James Bradley's work explores the environment and climate, as well as time - our past, our present, and our possible futures.
He is the author of five novels - Ghost Species, Wrack, The Deep Field, The Resurrectionist and Clade. His works are highly awarded, and he has been shortlisted for both the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Christina Steed Prize for Fiction.
ASTRID: James Bradley, welcome to The Garret or should I say The Garret at Home.
JAMES: Thank you, it’s great to be here.
ASTRID: I would have loved to meet you in a room, James but I really do appreciate being let virtually into your office via Zoom. So, thank you very much. Now, James your fiction is beautiful—you’ve written five novels, you explore the environment and climate, you explore time, including past and present, but also you explore humanity’s potential futures and where we might go next. Your novels are highly awarded and acclaimed: for example, Wrack was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, Clade was shortlisted for the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and you yourself have also received the Pascall Prize for Criticism for contribution to our understanding of the arts. But to begin James, congratulations on publishing your fifth novel Ghost Species in the middle of a global pandemic.
JAMES: The timing was not my choice; I have to say (laughs).
ASTRID: Look, I don’t imagine it was. But because you have published several novels before, I’m really interested in what this experience has been like for you. Timing aside, can you tell me how this has been different? Promoting a book not in person?
JAMES: Yeah, look it’s been really strange actually. Normally when a book comes out there’s a whole series of things you do: you go around and visit bookshops, you go to other cities, I’d probably be meeting you in person, you do radio, you do all of those kinds of things. And I guess just at the point when this was all winding up was exactly when everything was closing down, so I haven’t done a single face-to-face interview. I did one that was quite a long way out kind of on the day that they locked everything down, and that one then became a phone interview. I guess you don’t do any events or anything like that, so that sense that the series of things that you’d normally be doing are not there is quite strange. But I think one of the things that is particularly strange about it is it means that your entire experience of the process starts to be filtered through social media, and social media is always such a weird way of experiencing anything because it’s so extreme in both directions. So, there’s that. I mean in a weird kind of way I think I’ve been really lucky because I do think that the book speaks to a number of the kinds of issues that we’re grappling with at the moment. So, in an odd way if you were going to release a book in a pandemic this is possibly the one to release in a pandemic (laughs).
ASTRID: Absolutely (laughs). For those who haven’t read it James, can you give us the introduction to Ghost Species?
JAMES: Sure, Ghost Species begins now and moves about twenty years into the future and it’s the story of a project to recreate a Neanderthal child, and it’s about the story of that child as she grows up against the backdrop of a collapsing world. It’s about the degree to which time is out of joint—that sense that we live in a moment of collapsing temporalities where the deep past is exploding into the present, where the future is being destabilised. And it’s about a whole series of questions to do with inevitability, but also questions about the human and the non-human, and about the ways that we connect with each other, and about parenthood and children.
ASTRID: I want to go into Ghost Species because I agree with you wholeheartedly—the themes that you are sharing with us and asking your readers to consider are essentially what so many of us have been considering whilst shut up in our homes. But before we jump into Ghost Species, as a successful writer in the Australian literary scene what are your observations of the industry in the last two or three months as things have locked down? The publishers, the agents, but the readers, the writers—the whole deal.
JAMES: I think it’s been a really weird time for the publishing industry and for the literary industry, and I suppose they’re not quite the same thing although they’re closely connected. I think there’s been some really good things, I mean I think you’ve seen how quickly bookshops and publishers and other organisations have pivoted and moved towards delivering content via podcast, via Zoom—I’m doing a Zoom launch tomorrow night. So that sense that people have worked very quickly, and I think in a very agile kind of way, to find new ways of promoting and talking about books which is really interesting. I think you’ve seen an uptick in reading which is really interesting. And what’s doubly interesting is it’s been—apparently, I’m told when talking to publishers—what’s selling is fiction which is in fact the reverse of what happened in 2001. After 9/11 basically fiction fell apart and no one was reading it, and everyone was reading non-fiction. It’s been quite the reverse this time round which is interesting. But I do think the thing that’s really scary is that the literary ecosystem which is a very complex beast and doesn’t just include publishers and writers—it includes book designers, it includes organisations that promote books, it includes all kinds of things—has been hanging on by its fingernails now for years. And I think the thing that’s really scary about these kinds of shocks is that enterprises that are marginal just fall over because they can’t survive. And in a sense, most of our industry is marginal. So, I think that puts us in a very scary situation in the short term but also in the medium to long term because the entire infrastructure on which we depend is so shaky. And I certainly don’t think you’ve seen the level of support that you’ve seen for other industries for the arts from government.
ASTRID: Absolutely not, not even close. I find contemplating the future of the industry at once really fulfilling on an emotional level, but also really terrifying on the financial level. We’ve all been stuck inside and as you’ve said reading appears to have gone up. People are at home and they’re relying on the arts for entertainment—whether that’s books or movies or screenplays or poetry or TV or music, it’s creators who are keeping everybody company and sane right now. And yet they’ve been left out of the stimulus package.
Given that people are at home and they are engaging with the arts and they are reading fiction, which is lovely, you are a storyteller and one of the first things that you ask the reader to do in Ghost Species is to contemplate the role of story, and the role of truth, and where we’re going, and what we tell ourselves about what we’ve done to the world. Given that we’re in a global pandemic and behind that remains the existential crisis of climate change, what is the role of story and fiction in grappling with those massive ideas?
JAMES: It’s really interesting isn’t it? I think a couple of things. I think one of the things that you can do with fiction, one thing fiction is really good at, is giving you a lived awareness or an effective understanding of things. So, I think something like climate change particularly is extremely difficult psychologically to grapple with—it’s very big, it’s pervasive, it takes space over great periods of time and it’s very hard for people to imagine it. And I think fiction’s one of things that can help you do that. I also think that one of the things that is difficult with lots of these things to think about is the fact that we move so quickly out of our own experience and what we think is imaginable, and I think you’ve definitely seen that with the pandemic. One of the things that I thought was really interesting was in about late January it was really clear to me that if the disease spread at the rate it seemed to spread at, if the mortality rate was what it seemed to be—one to two percent—the problem is you had this thing where the arithmetic was really inexorable and that meant that you very quickly, once you started applying that, you end up with the situation we’re now seeing in Britain and in America and in places like that where tens of thousands of people start dying. And there’s a level at which you could see what people were doing even then was going that that just can’t happen, because that doesn’t accord with our experience, when in fact the mathematics are really inexorable—unless you find some way of stopping it that is what’s going to happen we don’t have any choice about it. And I think in an odd kind of way it’s like watching climate change but sped up, because you’ve got the same thing happening where people just don’t believe at some level that it’s going to end up where it’s going to end up. But I think one of the things fiction can do is help you see that, help you understand and I guess grapple imaginatively with all of that.
One other thing I think with the pandemic that’s really interesting is this sense that it’s suddenly revealed to a lot of people just how unreal a lot of our society is. Just how much of it is kind of nonsense or harmful, and I think that’s been both shocking and liberating for people. But simultaneously I think the good thing to take out of it is what we’ve seen is how quickly government and societies can pivot when they have to. We’ve spent thirty years being told we can’t do anything about climate change, it’s much too hard. And suddenly we’ve seen that in fact we can make massive changes really fast. So, I think in an odd way if you want the positive out of it it’s that what you’ve seen is in countries where you’ve got reasonably good social cohesion, where you’ve got evidence and evidence-led responses, you’re seeing good outcomes. And I think that’s a really useful lesson to take away for climate.
ASTRID: I am so glad you found a positive in there because…
ASTRID: (Laughs) …because sometimes it feels like there aren’t that many. So many of your novels explore climate and the environment including Ghost Species. Now when I thought about where I would put Ghost Species in a bookstore, you know, when I can conceivably walk into a physical bookstore again. I would put it in dystopian fiction, I would put it in climate fiction, I would also put it in literary fiction. Where do you think it belongs?
JAMES: I’m not hugely troubled by all of those labels. I think it is a literary novel that uses science-fictional devices. I also think it’s a science-fiction novel—it’s probably a novel that you could market as the literary end of science-fiction. But I think a lot of that stuff is kind of marketing. I think one of the things that’s really, really interesting about the last ten or fifteen years is watching a lot of those genre boundaries become incredibly permeable. And I think that’s happened for a number of reasons, but I think a lot of it is actually about readers and it’s about this sense that people are reading in a much more eclectic kind of way and I think they feel much less constrained by those kinds of categories. Lots of that stigma that once related to reading science fiction has fallen away and people read quite happily across a series of genres, and that’s really fascinating. And it’s great for writers like me because I’ve always—some of my books are historical, some of my books are contemporary, some of my books are set in the future—but it’s always seemed to me that what you do is you have a toolbox that you can use. So, with me I’m always trying to write a novel that feels a particular way and does certain things and I go and think, well what kind of tools can I use to achieve that end? I also think there’s something going on about climate fiction generally and I think that’s a very clumsy term. But I do think that one of the things that’s happening is you’re seeing a shift in the nature of a lot of writing as it kind of mutates to take on board or to be able to engage with questions about climate and environmental crisis.
ASTRID: You pre-empted my next question and I guess I wanted to ask where does speculative fiction/science-fiction fit as a concept—as a way of telling fictional stories—when so much of what used to be considered science-fiction or dystopian fiction suddenly feels like reality? And I ask that very seriously. I’ve seen lots of silly memes on social media saying science-fiction is now in the non-fiction section up the front of a bookstore. But going beyond the silly memes on social media, I am interested in how readers or writers grapple with this concept that so many things that felt like they were in the future or felt like they were in the far-future are suddenly on our daily doorstep?
JAMES: I think it’s a really interesting question. I think one of the things that’s interesting if you want to talk about science-fiction as a genre over the last ten or fifteen years probably, is the bread and butter of science fiction was traditionally space. And one of the things that’s become really clear is that space is not going to happen in anything like the way we thought it was going to happen maybe fifty years ago—we won’t be going to Alpha Centauri anytime soon, we might get to Mars—but why would you go to Mars? It’s horrible. I think there’s been a shift in the emphasis of science-fiction itself which is quite interesting, and what kind of space-operaey stuff you get these days is kind of planetary space-opera which is quite interesting. But I think that pulling in of the horizon is really interesting, because what you’ve seen is an increasing bleed, I think between what would once have thought of as literary writing and science-fiction. And that sense that once you start trying as a writer to accommodate the world as it is—once you start trying to write about a world with pervasive surveillance, climate change, hyper-capitalism, artificial intelligence, and they are part of the textures of our lives—it starts to change the kinds of books that you write. And I do think there’s a real issue around, particularly literary writing, in which people don’t send text messages and where people are not engaged in the technologies that are part of our lives. And I do think once those things start bleeding into the fiction, once you start trying to represent the way those things affect us, once you start trying to represent what they do to our consciousness, you end up in exactly the same position that someone like Virginia Woolf was in a hundred years ago where you’re suddenly saying—I don’t know what the date is—on or about the first of January, 2020 human consciousness changed. I mean it is that sense that all of those technologies, all of that hyper-connection, all of that atomisation that’s going on because of our economics, that is part of the texture of our lives and we have to find ways of writing about that. And once we do, we’re suddenly in the realm of what was once science-fiction. So, I think the bleed between them is both about a shift in reading habits and a shift in publishing habits, but it’s also just about the fact that once you start engaging with the world as it is, you’re writing something that looks like science-fiction.
ASTRID: The world is quite a distressing place. I was quite stunned, the first thirty or so pages of Ghost Species which are written beautifully and got me straight into the narrative and caring about these characters—they’re also quite the education in the reality of what has been happening to us in terms of climate and the environment in the last couple of years. For example, it’s a crash-course in the key points of the mass-extinction that we are currently experiencing and some people’s ideas of resurrecting species including the Tasmanian tiger. You give a mention of the wolves that were the apex predator, being reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park as one of the few positives amongst the many disastrous stories of melting ice sheets and burning tundra and bubbling up permafrost and all the rest of it. And I thought, was that deliberate? I mean, you’re giving essentially a real-life education in the guise of fiction to what we all should know right now.
JAMES: I don’t know that I thought about it like that, perhaps. I do think that one of the things that I wanted that opening section to do was to drop the reader into the world as it is so it’s a leaping off point for the world as it might be, which is what the world becomes. I find all of that material really interesting. So, I write a lot of non-fiction as well and I have a real philosophy with the non-fiction which is that you don’t gild the lily—you don’t go looking for the worst-case scenario, you don’t go looking for the worst statistics—because actually telling the story as it is is usually so shocking to people that just delivering the bad news is often as much as they can deal with. But I mean, I guess in the novel I wanted it to be a book that was quite directly and deliberately engaged with all of those questions about environmental crisis and I guess that sense of just delivering the news worked quite well. And particularly since what you begin to see is that the scheme that they’re talking about—Davis the billionaire who’s running the scheme in the novel—is talking about actually starts to look not as crazy as it might look otherwise. If things are this bad, perhaps we should be doing things like what he’s proposing. So, it was deliberate I suppose. Yeah.
ASTRID: The character that you just mentioned, Davis Hucken—your social-media, Silicon Valley, 40-something tech billionaire. I remember that 20 years ago if I was reading fiction, that would’ve been like completely incomprehensible, like you’ve taken a plot device that’s completely fantastical and would never happen. And now we have several people like that who exist on the planet and are maybe investing in things that they shouldn’t be doing that will change all of our futures. So, I found that funny on the first level. But secondly, his character and everything that that character does, is really, I read it as—and this is my interpretation as a reader so you can shoot me down, James—but I read it as really exploring that idea that some people have that technology will save us and we can rely on technology to fix it and to make our lives better. And you clearly come down on the side of technology isn’t the only fix that we need. Was that your intention?
JAMES: Yeah, I think that where we are technology is clearly a bit part of how we get out of it if we get out of it. But I think that the mindset that the answer is always technical, the answer is always technological, is kind of wrong because most of the answers we actually need are social, they’re economic—they’re about reshaping society and things like that. And I guess Davis’ emphasis on the technological is a way of highlighting the fact that we continue to be led by these billionaires who have these schemes of how to fix us, when actually the problem is the billionaires. Do you know what I mean? What we need is more equitable distribution of wealth and all of those kinds of things. It’s funny you’re talking about him seeming like a character from fiction ten years ago, because going back to your former question one of the things that I really wanted the novel to do is to feel—particularly in those early sections—as if it’s just skating along the real. I wanted that sense that the real and it were mixed up. Davis is almost Mark Zuckerberg, he’s almost Elon Musk, there’s that terrible profile of him in the LRB which is sort of the one that Andrew O’Hagan wrote of Assange. And the same with all of the stuff about the extinction—I really wanted that sense that it’s absolutely sitting there in the zeitgeist of this moment, particularly those early sections. And I do think that that kind of…
ASTRID: I’m sorry, I think I must have given you the wrong impression. I wasn’t suggesting that this character Davis Hucken was a character from ten years ago, I was trying to suggest that if that character had been written ten or twenty years ago it would be unbelievable like this wild plot device. But now, in our reality that is what we actually have in this world—we do have the Jack Dorseys and the Mark Zuckerbergs and everybody else. So, it is our present, it’s very much…
JAMES: Yeah and that’s absolutely what I wanted. I wanted that sense that this kind of guy has been allowed to think that he’s a god. And in a sense, he kind of reverses gravity around himself because he’s so rich. And I guess I wanted that kind of sense of it because it’s just so much where our culture is at the moment.
ASTRID: It’s distressing. I’m sorry I confused the conversation because that’s exactly what you do achieve with that character.
JAMES: No, no, no you didn’t. I understood what you meant, it’s alright (laughs).
JAMES: I think I was not clear.
ASTRID: One of the other profound things that Ghost Species made me reflect on is eco-anxiety or eco-grief. And before COVID-19 I think I was skating close to a serious case of eco-anxiety that was impacting me every day—I truly find it distracting and can’t function very highly when I think about the state of the world. And now I’ve been distracted by a global pandemic, but I don’t think I’ve gotten past that, and I know I will fall straight back into that when I have the mental space to do so. And your protagonist Kate does experience severe depression—now that is as a result of a miscarriage and some personal experiences that she has in the novel—but it becomes very clear that her grief is not just about her own personal circumstance and experiences, it is this greater grief. She is mourning the planet, she is mourning species, she is mourning the future of humanity. Firstly, I wanted to say thank you because it’s lovely to see that experience explored in fiction. But also, how did you do that? That is such a profound thing to portray on the page, particularly in a time when some people laugh about eco-grief and say it’s not a thing.
JAMES: Yeah, I think that experience of grief is very… I think a lot of people are grappling with it, it’s very very difficult. And I grapple with it—I certainly have patches where it’s very difficult to… And one of the things that climate crisis and environmental crisis does to us is it destabilises our futures, it takes them away from us. I mean most of us have a sense of what our life will be like roughly, and our lives won’t be like that. But also, things are disappearing. The philosopher Glenn Albrecht talks about solastalgia which is that sense of loss of the landscapes and the world that you knew, and I think that’s a very real thing for lots of people. And I guess there’s two things aren’t there? There’s the question of how do you deal with it at a personal level? And I guess for me, I’m quite good at compartmentalising I have to say (laughs). But I also think that one of the things that happens is that you need to get to a place with your feelings about these things where you are able to deal with them. I was writing something recently and I said that in a weird kind of way thinking about the environment is like those stages of grieving: I mean you start out denying, you move into anger and bargaining, and eventually you end up with a kind of acceptance. And I think getting to that place is quite useful, but getting to that place requires you to k accept a series of things that are quite difficult to accept. And in an odd kind of way I think the novel’s very much about that question, it’s trying to grapple with that idea that if there are things that are out of our control at this point what does that mean? How we deal with that and how do we work with it? And in terms of doing it in the novel, I do think it’s difficult to represent that kind of grief on the page. I mean, I think one of the things that’s difficult generally about writing about climate is that you end up either engaging in a kind of personalisation of it where I guess you mistake the personal drama for the planetary thing. But also, just that you end up doing something that’s kind of bathetic—you end up with this kind of bathos which is like the planet is dying and the birds are dying and it’s oh so sad. And I think trying to steer some path between those two is actually really tricky as a novelist. You’ve got to avoid ending up wringing your hands and tearing your hair out, but simultaneously you’ve got to give shape to that really profound sense of loss. And finding that balance is very difficult, I mean it’s one of the things that I have to say in my fiction I really struggle with and really grapple with trying to find a way of doing.
ASTRID: I am involved in another podcast called Anonymous Was a Woman, and I am one of the co-hosts. And in that podcast Jamila Rizvi the other co-host and I have been having a discussion about acceptance and hope and what the reader is supposed to feel, or what the reader wants to feel when they get to the end of fiction. And she very much believes that everything has to end with hope, and I very much believe that that’s a big lie and I feel like everything can’t end in hope because sometimes things are actually pretty bad. And I was thinking about that conflict between me and Jamila when I got to the end of Ghost Species and I’m not going to give any spoilers away, but you did something that I didn’t think is possible. I adored Ghost Species, but it is pretty depressing when you think about some potential outcomes for planet right?
ASTRID: But you still gave me this narrative thread of there could be something else and it’s not hope, but it’s still a positive. I feel like you’ve been giving me this answer that I’ve been grappling with and having something of a public disagreement with another avid reader about, because everything isn’t hopeful but still that storytelling narrative arc can take you to a place that’s better than where you began.
JAMES: Thank you. I mean that’s wonderful, that’s kind of where I wanted it to be (laughs) so it’s wonderful that that’s where it was. I mean I do think that one of the things that happens if you kind of work your way through, I mean let’s call them stages of grieving, is that you reach the point where what you have to do is be realistic about where we are and where we are is very bad. But simultaneously, you need to resist the kind of seduction of despair. My short answer to any of this would be there’s a spectrum of outcomes from this point—one is that we launch into a massive international effort to reshape the global environment, the global energy system, global agriculture, and trade, and we keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees, we get lucky on a series of fronts, the world ends up a better, fairer, cleaner place. The other is we hit six degrees of warming and the planet dies and human civilisation collapses. I think the reality is we’ll end up somewhere in between those two points (chuckles) and one of the things that you need to recognise is that the choices we make as we go along influence where we end up. And so, once you start being realistic about how bad things are, you also start to be really realistic about well these are the concrete things we could do that would make things a bit better. And I guess moving towards—what’s that old line about the best antidote to despair is action?—but it is that idea that once you start to think about the problem in that way I think it brings you to a different place where you move away from feeling hysterical all the time and towards saying, I accept that things are going to be bad but we can do x, y and z, so let’s try and do x,y and z. And I guess the novel is trying to grapple with that at a thematic level—that idea of inevitability—and that’s expressed in a number of ways throughout the novel. I also think there’s something about remembering that human continuity and human connection is something that continues even in the face of the worst. And we continue to have relationships with people, we continue to care about people, and we continue to find ways of being empathetic to other people and that’s what gives our lives meaning. So, I guess that tension is going on in the novel between this sense of planetary collapse and the sense that there are new configurations of human life that we could maybe find in the face of all of that.
ASTRID: And that those configurations have a future.
JAMES: Yeah, might (laughs). But I mean I do think that that sense of, in a weird kind of way, accepting the worst frees you up to imagine better. Kim Stanley Robinson talks about Gramsci’s line about pessimism of the… I’m completely blanking on it. But basically, it’s this notion that we need to be realistic about where we are, but we also can never let go of the idea that we can keep working to make it better. And it seems to me that that’s a much more constructive idea and approach than trying to inspire hope or something like that. Because I’ve got a scientist friend who hates the word hope, she says ‘hope’s what you talk about when you’ve got no other options’. And in fact, what we need to do is to say, ‘let’s accept reality and let’s work with the reality’. And I would’ve said that’s what the problem with lots of government policy is—that it’s not based on reality. There’s this kind of fantasy that we can continue the way we are, and nature always backs last. You can’t game the physics.
ASTRID: If nothing else comes out of 2020, that is a good thing for us all. I like to think that that idea that it won’t happen to us has been definitively proven wrong (laughs).
JAMES: Yeah and I think we’ve been incredibly lucky in Australia with the pandemic, I mean we’ve clearly been incredibly lucky. But we’ve been incredibly lucky because we did what the scientists told us to do and we followed an evidence-led process. And I think we also just got lucky, but I mean that’s always part of the process. And the same thing is true with climate—we need to do the right things and we need to get lucky.
ASTRID: We need everything right now. Ghost Species is your most recent book, but it is obviously not the only book where you have interrogated these larger ideas that impact us all, James. The Book Industry Climate Action Group, which I confess to be a part of, listed Clade your work published four or five years ago as one of its Australian fiction recommendations. Knowing that fiction is what helps us imagine what our world could look like and there is no more powerful tool than the creativity and empathy that comes from our writers. Clade is an outstanding, joy to read. You wrote it, but I’m interested in what books of fiction do you turn to James? What helps you process your grief or understand the world and enjoy the experience of reading?
JAMES: What have I been reading recently that I’ve liked? I mean, I think that one of the things really fascinating about the past few years is watching more and more really good work happening in that space around climate and writing about the environment. And you’ve got people like Jane Rawson doing really fantastic work, you’ve got great recent novels by Meg Mundell and a number of other people working in that space here in Australia. And overseas I think the Jenny Offill book that came out recently is very, very good. I think it’s really interesting seeing other people working in that space. Alice Robinson’s doing great work there in Australia as well. What have I been reading recently that I liked? I have not yet read the Hilary Mantel, which I should have read.
ASTRID: I think we all should’ve read Hilary Mantel (laughs).
JAMES: I’m going to read it, I’ve got it. I just keep looking at it and each time I finish a book I think that I should read it next but it’s so long! I think in terms of those writers who I find really inspiring in the climate space, Kim Stanley Robinson is one of them. Because I think one of the things that’s great about his books is the emphasis upon a kind of big-picture and the emphasis upon the idea that the solution to a lot of these problems is a kind of utopian imagination, which I think is incredibly important because it moves us away from an idea that it’s all about personal grief or whatever. It moves us away to this idea that there’s large, systemic changes that we have to make and he does an amazing job of representing all of that stuff in fiction. I’m trying to think what some of the good non-climatey books that I’ve read recently are. I very much enjoyed Charlotte Wood’s recent novel. One of my favourite books of last year was not a recent book and it was not a climate book and that was Madeline Miller’s Circe which I thought was wonderful.
ASTRID: (Gasps) I also read that, it’s gorgeous isn’t it?
JAMES: It’s amazing and I’m going to reckon with the Achilles book which I actually haven’t read. I read a terrific climate novel recently by Anne Charnock who’s an English writer called Bridge 108 which I thought was very interesting and did some really interesting things around narrative structure in terms of trying to grapple with some of these problems. Because I do think one of the things that you see around climate is that because it’s very difficult to write about, you need to come up with reasonably innovative narrative strategies to deal with it. And Anne’s novel is really fascinating—she does this really clever thing where it’s mostly about this boy who is a climate refugee, but the book keeps changing perspective. So, you’re with the boy and then the next one, the character is one of the people who’s trafficked him because he’s trafficked by people. In the next section it’s a border control officer. So, you do this thing where you get this story but you shift from character to character as you tell it, which means you get these quite different perspectives on the world that they’re in which I think is very, very clever.
I’ve just read Rebecca Giggs’ new book Fathom which is fantastic. I read a lot of non-fiction in that nature space and I write a bit in that space and I find often that very—consoling is perhaps not the right word, but—helpful because what it privileges is a kind of noticing, and a kind of attention to the world as it is and to its complexities. And that’s one of the things I really love about a lot of that nature writing.
So yes, I’m trying to think of other things I’ve read recently. I love the Emily Mandel novel. I loved Lily King’s new novel Writers & Lovers. I really loved Australian writer Lauren Chater, her book Gulliver’s Wife is terrific. So, there are a number of things I’ve read recently that I thought were very good. I’ve just read a very, very weird Dutch novel called The Discomfort of Evening which has a very generic storyline but is really good on the weirdness of childhood and has this just astonishing ending. Oh, and I just read Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems which I thought were really fantastic.
ASTRID: Well you’ve just added to my reading pile to no end James (laughs). I have one final question for you. You are a writer and a creator and like everybody else, I think that you’ve probably been at home contemplating the state of the world. I’m interested in your thoughts on what fiction might be being produced at this point in time. What are we going to see in six months, twelve months once things start to be published?
JAMES: I don’t know. I saw only a couple weeks ago there was a meme going around on social media which was about no one wants to read your pandemic novel.
JAMES: Which I thought was a bit mean, really. I think it was actually no one wants to read your middle-aged white guy’s pandemic novel. But it’s interesting isn’t it? You would not feel happy if you were finishing a novel about a pandemic right at the moment. I’m in fact involved in a TV show which is about a pandemic, not at all like this one, but it’s a pandemic TV show and we’re just kind of forging ahead. I don’t think what will come out of it will be lots of novels about pandemics. I do think what’s going to be really interesting to me is the long-term impacts of this on a whole series of questions around bodies, our relationships to each other, our spatial relationships to each other, how we relate to each other and I guess that sense that the world has altered in quite profound ways for people, and people are suddenly seeing the world in eyes that they haven’t before. And I wonder whether a lot of the fiction we’re going to see coming out of it is actually fiction which is perhaps more in that Jenny Offill space, where what it’s about is people suddenly articulating the weirdness of the world around them. Articulating the fact that they suddenly became aware of the way that living in capitalism demands that we kind of operate with this completely dissonant headspace all the time. Fiction that talks about the way that this experience has affected people’s experience of time and I suppose their relationship to the other people around them. I wonder whether the stuff that comes out of it is not stuff that’s pandemic literature in any narrow sense, but stuff that’s about suddenly seeing the world differently and in quite fundamentally different ways, so it’s more experiential. But I have no idea (laughs).
ASTRID: I have no idea either, but you have given me something to look forward to. James thank you so much for your time today, particularly by Zoom.
JAMES: Thank you very much, it’s been great.