Q & A with Isobel WohlIncluding an extract from her debut novel, Cold New Climate

Isobel Wohl

Isobel Wohl is a Brooklyn-based writer and visual artist. For seven years she lived in London, where she studied at the Royal College of Art. She is the author of Winter Strangers (MA BIBLIOTHÈQUE, 2019). Cold New Climate is her first novel.

Katherine Angel has described your new novel, Cold New Climate, as tackling both “personal and global catastrophe”. Can you tell us a bit more about the novel and how you approached these themes?

The novel came out of a sense of curiosity about myopia and entitlement. At the outset, Lydia is dissatisfied and bored in her relationship with her much older partner Tom, so she tells him she needs a break, on the assumption that she’ll have a dalliance but he won’t. It doesn’t even cross her mind that he might fall in love. But he does, and when she gets back he leaves her—just when she’d decided she wanted to stay with him. She has to move out of their apartment and construct a new life for herself, and she’s furious: none of this was how it was supposed to go, and everything feels very unfair. Soon she reconnects with Tom’s nineteen-year-old son Caleb, who is also trying to put his life together after a very difficult few years. So they’re both bringing with them a lot of hope, a lot of anxiety, a lot of shame, a lot of anger—particularly at Tom, for whom, of course, what happens next is unimaginably awful.

So the question of the future is inherent in the story, alongside issues of human desire. Of course there’s an argument that the future’s inherent in all stories—what happens next?—but I mean in a broader sense, because the characters are confronted with these shattered expectations, and their actions come from a deeply felt sense that things are not as they were supposed to be. There are also, later in the novel, formal elements that question the idea of a future as a chronological march forwards—a Hegelian sense of time. And the novel does relate to climate change more directly, at first in deflections and small choices and later more overtly. But I think the personal and the global are part of the same problem, in the book and perhaps more generally. How do we realise the future will not be like the past, and how do we respond to that knowledge? Often we become enraged and wound others, or we close our eyes and say: I don’t accept, I refuse, I will not allow it, or more subtly: nothing to see here; who, me? Probably most often we ping-pong or vacillate between these different positions.

We’re living through a period of great change and catastrophe. As a writer, how do you respond to these challenges? Is there still a place for dystopian (or utopian) visions in fiction?

I think you respond the way any writer responds to whatever time they have: as honestly and alertly as possible, making an effort to get your ego and your preconceptions out of the way. And that leads us very naturally to a dystopian sensibility, because the things that are happening to the planet—and to workers—would be right at home in a dystopian novel. Think of what happened recently in Texas: a huge snowstorm and freezing temperatures for days, and then the power grid fails and people wind up in the hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning because the only way to get warm is to leave their gas stove on constantly, and other people, including kids, freeze to death. I’m sure if anyone had written a novel with that plot before it happened, it would have been called “dystopian eco-fiction”, but you can read the same information in the news. Any character in a novel written about the contemporary world today, like any person alive today, is subject to those risks—obviously not all with the same level of vulnerability, but subject all the same.

Can we understand writing as a form of protest? Can a book ever have the same impact as a direct action? Or, to put it another way, do words and stories still matter? How can we persuade people to change their habits or world view?

Because a novel builds a complete world, it can fully and compassionately show the messiness of human life, which includes differences in perspective, competing claims for justice, shared vulnerability, mutually inflicted wounds, and the difficulty of recognising causality and responsibility—often because we don’t want to see, rather than because of any actual obscurity. This is one of the strengths of the form: to me the situation looks like this, but to you it looks like that. Of course one of us may be wrong, and the novel can reveal this: I did x for y reason, which was meaningful to me, but the result was z, which hurt you profoundly, and maybe will hurt all of us when the full story is played out. Many forms of protest take this strategy of revealing the impact of what is going on by allowing it to manifest itself, at which point a moral truth lands—and in that sense, yes, I think a book can have a great impact, although perhaps not as quickly as direct action.

What do you think might be the role of writers in the Anthropocene?

I think that the role of the novelist or writer of short fiction in the Anthropocene is a version of the role of the writer more generally: to help us understand how others see things, how the effects of human action are felt, what we have done, and how we can change or are blinkered and limited. And also to assuage some of the emotional effects of being alive—I am tempted to say especially today, but I suppose everyone in every era thinks “especially today”, so I’ll say according to the specific difficulties of our era. I like E.O. Wilson’s term the Eremocene, or the age of loneliness, which refers to the mass extinction we are facing, after which humans may be alone or nearly alone on the planet. I think the term has broader societal resonance as well: the age of extreme individualism, the age of the silo.

Do you have a vision for a regenerative future? 

Slower and less focused on productivity and convenience, with more unstructured time and less meat.

Who should we be reading and why? 

It’s a difficult question; reading is so personal. Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water is extremely important to me, and I am always surprised how often people say they’ve never read it, even though her books are classics in her native New Zealand. The opening is extraordinary and will shock you in the best way. And I think her short story “Keel and Kool” is a masterclass in writing at the emotional level but also at a very basic level: how you get the information in.

 

An Extract from Chapter One of Cold New Climate

In the mornings Lydia looks out over the hills at the wind turbines and watches each crisp white blade move across the blue behind it and become perpendicular to the horizon. As each one passes the zenith of its motion another blade follows, and another, as the first blade is coming back up. Lydia watches and drinks coffee. She decides not to read the news.

Stray cats rub past her lower leg and occasionally climb onto her breakfast table. There are tortoiseshells, black ones, white ones with brown and ginger spots. Some are fat and glossy. Others are bony and irritable. These hiss.

Don’t feed them, Liz said that Marty’s cousin said, when Lydia called to say she’d arrived at the house that the cousin had agreed to lend her. It’s cruel. Apparently people do it all the time, people feel bad for them and feed them for a while but soon the cats show up expecting it and of course no one wants them around pestering so they stop and the cats starve, by that time there are kittens and that’s why there are more and more and more of them. Taking over the town. Robert says feeding them’s like hurting them. The future ones who will be more likely to be born, that is, because they’ll suffer. Do you want me to tell Tom you made it all right?

When the day gets hotter she goes into the house and opens her laptop and begins to work at the kitchen table. She can hear the cats rubbing against the wooden door and meowing to be let in. The current project is an energy drink called ENGINE. The com-pany board says that they do not want the packaging to look too industrial because they do not want anyone to associate ENGINE with engine fluid, so Lydia comes up with can designs in pale green and silver, evasive and full of pep. There is no Wi-Fi but she has a dongle and most of the time this works all right.

She cannot entirely stop herself from Googling in fits of bore-dom the weather this coming week and double-checking how to say Hello, how to say Do you speak English and May I sit and With you. May I sit with you. Someone will say that to her soon. She would like to understand it, and then she can say I don’t speak Greek, possibly in Greek but also possibly in English to underline the point. Anyone who will be able to speak to her in English will understand if she says in English I don’t speak Greek.

She tweaks a design and sends an email suggesting that the brand reconsider biodegradable material and receives in reply an email with a reiteration that the material suggested is outside of the packaging budget. Would she please stop going over old territory. Lydia apologizes. The cats sound lonely.

 

Isobel Wohl is a Brooklyn-based writer and visual artist. For seven years she lived in London, where she studied at the Royal College of Art. She is the author of Winter Strangers (MA BIBLIOTHÈQUE, 2019). Cold New Climate is her first novel.