“Hope cannot exist in and of itself. I can’t just be hopeful for the sake of it. I find that I have to figure out actions that feel like they create a less precarious life for the future.” Author Jenny Offill talks to host Mary Laura Philpott about WEATHER on NPT’s A Word on Words.
An Interview with Jenny Offill, Author of Weather
Author Jenny Offill has been called “the master of novels told in sly, burnished fragments” (New York Times). In fact, her books have such a unique quality that it’s difficult to make comparisons when describing her writing; if you were to liken her new book, Weather, to anything else, you would probably compare it best to her own prior book, the critically acclaimed and reader-beloved Dept. of Speculation. In this interview for Nashville Public Television’s A Word on Words, Offill talks with host Mary Laura Philpott about how she translates the human experience into spare, sparkling novels packed with compelling emotional truth. (She also shares what she’s been watching on TV during the pandemic.)
Mary Laura Philpott: Let’s start with a zoomed-in focus on this latest book, and then we’ll talk more broadly about some other things. Could you introduce us to Weather?
Jenny Offill: Weather is a novel about a librarian who slowly becomes a climate change doomer and then slowly comes back out of that again. The main character, the narrator, is Lizzie, and she’s a librarian at a university library. Most of us know a Lizzie, who kind of works as a fake shrink to all the friends around her and even to the people who come into the library. So at the beginning of the novel, we’re seeing that flow of people in and out. She’s dealing with the things that are going on in her own family and also taking on the joys and sorrows of everyone else she crosses paths with.
Philpott: I have to tell you, I lost track of how many times I set this book down and yelled out to my spouse, “This book somehow knows everything I feel anxious about!” So I think I may be a Lizzie, and I’ve heard other readers say the same thing. For folks who haven’t had a chance to enjoy this book yet, can you give us a little mini-catalog of the top few things Lizzie worries about?
Offill: Well, she begins by worrying about her family. She has a brother who’s a recovering addict. She has a son, who’s eight, who is going through the normal kinds of things kids do at that age.
But then she becomes involved with Sylvia, her former professor who was also her mentor, who wants Lizzie to answer [listener] questions for a podcast that Sylvia is doing. The podcast is about climate change and other vaguely apocalyptic topics.
So once Lizzie begins to answer those questions — which range from questions about what to teach your children about what’s coming down the pike, to questions about conspiracy theories to questions about what sort of practices you should use to be more sustainable — her circle of concern begins to widen and widen. And she slowly becomes interested and a bit obsessed with prepping for potential disasters.
Philpott: Did you have a sense as you were writing that you would be striking such a nerve. that these feelings Lizzie has are so widely held by other people?
Offill: Well, I have an advantage, in a way, in that I’m a professor. I teach undergraduates and graduate students, and I think younger people have been afraid and obsessed with this for some time. But for people my age and people who are not working in specific fields, I think it seemed somewhat abstract until more recently, if you lived in the West and were lucky enough to not have it quite at your doorstep yet.
What’s been interesting is, in the six-and-a-half years it took to write the book, I went from seeming like quite an outlier with my concerns to finding more and more people that I knew, who, when I told them what I was writing about, were saying, “Oh my gosh, I too am experiencing these moments where I’m trying on the one hand to just live my everyday regular life and do all the things you have to do in that — and then my focus will suddenly shift to these huge, existential questions.” It’s very disorienting and hard to know what your responsibility is at any given time. Are you tending your own garden or are you thinking about the fire outside its walls?
Philpott: What you just said about tending your own garden reminded me of the profile that Parul Sehgal wrote about you in the New York Times. I love the headline they put on it, “How to Write Fiction When the Planet Is Falling Apart.” Something you said there stuck with me: that what really matters to people is their children’s welfare. You said, that’s what I’m going to do on my book tour — I’m just going to try to freak out the parents. I guess even if the book tour didn’t proceed as expected, parents are good and freaked out right now, aren’t they?
Offill: They certainly are. And, of course, I didn’t have it on my apocalyptic bingo card, but then the pandemic came along to add to our store of huge things to worry about. That profile was so beautifully done. In fact, I joked that Parul should actually write my next novel instead of just interviewing me about it. One of the funny things about that profile was that she quoted me saying that I was going to be a Trojan horse — that I would come across as just your everyday mom, but secretly I would be this climate prophet, telling about all the things we need to do and worry about. Later I said to her, well, you can’t announce you’re going to be a Trojan horse in the New York Times Magazine and then still be one. [laughs] So I think my cover is blown.
It turns out that, of course, as I knew, parents all over the world are worrying about this. And also they’re realizing that the kids know. Even pretty young kids are concerned about this and worried about this. Obviously Greta Thornburg has come into the fore and become a such a great focus for the youth movement. But I think we’ve all been wondering, well, what do we say? And for me personally, it was a question of what am I going to tell my daughter? Am I going to say I knew and then I just froze and wasn’t sure what to do?
Philpott: It’s human nature, I think, to start by worrying about our own loved ones and then have that obvious light-bulb moment and be reminded that, of course, everyone is someone’s baby.
Offill: Yes. And I think we’ve also been thinking, oh, OK, everyone is someone’s grandparent or loved one or sister or brother. And this novel in general is about what it means to start widening your circles of care. In Weather, Lizzy is thinking not only about all the things that people are doing, but she also starts to notice the nonhuman creatures around her. It’s a little bit of a flicker in the beginning, because she’s whatever the opposite of a tree hugger is. She’s kind of annoyed by the whole thing in the beginning. She thinks, oh no, now I have to worry about the whole world.
Philpott: So much of this novel is about the desire to protect and save the people we love, plus the people we don’t know and everything else in the world, while knowing that that’s impossible. And I wonder, do you think that’s a desire and a frustration that has always existed at this level and we just think we have it the worst now? Or are today’s human beings experiencing this more than anyone has before?
Offill: Well, obviously there have been people in all moments in history that have had frighteningly little control over the futures of their children — or they might be living during wartime or some other disaster that is larger than anything they can control. To some extent, I think in order to just get through the days, we have to believe that we have a modicum of control and safety, in order to just go forward. Every once in a while, the rug is pulled out from underneath us and we realize that we didn’t have as much control and safety as we thought.
The climate crisis is different than other things that have come before in that the people who are telling us, oh no, the end is nigh, are not religious prophets or people that are usually in that category of telling us about coming doom. They’re scientists. We’ve been brought to the doorstep of this by the math of it and the science of it. In that way, it is very different. It feels like in previous times, we weren’t so interconnected that one problem could affect everyone in the world. We’re seeing that with the climate crisis and also with the crisis we’re experiencing now. Our ability to move so freely around the world has also meant that there’s no one place that is apart from every other place.
Philpott: In the book, Lizzie writes responses to listener questions for a podcast called “Hell or High Water.” Her boss is always talking about how the responses need to hit what she calls, “an obligatory note of hope.” And you actually created a website called obligatorynoteofhope.com?
Offill: I did! Yes.
Philpott: Tell me about that.
Offill: Well, one of the things we were talking just a moment ago is this idea of trying to protect your children and your family — and how that’s such a deep-seated human desire. And I was thinking as I was working on the website about how sometimes the starting point of that is to think, well, where should we live? What could we keep in our cupboards? What kind of profession should they go into that would keep them safe? That’s a starting point that almost everyone has.
But I also wanted to move away from that idea of materially prepping or thinking of what’s best in that way, towards what might be some skills to have, such as emotional resilience or even spiritual resilience as we go forward in these very uncertain times. So I collected, from different books I’d read, little snippets that I thought were both hopeful and also realistic about how to make it through trying times. In fact, they’re called “Tips for Trying Times.” And I also spotlighted a few people that I thought were doing interesting work, who showed you could burrow in at a local level and make a difference.
Philpott: What gives you hope?
Offill: Well, it’s funny. I heard, when I first began writing, a quote from Isak Dinesen that said, “Write a little bit each day, without hope, without despair.” I’ve never succeeded in doing that. I think hope cannot exist in and of itself. I can’t just be hopeful for the sake of it. I find that I have to figure out actions that feel like they create a less precarious life for the future. So for me that has meant that I wrote this novel, which I was never intending to write about the climate when I first began it. And also that — I’m a pretty introverted person, as most writers are — but I’ve pushed myself a little bit to do more activism. That, for me, has been an antidote to the dread and a hopeful thing.
Philpott: That’s wonderful. I want to talk about your writing a little more broadly now. I’m going to open up Weather and hold it up so our viewers can see this very unique style you have here, the way you write in blocks of text with space in between them on the page. I remember when I first read Dept. of Speculation, it was unlike anything I had seen before. Can you tell us a little bit about how your style evolved and how it works for you and the stories you’re telling?
Offill: Well, my first novel (Last Things) is written in a more linear, conventional way. It still has these stories nested within stories, which I like to tell, but you look at it and it looks like other books that you’ve read. But I realized when I was writing Dept. of Speculation and also Weather that I wanted to try to find a form that was closer to the way that I, myself, think. I wanted it to be able to include those kinds of moments where you think something, but then you double back a little bit and doubt yourself, or you have one thought and then you leap to another thought.
So it’s a difficult structure in the final stages; the question of how to make sure that it does all come together, that it is all connected as closely as it can be, can take a little while. That’s why I’m such a slow writer. I really have to put the different sections together and then just wait to see if they seem like they hold. But I also enjoy thinking of the white space as a place where the reader can actively enter in and sort of collaborate with me. They can have pauses to have their own train of associations with what the narrator’s talking about and maybe not be hurried along quite as quickly as you are sometimes in a novel when it’s driven completely by plot.
Philpott: Well, as a reader, I will tell you, I find that style accurately reflects interior life. The way the insides of our brains have song lyrics next to existential worries, next to memories, next to calendar reminders, next to jokes… That all seems very emotionally true, mentally true. Speaking of song lyrics and jokes and cultural references, I’m curious about your cultural diet. Are you a TV watcher? Music listener? Podcast subscriber? What sort of entertainment and information do you take in?
Offill: I am all of the above. I watch plenty of TV, mostly with my daughter. Right now we’re watching — which I recommend, it’s extremely relaxing — Downton Abbey. Of course they’re living a much more rarified life than I would venture to say anyone is now. But there’s a lot of long walks. There’s a lot of circling around very small details of what you might eat, and writing a letter, and all those kinds of things. And it’s also pictured in this very lush, green backdrop that I find is relaxing.
We also like to watch reality TV shows, particularly Project Runway-type things. Anything where there is a race to finish something and it’s not particularly cloak-and-dagger about how everyone is acting to each other.
In terms of podcasts, one podcast I just love to listen to is “On Being” with Krista Tippett. That, to me, kind of captures an excellent feeling I’ve had sometimes. I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You know, when you go to one of these big schools, there’s such a giant course catalog. and it’s always really fun at the beginning to get it and think, Oh, should I learn about anthropology? Or should I learn about…? And I feel like her podcast really has that kind of startling range, where one time it will be a theologian and one time it will be a political scientist and one day it will be a community organizer. And she’s so thoughtful. So that’s something I love to listen to.
In terms of music, I’m famous in my family for being the one that listens to music so loud in the car that when anyone else comes in, they have to turn the volume down. I listen to a lot of music that is probably a bit too young for me. I’m a bit of an indie rock lover, and my daughter introduces me to things, and I find some things on my own. So it’s kind of a mishmash of things.
Philpott: I also have a daughter, and we just finished the full Downton Abbey experience, all the way through. It is so soothing.
Offill: We had already re-watched Gilmore Girls almost to the end. So we were like, what are we going to do?
Philpott: We’re right there with you on the TV. We’re now working our way through The West Wing, if I may recommend it. If you could go back and tell yourself of, say, 20 to 25 years ago, one thing, what would it be?
Offill: What an interesting question. Well, I’ll say what I also say to myself and I often say to my students, which is: Don’t take advice from people whose life you don’t want. I think all of us exist in this state of uncertainty about whether we’re making the right choices, whether we should stick with something or move away from it if it’s not coming together. And there are a lot of people who are very settled in their lives, who are ready to tell us that we took a wrong turn back there and we should immediately go to law school or we should have another child, or we should do this or we should do that.
I’ve discovered that it’s just human nature that people like to tell you to do what they themselves have done, because it validates the choices that they’ve made. So you may discover that divorced people think you should get divorced, and married people think you should be married, et cetera. When I was teaching at Columbia, a woman who worked in the office one day said to me, “I’m going to get some calls if you tell one more person not to go to law school.” And the funny thing was, I said, “I am not telling them not to go to law school! My students are coming to me and saying, I really, really, really want to be a writer. Should I go to law school? In which case, I say no.” But it was funny because that’s what she was overhearing.
So yeah, that has been something that I maybe wished I knew a bit earlier.
Philpott: Law school — famously the babysitter of aimless liberal arts graduates.
Offill: Yes! Well, I’ve now been teaching long enough that I sometimes get the people who went to law school and have already been lawyers for many years who are now going back to become writers. It’s a funny thing. Sometimes I meet former students who became lawyers and are extremely happy with it. Although I must say they’re all doing very specific kinds of law, like nobody’s really doing corporate law. They’re doing “save the world” kind of law, which seems to provide a very meaningful step into the world.
Philpott: Yeah, it’s a different animal, that kind. Jenny, thank you so much for joining us from home.
Offill: Thank you for having me. What a pleasure.
This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Jenny Offill Recommends
100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, by Sarah Ruhl
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, by Claudia Rankine
A Children’s Bible, by Lydia Millet