Mystery writer Charlene D’Avanzo releases her new novel Cold Blood, Hot Sea this month. It’s an exciting tale of environmental mystery, in which oceanographer Mara Tusconi is forced to confront the world of anti-climate-change big energy conspirators with both her research and her life on the line. Charlene lives in Maine and is a long-time paddler and MITA member – she even mentions MITA in her book! We recently had the chance to chat with her about climate fiction and the Maine Island Trail.
What is the basic premise of Cold Blood, Hot Sea?
I was motivated to write Cold Blood, Hot Sea after listening to a famous climate scientist describe the harassment he had to endure at the hands of climate change deniers. I was horrified that the very people trying to figure out this extraordinarily complex global human-caused phenomenon were being hounded in this way. The idea to write a novel with this underlying theme came to me because other scientists just weren’t reaching the public via the usual means. I chose mysteries because I read a ton of them, and the idea of the protagonist solving a puzzle works well with a scientist as lead character. My goal was to write an engaging, face-paced story through which readers would gain a better understanding of impacts of warming in Maine’s coastal waters – without being preachy at all. Many people have little idea what scientists actually do day-to-day, so that was also a goal.
How does the Maine Island Trail figure into the book?
My protagonist, Mara Tusconi, is an oceanographer and avid sea kayaker. On several occasions she paddles out to islands off the fictitious town of Spruce Harbor. I specifically mention MITA at a crucial moment. Mara and her colleague Ted McKnight (he’s the love interest) paddle out to “Cove Island” on a lovely spring day. Mara is secretly terrified of giving speeches to the public (her reasons are explained via the story). Ted is trying to convince her to be the spokesperson for climate researchers at a big-deal meeting in a few weeks. Before they get to the island and discuss this turning point in the story, Mara asks Ted if he’s a MITA member. When he hesitates, she tells him to “get with the program because the Maine Island Trail Association protects hundreds of Maine islands.” She threatens to “come after you” if he doesn’t. Ted laughes and adds, “I’m sure you will.” It’s a light moment before things get heavy.
What are some of your own experiences on the Maine Island Trail? How did those experiences shape you as a writer?
The first time I visited a MITA island was probably twenty years ago when Lee Bumsted (LL Bean guide, MITA member forever) took me to a few islands off Stonington. I was astonished that these precious bits of land off the coast were available to boaters to land on, walk around, and even camp on. When I learned the number of MITA islands, I was flabbergasted and so very grateful. I’m part of a large group of paddlers who go to Stonington for a week of paddling in June. We’ve been doing it so long I can hardly remember a June when I haven’t revisted those MITA islands. My books are set on and right off the Maine coast. These are “environmental mysteries” because there is an environmental theme, but I think of the actual physical setting as a kind of character. I try to make the Maine coast come alive for people who have never been here and those who know it really well. You do that with imagery – visual, of course, but also smell, sound, touch. When I circle the islands and walk through them, I close my eyes and try to drink it all in so I can remember that later. For instance, a while back I stuck my hands into some boggy water in the middle of an island. It was much colder than I expected and deeper. I used that in a scene in which Mara must cross a soggy bog in a violent storm when she’s exhausted.
Is the Mara Tusconi character based on you? Is it easier for you to write about someone who’s similar to you, or very different?
As I explain on my website, Mara is like me in some ways but different in many others. We’re both marine scientists, although she’s an oceanographer and I studied the coast because I get terribly seasick. Mara shares that disastrous trait for an oceanographer. She’s much younger than I am – early 30’s. She’s pretty opinionated and sometimes rash, which I certainly was in my younger days. We’re both nuts about sea kayaking, although she’s much better at rolling her boat than I am. Mara’s famous scientist parents died in a submarine accident when she was 19, a tragedy that has shaped her. Her godfather Angelo is her only family. None of that happened to me, thank goodness.
What are some of the lessons you’d like readers to take away from the book that you think will resonate with MITA members?
In my experience, even folks with a strong environmental ethic have a difficult time grasping the climate change crisis – both the present-day impacts and what’s in store for our children and grandchildren. Given the scope of global warming, it’s understandably difficult for most of us to get a handle on what’s happening and what individuals can do about it. I would hope that Cold Blood, Hot Sea might stimulate readers to learn a little more so they can educate others, for instance. On my website, I include websites that provide good information plus books I’ve found helpful.
Interested in reading more? Purchase Charlene’s book here.