Interviews

Staying with the Trouble

An interview with Jenny Offill about her book, Weather.

Jenny Offill’s third novel, Weather, is a cross-section of our current moment, alternating between anxiety and despair about climate change, our political situation, and our messed-up personal lives, and through its fragments revealing how all these concerns are interconnected. The novel is the answer to the question, What is happening? And points toward the answer to the question, What can we do?

I spoke with Offill about letting the world into her fiction after 2014’s brilliantly insular Dept. of Speculation and, in effect, finding a new way into the world through writing Weather

Kyle Williams

To open up with a really simple question, What does the Absurd mean to you, as you’re writing towards it?

Jenny Offill

The Absurd is the moments that fall into the cracks between two seemingly opposite emotions. When you’re at a funeral and something funny happens, or if you’re driving to a climate protest and sitting in traffic arguing about how we have to change our lives, you cross right into the zone of the absurd. We mostly live in the absurd, these days. There are so many moments of contradiction, so many moments of thinking one thing and doing the opposite. I think that’s where it comes from for this book.

Kyle Williams

Especially when thinking about climate change, how do you see those contradictory impulses of the absurd driving your writing?

Jenny Offill

It can feel like a strange tool to tackle something like the climate crisis with, like treating someone who needs surgery by buying them a pack of gummy bears. It’s strange to write fiction about such big, complicated problems that sociologists and others have been applying themselves to for many years. But one of Extinction Rebellion’s slogans is “Everybody Now.” I think it’s useful to have people in all different disciplines bringing what they know to the table. We can’t just leave it to scientists. What needs to be done is not just to stop living a fossil-fuel intensive life, but to imagine what it would look like not to. That applies to everybody. 

Kyle Williams

I’m glad you brought up Extinction Rebellion, in part because I wanted to ask you about your research. I have this image of you drowning in archival material while writing this book. I’d love to hear an example of how something like disaster psychology finds its way into Weather. Where did that come from, and then how does it transmute itself into fiction?

Jenny Offill

With disaster psychology, I read a couple of books that were sort of overviews. Laurence Gonzalez has a ton of these. These books are written to be page turners, and are filled with these sort of Reader’s Digest–style “Mauled by a Bear” stories. Then I went through citations, which led me to researchers like John Leach, who was one of the first people to study why so many people freeze up in disaster. We talk about the will to live, but what about the won’t to live? We like to hear stories about people who make it out of disasters, but it was a reasonable gambit, in evolutionary terms, to play dead in dangerous situations, so many of us do just that. Through this I also discovered a lot of “Search and Rescue” lore, where people will tell themselves stories instead of accepting that they’re lost and waiting for help. This struck me as a good metaphor for the normalization we do in this political moment, and with the so-called “new normal” of climate change. 

I keep notes while I read, and then while writing I wait to see what floats back in. And sometimes, when these things do float back in, they will mean something entirely different than I thought they meant before. Like with search and rescue: There are these situations where the person being searched for will walk right past their own search parties, without identifying themselves as a lost person. So they teach you that you might then have to tackle the person, because they’re entranced; they’re in another world, so convinced that they’re lost and won’t be found. I thought this was crazy when I read it, but it turns out this is a common thing. This floated back to me later in the novel. The final sections take place in the future, after the next election, and after she votes the narrator remembers this idea of people walking past their own search parties. Everyone is standing outside the polling place, milling around, not knowing what’s going to happen. What does it mean if those people recognize that they have to be searching for and finding each other? It is a quiet (perhaps too quiet) call to collective action.

Research is always fun to do. I’m never not happy to be reading a book about disaster psychology or the sociology of denial—that’s just fun. But it is a ridiculously inefficient way to write a novel. I mean, I often read an entire book and take the equivalent of two sentences to put into my own book, and I often read quite far away from the topic and further into the realms of academia.

Kyle Williams

I love thinking about Weather now as this Benjaminian Arcades Project, which makes me want to ask what is another very clearly simple question: What is the use of fiction in the age of mass extinction?

Jenny Offill

Joy Williams, who is one of my favorite writers, said in an interview once, “Real avant-garde writing today would frame and reflect our misuse of the world, our destruction of its beauties and wonders.” One of the things that maybe fiction can do is help us pay attention to life-forms that aren’t human. This is something Joy Williams does very well, and also the novelist Lydia Millet does very well. 

More generally, it’s lonely to think about these things, to be tangled up in these things, and to feel fatalistic. There’s something useful in knowing that other people are tangled up too. It’s a strange time, with so many things passing away before us. Maybe fiction can help with the loneliness of living through this. 

Kyle Williams

This reminds me of Deb Olin Unferth’s new novel, Barn 8.

Jenny Offill

I love that book! It’s so great. The chickens are amazing in that book. I keep telling anyone who asks me what they should read that they should read that. People should know: the chickens are sublime.

Kyle Williams

You made this interesting observation at a reading, about how climate fiction has largely been the realm of the speculative, and it wasn’t until fairly recently that writers have approached climate from an angle more grounded in realism. An interest in extinction has been with you since your first book, Last Things, but how did you see that cultural change as you were writing Weather?

Jenny Offill

My interest used to be more narrowly focused on the extinction of animals. I was no early adopter of bigger-picture ideas about climate, but I had the advantage of years of conversation with Lydia Millet, who has always written fiction about it. I worked on Weather for about six or seven years, and I did notice over that time that it became less weird to bring up and talk about climate. And invariably over all those years, the news was far worse than I expected it to be. I just did not realize how much the original models for climate change had been proven to be too slow. In general, scientists prefer to be conservative in their predictions; they don’t like to speculate, they don’t like to go beyond the data. This is part of why the disinformation campaign spearheaded by people like the Koch brothers was so confusing to people and so destructive to the cause of climate education. But at a certain point, the math itself becomes too devastating to ignore. So many scientists have been ringing the alarm for years now.  

Kyle Williams

In terms of altering approaches, from the speculative to the more realist—well, I keep using this term, but is realism something you’re reaching for as a writer?

Jenny Offill

You know, not really. Realism is an odd idea in fiction. I always think, whenever I read reviews from someone who you can tell is very interested in realism who takes issue with whatever strange or experimental thing is happening—it feels like, at this moment of time, in 2020, almost as though a visual art critic were to say, “I don’t know what’s going on with this; it’s not a still life if you can’t tell if it’s an apple. I don’t know what they’re doing, but it’s not a painting.”

Usually “realism” is used in a very reductive and normative way, as though this is how we should write, when clearly a lot of the best writing going on isn’t interested in it. Whatever “realism” is in my writing, if there is any, is there because I’m interested in writing what it feels like for me, or my characters, to be alive in a certain moment. I’m not writing in an alternative universe, where people are wolves or something—it would be awesome if I could write that way. But I’m not capable of fantastic leaps of that sort. 

Most of the writers I like cross over, from one realm to another. I mean, what school is Joy Williams in? I want to be in that school. She’s a realist in some ways, and then all of a sudden your six-year-old child is talking very astutely about Rilke.

Kyle Williams

Did you feel a particular challenge writing toward something that most writing had not approached from a more “realistic,” for lack of a better term, specific moment?

Jenny Offill

It’s challenging because climate change certainly doesn’t feel like something that lends itself to words. The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh is an excellent book about this. He writes about why people have trouble writing about climate change, and that book was important for me to read. But, writing Weather, I just kept returning to climate change. And I worried all the time that it would lead me to write a bad book. I worried that, by addressing the climate crisis, I would write badly. Which made me constantly want to not do it, to take it out. But there’s something cowardly in that, and I didn’t want to give in to that version of artistic cowardice. I wanted to allow more of the outside world into the story. 

Kyle Williams

I love what you’ve said about addressing one’s own hypocrisy in response to climate change. There’s something very powerful in that, in just sitting there and dealing with the mess. 

Jenny Offill

Donna Haraway said once, talking about extinction and climate change, that our job is to stay with the trouble. Not to fix the trouble, not to write the perfect novel about the trouble, but to stay with it. And that is something I can do. Even in all my messiness and complicity and hypocrisy, I can stop turning away from it. 

We’re so far behind in regards to fighting climate change, in part because of this massive disinformation campaign funded by billions of dollars. And there is this tactic we need to recognize, this right-wing reaction when you suggest lowering carbon emissions that is to ask questions like, “Do you fly? Are you wearing leather shoes?” and then to claim that you have no authority to speak. They knock everybody down with this—and progressives are so prone to guilt already that they say, “They’re right, I can’t talk about this.” That’s not to say we shouldn’t be trying to match our actions with our ethics, but you don’t have to attain ethical purity in order to speak. If we don’t allow for the actions of hypocrites, we don’t allow for the actions of most people. 

That’s one of the things I’m drawn to about Extinction Rebellion: They will meet you where you are. We all need to figure out what we can stand to do, what we can bear to do that is not so far from who you are as a person—but to do something. Because fatalism is a form of denial. Each degree closer we get to these tipping points is a degree worse for more people, and to decide that we’re already fucked is to walk away from a lot of people.

Kyle Williams

This is a good place to ask about An Obligatory Note of Hope, this website you’ve set up that’s full of inspiration information for fighting climate change. This website is very good, so I’ll encourage people reading this interview now to go to it and browse. But, because the website’s URL is on the last page of the book, do you consider it part of the book? 

Jenny Offill

The website includes a lot of research that I kept trying to shoehorn into the novel that made it capsize. It’s part of the book in that sense. And also, by the end of the novel, not to give too much away, Lizzie is thinking about what it would mean to do things collectively. I wanted there to be a way, if you wanted to do something with others, that you could, by the end of the book. I like it as a website as well, because if a reader doesn’t want to go to it, they don’t have to. The book is a complete entity without the website, but it is a resource of other things I found through writing the book. And I’m still adding to it, especially the “Tips for Trying Times,” those things are so fun to gather. My web designer, who I happen to live with, cautions that I should not promise for this website to be continually updated, but I have a lot of material for it. 

Cover image of Weather

FICTION
Weather
By Jenny Offill
Knopf
Published February 11, 2020

Kyle Williams is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is an Interviews Editor for Full Stop, Director of Communications for Chicago Review of Books, and A Public Space’s 2019 Emerging Writer Fellow. He is on Twitter @kylecangogh.

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