While re­search­ing the ‘timetable’ of cli­mate change for her new novel, Jenny Of­fill be­gan think­ing about her daugh­ter. That’s when she had her ‘oh s**t mo­ment’

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - CATHERINE CONROY

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.”

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 40s 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.

“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!’

In­can­des­cent rage

“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’s The Plague who “talks about ac­tive fa­tal­ism; those mo­ments where you’re not sure that what you’re do­ing is go­ing to help, but


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’

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.”

Canon of moth­er­hood

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 de­scribed her work as a “f**k you to the way nov­els about do­mes­tic life are usu­ally treated”.

“It’s a bit of a 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”.

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”. 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 she 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.

Weather is re­viewed on page 21

Jenny Of­fill: ‘I re­alised my daugh­ter is go­ing to be in her 40s 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.’

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