September 24, 2014
I marched in Toronto’s People’s Climate March on Sunday along with a whole lot of other people: younger, older, a woman with a green heart of tufted fabric attached to her shirt, a couple with a baby in sunglasses, a family with a puppy, a man wearing a knight on horseback costume, thousands of us. I’m thinking about the climate and its disruptions a lot these days. I’m in the midst of a new novel, my fifth. It’s a contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, in which the Prospero figure is a scientist who focuses on Arctic climate. Set upon by climate-change deniers, he is cast out of his university position and takes flight to a small island in the North Atlantic with his daughter. There he begins to plan a rogue geo-engineering experiment that will also be a way to lure his ideological enemies to the island.
There’s a particular curve on Highway 400 north of Toronto where the novel began. I was on my way to a funeral with my mother and sister, listening to my sister talk about being present at IPCC meetings and the global problem of how we determine who gets to use what energy. Beneath every footstep I take beats the question, How do we live now? Climate change exists and not talking about it in life and in novels creates a different kind of fiction: a false world in which this reality isn’t acknowledged. I’m interested in how we create narratives that make space for this reality without ending up in the realm of cliché. How do parents talk about climate change with their children? How do children respond? How do we make the not-talked-about feel present? How do we create narratives that are not about despair? Flannery O’Connor says, “People without hope do not write novels … and what is more to the point, they don’t read them.” And so, how to write from hope, into hope. I love working with the frame of Shakespeare’s play. On the one hand, I think, How dare I? On the other, I love the constraints the play imposes: in terms of timeline (the play takes place in a day, I’ve given myself two days), and also character. I’m not the first to say that confronting constraint is a great way to rupture habit and find something liberating but it is.
September 19, 2014
The short answer would be: Because I have to. Because I want to. Because I believe reading and writing novels offers us a way to transform ourselves. And I write novels primarily. The paperback edition of my fourth novel, Accusation, has just come out. It follows a Canadian journalist trying to untangle the truth of allegations made against a man who founds a children’s circus in Ethiopia. Those who speak or write about an accusation and pass it on give it as much life as the accused and accuser do. I wanted to explore this. You can read more about my novels here.
Why write a novel at all? And why write another one? Every novel begins for me in desire and emotional and ethical conflict. In mid-August, I attended the Climate Engineering Conference 2014 in Berlin, an international gathering of scientists, social scientists, philosophers, consultants, artists, and others who came together to debate the problem of how to respond to climate change and what part engineered solutions might play in our response. (I was there researching my new novel and delivering a paper on a panel of artists and humanists.)
By engineered solutions I mean things like Solar Radiation Management: sending tons of sulfur particles into the atmosphere in order to keep global temperatures lower (while doing nothing to lower carbon levels) and potentially affecting global precipitation patterns and causing who knows what other unknown effects. The debate was passionate, polarized, galvanizing, terrifying, four days spent discussing the fate of the world. So far there have been no climate engineering field experiments because the risks of taking even a first, real-world step towards intentionally altering the earth’s climate are so fraught. Experiments may make application seem normal, possible, instead of full of real and moral peril. And yet. What of the dangers that the world and future humans may face if we do nothing? The man in the seat beside me, an expert on the Arctic, who has been a consultant to Presidents, cries under his breath, The Arctic is dissolving, before leaping to his feet to argue for the need to carry climate engineering research forward because we need as many responses as possible in our tool kit. From the back of the room, a man from the Philippines bursts out in pain and fury, The problem is very simple. So is the solution. The industrialized west must cut back its emissions. An artist, who sends up weather balloons and condenses vapour from clouds, offers up glasses of cloud water for us to drink and asks if we feel more like a cloud after we do so. Can we be altered and actually become part of the atmosphere? A journalist takes us up imaginatively into the stratosphere to feel its cold, clear darkness. So many different truths and urgencies. A novel sets them in motion and makes them collide. A novel asks us to consider others’ truths and desires by living inside imaginary bodies and feeling through these hearts and skins. It can seem like a big ask these days. And yet I insist: a novel is a crazy, pleasurable, complex way of seeing the world anew.