“Butterfly knowledge is climate change knowledge”

Simone Angel and Diana Marcum chat butterflies in Belize

Simone Angel and Diana Marcum | Image by TOPIA

MTV icon Simone Angel explores beauty, butterflies and personal metamorphosis with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Diana Marcum – who really does write whole books on her phone

Butterflies are the celebratory confetti tossed in the air when the plants and air and water and the rest of the insect world are healthy.

Diana Marcum

A little before the world clipped our wings and sent us back to our cocoons, a former MTV VJ encountered a Pulitzer Prize–winning writer in a jungle lodge in Belize.

Almost as quick as a flash of a metallic blue wing, the strangers formed a deep connection, hitting it off in a brief meeting of souls. Their chats meandered from their struggles in cities to their appreciation of the beauty of the natural world. They laughed a lot.

Dutch MTV icon Simone Angel has lived in mainland Belize since 2001, describing it as “a land of pirates that attracts colourful characters”. Journalist and author Diana Marcum, the author of U.S. bestseller The Tenth Island (2019), was on her way to the Maya Mountains to research a book about the secrets of a fallen civilization, the rainforest and “hope during cataclysmic times”.

Marcum has long been fascinated with life in small towns, writing about the rugged, rural areas of California for the Los Angeles Times for over a decade. In 2015, she won a Pulitzer for her empathic narrative portraits of farm workers and farmers in the drought-stricken Central Valley. Since, the writer has been on a quest for meaning that has taken her further afield.

In 2020, the award-winning writer had hit an unhappy bump in her relationship, when her partner suggested a trip to Belize. After inadvertently discovering a butterfly sanctuary, the pair found themselves moving into a long-empty jungle house, cohabitating with bats, scorpions, toucans and iguanas and “vulnerable but resilient” pollinators. And then, with the flap of a brilliant blue morpho’s wings, truly cataclysmic times arrived – a hurricane and pandemic.

The resulting thing of beauty was Marcum’s Fallen Stones (March 2022). Part memoir, part ode to nature, it’s a heart-warming tale of finding a way forward when the world – and your heart – seems to be falling apart.

Two years after meeting in Belize, Simone caught up with Diana to talk about blue butterflies, hope – and this egg timer

Simone Angel: Diana, you were one of the last guests to come through our little jungle lodge in Belize before Covid forced us to close down and I remember instantly hitting it off with you – drinking wine and making each other laugh with our silly stories.

Diana Marcum: That’s right! Someone asked me recently what I missed most when Covid stopped us all from travelling and straight away I thought of you – meeting kindred spirits like you along the way. Those people where it takes no time at all to get to know them, where there is almost that instant recognition, that ‘Oh…there you are!’ kind of feeling.

Simone: Exactly. Those instant connections are so precious. You were on your way through to the South of Belize to visit a butterfly farm, so tell us about that.

Diana: Yes, I was on my way to a butterfly farm that borders the Lubaantun, Mayan ruins temples (also known as ‘Place of the Fallen Stones’). I was going there to research and write my second book, which I ended up giving the title Fallen Stones – Chasing Butterflies, Discovering Mayan Secrets and Looking for Hope Along the Way. That wasn’t the original title by the way, the original title was Looking for Happily Ever After, but as you know a lot of things happened that year (2020) and I found that sometimes the best you can do is just find a little hope. But yes, the book is about living on a butterfly farm, getting to know the people there, learning about the jungle, the Mayan history and about the butterflies themselves, of course.

In 2020, Diana and her then-new partner, Jack Moody, moved into a long-empty jungle house | Photos by Mark Crosse

Simone: I have to admit, when you first told me that you were going to write about a butterfly farm, I didn’t quite get it. It seemed so niche to me. Like a book about birdwatching or something. But then when I read it, I fell in love and became convinced that this was a book that everyone should read. The butterfly farm is just the setting, but it’s about so much more – climate change, relationships, history, overcoming challenges. And then, of course, the story of the butterflies themselves, which runs almost parallel. Even though the book is filled with little bits of wisdom, it’s never preachy, not even when you talk about climate change – which I think is pretty hard to do – and on top of it all it’s funny. I love how you always make fun of yourself.

Diana: Oh, trust me. Making fun of myself is not hard to do. And then… when it comes to climate change, I don’t actually think that there’s a need to be preachy as climate change has become part of our lives; all we need to do is subjectively describe what we’re seeing and feeling – because it just is. Having said that, some reviewers still called me ‘woke’ and were angry that I mentioned climate change in my book.

Some reviewers still called me ‘woke’ and were angry that I mentioned climate change in my book.

Simone: So how did you tie the story of the butterflies into that?

Diana: Well, the book is a travel diary and so you follow me, someone who is not well suited to jungle life, and together with my partner I move into house in the middle of the jungle (alongside everything that was already living there) and then I learn to take care of butterflies, which are a vital element to the ecosystem. Butterflies are key pollinators and very sensitive to climate change, especially with much of the rainforest being lost. I didn’t actually go into this as an environmental journalist, it was about the adventure of going there and getting to know the people who ran this place. But yes, I did stick in some butterfly knowledge and butterfly knowledge is climate change knowledge.

All hail the spectacular beauty of the brilliant, but severely threatened, blue morpho butterfly – and its eggs

Simone: Do you remember when you first decided to become a writer?

Diana: Oh yes! I had just learned how to write when my teacher wrote on the blackboard, ‘I like the wind…’ And on the back of the board she wrote, ‘I don’t like the wind…’ She then told us that we could finish these sentences in any way we liked. And that just blew my little mind because I loved the wind; how I could hold my jacket up over my head and let the wind lift it, making me feel like I could fly. Up until that point it had never occurred to me that books, which I loved to read, were actually written by someone. And the thought that that was something that I could do too amazed me. It was a real Eureka moment.

Simone: I remember you once said to me that you have to write to feel alive.

Diana: I said that? How strange. Because I’m just miserable right now. I have all these deadlines and on days like these I wonder what the hell I was thinking when I decided to become a writer.

Simone: Oh yes, I’ve heard you say that before too. I guess it can be hard for someone as social as you to be spending so much time by yourself, writing.

Diana: It’s just that I find writing really hard. And I guess right now I wish that I could just not write for a few weeks, just to feel alive.

Simone: It’s interesting to hear a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author like yourself say that she finds writing really hard. But I guess it’s comforting too because it’s so easy to think that achievements like those are about super-human talent when in reality it’s mainly about hard work. And continued hard work.

Diana: You know, so many people tell me that they are writers and I usually ask them, ‘Do you enjoy writing?’, and when they gush about how much they love it, I can generally assume that they are mainly writing for fun. Which is great. But most of us who write for a living, like newspaper journalist or authors, no longer talk about how wonderful it is. Of course, certain moments are enjoyable and at times when I read things back, I remember how I laughed when I wrote it. But we also have to think about structure and finding just the right word – it’s very complicated and your mind has to work on so many different levels at once. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there are some incredible authors out there who love the writing process and when they hear me talk right now, they might think that I’m not the real deal if I have to work at it this hard. I don’t know. Maybe I am miscast. Maybe I’m not really a writer.

Simone: I once asked you what your system was for writing at which point your partner (the man named Jack Moody in your books) chimed in, ‘She has no system!’

Diana: That’s funny. Did he? Maybe that was before I discovered my system. But you know what it is, right?

Simone: Yes, I do. And it’s quite fitting with this season’s inspiration for TOPIA – The Egg.

Diana: That’s right. It’s an egg timer. It’s actually quite famous. It’s called the pomodoro system because the person who came up with it used an egg timer in the shape of a tomato. The idea is that you only write for twenty minutes at a time. I have created my own messed-up version of it because in the past it was always hard for me to get started. It would take me twenty minutes just to sit down! With this system, there was always that promise that after twenty minutes I could choose to stop and, for something that I said I needed to do just to feel alive, it’s surprising how hard it was for me to actually sit down and do it. So anyway, I use it to get started but when I’m in the flow I won’t stop after twenty minutes. And in my case, it’s not a tomato-shaped egg timer. I use my cute little ladybug. I tried using my phone’s timer before but that didn’t work. I need that ‘tick, tick, tick, tick, tick’ sound of my ladybug and I need to see its ridiculously smiley face.

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Simone: What in your life changed after winning the Pulitzer Prize and what didn’t?

Diana: On a personal level, not much did. We don’t live in LA or San Francisco but in the more agricultural part of California, in Fresno. And most people in Fresno don’t really follow who wins a Pulitzer. They don’t sit there with bated breath every April to find out who wins. But professionally it was nice because I had wanted to go back to Azores to write a travel journal and my agent had said that I should probably write another book first and then go to the Azores. The morning after I received the Pulitzer Prize, she called me and said, ‘Okay then, the Azores..’ And so that became the setting of my first book, The Tenth Island. Oh, I still love saying that: ‘My first book.’

Simone: Yes, because now you have released your second. I guess you want a break before you write your next?

Diana: Actually… I have started.

Simone: You have?

Diana: Yes. I had been wanting to write a caper novel but I didn’t know when I would be able to as my work at the LA Times had kept me so busy. And then, while I was figuring out how and when to create the time (trapped in deadlines for three years), I one day decided to just start typing. As you know, I write my books on my phone. I simply asked myself, if I did have time, how would I start it? And that was it. I just began to tap away. Oh, and you know what? I do have fun writing this novel. So maybe I’ve been doing it all wrong all this time. Maybe writing is supposed to be easy.

Simone: Oh, I love hearing that. And I love how you write whole books on your phone. That’s so weird.

Diana: It is, isn’t it?

Simone: It’s your strange superpower. And you know what your other superpower is? You really see people. Those people that many of us would just pass in the streets without giving them a second thought are the ones that you stop to get to know. And then, when you get to know them, you see how fascinating they are. And then you share their fascinating stories with all of us causing us to be in awe of these everyday people as well. So thank you for that.

Diana: That is not that hard. It’s just about listening.

Simone: And what will your legacy be? How will people remember you and your work?

Diana: They won’t. And that’s fine. See, here’s the thing. I’m a woman. I think this is a bit of a gender thing. When I won the Pulitzer, men kept saying to me, ‘now you will know what the first line of your obituary will be!’ and one of my best friends – who was also my editor – and I kept laughing hysterically at that. Because why would I care what my obituary will say? As if that’s the thing that will give my life meaning? Is that somehow important? Legacy? Something that lives on?

Simone: Okay, so if that is not important, what is?

Diana: The Now. And the reason it’s important is because it is fleeting. Everything is about the Now.

Simone: Diana, that’s a great way to end our chat. Thank you for sharing your Now with me.

If you get it right for butterflies, you have it right for the rest of the ecosystem.

Diana Marcum

What’s so good about this?

As Diana Marcum puts it: “Butterflies are the celebratory confetti tossed in the air when the plants and air and water and the rest of the insect world are healthy. If you get it right for butterflies, you have it right for the rest of the ecosystem.”

Read some of Diana Marcum’s Pulitzer Prize-winning writing here and Fallen Stones – pictured here in its natural habitat.

Meet Simone Angel

Remember recording MTV in the 90s on VHS? As its longest running (and youngest) VJ, you would have been watching Simone Angel. An authentic European icon, Simone helped shape the broadcast-style that made the channel so revolutionary in its heyday. Today, the Dutch VJ co-hosts the nostalgic podcast and YouTube channel, Party Zone Revisited  – reconnecting with DJs and club culture legends from back in the day to chat about dance music, fame, drugs and mental health. She has lived in mainland Belize since 11 September 2001: “On that day when the world changed forever, we had landed in a land of pirates that attracts colourful characters.” Follow Simone on Instagram and YouTube.

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