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Silas House finds beauty and wonder amid devastation in his new novel

Lark Ascending HR
Courtesy Algonquin Books
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In the not-too-distant future, fires ravage the planet, and an extremist group persecutes Americans who don’t follow their rigid views. 

That’s the premise of “Lark Ascending,” the latest novel from Kentucky writer Silas House. It was released in bookstores this week.

The main character is Lark, a refugee forced to flee the U.S. and take a perilous journey across the Atlantic seeking safety in Ireland. 

The book was a response to grief. In 2015, House lost a beloved aunt. 

“I just experienced tremendous grief,” he told WFPL News. “The only way I've ever worked my way through anything is to write about it. So I just started writing about this character who had lost everything.”

In that moment, he also began to think about grieving other losses, particularly the heavy sadness that comes from the impacts of climate change and threats to democracy.

“These are the two most pressing and terrifying things in our world right now,” he said.

The dystopian setting makes the book initially feel different from House’s other work, but ultimately, it focuses on topics he’s always written about: love and family.

“When you're writing about grief, you can't just wallow in there,” he said. “So I had to also think about ways to insert joy and light into the book. And so there are lots of moments of the lead character witnessing great beauty and experiencing wonder.”

Below are excerpts from House’s conversation with WFPL News, edited for clarity and brevity:

On the importance, for him, on writing about climate change and ‘the demise of democracy’:

“Most of us cannot deny climate change. And I think if you're observing, if you're gaining any kind of information or knowledge, it's undeniable that it's happening and we're living through it, we're witnessing it. At the same time, I'm really worried about the narrowing separation of church and state in our country, and especially as a person of faith, I found that very frightening. I think it's foundational to me, as an American, to have separation of church and state. And I think we're witnessing the demise of that. If you just look at some Supreme Court decisions, and the legislation that is in so many state houses. In Florida, they have the ‘Don't Say Gay’ laws, and those are proposed in lots of other places. And that’s about erasure. So it's not a big leap to think 20 years in the future, how much worse is this stuff going to be? And that's really what I was sort of trying to figure out. I just came up with the worst-case scenario of how bad it could go, and how quickly it could go that way.”

On setting the book in the near future:

“Nothing in this book is not already happening. For instance, LGBT relationships have been outlawed. Well there are lots of countries where that's the case. Women have less rights today than they had when I sold this novel a year ago. Et cetera, et cetera. And so it is not far-fetched at all. On the other hand, we tend to talk a lot about the sort of social issues and the political background, all that in talking about the book in interviews, because in the book itself, it's really the human story playing out against that backdrop. What I focused on more than anything was just creating characters that the audience would be endeared to and would care about. And then woven throughout the book, hopefully, you're getting this information that we're talking about.”

On what it was like to write from the perspective of a dog in parts of the novel:

“I've written about dogs, but I've never written from their point of view. And so I had to figure out how to do that. I had to try to divorce the way that we put human traits onto animals. I focused a lot on olfactory details. I thought about what he's smelling, and what he's tasting. And those were sort of the primary ways to get into his head, and to put you into his perspective. One thing about it is, as far as we know, animals are not aware of their own mortality. And so in a dark book like this, where sort of the world is literally and figuratively burning down, it's great to have this character who can sort of retain their sense of wonder and joy and not really be worried that something cataclysmic is happening.”

On the theme of created family within the novel:

“I think, as a gay person, that's important that you have to have a created family. Lots of us are abandoned by family members. I'm lucky that I have lots of family members that I’m very close to and are accepting, but also have lost lots of family. So you have to create a family for yourself to some degree. At the same time, I think that's a very rural thing, and a very Appalachian thing. We talk a lot about blood, and how important blood family is to us. But we also are really open to taking people into the family. And so while blood is really important to rural people, and Appalachian people, I think that they're very open to created family as well.”

On Ireland as Lark’s ultimate destination:

“When I started reading this book, Australia was burning. It made me think a lot about forest fires, you know, Australia was burning, then California was burning, and then it was more of the West. I read more than a billion animals were killed in Australia fires, and that's just, you can't even wrap your mind around it. So when you look at weather patterns, and things like that, and future forecasts for if this scenario did happen, Ireland would be a place where displaced people might flock to. Also the people there have fought so hard for their freedom. And also, I just know Ireland well, and I don't want to write about a place unless I really know it, and have been immersed in it. I've spent a lot of time in Ireland, I have very close friends in Ireland. And I've walked almost the entire route that Lark walks in the book. So it's really important to me to get my details right.”

On the composition ‘The Lark Ascending,’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and other music featured throughout the book:

“That piece of music is a journey and it has so many emotions, and it just perfectly matched the tone of this book. And so the song is mentioned in the book, but I really hope it will lead more people to listen to that particular piece of music because I cannot listen to it and not be moved.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOWN5fQnzGk

“I thought a lot about what music would people still be singing 20 years from now if there was no electricity and there wasn't a way to play recorded music. What songs would we remember? So people sing favorite brother songs: they sing John Prine, they sing Adele songs, Brandi Carlile. And so, each of my characters has their own sort of theme song. And anytime I'm writing that character, I would be listening to that song to put me in their headspace. The way I got into the dog Seamus's headspace was to listen to this Cat Stevens song called ‘I Love My Dog.’ … I always make a playlist for every book of mine on Spotify and YouTube.”

Stephanie Wolf is LPM's Arts & Culture Reporter. Email Stephanie at swolf@lpm.org.