Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining trends in climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” in partnership with Yale Climate Connections. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter to get “Burning Worlds” and other writing about art and climate change delivered straight to your inbox.
Set a little over a century from now, Kassandra Montag’s After the Flood depicts an earth completely transformed by climate change and rising seas. The overflowing oceans first devastated the coastal cities and then the middle parts of continents, leaving only an archipelago of dry land dotting the globe. Humans now live mainly on the water, docking their boats only when necessary to trade resources in the last remaining villages.
At the center of this novel is Myra and her young daughter, Pearl. For seven years, Myra has searched for her eldest daughter, Row, who was taken by her father when the flood first reached their home in the American Midwest. When Myra learns that Row was last seen at an outpost in the Arctic, she embarks on a journey through the icy waters in hope of reuniting her family. Pirates, meanwhile, scour the open waters for vulnerable women and girls, making Myra and Pearl’s journey all the more perilous.
What follows is a novel rich in detail, suspense, and psychological acuity. I spoke with Montag about why she wrote a work of climate fiction about motherhood, how climate change intersects with women’s rights, and what she sees as the power of fiction to convey the urgency of global warming.
What inspired you to write about a world utterly transformed by sea-level rise?
During my mid-twenties I lived in the Netherlands for a year. After I came home to Nebraska, I became pregnant with my first son and began having recurring nightmares. The nightmare was of a massive wave of water coming across the prairie, as though I had brought the ocean from the coast of the Netherlands into the middle of the U.S. It looked like a tsunami had dropped in the middle of the Great Plains.
The dream of a global flood and changed landscape felt like a transparent metaphor for my anxieties about becoming a mother. Specifically, anxieties about what kind of world I was bringing my child into and how I could navigate the increasingly disparate responsibilities I felt. As such, it felt like fertile creative space because it was personal more than ideological.
Do you think about climate change beyond what you write about in your fiction?
I wouldn’t consider myself an expert in the intricacies of climate change because it’s a complicated topic, but I am someone who pays close attention to the environment and nature. As a child I lived on a floodplain of a small river in rural Nebraska. Each season I watched the river swell past its banks or drop low to a muddy gully. From a young age, I liked observing nature—its beauty, but also the way it changed, and the impersonal force it exerted on life. It felt both soothing and unsettling to consider how small I was in comparison to a river, a forest, a storm coming toward me on the horizon. This interest in nature continued as I grew older and some of my favorite writers—Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver—are writers who capture nature in its various states.
Your central character, Myra, is a mother who’s driven by love and fierce dedication to her children. Where did she come from? Is she based on women you’ve known in real life?
Soon after I had the nightmare of a global flood, I had an image in my mind’s eye of a mother on a boat with her young daughter. In considering the image, I saw that she was someone torn between two choices: protecting her young daughter with her, or rescuing a second daughter, who was in danger miles away. When I began to hear Myra’s voice in my head it was clear and forthright, uncompromising and strong, and that quality of voice helped to inform her character.
While she isn’t based on anyone I’ve known in real life, I did think about Cleopatra a bit when I was writing Myra. I’m interested in how Cleopatra could be manipulative, unrelenting and strategic when she needed to be, how she tried to reclaim power in her life when it was threatened. While she could be quite awful in a moral sense, I’ve always felt mesmerized by how she was a force of nature in her own life.
After the Flood is at least the third novel I’ve read this year that features so prominently a mother trying to protect her children in a post-apocalyptic world. This seems significant, because just a year or so ago most apocalyptic novels I read starred men—most of them childless. What are your thoughts on why this shift might be happening?
It’s tough to say what may cause the shift more generally, but I realized after writing After the Flood that there was a subtextual link between climate change and women’s rights. There are parallels throughout of Myra as a betrayed mother and the flooding of Mother Earth, which I think reflects how a culture’s views of land and women’s bodies are inextricably linked. Historically, where there is fertility, there is often some form of oppression—for both land and women. This intersection of gender inequality and environmental exploitation also highlights human conflicts in the novel that revolve around power dynamics and the desire for control.
I suppose another reason for my choice to pair motherhood with a post-apocalyptic world lies in how children make us think of the future, and climate change threatens the future, which leads to a story with naturally high stakes. A documentary called The Last Lions influenced me while writing this novel—it’s about a mother lion trying to protect her young as the environment changed around her. Those kinds of stories are so primal and visceral. They connect to something deep in us that yearns not just for survival, but for a sense of continuing beyond on our own lives by creating a sustainable future for someone else.
Given the recent climate strike and the growing urgency of climate news, the world is a-buzz with discussions about how to get more people involved in climate activism. Do you think that novels can play a role in inspiring people to think more deeply about climate change?
Absolutely. I think literature—and other art forms—play pivotal roles in any form of a revolution, and dealing with climate change will require a different kind of revolution—one that plays out across national borders, not simply within. Literature plays such a key role because it creates an emotional connection to what we are losing and asks the reader to inhabit the world and really feel the stakes of such a world. Climate change is so often presented in abstract and guilt inducing ways, but novels with climate change as a backdrop can present readers with a more multi-faceted experience: one in which there is the full scope of human emotion that is present both in disaster and in birth: anguish, despair, joy, wonder, terror, and hope.
What’s next for you?
After the Flood is currently in development as a TV series with Chernin Entertainment so fingers crossed that it continues to move forward! I’m currently working on my next novel, which is a Gothic murder mystery. It’s set in the Nebraska sandhills, which is a unique environment—haunting and beautiful, the kind of place that seems timeless, but is in reality vulnerable to change.
After the Flood
By Kassandra Montag
Published September 3, 2019
Kassandra Montag is an award-winning poet, fiction writer, and freelance medical journalist. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies such as Midwestern Gothic, Nebraska Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and Mystery Weekly Magazine, among others. She holds an MA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Creighton University, and makes her home in Omaha, Nebraska.
Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief 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.