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Literary fame doesn't buy many drinks in Paonia, but longtime friends are taking some satisfaction in the growing notoriety of their hometown boy. "People are certainly proud of him," says Michelle Nijhuis, an environmental journalist and regular contributor to HCN. "Awards don't tend to matter much here, but I think it's an interesting place for him. You certainly have an awareness of the limits of resources that you may not have in the city."
Bacigalupi himself has detected some slight gain in his stock around town. "People are impressed all of a sudden," he says. "I stopped looking lame. I'm no longer the loser who stays at home writing while his wife goes to work."
He now has deadlines, multi-book deals, new opportunities. But don't call him happy just yet. It's a loaded term, especially when your job is to peel back the daily fictions and contradictions we all embrace, look into the abyss of heedless consumerism, feel the icy breath of the onrushing future — and try to figure out where your lunch came from.
"When we live the 21st-century good life, almost every aspect of it is predicated on not looking at the implications of what we're up to," Bacigalupi says. "Happiness at this point has a lot to do with not looking, so you don't feel complicit in some vast and awful enterprise."
Hemingway insisted that an unhappy childhood is essential early training for a writer. Bacigalupi isn't grieving over his own early years, which he speaks about warmly. But the kind of upheaval he experienced growing up certainly acquainted him with notions of alienation and unsustainable ways of living that would later inform much of his work.
Born in Colorado Springs, Paolo was the only child of a well-educated, quasi-hippie couple who were interested in getting back to the land. In 1973 they moved to Paonia with their six-month-old son to operate a communal apple orchard with another family. Elk came down from the hills and stripped the bark, killing the trees; the enterprise failed, and so did the marriage. Paolo was three when his parents divorced.
Although he ultimately finished high school on the Western Slope, Paolo spent much of his childhood moving from place to place, living with one parent or the other in Alamosa, Fort Collins, Denver, Pueblo and even Wyoming. (His father, Tadini Bacigalupi, recently retired as a sociology professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver; his mother, Linda, worked for High Country News for several years as associate publisher.) He often felt like the outsider, even when he was with old friends he knew from Paonia.
"The kids I hung out with here all felt alienated from the more mainstream culture in the area, which is very red-state and Delta County," he says. "We were a very small liberal node. In other places I moved to, there was nobody like me. I knew I was going to be the new kid, and I was pretty clear about what I needed to do to successfully manipulate the perceptions of people so I could enter into the cool groups. If you did the right things, you could embed yourself."
Sometimes the strategy worked too well. In Pueblo he found himself surrounded by older kids who got drunk in their trailers and listened to heavy metal while their moms waited tables or tended bar; Bacigalupi, a high-school freshman whose music collection at that point consisted of an Air Supply tape and the soundtrack to Ghostbusters, was fascinated. Many of his friends from that period were pregnant or married before they ever finished school. He moved on, to the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale.
A guidance counselor at CRMS described Oberlin College as a hotbed of liberalism. Bacigalupi thought that was the place for him, even if he didn't know what he wanted to study. He pored over the course catalogue and decided to set himself a challenge: learning Chinese. "Learning a language seemed like an important thing to do," he explains. "I'd heard that Chinese was complicated. I was looking for something on the fringe a bit, I guess."
By the time he finished Oberlin in 1994, Bacigalupi had made several trips to China. The first one came not long after the Tiananmen Square massacre; the country felt "very locked down and paranoid," he recalls, and he began to wonder if he'd made a mistake pursuing East Asian studies. But subsequent visits went better as his confidence in navigating another culture grew. He took an immersion language course that left him dreaming in Chinese. After graduating, he decided to find a job in China: "It seemed less threatening, somehow, than looking for work in the United States."
He worked for a few months for a Chinese company that consulted with foreign corporations trying to break into the emerging private sector. He eventually came back to join his college girlfriend, Anjula, in Boston. (They married in 1998.) But he discovered that many aspects of American life that he'd taken for granted before — the excess of goods and cars, the lavish supermarkets, even the squirrels running rampant in a park — seemed jarring.