What is the krill issue, Rory?’
‘The krill issue is…’ Rory ponders, ‘very serious. Very, very serious.’
Melt by Lisa Walker
I’m the kind of writer who likes a challenge. Tell me that climate change is the most boring subject ever, as many have done, and I can’t whip out my laptop and start a novel on the topic fast enough.
But wait, climate change guru Bill McKibben says that climate change stories are difficult to tell. They’re too big, we are all to blame and there isn’t much chance of a happy ending. Ouch. This climate change thing is a bit of a downer.
It’s no wonder that climate change fiction has mainly been dominated by apocalyptic narratives – The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and A Friend of the Earth by TC Boyle, to name a few. These novels are amazing but, while I’m as frightened and angry as anyone, apocalypse isn’t my bag.
I’m a one trick pony – rom coms are my thing. I like to make people smile. So, being the over-confident fool that I am, I decided it was time I rolled my sleeves up and wrote a romantic comedy about climate change. Humorous love stories with happy endings can be climate change fiction too. Let’s face it, there are only so many scorched wastelands and mutant animals one can take.
The issue I faced in writing ‘Melt’ was to link this serious global issue to an entertaining and relatable story. Carbon dioxide and rising sea levels do not a novel make. Stories are about people – they thrive on the personal and particular. I needed a character and a situation that readers could relate to.
I’ve always loved fish-out-of-water comedies. Watching a character battle their way out of circumstances which they don’t have the skills to handle is so much fun. In ‘Melt’ my main character, Summer, is forced to impersonate a television science superstar in Antarctica. She knows nothing about glaciology, penguins or krill and her boss forbids her to talk about climate change…
‘There will be no mention of climate change on Channel Five. It’s boring and it’s bad for business. It makes people feel bad. Our job is to make people feel good. Is that understood?’
Author Jonathan Franzen says that as a reader, if he senses he is reading environmental advocacy, he puts the writing down. Authors need to seduce their audience, not knock them over the head with a message. This is where comedy comes in. It can allow us to consider realities that would otherwise be overwhelming.
While Summer initially hams up the sex life of krill for her television program, she later discovers exactly how serious the krill issue is. My use of humour doesn’t belittle the climate change issue, but rather engages readers in thinking about it. Despite her strict instructions, Summer finds that she can’t resist going off script.
I take a deep breath. ‘Hurricanes are increasing! Bushfires are raging! Polar bears are at risk of extinction!’ Polar Fun for Kids filled me in on the polar bear situation. It seems the thin sea ice in the Arctic is leading to polar bears having difficulties in catching seals.
Rory is wide-eyed. It’s hard to know whether he’s impressed or alarmed. Maria opens her mouth, but I hold up my hand. I am Cougar. I have the floor. I have no idea what I’m going to do with it, but I haven’t finished yet.
As well as humour, relationships play a key role in my novel, in terms of providing hope for the reader and alternative perspectives to the issue. It is not unprecedented for romance to tackle environmental issues — authors such as Jennifer Scoullar and Rachael Treasure are known for this. Romance can offer a story which shows how climate change plays out in characters’ lives in an extremely personal way. In ‘Melt’ I try to leave the reader with a subtle feeling of hope, rather than a disempowering notion of catastrophe. Even the villain is last seen riding his bike to parliament.
Environmental change is intrinsically linked to cultural change and fiction can be persuasive. Sadly, the arguably most influential climate change novel to date – Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, whichwas made required reading for the US government – is on the denialist side of the debate. But still, I live in hope.
We authors are sneaky, we like to seduce and as everyone knows, where hearts go, heads will follow. We need climate change stories in all sorts of genres, as many as possible. Sci-fi and romance, comedy and thrillers. Writers, open your laptops now!
An early review of ‘Melt’ by author Kim Kelly says that it is “… so much more than romcom… It’s a bittersweet, cleverly nuanced exploration of climate change – how we’ve failed to market it and how urgently we need to turn our minds to the task.”
So maybe climate change really isn’t the most boring topic ever.
This essay was previously published here.
You can find out more about Melt here.
Lisa is an Australian author of quirky, thoughtful fiction for both adults and young adults, with seven novels published to date. She has also written an ABC Radio National play and been published in The Guardian, The Age, The Big Issue, Griffith Review and the Review of Australian Fiction. Her current novel, ‘Trouble is My Business’, is the second in a humorous teen detective series. Other recent novels include ‘Melt’, a romantic comedy about climate change, and ‘Paris Syndrome’, a young adult coming-of-age story. She has a PhD in creative writing and has previously worked in environmental communication. Lisa lives, surfs and writes on the north coast of NSW, Australia.