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Lily Brooks-Dalton on her new novel 'The Light Pirate'

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

In the opening of Lily Brooks-Dalton's new novel, a massive hurricane is about to hit Florida, its eye aiming for a rural community on the Intracoastal Waterway. And when it makes landfall, a woman whose husband refused to evacuate gives birth in her house alone.

LILY BROOKS-DALTON: (Reading) The kitchen is in shambles - cabinet doors hanging askew, dirty dishes smashed against the wall. Somehow, nothing has touched Frida where she lies. Somehow, she has willed this small sliver of space she occupies into safety. Frida looks down at the baby, and something like electricity passes between them - a brief spark, a small jolt. Frida feels it enter her skin and skim along her veins, up into her thundering heart. At this moment, the wind outside pauses. If she didn't know better, she'd think it was over.

MCCAMMON: The book is called "The Light Pirate," and it follows that baby as she grows up in a Florida deemed uninhabitable by the government because of climate change. Lily Brooks-Dalton joins us now to talk about it.

Welcome.

BROOKS-DALTON: Thank you so much for having me.

MCCAMMON: So spoiler alert - after your reading, Frida did know better, and it wasn't all over, as you may be able to guess. Tell us what's happening with the climate in Florida at the start of your novel and how much more it changes in the decade after Frida's daughter's born.

BROOKS-DALTON: Sure. Well, when the novel begins, it's a not-so-distant future. As the book progresses, the storms start to hit more often and harder. The sea level rises. The temperatures increase. And the inhabitants of the state are struggling to adapt to those changes.

MCCAMMON: Now, as the book opens, Frida has argued with her husband, whose name is Kirby, about evacuating ahead of the storm. And he's refused. A lot of people wrestle with that tension between safety and risk, between wanting or needing to stay connected to their homes and basing their decision to stay or evacuate on their past experiences. You know, we see that with Frida and with Kirby. How were you thinking about those tensions?

BROOKS-DALTON: I think there is no right answer. I think it's such an individual thing. It depends on the storm itself, of course, but on the preparedness of the people involved. And with this book, I really wanted to be wary of presenting opinions and just paint portraits instead. And so it was important to me to show these different characters reacting in really different ways.

MCCAMMON: As their daughter, Wanda, grows up, she's portrayed as almost a product of the hurricane that she's named after. And it's not a name with a great association in her community, of course. She's bullied by her class because of it. How has her community changed by the time she's in school? What's happening to the people who still live there?

BROOKS-DALTON: It's changed enormously. The community is both struggling to rebuild from this catastrophic hurricane but also reckoning with whether rebuilding is worthwhile, is the right thing to do. There really is this schism occurring between the folks that are committed to staying and the folks that are trying to go.

MCCAMMON: You know, one of the things that changes as time goes by, as places become more susceptible to extreme weather, is that people leave, and the land starts turning back over to nature. How should we, as humans, think about this idea that some people call re-wilding? Is it a threat to us?

BROOKS-DALTON: I don't think so. I think that re-wilding is an extraordinary thing, desirable perhaps, to see nature reclaiming itself. Southern Florida was and would like to be a swamp, you know? And yet we've dredged it and drained it and built on top of that. And so much of city management in a place like Miami is trying to keep that boundary between what the landscape wants to do and what the city wants the land to do - bridge it. And so to me, the idea of softening that boundary and trying to be a little harmonious is a good thing.

MCCAMMON: At the same time, we also know that often the people most affected by climate change are people who are low-income, people of color, other marginalized people who don't have the resources to easily move somewhere else, who may be rooted to communities that they depend on, that are rooted in certain places. So how do you think about the tension there? Because it's not always so simple as just letting it go back to nature, is it?

BROOKS-DALTON: No, of course not. But I think that's a really good reason to be thinking about this now, thinking about how to integrate the way that we live with the changes that are absolutely coming in our environment. It's so difficult because, you know, I think there are some places that we will have to let go of. I think that's just kind of the reality that we're moving toward. And it's tragic. But, look, I mean, this is why fiction is so powerful. It's like gazing into what could be. And from there, we get to think about how to respond to it and, like, imagine, collectively, a way forward.

MCCAMMON: That's Lily Brooks-Dalton. Her new book is "The Light Pirate." Thanks so much for talking with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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