I’m writing this as a nor’easter batters New York, New Jersey, and our home in New England, and as the Western US experiences record rainfall after prolonged drought. According to the NY Times, these weather patterns, especially those out west, are a “glimpse into the future,” a future brought about by the climate crisis.
As recently as just a few years ago, important media outlets like the Times weren’t making explicit connections between climate change and extreme weather events. Like you I’m sure, I’m thrilled to see these connections finally being made. But there is still so much work to be done in this area.
As news outlets ramp up their climate coverage (or, at least, I hope they will), artists and writers of all kinds continue to cover the climate crisis, encouraging readers and viewers to consider the complexity of the problem and the variety of impacts experienced around the world. One such writer is Marjorie B. Kellogg, author of Glimmer, a novel about a climate-ravaged New York City.
Marjorie has been writing about the climate crisis for some time in her fiction. She’s also the editor of The New Franklin Register and an award-winning scenery designer for theater on Broadway and Off-Broadway. She taught at Princeton and Columbia and was Associate Professor of Theater at Colgate University from 1995 to 2017. In our interview below, we discuss her latest novel, how she’s seen climate change manifest in her own life, and the role she sees fiction (and all kinds of art) playing in our larger discourse on climate.
Glimmer is a compelling character, who’s driven by survival and a sense of loss. Please tell us where she comes from! Who or what inspired her?
Basically, a who AND a what. The ‘what’ was a technical need: writing about a time that hasn’t happened (quite) yet requires a good deal of backstory and world-building, so that the reader can settle into an unfamiliar future with confidence, not constantly having to ask, “What’s going on and where am I?” But exposition can be static, badly disrupting the narrative flow. I wanted the characters to provide the necessary information through action and dialogue. Thus, Glimmer’s memory loss: if my protagonist can’t remember how the world got to the way it is as the story begins, the people around her must fill in by remembering it for her, gradually and as needed.
Later, as Glimmer regains her past bit by bit, her recollections become much more personal, but by then we have learned the world well enough to fit the personal into the more general Big Picture of flooded Manhattan 2110. But losing your past dislocates your sense of self as well as your place in the world. It leaves you vulnerable to missteps and misunderstandings, some perhaps comical but also potentially fatal. It’s a kind of disability.
I grew up with a handicapped sister. Her disability was not just an obstacle, but a constant source of threat and stress in her life, a physical and emotional vulnerability. Yet she had great stamina and determination. She was both sweet and deeply stubborn, and this combination of strength and vulnerability seemed exactly right for Glimmer as she manages to survive despite the odds.
What inspired you to write about the effects of climate change? Do you see the crisis manifesting in your own life?
Speaking of vulnerability, I have always been painfully aware of how vulnerable our planet is, perhaps due to reading science fiction from an early age, much of which does focus on humanity’s destructive treatment of the Earth. Even so, anyone who fails to see climate change happening is living under a rock!
Meanwhile, I am fortunate to live in a (so far) blessed place. Here in upstate New York, we have clean air and abundant water, few tornadoes, baby earthquakes, no volcanoes. When hurricanes rage up the coast, we might suffer local flooding but nothing like New Orleans or even New York City. A dry month brings caution and burn bans, but no unquenchable wildfires. We water our gardens without guilt.
Yet, as a gardener, I sense the changes, which is more disturbing than just reading about them. The long falls without a frost, the warmer winters, the earlier springs. The birds that stick around longer, perhaps even winter over. The reduction in their numbers. The steady infiltration of invasive plants and toxic insects from more southerly climate zones. I can grow plants here now that would never have survived the winters of twenty years ago. Often I joke that global warming is my friend. But it’s only a temporary advantage. What it suggests for our future, here and everywhere, is terrifying. That I can see it proves it’s happening way too fast.
Of course, weather is a constant factor in rural life, not just something that happens when you go outside. It can determine the course of a day, a week, a season, or an income. It can be a source of great beauty, of sensual pleasure, even drama. As such, it’s always had a central place in my fiction. Like a human character, it can be the hero or the villain. My fantasy work, The Dragon Quartet, features dragons born of the four natural elements, Earth, Water, Fire, and Air. My novel Lear’s Daughters, conceived with the scientific support of NASA climate scientist William Rossow, involves using weather as a weapon. (Also terrifying… but a lot of fun!)
Your book makes harrowing connections between dwindling resources and the threat of violent conflict. What do you hope readers take away from these connections?
I hope they will take a longer view and reconsider their actions in the world. I hope they will see that this is a shared, global crisis – societal as well as climatological – and that the only way for humanity to survive (if indeed we deserve to survive!) is to work together to reverse or, at best, limit climate change. If we do nothing, we’ll be fighting over the ruins. That much is not fiction. Too many people and too few resources equal war. It’s already the root cause of local conflicts all around the globe.
And because parts of the world will fare differently from the effects of climate change, the dichotomy of have and have-not will only deepen. We see it happening in this country already, with the Gulf Coast hurricanes or the western wildfires and water disputes. People forced to flee the hard-hit areas will become climate refugees desperate to move into places where the more fortunate do not want them and will fight not to share what they consider theirs by right.
But this might-makes-right scenario has no happy ending. I don’t claim the wisdom to provide a specific solution, but by bringing a scary but realistically conceived near-future to life in a fictional narrative, I hope to move readers to consider this crisis deeply, to take it on as their own, to take action to prevent that dire future from becoming a reality, while we still have the opportunity to do so.
I love that the people who stay behind in your version of a future climate-ravaged NYC are the people who are already rethinking how to live on Earth: the outsiders, the artists, the people who, because of any number of hardships, have had to scrape and scrap to get by. Do you think that more people should be thinking about different ways of living, of structuring our societies?
Yes, please! The more we think, the more chance of finding a way out of this! We need to do Darwin one better and redefine what it means to be ‘fittest.’
Like living creatures, societies evolve over time as they adapt to changing geographical and climatological conditions. In the past, except during cataclysmic events, these changes tended to come slowly enough for most organisms to keep up. But the pace of anthropogenic climate change may be too rapid for humans (or life in general) to adapt in time, especially if we continue to keep our heads in the sand and refuse to recognize how badly we’ve screwed up the natural systems that sustain us.
Still, there’s always a vanguard, often made up of people who have declined a stake in the status quo or have had it taken away from them – yes, outsiders, artists, idealists, visionaries. Conventional society sees such people as a danger, yet they have often been its saviors simply by being willing (or forced) to try something new.
And I think a lot of young people today are out there in front trying to figure out how we can live on this Earth and not destroy it. They see that the status quo is not working, and that only by sustaining the planet will we be able to sustain ourselves.
What role do you think novels do or can play in the wider discourse on climate?
Not everyone keeps up with the news, or reads non-fiction or the environmental press, especially younger folk busy with getting their lives going or raising kids. They are stressed and exhausted, and want to relax. If a novel (or art in general) can entertain as well as inform and enlighten, it stands a better chance of raising the more… shall we say, resistant or reluctant consciousness to a greater awareness of climate change, its reality, its coming consequences. Climate fiction can be a kind of recruitment device, rousing forces for the battle against climate change.
A story can draw in a reader with sympathetic characters that he/she can identify with. The flood or drought or famine is no longer some distant problem, but one the reader has shared with the characters living through it. Good reporting can do the same, of course, when the writer employs narrative structure and effects such as tension and surprise to tell real people’s stories, but fiction has a license to play with the facts, to add color, conflict, and action, to… I hesitate to say “manipulate,” but that is the goal… to produce the strongest emotional punch possible, to lead to a satisfying catharsis.
A film, say, provides every last visual detail in living color. But because a novel offers only words, it engages the reader’s imagination more fully, puts it to work filling in the imagery and color using personal references, and creating a version of the story that is the reader’s own.
A science fiction novel is often said to be the answer to the question “What if…?” Climate fiction can project into the future and speculate on any number of possible climate outcomes, depending on the steps taken or turned away from. Bringing these scenarios to life in ways that resonate personally can help us decide what the right steps are and how we might go about taking them.
Finally, I know you have a book that is just hitting shelves, but what’s next for you? Anything you’d like my readers to watch for?
As a break from finishing a long novel, I’ve been working on a series of short stories, linked by place and shared characters (as has become fashionable of late). They explore the very local impacts of climate change on rural farming communities such as my own, where a traditional way of life is being challenged not only by alterations in the weather but by the sudden influx of urbanites fleeing both the pandemic and deteriorating conditions in the cities due to climate events. A clash of cultures as well as the shocks of accelerating climate change. The sociology is complex, potentially violent, and it’s happening all around me.
So again, the big question to consider – since it seems we can’t find the collective will to address the problem and try to restore Earth’s climate to its pre-industrial state – is how are we going to live with this terrible imbalance we’ve created?
Who are we going to become?
A question certainly worth writing about.
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.