Heat, sand, emptiness—this is how we tend to think of deserts. But in her recent short story collection, Great American Desert, Terese Svoboda reveals the desert of the American plains to be nearly swollen with life and meaning. Lyrical and affecting, these stories reveal the evolution of a single place over the course of aeons.
The collection contains more than 25 years’ worth of writing, including “Major Long Talks to His Horse,” which appeared in Guernica in early 2019. The stories are organized chronologically, beginning with one set in prehistoric times and ending with one set in a drought-stricken future. All take place in the Great American Desert, that dry prairieland beginning just east of the Rocky Mountains and spanning to about the 100th meridian, a line of latitude that cleaves the United States in two, from the top of the Dakotas down to Texas. The region earned its name from colonizers in the nineteenth century—at that time, “desert” was used to describe not only arid land but swaths of treeless-ness deemed unfit for farming. The American prairie, with its gaping horizons in all directions, must have looked forbidding to the white people who first attempted to farm it.
As Svoboda’s collection unfolds, we watch as colonization, agriculture, war, industry, and climate change transform the prairie from a flat grassland to an over-developed wasteland. The land is loved and mistreated by humans and then ultimately destroyed. The collection’s final story, a work of sci-fi called “Pink Pyramid,” reads almost as a requiem for a region that gave—and continues to give—so much, for so little in return.
Svoboda has long written vivid tales about the American Midwest. Her 2006 novel Tin God imagines God as a woman, watching over two Midwestern dope dealers. In Bohemian Girl (2011), she tells a coming-of-age story about a young girl on the Plains; the novel earned the author comparisons to Willa Cather.
Svoboda, a native Nebraskan and the author of 18 books in total, is a poet, a memoirist, and a translator. We spoke on the phone about Great American Desert and its themes: American farmers’ reactions to climate change, the power of literature to address environmental issues, and how growing up in the American Midwest helped form the way she sees the world. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
— Amy Brady for Guernica
Guernica: Tell me about how this collection came together.
Terese Svoboda: The stories were written over a period of 25 years. My most recent story is “Major Long Talks to His Horse,” which explains the title of the collection, Great American Desert, and which appeared in Guernica. I originally ordered the collection geographically, but it became quite large. So I decided to organize [the stories] chronologically, and suddenly, I saw a connection between them.
Guernica: The stories all take place on the American prairie. Do you see them connecting in other ways?
Svoboda: They all have something to do with water, either an excess of water or drought. Water, well, trickles through the whole collection. Even in the stories that don’t seem to have much environmental reflection, like “Hot Rain,” water is still right there in the title. It moves under the stories like an aquifer.
Guernica: You’ve written about the American prairie and American West before. What draws you to these places?
Svoboda: The actual Great American Desert comprises the eight states in the middle of the country. They are our bread basket. There’s an irony to labeling this region a desert, because it contains one of the world’s largest storage systems of water underneath the ground. I was born and grew up in Ogallala, Nebraska, where water was always a part of family discussion. My father was a farmer, but he was also a judge and a lawyer, and was on the local water board that decided how much water was going to be released from Kingsley Dam, the second largest hydraulic fill dam in the world.
In the early sixties, the pivot sprinkler was invented and it revolutionized the middle part of the country, enabling farmers to grow all kinds of crops. But that came at the cost of spraying 500 gallons of water a minute out of the fossil reserves underground. Ogallala also happens to be very close to the sand hills, which is where Major Long, in the story, made his proclamation that the land wasn’t worth anything. Of course, [there were] no water sources that he could see—that’s why he thought it was useless.
Guernica: I was born and grew up in Kansas, and was struck by how your stories speak to the environmental issues that Midwesterners are grappling with.
Svoboda: The processes that lead to climate change and environmental destruction are often invisible, and because of that, hard for some people to grasp. This is especially true in the Midwest, where we lack the coastal excitement of hurricanes and wildfires—though there are Midwestern fires that occasionally grow out of control. But for us, the biggest threat is underground—the possibility of draining the aquifer. We can’t physically see it emptying, so it remains this mysterious and scary possibility; it’s as if Orpheus is just waiting to take us down.
Guernica: Some folks I know back home never use the phrase “climate change,” because it’s so politicized.
Svoboda: It’s funny; my father loved the idea of climate change and the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because it led to bumper crops. Farmers are actually among the first to see the effects of climate change, whether they call it that or not, because they’re watching the weather constantly and understand its impact on crops. Over the last few years, extreme weather has become more common. Most recently there’s been unprecedented flooding.
Guernica: And yet—and again I’m speaking about people I know personally—there’s this resistance to admitting that climate change is real.
Svoboda: That comes, at least in part, from the fact that [climate change] is so incremental. You need more than one lifetime to really see its full manifestation and impact. That’s one reason why I organized this collection from stories set during prehistory to those set in the future. They help you to see the changes over time in this one small region of the world.
Guernica: Let’s talk about the collection’s most futuristic story, “Pink Pyramid,” which involves a fire in a pyramid in the middle of a drought-stricken prairie. What inspired it?
Svoboda: The word “pyramid” comes out of the word “pyre,” which means burnable material. My inspiration started there. But the story also comes from the Black Hills Army depots, where the Army stored munitions in South Dakota during World War II—I write about that as well in the story “Ogallala Aquifer.” These storage areas used to be surrounded by yellow pools of hexavalent chromium, which is extremely dangerous. I saw pictures of similar looking pools filled with who knows what in the desert around Los Alamos that looked kind of pink, a color that usually signifies wellness and happiness—some wonderfully ironic possibilities there. So, in the story, the male character tells the female character the history of the area surrounding the contaminated pyramid they’re staying in. His story becomes a way of mourning the past and coping with their present-day situation.
Guernica: Can we talk for a moment about how you are a novelist, poet, short-story writer, memoirist, and translator? How do you manage so many different kinds of projects?
Svoboda: Well at the moment, I’m sitting at a very cluttered desk [laughs]. I usually answer that question by saying that I tend to move from failure to failure. Sometimes when I can’t get something to click, I turn to a different project to try and tackle a different kind of problem—it’s a way of refreshing myself. And then, when that problem gets to be too much, I turn back to the original one, and usually enough time has elapsed that I can see the project in a new light, or perhaps I’ve learned something that helps me push forward. Of course, I have a few boxes full of real failures, ones that haven’t gone anywhere, but usually moving from one project to another works. I feel energized when tackling a new idea.
Guernica: Your other projects also address environmentalism and climate change. What draws you to these issues?
Svoboda: You are also the child of generations of farmers, so you know about their love of the land. It’s harder for a city dweller to understand the experience of looking out at a horizon that consists of so much land and sky. You become very sensitive to what goes on in this or that cloud and in different parts of the ground. The land and sky become overwhelming forces that direct your life. Of course, I haven’t spent as much time out there as the professionals have; I’ve lived in New York for more than 40 years. But the land has helped me to understand that there are so many external forces beyond our control.
Guernica: Given this recent collection’s emphasis on climate change and ecological destruction, do you see it as a work of climate fiction?
Svoboda: I didn’t set out thinking that I’d write climate fiction, but once I put the stories together they seem to make sense as such. I think that, taken together, they help to make clear the effects of climate change, which are very hard to see otherwise—especially to people in the American Midwest. This perspective is so important, I think. I recently translated some poetry by people from the South Sudan, and their work sees humans as the ants of God. The landscapes they describe are almost surreal: the Savannah sky is enormous and everything is wide open. That’s the kind of perspective that we have to be taking.