Interviews

The ABCs For The End Of The World

An interview with David Carlin and Nicole Walker about their new book, "The After-Normal."

In an age of climate change, the future of everything — from tiny bacteria to the world’s largest elephants — is thrown into question. In their witty-yet-elegiac collection of mini-essays, The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet, writers and professors David Carlin and Nicole Walker offer an A to Z of meditations on the people, places, and things that continue to inspire and surprise them, and to which they are drawn by either feelings of loss or awe as the planet continues to warm.

Published by Rose Metal Press, which was founded by Abigail Beckel and Chicago-based writer Kathleen Rooney, After-Normal underscores just how connected everything on earth truly is, no matter how political, theoretical, or strange. Taken together, these works of epistolary nonfiction drive home the need to respond to the climate crisis with humility and humor, and with both urgency and patient reflection.

In this interview, David and Nicole discuss what inspired the collection and what they hope readers take away from its pages.

Amy Brady

How did this book project come about?

David Carlin

Nicole and I first met through working together on the committee for the NonfictioNOW Conference, which each of us has hosted‚ Nicole at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, and myself at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. In November 2016 (yes, exactly at the time of that election) I invited Nicole to visit Melbourne to give some talks and workshops, with the sneaky hope that we might cook up a project we could work on together. We liked each other’s nonfiction writing and we had fun hanging out so we thought that was a good start! Then we started talking about our intersecting preoccupations with how to respond, as writers and everyday human beings, to the evidence of ecological catastrophe that seemed to have been accelerating exponentially across the span of our lives.

Nicole Walker

Perhaps because finding a “place” for the conference was our first mission together, we gravitated toward conversations of place. We were both of the same mind that we live in pretty peculiar places that have a particular perspective on climate changes in our tiny environments. We also were paying a lot of attention to migration issues, American and Australian politics, class and racial privilege, and our own conflicted feelings about travel. With that common concern, we wondered, could we write a book together? David came up with idea of a Survival Guide — an ironic one, a negotiation between what we are supposed to be doing, what we could do, how we might grieve, how we might help.  

Amy Brady

The world is full of wondrous people and things that we are on the precipice of losing. How did you decide which people, places, objects, and phenomena to address with your essays?

Nicole Walker

Knowing full well we couldn’t address everything there is to write about climate change, we thought that by making an abecedarian, we could write about particular and peculiar topics, paying equal attention, since the alphabet isn’t really hierarchical, to some of the biggest and smallest climate change considerations. There is a bit of chanciness to the topics — we often wrote what came to mind when we focused on the letter. But we knew that there were important ideas to cover — that one of the problems with the Anthropocene is the human-based scale. We wanted to go beyond that which is easily noticeable and measurable by paying attention to the tiny things, like plasmodia and bacteria, and attention to the things we pay no attention to, like bitumen.

David Carlin

I love lists of heterogeneous things — we wanted it to be constantly surprising, first to ourselves, then each other and the reader, as to what we would choose next. Because that is actually what our many worlds on this planet are like — endlessly surprising and wondrous, even as they are also so many other things besides.

Amy Brady

I’d love to hear about your process in general for creating this book. Did you write letters to each other? Did you decide on the essay topics beforehand, or did they emerge from a correspondence?

David Carlin

We had this frame: we would each write one short essay for every letter of the alphabet. Because we were usually on opposite sides of the world from each other we set up a simple online shared folder where we pledged to deposit our next essay at the end of each week. We had various rules, like that you weren’t allowed to read the other person’s new essay until you had submitted your own; and that we had to send each other a short email response after reading the other person’s essay, to encourage us to keep going and discover what in particular had struck a chord with at least one reader. We didn’t work out our topics in advance — every week that was a surprise. It was a bit like taking turns in a game: Nicole would make a certain move, stylistically and subject-wise, and I would consider from that how I wanted to play my own next move. Every now and then we would bend the rules. When we got to D, Nicole’s essay — out of the blue — was entitled “Dear David.” I knew I had to break the rule to read it before I responded with my own “Dear Nicole.”

Nicole Walker

The back and forth exists for our next letter. “Elephant” is a response to “Death,” in a way. But we didn’t want the essays to be constricted to the topics introduced from the beginning, like an epistolary might be. We wanted to start again every time, while maintaining some of the threads from the previous essays — kind of like extinction and evolution. The hints of life are behind each of the endings. Certain things will survive the 6th extinction. Bacteria. Plasmodia. [The concept of] later. Atmosphere. 

Amy Brady

Nicole, my favorite essay of yours is “Loophole.” What inspired this piece?

Nicole Walker

Loophole is one of the threads that nods to a previous essay, David’s “embroidery.” One of my favorite things about this book, and research in general, is how assumptions are overturned. I thought loophole referred to sewing — possibly that last loop you make when tying off a thread. But, overturned assumptions are not quite enough. The incredible publishers at Rose Metal Press, Abby Beckel and Kathleen Rooney, loved the first half of the essay but wanted to press it further. The process of revision and pressing an idea further became a perfect formal example of what a loophole is — an opening in a castle wall through which the soldiers can shoot. I write, “Loopholes are hard things, hard as night, hard as sleep.” I thought the idiomatic expression of a loophole, an easy out, came from something soft, like fabric and thread. The essay was hard to write. The dream of wanting an easy out for this climate change is not forthcoming. The way through this is not going to be through surprises the science missed. Even if we do find a loophole, it will be made of stone. We will have to chisel and grind our way out.

Amy Brady

David, my favorite of yours is “Nest.” How did this piece come about?

David Carlin

I love Nicole’s notion of the braided essay; I often had that in mind in writing my essays in this book. In “Nest” I tried braiding some personal experiences as a human parent of grown-up children (the “empty nest” phenomenon) with speculations on the experiences of birds as expert nest crafters. It also occurred to me to add to the mix some reflections on having visited the amazing Museo di Storia Naturale – La Specola in Florence, where the beauty of birds and their nests is eerily contained within a bizarre environment celebrating human taxidermy and ornithology. I like the effects of layering and montage you can bring into the structure of an essay and how they can express ironies, contradictions and other resonances.

Amy Brady

What do you both hope that readers will take away from your book?

Nicole Walker

The best part of this project is that we were not alone in this writing, this sadness, this desperation. The nice thing about a collaboration is that we have a shared mind at times. A feeling that maybe we aren’t helpless as it seems. Our hope is that we can share that feeling with others. That some people pick up the baton and collaborate. Paying attention, making small changes, working with others — that’s the thing that will save us. Hannah Hindley and Maddie Norris wrote a collaborative essay in response to our book. They didn’t even note who wrote what. They truly shared a mind and a typewriter. A collaboration and a collaboration. My hope is that a little by little we share these deep connections with more and more people. They build and build the pressure.

David Carlin

I hope readers feel included in the playful fellowship of the book’s conversation, and that they might feel invited to take time to pause, notice and listen, even just in small ways, to what is happening in and all around them. We are in the midst of an immense global crisis, so big it often feels impossible to think about it. I would hope that in a tiny way this book encourages readers to reach out and connect with others — not only other humans but other non-humans too! — and to imagine how the present, let alone the future, might be different. Together we are not powerless to enact change. We don’t have to accept business as usual, whatever form that takes and whatever scale it operates on. But all of these things are, like: note to self, David! Note to self!

NONFICTION
The After-Normal: Grief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet
By David Carlin and Nicole Walker
Rose Metal Press
June 2019

David Carlin is a writer and creative artist based in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of The Abyssinian Contortionist (2015), and Our Father Who Wasn’t There (2010), co-author of 100 Atmospheres: Studies in Scale and Wonder (2019), and the editor, with Francesca Rendle-Short, of an anthology of new Asian and Australian writing, The Near and the Far (2016)His award-winning work includes essays, plays, radio features, exhibitions, documentary, and short films; recent projects include the Circus Oz Living Archive and WrICE. He is a professor of creative writing at RMIT University where he co-directs the non/fictionLab. Visit his website here.

Nicole Walker is the author of Sustainability: A Love Story (2018), Where the Tiny Things Are (2017), Egg (2017), Micrograms (2016), Quench Your Thirst with Salt (2013)and This Noisy Egg (2010)She edited the essay collections Science of Story with Sean Prentiss and Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction with Margot Singer. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts award and is a noted author in Best American Essays. She is a professor of English at Northern Arizona University, where she teaches creative writing. Visit her website here.

About Amy Brady

Amy Brady is the Editorial Director of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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