Two novelists and a biologist discuss storytelling, science and what is illuminated at the confluence of fiction and nonfiction.
In bestselling author Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel, Hummingbird Salamander, a mysterious envelope sends “Jane Smith” on a dangerous, complex quest revolving around a taxidermied hummingbird and a taxidermied salamander. The titular animals are fictional, but their scientific plausibility is the product of the research and creativity of Professor of Biology Meghan Brown.
In an interview conducted by novelist and Professor of English Melanie Conroy-Goldman, Brown and VanderMeer discuss their collaboration, how the book evolved and “what happens when the language…and the knowledge set of biology collides against the language and the knowledge set of fiction,” as Conroy-Goldman puts it.
Listen to the Interview
Read more about their collaboration on Hummingbird Salamander, which was published April 6.
Brown studies and teaches about the critical role humans play in shaping our Earth home. Her non-fiction publications address questions such as: How does climate change impact organisms in European mountain lakes? Did Cuba’s Revolution shape its modern ecology? What role do non-native species play in the conservation of vulnerable environments? She is a Fulbright fellow, a National Science Foundation grantee, and a recently featured scientist in National Geographic.
VanderMeer is the author of more than 20 books, including Dead Astronauts, Borne and The Southern Reach Trilogy, the first volume of which, Annihilation, won the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson Award and was adapted into a movie by Alex Garland. A three-time winner of the World Fantasy Award, VanderMeer speaks and writes frequently about issues relating to climate change as well as urban rewilding.
Conroy-Goldman is the author of the novel The Likely World and a founding director of the HWS Trias Residency for Writers. Her fiction has been published in journals such as Southern Review and StoryQuarterly, in anthologies from Morrow and St. Martin’s, and online at venues such as McSweeney’s. In addition to her teaching duties at HWS, she volunteers at a maximum security men’s prison with the Cornell Prison Education Program. Her work is represented by Bill Clegg at the Clegg Agency. She lives in Ithaca, N.Y. with her husband, daughter and step-daughters.
During VanderMeer’s tenure at HWS as the 2016-17 Trias Writer-in-Residence, he and Brown forged a working friendship based on a shared fascination with science and the role fiction can play in connecting humans to the natural world. As VanderMeer developed Hummingbird Salamander, Brown was enlisted to create ecological profiles for the species — including names, physical and behavioral traits, diets, migrations, defense mechanisms and reproduction — that “would have biological realism which enabled them to be believable in the novel,” she explains. Her text appears throughout the novel to bring the species’ ecologies to the reader.
The Trias Residency for Writers is supported by The Peter Trias Endowed Fund for Poetry and Creative Writing. The residency was created through a generous bequest from Peter J. Trias ’70 and is designed to give distinguished writers time to write while they mentor Hobart and William Smith students and contribute to the artistic community on campus and in the City of Geneva.