Craig Russell – Literature and Ecocriticism

About Craig Russell 

Craig Russell is a Canadian author. His 2016 novel, Fragment, a world-spanning eco-thriller, was selected by Yale University’s Climate Connections for their 2017 climate-fiction reading list. (Published by Thistledown Press.). As a lawyer (now retired) Craig administered the land titles system for 5,000 square miles of Manitoba, Canada, supervising millions of dollars of transactions each day. His first novel, Black Bottle Man, received the 2011 American Moonbeam Gold Medal and was a finalist for the Canadian Aurora Award for bestnovel. His stage adaptation of that story will be performed in Richmond, Virginia, USA in March, 2019 as part of the annual Acts of Faith Theatre Festival. Since 1989 Craig and his wife Janet have been restoring ‘Johnson House’, a 1906 Victorian heritage home in Brandon, Manitoba.


Craig Russell 


1. Interviewer Zélia Bora – Craig, let me start by asking you about the history of your literary project. When did you start? Can you tell us about the specific characteristics of your narratives? 

Interviewee Craig Russell – As a university student I lived and worked for a summer at the Canadian Arctic weather station at Mould Bay, Prince Patrick Island, ~500 miles from the North Pole. It was an exciting experience for a farm boy, so I kept up with polar events. When the Antarctic Larsen “A” and “B” Ice Shelf collapses occurred decades later I was intensely interested. I’d seen Arctic ice twenty-feet thick, and the scale of an Antarctic ice shelf is so far beyond that it fired my imagination. In a sense the specific “moment” that inspired me to write Fragment, took place in February 2006. That was a very cold time in Canada to be thinking about global warming.  But Canadians had, to my acute dismay, elected a climate change denier as our Prime Minister, Mr. Stephen Harper.  Writing Fragment was my response. The Larsen collapses were dramatic, and I started the SF process of imagining “what if?”. What if that happened in the Ross Sea, to a far thicker and more solid ice shelf, that’s the size of France?


2. Z. Can you tell us about the specific characteristics of your narratives?

C. When writing, I find it’s important for me to find at least two interesting ideas that can play off of each other in the story. So in Fragment we have not only the catastrophic events that unfold when a huge part of the three-hundred-meter thick Ross Ice Shelf is thrust out into the ocean, but also the civilization changing interactions that come from humans and blue whales learning to communicate with each other. Then, I try to put my characters in a situation they can’t escape from. (Either because of physical limitations, like the three scientists who are held incommunicado aboard the submarine; or because of a sense of duty, like when Ring, the blue whale feels he has to stay near the Fragment, to warn other blue whale pods of the danger it poses to their survival. Once they’re locked into the situation I confront the characters with problems which I don’t know the solution to, and see how (and if) they can find a way to survive. 

Some authors describe this as chasing your characters up a tree, and then throwing rocks at them.


Mould Bay -Iceberg on the Arctic Ocean


3. Z. What led you in your second novel, Fragment, an ecological thriller (2016), to combine the implausibility of the elements in the plot with the realistic elements? In other words, how the beautiful and touching story of Ring, the blue whale, interacts with human experience and saves the lives of many blues under the threat of shifting glaciers?

C. I find that readers are willing to suspend their disbelief about something fantastic, like human/whale communication, IF you respect their imagination and intelligence. You do that by trying to fully explore the logical ramifications of that leap into something less plausible. For Fragment I researched everything from sailing to statistics to the physics of wave formation. I also read classical fiction about life at sea, to enrich my store of the figurative language that sailors use to talk about waves, boats, and weather. Naturally, I took artistic license with the fantastical aspects of the story but the places described, like the whalebone arches in Stanley, and the conditions, like the waves and storms in the Drake Passage are factual. Especially in “The Facts” sections of the book I worked hard to make sure the science was as accurate as possible.

BUT – I did make one scientific error, in one sentence. In the future, the Moon will orbit farther from Earth. Not closer. Bob MacDonald, the host of CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks, wrote me a lovely note to say he had quite enjoyed the novel, but he kindly pointed out my mistake. My error there was to not double check something I thought I already knew. Ah, hubris.


Mould Bay – Bison carcass in the arctic


4. Z. In Fragment, you explore the effects of climate change. Literarily debated, you introduce well researched scientific explanations about the problem to the reader and explore the ironies behind plausiblefacts in the near future. As a writer, how do you see the political divisions over the subject and how important is the literary creation to conquer minds and hearts to care about nature?

C. I’m often dismayed by the willful blindness displayed by “conservative” politicians and their supporters. Everyday we trust the scientific work that has launched satellites, invented microchips and lasers, and discovered amazing new medical treatments. The scientific debate has been over for years.  I believe that many of us are stuck in the first stage of grief;  Denial. It’s hard to accept this terrible truth.

We strive in business; in extracting the Earth’s treasures – and find that we’ve put a gun to the temple of our planet.  I say to climate deniers – If a fire was headed toward our homes we’d work together to stop it, not stand idle while we debate how it started.  So much of politics and the decisions we make is about the stories we tell ourselves; about ourselves, about other creatures and about the world. National myths are powerful and dangerous things. In Canada and the U.S. (and possibly Brazil) we share the national myth of the endless, open frontier. There is always more land, more forest … more world to exploit. But there isn’t. We live under the Earth’s thin atmosphere. If you dive into the ocean, one atmosphere (14.7 psi) is the pressure caused by the weight of a column of water about ten meters deep. So in a very real sense, all of our air pollution has gone, and continues to go into an amount of material equivalent to a ten-meter layer of water! (And we get very upset at the thought of someone peeing in a swimming pool.)


5. Z. When you were a student more than forty years ago, you had the opportunity to work for the Department of National Defense in the Canadian Arctic at a weather station. You had the opportunity to keep a close eye on changes in the Artic and the Antarctic, such as the breakupof the Larsen Ice Shelf. Your knowledge and perspective are very important to an ecocritic writer and literary activism.Can your readers count on this look forward to wait more eco-thrillers?

C. I don’t currently have another climate-change story in the works because I’m focused on getting Fragment, and its ideas about our place in the world, out into the public square. I’ve sent copies of the book to a number of politicians, which seems like a Quixotic quest.  But there’ve been positive responses from some pretty wise people. Yale University’s “Climate Connections” put Fragment on their recommended climate-change reading list.


Mould Bay – Weather Station


Just today I had a lovely email from Dr. Weronika Łaszkiewicz of the University of Bialystok in Poland. She said: “Last month I participated in a conference on fantasy fiction in Brno (Czech Republic) and Dr. Marek Oziewicz, (the University of Minnesota’s Marguerite Henry Professor of English) who was one of the keynote speakers, used your novel Fragment to illustrate one of the points of his lecture (the lecture explained, among other things, how fantasy novels can undermine and dismantle the anthropocentric perspective of the world).”  I believe that artists, performers and writers can fire the public’s willingness to havereal discussions about what we must do to cherish and protect our beautiful world.


Z. Final Remarks – 

C. Thank you very much! 

Z. Thank You. 

November 24th, 2018.  

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