New York Times bestselling author Paolo Bacigalupi has a new book out that is set in Phoenix. “The Water Knife” tells the story about the near future, when the American Southwest has been decimated by drought, but with a game-changing water source in Phoenix, Angel Velaquez, a “water knife” spy and assassin from Las Vegas, is sent to investigate. Bacigalupi will discuss his latest work.
TED SIMONS: "New York Times" best-selling author Paolo Bacigalupi has a new book out set mostly in Phoenix, the "The Water Knife" tells the story about the future when the American southwest has been decimated by drought. A game changing water source is found and a spy and assassin also known as Water Knife has been sent to investigate. Here to tell us about it is Paolo Bawtch-Igalupi. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm getting through this book and this is quite the -- I mean, there's a lot going on in here and a lot happening at all times. How did the idea -- it's dystopian to is a certain degree. American southwest water, how did you come up with all this?
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Well, I've always been interested in southwestern water issues because I used to work for an environmental magazine called "High Country news." The science journalists reporting on the issues in the southwest were people like Matt Jenkins reporting on how Lake Powell was getting lower and lower and Lake Mead was getting lower and lower and how Las Vegas was digging deeper and deeper into Lake Mead to get water. And then reporting on climate change and how it was affecting the ecosystems in the western U.S. I first started to think about this maybe 10 years ago when stuff was already happening. Since then it's gotten more and more interesting. Yeah, it sort of sucked me in, I guess. Describe the novel's labor.
TED SIMONS: This is the future and it feels like it's a little bit out in the future but not that far out and things are very different than they are now.
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Sort of the 20 minutes into the future sort of feeling. In this future there have been megadroughts that are sweep to get country and changing the landscape quite a lot. Massive forest fires are happening, there are huge dust storms that are occurring, Las Vegas and Phoenix are sort of locked in a fight for water and each of them has terrible water rights on the Colorado River and they are each trying to jockey for position. Phoenix and Las Vegas planned better.
TED SIMONS: Las Vegas seems to have the upper hand here, they seem to have a better militia out there. The water knife, the main character, the water knife, describe them, describe him.
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: The water knives of sort of the 007s of water. They go out on behalf of Las Vegas. Las Vegas has hired that cadre of thugs who will go out and give people offers on their water rights that they can't refuse, they will blow up other people's water treatment plants while giving Las Vegas a certain plausible deniability. Well, we don't know what happened out there. All the time ensuring that Las Vegas has enough water to keep their economy going and keep their sock of the things going.
TED SIMONS: It's kind of a weird indoor self-sustaining system that the haves have, and the have-nots just kind of look at.
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: They are almost entire self-contained cities. There are living and recreational environments. There are arcologies, they have got the hanging gardens and waterfalls and everything coming in gets eternally recycled and kept. They reuse and reuse the water, all of their waste is reused and everything, and that's their sort of solution to the increasingly devastating outside environment they are dealing with.
TED SIMONS: For something like this, what comes first? Do the characters come first or does the scenario come first?
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Theme for me oftentimes is the first thing. For this one, originally the thing that kicked me off to write this book, I was down in Texas in 2011 during their droughts. I was just astounded at how bad things were. One of the things that really struck me, in the middle of this terrible drought where farmers were putting down cattle because there was not enough water, there was not enough water in the dams to generate hydroelectricity, the database said it was likely to be the new normal for Texas. That was striking. Even more striking, Rick Perry was going around and encouraging people to pray for rain. And that for me thematically was really interesting. The idea that we know we're going in a certain direction and that our leadership is in denial about it essentially. And what kind of future does that create? Then you start to create characters in that future and start to live it and find out what it feels like.
TED SIMONS: Do characters ever surprise you?
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Yes, oftentimes. You're writing the characters and trying to build them out and trying to see who they are and what they desire and where they are going to go. You think you kind of have a handle on it. But Maria actually turns out to be a far more -- Maria is a Texas refugee. She's fled from Texas and washed up in Phoenix and can't get anywhere else because there's all these state border controls. Nobody wants Texans and everything else is struggling anyway. Not like I'm biased or anything. She goes from a place of being extremely powerless to a very different spot. I didn't see that coming in the story. Where she ends up is a very, very different thing than I originally had planned for her.
TED SIMONS: That's interesting, theme takes precedent over landscape and these sorts of things, it can be dangerous. Being didactic, going through an outline as opposed to letting things play out and breathe.
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: And let the characters do what they want. The theme-building gives you an idea of where you're at. I'm interested in reality-based characters and what happens. And I'm also interested in people who live in denial and what happens to them. Then we're going to build these people and let them run around. Then they have a lot of life.
TED SIMONS: Considering the nature of this book, it can be tough at times. This is not all flowers and butterflies.
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Right.
TED SIMONS: Did you get depressed writing it?
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Actually weirdly when I write these kinds of books I get less depressed. I write because I'm trying to purge anxieties I already have. I look at my 11-year-old son, what kind of future are we giving you? Are we doing everything we can to give you the good future? Maybe we're not. When I write something like "The Water Knife," in a way it's a way of putting it on a shelf and setting it outside of myself.
TED SIMONS: A little cathartic at times?
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Yeah, yeah.
TED SIMONS: Research?
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Not enough.
TED SIMONS: There's a lot of stuff going on here. It's in the future, science fiction/fantasy, whatever you want to call it. It has to be realistic to keep the reader involved. How do you balance that?
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Margaret Atwood says she thinks of writing anticipations. I think of myself writing extrapolations. You're looking at a present moment and if this goes on, what might the world look like. You start from that grounded present moment. Then as you go out into the future that grounding helps. But there are other things where you choose a lot of details to make sure that world feels real and lived in and absolutely. So you know, there's dust masks that Lucy wears out into the giant dust storm. It's branded with REI logos. You see Camelback and other major corporate logos around. I always thought the apocalypse would be accessorized.
TED SIMONS: There's a little Blade Runner-ish thing where you recognize something but then you don't recognize it. How do you do that without teaching people, or do you want to teach a lesson here?
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: I don't think you want to teach a lesson. I think you want to give people a chance to live inside of a different skin. I think fiction's power is that it builds empathy. You get to live inside somebody's skin that you don't know and have never cared about. In this case you're living in the future, 50 or a hundred years into the future. What does it feel like to live in the skin of a climate refugee? How scary is that? And ideally the empathy connection comes back and gives us another way to look at the world. When we're talking about big issues like climate change, people can be locked down in this saying my facts say this, and my facts say that. It's sort of a pointless conversation. You want to move into that in a different way. This is what this feels like, do we want to go this way? Maybe not.
TED SIMONS: You have set a scenario in the landscape and made it realistic. It's a great read. Thank you so much for joining us, we certainly appreciate it.
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Thank you.
TED SIMONS: Friday on "Arizona Horizon" it's the "Journalists' Roundtable," we'll discuss the Governor's plan to increase education funding without a tax increase. And Arizona doctors file suit over the state's new abortion law. Those stories Friday on the "Journalists' Roundtable." That is it for now, I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us, you have a great evening.
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Paolo Bacigalupi:New York Times Bestselling Author