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 outset mostly in Phoenix. The Water Knife tells about when the south has been decimated by drought. When a game changing water source is found in Phoenix a spy and assassin, also known as a water knife, is sent to investigate. We spoke to Paolo Bacigalupi about his new novel. Welcome to Arizona Horizon. You know I'm getting through this book and this is quite - there is a lot going on in here and a lot happening at all times. How did the idea, it's dystopian to a certain degree. American southwest water, how did you come up with all this?
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Well, I have always been interested in southwestern water issues because I used to work for an environmental magazine called High Country News. I followed a lot of science journalists. I was the online editor there. The science journalists who were reporting on the issues in the Southwest were people like Matt Jenkins, who was reporting on how Lake Powell was getting lower and lower and how Lake Mead was getting lower and lower and how Las Vegas was digging deeper and deeper into Lake Mead to get water, things like that. People like Michelle Niehaus were reporting about climate change and how it was already affecting the eco-systems in the western United States. All that was happening - I first starting thinking about all of this maybe ten years ago, stuff was already happening. Since then it's only gotten more interesting. Yes, sort of sucked me in, I guess.
TED SIMONS: describe the novel's landscape. This is the future. Feels a little bit in the future but not that far out in the future and things are very different than they are now.
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: yes. Sort of the 20 minutes into the future sort of feeling. In this future there have been mega droughts sweeping through the country, changing the landscape quite a lot. There are massive forest fires, huge dust storms 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 so they are each trying to jockey for position. Unfortunately for Phoenix, Las Vegas has planned better.
TED SIMONS: I was going to say Las Vegas seems to be the upper hand here. They certainly have a better militia out there. I guess they're kind of a militia. The main character of the water knife, describe him.
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: So water knives are the basically the 007s of water, the people who go out on behalf of Las Vegas, Las Vegas has hired this cadre of thugs basically 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 and all the time giving Las Vegas as certain plausible deniability. We don't know what happened over there. Sad about that explosion there, you know. But all the time ensuring that Las Vegas has enough water to keep their economy going. Keep their sort of ARCHOLOGIES running.
TED SIMONS: Archologiesthese are these weird indoor self-sustaining systems that I guess the haves have and the have nots just look at.
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Right. They are almost entirely self-contained cities. There's living environments, recreational environments, In Las Vegas they built the Cypress ARCHOLOGIES, they have hanging gardens and water falls, and everything is recycled. All the water is reused, reused. All their waste is reused. Is that their sort of solution to the increasingly devastating outside environment.
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. I think for me this one -- originally the thing that kicked me op to -- off to write this book was I was in Texas in 2011 during their droughts. I was just astounded how bad things were. One of the things that really struck me in the middle of this terrible drought in Texas where farmers are putting their cattle down because the land can't support them and they are having rolling brown-outs and they don't have enough water in their dams to generate hydro electricity. At that same time that all that's happening you realize the climate data indicates that's likely the new normal for Texas. It's really striking but even more than that what was striking was that Rick Perry, once again a presidential candidate, was going around encouraging people to pray for rain. That for me thematically was interesting, the idea we know we're going in a certain direction and our leadership is in denial about it essentially. What kind of future does that create? Then you start creating characters in that future and try to find out what it feels like.
TED SIMONS: do the characters ever surprise you?
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: yes, oftentimes, actually. The very beginning the story you're trying to build the characters out, see who they are and what they desire and where they are going to go. You think you have a handle on it, but Maria actually turns out to be a far more -- Maria is a Texas refugee. She has fled from Texas and washed up in Phoenix and get anywhere else because there's all these state border control laws. She's very much a second class citizen in a place that's falling apart because nobody wants Texans when everybody else is struggling anyway, not like I'm biased or anything. She actually goes from being extremely powerless also to a different spot and that was a surprise to me. Where she ends up is a very, very different thing that what I had planned for her.
TED SIMONS: That's interesting because when theme over takes character and landscape it can be dangerous. I'm sure being didactic, going through an outline --
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: I let the characters do what they want, thematically what you're doing is the theme gives you an idea of where you're at. So the theme says I'm interested in realty based characters and what happens and I'm also interested in people who live in denial and what happens to them. We're going to build a couple of these people and let them run around. They have a lot of life and then you can avoid the didacticism.
TED SIMONS: Considering the nature of this book, and I got to tell you reading this book can be tough at times. It's not all flowers and butterflies. Did you get depressed writing it?
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Actually, weirdly I actually get less depressed. I write a lot because I'm trying to sort of purge anxieties that I already have. I look at my 11-year-old son, I say, what kind of future are we giving you? Are we doing everything we can to give you the good future? I have a great deal of anxiety that says maybe we're not. When I write something like The Water Knife that describes that future that I worry about it's a way of setting it outside myself.
TED SIMONS: A little cathartic at times?
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: yes.
TED SIMONS: research. How much research --
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Just enough
TED SIMONS: there's a lot of stuff going on. It's in the future. It's science fiction/fantasy, whatever you want to call it, but it has to be realistic to keep "The Reader" involved. How do you balance that?
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Well, Margaret Atwood has a term for her writing. She thinks of writing anticipations. I think of myself as writing extrapolations. You're looking at some present moment trying to spin it out. If this goes on what might the world look like? You start from that grounded present moment, and as you go out into the future that helps but there's other things where you're going to choose a lot of details to make sure that world feels real and lived in and absolute. So there's the dust mask that Lucy wears when she goes out in a giant dust storm is branded with REI logos. You see Camelback and other major sort of corporate logos around. I have always thought the apocalypse will be accessorized. But that also gives a sense that there really is this real future connected to our present.
TED SIMONS: There's a little "Bladerunneresque" thing but how do you do that -- how do you want to teach a lesson here? 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 that 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 we're living inside of the future. The idea is that we go out into the future, whether that's 50 or 100 years into the future, we say, what does it feel like to live in the skin of a climate refugee? How scary is that? Ideally that empathy connection comes back and gives us another way to look at the world. A lot of times I have noticed when we're talking about big issues like climate change people can get locked down, well, my facts say this, my facts say that. It's sort of a pointless conversation. You want to move into that in a different way where it says, oh, this is what it feels like. Do we want to go this way? Maybe not.
TED SIMONS: you have certainly set a scenario and landscape and made it very realistic. It's a great read. Thanks for joining us. We really appreciate it.
PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Thank you.
TED SIMONS: Thursday day we'll hear about the 2015 heart ball to benefit the American heart association and a local exhibit focuses on the bombings the Hiroshima and Nagasaki it's at 5:30 and 10:00 on the next "Arizona Horizon." That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.
Paolo Bacigalupi:New York Times Bestselling Author