Zoe Kramer interviews Philippa Holloway, touching on the themes of nuclear anxiety, psychogeography and the power of home as they appear in her new novel the Half-Life of Snails.
Zoe Kramer: Where did your interest in Chernobyl stem from, and what brought about your decision to write the book?
Philippa Holloway: I often joke about the fact that I’ve been writing this book since I was six, because that’s how old I was when the Chernobyl disaster happened. I can remember seeing news on our little black and white TV, pictures of the blown up reactor. I can remember my mum closing all the doors and windows, not letting us play outside until she knew what was happening. And I have this vivid memory of standing by the window, looking out at this perfect blue sky and watching the cherry blossoms blowing off the trees and across the grass, and just gazing out and thinking, where is all this poison that I’m hearing is drifting over? That, and growing up during the Cold War where I genuinely believed I was going to die in a nuclear war. It wasn’t a possibility, it was kind of… it was what I was being told by the music and the books and the culture of the time. And then, years later, I was working as a health and safety instructor and I got sent to Wylfa to do some teaching, and as I was driving there I was just getting so anxious, I was, you know, feeling shaky and nauseous, and in my head I was thinking what if it blows up, and if it blows up, do I do this, do I do that? How do I survive if there’s an accident in the nuclear power plant today, while I’m there? But it just pushed my interest in where these anxieties come from. The novel was a way of asking questions and exploring varied responses to nuclear power, pushing the characters to see where such anxieties or complacencies could lead.
Zoe Kramer: So what then led to your decision to visit Ukraine? I mean, in the book, Helen is acutely aware of herself as an outsider in Chernobyl, and yet her relationship to the area seems to be different from anyone else on the tour, who are mostly there to gawk at the destruction. How did you negotiate that relationship on your own visit to Ukraine, and how did that inform the book?
Philippa Holloway: For me it was really important that I actually visited Ukraine rather than writing about it by doing online research. The methodology that I used for researching the book was psychogeography, so that’s going to a particular place and examining really closely how those places, how those landscapes or structures affect people’s feelings and behaviours. But I really wanted to do this split narrative where I could look at both of those landscapes and see how they paralleled or mirrored each other. And so I did a lot of psychogeographic practice in Wales, I mean I lived there and I worked there so I had a lot of access to those spaces and it was really important for me to do the same in Ukraine. And obviously, I mean, before the current war the Chernobyl exclusion zone had become a tourist site.
So yeah, I arranged to go, but I didn’t want to go on a tour. I didn’t want to go with a load of tourists. So I found someone who could take me on my own, so I would have that experience of being alone in the exclusion zone, and so I had a fixer who got me through the checkpoints, made sure all the paperwork was in order, and took me to various places, took me to meet people in the exclusion zone so I could spend time with them. And I did keep bumping into some of these tours while I was there, and seeing people sort of jumping off the bus and taking photographs and jumping back on. I think what’s interesting is that there are lots of different reasons why people go to the exclusion zone. I think everybody who is shown on the tour in the book has a legitimate reason for going and a genuine interest, genuine desire to learn, genuine desire to relate to that space. Helen distinguishing herself from that in that she is such an individual and she has this sort of deep emotional need to confront something that has been such a source of fear and anxiety for her, and is still very much a current fear and anxiety because of the proximity of the power station to her own home that almost dismisses other people’s reasons for being there as being trivial even though they’re not.
Zoe Kramer: You touched on the current war and I wanted to talk about that as well. The novel if I’m not mistaken was written regarding the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, however with the war going on now, those conflicts feel especially relevant. What it is it like looking back on your time in Ukraine now?
Philippa Holloway: It’s been incredibly distressing to see places where I was not very long ago just absolutely destroyed and people having to defend their homeland against this threat that I kind of explored — the book isn’t about the Euromaidan revolution, but the Euromaidan revolution provides kind of a political backdrop. The book is about territory. It’s about how the nuclear industry can affect people’s ability to live in their own communities and it’s about either people being forced out of their land for nuclear power stations to be built, or forced out of their land because of nuclear power stations going wrong. So that issue of territory and our deep connection to place was always in play, and so was setting the book at that particular time with the Euromaidan revolution as the backdrop, another territorial battle taking place.
The different kinds of war that people fight over land, whether it’s just to stop someone taking your farm away from you, or whether it’s to do with actual other bigger forces taking over your place was quite a powerful theme in the novel. And I’m absolutely horrified and heartbroken that the relevance of that theme in the novel is now so stark and, you know, the displacement and the trauma of displacement that the people of Chernobyl suffered is now being suffered by millions of Ukrainians who are forced out of their homes and evacuees of war, and it’s a trauma that’s not often discussed, it’s a silent trauma, of displacement. You know, people think you’re safe. You’re away from the war, you’re not in physical harm’s way but being taken out of your home and away from your communities and away from that landscape and that part of your identity is incredibly damaging.
Zoe Kramer: One of the things that I kind of took away from it is the idea that these two landscapes are really not that different. I think especially in times like this there tends to be this idea that it’s elsewhere, or it’s not relevant to us when actually these communities and these landscapes are strikingly similar.
Philippa Holloway: And they’re both farming landscapes as well. Ukraine has a huge agricultural landscape – I mean, as we’re finding out now. I think a lot of people didn’t realise how much our agricultural products come from Ukraine, but Ukraine has a huge agricultural culture, as does north Wales. So they might be farming different things, but there’s still that connection with the landscape, that connection with place, that symbiotic relationship between people and place where you care for place and place cares for you and provides for you. And that disruption, and the fact that Helen is being potentially pushed off her farmland, the fact that the victims of Chernobyl were pushed away from their homeland and their farmland and that desire to be back in that place, to hold onto it, is very powerful.
Zoe Kramer: I’d like to get a bit into the concept of half-life because obviously it features in the title, and it features throughout the novel. A half-life is a scientific concept, but it has many other dimensions as well — more broadly, the passage of time and decay, perhaps the way our lives can become empty when we’re separated from family and homes, as Helen is. Which dimension of a half-life caught your interest the most?
Philippa Holloway: So for me, definitely that notion of change over time, was a huge theme that I wanted to explore in the book and it helped me to structure the book and actually the journey of both characters. So that is in a number of ways. One of the ways is like the really obvious, decay and time passing, which is really clear in the landscape of the exclusion zone. You’ve got a place that’s been evacuated, and the absence of people means that man-made structures decay, they’ve become covered in lichen and mosses, they start to rot away, they start to be taken over by nature, so we have this very stark visual representation of what life is like, in a deep time way. What life is like after human beings, beyond the anthropocene. So, I think a lot of people, especially writers and artists, are drawn to these abandoned spaces because they give us the opportunity to have that existential insight into deep time, this idea of time beyond anything that we can conceive of because our lifespans are so short.
And obviously, in contrast to that, nature is absolutely flourishing, so we see the landscape being taken over again by animals, plants, and lichens and mosses, beetles, and there’s a really interesting juxtaposition there. Mirroring that, the landscape of Wylfa, you know, I saw communities, farmhouses disappearing, being bulldozed over, knocked down, standing empty, being sold off to the new site for Wylfa B, so the landscape there, there was a sudden rush where structures and communities that had been there for a long time were suddenly swept away, and you could see this new space appearing where this power station was proposed, so that was quite a stark physical thing. But I think the dimension that really burned throughout the process of writing this novel was this idea that for both sisters, things in their lives begin to change and deteriorate throughout the course of the book.
Zoe Kramer: Yeah, absolutely, and I love that phrase you used, deep time, because I think we kind of rely on these human stories but at the same time they feel so tiny when compared with the life of an element or an isotope. I think that contrast is very much visible in the novel.
Philippa Holloway: It’s something we can often struggle with, the concept of deep time, because we feel like our lives can be very long and everything but actually they’re incredibly short, really in the context of life the universe and everything. Yeah, I think it can be very difficult to think about things in terms of deep time, but when we do it can change our view on what we’re doing and what effect we can have on the world now, and our responsibilities for future generations.
Zoe Kramer: I suppose I want to also touch on the other part of the title which is snails. Snails are a major motif in the novel, creatures which carry their homes with them. There is also a particular focus on characters like Baba Olena, who stayed behind in the Zone, and the idea that separation from one’s home is itself a form of death, or equivalent to death. Where did this idea come from?
Philippa Holloway: It came from a number of places, actually. So, I mean I wasn’t born in Wales but I moved to Wales when I was quite young. I became an adult in Wales, I became a mother and writer and academic, a wife, you know, a lot of my identity is tied up in that place. And actually when I started my doctoral research, I had to move away from Wales to do that, and so I suffered this real homesickness, this really strong sense of hiraeth. The word is horribly abused now, probably it’s become quite a cliche but I experienced this really deep sense of longing for this home that I knew wasn’t really mine, because I wasn’t born in Wales, but I felt so deeply that Wales was my home, was such a big part of my identity, that that’s where I belonged and that was a real powerful force that I drew on to write the book.
But also in my research I found that obviously it’s not just me that feels this way about their home and their place and how identity and place are related. I read a brilliant interview with the filmmaker Holly Morris, so Holly Morris made a film about the Babushkas who returned to the exclusion zone, so after everyone was evacuated from the exclusion zone, after the accident of Chernobyl, a number of people managed to get back in. Go back to their houses and just go, no, that’s it, I’m staying. This is my home, I’m refusing to leave. And in this interview Holly Morris said that “most of the babushkas share the belief that if you leave, you die. And they would rather expose risk to radiation than the soul-crushing prospect of being separated from their homes. The babushkas say, those who left are worse off now. They’re all dying of sadness.” And this was a really powerful connection with the feelings I was having of homesickness and my identity being challenged and having to be reformed being away from my home in Wales. This idea that you can die of homesickness effectively because a part of yourself is rent, split apart.
Zoe Kramer: The sisters, Helen and Jennifer, have contrasting views on environmental risk: Helen is prepared for the worst, while Jennifer is willing to work at the nuclear plant because it puts food on the table. However, both discover ways in which their perspectives are deeply flawed. Did writing the book affect your relationship with environmental activism?
Philippa Holloway: Yes, I genuinely think it did, I’ve always been aware of environmental issues, and I’ve always been determined to do whatever I can to understand and live in a way that is proactive towards protecting the environment. But the research I undertook for this novel really connected me much more deeply to nature and an understanding of that symbiosis between place and people, so that need that we have to be in nature and the mental health benefits of the natural world and the physical health benefits of being out in the natural world. And it helped me to understand the complexities of these big issues like nuclear power, so we know that clean energy production is absolutely vital to sustaining the environment and to preventing climate change. And it’s one of the biggest problems that we’re facing at the moment and the war on Ukraine has accelerated the need for us to produce clean energy.
So for me being able to spend a good few years exploring the complexity of those issues such as nuclear power, the sort of multiplicity of responses that people have to it, because there’s pros and cons in terms of what it can offer us versus the issues like nuclear waste and the cost of environmental issues related to nuclear power. There’s emotional issues related to nuclear power, fears and anxieties, hopes and expectations, there’s financial issues as to whether it is actually cost-effective when you calculate in things like decommissioning and storage of nuclear waste over hundreds of thousands of years. There’s issues to do with community and infrastructure; what nuclear power stations can offer a community, what they take away from a community. There’s Nimbyism, you know, not in my backyard, ideas there’s issues to do with poverty, there’s issues to do with landscape — it’s so complex, and everything is all interwoven. And I really tried not to take sides in the book, I wanted to just present these complexities and the fluctuating nature of those issues within the narrative in the hope that it inspires readers to consider those issues themselves, as individuals and make their own value judgments.
Zoe Kramer: Yeah, and I think with Jennifer in particular, it’s interesting to watch the kind of progression of her relationship with nature, as well as with her job because while she sort of lands on the pro-nuclear side of things, she also does see the flaws in the system and she kind of, one of the roots of her anxiety is seeing the ways that this entire thing can crumble just from one person making a mistake. How did you negotiate the progression of this character?
Philippa Holloway: I think Jennifer’s really interesting, because I’m not sure she’s pro-nuclear in a really enlightened way, she’s kind of pro-nuclear by default. I think she’s more kind of ambivalent towards it. She went into that job when she was quite young as an intern, she’s worked in an environment, she works in an office, she sees everything as being very practical, very safe, she’s very familiarised to it. And so it doesn’t occur to her to question some of those risks because what she sees as an incredibly safe functioning system, which is, you know, how Wylfa was (won? born?) Yes there was an accident there back in the 90s that luckily didn’t develop into anything serious but Wylfa has an amazing safety record, for a nuclear power station, it was run very safely.
So for her, it just doesn’t occur to her to necessarily question that safety because she sees it operating in such a normal way to her. And the more she learns about Helen, the more she learns about why Helen is an anti-nuclear activist, why Helen is resisting the new plant not just because of the farmland but because Helen sees a real threat in nuclear power, because of the dangers, the risk of accident and all of those things. Really, I take both characters and I just take aspects of those responses that people might have to nuclear power and I just push them and I kept pushing them to the extremes, you know, how far would it go if you were really anxious about nuclear power, how far would your prepping go, if you were really complacent, and then if you were challenged by that, how far would your mental health or trust or sense of self be challenged. And that’s the nice thing about fiction is you can really push characters much further than you would hope people would be pushed in real life.
Zoe Kramer: I think it’s impossible to talk about this novel without talking about motherhood. Motherhood plays a significant role in the novel, particularly the relationship between Helen and her son Jack. It also seems to be a theme throughout environmental fiction as a whole. What do you think is the relationship between motherhood and environmental consciousness?
Philippa Holloway: I did for a time consider making Helen a father rather than a mother. But what I wanted to do was to have a character who wasn’t conforming to any kind of stereotype and I think having a woman who was a farmer and a prepper and a single parent was a more interesting opportunity to show the different elements of authentic femininity, because we have these quite rigid ideas about what a mother should be, what a woman should be, what a farmer should be. And then it’s interesting that a few people who read the book as it was written really felt quite challenged by Helen, and that her mothering of Jack was not what they classed as being mothering behaviour, this idea that she would take him into the lands at night when he was a baby, or have him working alongside her on the farm. And yet, I’ve worked on farms when I was younger and, you know, it is part of being a woman to go out and be working in the landscape, to be working with animals, and to be mothering at the same time as you’re working. So I really wanted to challenge that idea of femininity and motherhood as being something that’s so narrowly defined culturally. There is a long history of mothers and activism, such as the Greenham Common collective in real life, and I do see the theme in books I read too. It was important to me to show an authentic and emplaced motherhood in the book, not conforming to stereotyped expectations of how mother ‘should’ be, but showing a mother who raises their child within the land and role of farmer she herself has grown up within. One of the things that I wanted to do was show that there’s no such thing as a good mother and a bad mother, everybody has their own individual way of raising their child and if they do that with love and care and attention to the child, that’s what matters.
Zoe Kramer: It’s complex because Jack’s relationship with nature is so powerful, but there’s also the aspect of Helen’s sort of prepper nature and how that affects him as well. Helen also has many anxieties about falling short as a mother, particularly seeing Jack’s response to her absence. It’s ultimately the sense of home that allows her to carry on. Was this always the ending you had in mind?
Philippa Holloway: Without giving away too many spoilers, I had a completely different ending for a long time which was much, much bleaker. And I actually, as I was rewriting the book, taking the first draft and really hacking it apart and restructuring it and rewriting it, I realised that the original ending I had planned was almost too easy. So no, it wasn’t the original ending I had in mind and I think it’s a much better ending and it’s more complex and allows for more of those anxieties and concerns to come through. I know what you mean about this idea of Helen training Jack up to be a prepper. And you know, the external viewpoint of that is, Jennifer thinks it’s kind of borderline abusive the way that Helen has been training Jack up for these events. And I wanted to play with that idea of getting that balance right between empowering and nurturing that independence and those skills in a child. I think every parent has anxieties about falling short, and external pressures to confirm, even if they know, in their bones, that what they are doing is right. It was important to show that in the ending, and leave a sense that things could go even further.
Zoe Kramer: Do you have any more writing projects coming up?
Philippa Holloway: I do, yeah, I write a lot of short fiction and I’m pulling together my first full collection that’s been forming — you know, it takes years to bring together a collection of short stories, you can’t just throw everything you’ve ever written into a folder and call it a collection, so I’m really working on pulling together a collection that’s cohesive and works thematically. I’ve had a few things published recently, I’ve been shortlisted for another prize for one of my short stories. The short story writing is a space where I test out and I push out my skills as a writer and I can really hone those skills. I’m also working on another novel full of knotty problems and complex issues, because writing is how I ask questions of the world and try and work out potential answers. So yeah, I don’t know when it will be finished but I’ve just got to keep chipping away at it and see what happens with it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Half-Life of Snails is out now via Parthian.