Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Keely Shinners is a writer from Fox Lake, Illinois, currently living in Cape Town, South Africa. Their debut novel, How to Build a Home for the End of the World, follows father-daughter duo Mary-Beth and Donny on a road trip through the wreckage of post-apocalyptic America.
Enjoy our conversation about giving up the homestead, caregiving in a dystopia, and making sense of chaos in today’s world and in our sci-fi imaginations.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Can you tell me a bit about yourself, your hometown, and how you decided to feature the place you grew up so prominently in your first novel?
Keely Shinners: I am a writer and editor from Fox Lake, Illinois. My debut novel, “How To Build a Home for the End of the World,” was released this year through Perennial Press. It is a dystopian road trip novel that follows seventeen-year-old Mary-Beth as she falls in love, gets her heart broken, tries to grow up and gets into all sorts of trouble with her father Donny as they go on a road trip from Fox Lake to Los Angeles at the end of the world.
Fox Lake is a beautiful and messy place, full of contradictions. It is a quiet, polite lake town of 10,000 people; it is also a place where violence and vice bubble constantly underneath the surface, ready to erupt into scandal. It’s a contradictory place in the book too. For the Sorensens, it is their refuge; they have access to water while the rest of the world fractures under the pressures of drought. But their home is also a trap; it’s not until Mary-Beth visits Chicago for the first time that she realizes how sheltered and naive she really is. When the water in their lake runs out, the Sorensens finally have to come to terms with the fact that the place they called home for generations is no longer hospitable. They will have to build a new home for the end of the world.
DY: I love your emphasis throughout the book on the trouble with thinking of the massive destabilizations caused by climate change as “the end of the world.” Why, for your characters, is “the end of the world as we knew it” a better term?
KS: What is the end of the world? The decimation of the human race? By that logic, all our apocalyptic stories would be about rocks and seas. The end of the world as we understand it is about mass death, uprooted homes, fractured communities, scarce resources and displaced people. By that logic, the world is ending. Ida says, “The world’s been ending.” In her view (and mine), the world ended in 1492 with the acceleration of colonialism, the elaboration of capitalism, and the genocide of indigenous peoples the world over. I believe American life and culture to be post-apocalyptic, even for those who benefit. Climate change is a reiteration of this apocalypse. Currently, the most marginalized and exploited in our society are the most affected. But there will come a time when it will affect all of us indiscriminately. How are we going to reorganize our society in a more humane way? Can we reckon with our past in order to take care of each other? How do we love each other at the end of the world? These are questions the novel asks.
DY: Your main character’s father Donny, at least in the beginning of the book, is motivated by a strong desire to renovate and reinforce his homestead. I’m curious whether, throughout the immersive process of writing about the world after climate disaster, you were ever personally moved by the idea of homesteading up. Within that fantasy is the conservative notion of limiting or choosing your tribe, and the attempt to protect that exclusive group from the outside world. Are you ever personally tempted by that more individualistic approach to chaos?
KS: At the start of 2020, I was holed up in a small cottage in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal with my husband. I thought that the isolation would make me a better and more productive writer. Writing is, after all, such a solitary activity. But once the pandemic hit and I felt the full weight of what it meant to be alone out in the country, I became a shell of myself. I could not write. I needed to be in community with others in order to feel strong enough for moments of solitude. This is the conclusion the characters come to at the end of “How To Build a Home.” It can be messy and scary and complicated, but at the end of the day, we need to foster some community with each other if we have any hope to survive.
DY: On their westward road trip, Mary-Beth and Donny encounter lots of strange communities which sprung up in the wake of the government’s dissolution. In writing those larger enclaves, were you trying to get creative and imagine new ways that people might relate to each other after institutional collapse, or were you mainly trying to demonstrate the ways people will be marked by our current social structure long after it disappears?
KS: I think a bit of both. Those who inherit violent social structures tend to perpetuate them. At Stateville prison, for example, the warden claims that the people mining water for the Collective are doing so on their own volition, but when Mary-Beth and Donny almost get trapped down there, they realize that this prison functions very much the same way as it did before the government collapsed. Others seem to be making their own sense of the chaos – a family building a rocket ship in their backyard; a group of performance artists robbing people for an art project; a bunch of hippies taking psychedelics and partying out in the desert.
DY: Lastly, what are you reading and listening to lately? And what’s your favorite work of climate fiction?
KS: I’m back in Fox Lake visiting my family, so I’m listening to lots of folk and country music. Currently reading “Lote” by Shola von Reinhold. Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” is my favorite work of climate fiction.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.