Carolyn Dale’s Debut Novel Is Inspired By Living on Our Land

Carolyn Dale will discuss her debut novel, “Second Rising,” at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 8, at Village Books, 1200 11th St.
Carolyn taught journalism classes at Western Washington University for nearly 30 years and has also worked as a news reporter and editor. She has communications degrees from the University of Washington and co-authored a nonfiction book on the concepts of editing.
“Second Rising” is published by Cairn Shadow Press, a Bellingham, limited liability corporation founded in 2019 by Carolyn’s husband, Tim Pilgrim. “Second Rising” is its first offering.
Here’s a quick description of “Second Rising” from Carolyn:
“The novel has a contemporary setting and strong environmental themes, along with a mystery and a love story. It is set in the imaginary town of Quicksilver, in the Pacific Northwest’s North Cascades. The narrator is Lauren, a young chef who has bought a café where she hopes to burnish her reputation and move on. But a struggle is building between the townspeople and a billionaire whose secret project threatens their farmlands and way of life. With transformations surrounding her, Lauren faces bittersweet choices among friendships, work, and the man and the place she is coming to love.”
At her event, Carolyn will describe how the story of a town struggling to protect its farmland and forests evolved from some actual events in Whatcom County, as well as the range of local cultures. “As I worked with our history and mythologies and developed the characters, the story became more whimsical and idiosyncratic—right up to its hopeful ending. I’ve tried to capture the uniqueness of our place and time, and envision how we can live benignly with the land in the future.”
She plans to give clues about which events are real—and which are imaginary—and to show videos and photos of the sites that inspired parts of the story. Since the novel’s narrator is the chef at a restaurant, discussion could also turn to local foods.
Following is an email interview I conducted with Carolyn:
Margaret: As a career journalist, did you always yearn to write fiction? 
Carolyn: I’ve always enjoyed writing fiction on the side. To me, journalism deals with how society works, while fiction delves into how people feel and experience their lives at a deeper level. It gets at different truths, so fiction brings balance to my outer, working life. But I literally had to retire from teaching to get this novel done. I need several days in a row, regularly, to sink into “novel land,” the imaginary world I share with the characters. Over the years, stacks of story drafts and other novels have piled up, awaiting this kind of time.
For “Second Rising,” I try to show in an immediate way how the protagonist, Lauren, changes as she draws closer to the natural world. To get at her thoughts and feelings—her evolving awareness—requires fiction. I also explore how a community of people might change their lives and livelihoods, even their social organization, if they made preserving the natural world their top priority. The question a character asks early in the story—“How shall we live, if we truly believe the earth is alive?—moves the book into a fictional realm.
Margaret: How long did it take, from first taking pen to paper (literally or metaphorically) to holding the book in your hands?
Carolyn: “Second Rising” dates back 15 years. Around 2007 I was shopping a version that imagined a financial crash so serious that ordinary people—like my characters in a small town near Mount Baker—would deeply question the current system and try a new kind of city and economy. But agents and editors it turned down, saying the premise was unbelievable because this country would never have such a financial collapse. That put my book into categories like speculative fiction, or sci fi and fantasy, where it had to compete with space aliens and werewolves. So I let it go and worked on other projects.
Several years ago, a friend asked if I might bring the novel back, now that we’ve had the real Recession and people are deeply questioning systems that exploit and harm the earth. So I reworked the manuscript to reflect contemporary life and rewrote it a couple times after getting advice from my writers group and professional editors. This final version came about pretty quickly, compared to its long hibernation.
Margaret: “Second Rising” is full of science—from geology to botany to nutrition. Have you always been interested in those topics?
Carolyn: Being a journalist helped with the science because I did stop and do research. But my understanding of issues like mining methods, or geothermal power, stays at the layman’s level. I am fascinated by recent research in botany, especially the work Michael Pollan writes about: how intelligent and active plants are, and how they can, in fact, communicate. And I draw from news events that are startling, like when experimental GMO wheat showed up inexplicably in fields in our state—twice. Mainly, though, I try to get at how we feel about where science is taking us in areas like engineering seeds to become sterile. What picture do we hold in our minds about our future with that?
Margaret: Tell me about the research and travel you did in writing this novel.
Carolyn: Travel—especially to two different places—has inspired key ideas in the novel.
I lived in Southern France for a few months on a teaching program, and at the time, farmers were staging massive protests against importing American food and agricultural practices. I gradually began to learn that French farmers keep the land in such good condition that they can take fish from their streams and small game from their woodlands—and serve these freshly cooked on tables later in the day. Lauren, the narrator of “Second Rising,” is a young chef, and as she describes her journey toward farm-to-table, very local, fresh food, she’s telling my story, too.
The other area is the Southwestern U.S., which I visit regularly. I’m fascinated by deserts, the profound sense of peace and beauty in spare, dry, rocky places. Maybe the heat and sun are antidotes to living here, in such a green and rainy place. In the novel, Lauren makes an important trip to the Hopi Mesas, where I’ve visited several times. Through that, I present a traditional Hopi understanding that the world has gone through vast changes before, that humans have survived pervious cataclysms and we’re transitioning now from the Fourth World to the Fifth. I find a lot of hope in that story.
Margaret:  The age-old question on the characters—based on people you know? People in the news? People you’ve met? Or all “made up?”
Carolyn: The characters are definitely not real people, nor anyone I know personally. Since they’re on a difficult journey and facing great changes, I thought some familiar faces would be comforting. So several characters in the first part echo the legends of King Arthur; we meet modern renditions of the magician Merlin, Arthur’s sister Morgan le Fey, and the knights Lancelot, Percival, and Gawain. Lauren’s love interest, Grant, is perhaps likable at first because he does evoke Sir Gawain. The most mysterious character is Genevieve, the reclusive mountain woman who may shapeshift into a white deer. She is based on Guinevere, the queen, especially on British traditions that reveal her as a White Doe, or White Shadow.
Other characters are thoroughly modern, like Agnes Crossfield, the farmer struggling to hold on to her farmland and organic crop certification. And Lauren often feels baffled by mysteries she sees or senses, forces that lie below our rational level and live like myths.
The second part of the novel draws on ancient traditions from Asia when the Tibetan monks arrive and offer to make a mandala for the town. This actually happened here in Bellingham, years ago, and I’ve tried to recreate the setting when the monks spent weeks making their huge, beautiful sand painting in the library on Western’s campus.
Margaret:  There’s a lot of “Mother Earth” in “Second Rising.” Please comment! Carolyn: I tried hard to avoid phrases like “Mother Earth” that feel like clichés or leftovers from the 1970s. Drawing on older literary, cultural, and spiritual traditions helped with this because they are rooted in times when people saw themselves as living within the complex web of nature’s living systems, rather than above or apart from them.
The characters in the novel push back against a prevailing view that assigns humans to some plane above other animals and plants, that sees the industrial exploitation of resources as having a primary and somehow inevitable right to first claim. The novel asks us to resist this and think differently. The characters draw on some newer, current ideas, like assigning legal representation to entities such as rivers, plus some older ones, like having a publicly owned Commons, and using the concept of eminent domain to gain the greatest good for townspeople and the land.
The town in the book, Quicksilver, is imaginary, but it faces conflicts like resolving a bombing and a mysterious death, fighting off a rapacious developer and an underhanded mining scheme, and splitting into bitter political factions. But as characters realize that their shared love for the land actually unites them, they’re able to move forward. Help also arrives in uncanny ways when natural forces provide coincidences, a bit of serendipity.
Margaret: What’s next for you, and for Cairn Shadow Press?
Carolyn: I’m working on a historical novel set in the 1830s and based on actual events and real people. It explores how much power an individual—especially a young woman in that era, living on a frontier—can have over her own life, when that world is driven by colonialism, conquest, and war. I’ve spent years researching the book.
We also plan to bring out a book or two of poetry by my husband, Tim Pilgrim. We’re still getting a feel for how the publishing business works, and we need to see where it takes us. Ideally, we’d expand on the press’s mission to bring out poetry and fiction that explore the landscape of the Pacific Northwest.
Margaret: Why is this book hopeful? It’s not a grim, dystopian vision like many novels in the eco- fiction, or sci-fi, genre.
Carolyn: I am weary of despair and fear, of picturing our future as war, disaster, cruelty, and inhumanity. Sure, those are part of human nature, but so are love, friendship, community, and cooperation. So is the uniquely human ability to stand with courage against monumental odds. At this moment, we need to draw on hope to find the energy and conviction we need to do all that we can. We also need a new vision of community in the stories we tell, so we can move beyond the lonely hero and his journey. We’re all in this together.
Here’s a trailer for the novel. For details, go to www.carolyndale.com or www.cairnshadow.com.