IFOA: Tell us a bit about your current non-literary pursuits. Your website mentions that you do ongoing work as a consulting biologist.
Ann Eriksson: I have a degree in biology from the University of Victoria and have worked as a consulting biologist since I graduated in 1994. My work, in the area of marine and forest ecology, is mostly a writing job, translating scientific information into language and graphics easily understood by the public, although I have done some nature interpretation as well, which I enjoy a lot. Since I moved to Thetis Island in 2010, I’ve been putting my energy and talents to use in the non-profit conservation world and am a director of two conservation organizations: the Cowichan Land Trust and the Thetis Island Nature Conservancy, which I founded in 2012 along with a passionate group of islanders. Our focus is conservation education and stewardship as well as protecting land for nature. We’re in the midst of raising a half million dollars to buy a piece of land for the island’s first community nature reserve. It’s a lot of work but good work, exciting and satisfying. You can read more about the project at www.thetisislandnatureconservancy.org.
IFOA: How does your background in biology influence your writing, and how do your literary pursuits affect your work as a biologist?
Eriksson: As the great, late ecologist Barry Commoner stated in the first of his Four Laws of Ecology: Everything is connected to everything else. My four novels all incorporate my knowledge and interest as a biologist, from Decomposing Maggie, which is infused with the natural history of the Gulf Islands, and In the Hands of Anubis, which is set in the prairie of southern Alberta, to Falling from Grace and High Clear Bell of Morning, which have scientists as protagonists and environmental issues as major themes. I’ve become braver as I mature as a writer and am more confident about tackling harder issues and bringing science more into my work. Having said that, I’m putting the finishing touches on a new novel which is not at all about science or ecological issues, although one could argue that even a book set in New York City and involving homelessness and fraud is about a different kind of urban ecology.
IFOA: Can you elaborate on the connection between environmental disturbances and mental illness in High Clear Bell of Morning?
Eriksson: When I started writing High Clear Bell of Morning, I thought I was writing two parallel heath stories: toxic pollutants in killer whales, and mental illness in humans. But as I did the research, the two came closer together until eventually, they crossed over. That moment came while reading More than Genes: What Science Can Tell Us About Toxic Chemicals, Development, and the Risk to our Children by Dan Agin, professor of cell biology at the University of Chicago. The book includes a chapter on links between mental illness and toxic industrial chemicals, with an emphasis on schizophrenia.
Like Glen in the novel, I presented a hypothesis. Does exposure to environmental toxins increase one’s chance of having a serious mental illness like schizophrenia? It’s very difficult to do a human health study to determine this. The psychiatric community speaks about “risk factors” rather than causes, as brain diseases like schizophrenia are poorly understood although it is thought to be multi-causal with a mixture of genetic and environmental risk factors. Much of the research has focused on prenatal brain development. For example, we know some chemicals cross the placenta and cause brain damage in the foetus, take alcohol and foetal alcohol syndrome, for example. Exposure to lead during foetal brain development may double the risk of childhood or adult schizophrenia spectrum disorder, and endocrine disruptors like bisphenol-A, a chemical found in plastic water bottles and the linings of tin cans, are implicated in the development of schizophrenia later in life. There are close to 90,000 industrial chemicals used in the world, with 1000 new ones introduced every year, and unless we eat them, very few are studied for their effects on human health. Body burden, breast milk and umbilical cord studies have shown the presence of hundreds of industrial chemicals in human bodies, no matter where they live or what they eat. Many of these pollutants are known neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors and immunotoxins. We’re living in a toxic soup. Does it affect our or our children’s mental health? I thought it was an important question to ask.
Eriksson: Ours was a literary relationship from the start. We met at Gary’s granddaughter’s 12th birthday party a few months after my first novel, Decomposing Maggie, was published. I like to joke I got the GG for my first novel. I had just bought Gary’s floating memoir, Sailing Home, for my father, and the week after the party, on my way to Alberta to deliver it, I spent the flight reading about Gary’s deepest secrets. We married three years later.
I feel blessed to have Gary in my life both as a husband and as a literary partner. We read each other’s work, bounce ideas off one another, give feedback and support and most importantly, we both understand the nature of a writing life with its crazy time commitment and the glazed look of preoccupation. While we have separate writing spaces in our Thetis Island home, they are open to a common hallway and our doors are rarely closed (actually mine doesn’t have a door) so we often converse back and forth. How do you spell travelling, one l or two? This year is the first time we have books out at the same time and so we’ve been doing a lot of joint readings, which are great fun. Gary likes to say he tells the truth and I tell the lies.
IFOA: What’s the best book you’ve read lately?
Eriksson: I read a lot so I’m having a hard time picking a favourite. Right now I’m halfway through The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, which I’m enjoying enormously, but my favourite novel from the past few months was The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, so haunting and beautiful. A close second is A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.
Ann Eriksson is an author and biologist. She presents her fourth novel, High Clear Bell of Morning, about a family dealing with schizophrenia and the frustrations that come with this tragic disease. See her on October 26 as she discusses her creative process. And stay tuned to the IFOA blog to see her husband, the poet Gary Geddes, answer our Five Questions tomorrow!