‘I follow the compass of my interests’

Author Jenny Offill describes how the research for her latest book Weather took shape

Jenny Offill’s latest book, Weather, is described by the Guardian as ‘a dazzling response to climate crisis and political anxiety’ and ‘wit for the end times’ – and that was before the coronavirus changed all of our lives. In this especially timely feature, Jenny reveals some of the inspiration behind the creation of Weather.

This is part of our Early Career Writers’ Resources pack on Method. It was made possible by Arts Council England. Discover more here →

When I was writing Weather, I read a lot about disaster psychology. I learned that one of the first principles of helping people during a continuing crisis was to anticipate and answer questions before they were asked. Another was to provide people with as much agency as possible. In such times, it is essential to set out what people can do to help themselves and others and then give them the opportunity to do it.  

These principles were the catalyst for writing part of the novel in a question-and-answer format as well as for creating an auxiliary website called obligatory note of hope which includes options for collective action. 

I was fascinated by studies that suggested that people in helping professions (nurse, doctors etc.) seemed to suffer from less PTSD after disasters than others in their communities despite having been on the front lines. One theory was that their work allowed them to reframe themselves as rescuers instead of victims and that this was psychologically protective. I saw this idea too in other places, that people who gave themselves the job of looking after others had a better rate of survival in extreme circumstances. 

Bit by bit, this research began to shape what I read and saw and listened to. I read the true life adventure story 438 Days about a fisherman named Salvador Alvarenga who was lost at sea for over a year. He was travelling with a younger man named Ezequiel Cordoba who was understandably terrified by their predicament. Alvarenga tried to keep up his spirits with little games. Here is an excerpt from the third week: 

Day 23: Córdoba was in worse shape. He pleaded with Alvarenga, “Oranges, bring me oranges.” Alvarenga stood above the prone man and assured him food was close. “Okay, I am going to the store, I will see if it is open, to bring you some food,” he said with conviction as he pointed to the horizon. “I will get tamales, oranges and shrimp.” Alvarenga strode with confidence for the few seconds it took to cross the boat. After waiting for five minutes in silence, he strode back with bad news. “The store is closed, but don’t worry, they open in an hour and they have fresh tortillas.” To his surprise, the scheme worked. Córdoba stopped moaning and fell asleep. The game of visiting the store bought Alvarenga a few hours of respite from the cloud of fear that had seized Córdoba’s mind and rarely loosened its grip on the despairing young fisherman. (92-93) 

The writer quoted Dr. John Leach, a senior research fellow survival psychology who explained why the shop exercise was beneficial to both Córdoba and Alvarenga’s mental health. Córdoba was given a reprieve from thinking about scarcity and Alvarenga was given a caretaking task which at a basic level gave meaning to his existence.  

Another idea from disaster psychology that interested me was that you must rehearse disasters in your mind so that you will have a template for dealing with them when they come. Otherwise your brain resorts to the normalcy bias, telling you things are not what you think, that all is well despite the evidence. 

Of course, one of the problems with writing about the disaster of climate change is that it mostly a slow moving apocalypseThe imagination balks at the immensity of itkept trying and failing to envision the world my daughter might live in when she was the age I am now. 

Then I came across the work of the Superflux studiosThey have an art installation called Mitigation of Shock which imagines a future family life in a small apartment in London in 2050. The living space has been radically reconfigured to adapt to food insecurity and extreme weather. In the bathroom, there are mushrooms being grown to eat. The living room is filled with a gerryrigged hydroponic garden of cabbages and chilli plants. There are the skins of foxes who have been killed for food. And yet there are signs of adaptation and resilience everywhere. Out the window, there is a view of a city full of solar panels and vertical gardens. Last year, they made a new installation that brilliantly expands the idea.  

This time it is set in Singapore, a city with greater urban density. The apartment is filled with plants and crickets and mealworms are being grown for food. There are tools in the home for fishing, many made from repurposed plastic and other objects. 

When I got tired of thinking about the future, I would play this one Car Seat Headrest album, Teens of Denial on repeat. Will Toledo has his own set of worries. 

Drunk Drivers/Killers Whales was the song I played most, closely followed by the excellently named Destroyed by Hippie Powers. 

I particularly liked singing the last chorus very loudly and idiotically whenever I was alone 

It doesn’t have to be like this
It doesn’t have to be like this
It doesn’t have to be like this
Killer whales, killer whales
It doesn’t have to be like this
It doesn’t have to be like this
It doesn’t have to be like this
Killer whales, killer whales 

Whales, ah
Whales, ah yeah yeah
Whales, oh oh oh oh oh 

(Disaster Psychology is big on singing during trying times and disaster psychology has never seemed less hypothetical to me than it does at this exact moment.) 

So stay inside, my friends. Take care of each other. Rehearse this disaster. When this is over, I will come to Norwich and dance in the streets with you.

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