INTERVIEW: Isobel Wohl on modern America, narrative tense and ‘Cold New Climate’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Isobel Wohl on the research process behind her novel Cold New Climate (Weatherglass Books, 2021).

In my reading, the world of Cold New Climate is one in which the mass of information made available by the internet makes the world’s problems feel distant and inevitable, a world in which it’s impossible for people to work out what really matters. I wondered how you handled this mass of information – these factoids that support so many of the characters’ social interactions –  while writing the novel. How did this information, and its ubiquitous nature, help inform your narrative design?

I wanted Cold New Climate to be true to a texture of lived experience today, and of course that meant that the internet had to feel very present. I was also curious about the way in which it forces issues of care and responsibility to the front and centre of our daily lives. We learn about global problems with a level of detail and intimacy that would be impossible without the internet. At the same time, the overwhelming amount of information we’re encountering can make these problems feel, as you say, “distant and inevitable,” such that we’re less likely to feel that we’ve contributed to them and less likely to feel we’re morally obligated to behave differently. So the factoids you reference in your question evoke the same issues that Lydia and Caleb are dealing with in their personal lives: am I causing harm? What would it mean for me to accept myself as responsible? What would that understanding force me to do? I wanted all of these little nuggets of seemingly random information to allow the ethical concerns of the book to play out across and between different scales: micro or factoid-size, human-scale or intimate, and macro or societal.

That idea of self-reflective questioning puts me in mind of the ethical paralysis that can accompany climate anxiety – that feeling of helplessness I discussed last year with the author Carys Bray and others. I wondered to what extent your research into climate change affected your attitudes to the future, and how you feel Cold New Climate feeds into our understanding of the climate emergency. Is there room, even in the face of our continued apathy, for optimism?

I think it depends a bit on what you mean by optimism. Clearly there will be a lot more suffering than there would have been if governments, corporations, and individuals had made different choices. Denying that isn’t optimism, it’s delusion. But it’s also true that we have the opportunity to change and create a better future than the one we’ll have if we stay on our current trajectory.

It’s also helpful to remember that we can choose optimism in specific moments. You don’t have to feel great about the broad sweep of history to decide that optimism is your best bet in discrete instances. And each time we make more sustainable choices, each time we talk to our friends and families and neighbours about the impact we’re having on the environment, each time we protest, we create deeply optimistic moments.

That said, I do live with a sense of foreclosure or foreshortening, the feeling that the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost. In the novel, I tried to communicate that with tenses. At the outset I assumed I’d have to choose one narrative tense for the book, either the past or the present. During the writing process, however, I found myself working on some sections in one tense and some in the other—and the past tense sections weren’t necessarily flashbacks, but in some cases occurred after sections that had been written in the present, creating a future that sounded as if it were a past. And then it occurred to me that the present tense tends towards a cinematic, almost aquatic, surface-level feeling, in which events are often juxtaposed without a clear sense of the connections between them, whereas the past tense can create a greater awareness of an arc, so that the story seems more imbued with a historical trajectory. I tried to leverage both of those effects, so that you have a time when there’s this sense of suspended causality, and then a time when the weight of what’s happened really sets in. Hopefully that works on the personal level as well as on the level of climate.

I think it does, and actually I think it’s the way Cold New Climate works beyond the level of macro-social statement that gives it its core strength. The intimacy with which Lydia and Caleb’s lives are treated particularly lends the novel its verisimilitude and its total lack of sentimentality. In that sense, the novel balances the personal and the political by characterising its protagonists as real people in all their complexity, and therein lies its force of meaning. I hoped you could talk briefly about novels that you consulted when trying to achieve that balance of personal and political, micro and macro. Who, if anyone, do you feel achieves that balance?

You know, it’s interesting—I did consult books when I was writing Cold New Climate, but not specifically with an eye to that issue. I tried to just see the concerns playing out at different levels in the book itself, because of who the characters are. For example, Lydia’s treatment of Caleb and her hypocrisy about the climate both come from the same place in her; she’s just being herself in different contexts and at different scales.

Looking back, Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment was very important to me, especially when I was writing the opening chapters. The book doesn’t try to be about politics, except insofar as political and social realities deeply shape the protagonist’s life and cause the events of the story. Ann Petry’s novel The Street is another example of a book in which politics and intimate life are deeply intertwined.

I’d also like to talk briefly about America. For most of the novel, we are immersed in the intimate and even claustrophobic confines of New York City, before Lydia and Caleb take a road trip across the USA which brought to my mind the second half of Lolita. As a setting, America is handled dispassionately and again without sentimentality, but I hoped you could share your thoughts on how you feel the US complements or elucidates the themes of Cold New Climate. As someone who has lived outside the US for many years, how do you feel your evolving attitudes to the nation have influenced your fiction? Could Cold New Climate have been set anywhere else?

No, the book couldn’t have been set anywhere else—it would have been a different novel. Self-delusion and the collapse of supposed certainties run through Cold New Climate at both intimate and planetary levels. Also, I moved back to New York partway through writing the first draft. So at some level I think I was trying to work out my relationship to America while I was writing the book, since I’d been in London for several years and was now coming back home with the feeling that it was a strange country to me.

I wanted the book to speak to the current upheaval in America’s understanding of itself. I grew up in New York in the ‘90s, the era of the so-called “end of history”; we Americans allowed ourselves to think that the US was always going to be the dominant global power, and that our dominance was based on moral leadership. We were the indispensable nation, the shining city on the hill. Today that sense of might and moral value has been deeply, deeply undermined—and not just by recent changes, like Trump’s election or January 6th, or even the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now we know that we were never the country we told ourselves we were. In Cold New Climate, we see the dissonance between Lydia’s ideas of her own behavior and the true consequences of her actions. Caleb, too, in his own way, struggles with an inaccurate perception of who he is.

Finally I’d like to touch on something I’ve put to a few authors during this series – the idea of the novel as an act of research in and of itself. In its simplest form, I’d like to know whether you feel there is a question hidden at the centre of Cold New Climate, an unresolved space into which the whole of the novel attempts to write. That might be a question about our world, our future, our literature, but if Cold New Climate is an attempt to work through something within yourself, what is that question and to what extent is it answered by the text?

Any novel worth writing is a search, or maybe even a tangle of searches. I don’t think you always know the full extent of what you’re searching for. I try to build a book as a way to pose questions. We’ve touched on many important concerns in the book—climate, care for others, America—but I hope there are even more questions embedded in Cold New Climate, and that readers enjoy finding them.

Isobel Wohl is a Brooklyn-based writer. A native New Yorker, she lived in London for seven years before returning to her home city. Wohl’s first novel, Cold New Climate, was published by Weatherglass Books in April 2021. She is also the author of a short story collection, Winter Strangers (MA BIBLIOTHÈQUE, 2019). Her essays have appeared in The Irish Times, LitHub, and Astra Magazine (online), among other publications. She is currently working on her second novel.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

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