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Interview: September 8, 2016

Cli-fi --- fiction that deals with themes of climate change --- is a rapidly emerging new genre, and Meg Little Reilly is one of its uniquely qualified contributors. Her impressive list of credentials includes former treasury spokesperson under President Obama, deputy communications director for the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), communicator for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and now debut novelist. Her first book, WE ARE UNPREPARED --- about a superstorm that threatens to destroy a marriage, a town and the entire Eastern seaboard --- has taken the book world by storm.

In this interview with The Book Report Network’s Megan Elliott, Reilly discusses why she doesn’t think fiction about climate change belongs in its own genre, why she is only minimally prepared for the event of a superstorm, and the reason she remains optimistic that future generations will work to appropriately address our changing climate.

The Book Report Network: This is your first novel, and it deals with a weighty and, to some, controversial, topic: climate change. What drew you to this particular subject?

Meg Little Reilly: I always knew that my first book would consider our relationship to the natural world. I’m from rural Vermont, and the woods I grew up in are very much a part of me. This story was an opportunity to go back to a place I love and explore my own anxieties about how the landscape is changing for future generations.

TBRN: Some people have referred to your work as “cli-fi.” Can you explain what that term means to you for readers who might be unfamiliar with it?

MLR: “Cli-fi” is a newish term used to identify fiction that deals in some way with climate change themes. (It sounds like “sci-fi,” though they aren’t necessarily related.) I didn’t know the term when I began writing this book, but I’m happy to be a part of this emerging trend. I believe, however, that climate change isn’t a niche issue, but something at the center of our economic, social justice, cultural and security concerns. In other words, I’m not convinced that literary fiction with a climate theme needs any qualifiers at all.

TBRN: WE ARE UNPREPARED takes a concept that's abstract to a lot of people --- global warming and major environmental change --- but approaches it in a very human way. How did you go about marrying the story of Ash and Pia’s journey as a couple with the overarching drama of The Storm?

MLR: I chose to write about a storm because it’s one of the few manifestations of climate change that feels immediate and urgent. You simply can’t look away. I didn’t know I was going to write about a troubled marriage, though…that part snuck up on me. I wanted to explore how fear can corrode our personal lives, and as I kept peeling back layers of that fear onion, it took me to a very intimate place. This is as much a story about how we live together in fearful times as it is about changing weather patterns.

TBRN: I was struck by the detailed descriptions of the weather patterns leading up to The Storm. What kind of research did you do for these parts of the novel? Is a storm of the magnitude you describe really a possibility? Should everyone on the eastern seaboard take a cue from survivalists like Crow and start building bunkers in their backyards?

MLR: I researched my fictional storm by looking at forecasts and reports from all the largest storms on the eastern seaboard in recent history. This storm is a composite of all the worst-case scenarios projected for past storms --- dialed up just a degree or two. It was important to me that this feel plausible, and I think it probably is.

We know that superstorms are increasing in frequency and intensity as a function of climate change. There’s no getting away from that in the immediate future. But I’m not a prepper. After researching this story, I bought a few bottles of water for the basement and replaced the batteries in our flashlights for when the next storm blows through, but that’s pretty much it. I don’t think living in a state of fear and ultra-preparedness is healthy. I would rather live fully in the present, even with the risk that assumes.

TBRN: Like a lot of people, I'm drawn to apocalyptic narratives. What do you think is behind our collective fascination with stories about mass disaster and social collapse?

MLR: I’ve always been fascinated with apocalypse stories, too, and I’m not sure what that says about us! There’s something so primal about considering how to survive without all our stuff and the minutiae of everyday life. It’s just you, the people you love, whatever deity you may turn to, and your scrappiness. It’s clarifying. And fiction is a safe, accessible way to tap into those essentials.

TBRN: The landscape and environment of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom is a character in itself in WE ARE UNPREPARED. Why did you decide to set your story in that region?

MLR: I’m from a small town in southern Vermont called Brattleboro, but we have a little family cabin in the Northeast Kingdom that I’ve been going to for years. It’s a remote place with a quirky mix of inhabitants and the landscape is positively stunning. The Northeast Kingdom really lives up to its enchanting title. The best thing about writing this story was that I got to stay there in my head for a long time.

TBRN: The title most obviously refers to the fact that people aren't prepared for the coming storm. But Ash and Pia are unprepared in many other ways as well, including for life as homeowners and parenthood. Can you tell us why you chose that title and what you hope it conveys?

MLR: The title refers most obviously to our everyday preparedness for crisis, but it’s really about our emotional and cultural preparedness. The couple at the center of the story had never really stopped to tend to the fractures in their marriage, which makes them particularly vulnerable in fearful times. And as a nation, we still haven’t committed to changing course with climate change. As consumers and voters and eaters and drivers, we could be doing more to stem the harmful effects of climate change.

TBRN: In your author's note, you mention that you started working on WE ARE UNPREPARED after the birth of your children. In what ways (if any) did having kids alter your attitude about the natural world and our relationship as humans to it, and how is that reflected in your novel?

MLR: When my husband and I decided to have children, I began thinking a lot more about what their relationship to the natural world would be. Not just how climate change would affect them…I was suddenly concerned with whether they would ever know the woods the way I did, whether they would have an opportunity to be truly wild in them. The character of August in this story represents my deep yearning to give my kids the experience of feeling at home in nature. There’s nothing quite like it.

TBRN: At one point, Ash mentions that the threat of the storm has fractured Isole into three groups: "paranoid preppers, religious fanatics, and government tools." With which group would you fall in if you were faced with a similar crisis?

MLR: The titles of these groups are intentionally reductive because I wanted to convey the way in which this formerly cohesive community divided themselves up and labeled one another --- because of the fear. I tried to treat each worldview without bias because I think there’s an appealing logic to each. Ultimately, I stand firmly with a more communal approach to crisis, as opposed to a rugged individualistic one, which is probably true for most people.

TBRN: You previously worked at the White House. The federal government is a fairly ineffectual force in your novel, and several characters imply that it might be downplaying the real threat of The Storm to prevent chaos and financial panic. Do you think our current leaders are taking the threat of climate change seriously? Is the United States in any way prepared to deal with a truly catastrophic weather event?

MLR: I think climate action is uniquely intractable because it involves an enormous amount of political risk and very little immediate reward. In order to truly address climate change, our elected officials need to stand up to the wealthiest corporate interests on the planet (like the oil industry) for gains that may never be measurable while they’re in office and could never be directly attributable to their courage (like emissions reductions). Our political system doesn’t respond well to problems like this.

Still, I’m hopeful because voters are getting smarter on this issue, and they’re demanding more from their lawmakers. President Obama has taken extraordinary measures over the past few years simply because it’s the right thing to do. And our culture --- in the form of books and movies and music --- is helping to move the needle on public opinion. People younger than I am are going to save this world, and that makes me very hopeful.

TBRN: The Storm starts causing damage long before it actually arrives, as Isole’s residents succumb to fear and Ash and Pia’s marriage begins to crumble. But it also brings people together in unexpected ways. Do you think people reveal their true selves when faced with a crisis (for better or for worse)?

MLR: I think crisis absolutely reveals our most essential nature. Most people are a better version of themselves when it matters.

TBRN: Without giving too much away, the book ends on a hopeful, though somewhat somber, note. Given that conversations about climate change are often very doom and gloom, did you think it was important to leave readers with a sense that positive, progressive change is possible?

MLR: My primary goal with this book was to tell a good story and make the abstract idea of climate change more personally resonant. I’m wary of fiction that offers solutions or prescriptions. The great strength of fiction is to facilitate empathy, to give us a chance to walk in each other’s shoes. If I’ve done that with this book, then I feel okay about it.

TBRN: What are you working on now?

MLR: I have more than one novel underway already and more stories in my head than I’ll ever have time to write! The next book takes place in a very different landscape, with another unique cast of characters, but the natural world is certainly a prominent figure again. I will have more to say about it very soon!