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Bill McKibben Pens First Work of Fiction About Community-Level Resistance

  • Vermont author and activist Bill McKibben will be at the Norwich Bookstore for a reading and signing on Dec. 13.

  • Author Bill McKibben in an undated photograph. (Nancy Battaglia photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, November 30, 2017

Bill McKibben’s new book about a septuagenarian rebel who leads a grassroots effort against evil corporations in his home state of Vermont — no, not Sen. Bernie Sanders, but close — may come as a surprise to those who know McKibben as an eco-warrior and prolific nonfiction writer, for several reasons.

First, Radio Free Vermont, out last month from Penguin Random House, is entirely fictional. Second, it’s lighthearted. Third, it’s less about environmental issues than about a group of radical Vermonters who see those issues as part of a larger problem of American capitalism, and who are trying to get the Green Mountain State to secede from a nation of Starbuckses and Walmarts. McKibben, a Vermonter himself who lives in Addison County, will read from and sign copies of this book at the Norwich Bookstore on Dec. 13, starting at 7 p.m.

“Everybody’s in a bad mood all the time now,” he said in a phone interview from California, where he was between flights on his book tour. “I figured it’s not the time to publish a book of sober, depressing, grim stuff.”

Though a McKibben novel may be new to his readers, it’s not new to him. He’s been chipping away at the political satire for the past several years, mainly for fun, but also to keep himself connected to his creative side. “It was a way for me to keep myself amused,” he said, “but also in the midst of all these goings-on, to remind myself that I’m still a writer.”

Those familiar with McKibben’s work may not need much reminding of this, though: The founder of the environmentalist website 350.org, McKibben has written 16 nonfiction books, including The End of Nature (1989), Deep Economy (2007) and Eaarth (2010), and has contributed countless essays and articles to publications ranging from The New York Times and The Atlantic to the online indie mindfulness magazine elephant journal.

Writing fiction is freer than all of that, he said. Though he may have a similar goal in mind when writing in each genre — that is, to call people to action, and remind them that they do have the agency to enact real change — with fiction, he’s not hemmed in by the truth.

“It reminded me of ... writing ‘Talk of the Town’ columns for the New Yorker,” one of his very first jobs, which at the time entailed “going out and finding interesting people no one had heard of and writing a little profile of them,” he said. Radio Free Vermont allowed him to create the profile subjects he’d never managed to find in real life, “but who existed in my own mind. … And unlike with reporting, when people annoyingly don’t give you that perfect quote you want, in fiction they always do, for some mysterious reason.”

McKibben said the character of Vern Barclay, Radio Free Vermont’s aging iconoclastic hero and radio broadcaster, is based partly on Ken Squier, the Waterbury-born sportscaster whom McKibben once profiled for Harper’s. But a Barclay profile might also invite comparisons to the young-at-heart unorthodoxy of Sanders, the justice-minded patriotism of Vermont founder and Revolutionary War leader Ethan Allen and, whether or not he might admit it, the stubborn moral compass of McKibben himself.

“I’m obviously a person of firm convictions, and I have the arrest record to prove it,” he said, referencing some recent cases of civil disobedience that led to jail time. “I don’t like to, out of politeness, not say what I mean.”

Barclay practices his own kind of dissidence. Enlisting the help of a tech-savvy young’un, a former Olympic skier and a woman who teaches yuppie transplants to the area how to drive in the mud, among other Vermont life skills, Barclay broadcasts and organizes his secession efforts from an “underground, underpowered, and underfoot” radio station in a hidden location.

McKibben, too, is a longtime lover of radio; he thinks TV is a medium that’s limited by its reliance on visual imagery, and enjoys that the “ancient technology” of radio continues to thrive, including in the form of Internet podcasts.

He and his wife, writer Sue Halpern, never had a TV in their house because they like the idea of “hearing someone telling a story,” McKibben said. It was such a way of life for their family that once, when their daughter Sophie was four or five, “we went to a restaurant or someplace with a TV up above the counter,” he recalled. “Sophie was looking at it, and looking kind of perplexed.” When asked what she was doing, she replied, “I’m watching that radio.” Sophie now works as a podcast producer at WGBH in Boston.

Radio Free Vermont is in part a “love letter” to both audio storytelling and community-level resistance, he said. It’s been well-received — which comes as a relief to McKibben.

“It’s possible, just possible, that environmentalists are not the most noted for their sense of humor,” he said. “So I now feel a little bit more justified in cackling at my own jokes.”

And, despite the tense atmosphere that has gripped political conversations since the 2016 election, McKibben believes we must continue to crack jokes, which not only help us get by, but can also humanize us to those standing “on the opposite side of the room,” he said. “People do come to understand the world and each other better through stories, and stories are often best told with self-deprecating humor.”

Much of the disarming comedy in Radio Free Vermont pokes good-natured fun at the stereotypes of his home state, including how seriously some Vermonters take their Vermontishness. In the first chapter of the book, a Coors Light truck turns onto a dirt back road to make a delivery, only to be stymied by a group of friendly activists who empty the truck’s tires, replace all the Coors Light beer with local microbrews — draining the cartons one by one, rather than dumping them, because Vermont recycles — then add some irreverent speech bubbles to the bikini-clad models in the ad on the side of the truck.

They fix the driver up with some Strafford Organic Creamery maple walnut ice cream and a Long Trail Brewing Co. coffee stout from Bridgewater Corners to enjoy during the wait. When all the beers are replaced, the activists refill the truck’s tires, thank the driver and send him on his merry way. No harm done — only the kind of minor inconvenience to a big business company that is the driving action of the novel, which McKibben acknowledged is more of a book-length fable.

But even though the fable has its laughs, they’re all in the service of an overarching moral: that small-scale activism has the potential to be a great and creative pleasure, and that making enough of a nuisance of oneself can really get under the right people’s skin.

Though McKibben does not personally advocate for secession at this time, “what I take very seriously in this book is the idea of resistance, and practicing a kind of neighborliness and civility through it all,” he said.

To do otherwise is “un-Vermont-like, if nothing else.”

Bill McKibben will read from and sign copies of Radio Free Vermont at the Norwich Bookstore on Dec. 13, starting at 7 p.m. Admission is free, but reserving a seat is recommended. To do so, call the Norwich Bookstore at 802-649-1114.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.