Jamaica Plain’s Chuck Collins on New Book ‘Altar to an Erupting Sun’

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Jamaica Plain's Chuck Collins new book Altar to an Erupting Sun is partially set in JP and includes several local things including the Wake Up The Earth Festival, Paul Gore Street, Doyle's, and more.

Chuck Collins

Collins answered questions about his newest book, which was released on May 9.

What is your new book Altar to an Erupting Sun about? 

Collins: Altar is the story of a charismatic woman named Rae Kelliher who is a veteran human rights and environmental activist who later in her life becomes a pioneer in the death with dignity movement. Her partner Reggie, who grew up in Dorchester, calls her a “weaver of social change” and an “instant party in a box.” 

The future fiction part of the story chronicles how Rae faces climate disruption. Instead of a gloomy Mad Max apocalypse vision, Altar envisions how humanity begins to turn the corner toward survivability in what environmentalists call “the critical decade” ahead.  The story also has elements of “coming of age” as it looks back several decades at the people and movements that shape Rae’s identity and actions. 

Why did you want to write this book? 

Collins: I had this story and character knocking on my inner door. But the book is also an altar in the tradition of remembering and honoring people and social movements that have formed me and many others. Jamaica Plain is part of this altar as a community, along with many real people who may readers will recognize. It is in part of a homage to J.P.  

My main motivation, in the spirit of the movie, Don’t Look Up, is to focus attention of the power of the fossil fuel industry in blocking action on climate change. If we and our politicians knew what Exxon and Shell knew forty years ago, we would be in a very different place. But these industries used their power to run out the clock. My fictional characters grapple with this reality.

Why did you choose that title?

Collins: In addition to the “altar” themes, the image of an “erupting sun” appears a few places in the book. It’s not a spoiler alert to say that Rae, facing a terminal illness at the end of her life, commits a murder suicide bombing that appears as an “sun erupting.” She takes the life of the CEO of a fossil fuel corporation for his role in delaying responses to climate disruption. That is how the story begins. But the erupting sun is also the heat waves, the extreme weather events, that are visited on people around the world – as well as the possibilities of solar energy.

The book is partially set in Jamaica Plain, and fictionalizes several local Jamaica Plain and local things -- can you tell us what JP and local things you included and why?

Collins: Rae and her life partner Reggie live in Jamaica Plain from roughly 1987 to 2016 and are shaped by the neighborhood. They live in a triple decker on Paul Gore Street, have a community garden plot, and are active in the vibrant life of the neighborhood. They have a “Menino pizza” at Bella Luna and Reggie’s softball team adjourns to Doyle’s Café after games. And Rae is involved with organizing Wake Up the Earth and also active in eviction blockades organized by City Life/Vida Urbana. There is even a map in the book of Jamaica Plain created by Casey Williams, who created many other nifty maps of Jamaica Plain and Roslindale (see accompanying map).

Map of Jamaica Plain created by Casey Williams in Chuck Collins' book Altar to an Erupting Sun.

Are there real present and past Jamaica Plain residents as characters in the book? Did you get permission to include them in the book?

Collins: Several real people appear, with their permission. Femke Rosenbaum, one of the founders of Spontaneous Celebrations, enlists Rae to help organize the Wake Up the Earth parade and festival (spelled “Femka” in the novel). Laura the librarian at the Connelly is Laura Foner, now retired. The fictional Rae is a bookworm and frequent visitor to the Connelly branch. One character is named after a leader in the Haitian community named Carline Desire who is one of my local heroines. Rae and Reggie get to know the late Rev. Terry Burke and eventually join First Church Unitarian Universalist at the monument. Terry’s family gave me permission to name him and he is someone who is on my personal altar. The late Boston University professor Howard Zinn appears a few times and Nathan Phillips, also from BU, is in the book, fighting gas infrastructure projects. There are many other characters drawn from real people –and local readers may be able to guess who some of the fictionalized characters are! 

The environment and climate change are very near and dear to your heart -- when and why did they become important to you?

Collins: While most of my day job is focused on wealth inequality and the racial economic divide (I’m co-editor of Inequality.org), I’ve been involved in climate change issues for over 15 years. In Altar, I tell the story of the fight against the construction of the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline that brings fracked gas from PA to Boston and on to export terminals. Over 200 people were arrested trying to stop this unnecessary new fossil fuel infrastructure project, many from JP (including three of my family members). Walking around Wake Up the Earth this year, you could see the flourishing number of organizations working for economic and environmental justice.  

What else would you like to say about the book, yourself, your work, or anything else you'd like readers to know?

Collins: I’m thankful for JP News and our neighborhood-based media outlets. In Altar, the Boston Globe ignores the pipeline fight in West Roxbury – which was true in real life too. But our neighborhood weeklies and online publications provided rigorous reporting. It’s important that we sustain our local media! 

Altar to an Erupting Sun is published this month by Green Writer Press, a fantastic independent publishing house. While I’ve written a number of other (comparatively boring) books about economics and inequality, this is my first novel. I still work at the Institute for Policy Studies, directing the Program on Inequality.

Collins will be signing his book on May 20 2:30-4 pm at Rozzie Bound (739 South St., Roslindale). Collins will also be talking about his book and signing copies at Papercuts (60 South St., Jamaica Plain) on May 25 at 6:30 pm.