As the COVID-19 pandemic developed new chapters, writers such as Sequoia Nagamatsu imagined what would come next. In his book How High We Go In the Dark, which was shortlisted for the Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize, the Ursula K. Le Guin Fiction Prize, and the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, among others, Nagamatsu explores how a plague born of climate change would affect a wide range of individuals of varying ages, genders, and economic classes.
But Nagamatsu shared that the pandemic at the heart of this book only came later in his creative process.
“The book was written over many years but was first really just isolated, stand-alone story explorations of grief and alternative funerary practices,” he said. “Since the project spanned many years and was written in a non-linear manner, the revision process was quite extensive and almost puzzle-like.”
In that sense, Nagamatsu’s book mirrors his writing process in its vastness of time. “The first chapter, for instance, was one of the last chapters I wrote and there was one chapter that has roots dating back to 2009,” he said. “I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the connections between chapters, characters, and time periods, how the world evolved over generations.”
Since the book’s publication last year, Nagamatsu has appreciated a wide range of responses. “Readers are really in the driver’s seat once a novel is published,” he said. “What I came to realize is that How High We Go in the Dark is a part of COVID conversations, it is pandemic literature in a way.”
He initially resisted this description of his work. “I never saw How High We Go in the Dark as being about a virus,” he said. “Despite my initial intentions, How High We Go in the Dark is a narrative that can be cathartic in our own pandemic. It can be a way to reflect on our own experiences.”
Nagamatsu’s interest in science fiction hails from his childhood, when he found Contact by Carl Sagan to be influential.
“I encountered it when I was maybe twelve and it was something that I found to be deeply human while ticking off the boxes of high concept, yet somewhat grounded, science-fiction,” he said. “It was the sort of thing I dreamed of writing one day, and I think I may have a book-length space opera of sorts in me one day.”
He began writing at an early age as well. “I started out making my own handmade tabloids with crayons and markers,” he said.
“My grandmother always had these grocery store register magazines around, and I honestly became fascinated with relationships in trouble, gossip, the constant affairs, failure to find happiness despite having it all.”
His interest in the human condition and how communities navigate their spaces led him to earn a BA in anthropology at Grinnell College, but he always gravitated back to the written word. “My first serious forays into writing began when I was living in Japan,” he said. “Serious as in I want this to maybe be a career, go to grad school, send things out for publication.”
While teaching English in Japan, Nagamatsu also wrote every day after work. “I was lucky to find an online community of accomplished writers, some rising stars really, who really helped encourage my early efforts,” he said, “and these relationships also led to my first short story publications.”
He then earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. “An MFA is really just time to be in a community of other writers, read and analyze books deeply, and figure out your voice,” he said. “By the time I entered my MFA program I had already published a fair amount and think I had a pretty decent sense of my voice and stylistic directions, but it was a crucial time to encounter books I wouldn’t have found on my own, try new things, and perhaps most importantly begin inserting myself more deeply with the larger writing community.”
Now, as an associate professor at St. Olaf College teaching writing, Nagamatsu encourages his students to connect to the wider literary community and to practice giving more than they take. “While the act of writing is often solitary, nobody really succeeds as a published writer by themselves,” he advised. “Networks and communities can be very important not only for professional advice, connections, and feedback, but it’s important that other writers see that you are supportive of contemporaries, that you’re working just as hard to be a good literary citizen as it were as you are on your own manuscripts. So many of my opportunities have come from forming friendships with other writers.”
Looking ahead, Nagamatsu will be as busy as he advises his students to be, both in reading and watching media widely, and in launching his own new projects. “I’m working on another book for the same publishers,” he said, “and starting to develop yet another book with my wife who is also a writer.”
And if that wasn’t enough, this Minneapolis resident also has solid connections to the Pacific Northwest, teaching in the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. “Some of my immediate family has lived in the Seattle and upper Puget Sound area for decades,” he said. “I can’t pretend to navigate like a local, but I know how to get around better than your typical tourist.”