Why All Fiction Should Be Climate Fiction: A Conversation with Lauren Groff

From the cover of Lauren Groff's book Florida, the orange silhouette of a panther is set against a black background with white capitalized letters spelling FLORIDA
The cover of Lauren Groff's book Florida, a black background with an orange silhouette of a panther walking on orange grass

In the final story, “Yport,” in Lauren Groff’s short story collection Florida, the protagonist “can’t stop the thought that children born now will be the last generation of humans…. She feels it nearing, the midnight of humanity. Their world is so full of beauty, the last terrible flash of beauty before the long darkness.” A profound anxiety about environmental apocalypse suffuses this book, as does the celebration of the natural world.

Helen Phillips, author of the short story collection Some Possible Solutions, interviewed Lauren Groff during a brief respite from Groff’s cross-country book tour in July 2018 to discuss climate change, fiction, motherhood, morality, storms, and animals.

Stream or download the conversation here. Interview highlights follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Helen Phillips: Thank you, Lauren, for talking to me today about your new book Florida. I’m going to dive right in with one of the central questions that I had while reading. Climate change and apocalypse were really central themes that ran throughout the book. You bookend Florida with this. In the first story you have this funny and tragic image of these nuns enduring the apocalypse underground in their nunnery, and then in the last story you have one of the most incredible paragraphs in the book. A woman has gone with her two sons to Europe to escape this dread that has been haunting her, but she finds that the dread tracks her down even in France. And the mother thinks:

“She can’t stop the thought that children born now will be the last generation of humans. Her sons have known only luck so far, though suffering will surely come for them. She feels it nearing the midnight of humanity. Their world is so full of beauty. The last terrible flash of beauty before the long darkness.”

So, you have this apocalyptic dread running through it. And yet in another story, “The Midnight Zone,” the narrator says, “I could manage only a few terrors at a time,” which was kind of funny and sad at once. My question for you is, how do we manage these terrors about apocalypse and climate change? What do we do with this existential dread about the future of humanity? Just to start with a really easy straightforward question.

Writer Lauren Groff leans against a brick wall painted white wearing a black shirt with her hair pulled back into a low bun
Lauren Groff. Image courtesy of Lauren Groff, 2017.

Lauren Groff: If we were actually reacting to climate change in appropriate ways we’d all be running around with our heads on fire. Right? I mean, what we are doing is not appropriate in any way. It’s almost this collective hypnosis where we all have agreed that if we don’t talk about it constantly, it doesn’t actually exist. If we avert our eyes, it won’t be happening because we’re not looking at it. It’s a very human failure in a lot of ways. So, I, like everyone else, have a very hard time actually facing it because it is the deepest terror of our lives now. I do think that the way that one engages with climate change, without necessarily allowing it to kill you, because it could kill you out of dread and fear and anxiety, is you have to find a laser-like focus on a few things because we cannot mitigate the whole thing all by ourselves. But we can each do something small or smallish. My only talent is as a writer. That’s the only thing I can do. So now I feel as though I am being immoral if I am not addressing it somehow in my work. Of course, I write literary fiction, so it can’t be polemical. If it’s polemical, I’ve failed. I need to do something more scalpel-like, something a little bit sideways. I need to settle into this idea of climate change without necessarily having it be really heavy-handed. Because in the past I’ve read many, many polemical books and they’re not good. I also have profound moral disagreements with catastrophic apocalypse novels. Humanity always comes through in the end, and that seems to me as though it’s a false catharsis. If you imagine the reader entering into this idea of climate change in a controlled space and by the end of the book, they’ve closed the book and can walk away without feeling implicated. I think that’s sending the reader down a false path and I think it’s narratively corrupt in a lot of ways. This is not to say that none of these books are beautiful or that they’re not worthy of writing. But I do think that they’re actually kind of immoral in the age of climate change.

Helen Phillips. Image courtesy of Helen Phillips, photo by Andy Vernon-Jones, 2018.

HP: That brings me right to another question that I had for you related to climate change and genre. I was recently on a panel about climate change and art with Amitav Ghosh who wrote The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable and writes speculative fiction as well. We discussed in our conversation how speculative and futuristic fiction lends itself particularly well to the exploration of, or freaking out about, climate change because it’s about the future. And he even argues in his book The Great Derangement – and I’m quoting from Sarah Dimick’s review of the book for Edge Effects – that “literary realism… can’t contain the highly improbable climate we now inhabit, that our climate has exceeded the capacities of realism as a genre.” But your realism absolutely does inhabit this concern about climate change. So I’m curious how you would respond to his argument that realism can’t achieve this. And, in a way, you very articulately and eloquently just spoke about how and why those fantastical novels actually don’t do justice to the problem, because they give you this catharsis that maybe is not implicating or lingering enough.

LG: The other thing, too, is that climate change is happening right now. I see it on a daily basis. I live in Florida. I go out for a run in the prairie. It’s a very vulnerable, beautiful, extraordinary place. It’s haunted by the ghosts of everything that’s ever passed through it. But you see these gradual degradations happening within the prairie. Since I run there every day I can watch it happen. That speculative stuff pushes the moral impetus into the future, and it doesn’t keep it in the present, which is actually where the true ethical quandary is. And this is not to say that I have any problems at all with speculative fiction. I love it. It was my first love. But the thing is, the real issue is happening now. Expanding the timeline into a more corrupt future may be also equally realistic, but even if speculative, it’s turning away from the imperatives of the now and imperatives of the now are really where we should be focusing. I would love to see more speculative fiction happening like what you do, and you do it amazingly well: contemporary climate change speculative fiction that doesn’t feel as though it’s giving up on the moral imperative. I want to see more of that, in all genres. I don’t feel genre is particularly useful thing anyway. I think that if you do it well it’s just called literary.

HP: This book is just like a zoo of animals. There are so many of them. They are the stars of the book. They’re the villains of the book. They are threatening and eerie and comforting and sympathetic. They are very powerful but they are also victims. In fact, animals so much haunt the book that even humans are described as being animal-like. I loved the line in the first story where a couple “owled,” they owl their heads around to look at the narrator. Even in terms of your metaphors, this book is just suffused with animals. I wanted to talk about animals as our mortal enemies, as our comfort. We have snakes and panthers and insects and cats and all sorts of other animals and lizards. You seem to love lizards. I feel like lizards are always described with a lot of kindness.

This book is invested in pushing hard against assumptions of domesticity and superiority and dominance.

LG: I love lizards! We have so many amazing different kinds of lizards around our house and sometimes in our house. This book is about dissolving boundaries in certain ways, where we believe that we are civilized but we are actually animals who thought ourselves out of a state of basic animalness. That’s what civilization is, collectively working together to take a step back from our animal natures. It is how we differentiate ourselves from animals, and it’s how we justify doing what we’re doing to the world. And animals being mute, we mistake their muteness for compliance, we mistake their muteness for not understanding. But I don’t think that’s the case at all. Think about all the dolphins who are now beaching themselves or the whales who have been around longer than we have. I have a feeling they know what’s going on. It’s a very, very old question that goes back to Genesis. This idea that Adam is somehow a steward of all the animals on the earth which gives him dominion over them. But dominion doesn’t mean dominance. Dominion means we should be custodians and caretakers, and we have profoundly failed in this, in every way.  Another thing is that this book is resisting domesticity, resisting civilization, and the things that we are told to want. Motherhood is very much the archetype of domesticity in a lot of ways and is also the thing that turns us into really basic animals. If you’re in labor, there is nothing civil about you and there shouldn’t be. You’re trying to emit a human from inside of you. And then the hormones that happen after the baby is in the world, suddenly you’re just flush with them and the world seems to be trembling with them. That was the moment when I really felt as though I was the animal. So, this book is invested in pushing hard against assumptions of domesticity and superiority and dominance.

HP: What do you want your readers to do after reading this book? What kind of action would you hope for?

LG: So that’s the problem with literary fiction that’s trying to be non-polemical. I actually don’t have any actions. I don’t have any ways for other people to act. I do think that we cannot continue to avert our eyes. We have to look harder. We have to actually pay attention, no matter how painful it is. We have to take joy in the daily. We can’t let this cloud of doom hang over us. We need to take moments out of our days in order to focus our rage and dread, and then live our lives for the rest of the day. We have to find the one thing that we care the most about, and then go full tilt into ameliorating it, whether that be taking care of children our government has kidnapped from their parents or halting the open season on grizzly bears or doing something about plastic straws in your local café. I don’t know what it is for every individual, but just find one thing you can accomplish, do it, and then find another thing and commit with your whole self.

HP: Yes. While the moments of hopefulness are few and far between in the book, they really are there. There was one moment that I love so much in “Ghosts and Empties:” “and I yelp aloud because of the swiftness of youth, these gorgeous changes that insist that not everything is decaying faster than we can love it.” In a story that’s dark and despairing that was a kind of glimmering candle that I needed. You need the glimmering candle to uphold the rage in a certain way. Like your two stories with these huge storms in them, and then each of them ends with this perfect object, in one an egg on the doorstep and in the other a perfect orange. So, there are these tiny minuscule things that feel hopeful.

“… not everything is decaying faster than we can love it.”

LG: I do believe that there are these glimmering moments of joy that we all need to recognize before they go past us. So if that means that you take pleasure in the smell of an orange peel or you understand that there is promise in the entire idea of an egg—an egg is the most miraculous thing if you actually look at it and hold it and think about it—with these things we have something to hold onto as almost a way to buffet ourselves against the external and internal storms. It feels necessary to be sure that you take profound pleasure in the beautiful things in life.

HP: And something that happens in a storm—and maybe you can speak to this better than I can, living in Florida—is the home ceases to be home. Your home is invaded by external forces and it’s no longer cozy, it becomes frightening. You spoke earlier about domesticity, and the way the book is actually fighting against domesticity, and storms just pound through domesticity. They just will break your home and destroy your home.

LG: It’s a reminder that no place is entirely safe. We’re not going to be able to flee, because even our homes can be invaded, so we can’t put things off. We have to remember that even your cozy house where you spent thousands of dollars updating the kitchen could be taken away too. Our comfort is comfort only because we are not paying attention to what could happen. Anxiety is a difficult thing; it’s a difficult thing to live with. But it’s also a way of constantly projecting “what if?” scenarios, so that when things do come down the pike that are difficult to deal with you’re a little bit more prepared than a lot of people. I think about that Lars von Trier movie Melancholia. The basic premise is that melancholic people can see the apocalypse coming. If you’re really, really depressed, you can see it coming so you’re less incapacitated when the time comes. There’s a part of me that thinks, wow, houses are incredible. I’m kind of a hermit in Gainesville, Florida. I barely ever leave the house. But I can’t barricade myself against the world in the house. I have to actually remember that it’s as vulnerable as our bodies are vulnerable.

A collapsed house is piled next to a palm tree bent over with the remains of an air conditioner on the sand
Remains of a neighborhood destroyed by Hurricane Irma in Big Pine Key, Florida on Sept. 20, 2017. Photo by J.T. Blatty / FEMA.

HP: Florida is kind of like the animals in the book. It’s the hero of the book and the villain of the book. How are you feeling, as a Florida resident, after having spent so much time writing and thinking about the flora and fauna of your state?

LG: Florida is always, in the narratives of it, simplified to this ridiculous thing. It’s the embarrassment of the United States, when in reality it is so many layered and complicated things. There’s not a single person who’s ever written the definitive Florida book because there’s no such thing possible. It just doesn’t exist, it couldn’t exist. So, I really wanted to pay homage to the complexity and the ambiguity and the ambivalence one can feel while hating certain parts of the state and also tremendously loving it. So, flat out, the title means not only the state itself—which is the very basic surface meaning—and not only the internal state, this sort of feeling of a swampy dread with a golden core of sunshine overhead. But it’s also the discomfort with which we humans live in the natural world. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, and it constantly reminds you of your animal nature, Florida does, because it’s constantly hot. You’re always sweating. And if you’re not sweating, it’s because you believe you have set yourself apart from nature. You’ve gone inside into the air conditioning. And Florida, it’s a mess but it’s gorgeous. It’s a political disaster and yet it’s full of good people. It’s not a single story. It’s dangerous and it’s welcoming and it’s the weirdest place I’ve ever lived. I still don’t feel at home and yet it’s home and I carry it around with me.

Featured image: Portion of the hardcover book jacket for Lauren Groff’s Florida.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Lauren Groff is the author of five books, including this year’s Florida and Fates and Furies, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Kirkus Prize. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harper’s, Tin House, the PEN/O. Henry Award, Pushcart Prize, and five editions of the Best American Short Stories anthologies. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 2017 she was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. Website. Twitter. Contact.

Helen Phillips’s fifth book, The Need, is forthcoming in 2019. Her collection Some Possible Solutions received the 2017 John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Her novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat was a New York Times Notable Book of 2015. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic and the New York Times, and on Selected Shorts. She teaches at Brooklyn College. Website. Twitter. Contact.