Jamie Mollart interviews Mark Smith about his new activism YA novel, If Not Us.
If Not Us is a wonderful novel which perfectly tackles the issue of Climate Change within the context of a YA novel. It’s a coming-of-age story combined with a David and Goliath story. Hesse is a 17-year-old surfer in a small town on the coast of Australia. The town is home to both a mine and a power station, with most of the population employed in one or the other. The company which owns them, Hadron, has put the power station up for sale and a group of townspeople, including Hesse’s mum, have mobilised a group to protest the sale and to try and close them both down. Hesse is drawn into speaking at a forum to discuss the potential sale but isn’t ready for how everything is going to change.
I had the pleasure of reading it and Mark was kind enough to answer my questions about the novel.
One of the problems about Climate Change I always think is that it’s too big a problem for us to understand on an individual level, so we can often feel helpless against it. For that reason, did you worry about presenting it to a YA audience or did you see it as an opportunity to reach them at an age where they can be influenced to do good?
Mark: Probably both – it’s such a big issue for adults to get their heads around, let alone a YA audience. That said, the attention being given to the issue at the moment means schools in particular are looking for cli-fi novels that kids will engage with. I think if you wrap any big issue like climate in a page-turning story – and If Not Us is first and foremost a coming-of-age story – teenage readers are quite capable of understanding what is at stake. The Schools Strike for Climate protests have demonstrated they know when they are being ignored or misrepresented. So hopefully this is the right book in the right place at the right time for young people to engage with the issue on a practical level.
As someone who lives in the absolute centre of an island, but who loves the sea, the atmosphere of the beach and the water that you created was very evocative to me. Was it a conscious decision to use the waterside location to frame the discussion around Climate Change?
We know climate change will affect the planet everywhere, but the coastal setting gives me the opportunity to explore it in an environment most readers are familiar with. The effects of climate change are already obvious along our coasts: noticeable warming of the ocean, beach and cliff erosion and more frequent storms and swell surges. The fact the main character, Hesse, is a surfer enables me to explore these issues in a way that readers will understand.
You go big with mining and power generation – two massive contributors to the problem – and once you combine that with the proximity to the sea you have quite a heady mix, which you manage beautifully. Where you worried as you wrote about how easy it is with this topic to slip into a polemic?
Definitely! I had to be careful in my portrayal of the people involved in the mining and power generation, to ensure they weren’t stereotyped. It also meant explaining the human cost in terms of jobs for the town and the businesses and organisations that relied on the mine for support. These are the sorts of issues that need to be dealt with in the transition to a decarbonised economy. At the same time, I had my own moral position to take into account. Being too didactic would have been an easy trap to fall into. But all novels are didactic to an extent in that we don’t just write stories for the sake of it, we do it to explore issues, ideas and themes which, through our characters, we take a moral position on. My moral position in If Not Us is pretty clear to the reader, but I hope they come to the understanding that any change of this magnitude has human consequences.
Also, both mining and power stations are both a very visceral way of demonstrating Climate Change, I wonder how you settled on them? I enjoyed the town as a microcosm of the world and it has the feeling of something written from personal experience?
The story is loosely based on a campaign I was a part of in my own hometown, where a multinational company had a coal mine and power station, designed to feed electricity to a smelter they operated. When the smelter closed, the company tried to sell the mine and power station as a viable, ongoing producer of electricity for the national power grid. It was, however, a fifty-year-old facility, the coal was very high in sulphur and it was very likely they wanted to offload it before it became a stranded asset. I fictionalised much of the story (though the real-life campaign was successful in closing down the mine and power station.) Most importantly, my experience gave me enormous insight into the way social media can be such an effective tool in political and environmental campaigns.
I like the way you build up a background of climate change without ramming it into the readers face, the Elfstedentocht or the refugees at Hesse’s school. You show how it effects the everyday of the characters before going into the big themes, was this an intentional trick? To help mitigate that sense of the problem being too big that I mentioned earlier?
I’m not sure I saw it as a trick, but yes, this is something I have learned from my experiences as teacher. If you want teenagers to understand a complex issue, personalise it for them. Bring it down to the individual level. A good writer does that through encouraging the reader to empathise with their characters, then have those characters raise the issues. Young readers also have a pretty good BS meter – they know when they are being preached to, and they won’t stand for it. The subtle backgrounding of climate change though the experiences of Hesse and Fenna, the Dutch exchange student, is essential to gaining my readers’ trust, so they are able to see the larger issues through the characters’ eyes.
There’s a powerful scene where the kids have a debate about climate change based around the writing of an essay – I get the sense that you were putting the whole of the topic into the kids hands here, both from a plot point of view and metaphorically
The debate the kids have in class is a means of highlighting the arguments that deniers put forward to justify their positions. I certainly didn’t want to dumb the issue down, but I did want to show Hesse refuting the most obvious holes in the deniers’ positions. And yes, I was putting the issue in the hands of the kids – which was really the intention of the whole book, to show teens are capable of understanding the arguments for climate action and are willing to act. I want my readers to believe they have a voice and that it will be listened to.
Fenna is an interesting character and a foil to Hesse. Did you intend her anxiety as a metaphor for climate anxiety?
First and foremost, I wanted to normalise anxiety as a mental health issue that many people experience. I didn’t want to write the whole book about a character with anxiety, but to show the way people like Fenna deal with it on a day-to-day basis – and also how those around them can assist them in dealing with it.
On another level, I think anxiety about the future is a natural state for anyone concerned about the glacial pace of action on climate. In that way, Fenna’s anxiety was a metaphor for what so many of us feel.
I don’t want to get into spoiler territory here, but did you choose to use the power of social media to demonstrate that anyone can make a difference, an accessible call to arms, and also to prompt action in a medium that is very familiar to your target audience?
All of the above! The campaign in my hometown was heavily reliant on social media. While we maintained small, local actions, the heavy hitting in terms of pressuring banks and company shareholders was all done through social media. Exposing companies for their poor environmental record has a cumulative effect that eventually influences managerial decisions based on shareholder anger. And in the case of a company purchasing fossil fuel businesses, they need to get their money from somewhere – banks, investment houses, superannuation funds – all of whom are sensitive to being seen to be associated with the climate crisis.
Social media is also a tool my target audience is very competent with – though generally they don’t use it in the political sphere. But they understand how far-reaching it can be. So, marrying the two – their competence with social media and their anger about the way their future is being betrayed – is a powerful combination.
There are a couple of scenes where you give voice to both sides of the debate, I’m thinking of a discussion around essays at school, the meeting itself and later on in interviews, were you consciously doing this to allow the reader to come to their own decisions or was it more to highlight the challenge that people like Hesse, and us as Climate Fiction writers, face when trying to raise awareness? Either way, I found it an intelligent way of showing both sides of the debate through real people in real situations.
It was more of the latter – to highlight the forces that so quickly muster against people like Hesse who speak up for climate action. I also make a point about the way the media frames a story for their target audience rather than approaching it objectively.
I’ve rarely been trolled on social media but since I’ve been posting about the book, and especially when I use hashtags like #climatecrisis or #climateemergency, I’ve got blowback from deniers, mostly abuse about scaring kids.
Ultimately, I want my readers to make up their own minds about the big issues raised in the book, because I have no right to force my opinions on them. I can best do this by presenting both sides of the argument, without being too forceful regarding my own position.
Mark Smith’s debut novel, The Road To Winter, was published in 2016. The sequel, Wilder Country, won the 2018 Australian Indie Book Award for YA. The third book in the trilogy, Land Of Fences was released in 2019. His fourth novel, If Not Us, will be published in September 2021. Mark is also an award winning writer of short fiction, with credits including the 2015 Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize and the 2013 Alan Marshall Short Story Prize, and his work has appeared in Best Australian Stories, Review of Australian Fiction, The Big Issue, Great Ocean Quarterly, The Victorian Writer and The Australian.
Jamie Mollart runs his own advertising company, and has won awards for marketing. Over the years he has been widely published in magazines, been a guest on some well-respected podcasts and blogs, and Patrick Neate called him ‘quite a writer’ on the Book Slam podcast. He is married and lives in Leicestershire with his family. His debut novel, The Zoo, was on the Amazon Rising Stars 2015 list. His second novel, Kings of a Dead World is out now.