How Do We Mourn the Death of the Natural World?

Crissy Van Meter's debut novel "Creatures" faces up to the grief of living through climate change

Beached whale
Photo by Sarah Nichols

The carnage of climate change has been a daily top story lately, but rarely do we take the time to understand the impact of losing nature on our experience of being human. How do we grieve a natural world we always thought would be ours? How does such grief on a mass scale mirror the little griefs we’ve always known? Crissy Van Meter tackles these questions and more in her debut novel, Creatures, an atmospheric, literary tale with elements of magic realism. The story follows Evie, a young California woman, as she waits for her fiancé on the eve of their wedding. Just beyond her window, the rotting carcass of a whale fills the beach, prompting disgust, heartbreak, flashback and introspection, giving Evie a canvas to relive her tumultuous childhood even as the present events unfold.

Cover of Creatures

Although climate change and the devastation it brings are heavy topics, brimming over with existential dread, my conversation with Van Meter about her book wasn’t always so serious. Van Meter, who is the managing editor for Nouvella Books and who teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence, brought a sense of humor to our discussion that might be difficult to see without hearing our voices. Especially when we were talking about writing climate change, Van Meter spoke with a bleak humor so relatable to me I felt as though I’d found a kindred spirit. That is one of the themes of Creatures, I think: Though the world is falling apart, human understanding remains magnetic.

Rebecca Renner: Creatures has its own unique architecture. I’m not sure I know of any other novel shaped quite like it. Can you tell me a little more about your construction process? 

Crissy Van Meter: When I’m starting out with anything, I ask a lot of questions. With this book, I was thinking about grief. What does it mean to grieve, and how does that affect one’s entire life? I knew I was interested in writing about an entire life. I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. At the same time, I started studying whales and tides. I would go to the beach and watch the tide literally coming in and going out. I started thinking about how grief is this constant ebb and flow, up and down, both all at once. When I was constructing [the novel], I was interested in the reader actually feeling those things: being pulled out of a feeling, jumping ahead in time, or going back. This mimics how, at least for me, grief really feels. 

When I was assembling the story, I was looking at a lot of tide books. Growing up as someone who’s always in the water, that’s something I would always have in my back pocket for fishing or surfing or sailing or whatever. I was thinking about how there’s this chart that really maps out your day. The features when I started assembling it—actually, if you turn the table of contents on its side, if you connect all the dots, it mirrors a tide chart. I was thinking in terms of the cycles of life, so I knew I didn’t want to tell it exactly chronologically. To me, that’s not how memory works.

If you turn the table of contents on its side, if you connect all the dots, it mirrors a tide chart.

RR: I’m glad you mentioned the table of contents, because I hadn’t paid attention to it. A lot of people skip them.

CVM: You’re totally right. The reason I put it in—one of the reasons—is that there are so many changes in time. I wanted to alert the reader up front: you’re not going to be sitting through a chronological sort of story. For me, the table of contents is very poetic and important, but I agree. You just want to get to the stuff, so you kind of skip to it.

RR: But I think that’s an interesting choice. And I’m glad we brought it up. Sense of place plays a huge, important part and the novel almost to the point where Winter Island is its own character. Are there other novels that you look to as inspiration or model for that technique?

CVM: I do love books with a strong sense of place, and I love books about California. Specifically, I was actually just reading Joy Luck Club again. I looked to that book a lot for structure guidance. I also love William Faulkner specifically for structure, like in As I Lay Dying. But I do love the sense of the South there. I also think Stephen King is one, with Maine. The whole world he creates up there is a character itself. And, of course, Steinbeck does this, too. All the Cannery Row stuff, his settings always feel like a character to me as well.

With Creatures I was thinking a lot about structure more than place, but I am really glad that place came through. 

RR: It’s not a real place, right? Winter Island is fictional.

CVM: It’s not real. No. But it’s inspired by real places. I grew up in Orange County, California. I’m a fourth-generation Southern Californian. I spent a lot of time with my dad on the Balboa Peninsula, which is Newport Beach. It very much felt like an island, because there’s one way in and one way out. So the actual setting is based on the Balboa Peninsula, and then, of course, from the beach here in L.A. you see all the channel islands out there, and you see Catalina and things like that. But no, Winter Island is definitely made up. We don’t have a volcano here or snow or hurricanes. It’s just really a wild version of L.A. beaches.

RR: It seemed to me very much like the Keys—minus the volcano. Because I know people who are very much like the people in your book, and they all live in the Keys.

CVM: I’ve actually never been there, but I have a feeling I would fit in. I would like to visit there someday.

RR: I think so. It has all of these interesting elements, and it’s very literary. So, sort of piggybacking on sense of place, which is so tied to ecology—not a lot of novels speak so directly to ecology and climate change. More are starting to. Why did you decide to tackle these ideas so directly in fiction?

It always feels so extreme, seeing all of these things happen, seeing species die off.

CVM: Well, it’s something I think about. And I think growing up, like you’re saying in Florida, if you grow up in a place where you’re constantly surrounded by nature, and in my case, also this massive city, suburbs and sprawl, and you see the housing crisis and capitalism crumbling, and all of these things, it’s really hard not to really see climate change’s effects on a daily basis. For example, growing up, just watching the fires every year, how they change and shift and get worse over time; to me at least, it always feels so extreme, seeing all of these things happen, seeing species die off. And for me, also, thinking about grief and love and all those things—it felt so similar. There was this constant parallel, at least personally, especially with grief, of everything feeling so extreme and feeling completely out of control. I couldn’t write about my experience without writing about climate change. In Creatures, it’s sort of extreme and over-the-top. Obviously, there are no snow-capped volcanoes here. But it does sometimes feel so extreme in Los Angeles in those ways. We’re running out of water, and everything’s on fire. Mountains are sliding off. I really think witnessing climate change was just part of my daily life living in Southern California.

RR: Can you recommend other books that speak to the same notions or use nature in the same way?

CVM: There’s a book I just re-read that I loved. I think I first tread it when I was in junior high and I finally came back to it. It’s The Legacy of Luna by Julia Butterfly Hill, and it’s a little more political because it’s about saving a redwood. She lived in a tree to stop them from cutting it down. But it’s so interesting, because the book is 20 years old, and it’s her observations about how the landscape is constantly changing.

RR: So, you were influenced by where you grew up. But what do you think of the concept of autofiction? Is any part of this autofiction?

CVM: The dreaded autofiction question. I mean, no. This is a work of fiction. I think there’s a lot of emotional truth for me in here, and growing up in some way similarly and having parents who are somewhat similar feels real in a lot of ways, and certainly having a dad who had a lot of the same issues as the father in this book—but, for me, it’s more emotionally true. To make it work as a novel, I really kind of push the limits there. I think that’s why the setting is so wacky and wild, and not rooted in exact reality. But, I mean, you’re a writer. Isn’t all fiction autofiction in a way?

RR: I think in the way you said, with the emotional resonance. But sometimes it seems like readers always assume, especially with women writers, that what’s on the page is your life, and you couldn’t have made it up no matter how extreme and wacky some of the elements are.

CVM: I think you’re right. People have definitely asked me this before. I think part of it, too, is, for all artists—of course we’re emotionally connected to the work we make. That’s why we do it. It’s almost a really selfish act. We’re doing it—creating, writing—for ourselves in a lot of ways. There are certainly things that feel very real to me in Creatures, that feel very close to my heart and my life.

One interesting parallel is that my parents got divorced when I was four. I lived with my mother my whole life. She raised me as a single mother. Then, whenever I could, I spent a lot of time with my dad—on weekends, or in the summer, or whenever he wasn’t on a bender, things like that. Obviously, [Creatures] is about a girl living with just her father. So, I think in terms of autofiction, this might be imagining for myself what it might have been like if I was with him all the time.

RR: The familial relationships in Creatures were so complex. Craft-wise, how did you manage to get that on the page? What was your thought process for rendering family relationships?

CVM: Certain characters and relationships were easier. I wrote the father’s sections first. Those came naturally. Again, those are closest to my emotional truth. So, in the first sort of draft or idea of this novel, I had just a relationship with a father and a daughter. It was much longer than the version [readers] have. As I was developing that, I thought, again, about grief and love, thinking, How do we experience these things? I didn’t feel like it was a linear, straight-forward, flashback kind of story. So I started thinking about how a relationship with a father like that would affect this girl and affect her as a woman. Then I started building other pieces. I would ask, How does this affect a mother or a mother figure or her friendships? Most importantly, How does this affect her in love and partnership? Those are the things that it started building faster. Once the foundation of this traumatic childhood was in place, I started building around those ideas and thinking about who she was going to be after that kind of life.

RR: Here’s a philosophical question with no right answer. Do you think it’s harder to forgive our parents or to forgive ourselves?

CVM: Oh god. I think it’s hard to forgive in general. I guess I would say that if you come from that background, it’s just so obvious that you’re going to blame yourself, right? But personally, for me, I absolutely have had to forgive my parents over and over again, and I don’t think I could have kept going if I hadn’t done that.

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