Mark O’Connell is the author of the non-fiction work Notes from an Apocalypse and Jenny Offill is the author of the novel Weather. These books explore how people deal with the sense of a looming climate apocalypse, and here their authors discuss how they themselves are dealing with the current sense of a coronavirus apocalypse.
Mark O’Connell: I may as well start by saying that this was my overwhelming experience of reading Weather: this feeling of my number being had. There is so much in your book that didn’t just ‘resonate’ with me, but which felt uncomfortably close to home. What excited me about the book is that it’s an apocalyptic novel not about some speculative future dystopia, but about the world we currently inhabit. Reading it, I felt strongly that this is a writer who is very much coming from the place I’m coming from, but part of the exhilaration was being taken on a completely different route from that starting point. To begin with, let’s talk about that starting point. Tell me about your own personal eschatology, and about how it fed into the writing of the novel.
Jenny Offill: When I was writing Weather, I thought of it as pre-apocalyptic or maybe apocalypse adjacent. I have been talking about climate change and the dire consequences it would bring for almost a decade with my friend, Lydia Millet, a novelist who also works for the Center for Biological Diversity. For a long time, our conversations were mostly about extinction, what creature had gone extinct, was going extinct, would go extinct if we didn’t collectively change our ways.
And then at a certain point, I realized how much Lydia was talking about climate. She lives in the Sonoran desert and we’d walk by some majestic huge cactus and she’d say these poor fellows will be gone before long. I started to wonder why I could know climate change was a disaster but not feel it. This was about six or seven years ago. I was already working on a novel about anticipatory dread. It was about growing older and losing people but mostly it was about that moment of feeling something scary coming down the pike but not yet knowing what shape it would take.
One weekend I went away to work and did a deep dive into the scientific literature as well as the subterranean world of worried scientists talking to each other about how much faster than expected all of this would happen and how far gone we already were. At 4 a.m. on the second night, I learned about ‘climate departure’: the tipping point when the average temperature of a specific location, or of the earth in general, is so impacted by climate change that the old climate is left behind. New York’s is conservatively listed as 2047.
I calculated how old my daughter would be, how old we would be. I thought about how little knowledge I had that might be useful in the world she would have to live in. I was so frightened I couldn’t fall back asleep. The next day I started reading doomer/prepper things and thinking about how to bring them into the novel.
What was your starting point?
O’Connell: Again, I’m struck by how similar our, for want of a better term, affective origins are here. That thing you mention of feeling something very scary coming down the pike but not yet knowing what shape it will take – that was essentially where I started. For a long time, I had just been feeling very anxious about the way the world seemed to be sliding towards some kind of unknowable disaster. Climate change was a huge aspect of it, of course, but it also seemed vaguer and more diffuse than that. I just had this sinking feeling every time I looked at the news, and this strong sense of cognitive dissonance around raising a very young sonwhen there seemed to be this darkness hoving into view over the crest of our little hill. So the book began with that anxiety. But at that stage I didn’t really know how to formulate it.
And then, like you, I became morbidly fascinated by doomsday preppers, ‘collapsitarians’ and neo-reactionaries, and all these other quite extreme manifestations of what seemed to me a growing mood of apocalypse. It wasn’t so much a practical thing – because I am nothing if not a profoundly impractical person – but more like a perverse way of mediating, or maybe ‘sublimating’, my own anxiety. And I realized the idea of The Apocalypse, and the various people who are preparing for it in their various ways, was a device I could use to channel my formless anxiety into the form of a book.
Just to briefly address the, uh, virus in the room: even though my book, like yours, is about the fear of just the sort of catastrophic situation that is now unfolding, I find myself no better able to deal with it or conceptualize it. I’m sitting here in my house with 500 copies of my book about the apocalypse stacked in the hallway waiting for me to sign and courier back to a bookseller in the UK, painfully aware of the extreme unlikelihood of bookshops even being open by the time I ship them back. Despite spending literal years obsessing over catastrophic scenarios, I have no frame of reference for this situation. I was watching TV the other night to distract myself, this show called The Trip to Greece, where Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon just drive around Greece eating in fancy restaurants and crack each other up doing impressions and so on, and I thought: this is an artefact of a lost world! Nothing like this – or the scenarios of anything else I could find to watch on TV – would be remotely possible under these new conditions. Two middle-aged men hanging out together and eating in restaurants? This is pure fantasy, hard sci-fi! So there’s been a sort of sudden inversion of the paradigm of realism, or something. I’m curious how you yourself are dealing with this current fiasco. How is the apocalypse where you are?
Offill: Right now the apocalypse is distributed unevenly. I live about an hour and a half outside of NYC and we have been worried about this becoming a pandemic for some time. This is not because we are prescient, but because my husband follows lots of science/math people on Twitter and they were shouting long before anyone else.
What this has meant is that we have been living in a state of dread for the last month. I kept hoping we were overreacting even as I slathered on hand sanitizer and started buying powdered milk and sacks of potatoes. (This part is very reminiscent of the alienated feeling I had when I first started to understand the climate crisis).
One thing I learned when I was reading all that crisis psychology is that people will often ignore multiple intimations of disaster in order not to risk looking foolish by overreacting. And indeed I felt incredibly stupid and weirdly melodramatic when I cancelled my UK book tour about two and a half weeks ago. The travel restrictions were just starting and it still seemed possible that this would all stay under control.
The surreal quality was compounded by the fact that my daughter was going to school every day and her school kept sending out notices along the lines of don’t worry, we will do everything we can to stay open, and if there is a case we will close and disinfect for 24 hrs. My husband and I started debating if we should pull her out but also we had so much to get done before we were ready to quarantine. Also, oh my god, wouldn’t we go mad all cooped up together for the duration?
It seemed better to run errands, most of which related to buying things for my parents who are in their seventies and at risk because of underlying conditions. (This summer they moved across country to live a few miles down the road from us.) And I was Skyping with all my understandably freaked out grad students after our university abruptly closed. Then I would email a friend in LA where everyone was still going out for drinks on the same day I heard from my editor in Milan and it was clear she was living in a city under siege . . .
A few days ago I started to have text arguments with friends in NYC because some of them who could leave (many of my friends cannot) kept dithering about whether it was necessary. So I would be trying to convince them that no, it wasn’t hysteria, and yes, once again, it was math, deadly scary math, guiding such recommendations. All of which is to say for a while now, I have felt very much like I was in the flashback scenes of the disaster movie the part where people are still making jokes about the zombie apocalypse and debating how much liquor to stockpile. (Answer: a lot.)
They closed my daughter’s school before we had to make the decision about taking her out. It came as a great relief even though I had no idea how we would get our work done from then on. But I recognized in myself that feeling I’d seen in the prepper world and which you described so memorably in your book – circle your wagons, keep the enemy out. This sentiment has doubtless protected many families and small communities over the centuries but it is also the same idea at the root of xenophobia and pogroms.
I came out of writing Weather much less doomy than I was going in, partly because, like you, a found a container for my worries and fears, but also because I ended up a believer in the power of collective action and the importance of community. What is baffling me about how to respond to the pandemic is that all the usual ways of doing those things are dangerous. I can’t invite people to come stay with us or gather with my climate action group to talk in person about our next move. I can’t even hug my parents.
But humans adapt. That’s what we do. Witness the Italians serenading each other from their balconies or restaurants donating their food to homeless shelters. I just wish we could have this social experiment of how to live more simply and generously without it being under such horrible harrowing circumstances. One of the prepper acronyms I picked up was this ominous sign off: MYBAS, which means May You Be Among the Survivors.
And I find myself thinking that about all the people I know, far and near, and even the strangers that I see looking worried in news photographs. MYBAS! MYBAS! What are you doing to stay sane during this time? Does anything from your immersion in apocalypse studies feel relevant at all?
O’Connell: For me, the overwhelming emotion through the first week of this situation, since everyone started practicing social distancing here in Ireland, has been sadness. I was not expecting this. I was expecting anxiety, and anger, and frustration, and boredom, yes, but not the kind of deep and physical sadness I felt in the first days of this weird new reality. I really just felt, and still feel to some extent, that I was in the middle of a very bad and protracted nightmare, and that I was surely going to awaken from it at any moment, back into a world I recognized and could move through.
For about a week, I was waking up already sad and anxious – feeling it in my stomach before I was even totally conscious – and then immediately reaching for my phone to see how bad things had gotten over the hours I’d been asleep. I found myself going head first into the chaos, immersing myself completely in the torrential flow of news, and I was sort of cracking up there for a bit. And the things I assumed would make me feel better only made me feel worse. Going out for a walk only deepened the sense of sadness and uncanniness. I went out one evening for a stroll, and only lasted about ten minutes, because I found the complete emptiness and desolation of our usually vibrant neighbourhood too strange and sad. The only living creature I encountered was a cat in heat, making that weird horrible lonely keening sound that cats in heat make.
One thing that made me feel a lot better was just pulling the plug on work for a couple of days and hanging out with my family. I was worried about my kids, and still am, but it was kind of amazing to realize how little this is actually affecting them. My daughter is not yet two, and so her world is so tiny that this makes effectively no difference at all. My son just turned seven on Sunday, and he was a little sad about not having his friends over for a party, but he is otherwise basically fine. The thing that makes me sadder to think about than anything else is the thought of this going on for a really long time, and he and his friends being several months older, maybe a year older, and different people to who they were, the next time they see each other. One thing I’ve found incredibly moving, and beautiful, is how he and his friends have adapted to this situation. On his birthday, his friend Mila who lives across the street from us got her dad to drop over a walkie-talkie so they could talk to each other whenever they want, and she made him this little birthday card with a picture of him and her in their separate houses on their walkie-talkies, with a line of text saying ‘Hi Hi Hi Hi’ going across the street. Yesterday morning I was upstairs writing, and I could hear my son roaring into the walkie-talkie: ‘HI MILA! DO YOU MISS YOUR FRIENDS? OVER!’ I thought that was incredibly lovely and moving and hilarious.
As sad and difficult as this all is, I have been quite heartened to see people pulling together for the common good in a way that seems very concerted and quite radical. People are putting their entire lives on hold for a collective end, for societal as opposed to merely individual reasons, and that seems to me to be a very good thing. There is a sense that everyone is together in some way that feels profound, and different to what we had previously thought possible. All this social isolation has given rise to a realization that community is still a real thing, and that we are actually all connected – not just by the mysterious dynamics of disease vectors, but by emotional and societal bonds too. I guess I’m surprising myself here by feeling not entirely pessimistic about this whole disaster.
I’m not sure whether anything I learned from immersing myself in apocalyptic material for my book has been useful in any direct way. Certainly I’m not drawing on the few scraps of prepper knowledge I picked up, or securing a place in a South Dakota survival community. But I think what I have taken from it is a sense that it’s always the apocalypse, and never the end of the world. I’m always thinking of the line from Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being – a book I can’t even tell people what it’s about, and which I love with my very life – that I use as the epigraph for my Notes from an Apocalypse: ‘These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other. Who can bear to hear this, or who will consider it?’ And that’s simultaneously terrifying and strangely calming. This isn’t the end of the world. It’s history going about its business. This isn’t the last apocalypse by a long shot.
I will say, though, that I am finding it very strange to be in the position of publishing my book at this particular time. I could stand for it to be, I don’t know, 80 – 90 per cent less topical. I know your book has been out for a little while already – congratulations on getting it out while bookshops were still a thing, by the way! – but I’m curious as to whether you are experiencing something like the feeling of insane levels dramatic irony I am currently experiencing.
Offill: Yes, it’s funny how your stomach knows it’s real trouble long before your mind fully takes it in. I think often of an essay Aleksandar Hemon wrote called ‘Stop Making Sense: How to Write in the Age of Trump’. In it, he talked about what it felt like before the war started in Bosnia and what it felt like to him waking up the day after the election. His point was that the mind was still trying to normalize things but the body knew the score:
There is a certain kind of abdominal pain felt only when a catastrophe appears at the door of the world you know and proceeds to bang on it. The sensation could be likened to a steel ball grinding your intestines. There is nothing like it: There were times when I thought I could hear it revolve. The feeling is simultaneously familiar and totally unfamiliar; it is unquestionably familiar as boilerplate fear, intensified though it may be, but it is also unfamiliar in its specificity: It is the fear of an unimaginable future as seen from this particular terrifying moment.
All of this feels very strange and very familiar. It is a weird time to be holding forth in public about anything. People keep asking me to write about the pandemic and now in interviews the questions swerve quite suddenly from the climate crisis to this current emergency. I’m not sure I have anything useful to say. Each interview question seems to hang in the air before me. The ones from Italy feel like heartbreaking missives from the future. They ask me about hope in the midst of chaos and fear and I feel a need to switch to a different register, a slightly uncomfortable one, that was more expansive and believed strongly in art and action as an antidote to dread.
I find I am using this same register talking to my students and my fifteen-year-old daughter who is slowly realizing how long this might go on. I don’t know if it is a false register or just an unfamiliar one. The idea of sacrificing for the common good has been an abstraction to many of us. Now we are told in no uncertain terms what we must do and not do to keep others safe. It is sobering to think about this responsibility we have to keep strangers from harm.
One of the problems I had writing Weather was figuring out how to end on a note of hope that felt true to me. I love that line from Roethke: ‘In a dark time, the eye begins to see’. It has always felt true to me; there seems to be a sharpening of perceptions during disasters, a clarity of sorts. I hope that all of the people who work in service jobs and have been forced to become first responders, dropping off deliveries, ringing up groceries, are more visible now to the rest of us at the very least.
Margaret Thatcher said that famous thing in the eighties, that there is no society, only individuals. What I draw solace from right now is how clearly wrong that was. No individual can stop the spread of this, just as no individual can stop climate change. But what we are seeing now is how important society is, how we were never as untethered as we imagined ourselves to be. Your son and his friend instinctively figured out how to gesture toward connection and continuity with their walkie-talkies. I trust the older and slower of us will find our ways too.
O’Connell: I love that Roethke poem too – ‘in broad day the midnight come again!’ – and what strikes me now about that line you quote is how literally apocalyptic it is. As in, the first thing to be said about ‘apocalypse’, the thing that is no less interesting for the fact that it’s always being said, is that the original Greek word meant something like ‘revelation’, or ‘uncovering’. This point you make about a sharpening of perceptions during disasters feels so crucial to me, and it’s the thing that I am trying to focus on in this particular dark time.
So much of your book, and I suppose so much of my own book too, is about the every-man-for-himself fiasco of capitalist individualism. And one of the things that is being revealed in this current crisis, I think, is how completely and lethally inadequate that philosophy is. A thing I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is human sacrifice. Ancient civilizations sacrificed people to ensure the favour of the gods – victory in war, a rich harvest, etc. – and they were convinced that there was a direct causal link between sacrificing human lives and their civilisation prospering. In a strictly rationalist sense, they were wrong. Whereas free market capitalism, this system that sees itself as extremely rationalist and cool-headed, literally does depend on human sacrifice, whereas no one is acknowledging that causal link. In your country right now, that’s being revealed very clearly. The president insisting that the shops and restaurants and hotels and other businesses must reopen for the sake of the economy. That Republican politician saying that he would gladly die of the virus if it meant preserving the economy ‘for the sake of his grandchildren’.
The fault lines that we already knew went very deep in our societies, but which we mostly ignored, or mostly did nothing about, are being revealed with startling clarity. But also so many beautiful things too. Other, more humane forms of sacrifice, as you point out – sacrifice for the common good. I think what you say about people in service jobs being seen as first responders is true, I think it’s happening, at least in Ireland it seems to me to be true. I think what we’re seeing in this dark time is how reliant we are on other people, on each other. Suddenly, people are talking much less in terms of ‘the market’ now, ‘the market’ providing things we need. What we are having to believe in is people, acting in the interests of others.
I’m thinking here of one of the many moments reading Weather where I laughed out loud, and then sort of sighed. (That was the experience of the book, for me: laughing, and then sighing.) The joke about ‘the philosophy of late capitalism’ – where the two hikers come across a hungry bear on a trail, and one of them puts on his running shoes, and the other says ‘You can’t outrun a bear’, and the first guy says ‘I just have to outrun you’. I laughed! I sighed! I saw things clearly! In this sense, too, your book is an apocalypse.