Julie Carrick Dalton’s debut novel, Waiting for the Night Song, hums with the magic of a New England childhood. She describes the landscape with the eye of a painter but with the heart of an environmentalist. That’s what makes her novel so good – and at times, heartbreaking.

It stars Cadie and Daniela, two childhood friends who reconnect as adults to face an old secret that has continued to haunt them. But when they return to their New Hampshire home, something about the place seems different: the seasons are off, the land has grown strange, and not because of anything supernatural. Climate change has altered this familiar place in ways they’re just beginning to understand. The eeriness creates an unsettling backdrop for the novel’s central mystery, which buoys the plot along at a swift and satisfying pace.

I spoke with Dalton about what inspired the environmental themes of her novel, what she considered to be literature’s power to address climate change, and what life is like on her own organic farm.

Amy Brady: Your novel is set against a backdrop of environmental devastation and its consequences. What inspired this?

Julie Carrick Dalton: I didn’t start out with a focus on climate change. Waiting for the Night Song began as a story about two young girls who chose to cover up a crime and the lifelong ramifications of keeping this terrible secret. I wanted to bring my main character, Cadie Kessler, home decades later to face this secret. From the beginning, Cadie emerged as a character who was deeply in tune with the natural world. When I brought her back to her hometown as an adult, I wanted the world to feel different to her. I used the changes in her ecosystem as a way to underscore how much things had changed since she left home. As I started incorporating small environmental changes in the story, climate change itself became almost like a character. I became interested in the idea of portraying this small, insular New England town undergoing a slow rise in temperature. I explored the many ways the temperature increase might affect different members of the community and set the town and the environment on edge.

Amy Brady: Tell me more about Cadie and her friend Daniela. Where did they come from? Are they based on anyone you’ve known in real life?

Julie Carrick Dalton: The relationship between Cadie and Daniela is based on my friendship with a childhood neighbor named Stephanie. She was older, cooler, the Daniela to my nerdy, awkward Cadie. We ran wild all summer, riding bikes, swimming, playing in the woods, climbing trees, and building treehouses. We used to imagine all sorts of adventures for ourselves, make plans we never followed through on. Formative friendships like that stick with you, even if you drift apart. Stephanie and I never had a falling out like Cadie and Daniela did, but we did lose touch after high school. I haven’t seen her in more than thirty years. I looked her up right before the book came out and we’ve reconnected, which has been an added bonus of publishing this novel.

Amy Brady: Let’s return to the subject of climate change. Do you think about it beyond what you write about in your fiction?

Julie Carrick Dalton: It’s hard not to think about it. In real life, New Hampshire has seen its growing season extended by twenty-two days in the last century, which still sounds shocking every time I say it. But even given that statistic, life hasn’t changed much there. What I think about most is how much worse the effects of the climate crisis are in other parts of the world, and that the populations most often affected are the most vulnerable – marginalized populations, Black and Brown communities, Indigenous communities. I worry a lot about the growing global crisis of climate refugees. How will countries like the US, who bear a disproportionate amount of the blame, step up and help the world’s most vulnerable? Or will we turn our back on those suffering because of a crisis we helped create?

Amy Brady: What role, if any, do you think novels play (or can play) in wider discussions about climate change?

Julie Carrick Dalton: Reading fiction is an act of empathy because readers are choosing to view the world through someone else’s eyes. You can get lost in data, research, and warnings about the climate crisis. The information can feel overwhelming and hard to connect to on a personal level. But in a story, you can experience what it’s like to live in a future Earth where fresh water is hard to come by, where parts of the planet have become uninhabitable. A story can transport you into the eye of a hurricane or the path of a wildfire. These stories become part of our understanding of the world and of the climate crisis. Fiction allows us to mourn for creatures and ecosystems we have not yet lost. And most importantly, fiction creates room for hope and stirs motivation to make meaningful change. As terrifying as the future might seem, I have to believe in hope. And if more people find hope, we have a better shot at averting the worst case scenarios. I definitely believe fiction has a role to play in conveying climate narratives, making the crisis feel personal, prompting change, and making room for hope.

Amy Brady: The novel’s multiple timelines were striking to me, because they allowed readers to witness the evolution of social injustices and climate change over time. Please tell us about how you arrived at this interesting structure.

Julie Carrick Dalton: In the first draft, I wrote the story straight through chronologically, starting when the girls were eleven, right through to the present. But I quickly realized the middle years didn’t matter. The story lay with the eleven-year-olds and the present-day adults. So I cut the entire middle out and wove the childhood and adult chapters into a dual timeline narrative. There’s a mystery in the past and a mystery in the present. Each story informs the other. This structure allowed me to more clearly link events from the past to the present. For example, I connect US intervention in Central America in the eighties, with immigration and environmental changes today. I connect a tiny endangered songbird in New Hampshire to decades of deforestation and hurricanes in the Caribbean. I wanted to explore all the ways this small town in New England is connected to people and places we might not think of. We are all connected in ways we don’t necessarily understand. We should all be cognizant of the fact that even our smallest actions have consequences – even if we never know who will feel the impact or where it will occur.

Amy Brady: When not writing, you run an organic farm. Please tell us more about this!

Julie Carrick Dalton: I should start by saying I’m a pretty terrible farmer. But I’m learning. A parcel of land near our family home went on the market for timbering and development about ten years ago. The land was made up of pristine woods, walking trails, and a babbling brook right out of a fairytale. We have always had bears, moose, and deer around our house and I know they come through this particular tract of land. I couldn’t stand the idea of the trees being ripped down for development, so my husband and I took a huge leap of faith and bought the land to develop into a small farm. Several acres had already been clear cut by the time I bought it, so we built a barn, pastures, and fields without having to take down too many trees. Ninety percent of the property remains undeveloped forest. I lease my barn to a friend who keeps horses there, and I grow vegetables and fruit. I’m learning by doing, which can be tough. I recently completed a program in sustainable agriculture at Tufts University, but I still have a lot to learn. I wrote Waiting for the Night Song during the same years I was building the farm. My agricultural and forestry research informed my story, and my story raised questions about how I wanted to care for my land. Those two projects – the book and the farm – are intertwined in my mind. I don’t think either would exist in the same way without the other.

Amy Brady: What’s next for you?

Julie Carrick Dalton: My second stand-alone novel, The Last Beekeeper, will be released in 2022. It’s a near-future story about a woman trying to reconnect with her ailing beekeeper father after the collapse of the pollinators sends the world into agricultural chaos. It’s a bit more speculative than Waiting for the Night Song, but is similar in that I focus on nature and climate crisis themes. And, like Night Song, The Last Beekeeper is, at its core, a story about family, secrets, love, and forgiveness.

Waiting for the Night Song, by Julie Carrick Dalton, (Forge, published January 12, 2021).

Reprinted with permission of Amy Brady and Chicago Review of Books, a Yale Climate Connections content-sharing partner.