be in there, because it’s all out there. I was especially interested in writing about slow violence – long-term, dispersed or indirect harms – because this is something that marks our time, on new scales. For example, the corrosions of a supremacist system that reach through generations, or the deep timescale and microscopic spatial scale of environmental destruction, or the globally distanced exploitation of outsourced labor.
It can feel impossible, as an individual, to decelerate or exit the systems that make all this happen. Slow violence is massive and everywhere, I don’t think I could identify a person or place on the planet that isn’t somehow marked by it. And yet, it’s been pointed out that one of its characteristics is that it can conceal itself, because it tends to be a result of systemic processes and it doesn’t all appear directly in the dimensions that any life is lived. If it’s hard to see these particular forms of violence then of course it’s also hard to feel that they are a part of our realities or relationships, or to make changes. So, slow violence isn’t a subject that’s tackled across scales in many novels (poetry, I think, especially American poetry now, has more room for it). I wanted to make a modest, preliminary attempt to tell some stories that explore the realities of slow violence, how it moves on unhuman scales and what happens to people as they receive and feel it in their lives.
HW: You wrote this novel during the early days of the pandemic, when lockdown was particularly strict in the UK. You literally couldn’t go outside. The theme of being cut off from the world in the present, as the adult narrator, becomes interwoven with your coming-of-age story about a young girl being immersed in nature. Is that confluence something you anticipated and welcomed, or resisted? I’m wondering how it complicated your project in interesting ways.
DH: Covid exposed interconnectivity to many people in new ways, or changed interconnectivity from something known, in an academic way, to something that was actually (and often cruelly) apparent or felt. There was something formal that I needed from this experience in my story – a counterpoint between the narrator, who is an isolated woman in a quiet house, and the almost obscenely profuse and flourishing world of stories she’s telling about the outside world – the world she’s interwoven with, or against. That felt contrast was what made me want to write the book in the first place. I wonder whether and how much others felt that, in isolation: a powerful sense of entanglement or that the world outside was extra vivid. Ash trees, fallow deer, shipping containers, people, mayflies, all having strange encounters with one another. I like your word confluence, it feels right for the way things are now, like currents running into one another and acquiring an emergent power – running beyond control in a way that’s appealing.
HW: The novel ends with a tangible emergency, a fire. But the book is full of what I would call slow emergencies, moments of danger and violence and death that happen almost through a veil, like the smoke alarm vaguely beeping so long you stop hearing it. This feels like the kind of emergency we are all living with now, all the time. There’s a slipperiness to our experience of the world that you convey so well. Can you say more about what your book reveals about human nature in relationship with nature nature?
DH: This is a very interesting question. I don’t think I can make a claim on what the book might reveal, it’s for a reader to respond to. But I’m glad you raise the idea of slow emergencies, as I said above, this is something I was thinking of, in the story, and that I’m still thinking about. In terms of how we might approach the state of emergency, this slipperiness of human relations with nature nature – for me, what’s interesting is how they create one another. Environmental crisis is a condition rather than a theme. I’m suspicious of any novel that picks up ecological calamity as a subject, as though it’s a compelling news item rather than the terms on which the multiverse permits you to exist… I can think about emergency as a writer, but I’m also being overcome by it as a person. I want to tell stories that explore how experiences are shaped now, by and of this world, and how human natures shape the world. How does this planet today form or affect or shape what happens at a meeting in a corporate boardroom or around a family dinner table, or behind closed doors in government offices, or in a middle school playground? How does the path of your career, or your money troubles, or the shape of your family, or the state of your marriage, affect the nature of your world? These are all traditional questions for a novelist. I don’t think you need specialist knowledge or clever theories to write about them – in fact those things are mostly undesirable in a novel, where you just want to be in life and looking at people seriously. I think that making an attempt to respond to these questions with honesty now does involve making some big changes to this story of human nature – an upheaval is happening. There’s a prevalent and enduringly politically powerful understanding of what a person is that doesn’t really correspond to any actual person any more. (And it likely never did.) This story is narrowly individualist and self-focused, distinguished by separation from nature nature, and many of our stories are hung up on it, but it just isn’t up to the task of exploring what a human life is right now. It’s causing all kinds of pain, in part because much of life spills out of it.
HW: There is so much more I want to talk to you about, but I’ll close with this: what’s next for you? With everything that is swirling in our world right now, how would you describe where writing is coming from inside of you, and what next you feel compelled to say?
DH: I’m working on a novel that holds whole (fictional) biographies, to think about how life rises and falls and is shaped from birth to death, collecting different experiences of place and time. I’ve been close to some deaths and serious illnesses recently. It seems hard enough to hold in mind the shape or shapes that a lifespan can make. So I don’t feel like writing about little amputated chunks of lives, as stories and novels tend to – I want to write about what lives look like because I’d like some help with seeing that myself. It’ll have to be a big novel, telling whole life stories of a man, an oak tree, maybe a Greenland shark if I’m up to it. I don’t know much else about the book, but it opens on a high floor of an office tower in central London in the early hours of a Sunday morning.