This month, I have for you an interview with an author who’s been involved on the climate front in numerous ways. Alexandra Kleeman (You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine), an Assistant Professor at the New School, has worked with Writers Rebel NYC and the Brooklyn Public Library’s Climate Reads series. Her latest novel, Something New Under the Sun, tells a richly layered story about multiple crises: climate change, corporate greed, and the widespread dissemination of misinformation. We discussed what draws her to these subjects, why she chose to set her latest novel in Hollywood, and how she’s witnessed the climate crisis manifest in her own life.
Something New Under the Sun touches on several ecological crises. I know that you’re also involved with other climate-related projects, such as Writers Rebel and the Brooklyn Public Library’s Climate Reads series. What draws you to these issues and why do you seek to explore them in your writing?
I moved around a lot as a kid, and the outdoors became a place of stability and security for me – not because these environments were all the same, but because common plants and animals showed up in each, like friends I recognized. I also had the experience, in every place I lived, of watching someplace I cared about get destroyed, a place that looked to developers like an unutilized piece of land but that contained little marshes and special trees that I had named and loved. When I saw what they put in the place of those woods or fields that I knew as particular, special entities, it always seemed to be an imitation of something else we already had, another blocky strip mall or vinyl-sided house. It gave rise to an intense fascination and ambivalence about the things that humans built, so durable and resistant to change in some ways, but also so fragile, unable to sustain themselves without a continual influx of energy, money, and natural resources. That feeling has fed a lot of my writing, which often examines the man-made and the processed as alien, denaturalized things – like the surreal, existential snack cakes in my first novel, You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine. But the climate-related changes that I’ve seen over the last decade, from rising sea levels and flooding close to my home in Staten Island to the record-breaking wildfires that have scoured my hometown, have driven home the fact that the consequences of warming are already arriving, the emergency moment is now.
To me, literature has an ethical obligation to help incorporate these cataclysmic shifts in our environment into our daily understanding of reality, to connect the precarity of those already experiencing drastic upheaval as a result of climate volatility to the lives of those who remain relatively untouched as a result of their privilege and geographical location, to describe the affects associated with climate grief, precarity, and ecological mourning and make them more concrete and palpable, to make them something than can be discussed more easily and more often. What does it mean to live alongside catastrophe and continue on living “life as we know it”? How can we metabolize the information we are given about climate change, how can we become less insulated, in mind and behavior, from the climate catastrophe that is already arriving? Literature doesn’t create direct change, but I do believe it can help us think through the impasses that keep us from organizing and taking action.
As you mentioned, you’re currently living on Staten Island. Why did you set your novel in Hollywood? Might it have anything to do with the extraordinary wildfires and droughts we’ve witnessed out West the last few years?
I knew that I wanted to set my novel in the West, in the sort of landscapes that I grew up in and feel a strong connection to – landscapes that were always troubled by drought and are increasingly going up in flames. But Hollywood was an especially compelling Western location because of the way it sits at the intersection of the constructed and the natural: surrounded by chaparral and desert and habitat still wild enough to support handfuls of mountain lions, but also home to a film industry based around pouring massive amounts of energy and craft into making these projects that seem to just unfold effortlessly before the eyes of the audience. The resources and apparatus that conjure these stories seem to vanish into thin air, and then the experience of watching a film and becoming absorbed in it feels almost immaterial, ghostly. It seems like a fitting metaphor for many other things in our American lifestyle – the way the massive amounts of water, oil, fertilizer, and labor that go into a carton of almond milk become invisible within the bright-lit aisles of the grocery store. Los Angeles is fascinating to me, because it represents at once its own unique materiality and the dream of becoming immaterial, changeable, infinitely plastic.
Your novel explores corporate corruption – and its relation to environmental degradation – through a wonderfully unique story. What inspired this part of your novel? Anything in real life?
There are so many instances of corporate corruption and destructive, short-sighted action right out in the open – the work of the gas and oil industry to suppress information about climate change and alternative energy technologies, the suppression of information about the harmful effects of PFOAs by DuPont chemical. In general, there’s a substitutive logic at work in this country that has unintended and harmful consequences – maybe the most important case study for me when writing this book was what we saw happening in Flint, Michigan, when the local government switched the city’s water source during a budget crisis. The new water hadn’t been treated with corrosion inhibitors, and lead began leaching from the old pipework into the drinking water supply, exposing the city’s majority Black population to high levels of lead over many years. Residents noticed a difference in the color and taste of the water and lodged many complaints which were ignored by the local government. There’s a tendency to think “Water is water” (or “wood is wood,” etc) erasing the specificity of a material’s origin and history and composition. But how these resources are obtained, how they interact with their new context matters: Substitution has unforeseen consequences; it’s never a simple one-to-one swap.
Your book also explores the rise of “alternative facts” and misinformation – a problem we’ve long seen in the realm of climate communication and amplified further in the era of COVID. What is it about this problem that interests you? Were there any case studies that particularly fascinated you while writing this book?
I’m fascinated by the world of misinformation and disinformation – not as much from the perspective of those working to sow confusion in a self-interested and cynical way, but from the perspective of those eager to believe it. I think there’s a powerful emotional impulse underlying the preference for an “alternative interpretation” of reality, and it can be understood and empathized with insofar as those of us who truly believe in the actuality of the climate crisis also experience the extreme tension caused by the idea that a world that feels stable and consistent on a day-to-day basis is in fact under threat and in the process of transforming into something that will feel alien. It causes even those who take climate change seriously to experience the desire to avoid thinking about or acknowledging the crisis at times, to avoid talking about it with others in order to preserve social harmony, to plan as though the conditions of life now will be the conditions of life twenty years from now. You could also say that, even though many of us (and presumably everybody reading this) believe that climate change is real, we do not necessarily behave in our daily lives like people who believe that the actions we take in the present make the crucial difference in how much the world will warm in our future. It is very difficult, psychologically and logistically, to divest yourself from a vision of the world that you feel relatively adapted to – and embracing alternative facts is a way of resolving that psychological strain.
To the extent that you feel comfortable, would you share how climate change and/or other environmental problems have manifested in your own life?
I live on the North Shore of Staten Island, close to the ferry and directly adjacent to a waterfront that was wrecked in Hurricane Irene, two years before Sandy. The fenced-off waterfront, overgrown with weeds but also populated by an apple tree and a rosebush and a few other remnants of the landscaped thing it used to be, is a daily reminder of its vulnerability to the sort of disasters that are certain to happen more often in the coming years. Along my walk to work is a section of the walkway that is literally falling into the harbor, and after storms or during higher tides the water comes up over the wreckage and sloshes onto the path. Also, the walk I usually take to work has been obsolete for several months, after a sinkhole opened up in the walkway and the whole area was fenced off – I still feel the impulse to walk that same route, and a sense of loss and uncertainty when I realize that I can’t. We see the signs of rising sea level and increasingly unstable ground and know that our time here is finite. At the same time, my home state of Colorado, a place I always thought I’d like to retire to someday, is burning each summer with record-setting fires that make the air so smoky it can seem on some days like the Rockies have vanished. I feel homesick all the time, whether I’m in New York or Colorado, and ultimately I think I’m most homesick for another time, a time of small, predictable changes, a time when disaster wasn’t woven into the fabric of daily life.
This is a funny question for someone whose book is only just hitting shelves, but what’s next for you? Anything you’d like my readers to watch for?
My next project is a novel spanning many different time periods and set on different islands. I’m fascinated by islands – my mother is from an island nation, and islands have served as a symbol for so many fantasies of how life and community might be reconfigured to allow for a better life, as well as the literal terrain for enacting these experiments. After so many dystopias, I’m excited to finally write something bordering on utopian – though I’m sure in my hands the term will look a little different and darker than what might be expected.
(Top image: Photo by Fred Tangerman/Djerassi.)
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.