Interview with Ned Tillman, Author of The Big Melt

This post comes from contributing editor Ann Bracken.

Columbia resident, author, and environmental activist Ned Tillman has been unusually busy spreading the word about climate change to audiences all over Maryland. I caught up with him one morning at a local coffee shop where we talked about his new young adult novel, The Big Melt. After having a great turnout for his book launch, Ned went on to be a featured speaker at the National Science Teachers Association where 40 teachers volunteered to evaluate the book and work on getting it adopted into the local curriculum. In addition to articles about Ned and The Big Melt in numerous local papers, here’s what Publisher’s Weekly/Booklife Prize Review had to say about the book: “Ned Tillman’s The Big Melt is a fast-paced novel for young readers that advocates taking care of the environment and illustrates the possible negative impacts that might occur if humans should neglect this responsibility. Tillman’s novel is certainly inspiring and unique, melding together a firm call to action for young people to consider the environment and a young protagonist’s decision to protect his town.”

I loved the book for its powerful story, dynamic characters, and cleverly embedded humor. Thank you, Ned, for this inspiring call-to-action.

Ann Bracken (AB): After writing two successful nonfiction books that delve into the topics related to climate change and community action, what made you decide to write a novel for young adults?

Ned Tillman (NT): A number of my readers asked me to write a book for young adults. I think we all can agree that they will need to get involved as soon as they can in understanding climate change and taking action before it is too late. I think many people, teenagers and adults alike, prefer reading fiction. It is often easier to get a visceral sense of a big problem through a fictional story.

AB: When I heard the title, I thought the book was going to involve a story about rising sea levels. What inspired your idea to use extreme temperatures and melting asphalt?

NT: I wanted to come at this challenge with something fresh—not just talk about the standard icons like polar bears and floods. I wanted stories that everyone could relate to, be surprised by, and get excited about. I wanted the reader to eagerly turn the next page to see what else might happen that they had not thought about.

AB: How would you describe the main character, Marley, whom we meet just as he’s about to graduate from high school and go on to college?

NT: I think everyone can relate to Marley. Like so many young people, he wants to get on with his life, but really does not know what he wants to do. We can then follow him through one climate-change challenge after another and see how he responds. He tries to seek out creative solutions, and he works with others to help save his town. He becomes this mythic kid that wants to fix things, make them right. I hope all my readers will be engaged by his actions.

AB: What have young readers told you about the effect that the book has on them?

NT: It is really interesting to see the responses the book gets. Readers have decided to pursue careers in science, politics, teaching—all sorts of things related to preventing and adapting to climate change. They have told me that they can’t stop thinking about the characters in the book.

AB: It’s clear from reading the book that you’ve done lots of research on the causes of climate change as well as the increased pace of change we’re all experiencing now. How did you decide on what information to include?

NT: I tried to include things the reader might not have thought about, everyday things that might disrupt their lives. Most of us are numbed by watching things happen to other people all around the world. I thought the readers needed something they could relate to better.

AB: Which part of the creative process came first—the story itself or the facts and ideas that you wanted to explore?

NT: I did not start writing until a rough idea of the story came into my mind. I met a teenager one day named Marley, and he was perfect for the lead role. He may not recognize himself in the character, because I did not know him that well, but my mind just took off. The ideas just flowed as the characters appeared. Some of the characters do things that I might do, many are named or fashioned after other people that I know. The facts were the easy part. Since I am fascinated by some of the stories I included, I had a hunch that readers might also enjoy hearing about them.

AB: If you had to choose three critical warning signs for the East Coast, what would they be? What’s one concrete action we can take now?

NT: We have had the warning signs already. They are bigger and more frequent storms, droughts, and major fires. We should all be reducing use of fossil fuels by ordering all of our electricity from solar or wind suppliers. That change is simple to do and sends a message to the marketplace.

AB: For those of us who live in Maryland, we have examples of the changing climate all around us—from flooding of the dock area in Annapolis to the gradual disappearance of Smith Island and locally, the two massive floods in Ellicott City. All of them are highly visible instances of change due to the climate. What can you tell readers about some of the actions you think we need to take to manage these changes?

NT: We need to focus on prevention and not just think about how to repair things after they have been destroyed. Prevention takes all of us telling our congressmen and women to implement a carbon tax to make the fossil fuel industry pay for the health impacts of their emissions and all the other havoc they are causing. We need to back that up by supporting renewable energy options.

AB: I know that The Big Melt is in many schools and you’ve had occasion to speak with lots of young people about the messages in your book. What has been the best part of that experience?

NT: I love listening to teenagers and older adults talk about how the characters inspired them to talk with their friends and family about climate change. There is much more enthusiasm today than ever before on this topic. People really care, and they want to know what to do. That is why I put a list of Ten Actions that everyone can do to help.

AB: It seemed to me that you made frequent reference to how much easier it would have been for the folks in Sleepy Valley to take action sooner, and you use the growth of the invasive kudzu weed as an example. I’ve been to places in Howard County that are completely covered in kudzu. Is the kudzu problem a stand-in for an idea?

NT: I think invasive plants and beetles, as well as methane bubbling from lakes, and even melting asphalt are all examples of what might happen if we do not get serious and act on a whole range of fronts now. I hope that readers might think of other good examples in their communities.

AB: Your book takes the readers on quite a journey and shows us problems through the eyes of scientists, teachers, community leaders, farmers, business people, and teens. Without giving the idea away, what kinds of actions are you suggesting on the “microbe” level?

NT: The impacts of a warming climate will impact us on many levels. We will need to understand how we relate to our ecosystem on Earth and our microbiome inside our bodies so we can all learn how to live in balance and coevolve together as we struggle to deal with a changing climate.

AB: Did you make up the list “Ten Steps for a Cooler Climate”? What is your hope for readers by including such a list in the book?

NT: One of my characters made up that list!! I think it’s pretty good. I trust that anyone who reads that list will find something that they can do to help. I also hope that everyone will make up their own list and tape it on their refrigerator door so that the whole family can join in the steps that we all need to take to make a difference.

AB: What would you like readers to take away from your book? What kinds of actions have already taken place among the young folks who are reading it? Their teachers?

NT: I would like to see everyone who reads this book become more inspired to take some action to slow down the warming of the planet. It is all about learning to take care of our Earth for us and for future generations. I understand that the book has encouraged students, teachers, and parents to spend more time understanding what is happening to our climate and to create a plan for what they will do at home, at school, and in the community. I have people tell me that they are rethinking their lifestyles, that they are getting more involved in community meetings and town halls, and that they are thinking twice before they buy anything. All of those things are a good start.

AB: How many schools are using the book in their curriculum?

NT: I don’t know. I think teachers are using it as a supplement.

AB: Do you think a work of fiction can help to rescue us from climate disaster?

NT: Fiction has played a major role in the past in energizing people to act. I hope this book and other climate fiction works will have the same impact.

Bio – Ned Tillman is the award-winning author of The Chesapeake Watershed and Saving the Places We Love. His latest book, The Big Melt, was a finalist for both the One Maryland/One Book competition and The Green Earth Book Award. He has served on local, state, and national boards dealing with environmental, conservation, energy, and health organizations.

Ned’s book is available on his website is as well as on Amazon.

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