The short story in the November/December 2013 issue of Orion, “Light Bandit,” is about a man who, in defending the right to darkness and a reprieve from the constancy of electric light, finds himself transformed. Here’s author Gregg Kleiner on what makes his story and its protagonist tick.
Part of what makes “Light Bandit” so fun to read is that it’s easy to identify with the story’s unnamed protagonist. We’ve all had moments of frustration with the corporate entities in our lives—especially those that are harming the world around us. Where did the idea for this story come from?
I was on a plane, flying at night over North America—just like the story’s protagonist—looking down at square miles of parking lots and cul-de-sacs and highways—all illuminated in the wee hours of the night. Struck by seeing all those lights from so high up, I started counting them when I landed and drove home. The numbers blew my mind. (Everyone should spend a few minutes counting streetlights; middle-school students should be assigned this as homework.)
As climate change descends, I find myself thinking more and more about ways we might burn less energy, and do it soon. Simply switching off the millions of streetlights that burn around the world would be a good start—and by doing so, we’d be better able to look up and see the stars.
Children were an inspiration, too. Their wisdom is pure and innocent and so often right-on, and yet we adults often don’t notice it. The granddaughter in the story says something toward the end that is so simple and obvious, the main character has to pause and compose himself before responding. The relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is especially unique: there’s a greater distance than in the parent-child relationship, and a closer connection to the mysteries of birth and death.
We need grandparents and grandchildren hanging out more together. It used to be that grandparents were a built-in day-care system of sorts, but as the extended family has eroded, so, too, has this relationship.
The actions and outlook of the story’s protagonist—whom I suppose we could call The Bandit—seem to hark back to Ed Abbey and his Monkey Wrench Gang. Are you an Abbey fan? Has his work affected your thinking at all, with this story or with anything larger?
Yes, I’ve enjoyed Ed Abbey’s work, especially Desert Solitaire, and I’ve more than once pondered pouring sugar into the fuel tanks of certain vehicles. I’m cheered by Abbey’s spunk and spirit, his belief that sometimes radical action is called for in order to jump-start change, trigger a movement. I sense we’re on the verge of more civil disobedience regarding climate change, especially as it becomes clear what’s coming and what needs to be done to slow it.
And there is power beyond measure in numbers. What if just 10 percent of us went to our city halls and demanded they shut off half our streetlights between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.? And if that doesn’t work, we could just take them out ourselves (the lights, that is). Abbey would be grinning, wouldn’t he?
Can you tell us a bit more about The Bandit? Beyond the details given in the story, who is he, and what sort of experiences have led to his actions? Why, for instance, does he appear as an older man in this story? Do some of these details explain, in part, why he does what he does?
The character is an older man, an Elder. I prefer that term when referring to older people, because it conveys a sense of the wisdom and perspective they have accumulated simply by living a long time. The term also extends a sense of reverence and respect to people I believe we need to listen for more often than we do in our youth-obsessed society.
For me, this older man, The Bandit, represents a generation of people who lived through the good times made possible by the burning of fossil fuels. But I know some people of that same generation who also carry a dose of guilt about what’s being passed down to younger people—younger people who will inherit the impacts of climate change. This character has spent his whole life toeing the line, working hard, obeying all the rules, but in this story, he decides to act regardless of the fact that he’s in his late years. And it is this action that fuels him, gives his life new meaning, and ultimately ignites a movement among younger people.
I believe Elders have the power to inspire, if only we would pause long enough to listen to them. And it’s never too late to engage in action.
“Light Bandit” is built around a wonderfully frustrating and ubiquitous aspect of the modern world—electric light. Why choose this part of modern life as the story’s antagonist?
I believe many of us take light for granted, flipping on a switch without thinking of the fossil fuel that’s been burned—often miles and miles away—and the energy sent through a wire in order to make a bulb glow above our desk, kitchen sink, or bathroom mirror.
I’ve lived in parts of the world where electricity is coveted, lights are used sparingly, hot water is a privilege, and street lighting is supplied by thin and dim fluorescent bulbs. Recently, for instance, I was traveling in southeastern Asia, and one night while staying in a small town, I woke to discover they’d shut off the streetlights. I wanted to run outside and cheer!
Electric light is also a counterpoint to our fear of the dark—a fear we humans have had since the beginning of time. But bathing our highways and homes with electric light might not be the best way to work through those fears. Long ago, humans told stories in the dark, and went to bed early; now we stay up late with our faces illuminated by the pale blue hues of digital screens—even more electric light!
You’ve written different kinds of nonfiction, but you’ve identified yourself as a novelist and short story writer, too. Do you feel fiction has a special role in helping us understand something about the relationship between humans and nature?
I believe fiction is the lie that tells the truer truth. That’s something a former mentor of mine, the writer Tom Spanbauer, says, and I believe there’s a lot of truth to it.
Our brains are hard-wired for stories and storytelling. A well-told story, either live or via words on a page, fires a part of the brain that little else can. This is because a story read or told calls on the reader or listener to paint the whole shebang on the canvas of her or his own mind—no screen needed. Not that nonfiction, or a good movie, can’t tell a good story, but fiction can pull out all the stops to create a story that can’t be created if you stick solely with what really happened, or to the pure truth. But by “lying” through fiction, you can probe something deeper.
So, yes, I believe fiction—storytelling—is vital in helping us understand and reimagine the relationship we have with nature. What if, for example, I say,
Let me tell you about the time my four siblings and I milked one of my grandparents dairy cows down in the hayfield below the rotting barn near the blackberry thicket where we’d been picking berries into tin pails for pies, and how four of us were sitting under that huge cow the color of red brick, our spindly elbows and knees going every which way between her hind legs and below her big belly, all our berry-stained fingers squirting warm milk into each other’s mouths and laughing, and my little sister, Julie, holding the cow’s tail and pulling it and squealing with joy. And now let me tell you what my grandmother did when she spotted us from up by the barn in her blood-stained apron…
You can’t help but lean in and listen, right? And can you taste the warm milk or smell the blackberries ripening just beyond those kids and that cow tangled together below the summer sun? There’s a lot of truth in this, and a little lying. But my grandmother and grandfather and their farm taught us a whole lot about the natural world.
Gregg Kleiner is the author of the novel Where River Turns to Sky. He lives in western Oregon.