Today’s guest is the author Jenny Offill. Offill’s first book Last Things was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the L.A. Times First Book Award. Her follow-up, Department of Speculation was named a best book of the year by everybody, the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, Vogue and on and on. Shortlisted for the Folio Prize, the Pen Faulkner and the International Dublin Award, Department of Speculation became one of the most loved and talked about books of that year and beyond. Offill is the recipient of a 2016 Guggenheim fellowship. She teaches at Syracuse University and at the low residency program at Queens University. She is the co-editor, with Elissa Schappell, of two anthologies of essays: The Friend Who Got Away: Twenty Women’s True Life Tales of Friendships that Blew Up, Burned Out or Faded Away and Money Changes Everything: Twenty-two Writers Tackle the Last Taboo with Tales of Sudden Windfalls, Staggering Debts, and Other Surprising Turns of Fortune. Offill is also a writer of Children’s books including 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore, 11 Experiments That Failed, While You Were Napping, and Sparky!, which the School Library Journal called the best damn Sloth-related picture book they’d ever read. Jenny Offill is here today on Between the Covers to talk about her latest novel, one of the most anticipated books of the year, entitled Weather. With starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist, Ocean Vuong says ofWeather, “We are not ready nor worthy.” Jia Tolentino says: “No one writes about the intersection of love and existential despair like Jenny Offill.” Sheila Heti adds “Jenny Offill conjures entire worlds with her steady, near-pointillist technique. One feels a whole heaving, breathing universe behind her every line. Dread, the sensation of sinking, lostness, and being cast away from any sense of safety infiltrates every interaction and private moment in this book, like ashes from the burning world she describes.” Finally Jonathan Dee says: “Novelists don’t need to dream the end of the world anymore—they need to wake up to it. Jenny Offill is one of today’s few essential voices, because she writes about essential things, in sentences so clipped and glittering it’s as if they are all cut from one diamond.”
David Naimon: Welcome to Between the Covers, Jenny Offill.
Jenny Offill: Thank you for having me.
DN: One of the things I’d like to talk to you about is the question of scale and how you engage with large-scale questions, while at the same time dealing with small everyday ones. But I wanted to start with large scale, with Jonathan Dee’s blurb that “novelists don’t need to dream of the end of the world, they need to wake up to it” because I feel like this is an ongoing question I have as a writer and also as a podcast host. I keep bringing guests on to talk about the question of narrativizing climate change and whether or not if we change our stories, that might be part of how we change our consciousness or change our relationship to the nonhuman. It feels like there’s a growing number of writers who are working on this and some of the past Between the Covers guests have been this type of writer, I think of Thalia Field, Rikki Ducornet, Ursula K. Le Guin, Richard Powers, Max Porter, and Jeff Vandermeer, who all had their own strategies. I’d like to start with maybe the origin story or the origin stories for you, how you went from Dept. of Speculation which is largely set in the domestic and human world and still kept that realm in Weather—the domestic and the human—but also have now added this large-scale question of climate apocalypse which is really the ultimate nonhuman response to what we’ve been doing.
JO: I think maybe on the most basic level, I moved out of the city into the country and instead of spending all my time taking in what humans said, what they looked like on the train, and all of those things, different information was just coming in when I went for a walk. I’m not a particularly good noticer of nonhuman things so it took a while for any of it to really get through, but I was interested already in writing about what I came to think of as anticipatory dread or sorrow. When I first started writing the next novel, I was actually writing more about getting older, losing people, and that sense that you know that you’re going to keep walking down the corridor of loss and the doors are going to keep opening. I was like, “What do we do when we’re at that moment in life?” But then I started to think about how climate change was one of those things that I really intellectually thought was terrifying but I just didn’t feel it at all, nothing about me felt it and so it felt like it went well into the anticipatory dread category. I started reading more and more and more about it. The more I read about it, the less I felt I couldn’t write about it. But I also was just terrified I was going to write a really bad book because—the ecological philosopher, Timothy Morton calls it a “hyper object, something that we can’t even get our minds around—it did seem like a particularly bad thing [laughs] to make a book about.
DN: When you went down this rabbit hole of climate change research, part of what you researched was the psychology and sociology of why we don’t engage. Essentially, you’ve said that you were “interested in why you weren’t more interested”—I love that phrasing of the conundrum. But if we return to the writers that I mentioned just a minute ago, when you mentioned the hyper object with Timothy Morton that is something that Jeff Vandermeer engages with, and Thalia Field engages with how most of our stories tend to be human-centric, and Rikki Ducornet with how our stories are often human exclusive. Talk to us a little bit about what, in the research around sociology and psychology, jumps out to you that specifically informed your investigations for Weather and the writing of it around this question of “Why I’m not more interested?”
JO: I read two books that were really, really helpful in thinking about those questions. One was a book by a British writer George Marshall and it was called Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. This is where I heard about the other book that I’m going to mention. He did this very smart thing which is that he put all of this science in a final appendix and then he just went around and talked to different groups that were working on this or thinking about it. He figured out, for example, that the language has to be changed with each group, that you have to say stewardship if you’re talking to evangelicals. If you’re talking to hunters, you have to say conservation. But at the time, I was still thinking of actual climate change denial. One of the things I got from this book is that there might be these softer forms of denial and that one of those softer forms was thinking about it but not feeling it. I later, in my own mind, added fatalist thinking to that list, where you let yourself off the hook because we’re all doomed anyway. This led me to this book which I’ve now read several times and unsuccessfully tried to foist on many people called States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering. Stanley Cohen, the writer, was talking about the apartheid movement but he was also, in general, just talking about our desire to look away from the trouble and to be free of trouble. That’s a kind of “twilight knowing” where you know what’s outside your door but you’re not letting yourself think about it. Later, with that idea of the trouble, I found a useful corollary which was Donna Haraway saying that we have to stay with the trouble. That as we think about our flickers of fellow-feeling for other species, in fact, we have to stay with the trouble. That was a little bit imperative like, “What would it be like if I stayed with this trouble?”
DN: With regards to the Stanley Cohen book, can you talk a little bit about what “innerisms” are since that may be one mild form of denial?
JO: That phrase really caught me. In the 1970s in Brazil, there was this very brutal regime and many of the people there privately would say that they, of course, didn’t support it. He coined the phrase “innerism” because so many people became obsessed with talking about sports, with talking about elaborate meals, with family outings, any kind of pastime where you didn’t have to engage with the greater world. In that way, it was all kept at bay. I think that, especially in repressive regimes, often, that’s just a survival choice that people don’t feel that they can talk about anything. But I became interested in the times where somebody takes that invisible thing and makes it visible. One of the really cool protests I came across was in Chile. At one point, they sent out that everyone should bang on their pots at a certain time. It was like this decentralized protest but it gave everyone this hope that there were many people around that may seem like they were doing the innerism thing but they were actually wishing to speak out.
DN: I love that idea. I want to go grab my pot after this interview.
DN: I was hoping we could take this almost-impossible-to-grasp idea, this hyper object that we face, that we are on the precipice of no-return, and talk about how to grapple with it as a writer, especially with regards to questions of scale. How to evoke and employ this immense scale in narrative because, in many of the reviews of Weather, scale comes up. I think of The New York Times profile of you with Parul Sehgal and I think of the conversation you had at The White Review with Hannah Rosefield and one of the conversations that particularly stood out to me is the discussion between Leslie Jamison and Pamela Paul in The New York Times Book Review podcast where Jamison says that on the surface, Dept. of Speculation is a domestic novel set in Brooklyn that grapples with work-life balance and infidelity and that this is what innumerable books are about. You could almost say the topic in its most broad strokes is cliche but she talks about how you, on the other hand, have infused the story which might seem very familiar at first, with these larger issues and then at the same time, you’ve also gone granular to hold the emotional intensity of those larger issues within smaller moments. Jamison goes on to talk about how the power of scale shifting in your last book is amplified in Weather. You, yourself have asked the question of “how do we tell a story about climate change that carries the same visceral force as our own private emotional dramas,” so I guess this is a long way to ask for you to talk a little bit about these questions of scale, of holding the emotional intensity of large issues in smaller moments, and about strategies as a storyteller that you might use to bring these questions into narrative.
JO: I think with both those novels, but especially with this one, Weather, there’s often a jumping-off point for me. With Dept., it was really thinking about different ways that we’re lonely. There’s a question very early on in Dept where she’s somewhere beautiful with the person who later becomes her husband and she looks at him and she thinks, “Oh, if I lived here, would it fix my brain?” It felt like that was a central question of that book, “Would love fix her brain? Would having a child fix her brain? Would writing a book fix her brain?” Of course, there’s something missing in that question because the language is wrong. Fix isn’t something that happens to our emotions. I think the reason I’m so drawn to Buddhist thought, although I’m not at all a real practitioner to Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist thought, is that I feel like they’re constantly questioning the terms we’re putting something in and how that is a too-mechanistic idea. With Weather, I guess I was thinking a lot about what it means to take care of people. Lizzie has a mother who doesn’t have much money and she has a brother who’s a recovering addict. She’s a very porous person. Everything that comes in, she’s also worried about the people who live on her street. I guess I was wondering what it’s like, if you are already taking care of lots of things, when you start to learn about the climate crisis or really any issues of justice and inequality, when you learn about them truly, when the question arises “can I also worry about the world?” it feels like a hard one because you might feel already that there’s almost nothing left of you, that it’s all going to caretaking anyway. That question of caretaking, what it means, and then what it would mean if it was also about the nonhuman, that was really central to me both as a writer and as a person. I felt like I wanted, with the scale shifts, to show the moment that she’s remembering things that she would have known from her abandoned dissertation, but the next minutevshe’s catching a fly with a cup, letting it go outside, and noticing the way it flies away. A lot of it is to allow, in a space that seems like there would be grander thoughts, a more particular quieter moment against the grander backdrop and vice-versa. In these moments where it seems like you are engaging with bigger philosophical questions to build in either a bit of humor that undercuts that or a moment that is going in some other emotional direction.
DN: Can you tell us a little bit more about Lizzie, our protagonist, and her husband, what they do, what their backgrounds are?
JO: Yeah. Lizzie, she was studying with a woman named Sylvia. At a certain point, her brother was really just becoming very, very lost in addiction and she dropped out to help him recover. Her husband was a Classics Ph.D. who didn’t end up getting a job in academia and now makes video games. I know a lot of people like this. Frankly, if I hadn’t stuck with writing, I would absolutely be in this category of someone that went to grad school and is, for all intensive purposes, an academic but didn’t end up with a job doing it. It’s often really interesting people, people that have this ability to range across disciplines in a way that I find conversationally very exciting, but I also felt like I didn’t want to write about someone where the possibilities of her life worked out exactly the way she thought they would because I think most of us are in that situation. Many of us are not doing exactly what we thought. We live in a country where you may have to make a job, choose a job completely on the basis of whether you can get health insurance. If there’s a thread in Dept. about artistic persistence and ultimately, I wouldn’t say triumph, but staying the course with that, I was also interested in what its like not to do that, there are many compensatory things that can fill in. With her, it’s been that she’s very close to the people around her. But when she starts working for Sylvia, her former mentor who has this podcast Hell and High Water, which is basically a doomer podcast, she starts answering the questions and they become her subjects of inquiry too and then the question of “what does it mean to walk through this world? Am I looking away from half the things I see?”
DN: Her taking the job of answering the listener responses from her former mentor’s climate-apocalypse podcast juxtaposed with her concerns about her recovering addict brother who’s also a single dad who is freaking out about raising his child, feels like another juxtaposition of scale, large and small. Perhaps it’s a way we can worry about these giant questions that the listeners present to her from the podcast but embodied in the life of a brother who’s struggling moment-to-moment to raise his kid.
JO: I think when we were talking earlier about what’s the difficulty of writing about climate, it is the lack of embodiment. I think that her brother is not only an addict who’s in recovery but he’s also someone who, since an early age, has been plagued by anxiety and OCD-intrusive thoughts that go over and over again. I was interested also in scale with that because the thoughts he has are like repetitive images that he himself will hurt his child which is a thing that actually does happen, sometimes like postpartum OCD. The treatment for it is stunning which is that you have to write out all of the terrible things that you think you will do in detail and then you have to sometimes listen to them over and over on a tape as you walk around.
DN: Wow. [laughs]
JO: If anything, I think I made that plot point a little too faint because I was worried about overloading the novel with too much darkness, but it’s incredibly dark and there are moments where Lizzie is helping him with these things. There’s also this, of course, the first time I ever heard about this therapy, I thought, “What if someone finds the notebook that you wrote? What if someone hears that tape? You can be taken off to prison immediately.” He has these things that he has to write down about scalding the baby or dropping the baby off a high height. I felt as I was writing it that it was this very particular version of the intrusive thoughts I think many of us have now, everything from what’s going to happen with the next election, is there some tripwire to know when we should get out, to my child is talking about one day when she’s a mother and maybe we’re one of the first generations who the thought of having a grandchild is incredibly mixed in melancholy because we can’t imagine what that would be like. I imagine, “How could I be helpful? I wouldn’t know anything about that world, nothing that was from my world would be helpful to a grandchild. That was, in a weird way, the impulse for the novel too, I thought there are all these people materially prepping, and that’s a rabbit hole that I went down for a little bit, but mostly, I just wanted to learn to emotionally prep and spiritually prep. That felt like something that I could put in a book or tell a loved one.
DN: You mentioned not wanting to go too dark and I’m guessing most of the listeners have read you before but for anybody who hasn’t, if this is their first encounter with you, those listening to the podcast, they might think your work is really somber and sober and maybe it’s like medicine that’s good for you. But the encounter with both of your books is often one paradoxically of delight, the surprise associations, the pleasure of recognition, a lot of off-color humor. I was thinking maybe this would be just a good place to hear the opening of Weather.
DN: Before we talk more about the darkness, people can just hear the language.
JO: [laughs] One of my all-time writing heroes is Denis Johnson and I think that the way that Jesus’ Son is incredibly funny and incredibly dark at the same time, that’s always been a model for me. I’ll start with the epigraph which is from a history of the Puritans I came across.
NOTES FROM A TOWN MEETING IN MILFORD, CONNECTICUT, 1640
Voted, that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; voted, that the earth is given to the Saints; voted that we are the Saints.
In the morning, the one who is mostly enlightened comes in. There are stages and she is in the second to last, she thinks. This stage can be described only by a Japanese word. Bucket of black paint, it means.
I spend some time pulling books for the doomed adjunct. He has been working on his dissertation for eleven years. I give him reams of copy paper. Binder clips and pens. He is writing about a philosopher I have never heard of. He is minor, but instrumental, he told me. Minor but instrumental!
But last night, his wife put a piece of paper on the fridge. Is what you’re doing right now making money? it said.
The man in the shabby suit does not want his fines lowered. He is pleased to contribute to our library. The blond girl whose nails are bitten to the quick stops by after lunch and leaves with a purse full of toilet paper.
I brave a theory about vaccinations and another about late capitalism. “Do you ever wish you were thirty again?” asks the lonely heart engineer. No, never, I say. I tell him that old joke about going backward.
We don’t serve time travelers here.
A time traveler walks into the bar.
On the way home, I pass the lady who sells whirling things. Sometimes when the students are really stoned, they’ll buy them. No takers today, she says. I pick out one for my son Eli. It’s blue and white, but blurs to blue in the wind. Don’t forget quarters, I remember.
At the bodega, Mohan gives me a roll of them. I admire his new cat, but he tells me it just wandered in. He will keep it though because his wife no longer loves him.
“I wish you were a real shrink,” my husband says. “Then we’d be rich.”
My brother’s late. And this after I took the car service so I wouldn’t be. When I finally spot him, he’s drenched. No coat, no umbrella. He stops at the corner, gives change to the woman in the trash bag poncho.
My brother told me once that he missed drugs because they made the world stop calling to him. Fair enough, I said. We were at the supermarket. All around us things tried to announce their true nature. But their radiance was faint and fainter still beneath the terrible music.
I try to get him warmed up quickly. He looks good, I think. Clear-eyed. The waitress flirts with him. People used to stop my mother on the street. What a waste, they’d say. Eyelashes like that on a boy!
So now we have extra bread. I eat three pieces while my brother tells me a story about his Narcotics Anonymous meeting. A woman stood up and started ranting about anti-depressants. What upset her most was that people were not disposing of them properly. They tested worms in the city sewers and found they contained high concentrations of Paxil and Prozac.
When birds ate these worms, they stayed closer to home, made more elaborate nests, but appeared unmotivated to mate. “But were they happier?” I ask him. “Did they get more done in a given day?”
The window in our bedroom is open. You can see the moon if you lean out and crane your neck. The Greeks thought it was the only heavenly object similar to earth. Plants and animals fifteen times stronger than our own inhabited it.
My son comes in to show me something. It looks like a pack of gum, but it’s really a trick. When you try to take a piece, a metal spring snaps down on your finger. “It hurts more than you think,” he warns me.
I tell him to look out the window. “That’s a waxing crescent,” he says. He knows as much now about the moon as he ever will, I suspect. At his old school, they taught him a song to remember all its phases. Sometimes he’ll sing it for us at supper, but only if we do not request it.
The moon will be fine, I think. No one’s worrying about the moon.
DN: Taking this question of scale into the mechanics of writing itself, this book and Dept. of Speculation are both fragmentary, modular, with standalone paragraphs with white space on either side. With regards to scale, Hannah Rosefield and The White Review asked you if you write big and then pare down. You say that you never write big.
JO: If only. [laughs]
DN: [laughs] Because you’re not starting big and then paring down to these paragraphs, talk to us about what you do.
JO: The only part I write big is I take a lot of long, long notes but when I’m writing the individual parts, it’s more about listening for the rhythm of the sentences to be right. I want my sentences to not be placeholder sentences or sentences that are just meant to get you from one place to the next. Often, trying to make them have a surface meaning, I want it to be like ice that you can skate across, so that if you’re interested in the story itself, you can skate along on that. But I also want it to, if you chose to reread it, reward you with other things going on beneath it. I spent a lot of time with that and then I spent a lot of time really very much on the question of scale and also on the question of tone because it’s like the Pixies documentary, loudQUIETloud, I often feel like that’s what I’m thinking. I feel, “Okay, this has this emotional pitch. We’ve had a little bit of that but the songs I really like have those quiet parts and then suddenly, it’s really loud and aggressive.” I try to think of scale too, in terms of that, in terms of emotional movement. Most often with this character, it’s with a joke that she undercuts things and it’s very deadpan usually. But other times, she’s in a very daily moment but she’s remembering something about the Greeks. I remember coming across that fact and just thinking, because that’s the way a lot of that ancient Greek philosophy is, that it’s fascinating in how precise it is about things where there’s no way anyone could know. I loved the fact that it said that they were 15 times stronger, not just stronger, but exactly that much. The plants too and everyone. The animals and the plants on the moon, these big bruisers, that if we went up there, would take us down.
DN: When you say you’re spending a lot of time trying to get the sentences to sound right, I make this possibly false assumption about the period of years when you were stuck on your second novel, one that was going to be more traditionally told. Before you wrote Dept. of Speculation, for years, you were working on another book and then in order to reboot when you abandoned your traditionally told novel, you wrote poetry for a year.
JO: [laughs] Yeah.
DN: Is that connected, in some way, to this honing of a sensibility around how the sentences sound?
JO: I think so. It will never see the light of day but I did it to remember, almost to just get a shot in the arm of language and what it can do. Actually, two little bits of poetry from those years, there’s one section that is a complete poem in Dept., it’s about ether, this was actually one, the only thing that made it from that period. I have a friend who’s a very good poet. He said, “Okay, that’s a great idea, you should write those,” and I said, “Should I send them to you?” He said, “Send them to me, I’m not going to open them for a year.”
JO: That was great.
JO: That was so useful. Can I read that?
DN: Yeah. This is a poem within Dept. of Speculation?
JO: This was one of the poems I wrote in the years. This is the only one that made it in. It’s the beginning of Chapter 39.
“Once ether was everywhere. The crook of an arm, say. (Also the heavens.) It slowed the movement of the stars, told the left hand where the right hand went. Then it was gone, like hysteria, like the hollow earth. The news came over the radio. There is only air now. Abandon your experiments.”
That’s something that happens after the narrator of that novel discovers that her husband is having an affair. I’ve always been fascinated with ether. I love to read old science books and the idea of ether was something that everyone believed, including the best minds of the day, they’re just all set like, “Whatever else is not true, we know that there’s ether that holds everything together.” Now, we have dark matter that we don’t understand that holds things together. Once I got really drunk with some friends and we started talking about dark matter many years ago, I was like, “Oh, my God, I know a physicist. Look, we could call him. Call him, call him.” So we called up this guy I knew who works at the SLAC, the Stanford Linear Accelerator and it was very charming because he’s a scientist. Instead of being like, “Why are you calling me?” he just happily wanted to talk about dark matter. [laughs] But I’m always wishing I had more people I could get on the phone when I have these questions, instead, I tend to dive deep into the old books and the research of it.
DN: Even though you don’t pare down large volumes of prose to these taut paragraphs, you do aspire to what you’ve called a pared-down language and you’ve talked about Italo Calvino’s idea of the subtraction of weight. I was hoping maybe you’d share that concept and what subtraction of weight means to you with regards to writing.
JO: Yeah. When I first came across that phrase, it was just one of those moments of recognition where you think, “Oh, yes, I couldn’t have said it that well but that’s what I think.” For me, it’s about seeing how to make something more elemental or essential. Also, for me, it’s about being brave as a writer. It’s funny because I always do sort of know everything that would be in the white spaces but I like the idea, in a lot of the novels I like to read, that there’s a moment where the reader has a space to think. One of the reasons I don’t like a lot of covers for fiction novels is they’re too representative. I would rather not, in any way, imagine what a character looks like or I’d like that to just be something that floats up when you’re reading. I think that as the novel goes on, I have more and more ideas that have to do with character and more and more ideas that have to do with how things go together but I’m still just fundamentally pretty interested in the sentence. I just bought to read, The Complete Gary Lutz, I love to read that kind of thing. One of the reasons I didn’t keep writing poetry is that I realized it’s taken me this many years of writing to have even a partial understanding of what a sentence can do. I don’t understand what a line can do at all. It’s really fun to do that but I’m probably going to save that for when I have 20 years to work on it. [laughs]
DN: For my last guest Lance Olsen, I was doing research for that conversation and I picked up a book called Collage in Twenty-First-Century Literature in English: Art of Crisis which has a chapter on him, but I was also happy to discover another chapter where Dept. of Speculation and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets were discussed together.
JO: This is the Polish academic? He just sent me this book.
DN: Oh, he did? With Lance, we talked about the political implications of the form of collage, because his book takes place in Weimar Republic Germany and that’s when collage was put to political ends by the Dadaists and there’s also the implications of collage being egalitarian and anti-hierarchical in nature. But I wondered for you if using collage, using associative movements as well as narrative movements between these standalone paragraphs if it had any philosophical or aesthetic underpinnings, if it’s meant to mirror something the way it’s mirroring something for him?
JO: Yes. Absolutely. First, I share his idea that there’s something interesting in it being egalitarian, that by creating paragraphs that don’t have indentations and that look, more or less, the same as other paragraphs with the white space around them, I think it’s interesting not to tip-off to the reader, “Oh, this is a very important moment versus this moment,” because with Dept. I had a little constraint that I made for myself at one point to try to get the weaving of things back and forth to work. Whenever she’s somewhere domestic and doing a clearly domestic task, that’s when the philosophical would come in and whenever she was completely just in that realm of ideas an actual moment of domesticity would occur. It was useful. I ended up not making it that schematic in the end but it was a useful way to shift scale. I think that the other reason I’ve just always been interested in this idea is I grew up with my parents, at first, lackadaisical Episcopalians, but then also going through a phase where they became very, very involved in churches where we’d have to go to church for hours and hours and hours. Now, they come out on the other side in the middle. But what I remember about all those years in church is that I really liked the parts that were the teachings, actually, of Jesus because they are always reversing things, they’re always saying the meek will inherit the earth. I’m interested in every mystic tradition when they flip and they say this thing that you think is important is trivial, or this thing that you think is mundane is sublime. I’m always trying to figure out where that is, and this form feels like it allows the reader to participate in that mystic underpinning.
DN: You have this ritual that you’ve done long term called Library Roulette. I wondered if that was, in any way, related to this collage process. Share with us a little bit about what it is and whether it is related.
JO: Sure. It just means that I go to a library, it’s often a library at some school where they haven’t taken the books out for many years so that it has a range of things. Then the only criteria is really that I’m not allowed, by myself, to go into fiction or poetry. I can’t go into any of the areas that I already know a lot about what I’m looking at. Then I wander around really anything and then I pick out books that look interesting to me, I flip through them, and I see if anything catches my eye. They’re often written in dense academic prose so it’s interesting because when something does come out, it shines in a way that I think is interesting. When that happens, I write it down or I read the whole book depending on how interesting it is to me at the moment. I also use Oblique Strategy cards, the Brian Eno cards. I do feel like it’s very easy, when you’re working on a project for a lot of years, to have your ideas calcify and anything that will make me think about it differently is for, at least, three-quarters of the book, something I’m trying to do, I’m trying to shake up my own ideas about what the book is in the hopes that it will become something better. Flannery O’Connor said that if a writer is any good, they touch on something that is beyond themselves, something that they don’t necessarily even understand. That’s why it can be just as surprising for the writer as for the reader. It is like a mystical pursuit because I’m hoping for a moment of revelation however small.
DN: When I was trying to think of possible meanings of the collage as a form for you, if the form, as Lance Olsen would say, has a philosophy, when I think about your last two books with all these fragments, that Polish academic who wrote the chapter on you says that Dept. of Speculation had 46 chapters made of over 800 fragments—apparently, he might have counted them—but these fragments are jokes, scientific facts, proverbs, quotations, self-help advice. You could say they’re juxtaposed alongside the story of the character but they also are the story at the same time. One thing that came to mind for me was that it mimics living in the world of social media but even more I was thinking about how all three of your books are dealing with motherhood and wondering whether collage was a particularly good way to capture the fragmentary nature or the way that interruption and interjection gets then incorporated into one’s own thought in, at least, the early days of being a parent.
JO: I think that’s true. I just did an event in San Francisco with my first editor, Ethan, who did Last Things and he brought that up, he said, “I remember when you switched to doing that style and you said, ‘I only have these little bits of time to write and I’m just writing in these fragments, I don’t know what’s going to happen with it.’” I’d forgotten that it had been that circumstance based. But I felt freer with that style, I felt like it was closer to the way I thought. I felt like it had its own dangers writing in that style but I did feel at home with it. Before I had a child, I used to write in these long stretches—really not write at all—maybe collect things and it was all about jobs and working various jobs and then eventually, quitting a couple of these service jobs and going away for a week or trying to just immerse myself for a while so that I could think again. But each time I broke away from the book, I would think when I went back, “I have no idea what this is anymore. It doesn’t seem interesting to me.” It would take a while to find my way back in. I think that I’m always just interested in using a form that is useful to add to the emotional dimensions of the novel. I didn’t go into Dept. of Speculation thinking they’re not going to have names at a certain point but at a certain point, for exactly the reason you were saying before where I was like, “Ah, such a cliche, these are novels about affairs.” I thought about how when I’m in moments that feel cliche to me as a writer that I do often spin out above myself and narrate them. I realized, “Oh, okay, that’s actually how it’s going to need to be there.” With Weather, I just really wanted to see if there was a way to make the prose eddy. One of the things with her brother with the anxiety and OCD that he has, is that he loops, he goes back around and around. At one point, he gets this idea that he sold his soul to the devil when he was younger and they have a very looping conversation about it where he keeps going, “But what if I did? But what if I did?” I was trying to have a form that would loop in the same way as the characters’ thoughts and I also felt like often, when we’re coming into more knowledge about something, we learn and then we go back to the way we used to think and then we maybe go a little bit forward again.
DN: I wanted to bring up the term that you invented in Dept. of Speculation, which has entered the lexicon at large, “art monster” because I felt like the origin story of the art monster felt like one imagined bridge I had between your two books. This is a question, not necessarily of motherhood, but of being a woman and being an artist and what that looks like when one becomes a mother at the same time in our culture. Tell us about the Andy Goldsworthy moment. Then afterwards I had some thoughts about your experience with that moment in connection with Weather.
JO: I’m going to have to go back and watch this documentary because I later found out that, you get these ideas about things and then you find out more information, his wife was an artist too. But I saw Rivers and Tides— my household are big Andy Goldsworthy fans so we’d seen books and various things of his land-based art—but what struck me in this movie was that he was sitting very calmly talking about the philosophy behind the art he did. In the background, his children would dart in and out and you would see his wife sometimes usher one of them away. None of it even seemed to register to him because he was talking about the art that meant the most to him—and I paired that with that idea of being impervious to the outside world, I paired that with the stories that we also hear of William Faulkner and what he was like, or various people like that—that concern or wonder I had as a young writer, it’s like how relentless do you have to be to be able to become this thing? How much do you have to cut out? “How little of yourself do you have to give to other things?” is how I put it. The art monster thing did take on a little bit of a life of its own. Then there became debates about being an art monster which I thought were strange just because it’s just a thought that she had about it, she wasn’t proposing that one should or shouldn’t be one. It was mostly that she, herself had ideas about this.
DN: Goldsworthy is centered in the frame, he’s in the foreground, he can be impervious, partly, because of his gender in this society. You were talking about how Lizzie is, on the contrary, porous, the very opposite of impervious. It does feel like, in a weird way, Weather is the reverse of that image of Goldsworthy. There are men in Weather and they’re good guys, it’s not like they’re villainous but we’re in the mind of Lizzie, the porous librarian mother. It feels like she is the one in the story who’s not just mainly trying to grapple with the day-to-day, she’s the main one who’s grappling with the day-to-day, not just her own, but her brother’s fears, but she’s also the main person who’s grappling with this large-scale issue, the climate, the others are in more denial around this than she is.
JO: It’s no accident that her mentor, Sylvia, is childless and that she devotes her time to this completely and can do so in a more pure way than Lizzie ends up feeling she can. I think you’ve hit on something, it did occur to me that in some ways, Weather is like the character in Dept. if you just took the art monster out and took out that ambition that has a very direct point that it’s trying to get to. I think that in many ways, this character is just very close to what I’m like. It’s a surprise to me; because it takes a long time to write my books, I’m amazed that I stayed doing it because I don’t think of myself as someone who’s very disciplined or really even very habitual. But I did feel like there have been many points in my life where any part of thinking about making art was completely obliterated by the immediate needs of people around me. It actually did seem, for me, inhuman to be like, “I’m sorry. No, I have to go to my room and think some thoughts about 17th-century science.” [laughs]
DN: One of the first impulses of writing Weather was to create a survival manual for your daughter. Can you talk more about that?
JO: Yeah. For a long time, I had the idea that it literally was going to contain our survival manual, that you could even take out—I don’t know how I imagined it—on the run with your go-bag. I worked on that so long and it just was one of those things that I will often wrestle with a formal idea for a really long time thinking that I just need to figure it out. But I finally realized that the reason I couldn’t figure it out was that I no longer believe that’s exactly what the book should be. To go back to the idea of the subtraction of weight, it felt like it would capsize the boat of the book whenever I put it in. As I got farther and farther into the novel, every once in a while, especially in LA as it happens, people would ask me, “Oh, what’s the book about? Tell us what it’s about.” I don’t ever have a good answer for any of the books, they all sound terrible when I tried it but I thought for a little while, “Oh, I’ve got a good answer for this one. I’ll say it’s about a librarian who becomes a climate change doomer.” But that started to feel complicated to me because she doesn’t really end up a doomer. If anything, she ends up thinking that she has to find the others and join with them and that this silo of dread is part of the problem where she can read and read and read about things being meshed or interconnected, but as long as she’s still thinking of it as an individual, she doesn’t go forward.
DN: I would love to have you read another short section, if you don’t mind, that has some of this climate advice or prepperism in it.
“I’ve been hanging out too much at my old bar while everyone’s away. It’s fun to talk to people who don’t know anything about me. And I spend a lot of time eavesdropping too.
It is important to be on the alert for “the decisive moment,” says the man next to me who is talking to his date. I agree. The only difference is that he is talking about twentieth-century photography and I am talking about twenty-first-century everything.
Then one day, the guy I have a crush on comes in. His name is Will. Turns out he’s some journalist recently back from Syria. He has an odd-side gig, taking kids out for wilderness trips. No set line between lost and not lost, he tells me, and I write this down on a napkin.
Then somehow, it’s four drinks later and I’m telling him about the coming chaos. “What are you afraid of?” he asked me. And the answer, of course, is dentistry, humiliation, scarcity. Then he says, “What are your most useful skills?” “People think I’m funny, I know how to tell a story in a brisk winning way, I try not to go on too much about my discarded ambitions or how I hate hippies and the rich.”
“But in terms of skills,” he says. And I tell him, “I know a few poems by heart. I recently learned how to make a long burning candle out of a can of tuna, oil pack not water. I’ve learned how to recognize a black walnut tree and that you can live on the inner bark of a birch tree if need be. I know it’s important to carry chewing gum at all times for post-collapse morale.
And also, because it suppresses the appetite and you can supposedly fish with it but only if it is a bright color and has sugar, only then will a fish investigate and somehow get hooked at the end of the fishing pole. I have fashioned with a sharpened paper clip and a string and a stick. If you need to, you can use wet tobacco over a wound. Red ants can be eaten (they have a lemony taste); the Mormons ate lily bulbs, a famine food; Malcolm X said his mother would make soup out of dandelions when there wasn’t enough to eat. If you don’t have enough water, don’t eat, keep your mouth closed, conserve your energy. You can last three hours without shelter, three days without water, three weeks without food, three months without hope, but don’t drink your own urine—that is a myth—and don’t eat snow—you have to melt it first. If you have a toothache you can put crushed aspirin on it. All you need to make toothpaste is baking soda, peppermint oil, and water. You can chew on a stick until it splinters into a toothbrush…
He keeps touching my arm, this guy. Sometimes your heart runs away with someone and all it takes is a bandanna on a stick.
When I come home, my brother is playing video games. I look at the list of prepper acronyms I printed out this morning.
GOOD = Get Out of Dodge
DTA = Don’t Trust Anyone
FUD = Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt
BSTS = Better Safe Than Sorry
WROL Without Rule of Law
YOYO = You’re on Your Own
INCH = I’m Never Coming Home
DN: I was curious if when you were doing research and uncovered all this information from the world of preppers, did you also come across the ways in which the incredibly wealthy are preparing for the apocalypse?
JO: Yeah. I sure did. Then I was telling everyone for a while, “They’re all going to New Zealand,” then I kept trying to find more evidence about this because I’d found it in some very deep dive, into some [hedge fund] people’s retreat before I’d seen that it was a secret handshake but then someone did a really deep dive article about it in The New Yorker. It was funny because I felt like when I’d been telling people that, I had sounded crazy and I’ve never been more pleased to see that I was right [laughs] but I did take some of it out because I thought, “Oh, it’s already out in the world now as a nonfiction piece.”
DN: The bolt-hole homes in New Zealand, presumably, because it’s going to be one of the more livable climates?
JO: Yes. I think that even if it’s not an acknowledged thing by these extraordinarily wealthy people that are doing this, I think they’re also picking New Zealand because they’re afraid to live in a society that isn’t white middle-class and up for much of the population. I think that’s also what’s underlying a lot of this move towards us versus them lifeboat ethics, I think it partly is because of climate change, this rise that’s happening throughout the world of fascist-leaning politicians.
DN: You teach a class on or have taught a class on unhinged narrators and I was wanting to hear what attracts you to an unhinged narrator or what it affords you as a writer and maybe if you have any favorite unhinged narrators too?
JO: I think I came up with that idea for class because I was thinking at the time about how habit or how being someone who’s not standing at the edge of things means that it’s harder to see. I think the moments in my life that I felt most like an outsider were also moments where my perceptions were, perhaps, sharpest. That may be an actual evolutionary survival thing. When you’re cut off from your group, you may have to be more aware of what’s happening around you. I started thinking about what would be a name for that, and unhinged, we usually use for mad narrators and there are a few of those that I teach. But I also meant unmoored, I meant that you’re not so tethered to what’s going on. There’s a couple of writers that almost always end up in there like Jean Rhys with her wanderers, I often teach Good Morning, Midnight. Sometimes I teach The Rings of Saturn or The Emigrants, but I think of them as these walking-around novels. I teach Lolita which I think is fully unhinged and I teach Jesus’ Son a lot where the outsiderness comes also from doing something that people often revalue for and for this shame that an addict often feels about the life they’re ending up with. It’s a lot of fun. I tend to change it whenever I teach it, I tend to put new things into it but it’s proven to be a sturdy umbrella.
DN: I wanted to segue from this question of unhinged narrators to the question of an unhinged writer in the sense of just wondering if there was any psychic toll from going down this rabbit hole. Because when I think about Lizzie’s husband, Ben, he’s worried that Lizzie is becoming a crazy doomer and you tell Parul and the New York Times profile that for two years, you were the person who ruined the dinner party.
DN: But then when I was going through a lot of the stuff that you’ve talked about outside of the book, in your essay for Greenpeace, you talk about the environmentalist, Paul Gilding, who’s a lecturer on sustainability but he confesses that when he’s at conferences with other scientists that at night, at the bar, their conversations get extremely dark. You’ve also mentioned Paul Kingsnorth, the environmentalist who walked away, who formed an organization called Dark Mountain—I’m just going to read the beginning of The Dark Mountain Manifesto as part of this question and then loop back to the question, but it says:
“Those who witness extreme social collapse at first hand seldom describe any deep revelation about the truths of human existence. What they do mention, if asked, is their surprise at how easy it is to die.
The pattern of ordinary life, in which so much stays the same from one day to the next, disguises the fragility of its fabric. How many of our activities are made possible by the impression of stability that pattern gives? So long as it repeats, or varies steadily enough, we are able to plan for tomorrow as if all the things we rely on and don’t think about too carefully will still be there. When the pattern is broken, by civil war or natural disaster or the smaller-scale tragedies that tear at its fabric, many of those activities become impossible or meaningless, while simply meeting needs we once took for granted may occupy much of our lives.
What war correspondents and relief workers report is not only the fragility of the fabric, but the speed with which it can unravel. As we write this, no one can say with certainty where the unravelling of the financial and commercial fabric of our economies will end.”
I think about this quote and when I think about how an early draft of Weather was titled Learning to Die, it made me wonder about the psychic toll of researching this, how you prevented yourself from becoming unhinged, or how you failed to prevent yourself from becoming unhinged as you researched and wrote Weather in this regard.
JO: I think I did become unhinged for a while by it. Those two quotes that you read, the Paul Gilding quote, I don’t know if it’s there but it says something that’s very particular about how, in the after-hours, that the conversation would turn, it says something like “to mass starvation”. One of the things that people say to me a lot is, “People have always been afraid of the end of the world. This is no different.” But it really is different that it’s the scientists because it is not good as a scientist to be known as someone that is seen as overreacting or, in any way, being hysterical, activist, or anything. These are all things that often go against the scientific under-written code. I found that chilling. I found this really early on. It’s part of what made me start digging. At a certain point, I asked a friend of mine who is an environmentalist, I asked her husband who’s been working in this field for a long time and I said, “What do you think about the whole thing when Paul Kingsnorth walked away?” He said, “He was like a priest who no longer believes in God.” I was incredibly surprised when my friend who works for the Center for Biodiversity just said, there was no lead-in, he didn’t ask me any more questions, he was like, “Oh, yeah, a lot of us felt that way.” He said, “I don’t think he should have done that as this is someone who works day and night on endangered species.” Kieran just said, “Oh, yeah, a lot of people thought that way.” I said, “Since when?” He said, “Oh, since Copenhagen.” I was like, “God, that was years ago.” Then I was wondering because we, at the time, all had small children and I wanted to, I don’t know what the point of seeking like insider knowledge, I said, “But what do you think about what’s going to happen? They’re so little.” He said, “It would be good if they had some skills.” For a long time, this section that I ultimately didn’t put in was called Some Skills and that was the pull-out survivalist thing.
DN: To return to this question of partial denial or twilight knowing, are you really unhinged if you’re the terrible person at the party when everybody’s going through their daily activities? Because I think about it, for instance, in the northwest, there are people on trial right now where all they did was close the valves on oil pipelines, they didn’t do property destruction, they didn’t harm anybody, are they unhinged?
JO: That’s a really good point because I do feel like there were a couple of early reviews of Weather that gave me pause because the part where it would be described as paranoia, I was thinking, “That’s really strange though.” It’s strange to say it’s paranoia. I did get a really interesting overview of the different kinds of denial that are left to have among people who absolutely are like, “Yes, climate change is real.” It’s really the denial of it as an actual emergency. Even sometimes the hedges that people will say when they’ll talk to me about it, about the book, they’ll say, “Possibly we’ll no longer live life as we know it.” I was like, “That’s not possibly, it’s a matter of when.” But I’m not a collapsitarian.
DN: Is that a real word?
JO: Yeah. [laughs] I don’t feel like we’re near human extinction although we’re certainly causing many other creatures to go extinct. The unhinged part was the unmoored part. It felt very strange to suddenly be very nervous about everything I did and thought about and that’s encapsulated in the book with the “Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters? Old person worry: What if everything I do does?” I felt my own process of wondering what it meant to know these things and also not to know them. Occasionally, a friend would be like, “What have you learned?” I had friends, of course, who were way ahead of me, who also knew this. Much of this book is from 10 years of conversations with the novelist, Lydia Millet who did work on these issues for 30 years but it was unmooring in that way, I felt more unmoored than unhinged.
DN: Since we’re here, just to go darker for a moment.
JO: Go for it.
DN: [laughs] It would be remiss to not mention that Weather also is dealing with the 2016 election and you had some deliberations around Weather and how to include the election. Talk to us about why it was important to include the election. You certainly have enough narratively, you could have purely, from a narrative perspective, said “climate change is enough. Maybe this would tip the boat.”
JO: I did think about that a lot. Yes, it was already, at that point, several years into the novel. The reason I decided to include the election was that I felt like otherwise, the book was going to be frozen in amber and also questions of complicity which is one of the things that Lizzie is really wrestling with. I just felt like the level of questions that I had about complicity after the election, it was something I thought about constantly.” I was very interested in reading about the period right before World War II when people, that twilight knowing of knowing this and knowing that, and also the desire to not know. I just felt like I had to go towards it. I did think it was going to mean that the book was going to suck. [laughs]
JO: I was pretty sure it was going to ruin the book. It did for a little while because, as we all know, there was that just non-stop constant outrages, constant breaking down of norms. When we all discovered that our government is based on a gentleman’s handshake, it was very disturbing to learn that like, “Oh, press conferences? Don’t have to have them,” that kind of thing. What I finally ended up doing was I was just trying to fold it into the bigger question of complicity but I also thought it was a chance to bring in—because Lizzie has this antenna around listening to the distress calls of those around her, what often happens is that whoever’s loudest is who she hears. Her husband is a fairly even-tempered person so his distress does not often register for her but after the election, he’s very agitated. I wanted to also bring him in and I did see that a lot of people who, in general, did not talk this way said things about getting a gun, looking up citizenship here, or underground my book club, we were all thinking like, “Okay, what was the abortion network in the seventies that people figured out?” Everyone was just talking that way and then it receded a little bit except in activist circles. But it didn’t recede for me as I was writing it. In some ways, writing the novel was a way to be accountable to myself.
DN: Thinking about this question of complicity if you were to choose to not include the election in the book and then looping back to this thing that you pointed out about these compounds that the rich are building in New Zealand and how they are not just because New Zealand might suffer less from climate change, which it probably will, but also because people want to stay within a certain type of white space, you did this really interesting thing with whiteness in the book and it reminded me of Leni Zumas and what she did in Red Clocks. You both regularly bring up in passing that your characters are white. Whiteness becomes visible as an identity with very few words but it feels like the effect is large, at least, for me. I was curious if you could talk about that or if that’s something that you’re aware of when you’re writing.
JO: I was aware of it. I thought that because the school that her son goes to, there are very few people identified as white in that school and I do think that she is recognizing the feeling of being white. I know a lot of people have done the various identity diversity trainings and one of the things they do is they make you have a circle where you write your different ways that you identify. It’s an extremely rare person of color that doesn’t identify as being that, they say in the diversity trainings, but all sorts of white people, no matter how liberal they are, just leave that right off the chart because it’s like a fish not noticing water. Actually, the character that is her boss at the library is black, I don’t know if that’s ever said, I just felt like there was an interesting discourse that went on after the election between some of my friends who are white and some friends who are not. It was about whether or not they were surprised and it was also about a failure to accept or believe in any reassuring talk. They almost always knew right away how bad it was going to be, sometimes before the elections, sometimes right afterwards. I wanted to include also people who’ve been working on any issue for a long time, whether it was prison reform, whether it was environment, they all new right away like we’re just about to have our work just destroyed. There’s a lot about class in the book too because they’re getting by, but if they lose her health insurance, they will be more or less like her mother, there’s no family money or anything that would come through I guess. I wanted to write about that too because sometimes, there’s a feeling like when her mother wants to move to New York, there isn’t even any way that it could be done, she just can’t figure out how to do it. When she hears her mother is driving around, giving out socks to people who are living on the streets, one of the things she thinks, which is one of the things you think if you have extended family in these circumstances, is “Oh, she’s going to put 20 miles on her car though, is her car going to make it?” I thought about whiteness, middle-classness, and also how middle-classness is really precarious these days as everything is.
DN: I wondered about that in terms of centering this book around the librarian. Obviously, there’s the benefit you have of somebody who’s bookish, someone who has access to tons of book resources so they could naturally be looking things up and then filtering that through her consciousness and voice, but I also was wondering about the precariousness of the public commons, a commons which has been shrinking for decades but is obviously shrinking at a much faster rate now under Trump. Is the library, in a way, a counterpoint to that?
JO: I absolutely believe it is. I feel sometimes, it’s one of the few places I can go where I feel heartened by what I observe in a place where people are sharing space. Lizzie is not an official librarian, she’s basically the library worker because she doesn’t have a degree but one of the things that is just going on in all our libraries—small town and big—is that as the other social net is just shredded, librarians are doing more and more. I think that whenever I’m in libraries, I see that some of the questions are about books people want, but other questions are about not understanding how to register to vote, help with looking for a job. I sometimes spend time, when I’m between things, I sometimes go to the Midtown Manhattan Business Library and it is fascinating to be there because as long as you don’t sleep, you can be there. There are occasional moments where somebody nods off either from exhaustion or because of some drug they’re taking and then the people who have to come over, very gently wake them, and resettle them, it’s very much a social work job and I just think to myself, in a country where they make the seats so that you can’t lie comfortably if you don’t have a home and they make spikes on fences so birds can’t land, all these things, it’s like any place where people just recognize the humanity of the people around them. More than once, I’ve actually just had tears come to my eyes from watching the way a librarian, or someone who works in a library, works with someone who’s mentally ill, sometimes, kids are dropped off there after school by overwhelmed parents. It’s not really what the library is meant to be, so it can be a tricky situation. But I really see a lot of quiet heroics in those places.
DN: I don’t know if you thought about this and I know it’s a very nonliterary question, but I wondered about how to write a book that would prompt a reader into action. Because one of the inviting things about this book is that you approach the apocalypse in an approachable way. It’s happening obliquely and we’re living it. It’s not a cautionary tale of the future, it’s recognizable. We’re in it right now and it’s the everyday living drama or lack thereof being there. Parul Sehgal says it better than me, she said, “Offill doesn’t write about the climate crisis but from deep within it. She does not paint pictures of apocalyptic scenarios; she charts internal cartographies.” But I also wondered if there was a challenge in portraying it as every day in terms of getting people sparked into action. I’m going to read another thing from Leslie Jamison which I thought was really smart too.
“Weather understands that we can still be in love with what happens on a dying planet, and that life is always many things at once—full of love, full of despair, full of slobber frogs and melting glaciers and babies who won’t nap; that what happens on one scale doesn’t negate the others. But democratizing these scales can also become an alibi for complacency—for allowing us to shift back into the daily, the private, the emotional, as crutch or buffer. Weather suggests the comfort and peril of that retreat by narrating the life of a woman for whom retreat is becoming impossible.”
It feels, from what I’ve read, like retreat has become impossible, not just for Lizzie, but also for you. You’ve said that you would never want to read a book about a Brooklyn mother who can’t write her novel and is juggling life-work balance, that you find writing about the environment boring, not you writing about the environment but reading writing about the environment, and you’re not the type of person who would use phrases like interconnectedness or web of life naturally. Nevertheless, you’ve written two novels about these things, about the environment, about a Brooklyn mother who couldn’t write her novel. Similarly, you’ve said that you aren’t a joiner, not someone who would go to marches, who would be doing collective actions, and yet you are also now joining and marching. I was hoping you could talk to us a little bit about that.
JO: A little bit of clarification of some of those things, I would say that what I have been in the past is a reluctant marcher. I’ve still done those things but the part where in the middle of it, this is just a question I’m prone to also when I’m writing a book, it’s like the part where I’m worried that none of it matters or that it’s not the right mechanism, I don’t seem to have faith in it in the way that some of the people I know who are really powerful activists seem to understand how it works and why partial victories matter. That’s actually just something I’ve been actually really trying to educate myself about because it feels like an area of complete ignorance that I have and an area of received ideas that I need to examine more closely. But the other thing about writing about the environment being boring, I think that there’s a way in which the climate crisis is alternately terrifying one moment and boring the next, especially the language of it. The language is fitted very well for the sciences and social sciences and maybe less so for doing artwork with it. But I do think it’s the right language for what they’re doing. Interconnectedness and web of life, I think these are words that work just fine but they feel like they have that clunkiness to them that makes it hard to put it into a novel for me. But on the other hand the web of life led me to the idea of the mesh which is a similar idea and was a powerful idea for me. Sometimes, I feel like I have to go through the words that, to me, have become a little flattened out and just try to find out where they were originally, how to bring them back out. But in terms of my own life, I really felt, very much by the end of this novel, that I needed to figure out what I could do, when I could do it, and push myself.
DN: Even if you were a reluctant joiner or marcher, especially so, I think it’s important, actually, that you have said that you are reluctant, and even when you say “I would never want to read a book about a Brooklyn mother having trouble writing her novel” obviously, as a writer, you’re aware of the pitfalls of the way that’s been done in a very general way over and over again, and that awareness allows you to do it really differently, but this have an access point for you to say, “I’m doing this.” There’s no retreat as Leslie Jamison says. I think this notion of people who aren’t comfortable joining, chanting, marching, phone-banking, or turning off valves on oil pipelines, maybe all those things being on the table and us confessing that this isn’t a natural fit is part of getting more people to come to the table.
JO: It definitely was for me. At a certain point, I think it was in a meeting where they were talking about like, “What if we make pencils to go along with the book?” But one of the things I said was “activism for hypocrites” because I feel like it is always something that is used to shut down people who are trying to figure out their place. There are reasons why people who’ve been working on these issues for years are frustrated by those who wander in, it’s totally legitimate. But it does seem that at this point, the emergency is at such a high level. I’m part of Extinction Rebellion now and one of their slogans is “Everybody Now.” I do feel like if everyone can figure out who, what it is, from the place that they stand, that they can bear to do. For me, it was about, “Okay, learn how to be in a group in person with other people. Learn how to tolerate the complicatedness of that process.” But for other people, it’s going to be something completely different. Ultimately, it’s just very selfish. I don’t want to feel like I was a good German about this. It strikes me as our chance versus our solution.
DN: Right. You have this quote in your house from Kafka, “In the fight between you and the world, back the world.” I was hoping maybe we could end with talking about your website obligatorynoteofhope.com. You have three sections in this website that you’ve created on People of Conscience, or imagining the beloved community, Getting Involved, I’d like to hear more about that too, and then Tips for Trying Times. Tell us about this website in general. What prompted you to make this website?
JO: This was a little bit of a middle-of-the-night idea. It’s still a work in progress. We talked earlier about how I don’t have pages and pages of the story but I do have pages and pages of things I collected. One of the things I collected was stories of people of conscience because they made me realize that people have always been in these situations where they weren’t sure how to act. Of course, we hear the very heroic ones about people who save people but there’s a woman in Denmark who she noticed that she wanted to consume less but that thinks that her house kept breaking and there was nowhere to get them fixed. She also noticed there were a lot of older people who had those skills and she just started something called the Repair Cafe where people can come for free and get their thing repaired. Now, it’s all over the place. I thought to myself, “Some people are going to have the temperament where they can make what will essentially be an underground railroad depending where we are after the next election and some people are going to do things that are about making their community that they live in, a place where we can imagine what it would be like to live in this less precarious and less punishingly productive way.” I think that all of that’s really important. I like Extinction Rebellion because it makes these distinctions where it’s like Scientists 4 XR or the part I’m in is going to be Writers 4 XR but they also have a whole community of people who what they do for work is that they clean, they clean houses. That’s what we need, all of these different skills and abilities. The search for a silver bullet strikes me as another denial. I think there are a lot of these things. I made the website, I tried, at certain points, to put those things in the novel but they had a feeling in the novel where they were forced like there was a forced quality of like, “Don’t worry, there are hopeful things too.” So I just decided to make it—and formally, this was interesting to me—as just a jumping-off point. You don’t have to go, that’s why it’s a website, it’s after the whole book, there’s a whole nother page and then if you want to go, you can go. You can see the Tips for Trying Times which is where I collected things that I myself found beautiful or that built morale like chewing gum and then the three organizations I picked were the Sunrise Movement because I’ve been getting involved in climate work over the last few years. One of the things that’s incredibly clear to me is that we really need to look to the youth movements, not only are they much better at connecting with and understanding what indigenous groups have already been working on these issues, but they have new strategies, they’re just full of rage. It’s not abstract at all to them. It can be terrifying to be the old person in that room but that’s what youth is for to say, “Stop listening to these old ways, here are the new ways.” I feel like if you have a little money but no time, then you can donate to a movement like Sunrise and that’s really helpful. Then the second movement is called Transition Towns, and to me, I know I’m about to go home and join the one that’s across the river, it started in 2009 by this guy Rob Hopkins. It’s all these small scale initiatives that individual communities do so exactly what I was just talking about things like Repair Cafe or tool libraries. It’s just a nice work of imagining, “Okay, what might we want?” All that talk about sustainability, another one of those words that I think is heavy on the tongue, this is about human’s need and love community and we don’t have as robust forms of it as we used to. Transition Towns, which started in England and now are also all over the world, I think, are a pretty cool way into that local organizing.
DN: Given that it’s obvious that you’ve gone on a journey having written this book and you’re in a different place as a person, do you have any inklings of how that’s going to change your writing going forward or any ways that might change your next project?
JO: I don’t know yet, I guess. I hope so. I always want each book to go into some area that I don’t know and feel nervous about going into. I feel like otherwise, it’s just performing tricks you’ve learned. What’s important to me in all of the novels is just to be emotionally true to what I think and feel and to be rigorous in the honesty of those things. I don’t actually know what I’m going to be thinking or feeling in the next five years or so. As I start to feel those things, I’ll start to map it out a little bit.
DN: I printed out two of the Tips for Trying Times. I was thinking maybe we could end with you reading them?
JO: Okay. All of the tips are numbered and then I just make on my own and make a little imperative but they’re all at the top of it, but they’re all quotes from different writers that I think of as, when I was saying earlier about the emotional or spiritual prepping, these were things that really stuck with me.
Tip #2: Cultivate Modest Hopes
If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.
That’s from Wendell Berry’s What Are People For?
The next one is a poem by Mary Ruefle called Kiss of the Sun. I’ve arranged it under Tip #21 Prearrange Reunions.
“If, as they say, poetry is a sign of something
among people, then let this be prearranged now,
between us, while we are still peoples: that
at the end of time, which is also the end of poetry
(and wheat and evil and insects and love),
when the entire human race gathers in the flesh,
reconstituted down to the infant’s tiniest fold
and littlest nail, I will be standing at the edge
of that fathomless crown with an orange for you,
reconstituted down to its innermost seed protected
by white thread, in case you are thirsty, which
does not at this time seem like such a wild guess,
and though there will be no poetry between us then,
at the end of time, the geese all gone with the seas,
I hope you will take it, and remember on earth
I did not know how to touch it it was all so raw,
as if by chance there is no edge to the crowd
or anything else so that I am of it,
I will take the orange and toss it as high as I can. ”
DN: Thanks for being on the show today, Jenny.
JO: Thanks for having me.
DN: We’re talking today to Jenny Offill, the author of Weather. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.