Jenny Offill: ‘This book is very much about anticipatory dread’
While researching climate change for Weather, her new novel, Offill had an 'oh s**t moment'
Jenny Offill: ‘When I’m writing a book, I think of it in terms of a mood or an emotional tenor’
Speaking with author Jenny Offill is a bit like stepping into one of her novels; it is a curiosity shop of conversation. There is stream of consciousness, disarming candour, some strange facts about the world, tidbits of psychology, an aside about her dog’s paw caught on a thread, but also laughter and a pervasive warmth.
Offill’s last novel, Dept. of Speculation, was published in 2014 to huge critical acclaim. In a series of sparse vignettes, we entered the world of a narrator torn between motherhood and the desire to be an “art monster”. “Women almost never become art monsters,” she wrote, “because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things.”
This month, Offill publishes her third novel, Weather, which began as a series of conversations with her novelist friend, Lydia Millet.
“I felt like she was always telling me these really dark things about climate change and I was very interested in them. They just never quite affected me emotionally. They always seemed like something abstract that was going to happen in the far future.”
A lot of this book was trying to convince myself to be a different person than I am
Then Offill came across a New York Times article by Irish-based writer and environmental activist, Paul Kingsnorth. He spoke of a movement of environmentalists who have retreated from giving people “false hope” that climate change could be stopped. This spurred Offill to research the “timetable” of climate change.
And that’s when she had what she describes as her “oh s**t moment”.
“Scientists were now saying expect this to happen not only in your lifetime but definitely in your child’s lifetime. From there, I went from being a rather non-activist kind of person to the person who is the weird doomer at the dinner party, who ruins it.”
In Weather, the narrator Lizzie is an empathetic librarian, caring for her depressed addict brother and her young son but like Offill, Lizzie stays up at night researching the end of the world. All the anxieties of modern life are there: fear, then apathy, tending to the mundanities of life while the world burns.
Offill realised that she suffered from a particular type of climate denial “to know it intellectually but to not have it affect you in a way that has more of an emotional charge”. The book became “a very novelistic project of maybe wanting to make you feel something about this”.
Weather is not a “facts and figures book” but Offill did decide to include the one number that had generated that “oh s**t” moment. “There was a disturbing website where you can put your birth date of yourself, or as I did, my child, and see what the temperatures were projected to be like [in certain regions].” For New York, where Offill lives, it said there would be life-altering temperature changes by 2047.
“I realised [my daughter] is going to be in her forties and may have children of her own and she’s going to be facing something that I never faced and that I won’t have any advice for.” Offill made a project of “emotional prepping”.
“I tried to learn everything under the sun so that I would have something to give her, that I would have done some small thing.
“I’m far from the first parent to have, you know, frighteningly little control over the environment that my child was going to grow up in. I started reading about people who live that way now, whether they’re in war zones or just zones of poverty but I also started looking at historical things. What were some of the ways that people kept their spirits, to some degree...”
She’s gathered these stories on a website to go along with the book, “not like a promotional site”. There will be lists of organisations and “tips for trying times”. Offill is earnest about this; she believes collective action is the only hope and speaks at length about organisations she admires.
When I’m writing a book, I think of it in terms of a mood or an emotional tenor. This book is very much about anticipatory dread
“I was joking with my publicist. They wanted to pick a thing to put on pencils. I was like, how about, ‘Out of the library, into the streets!’
“A lot of this book was trying to convince myself to be a different person than I am.” She is not very “hippie-ish” she insists, laughing. In Weather, Lizzie laments the dreariness of environmentalism, a sentiment Offill shares. “But at a certain point I had to really ask myself, so is that what I’m going to say when I’m asked what I did. I’m gonna say, there were things to do but the aesthetics of the movement was really tedious to me.”
She talks about “the incandescent rage” at meetings of youth-led environmental movements. “You realise that all the ways we might not feel it, but just think about it, they feel it. They feel like they’re being betrayed by the people who supposedly love them the most.”
Offill quotes US writer Toni Cade Bambara, “who wrote that the writer’s job is to make the revolution irresistible”. The hard facts have failed to motivate. “So that’s where I think there’s some new thinking about what can the humanities do.”
Offill has never been overly concerned with plot, being more preoccupied with a certain momentum in her work. “When I’m writing a book, I think of it in terms of a mood or an emotional tenor. With Dept. of Speculation, I really felt like it was a book about loneliness. This book is very much about anticipatory dread.”
She thinks of a doctor in Albert Camus’ The Plague who “talks about active fatalism; those moments where you’re not sure that what you’re doing is going to help, but that you sort of fumble forward in the dark, trying to do good. Because that’s really what it means to behave with decency and honour, you know. And that’s really what it’s meant throughout history”.
I ask Offill about a remark she once made that “depressed people see the world more accurately”.
“As a depressive freak myself, I love to hold on to that idea because you feel like, oh good, it was worth something,” she says now.
“Obviously there’s different versions of depression, but the one that’s been my lifelong companion is one in which I feel very apart from those around me. I feel extremely self-conscious and strange, but I also feel very porous, like every other feeling that is in a room is something that is coming through to me. Having these antenna, that is very useful as a writer, but it’s too much information as just a human, trying to, you know, go to a party.”
Offill brought some of that feeling to Henry, Lizzie’s depressed addict brother in Weather who occupies so much of Lizzie’s attention. “I have known a lot of people over the years who were addicted to various substances. It feels almost like the way things are in mythology, like that cycle of eternal return. It’s so hard to completely get out. I was thinking of ideas of caretaking – what does it mean to try to take care of other people whether they’re your close kin, or neighbours or even strangers.”
Henry’s depression mirrors her own to some extent. “My experience when I’m depressed is that I’m sort of exhausting, because my thoughts are just looping. I’m luckier these days because I’ve been medicated and blathering on about myself to a shrink for years, so it doesn’t hit in the same way.”
I feel like philosophical novels or novels that engage with ideas in everyday moments, they often are the purview of single male narrators: over-educated, under-utilised men
Dept. of Speculation has been described a forming part of a new literary canon of motherhood. Does this book follow on from that? Offill was “trying to figure out how to put into a novel that experience of feeling like care-taking was an unusual combination,” in Dept. of Speculation. “It just swung between being tedious and sublime, all the time. I wasn’t really clear when it was going to switch from one to the other.” Weather is “an outward looking book. The other book was very interior”.
Weather retains something of the “walking around” novels that Offill has always enjoyed, such as Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, which are often written by men. She once described her work as a “f*** you to the way novels about domestic life are usually treated”.
“It’s a bit of feminist project for me,” she says now. “I feel like philosophical novels or novels that engage with ideas in everyday moments, they often are the purview of single male narrators: over-educated, under-utilised men. I don’t know very many women who are not very extended into other people’s lives. Doesn’t matter if you’re single or married or working. I just don’t know very many idle philosopher women, but I know lots of philosopher women. The idea to kind of weave it into the ‘daily-ness’, the domestic part of life, felt like something that I’m always wanting to do.”
She once spoke of secretly wanting “to shove some of those boy writers with their monster books off the stage”.
“They just have those giant books, y’know,” she says, laughing. “I’ve heard more than one woman writer mumble about the Knausgaard phenomenon that if a woman had written 40 pages about going to her child’s birthday party, this would not have seen the light of day. Whereas I’m constantly watching my friends perform these astonishing feats. They might run a children’s birthday party while at the same time like run out and care for their dad who is dying in the old age home... there is a certain funniness about how used to it women are.”
As for Offill’s style, which is now, perhaps her signature style: those text block vignettes, those wide margins, a novel pared back – it begins with reams of material collected “in a magpie fashion…like if you were writing a dissertation and you were extremely scattered”.
I think I take a while with my books because I want anything I put next to each other, I want to see if it holds
Four years into writing Weather, she got so stuck that she printed out everything she had written, cut it into pieces and stuck it up on the wall, “to get it off the screen and out into the world so that I could walk by it”.
She also used Brian Eno Oblique Strategies, a set of cards designed to break through creative blocks. She idly picks one up as we speak and it says, “Gardening, not Architecture”, then another says, “Is there something missing?”
“I will say that it is an extremely inefficient way to make progress on a novel.”
The “tricky part” to her style is that “if you don’t get it right, it appears random. “I think I take a while with my books because I want anything I put next to each other, I want to see if it holds. So the main sorting factor is usually time for me. Things cease to seem radiant to me and then I take them out.”
The success of Dept. of Speculation allowed her to teach less so gets to be an art monster, “when I can get away with it”. When finishing a book, she reverts “to the part where I just don’t want to get out of my chair and I’m miserable but I want to see if I can write a decent sentence and I’m just going to eat Skittles and drink Red Bull because why waste time with real food. I can go there pretty quickly”.
But right now she has to go; the dog is whimpering at her feet, and she has to pick up her daughter.