In this spotlight on climate change authors I talk with Brian Adams, who has become a prolific fiction writer covering various environmental themes for teens and young adults. I first talked with Brian in November 2014 after the publication of his novel Love in the Time of Climate Change.
Meet Casey, a community college professor with OCD (Obsessive Climate Disorder). While navigating the zaniness of teaching, he leads a rag-tag bunch of climate activists, lusts after one of his students, and smokes a little too much pot. Quirky, socially awkward and adolescent-acting, our climate change-obsessed hero muddles his way through saving the world while desperately searching for true love. Teaching isn’t easy with an incredibly hot woman in class, students either texting or comatose, condoms strewn everywhere, attack geese on field trips, and a dean who shows up at exactly the wrong moments. What’s a guy to do? Kidnap the neighbor’s inflatable Halloween ghost? Channel Santa Claus’s rage at the melting polar ice caps? Shoplift at Walmart? How about all of the above!
Who would have thought climate change could be so funny! Actually, it really isn’t, but Love in the Time of Climate Change, a romantic comedy about global warming, is guaranteed to keep you laughing. Laughing and thinking.
After our previous chat – a portion of which follows – Love in the Time of Climate Change won the 2014 Gold Medal INDIEFAB Book of the Year in the Humor category.
You are a professor of Environmental Science at Greenfield Community College in western Massachusetts, you are active in the climate change movement, and now you have written a romantic comedy about something similar involving a climate change activist teacher. How did your real life experiences inspire your novel? Any funny anecdotes to share?
As a professor I have struggled for years with how to present the issue of climate change to students without them resorting to substance abuse, slipping into profound depression, sending me poisoned chocolates, or, worse case scenario, doing absolutely nothing. The teacher in my novel undergoes the same sorts of struggles, many of which are based on my real life teaching experiences. The process of guiding students to the abyss and then gently pulling them back, giving them hope, and motivating them to get off their asses and do something, is incredibly challenging. If anyone has figured out how to do this please contact me!
Funny anecdotes…being the awkward fool that I am, I have so many I could share! One of the scenes in the novel takes place during a field trip to a solar home, and the love interest (Samantha) is attacked by geese and falls into a farm pond. Her teacher (Casey, our hero) lends her dry clothes, which makes for an awkward moment when the dean shows up. This is based on an incident I had when teaching and I had my students in the Green River doing aquatic insect sampling. One of my students fell in, I loaned her dry clothes, which led to, wait for it, awkward moments. I have a great deal of awkward embarrassing teaching experiences that I embellished (or not!) and used in my novel.
Can you tell us more about your background in climate change action and environmental science teaching?
I have been an activist all of my life around energy-related issues, and a teacher most of my professional life. This is my 20th year at the community college where I teach. I’ve found activism to be an effective and productive way to deal with climate change angst. There is great joy to be found in the struggle, and to be surrounded by active young folk who want to change the world is incredibly inspirational. On campus, I am active with our Green Campus Committee as we work to reduce our carbon footprint. Off campus, I am increasing my activism with Climate Action Now, a local western Massachusetts node of 350.org.
Love in the Time of Climate Change is about a serious subject – climate change – yet you use humor to address it. I think comedy is a great way to tackle dire subjects because laughing is good for the soul and helps us put this overwhelming crisis into an identifiable and human perspective, which might be more motivating than the scary facts. Yet it takes a special skill to treat subjects like this with humor – without making light of the facts – and you seem to have succeeded. How did you accomplish this?
I’ve attempted something that I think is rather unique in that I’ve tackled potential world catastrophe in a fictionalized form through humor, drugs, social awkwardness and sex while being uncompromising about the science of climate change. I have found that many people avoid climate change nonfiction given how depressing and absolutely paralyzing it can be. I mean, seriously, how many people read climate change nonfiction? It can be an incredible downer! Extreme weather, food insecurity, drought, famine, melting glaciers, drowning polar bears, out of control wildfires, rising sea levels… My thought is that humor, silliness and love present an ideal opening not just to climate activists but to a larger audience as well. I love awkward romance and relationship angst, so it was a lot of fun to write.
Quite a few novels are being written today about climate change. How do you think fiction can address this subject in ways that other literature cannot?
Fiction can clearly go where non-fiction can’t, and draw readers deeply into stories and drama and relationships where they get hooked while getting educated. My novel is very didactic and quite preachy, and I make no apologies about it. But if it wasn’t for the awkward romance and silly adolescent antics, I’m not sure people would stick it out. I love stories where you’re laughing while saving the world!
Are there any inspirational authors you grew up with who inspired you to tackle environmental issues through fiction? And, I have to ask, are you a big fan of Gabriel García Márquez?
I love Edward Abbey (all of his writing) but particularly his The Monkey Wrench Gang. That was a great revelation to me. Activism can be fun! And that’s the take away here: How do we bring humor into the most serious of topics without trivializing the gravity of the situation? How do we make climate change an issue people want to take on and have a good time doing it? How do we foster the sentiment of the great anarchist activist Emma Goldman who supposedly said “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” How can we dance while saving the world?
And yes – Gabriel Garcia Marquez rocks!
Back to your book, the teacher in your novel suffers from OCD, or Obsessive Climate Disorder. Can you describe this?
There is a scene in the novel where the hero is in the midst of “fooling around” with a very attractive woman who is clearly interested in him, and he is simply unable to free his tortured self from the energy no-nos in her apartment: inefficient light bulbs that are all turned on; the open windows and the cranked heat; recyclables in the trash can, etc. I can’t tell you what happens (read the book!) but, when climate change rears its ugly head in the midst of foreplay, that is clearly and unmistakably obsessive climate disorder!
Well, I just got your book in the mail, and can’t wait for this scene! Your book audience is probably all ages to an extent, but your main characters consist of a youngish teacher and his young, college-aged adult students. Young adult fiction is growing by leaps and bounds, even in climate novels. Why is this audience so important?
Youth will save the world! My goal was to promote activism among younger folks and get them psyched and motivated to get out there and make change. For anything good to happen, the younger generation must be active! I’m working on a novel now that features a 15 year-old protagonist battling mountain top removal in West Virginia, sort of a coming-of-age to activism novel.
Bill McKibben, of 350.org, said that you are “funnier than most of us environmental types” and that it was a pleasure to meet you. How did that feel to be acknowledged by such a well-known activist and author?
I was SO flattered to be blurbed by him! I believe, however, that he meant it was a pleasure to meet the main character in my novel, not me. If I met Bill McKibben, I’d probably do something really awkward and make a complete fool of myself! Bill is a hero to so many of us in the climate change movement, but his dig at those “environmental types” is quite revealing. While there is absolutely nothing funny about climate change, we do need activists to take joy in the struggle and have fun in their activism. My goal was to bring humor and hope into a genre that is noted for dystopian despair.
Since then, Brian has come out with KABOOM!, and his third novel, Offline, came out April 22, 2019. Brian recently told me about his second novel:
KABOOM!, my second novel, is the story of Cyndie and Ashley, two spirited and spunky teenage girls living in the heart of coal country, West Virginia, who discover that their beloved mountain is to be blown sky high by the coal company. It’s a young adult romantic comedy that focuses on first love and finding your voice through environmental activism. While KABOOM! (Kids Against Blowing Off Our Mountaintops) is fictional, mountaintop removal is definitely not. It’s a horrendously destructive and extreme method of coal extraction and it’s heartening to know that there are many true-to-life committed activists in Appalachia intent on fighting it. The times we live in are tough, so rather than dwell in dystopian nightmares, I try to use humor and romance as tools to promote environmental issues and move my story along. KABOOM! won gold medals at the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards and the Literary Classics Book Awards.
It’s great to see youth activists taking on fossil fuels, one of the leading contributors to global warming. Brian’s stories are an example of how humor can be used to shed light on serious issues, without demeaning those issues, and how youth can be empowered to take on Big Things.
He also was excited to discuss Offline, coming soon:
Offline is a young adult romantic comedy about two spirited and spunky teenage girls. The novel’s focus this time is on cell phone and online addiction. Meagan, the heroine, is banished by her parents to her gay grandfather’s farm to deal with her “netaholism,” and a lot of the novel’s humor is Meagan and her bestie’s bumbling forays into the offline natural world. The inability for so many people to disconnect from their laptops and phones and get outside is driving me crazy, so I wrote a novel about it. It’s timely, it’s funny, and I hope it gets people (not just kids!) thinking about going offline.
Brian and I also talked about what’s been going on in the five years since Love in the Time of Climate Change.
Feedback from my first novel, Love in theTime of Climate Change, has been very positive. Published in 2014, the novel chronicles one semester in the life of my community college professor hero (mot me!) as he muddles his way through saving the world while desperately searching for true love. I tried to tackle potential world catastrophe in a fictionalized form through humor, social awkwardness and sex while driving home the essential science of climate change. Once again, silliness and a love story can hopefully entice readers into picking up my novel who might otherwise shy away from reading anything to do with such a paralyzing, mind-numbing issue.
In my non-literary life, my wife and I have inherited quite a bit of money, which we are using to install photovoltaics on non-profits whose mission we agree with. It’s an exciting project that allows us to put our money where our mouth is and help tackle climate change on the local level while allowing wonderful organizations to use more of their resources to do good work in the world. Climate action now!
I appreciate Brian doing the good work he does and taking the time to chat with me again about his novels. He tells me he is also working on another…stay tuned!
Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.