Jenny Offill Is a Climate Change Doomer
The author of "Weather" on writing in an age of collective anxiety
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In Jenny Offill’s Weather, Lizzie is a librarian who takes a side job answering questions for a podcast called Hell and High Water. A sample query from the show’s listeners: “How did we end up here?” Lizzie offers a quote from English naturalist and philosopher William Derham from 1711:
We can, if need be, ransack the whole globe, penetrate into the bowels of the earth, descend to the bottom of the deep, travel to the farthest regions of this world, to acquire wealth, to increase our knowledge, or even only to please our eye and fancy.
As she plunges deeper into the research hole, Lizzie becomes obsessed with doomsday survivalist tips such as using a can of tuna can be a source of light and starting a fire with a gum wrapper and battery. The big picture is not the only thing on poor Lizzie’s mind. There’s her sort-of sober brother, Jesus-loving mother, and and then there’s the 2016 elections to add to the anxiety. In a style that is her very own, Offill gives us Lizzie’s mind and life in wry, cerebral—the references go from prepper wisdom to psychology theories to classical civilization interludes—in tiny fragments.
Despite its weighty climate anxieties, the novel is dryly hilarious, a sort of lit fiction stand-up comedy of overthinking, middle-class New Yorkers. As in her last novel, Dept. of Speculation, her glittering characters, particularly the little children, will rob your heart. Lizzie’s son Eli, for example, becomes distraught over the mouse’s skull under the sink. His father investigates. “But it is only a knob of ginger and we are saved.”
I spoke to Jenny Offill about miniaturizing prose, worrying (and attempting to do something) about climate change, non-dystopian stories, and her favorite vignette writers.
J.R. Ramakrishnan: You populate Weather’s world super quickly and fully with multiple characters—Lizzie, the library’s patrons, the recurring people she encounters on the street—with so little words. I am sure it’s all magic but how did you start? How did you shape the vignettes into a novel?
Jenny Offill: It was actually a real challenge for me because I usually write a really small number of characters. So how to have someone who had a job where people came in and out all day was central to my idea of this novel. At first, I couldn’t figure out if I should name them all or not name anyone. I ended up giving them all the different jobs I’ve had.
I think libraries are some of the very few places left in America—they might be the actual last—where you can go and be free, where people of all ages and all backgrounds, can come and go. I wanted this novel to look outward a little bit so I started collecting little sections in a file called “Patrons.” I wasn’t sure where I was going to start the novel, but after I’d been doing this for a while, I kept coming back to the woman who says she is “mostly enlightened.” Someone once said this to me in all seriousness. I was like, ooh… It was a kind of joke that spoke to the whole novel: this feeling that in one moment you think you can see for miles and miles and understand things but in the next, you don’t know anything at all. That’s something I was interested in thematically and is where I started it.
I mostly write the vignettes individually and mess around till the tendencies please me. Maybe after three or four years into this, I was feeling stuck. I printed everything out, cut them up, and put them on the wall. I didn’t try to order them. I just wanted them out of the computer so I could walk by and get some ideas. Although seriously, it is the least efficient way possible to write a book. I would maybe get five new ideas after having spent five hours, though very enjoyable ones, cutting up little bits of paper.
JRR: There’s a lot of worry and obsession here. I remember the bed bug fixation in Dept. of Speculation. How do you write and consider the current collective anxiety while also living in it?
JO: I started the book a little before the election when I was very worried. I began by reading about what it was like before World War II, the French Resistance, and different troubled times in history. With the climate stuff, I felt that I was writing about an ambient fear of something that has not yet completely taken shape. At least for people in the West who are relatively wealthy. It’s only been fairly recent that it feels like, “Oh, climate change, it’s not in the future, it’s here.” But, of course, it happened much earlier than this in the Global South. It’s like that old quote of William Gibson, “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
So, it’s been about six or seven years that I’ve been reading about it. My friends thought it was kind of funny. When did Jenny become a climate change doomer? But you do go down the rabbit hole when you are learning about it. The main thing is the timeframe and that it’s no longer a hundred years off. As a mother, I had to figure out how old my daughter would be then. It’s the only number I decided to put in the book, climate departure, which is 2047. Part of what became the novel for me was trying to map what it’s like to go from being interested but not emotionally invested to actually feeling it.
JRR: Lizzie knows a lot about climate change. What did you learn in your research that really surprised and/or influenced you?
JO: There were two books that were really key to me. The first is Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall. He talks a lot about the (climate change) denials that are softer. For example, you know, but you don’t really look at it or the attitude that we’re all screwed so what’s the point anyway? The latter is a nihilistic form of denial. Even if it’s true, I don’t think it’s necessarily a free path to not have any agency. He figures out that you have to use different language with different people because everybody sees climate change through the prism of their own experience. If you are going to talk to hunters, you need to be talking about conservation. If you’re talking to Evangelical Christians, then talk about stewardship that the Lord has called on us. It was useful for me to think about the language this way.
The other book I’m always trying to get people to read—it’s such a hard sell—States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering by Stanley Cohen. He writes about the different ways people find to not look at ongoing or coming atrocities. He talks about “twilight knowing,” where you do know but you don’t admit you know. Until recently, I noticed that people would talk about how it was crazy that it was so warm but no one would go into the climate stuff.
Cohen also writes about people who were against the regimes in 1970s Brazil and apartheid-era South Africa but who didn’t feel like they could speak out. They became instead incredibly interested in domestic things, hobbies, and sports. He calls this “innerism.” I think of this when I am reading a really elaborate restaurant review, It’s great—and I suppose, it’s what I do too—but it’s so strange to consider something in a vacuum.
JRR: Here’s a question for Hell and High Water: Do books/literature have any power to do anything for us as the end approaches?
JO: Obviously, I think so. I think we have some new stories that we need to tell. Most of us know the doom-y stuff. But I think we need the other stories too, the ones about what it would be like if we did make the change to a low-carbon society. We have a lot of dystopian fiction about climate and I’m not recommending utopian fiction. But I think there’s something about what could be is interesting.
For example, in Holland, they have these bus stops with grass roofs to provide a corridor for butterflies and bees. You sit under it while you wait for the bus. This is kind of lovely. I also spotlight organizations in my Obligatory Note of Hope [a website of climate action resources Offill put together for “what to do if (like me) you hate to march”] that give a little insight into what it might be like to have a more localized economy and how it doesn’t necessarily have to be like a big weird commune. They have little things like tool libraries, which are about building communities that are neither too oppressive nor too atomized, where we are now with our phones and things like that. I don’t think there is much hope without a sort of humility about how this way that we’ve been living doesn’t work anymore.
That said, I am going to fly around to talk about this. I’m not a vegan or anything. You gotta have activism for hypocrites. You just gotta be able to do it even if your own house isn’t in order. I mean, even if you want to donate to the Sunrise Movement and do nothing else, that’s great. Or maybe you want to do some small little project in your own community. In Don’t Even Think About It, George Marshall says to stop being silent about it. I spent a year talking about it to everyone I met.
JRR: My absolute favorite line in your book: “(Democritus wrote 70 books. Only fragments survive.)” Classics geeks will recall he was known as the mocking philosopher. Who are some of your favorite fiction miniaturists?
JO: I always go back to Joy Williams. I just taught The Visiting Privilege. She puts so much into her sentences. To me, it’s a lesson in what you could possibly do. Recently, I read Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, which is about 90 pages long and fantastic. Jean Rhys because she did so much in very small spaces. Fever Dream by Argentine writer, Samanta Schweblin. It’s a creepy environmental ghost story.
Sometimes I try to expand my horizons and read long books. Somehow I have the endless ability to read these super long non-fiction books like The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which is like 500 pages long. But I don’t really approve of the idea of the novel as a big, baggy monster. I like to feel like every word has to be there for a reason.