Interview with Susan M. Gaines, Author of ACCIDENTALS

Tell us the story behind the story. How did ACCIDENTALS come to be?

For me, the genesis of a book is sort of like making a soup: it’s messy, and it involves lots of ingredients that you may not recognize when you finish. I first started thinking about this story way back in 1999. I was trying to coming to terms with the end of nature as I’d understood it coming of age in the 1970s. I had been thinking about climate change, trying to understand an economic system whose well-being depended on perpetual exponential growth and resource consumption, trying to comprehend why we hadn’t done anything to change it. I was thinking about my father’s Sierra Club activism when I was a kid, and about my own political inertia. I was yearning to start birdwatching again, a hobby I hadn’t indulged since I was a teenager. 

I was surprised to find these seemingly disparate interests merging with the stories I’d been hearing for years from one of my closest friends, who’d grown up in Uruguay. More surprised still, when I accompanied her on a family visit and discovered that the wetlands I’d dreamed up were real—and teeming with birds. Of course, I couldn’t write a novel set in a country I’d never lived in, so I found a job teaching English, adopted new friends and family, and made myself at home in Montevideo and Rocha for the next three years. 

That was just the beginning of the saga that produced Accidentals. It’s almost as if I lived, rather than wrote, this novel, which was entwined with my life and its ever-shifting maze of homes, day jobs, families, friends, deaths, and other writing projects for over fifteen years. Like history, the issues I was writing about kept reappearing with new masks over the years, and even now, as the book stumbles out into the world, they fester unresolved, their urgency newly masked by Covid19.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing ACCIDENTALS?

My answer to this question would have been different at different phases of working on the book. But the challenge I grappled with from beginning to end, through all the myriad drafts, is one that actually mirrors one of the novel’s underlying themes. The birds and ecology in Accidentals are not just setting, but essential characters, and I struggled to keep their quiet, science-based story in the foreground, even as the dramatic, gut-wrenching story of love, politics, and family escalates. I wanted readers to be turning pages, of course, but not so quickly that they miss the birds along the way! 

What is the message you want readers to take away from your book?

Reading a novel is a complex, individual experience, and I’m loath to dictate what readers should take away from it. My hope, rather, is that Accidentals provides a space in which readers can reflect deeply and critically on how the past informs the future; on the current mass extinction of species; the nature of altruism; what it means to emigrate and to immigrate; and on the ways that science, with all its uncertainties, illuminates the natural world, and our future. 

Describe your background. Did your background play a part in your book?

I grew up and came of age in California, where many of my closest friends were daughters and sons of Latin American immigrants—from Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, and Venezuela. My family spent every vacation camping in the West’s national and state parks, and I was close to an older cousin, who was an accomplished birder and biologist. I spent my preteen years birding and backpacking, went to a state college in the redwoods of northern California, wandered off with friends to southern Chile—where I acquired my second language—and dropped out to travel by bicycle through Southeast Asia and Europe (living out of a tent, financed by odd jobs, and an occasional company sponsor). 

In college, I got interested in organic chemistry, and I eventually ended up researching the chemistry and geochemistry of the oceans and sediments at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I quit when I realized I would never find time for creative writing if I continued—I hardly found time to read a novel—but my scientific training deeply informs both my world view and my fiction. 

Accidentals embodies the emotional connections to wild places forged during my childhood in California, the scientific view of nature I acquired in my studies, and the complex feelings about Uruguay I inherited from my friends. 

Describe your writing schedule. Do you outline? Any habits? 

My writing schedule and habits have changed over the years, as they depend on my (paid!) job and family responsibilities, but I generally work best in the mornings, straight out of bed with a cup of coffee in hand. I like to eat at my desk, drink lots of coffee or mate, and go for a run in the afternoon (good thinking time). 

I write the same way I cook: without a recipe. It’s slow and messy, with a lot of trial and error, lots of “wasted” pages. I don’t outline at the beginning of a novel, but as I work my way into it, I start making loose outlines of the next scenes and events—which may then shift around as I work towards and past them. Sometimes I draw little graphs to illustrate the book’s pacing and tension, but these wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. Since my work is often tied to the seasons, I use calendars from the years when they’re set to keep track of the days. I usually make diagrams showing the characters and their relationships, ages, etc, and these diagrams also tend to change as I write my way into the book. 

What books are on your nightstand? What are you currently reading?

I usually have several novels going at once, flitting between them, depending on my mood—unless one is particularly good and takes over. A recent book-buying spree–part of the desperate attempt to support independent bookstores and new releases during the pandemic—means the pile is particularly large at the moment, and not very well curated. 

  • The Study of Animal Languages a novel by Lindsay Stern (just finished)
  • Her Sister’s Tattoo by Ellen Meeropol (just finished)
  • Animalia by Jean-Baptiste del Amo
  • Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
  • Glorious Boy by Aimee Liu
  • The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling
  • Weather by Jenny Offill
  • Family of Origin by C. J. Hauser
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
  • Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of our Time by Ira Katznelson

There’s another pile of non-fiction that I’m collecting up as I muddle around with the background for my new novel, but I’m not going to list that.

Which authors do you admire? 

My taste has changed over the years, and there are too many to name (or remember), but here are a few that always come to mind, in no particular order: Toni Morrison. Wallace Stegner. George Elliot. A.S. Byatt. Marilynn Robinson. Margaret Atwood’s literary fiction. Richard Powers. Franzen’s first and last novel, but not the ones in between. Christian Kiefer, among younger authors. I’m leaving out all the 19th and mid-20th century authors I loved when I was younger, because I haven’t reread them and don’t know what I would think now. Except George Elliot, of course.  

What have you learned from this experience?

As with all my books, I became an expert on a lot of things—ornithology, Uruguayan history, rice farming, microbial ecology—which I am now quickly forgetting as I begin the next novel!  

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received? What is one piece of advice you would give your younger self?

No advice from me–I’ve done it all wrong, but I still don’t know what right would be! At least I was never bored with life! 

What are you working on now?

I’m in the early conceptual and research stages of a new novel, but I’m not ready to out it yet. 

You can learn more about Susan M. Gaines and her novel, ACCIDENTALS on her website.