Writing in the Edgelands: A Conversation Between Kerri Arsenault and
Elizabeth Rush

“The intricate systems of reciprocity are gone.”

I met Elizabeth Rush on Twitter, through friends I also met on Twitter, who all resided, generally, in Providence, Rhode Island, and who didn’t necessarily know each other in real life. In the summer of 2019, we all broke bread and drank beer in a Providence backyard where the conversation centered around toxics, built and natural environments, sociology, chemistry, writing, and the publishing industry—all except Elizabeth who had been invited but had run off to other climes: Columbia and then on to Antarctica to work on a new book. Before our group met again online in April 2020, this time including Elizabeth, I re-read her book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, which was a Pulitzer finalist for 2018. In it, she took complex topics (rising seas, climate change, the human condition) and showed the vulnerability of all three in a way that made me feel at home. In her voice, I recognized a sibling to my own. As girls, we played a little too rough, swore a little too much, considered our stubbornness a positive thing, but we always kept our hearts in the game. And in our books, I also saw parallels in the way we told stories, by allowing humans their humanity and nature its course, all the while recording the former’s intrusion upon the latter.

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Kerri Arsenault: Are you writing about motherhood?

Elizabeth Rush: I am, at least partially. In the year leading up to my pregnancy, I went on an insane expedition to Antarctica as part of a larger effort to better understand Thwaites Glacier, which has been nicknamed “the Doomsday Glacier” by the news media. There’s a long scientific explanation for why it’s called that, but the condensed version is this: A lot of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) sits on land well below sea level. Today, warm ocean water is actually melting the ice sheet from beneath. But because it’s so far away, and because that whole process is happening beneath the ice, we know very little about it. Since Thwaites acts as a kind of cork to the WAIS, if it “pops” or completely deteriorates, there is concern it would destabilize the entirety of the WAIS, which contains at least like twelve feet of sea level rise.

KA: According to Rising, even a couple of inches of sea level rise can make a difference.

ER: Yeah, which is why twelve feet is a really big deal. My new project tells that story, and also the story of choosing to have a child as climate change accelerates, and all the ways of thinking about regeneration, birth and death, and motherhood that are in flux right now.

Photo: Elizabeth Rush

There’s also this other deep feminist trend to the project. The first person to see Antarctica saw it 200 years ago, and since then most of the stories have been tales of male bravado, exploration, and conquest. I’ve been wondering what happens when we think about Antarctica with a different lens? And I got 90 percent of it done before I gave birth in May. Since then I have not been doing much with it. I’ve never had this long of a stretch without writing. Do you feel that now that your book is done?

KA: All I’m doing is writing, and mostly about topics from my book I want to expand upon. So the writing, like researching the book itself, has been exponential . . . kind of like a melting glacier.

ER: I’ve been revisiting your book. I absolutely adore it. I was curious how deeply you were thinking about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee, if at all, as you worked. I mean, your book takes on so many of the questions at the heart of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, like what does it mean to be a wealthy college educated outsider reporting on the lives of sharecroppers down south? Should the author acknowledge their privilege and how does the text change as a result? Mill Town comes at these questions from a different perspective, because it’s as if the people being reported on in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men are now speaking for themselves. And like that book, Mill Town is full of these really interesting photographs that don’t necessarily illustrate what’s happening in the book. All of this is to say, I found these really deep, deep conversations your book was having with this other work that I go back to often, and it feels like it’s really advancing some of what’s at stake there in ways that gives me the tingles. So I’m hoping you can talk about that.

KA: Agee was in the back of my mind, yes; that’s one of my favorite books ever. I wanted to convey with photography the tension between being a witness and a participant, an insider and outsider, of being an advocate and critic of my hometown. Behind a lens you are a witness, an outsider—maybe you even operate as critic depending on the focus of the lens, but I am also from this town, so I am a participant, an insider, and an advocate because I want the town to succeed. I think the act of photography itself helped me also think about loving home and leaving home because it put the landscape into focus in a very acute, framed way.

I also thought about W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. I didn’t want to title the photos because I felt like naming them would take the power away from the imagery, which runs concurrent but not duplicative to the text. I wanted the photographs to be pulses, a heartbeat.

ER: They’re also just beautiful snapshots of quotidian life. I was like, those are chairs at Marden’s [a surplus and salvage store]. I know and love Marden’s! It’s a deep part of life in Maine.

KA: I wanted to include those very Maine totems. You use photography in Rising similarly, as totems, memorials. Except you took pictures of trees not people.

Photo: Kerri Arsenault

ER: I’m fascinated by patterns and straight lines, and how you set those up and what rhythms you can create visually. I’d rather look at something in a sideways or oblique way and try to see what it says.

KA: I looked at photos as memorials to a way of life that may be going extinct. A lot of people don’t understand what it’s like to live in an isolated, rural, working class mill town. Paul Bunyan, Edmund Muskie, Trump Tower, gravestones, the World War II memorial, the smokestack of the mill. There’s fucking memorial after memorial after memorial in my book. I realized, too, in looking at them so carefully, we often commemorate resource development and industry but don’t memorialize the environmental consequences of that work, as your bare-limbed tree photographs attempt to do.

ER: That makes me think of a couple of things. As I read your book––it’s one of the few things that broke through the mental fog of late pregnancy––I was completely wrapped up in what was happening. For the first third, some part of me thought I was in an Erin Brockovich tale, that you were going to go hunting for some chain of consequence. Your father gets sick with lung cancer, and your suspicion, and I think it’s absolutely correct, is that his cancer is related to his work in the mill. You’ve seen so many people in your life get sick, and you go on the search for the culprit, but [spoiler alert] it doesn’t end up with the triumphant acquisition of the knowledge that proves this mill is making folks sick. Halfway through the book, I was like, Oh shit, this is not how this ends. This book is doing something really different, which then held me captive in an entirely different way. The book becomes braids of different lines of inquiry. But you don’t get the satisfaction of being like, oh, I’ve got the bad guy or whatever the end point of that narrative is. So it’s interesting to hear you talk about it as a memorial. I can see now that’s what it’s doing.

KA: Part of the book was written in real time, like when my father got sick, so it took some unpredictable turns halfway through. I was surprised as much as you as where the book was going and where it went.

ER: You started the book before your father got sick?

KA: Yeah, I started it in 2009 and he got sick in 2013. I wish there was a tidy end, or that someone was to blame, but the more I researched, the less I felt I knew.

ER: It was like a horror film in that way. The closer you got to something, the bigger and more disparate it became. Like, how do I wrap my arms around all the sorts of corruption that litter the paper industry and the poison and the connection from industry to disease that is impossible to prove because nobody wants to prove it? Then, even if we do prove it, what do we do with that knowledge? If we say, this creates cancer, like at the end of your book, where you write that even hamburgers are carcinogenic, what do we do with that knowledge? Because now I’m thinking, great, I just ate one last night because I’m low in iron. What the fuck? Even the very things we turn to in order to replenish ourselves are also making us sick.

KA: You wrote in Rising that “the intricate systems of reciprocity are gone,” which reflects that very sentiment. That statement is a clarion call for our planet: rising tides, ice sheets melting, politics, dioxin accumulating in our DNA, hamburgers in that the exchange is off balance. Are you still having nightmares like you did while writing Rising?

ER: Because of the birth of Nicolas I’ve stepped away from the news. But just last night I was wading back into the conversation by way of your book. Part of what you also ask us to reckon with is this idea that the very thing that sustains us in the present tense also is deeply damaging in the long term. We see that with climate change, too. How we orient ourselves in relationship to society becomes incredibly complicated. I know with Coronavirus and the birth of my son, I order things on Amazon where I never used to. The doctors say from zero to one infants are like the elderly. They don’t have great immune system, and they’re not very developed. So here I am exchanging our present safety or our present sustenance or our present whatever it is, and that short term need being met is actively participating in our long-term demise. It’s the devil’s bargain I’m making.

KA: Maybe in the end the bad guy is us? We are all contributing to climate change and the perpetuation of pollution from the choices we make. At least those of us with the choice.

Photo: Elizabeth Rush.

ER: Becoming a mom, suddenly the impetus is very basic: keep those around you alive. I made the decision to buy shit on Amazon and it’s a decision I wouldn’t normally choose. I mean, we are book people, you don’t buy shit on Amazon! But I think this also points out there’s this weird moral game we’re playing when we make such a confession and offer others the opportunity to pass judgment, like, Oh, you make bad decisions and you’re a bad person. You make good decisions and you’re a good person. Most people don’t have the power to make those decisions. Why are we being morally righteous about it?

The deep systems of reciprocity are gone, meaning we don’t have, in the current structure of our society, the ability to step outside of the fossil fuel industry, all kinds of industry, in a way that’s meaningful or accessible. And so our living also is our undoing. Truly mending our relationship with each other and the more-than-human world is about fundamentally building a different set of structures that are going to sustain us, from paper making to transportation and energy production. But if we humans built that system we can also build a different one.

KA: I wondered how I’d write about the slow and incremental disaster of toxic pollution, or that absence of reciprocity. How to make it feel urgent. Sumanth Prabhaker, Orion magazine’s editor, helped me by examining the plot of Mill Town. He’s like, you go home, you come back, you go home, you come back, you come home, you come back. This coming and going, distance and proximity, the insider outsider bit, reflects that tension. That reflects a system of reciprocity, an exchange between two perspectives.

ER: That’s so brilliant, because part of what your book does is you start as an insider and you become an outsider, in a way that was really interesting for me in its startling honesty, because I don’t think there are many nonfiction books where the writer depicts the journey towards becoming an outsider. We want to depict ourselves in a more positive light like, I put in the hard work, and now everyone loves me. You also start a group of citizens concerned about Nestlé then they basically disown you! That must have been really, really hard.

KA: I was mad at first, but realized we were still on the same team, just operating differently. I figured I would just write about Nestlé in the book. Although I worry…

ER: Isn’t that the worst when you have to worry about being sued? As you know, with Rising I included a section about being sexually harassed/assaulted in the workplace, and my publisher—rightly so and pretty close before we went to print was like, you have to remove all of the identifying features of that man, because we could get sued. I was pissed. Probably the most angry I’ve been in my adult life was the week I spent removing those details from the book.

KA: It’s a form of silencing.

ER: Yeah, and I was like, fuck, now I am participating in this? And at the same time, you realize the depth to which you don’t have any power. That’s the thing that really pissed me off. I could technically (maybe) prove it happened if we went to court. But I don’t have enough money or energy to go to court… and neither does my nonprofit publisher. That feeling of disempowerment for not being able to tell a story that’s true because you are worried about getting sued, that almost did me in. I learned what I am allowed to leave in and out isn’t totally up to me. That goes back to the extent to which you do all of this digging for answers and you see this giant web of relationships and you try to wrap your arms around all of it, and in the end, you felt overpowered, disempowered.

KA: I wanted to say, the mill caused cancer, but there’s no definitive proof. It was discouraging. But look, half the people in the fucking book died as I was writing it. That’s evidence of something.

I also thought about what to leave in or out because I didn’t want to put anyone in harm’s way. Some people were hesitant to speak to me because they were worried about losing their job. I didn’t talk to mill management much, because I thought, well, they’ve had their story told long enough. Why not try to excavate this other kind of evidence, of people experiencing issues first-hand?

ER: A friend and journalist, Lucia Graves, as I was touring with Rising, interviewed me and said, yours is the first book on climate change I read that has no politicians talking about climate. I’m done listening to them! That story has been told. We’re all exhausted by it. Your experience sounds similar in that the official story told about the mill focuses on politics and industry and it fundamentally misses who bears the brunt of these policies.

You were talking how you give these stories more urgency and I think the go to (if there is one) has been to turn it into a traditional kind of narrative; [as in], there’s going to be obstacles, then they’re overcome. I think what gives your book urgency is the time it spends with people for whom all of these things matter. Like all these decisions being made about them without them being consulted..

KA: Yours does the same.

Photo: Kerri Arsenault.

ER: A couple months ago you said that because I had lived in Maine I probably understood your town. I lived in Lewiston, and I know Marden’s, but I grew up in Beverly, Massachusetts. It is a both a mill town and also full of old money. It’s close to Boston and has these big mansions on the water and also it was home for the United Shoe Company and the factories that produced machines to manufacture shoes throughout the wars. As I read Mill Town I was like, yeah, this is a book about a small mill town in Maine, but it is also a book about many of the industrial towns of New England. What is surprising is that this kind of book doesn’t exist yet, and I think what you are writing about is way more universal than you give it credit for.

KA: In New England, you can’t throw a golf ball without hitting some kind of mill, or if the mill is no longer operating, the impact of that mill, or the toxics that are still on its site. And yeah, there are mill towns all over the world; Sweden, Germany, the UK, China, variations on a theme. You said your grandparents were working class?

ER: My grandfather sold seltzer door to door and he died long before I was born. And before him, they were potato farmers on my dad’s side. It’s interesting because lately I have been thinking I might not know much about them because they lead unglamorous lives. Their stories were likely not deemed important enough to circulate and recirculate so I don’t know much about them. Yet, the voice of your book felt so intensely familiar to me. I was so grateful for it because the town I grew up in had this strong class divide. I always felt like I didn’t belong on either side. I went to public school, but all of my friends had way less money. Meanwhile all the people who lived in my neighborhood went to private school. I felt really judged by them. I didn’t fit in. I felt I laughed too loud or I was too much of an intense physical person.

KA: One mother thought you played too rough.

ER: My mom was like, if you have a problem with Elizabeth, talk to her about it. None of that would be the response in this restrained, very picturesque, wealthier part of a New England coastal town. In the not fancy part of town, it was like, yeah, that’s how you play.

KA: I think that’s why I immediately liked you. I like clean speaking, rough playing girls.

ER: I think part of what I so so so appreciated about your book is like, this is not John Updike speaking about New England, even though he lived in Beverly Farms, not far from us, this is a New England more familiar to me. And yet that deep story you tracked down, I’ve never encountered it before in writing and it felt like it helped me understand where I grew up in a way I’ve never had access to because ultimately my immediately family is not a mill family.

You talked a little bit about this with Maine’s “Vacationland” nickname, that there’s this other story that has gone untold. Certainly without the mixture of the candor and the deep environmental history that you uncover and the personal histories spliced through with environmental toxicity and industry.

KA: You did something similar in Rising; you talked to people who were underwater, undervalued. And while you didn’t go to the fancier parts of towns, wealth was evident in the absence of it. Do you know what I mean? Like, you can’t highlight their underwaterness and their periphery-ness without the power center.

ER: They wouldn’t be there without it. It gets back to that question of choice like, these communities that are living alongside or on top of wetlands are not there necessarily by choice or the choice is not completely open and free. They didn’t to get to choose.

KA: Didn’t somebody ask that in your book, why don’t they just leave?

ER: That’s something you hear a lot when you talk about people with a history of flooding. It is this shaming. Outsiders often say, why don’t they leave? Why did they choose to live there?

KA: I’ve been asked that too: why don’t they just leave Mexico, Maine? I was like, where the fuck are they going to go? If someone in Mexico sells their house, the only place they can afford….

ER: The only place they could buy a house is next to the fucking mill! In some places it can be a question of, is it possible to leave? How do you continue being yourself if you do? I think of this Kiran Desai quote that says something like, ours is an age of refugees and as people leave where they’re from, and they start searching for home, in whatever form, that search is going to become the new definition of home, like home isn’t going to be a static place. That gets to the insider outsider part of your book and the question, who are you when you leave home? And can the search actually be the home that you find?

KA: I’ve lived a lot of places. I’m not sure I’ve found a home yet. And I had a lot of jobs, too. Most were just to make cash. If I could start all over being someone else? I’d be a downhill ski racer.

ER: I’d be an Outward Bound instructor. Or a midwife.

KA: My jobs were all unglamorous. But I worked my ass off even if I was putting pepperoni on pizza, you know? That focus got me through some of the more boring jobs.

ER: I teach at Brown and sometimes I look at these kids, where so many of them are on their third internship at XYZ high-powered thing and it makes me think back on all the jobs I’ve had: serving pie, waiting tables, being a nanny, and all those things you do to survive.

KA: I have an idea. Let’s start a new internship program at Brown where we make students go out and get a shit job—without their parents’ help—for at least three months.

ER: Yeah, they’re going to start at $10/hour and they have to live on that. That will fundamentally change the way they relate to the world.

KA: Let’s start a new department, too. The Department of the Working Class.

ER: It’s pretty disturbing to me. It gives a sense there are people that are supposed to wait on you or that are supposed to be in your life to help you get everything done and, it deeply cements those positions of class in a way that I think is very hard to undo. I think there is a danger in private university systems in particular that students can learn to be intellectually critical of class structure without knowing anything tangible about it somehow. There’s just a human disconnect.

Kerri Arsenault photo 3 Photo: Kerri Arsenault.

KA: After the election for Trump there was a progressive liberal criticism that came down on some of the working class. Some of it was valid on an individual basis, but many people have no understanding of working class lives. Again, people see things in binaries. It’s so infuriating.

ER: I think it’s so telling that your town Mexico, Maine, voted for Barack Obama and then voted for Donald Trump. And your analysis of that is one of the most insightful I’ve read about what a Trump voter could be like. In some sense some they just want change, like, what we are doing here, this isn’t working. Any change has to be better.

KA: I even thought for a couple of seconds, maybe Trump could change something. Of course we know what happened. As I wrote about in the book, Trump wasn’t a stranger to us. He played up that tough talking, self-determination we admired. And in the 2016, he saw the working class. It had been decades since democrats had been paying attention. Clinton sure didn’t.

ER: That’s one of the things that stuck with me. I was like, “Kerri for political analyst.”

One last tiny teeny question. In front of your book, it says: “This book was printed on paper bleached without chlorine gas, chlorine dioxide, or any other chlorine-based bleaching agent.” And I noticed only because your book is all about the dioxin, which is part of the chlorine bleaching process for paper production. Is printing on this kind of paper rare?

KA: In all the research I did, there was only one book I found that did not use these chlorine-based products: Pandora’s Poison: Chlorine, Health, and a New Environmental Strategy by Joe Thornton. And that book is about that Pandora’s box of problems with chlorine based bleaching. When I saw that, I knew my book had to be printed on the same kind of paper. Deep Vellum Press in Dallas recently emailed me and asked about where to find such paper, as did Emily Raboteau. I know my book can feel sort of hopeless, but what’s hopeful is there’s a safer alternative to bleaching paper Right now, nobody is asking for that kind of paper.

ER: How expensive was that for the publisher?

KA: I have no idea. What I do know is that the cost involved is with paper mills changing their processes…that’s expensive. And since there’s no demand for them to do it, they won’t. For paper manufacturing to change, we need to change our demands. Demand chlorine-free paper. Which ironically, is pure capitalism.

ER: This is a good place to stop. It’s a slight kernel of hope.

KA: Yeah, meanwhile, the fucking glaciers are melting.

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Don’t miss Kerri Arsenault and Elizabeth Rush’s virtual event on September 9 at 7 PM, hosted by Belmont Books.

Kerri Arsenault is a book critic, book review editor for Orion Magazine, and contributing editor at Literary Hub. Her book, Milltown: Reckoning with What Remains will be published by St. Martin’s Press, September 1, 2020.

Elizabeth Rush is the author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, and Still Lifes from a Vanishing City: Essays and Photographs from Yangon, Myanmar. She is a visiting lecturer in English at Brown University and  is currently at work on a book about motherhood and Antarctica’s diminishing glaciers.

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The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

Kerri Arsenault
Kerri Arsenault
Kerri Arsenault is a book critic, book editor at Orion magazine, and a contributing editor at Literary Hub. Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains, is her first book.





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