Pairing Humor with Atrocity

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Authors Venetia Welby and A. E. Copenhaver discuss their adult climate fiction novels.

Venetia Welby: I loved My Dark Green Days of Euphoria. It’s such an original idea – and absolutely of our time, encompassing the generational divide, the visceral exhaustion of the professional activist. Can you tell me something about what inspired you to write this novel?

A. E. Copenhaver: Why thank you! I’m so glad you liked it. I really enjoyed writing it. Part of what inspired this novel is the absurdity of what’s going on here on Earth. You don’t even have to be a professional activist to watch the headlines every morning to think, something is really wrong here. 

In the novel the main character Cara works at an environmental non-profit so it’s her job to witness these issues and then help temper them. So the professional activist helps shed light on the magnitude of these compounding issues—climate change, ecocide, genocide, social inequity, racial injustices, all the daily atrocities skipping across our screens—and the cultural drivers exacerbating the issues. 

I’ve always been drawn to the intersection between ethics and individual vices (like drinking and smoking and doing drugs), and to me it feels like we have reached a point where we can conceive of societal vices driving societal inequities. 

For example, given what we know about industrial animal agriculture, is eating meat when we don’t have to considered a personal choice or a societal vice? And at what point are we no longer considered good people or no longer seen as making good choices in our daily lives, and who’s judging us? 

So this novel is inspired by magnifying those curiosities, by wanting to explore someone who is straddling that line between doing (her own version of) good on one side and then indulging in actively choosing not to care on the other. And—once we know and care, is it even possible to truly turn that caring, compassionate part of ourselves off? Or do we have to find other means of relief, and if so, what might that look like?

AEC: As for your novel Dreamtime, I am floored by the sharp writing, by the urgency of the story (set in a near-future Earth plagued by climate change devastation) and yet at the same time, the slowed warping of Sol’s reality as she seeks her long lost father. Would you share a little more about if or how you imagine the climate crisis is affecting our experience of time?

VW: You’re absolutely right that the doom news is right there for us. We cannot say we didn’t know: it’s inescapable. Being human means having to confront our own inevitable individual deaths, but watching the climate catastrophe unfold forces us to contemplate this on a grand scale. Now we must consider the end of our species, of civilisation, of all that we have known the earth to be and contain. Seeing the spectacular rate at which we’re destroying our only available habitat creates a sense of time running out, and I hoped to recreate this sense of urgency in the novel as Sol battles to get across Japan before commercial aviation ceases.

There is also a timelessness involved, a sense of the eternal that is magnified when we think of humanity on its deathbed – its myths, beliefs and legends. Our collective psyche is also potentially on the way out and making itself felt. Sol and her friend Kit grew up in a commune called Dreamtime, a name based on the founder’s experience in the Australian outback. For the Aboriginal people, the Dreamtime or Dreaming is at the heart of a complex religio-cultural belief system: a time out of time, a place out of place, in which the ancestral spirits of creation and their stories still live. In the Dreamtime cult, however, this eternal otherworld is reduced to a prize for the stoned who seek it, and appropriated as a cover for predation.

Much of the novel is set in the Ryukyu Islands, in particular Okinawa, still in 2035 at the mercy of its Japanese colonisers and the vast number of US military bases that currently occupy it. This is a place where the suffering, pollution and abuse has been so pervasive that the past is still alive in the present, and its ghosts continue to haunt even the near future I’ve envisaged. The timelines are blurred in a place like this, and invisible boundaries are constantly shifting. Time is stretchy, and the eternal world is just beyond the veil.

That all sounds extremely depressing, I know, but there’s humour in Dreamtime too. How – and why – did you balance creating such a funny, relatable narrative with the harrowing subject matter? Despite the prevalence of the news, I still learnt terrifying new things from My Days of Dark Green Euphoria, but I also laughed. A lot.  

AEC: As for why I paired humor with atrocity—I just find satire a really delightful genre. I remember reading Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal in grade school and feeling totally thrilled—I thought, “Wow, is this even…allowed?” I loved the concept of using absurdity to parody atrocity, which then places our actual behaviors into stark relief—so that what we believe to be normal (maybe it’s eating meat or using people as a means to create commodities, whatever)—suddenly seems outrageous. There’s something magical and satisfying in that formula, so I’m really glad to hear you learned something but also laughed. That’s what I was hoping for!

I keep thinking about the concept of time in both of our novels. A lot of people have reported experiencing a sort of time warping since the pandemic especially. In my novel—even I as the writer lost track of the main character’s timeline—the publishers and I had to piece everything back together. We found that not even three months had passed since my main character Cara’s boyfriend departs and then she ends up entranced and entangled with his ecologically ignorant mother Millie, trying to escape her clutches. But to me it felt like 10 months or something—that time had slowed and expanded, took up way more space. 

I wonder about how humans are asked to contemplate all these different timescales when even just imagining the magnitude of the climate crisis. We have to clumsily count on our fingers from the last ice age, make tally marks for the dinosaurs and the glaciers melting, add up the five separate mass extinctions, plus one for this current (sixth) mass extinction. 

This exercise puts our own mortality in context, as you said, but also, at least for my character Cara, forces her to consider her own legacy and what she wants to be remembered for. 

Humans have always been concerned about their legacy, but at one point Cara—whose defining feature is her crippling eco-anxiety—thinks about how maybe the best legacy to leave is nothing—nothing needing to be repaired, mended or solved or healed. Alternatively, I think a lot about other cultures—like, the myriad Native American cultures of the Pacific Northwest, and how though so many of those different cultures and Peoples were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands, their legacy, the ways they lived in their corner of the globe, perseveres in greater ecosystems there. There’s something called ‘forest gardens’—wild places where Native Americans cultivated a foundation of health and resilience and vitality that to this day allows greater biodiversity to thrive in those same spaces—even though the Indigenous People who once lived there have been removed and no longer have a regular presence there in the same way as their Ancestors. This is the kind of legacy I’m so fascinated by and I think Cara gets around to considering, too. 

This brings to mind the concept—explored extensively in your novel—of healing and recovery. Sol and Kit are coming to terms with their childhood spent in a truly damaging cult (maybe ‘damaging cult’ is redundant?). In many ways, modern society feels like a deranged, toxic cult that we all participate in, some more than others. And at this point in time the collective ‘we’ seems to be coming to terms with this cult.

And also permeating both of our novels is this desire for, as Sol puts it, “the state of divine apathy […].” Sol of course was talking about actual heroin, and Cara in my novel uses similar language to describe how she feels when she’s with the ecologically unconscious and blind Millie. 

I think this desire for oblivion, for some kind of instant relief, when paired with the profound oppression and atrocity spanning the globe, is what makes for moments of hilarity. Like, “oh our species might not survive in any meaningful way through the end of this century, and we might take most all other species down too, but why not enjoy this rack of donuts? It’s probably the right thing to do.” What you said earlier about humor—how you learned some terrifying new things in my novel but also found yourself laughing a lot—I had a nearly exact experience with your novel! The Ryukyu Islands and Okinawa in particular are such a perfect setting for showing the persistent violence of colonization and, as if the colonizers are fighting their own homesickness, the vapid and comedic display of often eye-rolling elements of that home (in this case American) culture. Those moments where Sol and Kit watch this clash take place on the back streets were exceptional and often amusing to witness. 

Now, I know you’ve written about this before in other outlets, but I’m hoping you can share more about your own experience in Okinawa and in the States. I was impressed with how your novel absorbs both of those cultures so seamlessly—you’re from the UK originally, right? Do you find that your extensive travels push you to find new and creative ways to explore disparate places, cultures, and people?  

VW: I agree with your idea of the whole world as a cult – there’s certainly something cultlike in the way we slavishly pursue the very things that make our own destruction assured. I wonder if my extensive travel is part of this – there does seem to be a raging hypocrisy in me setting a novel in deepest climate crisis yet flying to Japan to research it. Travel is the thing that most thrills me, and exploring other cultures, experiencing other lives. Mostly I’ve travelled for work – for example to tutor A levels at an Arizonan rehab clinic. I stayed nearby in the Sonoran desert, in a hotel which aped local rituals, lifted from exactly those displaced Indigenous Peoples to which you refer. These six months informed the beginning of Dreamtime, Sol’s futuristic rehab, the soulless void of which is crammed with stolen rituals. Separated from their spiritual and cultural roots these practices become increasingly ridiculous – bloated and obscene.

So yes, I’m from the UK but I’ve spent a lot of time outside it, living – for example – in Beijing in the early 2000s to tutor children on their way to UK boarding schools. This certainly helped inform the wider political situation in my novel, in which the current volatility between China and the US has reached fever pitch. My travels through Japan and the Ryukyu Islands were a long-held dream. I had intended to go ten years prior, but had to cancel my trip due to an alarming online stalking incident. The novel I was writing morphed from Japan-set odyssey to a stalking story, and thence to the bin. When I went back, the situation in Okinawa a decade on was only getting worse, despite assurances in 1995 – when a 12-year-old girl was gang-raped by three US servicemen – that the island would be alleviated of some of its burden. I wanted to explore a possible future based on its present trajectory and a novel seemed like the most intimate and creative way of doing this. I hoped that because I am neither American nor Okinawan nor Japanese, I could show a broader canvas – and thereby direct to more authentic interior voices.

The ethicality of flying has been much on my mind and it’s a theme both our novels share. In Dreamtime aviation (and other travel) is banned not to save the planet, but as a nationalistic bid to save rich people’s land from climate migrants. The end of flying in fact allows environmental destruction to take place with impunity – if you’re not physically in a place to see it, you have to rely on Virrea, the dodgy virtual reality company that’s replaced Apple, and therefore the big corporations (including the Pentagon) can get away with whatever they please.

It’s amazing to think how little time humans have been able to fly, in the grand scheme of things – and so much has happened in that short space, not least two world wars and the nuclear bomb. But easy connection with other humans, our friends and family around the globe, is something very hard to give up. 

In My Days of Dark Green Euphoria, Cara refuses to fly to see her sister’s kids, of which there are many, something she views as intensely selfish. What are your own feelings about flying? Is local living an inevitable answer? Your novel is not didactic but raises many possibilities for being greener on a personal level. I think it’s interesting that though you’re exploring thoughtless vice, when Cara and her friend Renée get high, they actually start to talk creatively and expansively about solutions, an ideal future. What role do you think writers of fiction have to play in the climate crisis? And with that in mind, who would you particularly recommend?

 AEC: Yes, the lack of air travel in Dreamtime was such a creative element because it means that environmental destruction, which would have been witnessed by people from around the world, was no longer documented and shared in the same way, and this of course gives free rein to corporations to blur reality as they see fit—something that is already happening now. Dreamtime paints such a vivid picture of how compounding inequities can morph and exact a cascade of impacts that no one can ever quite predict until those impacts are upon us. 

I read recently about how the Borough of Islington in London will be harnessing excess heat generated by the Tube to keep homes warm in the area. In the article, a scientist was interviewed and he said something like, we need to work with nature and the Earth’s systems to optimize the use of heat. And really, this is what I find most exciting. I love seeing humans apply their intelligence and ingenuity to solve seemingly insurmountable problems.

I have a similar opinion about flying. I think airplanes, taking flight, being able to travel the world with relative ease and convenience are some of humanity’s most remarkable feats of engineering—however, this advancement, like so many others, comes at the expense of our global climate and therefore, the integrity of our very civilization. So is it really an advancement or accomplishment if the things we create undermine our ability to survive as a species?

I’d like to see humans create systems and technology that ensure the non-violent evolution of humanity—that is, the development of our consciousness and conscientiousness and our experience on this planet without harming ourselves, animals, and the ecosystems we all depend upon for survival. It’s pretty much as simple as that, for me!

This era of ‘progress at any cost’ is proving to be disastrous, but that doesn’t mean we have to muzzle human ingenuity—quite the contrary. This is a massive opportunity for humans to say, ‘let’s see what we can design, build, achieve, accomplish without inflicting harm on others. Let’s really test our imaginations to see how harmoniously we can design these systems—and what elaborate goodness and abundant peace might come of it.’ 

I think that scene you mentioned in My Days of Dark Green Euphoria where Cara and Renée are imagining future possibilities for how humans might exist on this planet is probably my favorite in the whole book. I love the idea of reframing what appear to be colossal limitations or constraints as catalysts for wild creativity.

Because something we haven’t seen on a large, global scale yet, is what humanity could contribute positively to the planet, and in turn, what we can experience together without these horrific negative externalities—one of which is this increased sense of anxiety and dread, sadness and fear associated with this traumatic diminishment of our living world—‘solastalgia,’ as Glenn Albrecht calls it. 

As far as living (and buying and producing and existing) on only regional or local scales is concerned, I don’t think that has to be an inevitability, or the only inevitability, I guess. I love the idea of living locally, lowering our carbon footprint by drawing down on our consumption; and I am equally intrigued with the idea of how humanity can advance technologically and as a global civilization but within the constraints of non-violence and all without compromising our global climate. If we apply our intelligence to these challenges with the assumption that we need to work with nature, with each other, and with animals and plants, I think paradise becomes the reality instead of the dream. 

In this sense, I hope that writers of fiction continue to find creative ways to show not only the reality of what’s happening now, but the possibility of what we could create in the future if we start to see limitations as inspiration. Right now in fiction I’m enthralled with how the history of the most extreme extent of commodification—literal enslavement of human beings by other human beings—can be interpreted as the genesis of the climate crisis. About a year ago I attended a virtual lecture by Vanderbilt University Professor Teresa Goddu who has written about the “Plantionocene,” or, how white supremacy ‘inaugurated’ the climate crisis. When I started thinking about how the enslavement of people (in the States especially) could have set the scene for the rampant injustices and disparities, especially climate disparities, we are witnessing today, it was like I could feel my brain rewiring. To that end, I hope to dive into some of the books that Dr. Goddu recommended, books that she says exemplify the relationship between historical chattel slavery and the current climate crisis. Those books are The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

This idea of writers being a product of their time, whether they can tell or not, is interesting to me, and raises questions about the role of fiction (and writers of fiction).

I’ve heard a handful of critics saying how every work of fiction that is published today and beyond, in some way, whether overtly or not, will address or explore the climate crisis. Might it be inevitable that all art created in this current era, including fiction, will somehow explore the climate crisis, even if not overtly? And, depending on your answer, what do you think about the idea that fiction should address the climate crisis and its impact on people, animals, and planet?

VW: This is really the crux of it, isn’t it: ‘Is it really an advancement or accomplishment if the things we create undermine our ability to survive as a species?’ Thank you for putting into words the conflict at the heart of mankind’s struggle with self-destruction. Everything, anything, can be justified as progress. And seemingly unequivocal positives, such as the invention of antibiotics, must now be viewed with a longer lens. 

As for current art addressing the current catastrophe, hm … maybe obliquely – plenty of fiction captures the rolling state of panic we live in, the sense of dread we inhabit as a result of the climate crisis. But do we know it’s because of that? We humans, as I cheerily mentioned, already have the knowledge of our own deaths to deal with; as Jenny Offill puts it in Weather, ‘I know that one day I will have to let go of everything and everyone I love.’ We live with this innate fear on a personal level and in response we have developed a whole raft of ways to deflect, distract and demur. We need them to survive such a life: it ends in total annihilation. When the issue is on a larger scale, as is the case with the prospect of global apocalypse, we can only deploy bigger defensive guns. So no, I think the scale of climate change in reality is not reflected in the scale of fiction that attempts to deal with it, and particularly not in literary fiction, as Amitav Ghosh argued in The Great Derangement.

Ghosh wrote in 2016: ‘It’s our job, as writers, to make imaginative leaps on behalf of those who don’t, can’t or won’t’. Many writers felt this call to action, including me. I had already written a literary novel, Mother of Darkness, which touched on climate change anxiety, and in Dreamtime I wanted to go further. However, I found that as soon as some publicity highlighted this issue as central, booksellers started to reclassify the book as eco-fiction or cli-fi. Why must literariness be sacrificed? This crisis is the backdrop to – and imminent end of – all life on earth. How can it not have a place in literary fiction, and all contemporary fiction? It worries me that the writers and readers of eco-fiction may be building an echo chamber out of books. Segregating such novels matters, since classification determines how they are marketed, who they can reach and the weight attached to them. 

I hope My Days of Dark Green Euphoria gets the wide recognition it deserves – it’s such an extraordinary and affecting novel – and wish you every success with it. It’s been great talking to you!

AEC: Likewise—I hope Dreamtime is a soaring success, as well; it’s spectacularly written and covers such urgent topics with profound sensitivity and insight. The world needs your creativity and imagination! Thank you for the fantastic conversation. 

A copy of Venetia Welby’s novel Dreamtime is included in our book giveaway here. My Days of Dark Green Euphoria is published on February 1st, and is available for preorder now.

A.E. Copenhaver is a writer, editor, science communicator, and climate interpreter. She’s worked in the environmental and nonprofit sectors for nearly a decade. She has ghostwritten book chapters about cities plagued by factory farming, air pollution, and automobile traffic, and she has written about migrating white sharks, threatened sea otters, and depleted Pacific bluefin tuna. She holds degrees in English and environmental studies from Santa Clara University, and in 2009, she earned her master of art degree in culture and modernity from the University of East Anglia in England. Born in Bellevue, Washington, A.E. Copenhaver has lived in Carmel, California, for most of her life.

Venetia Welby is a writer and journalist who has lived and worked on four continents. Her debut novel Mother of Darkness was published by Quartet in 2017 and her essays and short fiction have appeared in The London Magazine, Review 31 and anthologies Garden Among Fires and Trauma, among others. She lives in London with her husband, son and Bengal cat.

Climate News

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Does Climate Fiction Make a Difference? [Lithub]

Now accepting climate story submissions [Flourish Fiction]

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Writing About Our Climate Reality: Meaningful Climate Storytelling – webinar on Jan 12th

Dragonfly ecofiction newsletter

What’s on the shelf: children’s nonfiction on climate change by Joan Haig

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My first nonfiction book for children is published by Templar Books next month. Talking History, co-authored with Joan Lennon and illustrated fabulously by André Ducci, takes a critical look at 15 famous speeches and the people and events surrounding them. Two of the speeches relate directly to the climate crisis. The team behind the book, however, sees all of these speeches as highly relevant to the cause, and our hope is that young readers will too. Evidence from Human Rights Watch shows that the way we treat each other is intimately related to the way we treat our planet.

And how we treat our planet is a growing category of books for young people.

Book cataloguing and marketing depends on categorisation – and in nonfiction, this is dedicated to ‘issues’ as well as genres. Importantly, the way books are categorised changes over time and across different spaces. After all, the labels we give to objects, fellow humans, and situations are never immutable facts – they are invented. So, a book of stories about people with neurodiversity will no longer be placed exclusively under ‘The Human Mind’, but also, perhaps, in a section for ‘Diverse Voices’. And it will share a shelf with a book about indigenous rights that had previously been located in ‘World Culture’. I teach travel writing for a US liberal arts college. It’s a shrinking section in the bookshop. The books are still being written, but they’ve been labelled differently – ‘Memoir’ or ‘Nature Writing’, mostly.

Sometimes, books and their authors defy categories. Dara McAnulty’s books sit in just about all of the sections named above and a few others, including ‘Inspirational People’ and ‘Activity Books’. His Wild Child: A Journey through Nature is a gentle set of lessons on how to engage with the natural world on our doorsteps. One thing I love about McAnulty’s books is how he demonstrates the personal rewards our connection with the world around us can give; and we know that connecting with nature improves our physical and mental wellbeing. He also explains to young readers that the idea of ‘nature’ is relatively new – it, too, is socially constructed – a lesson many adults have not yet absorbed. Simply, we cannot keep separating our own species and its needs from the natural world.

There are many brilliant books on nature and natural history. They are hugely powerful in sparking young people’s compassion and fascination with other forms of life on Earth, especially for children who find fiction a challenge. There are dozens to choose from. My favourites bridge a gap between straight fact and storytelling. From Shore to Ocean Floor by Gill Arbuthnott and Christopher Nielsen is a stand-out for me, as is The Big Book of Belonging by Yuval Zommer – both are beautiful and brimming with nuggets for readers to take away, think about and share. And Leisa Stewart-Sharpe (Blue Planet II, What a Wonderful World, How Does Chocolate Taste on Everest? and more) is a wizard at pulling in readers for the narrative adventure, and then equipping them with knowledge and confidence along the way.

There is a growing emphasis in kids’ books on learning about the natural world not only for the joy of it but for the explicit purpose of rescuing it. Titles such as It’s Up to Us (Christopher Lloyd), How You Can Save the Planet (Hendrikus van Hensbergen), Activists Assemble – Save Your Planet (Ben Hoare and Jade Orlando) and Kids Fight Climate Change (Martin Dorey and Tim Wesson) almost warrant their own set of shelves. These are, doubtless, driven by young people wanting to act. I do worry, though, that these prescriptive books place the onus on the next generation, when the industry behind the books is still struggling to reduce its own carbon footprint and guarantee ethical supply chains. We need young people on board, of course, but a more accountability on the part of publishers might see more immediate impact.

One of the marvellous things about publishing with Templar, part of Bonnier Books, is how seriously they take issues of sustainability and inclusion. In January 2021, Bonnier went beyond carbon neutral to carbon negative, by reducing and offsetting emissions and investing in projects that capture greenhouses gases. They currently offset by a significant 20%. So, technically, if you buy a book from a Bonnier subsidiary, you are helping to reduce carbon emissions. Bonnier has taken a holistic approach to sustainability that tackles social inclusion and the climate emergency as intimately connected. Perhaps this is why, for me, Talking History, at its core, has grown to be about both those things. I am curious to know how the book will be catalogued. It won’t be under ‘Nature’. On the face of it, the speeches in the book are wide ranging –  about war, voting rights, girls’ education – but each one is actually about empathy and the need to act together, urgently, for positive change. And if that doesn’t speak to our current environmental predicament, I’m not sure what does.

Find out more about Joan’s books Talking History and Middle Grade fantasy Tiger Skin Rug.

Joan Haig, born in Zambia, was weaned on avocados and stories. When she was twelve, her family moved to the happy isles of Vanuatu in the South-West Pacific. She has lived and travelled all over the world, most recently settling with her husband, children and cats into a little cottage in the Scottish Borders.

Joan has researched and taught at the University of Warwick and University of Edinburgh; her teaching has won awards and her work on migration and belonging has been published in academic journals and edited volumes. She now works for Arcadia University’s Edinburgh Center.

Her writing dream is that her stories for children are enjoyed far and wide -and touch some grown-up hearts along the way.

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Climate News

Transforming the stories we tell about climate change: from ‘issue’ to ‘action’ [Research paper]

Does Climate Fiction Make a Difference? [Lithub]

Now accepting climate story submissions [Flourish Fiction]

Build a climate tech MVP in 8 weeks [Build for Climate]

Writing About Our Climate Reality: Meaningful Climate Storytelling – webinar on Jan 12th

Dragonfly ecofiction newsletter

Looking After Planet Earth

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Nicola Penfold interviews Chitra Soundar about her new Middle Grade novel Sona Sharma, Looking After Planet Earth, and discusses her own novel Between Sea and Sky.

Nicola: Hello Chitra! I was so grateful to have the chance to read your second Sona Sharma book, Sona Sharma Looking After Planet Earth. It’s such a warm and happy story. I fell in love with Sona and her family, and your words are so delightfully accompanied by illustrations from Jen Khatun. I love all the plants! You must have been very happy when you saw Jen’s artwork?

Chitra: Yes, Jen’s artwork brought a lovely comic book feel and yet so warm and inviting. Her elephant especially is spectacular.

Nicola: I thought your story was a really fresh way of reaffirming messages about taking care of planet Earth. When Sona hears at school that our world is in trouble, she doesn’t need any persuading that she and her family should do more. But in the beginning her methods are heavy handed. She turns off the fan in her grandparents’ room as they sleep, unplugs a video game her dad is still playing, and I did giggle when Sona takes off her baby sister’s nappy because “nappies live in the rubbish forever”! Do you think humour can help get important messages across?

Chitra: Humour can always get both adults and children to see the underlying truth. And also, Sona is just earnest. Her focus on the task at hand – saving Planet Earth – takes over and results in funny situations at home and school. Just like her teacher Miss Rao, hopefully readers, especially adult readers who read the book with their children, will laugh and figure out the serious messages embedded. We all need to be a little Greta inside and if you follow Greta on twitter you’ll know that she has got an amazing sense of humour.

Nicola: The main part of the story is about kolams, traditional artwork drawn outside people’s homes for certain festivals. Sona is alarmed when she realises plastic, glitter and chemicals are being used in some of the designs, but Sona and her grandmother Paatti show us it doesn’t have to be like this. Can you tell us a little about kolams and why the traditional ways are the best? And do you think returning to old ways is often helpful as we try to reduce our impact on the natural world?

Chitra: My parents still live in India and kolam is a living art. Every woman of the house draws a kolam every morning in front of their houses. And these kolams were intended to decorate but also help other creatures of the planet. The more I think back on my growing up in India and still the many habits of my parents and grandparents, we follow many things that are planet friendly – from mud pots for storing water, to eating on banana leaves, to using cloth bags for shopping, making just enough for a day and not reheating food. There are so many little things that help us protect our planet.

While we adopt modern conveniences, I think we should all pause and ponder on some of the little inconveniences can help save our planet – like walking to the shops or not buying things whenever we need them or not using too much gift wrapping or carrying a water bottle instead of buying water when we travel.

Illustrations from Jen Khatun

Nicola: I’ve written a couple of books for older children, the latest of which is Between Sea and Sky which is set in a future world, to which much climate related devastation has occurred, but to which hope – and nature in fact – is returning. I was very aware of my audience – children who have inherited this incredibly beautiful but damaged planet, and who are so keen to protect it. I wanted to write about hope and solutions, and empower change and connections with nature.

Sona Sharma is set in India, which is a country hugely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. You must have been particularly aware of this writing this book?

Chitra: Yes, we grew up in a coastal city and every monsoon season we’d worry about floods. I remember when I was 8 when our ground floor flat was flooded and I had to climb up a shelf to sleep. But in the last 10 years, our city has been flooded three times, we’ve lived through a tsunami and every rain now causes panic.

The industralisation of western economies, that push their manufacturing to the poorer countries, send their waste to other countries to deal with, are adding to the already fragile state. While I’m writing for a western audience primarily, I’m acutely aware that the story is set in India and Sona sees it from that point of view. Her worries and anxieties are based on what she sees in her part of the world.

We might be different countries by “artificial” borders. But we are all interconnected by the oceans and the changing weather patterns and our green habits. If someone in Europe or the US buys one dress less, goes without a new toy or stops using plastic straws, perhaps it will save another child half the world across whose parents work in a garment factory or recycling plant.

Nicola: I adored Elephant, Sona’s toy friend. Children can have a natural affinity with animals. Did you have fun writing Elephant’s character?

Chitra: Elephant is my favourite character in the story, even though there is a little bit of me in every character. I loved writing his comebacks, observations and warnings, and he resembles my inner-voice with whom I often have lengthy conversations. I wanted Elephant to be cheeky and I’m so happy that often the first thing a young reader tells me about is how much they love Elephant.

Thank you. Nicola. for reading my book and asking such thoughtful questions. I hope all our books, inspire young readers and their families to do more to save this planet and fill them with hope of a greener tomorrow.

Find out more about Sona Sharma, Looking After Planet Earth and Between Sea and Sky.

Chitra Soundar grew up in Chennai, India. An award-winning author of more than 40 books for children,she loves writing picture books, fiction, non-fiction and verse. Chitra travels the world visiting schools and appearing at festivals to bring Indian stories to children everywhere.

Nicola Penfold is a children’s writer. She writes adventure books about the natural world. She studied English at St John’s College, Cambridge. Nicola’s worked in a reference library and for a health charity, but being a writer was always the job she wanted most.

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Cost/Benefit by Alex DiFrancesco

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In 2019, I started flying. It had been over ten years since I went on my first and last, until recently, flight, a trans-Atlantic one that had lasted 12 hungover, painful hours. I’d vowed never to fly again, and, until my work as a writer began to gain a little traction, I didn’t have to. I took buses and trains, I drove long, anxious hours on the highway in pristine, rented cars. I always rented an SUV or a pick-up truck to feel safer as the whale-like hulks of buses and semis passed me on the road.

On my first flight to Portland in March of 2019 to launch one of my books at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ annual conference, I looked at the carbon emissions printed on my ticket and wondered if it was worth it. This was after the doomsday reports of climate change had begun, and, seated with many other people on the plane, dosed up with CBD to curb my flight anxiety, I thought of the cost versus the benefit. Sure, there was a personal benefit, but what was the larger one? My book, a tiny collection of essays about my life as a transgender person, was something I should be promoting, should be getting into as many hands as possible. But I looked and looked at the carbon emissions, tried to calculate what harm I was doing to the planet and humanity versus what good I was doing. How many people would I reach with a message that transness was as valid a part of humanity as any of the myriad human variations? How many minds or hearts could I change? Would those people who needed the changing even be somewhere like where I was going, anyway?

I am bad at math, and such things cannot always be measured in numbers.


There is much talk, here at the seeming end of things, about how we, as individuals, can change the direction our world is hurtling in with terrifying speed. We can eat less meat. We can travel less. We can recycle. I think these things are, often, a red herring meant to distract from the true culprits of climate change: massive, untaxed, unchecked capitalist ventures, underhanded politicians and leaders, billionaires who never do the sort of calculation I did on that plane. I am not sure that the individual actions of many could ever counter the bad behavior of the privileged few. Yet, the ways I could and sometimes don’t change my own behavior haunts me. I was raised in the ‘80s, a “gifted program” child who was told every day by teachers that the world was in crisis, there was a hole in the ozone layer, and that we, bright-faced, eager young people, would have to be the ones to save it. I didn’t do anything. I wrote a few books that may or may not be worth the trees that died for them. The expectations of those grade school teachers that we would save a world they would long be gone from still haunts me.


There have been multiple, interesting studies done on trees. About how they form bonds and care for each other, feeding one another through a complex forest root system. How they “talk” to one another in subtle, intricate ways. I am fascinated by this life that exists calmly under the perception of human beings. I am moved by their interdependence, their quiet communication, and gentle care. I wonder if the words I print on pages made from their deaths could ever be worth these soft things.

Many suggest that if we were to apply ourselves deeply, as humans, to planting new forests, we could change the path of our own doom.


My book tour was an incredible waste of resources, speaking in terms of the planet. It was ironic because it clearly negated any of the work done by my second novel, which was about building community and surviving climate change. I went all over the country in cars and planes and buses to speak to people. At one event, a man asked me if I’d feel different about the things I’d written about if I had money.

I am trying. A book on climate change — how many trees did that take? How many carbon emissions to present it to little groups of people who were already on board with its message? Does it count not to change hearts, but to strengthen them?

I tell a room full of people to look at the faces around them and know these others are the ones they will be fighting alongside for their and their children’s survival.


Towards the beginning of fall, I am home from my book tour. What it has cost is heavy on me, but I am light as I rent a car and begin to drive. I am driving an hour east, towards Geneva, Ohio, where my best friend since childhood and her family live. She is having a baby, a little boy, my nephew.

Along the way, I drive back roads, even though it takes more time, more gas, more emissions. I listen to the Tom Waits song “Jersey Girl.” It is a song about driving from New York City to New Jersey regularly to see someone the singer loves. I weigh the cost of that constant trip in my head, measure it against when the song was written, in the ‘80s, and now. What is the cost of love? What is the cost of distance? Can you possibly measure the benefits?

I think of my niece, Bella, who is 12, who I love with all my heart. She is waiting at the end of this trip, at the end of the planet-damaging ride. She has been nervous about her new baby brother coming, behind a facade of tween angst. It is worth it to be there, to take her out to lunch, to talk to her as much as she will let me. It is worth it to see the face of this new little person in the world as soon as anyone does. It is worth it to be able to talk to him when he is new to the world, to let him know how scary things are getting, and that much more of it will fall on him than on us. I will not give him solutions or tell him he is responsible for the mess all the rest of us have made. I will end this ceaseless weighing of costs, just for today. I will hold this new life, and let him know that I have seen many faces over the last month, ones rife with hope and personal commitment to doing the right thing, try to describe these faces so that he might recognize them one day, when all the benefits are gone, and we are left with the horrible cost.

All City is a novel about climate change, gentrification, street art, and a near-future, storm-battered New York City from which the wealthy escape while those without means are left to die or rebuild on their own. You can find out more here.

Alex DiFrancesco is the author of All City, Psychopomps, and Transmutation. They live in Cleveland, OH with their Westie, Roxy Music, Dog of Doom.

Giveaway competition

This is our thirtieth newsletter issue since the Climate Fiction Writers League launched last winter! To celebrate we’re giving away four bundles of Climate titles.

Bundle 1 includes 4 Middle Grade titles:

  • FloodWorld by Tom Huddleston (signed!) – a Middle Grade adventure novel set in a flooded future. Read our interview with Tom here.
  • Effie the Rebel by Laura Wood – a Middle Grade activism novel. Read our interview with Laura here.
  • Between Sea and Sky by Nicola Penfold (signed!) – a Middle Grade Ocean Dystopia. Read our interview with Nicola here.
  • The Raven Heir by Stephanie Burgis – a Middle Grade adventure novel. Read our interview with Stephanie here.

Bundle 2 includes 4 Young Adult titles:

  • When Shadows Fall by Sita Brahmachari – a Middle Grade novel about urban green spaces
  • Giften by Leyla Suzan – a Young Adult dystopia
  • Hold Back the Tide by Melinda Salisbury – a Young Adult eco-horror
  • The Summer We Turned Green by William Sutcliffe – a Young Adult activism novel

Bundle 3 includes 4 adult titles:

  • Eat Like a Fish: My Adventures as a Fisherman Turned Restorative Ocean Farmer by Bren Smith – a non-fiction account of the fishing industry
  • Edge of Heaven by R.B. Kelly (signed!) – a cyberpunk adult novel
  • OMD: The Simple, Plant-Based Program to Save Your Health, Save Your Waistline, and Save the Planet by Suzy Amis Cameron – a non-fiction food guide
  • Dreamtime by Venetia Welby – near future in which we have lost the battle against climate change.

Please choose which bundle you’d like to win, then fill out this Google form to enter.

If you’re a paid subscriber, you can also enter to win an additional bundle of books here. This bundle includes:

  • Amara and the Bats by Emma Reynolds (signed!)- a picture book about bat habitats. Read our interview with Emma here.
  • Fantastically Great Women Who Saved the Planet by Kate Pankhurst – a non-fiction feminism picture book
  • Crowfall by Vashti Hardy – a Middle Grade ocean adventure novel. Read our interview with Vashti here.
  • Melt by Ele Fountain – a Middle Grade Arctic adventure. Read our interview with Ele here.Both giveaways are open internationally, and entry closes on 28th Jan.

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The future is already here

Today, two authors discuss their writing: Rab Ferguson, author of the Young Adult dystopian fantasy novel Landfill Mountains, and Rich Larson, whose story Tidings won third place in Grist’s climate fiction competition Imagine 2200. Read or listen to a 25-min audio recording of the story online here.

You can read Sim Kern’s previous interview with the competition winner Lindsey Brodeck here, and Cynthia Zhang’s interview with the second-place runner up Saul Tanpepper here.

Rab: Hi Rich. Excited to talk to you today about your short story Tidings and my novel LandfillMountains. There were really intriguing parallels between the two, and I’m looking forward to diving in deep with you around climate fiction, and the role it plays as a genre.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning, which as they say, is a very good place to start. Tidings won third place in Grist’s Imagine 2200 initiative. The story is well deserving of that achievement, poetic in the way its imagery shifts as it flashes forward through time, displaying glimpses of different characters’ lives on a changing earth.

Could you tell us a bit more about Imagine 2200, and also how you would describe Tidings to a potential reader?

Rich: Imagine 2200 is a big, beautiful, ambitious writing contest run by people intensely dedicated to climate solutions and justice. That theme ignited a lot of imaginations, to the tune of over 1100 entries, and I feel very lucky to have my entry noticed amid that creative outpouring. Tidings is not a traditional short story, but instead a series of linked vignettes speeding through futures shaped by the climate crisis, and its many co-crises, all around the world. It takes inspiration from the places I’ve lived, and from the social and scientific initiatives that give me some slim hope for the planet.

I’m eager to talk about Landfill Mountains, a book that opens in misery and moves toward a place of hope. I was immediately struck by the vivid setting, and reminded of Johannesburg’s waste pickers. What inspired those titular mountains? What sparked your imagination?

Rab: Imagine 2200 is a wonderful concept, and I can see why Tidings stuck out! Something that worked for me about Tidings was that despite following different characters in each vignette, there was a sense of an underlying narrative across the piece – like they were all parts of that bigger story of the world. I certainly felt some hope (however slim) in the way the story was told.

The mountains were where the whole book began! I was actually in a theatre workshop, years before starting the novel. We were doing an exercise around designing sets and props, and I based my design around thinking about how people one day might survive by scavenging from what we’ve thrown away. That world stayed with me, rising up in my mind every time I saw a news story around environmental damage. I wanted to know what the people who lived amongst the waste would think of the society that left it that way. I’d watched a couple of documentaries around landfill sites and people making a living from waste in different parts of the world, and dove deeper into research to find out more about life around landfill. Like so often with sci-fi and speculative fiction, by writing about the future I was really writing about right now!

I’m glad you mentioned hope. It felt important to me, despite its bleak setting, for Landfill Mountains to have hope within it. I wonder if you have any thoughts on why it can feel important for stories about climate change to have a shred of hope within them, however slim?

Rich: Writing about now by writing about the future – that recalls the Gibson quote for me, how the future’s already here, just not evenly distributed. The climate crisis is the same way. It’s been ongoing for decades, just not where people with wealth and privilege have to look at it. Your book really made me think about that: living on Landfill Mountains is both a post-apocalyptic scenario, and already a reality in some places.

That kind of reflection is haunting, and depressing, and somewhat overwhelming, which is why that shred of hope you mention is so important. I’ve always held that fiction does not have any particular duty other than the expression and evocation of human feelings. But we are, all of us, experiencing a climate emergency, and I think all of us now have a duty to use our skills to combat it.

For you and I, our skill is writing speculative fiction. By churning up fanciful technological advances and better futures, we can potentially inspire people much smarter and more capable than ourselves to make them a reality. So while I’m not a hopeful person myself, I viewed it as my duty, when writing Tidings, to sinter it with hope.

Did you take the same tack with Landfill Mountains?

Rab: I love that Gibson quote! That’s very true around the climate crisis already impacting a lot of people. I’ve recently been getting frustrated with the “ticking doomsday clock” narrative that’s often used around climate change, where the idea is we are running out of time to prevent the damaging impact of climate change. It lacks immediacy! Maybe if public perception on climate change can shift from a future problem to a right now problem, it can help force leaders to stop kicking the can down the road.

It’s interesting when thinking about duty in writing, because as a Young Adult novel, I was hoping for Landfill Mountains to have about a 50/50 split between teenagers and adults (good YA can always be enjoyed by adults too!). Those younger readers are well aware of the problems of climate change, and are a generation where many are struggling with eco-anxiety or a feeling of a bleak future. I felt obliged to show humans adapting and surviving, and finding some sort of joy, even in the hardest of times – if only to share my own ways of finding hope with those readers.

Storytelling is one way I know of finding joy, hope and meaning in life, which is why it plays a key role in the Landfill Mountains. Storytelling is partly about how we remember things, partly how we understand the present, and partly how we communicate meaning with each other. I was intrigued to see all these parts appearing in the technology in Tidings – from babeltech, to virtual memory, to video tattoos. I wondered if you could talk a little about exploring technology in this story, and in your writing in general?

Rich: Technology has always been fascinating to me, and Tidings shoots for the moon in terms of possible breakthroughs – perhaps too much so. Because we’re alive during a period of incredible technological advancement, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking scientists can sort out anything, even a thing as massive as man-made climate change.

The truth is that no scientific breakthrough is going to reverse the damage already done, or let the privileged keep chugging along at our current level of comfort. While technology will play a role in mitigation, change will have to be primarily societal. Which is a whole lot messier to map out.

Landfill Mountains presents an interesting possibility for how a society might restructure itself during the climate crisis, with the interplay of scavengers, farmers, drivers, etc. Was that something you planned out in advance? Or did it evolve and surprise you as you wrote the book?

Rab: That’s an easy trap to fall into around technology. I know I can end up putting a lot of hope into ideas like carbon capture, perhaps because it feels so unlikely for human behaviour and society to change as quickly as we need it to. But we can’t let these reasons for hope become excuses for further delaying change. I liked seeing those technologies in Tidings though. It felt almost like a road map displaying that not all possible futures are completely doomed, and there’s potential light at the end of this tunnel.

In terms of creating the world of LandfillMountains, I knew I wanted a setting where humanity had not managed to make wide societal change in reaction to climate change, and now instead were having to make decisions in small communities in order to survive – which at least is something we’re better at. I had the waste scavengers’ life planned out before starting, and the rest of the setting grew into existence around the central location. I liked the idea that they only knew what was going on in their little segment of the Earth since this crisis, but could still remember the time of the internet when they knew the whole planet at once. We sort of went opposite ways with technologies – you explored what their advancement might mean, and I explored how we would live if we lost them!

Any final thoughts to finish us off?

Rich: I guess that binary speaks to the dual role climate fiction needs to play: it should scare us, because we’re heading for increasingly scary times, but it should also offer us that kernel of hope, as discussed.

It’s been a pleasure picking your brain, and getting a better understanding of how Landfill Mountains came about. Thanks for taking the time.

Rab: And thanks for talking to me about Tidings. It’s amazing that such a beautiful piece of fiction is available for free online. I suggest everyone reading this should check it out!

You can find out more about Landfill Mountains and Rab’s writing here. Find out more about Rich’s writing here, and read Tidings here.

The story is part of Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, the first climate-fiction contest from Fix, Grist’s solutions lab. Imagine 2200 asked writers to imagine the next 180 years of equitable climate progress, and the winning stories feature intersectional worlds in which no community is left behind. Read all 12 stories in the collection.

Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has lived in Spain and Czech Republic, and is currently based in Grande Prairie, Canada. He is the author of Annex and Tomorrow Factory, and his fiction has been translated into over a dozen languages. His first screen adaptation, “Ice,” won the 2021 Emmy Award for Outstanding Short Form Animated Program.

Rab Ferguson is a writer and storyteller. He developed his craft through writing short fiction and poetry, and has had work published in various magazines and anthologies over the last decade. His debut, environmental with-a-touch-of-magic YA novel Landfill Mountains, is out now. When not writing, he enjoys cycling, cats, and listening to the music of Bruce Springsteen. He has not yet found a way to combine those interests practically.

On Writing Other Animals by Mimi Thebo

The life of man, as David Hume pointed out, is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster. So it seems grossly unfair how many acres of print have been given over to the examination of the human experience and how little to the oyster experience – or indeed to the experience of any other species.

Some writers, and most notably writers for children, have tried to set this right. We have Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Buck in Jack London’s Call of the Wild. We have the rabbits of Watership Down and we have Tarka, Varjak Paw, Ratty and Mole… and of course Piers Torday’s chorus of wild things, of which he wrote in our recent blog post.

These can be memorable, insightful, important texts… but, as Thomas Nagel[i] points out, they are inaccurate. We cannot know the life of a bat, or an otter, or even an animal as close to us as a horse or a dog. There is an unbreachable gap between our experience and that of another species, and we write animal experiences from our place at the apex of the concept of evolution.  We write other animals by regressing our own evolutionary journey in our imaginations, from a position of superiority.

Imagining the non-lived experience of others from a position of superiority is not an ethical act. Just listen to John Paul Sartre’s claim that ‘The European of 1945 can… redo in himself the project of the Chinese, of the Indian or the African… there is always some way of understanding an idiot, a child, a primitive man or a foreigner if one has sufficient information[ii]’, to hear how off it seems to us today. And, given that our own superior species is murdering all the fellow species of the planet, and taking their lands for our own insatiable needs, it isn’t hard to note the philosophical parallels between the literature of colonisation and the literature of animal narratives. 

And yet.

And yet novels are empathy machines.  If we are to begin to feel the death of a bat as profoundly as we do the death of one of our own – if we are to embed the understanding of the interconnectedness of the lives on this planet into our emotional responses, fiction can play an important part in that change. This is perhaps especially true of fiction for young readers.  

Activism, Human Rights and Social Sciences have long discussed when ‘speaking for’ a person or group can be condoned. The conclusion has been, basically, ‘when it is important’ and ‘when they would otherwise be silenced.’ Our furry, feathered and scaled others are all silent. Tarka herself can’t tell her story – at least not yet.  Even Bunny the ‘talking dog’ doesn’t have enough buttons to express any longing she feels for freedom from domesticity, the way London did for Buck.

But appropriating other species’ voices and experience for artistic satisfaction and profit, at a time when we are literally killing them? That seems the grossest human consumption. When I was writing my Young Adult novel Dreaming the Bear, I stuck a post-it note in my writing shed, ‘Do Not Consume The Bear.’ And yet, in the end, my heroine accidently breathes in the bear’s last exhale. She consumed her, and it was too right for me to change. It might be that we are such agents of consumption that there is no other relationship we can have with the natural world – either as animals or as novelists.

Perhaps the best thing we can do is when we write other species is signal in the narrative that we are ‘speaking for’, that an act of imagination is taking place, that we are in a field of play. This can be done by writing animals who are clearly humans in fur suits (though with good natural history displayed), as Piers and Kenneth Graham have done. It can be done by writing from the outside of the experience of another species as I do, and as Hannah Gold has done in The Last Bear. Or, as in Nicola Davies’ new The Song That Sings Us, writing from an imagined future time when, at last, the animals can speak for themselves.

As I write, from my window I can see a flock of disappointed young wood sparrows – their feeders are empty. Of course, I am just imagining their disappointment, but they have tried several times to feed and have been twittering madly about the experience of failing to do so. My next act will be to go and stock their seed towers – this land was fields, and the house I rented opposite had been built the year before on an orchard. I owe the birds their food – I have inadvertently consumed their previous sources. And that is my last word on writing other species. That it’s not enough to just write and read – we also need to perform practical help.

You can find out more about Dreaming the Bear here.

Mimi Thebo is a Carnegie-longlisted author for children and teens. Her work has been translated into twelve languages, adapted for a BAFTA-winning BBC film, illustrated in light and signed for deaf children by ITV. Born in the USA, she is based in South West England, where she is Reader in Creative Writing at the University of Bristol and a Royal Literary Fellow.

[i] Nagel, T. (1974) “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” The Philosophical Review, 83(4), pp. 435–450.

[ii] Quoted in Spivak, G. C. (1999) A critique of postcolonial reason : toward a history of the vanishing present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. p. 172

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Optimistic Dystopias – a naïve contradiction? by Cynthia Zhang and Saul Tanpepper

Today, two authors discuss their writing: Cynthia Zhang, author of the adult contemporary fantasy novel After the Dragons, and Saul Tanpepper, whose story The Cloud Weaver’s Song won second place in Grist’s climate fiction competition Imagine 2200. Read or listen to a 30-min audio recording of the story online here.

You can read Sim Kern’s previous interview with the competition winner Lindsey Brodeck here.

ST: Hi, Cynthia! It’s so good to be able to meet and talk with you! I just finished After the Dragons and I just love so much about it, particularly that you chose to set it in Beijing. I’ve done a lot of traveling, but I’ve never been to the Far East, so I’m always excited to read stories set there. Given that you grew up in the United States, I’m curious why you decided to set your post-climate change story in China.

CZ: Hi Saul! Thanks so much for kicking off this conversation, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the novel!

I grew up in the US, but I was born in Beijing, so it’s always felt like a central part of my experience of China even though my parents aren’t actually from there. As a kid, our flights from the US always landed in Beijing, so my summer memories of visits home always began with Beijing, this old, busy city where I could read maybe half the billboards. So part of it is nostalgia, the desire to connect with a place that I am technically from but which (because my parents left for China when I was four) I have very few real concrete memories of.

Beyond personal history, Beijing felt like the natural setting for After the Dragons because it’s such a contradictory city. Which fits, since the People’s Republic of China is itself a deeply contradictory country itself—a communist state with one of the largest capitalist economies in the world, an old country eager to modernize, a rising superpower that still has a major chip on its shoulder because of nineteenth century colonialism. There’s a lot of wealth and innovation in Beijing, but there’s also a lot of poverty and suffering, much of which has been caused by development itself—I remember reading about the 2008 Beijing Olympics and how thousands of residents were displaced to make way for new buildings. Those were some of the tensions on my mind when trying to write about my relationship to a country I left when I was four.

And just logistically, Beijing works as a setting because for years the air pollution there was notoriously bad. I hear it’s been getting better in recent years though, which is very heartening to hear—obviously there are still plenty of problems to tackle, but it’s good to know that change is still possible, no matter how dire the circumstances seem. 

I have a few questions about your work as well. First of all, congratulations so much on placing in the Imagine 2200 contest – that’s such a huge feat, and I’m glad it means that The Cloud Weaver’s Song can reach new readers, including me! 

ST: Thanks, it really is an honor to be one of the twelve diverse storytellers featured in Fix’s inaugural climate fiction collection. At a time when doom and gloom pervades so much of the climate discussion, a project looking to inject hope and a sense of endless possibility is a refreshing change. So, what would you like to know?

CZ: Something I was struck by throughout the story was the constant tension between tradition and change. There’s something deeply ironic in the fact that tradition prevents the Sky People from listening to Semhar and adapting to new conditions when the Sky People’s way of life developed out of adaptation. At the same time, I can imagine that living in precarious circumstances would give tradition even more power—experimentation is difficult because the risks are so high, so it feels far safer to stick to what has already worked. I think this is a very relevant message for the current global response to climate change, but I’m wondering if you have anything to add on this topic. How do you think we can balance the need to change with the responsibility of listening to the past?

ST: When I set out to write the story, I didn’t consciously plan to pit the need to change against the Elders’ reluctance to embrace it. In retrospect, I suppose the theme arose organically out of the zeitgeist as it relates to our current climate challenges. There’s an intuitive sense that technology, the driving force behind change, enabled us to have such a large and rapid impact on the climate. Perhaps this explains why there’s such a strong resistance to employing new technologies as solutions. Realizing that we can’t roll the clock back, either, has paralyzed us into not doing anything at all. Of course, that’s not an option. We have to make changes, and we have to be both brave enough to accept this fact and creative enough to conceive of new technologies.

I don’t know if the organizers of the contest intended for us to avoid this dilemma by asking us to place our stories 200 years in the future. However, in doing so, they freed us to consider how a society might have already overcome the broader challenges of climate change without tasking us to explain how our characters overcame their reluctance to doing it. But it’s such a perennial conflict that I guess I simply couldn’t avoid making it a central theme in The Cloud Weaver’s Song.

It’s interesting that your own story employs some of these same tropes, albeit in a completely different and unique way, by incorporating a mythological element into a real world setting struggling with modern-day problems. And I just love how you juxtapose your vivid, colorful descriptions of the dragons against Beijing’s often drab and desolate backdrop. China’s cultural history with dragons is steeped in reverence. But you go further in your story: Dragons have become commodified. They’re kept as pets, they’re disposable, and they’re even used as tools for turning a profit. So, once more we have this same tension between honoring tradition and moving past it. But you take it even one more step by envisioning a way for dragons to become crucial to your characters’ story arcs. It’s… inspired.

CZ: Ah, thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed the depiction of the dragons in this story—I’ve always had a soft spot for animal characters, and I’m glad these little scaly terrors could slither their way into your heart. Speaking of inspiration, I was really taken with the central technology of the webs in The Cloud Weaver’s Song. They’re so striking and unique—I don’t know that I’ve seen anything similar in sci-fi, though perhaps maybe in myth. Was there any particular inspiration for gathering water via webs? Something in nature, perhaps, or maybe new developments in tech? 

ST: The ideas are based on existing technology. For example, meshed dew-catchers are currently employed to harvest water from the air in deserts around the world; and mech — or exo — suits, such as the one Sigourney Weaver’s character dons in Aliens, are an emerging technology.

As you know, I set my story in the Dannakil Depression of the Horn of Africa, one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. One of the themes the organizers had encouraged in our submissions was Afrofuturism, which is an expression of the sociopolitical, cultural, and technological experiences of the African people, particularly of its diaspora. Again, in hindsight, I think this was very clever, since, as a genre of fiction, Afrofuturism blends the modern with folklore and myth. Think of the Kingdom of Wakanda in Black Panther as a reference. So, yet again, there’s that dynamic between the old and the new. By calling Semhar’s and Alimira’s mech suits spider and termite skins, respectively, I wanted to invoke in the reader’s mind the unique cultural and mythological experiences of the people of the region.

You took a different approach in After the Dragons by highlighting the culture clash between your two main protagonists, Kai and Eli. But the friction between them extends to their personalities, as well. Kai is an artist with a strong sense of morality, while Eli is the scientist driven by his emotions. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition, since it switches the stereotypes of what motivates them. Was this intentional? And how does the interplay between the two of them – the conflict, tension, and ultimately their feelings for each other — help them finally come to agreement? And in your opinion, how does their reconciliation speak to whether or not our world can agree on much larger issues, such as climate change?

CZ: So, fun fact: both my parents are scientists and my brother is currently in med school, making me the familial black sheep who chose a very different (and far less stable) career path. When developing Eli and Kai as characters, I don’t think I was consciously thinking in terms of an art/science divide, but it’s possible that this is because that divide has always seemed a little artificial to me. Though I work in the humanities, I have a great deal of respect for what colleagues in STEM are doing, and in contrast to the STEM/humanities antagonism that many media stories emphasize, I try to focus on the ways both fields can learn from each other. Which I suppose is something that bleeds through in After the Dragons insofar as Eli and Kai are characters with very different backgrounds who learn from each other.

Overall, I see both Eli and Kai as characters who want to help the world around them, but they feel differently about their ability to enact meaningful change. While I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s naive per se, Eli is fundamentally more optimistic and better at managing despair. Tiny elementary schooler Eli rescues a box of abandoned kittens, and while that experience inspires disbelief about the kind of people who would do such a thing, he’s struck by the wonder of tiny creatures brought back to health by care and kindness. Kai does his best to mitigate injustice where he can, but he’s more prone to despairing over how much work there is to be done. And to be fair, there’s a lot of reason to despair! We need large-scale, structural change if we want to survive, and the vast majority of the people in power are simply not interested in that.

But even as we grieve and mourn what’s lost, I think it’s important to find ways of sustaining ourselves nonetheless. Of understanding the importance of protecting what is left and the ways in which our actions, even if they seem so small against the vastness of one hundred companies producing 71% of carbon emissions—God, just saying that makes me depressed. Still. Social movements have never been led by the rich and powerful, and that just means it’s all the more important for us to do what we can now. 

Returning to The Cloud Weaver’s Song, I really love about your story is how hopeful it is. It’s not a naive hope—the People of the Sky have suffered significantly, and there’s suffering in their future if their leaders refuse to change—but just the idea of the Earth becoming green and inhabitable again. In wrestling with my own climate anxieties, I’ve tried to balance awareness of the planet’s fragility with an acknowledgement of nature’s resilience. Things are bad and they’re going to get even worse, but maybe at some point in the future we can figure things out. On the spectrum of doom to cautious hope, where would you place yourself and this story? And asking as someone who has a lot of anxiety about climate change, how do you manage climate anxiety/grief? 

ST: I’m actually really optimistic about our chances. This may seem self-contradictory, since a lot of my fiction is dystopian and post-apocalyptic and incorporates elements of global warming and its dire consequences. It’s a reflection and exaggeration of the real world as it is today and of people’s fears. But there’s always an element of hope as well, an ability to overcome, which reflects my own personal sense of possibility. As a former scientist, I’m keenly aware of the power of technology and the human mind to conceive of ways to do things better… once we set our minds to the task. Right now, the world is in a bit of a slump due to Covid-19 and a string of natural disasters that have the media beating the gloom and doom drum. People are eager for more reasons to hope, and they’ll look to stories to deliver it to them.

Your characters’ challenges mirror this. They have a certain fragility, whether it’s physical or emotional, and a resignation to a fate that feels immutable. But it’s all overcome by the arrival of the right person at the right time, someone who is brave enough, and optimistic enough, to take chances and find solutions. Importantly, he doesn’t do it alone. That’s an important message for us all, because neither can we.

CZ: Yes, definitely! There’s the idea in a lot of dystopian fiction that under dire circumstances, humans will revert to a natural state of violence and selfishness. History will give you plenty of examples for that argument, but there are also just as many examples of how people have managed to band together despite dire circumstances. Working together is hard and complicated and frustrating, but it’s also our best bet for making it through this.

You can read The Cloud Weaver’s Song here, and find out more about After the Dragons here.

Saul Tanpepper is the author of the popular post-apocalyptic book series BUNKER 12 and ZPOCALYPTO, as well as the climate fiction stories “Leviathan” and “They Dreamed of Poppies.” A former combat medic and retired PhD scientist from Northern California, he is the co-author (as Kenneth James Howe) of the African diaspora memoirs “Relentless” and “I Will Not Grow Downward.”

Cynthia Zhang is a Ph.D. student in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture at the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kaleidotrope, On Spec, Phantom Drift, and other venues. After the Dragons, her debut novel, was released in August 2021 with Stelliform Press. She is tragically online and can be found at cz_writes on Twitter.

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News Round-up

Tips for Guerrilla Gardening

Ten ways to confront the climate crisis without losing hope [Guardian]

Climate migration on five levels: a response to Undullah Street [Storythings]

Liverpool’s Theatre in the Rough has announced an open callout for short works for a new digital arts festival exploring women’s experience of the Climate Crisis – open to female writers living in Liverpool

Join the climate scavenger hunt by Lauren James

My new book, Green Rising, is a climate thriller inspired by movements like Extinction Rebellion. I wanted to write about teenage activists who have the power to make real, decisive change in the climate crisis. It’s something which makes us all feel incredibly helpless, and climate fiction is often a depressing, dystopian look at our doomed future. I wanted to write a more optimistic, hopeful path forward to a better world, with clear instructions about what we should be doing next to fix the planet.

When I was writing Green Rising, I became really passionate about doing something about climate change – but I didn’t know how to actually help make a difference! So much of the climate crisis is beyond our control as individuals. Change relies on large corporations making changes to the status quo. But there are some things we can all do to help – most importantly, to start conversations about climate change and raise awareness of how urgent the situation is.

People tend to bury their head in the sand about climate change, because it often feels so hopeless. But it’s important that we’re all aware of the politics and ethics of climate solutions, because they’re going to determine the course of the next hundred years on Earth.

I challenge you to do something from my list below, and use it to talk to someone – whether it’s with your family, employer or educational institution – about how they can make a difference.

I can’t wait to see how many points you can get and all the actions you might take!

Pledge not to mow your lawn (10 POINTS)

Make space for insects by letting plants like daisies and white clover grow. These will produce nectar and habitats for pollinators, frogs and small mammals. If you feel self-conscious about leaving your lawn ‘messy’, then try to mow a border around the outside or a path through the middle. Avoid using pesticides too. Find out more here.

Go on a charity shop clothes hunt (10 POINTS)

Disposable, cheap fashion pieces are a major contributor towards wasted energy. If you buy new clothing, it’s best to invest in long-term, quality pieces that can be worn for many years. Even better, try to buy second hand! Visit your local charity shops to hunt down some new clothes, and post your haul online.

Air dry clothing instead of tumble drying (10 POINTS)

Save energy where you can by letting your new clothes haul air dry instead of tumble-drying them.

Register to Vote (10 POINTS)

It’s important to vote in all political elections you are able to, and make sure your representatives are aware that your vote is based on their climate policy views. If you haven’t yet registered to vote, you can do so here.

Switch to LED lightbulbs (10 POINTS)

Energy efficient LED bulbs can save energy compared to halogen/incandescent bulbs. Get 10 points for every bulb you replace!

Go foraging (20 POINTS)

From mushrooms to blackberries, there are lots of edible foods available in hedgerows and woodlands. Use this calendar to see what’s in season in your area. You can pick up some litter along the way, while collecting wild elderberries or sloes to make homemade cordials and liqueurs.

You can even collect some wildflowers to dry or press. Use flowers to decorate recyclable brown paper, and wrap up a bottle of homemade sloe gin as a personalised, sustainable Christmas or birthday present.

Make a bird bath or wildlife pond (20 POINTS)

Use a shallow, watertight bowl, bin lid or plant tray to make a water source for local wildlife – and wait to see what comes for a dip. Birds, hedgehogs, bees and frogs will be grateful!

Donate old books to a school or charity shop (10 POINTS)

I don’t know about you, but my shelves are filled with books I know I’m not going to read again. Why not make someone’s day by donating them to a local primary school or charity shop? Show off your contribution with a #unhaul post. If you’re a book blogger, showcase the eARCs you’re reading via Netgalley – which all saves on postage and printing of paper proofs!

Build a bird box or insect hotel (20 POINTS)

Use a wooden pallet, broken bricks/plant pots, twigs and leaves to create a structure for insects in a cool place in your garden. If you’re more crafty, you can make a bird box out of recycled materials like plastic drain pipes, paint cans and even old boots.

Decorate your wheelie bin (30 POINTS)

Use your wheelie bin, front window or garden fence to raise awareness of the climate battle by using one of Extinction Rebellion’s downloadable assets. You can make a stencil to use with spray-chalk or emulsion paint, or print out stickers and posters (I’m a big fan of the Declaration of Rebellion). Of course, these are council property so make sure you have permission first. You can even create a mural – paint beautiful art with a climate-based message on a wall!

Distribute outreach materials (30 POINTS)

Go the extra mile by giving your stickers or posters to friends, shops and community centres, encouraging them to showcase their views too. Extinction Rebellion are hosting lots of events this summer to encourage climate activism (check out their calendar here).

Volunteer for Extinction Rebellion (40 POINTS) –

As well as organising marches and protests, Extinction Rebellion are always looking for creative people to help with outreach, from musicians to graphic designers, photographers and social media content creators. Artists can help by making murals, stickering, flyposting, stencilling, chalking, banners and subvertising bus stops or billboards. Find other roles:

Make a change to your diet (30 POINTS)

Whether that means cooking with non-dairy butter, drinking tea with oat milk once a day, or only eating beef once a month, you can incorporate small changes into your routine that will make a difference over the course of a lifetime. Use this guide to see which foods are in-season locally, so you can avoid hot-house produce grown out of season.

Change to a renewable energy utility supplier (30 POINTS)

Many utility suppliers offer a tariff which uses renewable energy sources such as wind or solar energy. Check your supplier’s website to see how to switch – more information can be found here.

Speak out! (10 POINTS)

If you’re nervous of getting caught seed-bombing, you can still help by signing petitions like this one to rewild Britain’s national parks, or write to your local MP to encourage your council to rewild vacant land (check what your council is doing here). You can find government climate petitions here. Extinction Rebellion’s big goal for 2021 is to demand that the UK Government stop all new fossil fuel project investments – every voice will help make that happen!

Speak to your employer/educator (50 POINTS)

If you work in local government or in the private sector, then part of your pension is almost certainly invested in coal, oil and gas companies. Write to the trustee or convenor of the pension scheme to ask them to divest from their harmful default options using a template.

You can also ask for more sustainable practises within companies or institutions, such as only offering beef once a week in canteens, asking for more reusable materials to be used in shipping, or reducing the amount of business trips taken by employees. It’s likely they’ve not considered the harm being done through their actions while working in a business-as-usual fashion. 

If you work in publishing, join Writers Rebel’s campaign for recycled paper to be used in book printing. They’re looking for people to help with editorial support, administrative tasks, investigative research, campaign planning, event organisation and project management.

While writing Green Rising, I founded the Climate Fiction Writers League, an organisation of over a hundred climate writers. I run this newsletter in order to encourage readers to take action. Talking about climate change to your social media followers, or founding a climate activism group in your workplace, can help make people reconsider their actions.

Good luck on your climate missions, fellow activists! Green Rising is about politics, standing up for what you believe in and taking direct action. But remember: no amount of careful consumption can fix an industry-wide problem. The carbon emissions responsible for climate change are largely caused by industry, and can only be reduced through government action. This fight has to start with policy changes, immediately. So the most important thing you can do is vote, and make sure you know where your money is going – at every level. While magic is fantastical, the ability of humans to fix the climate emergency is not. I believe we can make a difference: and I’m excited to see how you go about it.


You can find out more about Green Rising here.

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is also a Creative Writing lecturer, freelance editor, screenwriter. Lauren is the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League, and on the board of the Authors & Illustrators Sustainability Working Group through the Society of Authors.

Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide, been translated into six languages. The Quiet at the End of the World was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, where she studied Chemistry and Physics.

A coming-of-age David and Goliath story

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.

You can find out more about If Not Us here, and Jamie’s book Kings of a Dead World in our interview with him here.

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.