It’s been six years since Jenny Offill published her last book, The New York Times best seller Dept. of Speculation. Along with Maggie Nelson’s 2015 memoir, The Argonauts, it’s hard to find another book whose form and style influenced contemporary writers more. Eschewing traditional narrative, description and dialogue, Offill constructed a novel through distilled fragments that build upon one another, crafting a rhythm that made one feel as if they had stepped inside the mind of her protagonist, a new mother. With this original style and structure, Dept. of Speculation deeply resonated with readers, examining the lasting effect that parenthood has on a career as well as a marriage. Dept. of Speculation was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and was named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review.
Weather is a book that, in terms of style, will be familiar to fans of Dept. of Speculation. Buffered by white space, her economical passages provide an exhaustive knowledge of human nature, modern society and critical thought. That dense work is infused with humor and empathy as well as pathos, giving it the ballast to convey as much as Offill does without having to dance around the point.
What separates her two latest books isn’t plot or even a radically new cast of characters, but a mission. While Dept. of Speculation gazed inward, Weather directs itself outward, recognizing that whether or not we have come to terms with ourselves, the world isn’t graciously waiting. What looms is a force larger than our own inner demons. Lizzie, a librarian by default, has reconciled her failed academic career and her husband found himself creating educational video games instead of teaching the Stoics in a university setting. Together they raise their son while Lizzie does her best to help her brother, a recovering addict and new father, wrestle with his addictions and fears. Against the backdrop of the 2016 election, it becomes increasingly hard for Lizzie to juggle her squashed ambitions and strained personal life with the political chaos and environmental disaster that seems imminent. Offill has created a novel for our precarious moment. On the verge of what feels like freefall, her characters aim to connect only to fail. Finding themselves with no other option, they try again and again. Observer spoke with Offill about her unique writing style and the origins of her activism, which informs this incredible novel.
Observer: Growing up, you lived all over the country and, as an adult, after college at UNC Chapel Hill, you moved to New Orleans for a year before moving to Stanford for graduate school and then heading back East. Did this impact your writing style and your relationship to memory?
Jenny Offill: I moved around a lot as a kid and there’s something about being perpetually, or at least temporarily, an outsider that I do think it probably helped with that art of attention, of noticing things. I think that also, I moved so much that instead of going back to one house, I have a lot of fragmentary memories of places we lived. With Dept. of Speculation, I was writing along the way that my mind works. The first novel is also representative to the way I think because of its little Russian Doll nested stories, but it’s definitely written in a more linear fashion without white space around the passages.
I will say that I had been teaching all these years [before writing Dept. of Speculation] and I’d always been telling my students, “You can take chances. You can take risks with form. You can be inventive. You don’t always have to build a bridge; sometimes you can leap.” I’m saying all these things and I’m not listening to it at all. I was plotting along. I wrote a whole novel in between Last Things and Dept. of Speculation that was not very good. It was kind of about the same things as Dept. but from a different point of view and then I just ended up giving up all of it and starting over. It was scary but liberating to move forward just trusting that what was interesting to me might be interesting to other people and that I knew it would have to take a lot of work.
That’s why my books take me so long—the form takes a very long time to find. I write them in these little pieces and then the image that always comes to me is if you were looking up at the sky and there were stars. We humans can make those stars into a bear or a plow or something, but there’s a long time when I’m just looking at a star and, thinking, “OK, that’s a little point of light, that’s a little point of light, but what is it?” There’s a long period, usually several years, where I’m trying to see the bigger picture of it. In the meantime, I write the micro parts.
Given the success of Dept. of Speculation, did you want to stick with the voice you’d developed or push your conception of narrative style even further?
Dept. of Speculation is a very interior book and I had conceived of it as I was writing it as a very interior book. I was thinking of “walking around novels” where people walk around thinking, but I wanted it to be someone who was actually quite closely tied to the people around her. Not just a free roamer as is often the case with those books. For this one, I was more interested in taking in more of the world outside of the character’s head.
I think it mirrored my own struggle, which is a continuing struggle to not live entirely in a world of books or in my head, to look out the window and go out into the street and have a sense of what’s going on. As I became more involved in reading and thinking about climate change and then later, obviously, with our political disaster of the last couple years, it started to feel to me personally less and less something I could do in good conscious—write a whole book that was just about what’s going on in her head and not have her notice the sort of things that other people around her are struggling with, like the world unraveling.
It can take the world unraveling to make someone shake their introverted habits, but Dept. of Speculation is such an interior book and Weather is a transition away from that. This world is barging into otherwise sedate lives and there’s nothing you can do but accept it. The book reflects the fact that the world is turning us inside out.
I think for me, the difference between the first book and the second book is the lines that strike me as the key lines of the book. In Dept. of Speculation there’s that moment early on where this very perceptive friend of mine said upon first reading the novel, “The book is really all about the line where they’re traveling somewhere beautiful and she asks, ‘Would it fix my brain?’ and everything is about what might fix my brain and what might keep the loneliness or depression at bay.”
In this new novel, I feel like [it’s about] the whole idea of “Young person’s worry: what if nothing I do matters? Old person’s worry: what if everything I do matters?” That sense of being enmeshed with other people for good or for ill has become stronger and stronger for me as I’ve grown older. And, also, it started to extend to non-human creatures. It was very hard to write about it, though, because I felt like the language wasn’t language I knew how to use very well. I didn’t feel that I could write about the so-called “web of life” or whatever.
That’s not my natural way of speaking, but I moved into reading about the sociology and philosophy of political movements and also about climate change. And one thing I came across that was really interesting was the philosopher Donna Haraway talking about how you have to stay with the trouble. That’s what we have to do now: stay with the trouble.
And there’s going to be great complexity there. Great terror, great joy. Also, things we don’t understand yet but your role is to not look away from it. Recently I became part of Extinction Rebellion. Like all big movements, you can find many flaws about this or that, but I do [believe in] their idea that we have to tell the truth at this point about climate change as an emergency. Everybody who can—and I do believe there are some who can’t, whose lives are already too overloaded—but for those of us who can, who have a little extra energy to spare, we need to find a place to do something toward combatting climate change. That’s what I’ve been thinking about with this. When I was writing the novel I was thinking about it, and now that I’ve finished the novel I’ve been thinking about it more along the lines of “where do I go, what do I do, how do I extend these thoughts of mine out of the library into the street?”
Growing up in New Orleans, given the state of the wetlands, I always knew that we as humans were living on borrowed time. Hurricane Katrina only drilled home that point.
Even when I lived in New Orleans for a year in the 1990s, we talked about how New Orleans had a bull’s eye on it. There would be days when the streets would flood. I remember my whole car got flooded several times and I would wade across the street to get some places. There was a sense that everyone had already made adaptations, but I think that’s one of the interesting things about people talking about climate change because it keeps being put—for mostly western white people—in language that assumes something is coming when it’s already here. It’s been here for a long time for a lot of people. And it just a rolling series of disasters. We just had the Australian fires and the extreme levels of destruction there.
I think one of the questions that I wonder about is what can we do as writers? We have all these ways that we’ve imagined dystopias and I think that the thing we need to imagine is something about what might be exhilarating or thrilling in this new, half-ruined world. I’m trying to speak out with this novel, and I made a website that’s meant to offer resources, which is called Obligatory Note of Hope. I highlight three organizations that I think are doing really impressive work. One is the Sunrise Movement which is youth lead. Extinction Rebellion has taken some completely reasonable knocks about not being diverse enough and I think they’re doing a lot about that, but the Sunrise movement is a youth lead, inclusive movement.
I talk about transition towns, which are very local things. They have things like a tool library where you can borrow tools. It’s all very small scale and yet it’s now spread all over the world. In Liége, Belgium, they had an idea: what if we made a food circle and we tried to get the things that were eaten in the city to be grown within nine or ten miles. Then the activists partnered with the farmers and storekeepers and they’re doing it.
The last organization is Extinction Rebellion, because I think radical action is called for and nonviolent direct action is necessary.
And the fun part is that I made “tips for trying times.” I took a million little things that I came across that I couldn’t get into the book. And there’s a little section called “people of conscious,” which are thumbnail portraits of people both now and in other tumultuous moments in history who decided to not stand back and watch, who took action in small and quite large forms.
I love that your book is suffused with humor. You always have to learn how to laugh despite horror and you only survive through laughter.
I feel like that is one of the things that keeps people afloat during tough times and you see it in communities that have been traditionally marginalized—that there is a strong way of talking about absurdity. For whatever reason, I never came from a place of thinking things would be certain or safe. It’s never seemed like a shock to me that they aren’t, but I do feel like what is new for me, because I am just not naturally much of a joiner, what’s new for me is that in my very bookish way I researched myself into absolutely believing that collective action is the antidote to this dread, and I think collective action takes lots of different forms. Being a member of a co-op, doing something in your neighborhood. Doing anything where we recognize that we are social animals who need to help each another and need to be face to face more often than we are right now.
Donna Haraway talks about what it means to consider that we have kinship, and considering families in a different way. She’s been at the forefront of queer theory for years. She essentially says, “Let’s think of chosen families in addition to families of origin, and let’s now extend that in an interspecies way and think about what it means to be kin with other various living creatures.” It’s interesting stuff. It’s written in a very dense theoretic language. I feel like I’m sort of always wiping the glass. Like I’m driving and there’s a great idea but I have to get past that thicket.
Could you tell me more about how you first learned about Extinction Rebellion (XR) and what your engagement with them is like?
I saw something about their protests in the United Kingdom and then started reading about them. It was hard to commit at first, especially because of the whole “it’s just posh white people” criticism and not being sure what you could do if you didn’t want to or couldn’t be arrested. I went to a few meetings to check it out and was impressed but undecided. Then I discovered their subgroups, Doctors for XR, Scientists for XR, etc. and I sent a note of support to the writers’ version (known as Writers Rebel). One of the founders of the writers’ group, Liz Jensen, kindly wrote back and before I knew it I was having a meeting with some other NY based people to see if we could start a US version. They are doing for climate activism what ACT UP did during the AIDS crisis—and ACT UP got results.