Marcus Sedgwick on the Inspiration Behind Snowflake, AZ
With books such as My Swordhand is Singing and the award-winning Floodland to his name, Marcus Sedgwick's distinctive brand of gothic drama and dark suspense have marked him out as one of the most accomplished Young Adult writers around. For his latest novel, Snowflake, AZ, Sedgwick mined his own traumatic illness as well as the sickness of the planet in these times of severe climate change. In the exclusive essay below, he explains what living with a chronic illness is really like and how his condition fed into his fiction.
Getting Used to Not Getting Used to it
When you fall ill, you fall out of the normal world. I’m not the first person to have noted that – Virginia Woolf said something similar in an essay commissioned and published by T S Eliot in his magazine The Criterion, in 1926. Illness removes you, it sets you apart, it slows you down and takes you to a distant place from where you observe the world, of which you were so very recently a part, with some strange mixture of wonder and horror.
Woolf was absolutely right, but she was writing about the sort of illness that might confine you to bed or an armchair for a few days. What happens if you become chronically ill, very possibly for life, is that the sense of having been removed from the everyday current of life is multiplied many times over. When I fell into that state, almost six years ago, the last thing I wanted to do was write about it. I was just thoroughly miserable; and thoroughly busy, with being bewildered with what had happened to me. Not only had I suddenly developed a chronic illness, but my doctor had compounded my confusion when she told me she believed it was ‘all in your head’. She literally used those words. And I really, really didn’t want to write about being sick, but as I’m often saying; you don’t get to choose what you write about, your unconscious mind does. As a writer you can no more force yourself to write a novel that you are not compelled to work on by some deep interior force, than you can ignore the call to write something which is eating you alive from the inside out. That ‘all in your head’ had lodged itself inside that very place, and finally I had no choice but to write.
It’s with this state of mind therefore that I’ve written Snowflake, AZ, a novel about a real group of people living in the desert of Navajo County, Arizona, who are ill with something that the vast majority of doctors believe doesn’t exist. That it’s ‘all in the heads’ of the sufferers of MCS, or multiple chemical sensitivity. These are people who have suffered at least twice over: victims of acute or chronic poisoning by the toxicity of the modern world; and the disbelief of doctors, friends, employers, and all too often and very sadly, family. They are people like my friend Scott, whose illness began after his office was sprayed with chlorpyrifos, a pesticide now known to have wide ranging dangers to health, and now banned in certain countries, while it remains in use in many others.
When I came to write about the MCS sufferers of Snowflake I could only write about them with empathy: they are people who have been sent away from the rest of the world, retreating into remote spaces as far from the things that poison them as possible. As I wrote, I had something else in my head too – Thomas Mann’s great work, The Magic Mountain, a book which saved my sanity during the first desperate year or two of being ill. If that sounds extravagant, the following will sound like genuine hyperbole – it was a single line in the book which made all the difference to me. At one point someone asks Hans Castorp, the young protagonist, how he’s adjusting to life as a tubercular patient in the TB sanatorium in Davos where he has ended up. His reply, “I’m getting used to not getting used to it”, perfectly sums up the nature of living with chronic illness. As so often with literature, when we feel that we have been seen, that we have been understood, we feel an indescribable sense of consolation, of comfort. The Magic Mountain is an extraordinary book with many themes, one of which is the allegorical use of individual sickness for global unhealth, something I stole to use in my own book.
At first sight it might appear that there is little link between an individual sickness like Scott’s and the wider, global illness we’re witnessing in the form of the climate emergency. But they are one and the same thing. We have been pumping chemicals out into the world for decades. There is no reliable estimate of how many, but the figure is certainly in the tens of thousands, and only a mere handful have been reliably proven to be safe. We’re in the process of clumsily finding out the damage these things are doing to us; things like chlorpyrifos, or glyphosate, of which we are as yet only witnessing the tip of an iceberg of damage to life on multiple fronts. Likewise, we pumped CFCs and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere without any real understanding of what they might do to the world. And what connects and compounds both these histories is that no sooner did people start to find out what the harmful effects might be than other people moved to cover that knowledge up: people like ExxonMobil in the case of fossil fuel emissions, people like Monsanto/Bayer in the case of glyphosate. People, in short, who want to make money at any price.
In days gone by, we lowered canaries into coal-mines in order to test for the presence of danger. It appears now that we are using ourselves, and the planet, to do the same thing, but if there’s one thing that being ill has reinforced to me, it’s that we ought to realise that whatever we do to our environment, our environment will eventually do back to us. There will only be one winner. Meanwhile, as the world sickens, many more of us will find we can only get used to not getting used to it.