Woolsey Fire, California. Photo credit: Jay Pinette / Shutterstock
Upon the publication of her new novel, Something New Under the Sun (Hogarth, 2021), New School faculty Alexandra Kleeman sat down with Helen Schulman, faculty and fiction chair at the Creative Writing program, to talk about Los Angeles, the climate crisis, and writing about the very near future. The interview was presented by the Creative Writing Program at the Schools of Public Engagement. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Helen Schulman [HS]: A little over three years ago, some of us in attendance tonight were lucky enough to hear outtakes from Alexandra’s then work-in-progress when she first visited The New School. I was hooked by that early taste of what appeared at the time to be a hyper real, ear-to-the-ground story about a fiction writer who travels to Los Angeles to work on the production of a film of his latest book. There he’s introduced to WAT-R, actually spelled capital W-A-T-R, the commercial substitute for the real thing, which previously a lot of planet earth had taken for granted as free and hopefully, fingers crossed, clear of pollutants.
But in the not quite sideways to reality LA of this novel, only the mega wealthy have access to actual water while the rest of the 99 percent has to make do with this new synthetic substitute to wash with and to drink, which may or may not be linked to a mysterious new illness called ROAD, which stands for Random Onset Acute Dementia. I read Alexandra’s dazzling finished product over this summer, which is entertaining, grippy, funny, and truly horrifying in unequal parts. She is a highly cerebral writer who takes comfort in genres. So there are numerous bad guys in this piece and a series of heartbreakingly vulnerable victims, including the family Patrick has left behind.
What is most amazing about the book is that while it reads as speculative in parts, it is actually a reflection of our current reality. On a recent trip to see family in California, a state consistently bedeviled with drought and choking on fire, I found myself staying near the Russian River, avoiding smoke, where people were storing non-potable and recycled sewage water in tanks on their properties. It felt like I was living within Alexandra’s climate-collapse apocalyptic novel where the alarming symptoms of a planet in decay are breathtakingly real. And I was actually suddenly afraid to drink the water. This is because I think in our actual life and in the world Alexandra so purposefully and effectively spins on the page, there exists a collective kind of political aphasia that stems from a desire to dismiss all that threatens us, even when obvious toxicities accumulate in our minds and our bodies.
Aside from Something New Under the Sun, Alexandra Kleeman has published two other books, the novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, which won the 2016 Bard prize, and the short story collection, Intimations. Her fiction has been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Zoetrope, Conjunctions, Guernica among others. Her nonfiction has appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, n+1, and The Guardian.
In 2020, she won both the Berlin Prize and the Rome Prize. We—her students, faculty, and staff—all grateful to have her back with us now at The New School, where she is loved by all. Alexandra Kleeman.
Alexandra Kleeman [AK]: Thank you so much for the incredibly generous introduction, Helen. This is a really meaningful reading for me because as some of you may or may not know the first time I ever read from this book was at The New School. At the event that Helen was talking about earlier, I had one chapter and a scrap of this book at the time, and I thought I would take a risk and read in front of this group of people I didn’t know very well because I sensed also that there was something welcoming, unique, and just enthused about literature and creation in this space.
After coming to The New School, I’ve been overjoyed to find that this is the case in every arena of our program. I’ve written this book while working with colleagues who believe in a great diversity of writing, who believe in the importance of community as a support system for all of those little pitfalls and all the little obstacles you encounter when you’re writing. I’ve written it in the company of New School students who are an amazing group of people who know better than any other group of people I’ve met, I think, how to support each other’s writing and nurture each other as writers.
I’ve been so amazed by all the people I’ve met here, and I found it to be just a wonderful incubator for this unwieldy, messy, word-packed book than ever.
In this book, East Coast writer Patrick Hamlin comes to California to work on the set of a film adaptation of one of his novels, the very personal novel that’s about him and his father. When he gets to California, he finds that things aren’t exactly as he imagined. First of all, the movie that they’re making bears only the slightest resemblance to the book that he wrote. Second of all, he discovers once he gets there, that he’s not actually a bigwig on the set. He is someone more like a production assistant. In fact, exactly a production assistant. In fact, just like the two guys who picked him up at the airport and they were supposed to ferry him to his hotel.
Third, though he doesn’t realize it yet at this point in the story, everyone is drinking this synthetic form of water called WAT-R, which seems basically like water, it looks like water. It’s sold like bottled water, but it isn’t exactly the same and that’s where the problem starts up.
HS: In your novel, only the wealthy in the Malibu hills have access to temperature-controlled interiors and real water, which they drink while watching WAT-R wreak biological and topographical havoc on the less fortunate down below. You fearlessly tackle a lot of our contemporary crises in this book, and there are so many. But would it also be safe to say that this is about capitalism?
AK: Absolutely. I think that we see the way that capitalism and capitalist systems are tied in with all sorts of aspects of our built and un-built environment. So, I wanted my work to sometimes trace the connections between those things, which happens sometimes in unexpected ways. I’m thinking of things, for example, from the world of water systems, where we find that a community spring in Maine that people use has been leased by Nestle and Nestle is going to use it to fill bottles of water and sell them. You know? Things that feel local and feel natural are also connected into this economic system in ways that create these unexpected, sometimes bizarre and sometimes darkly funny results, I think.
HS: You have a background in biology. I remember that from when we first met, which I found so interesting and you can clearly see it in this world and also in your last book as well. How do you feel it—your interest in science—affects your fiction?
AK: Yeah, I think that each one of us as writers, we take a slice through the world that is particular and is our own. We’re like a blade making that cut and every blade has a different shape. For me, I’m thinking of things in the world, in their personal and emotional sense, but also in their scientific sense, gives me a place that I can go sometimes where that thing becomes strange as seen in a new light is popped out of normalcy and into something that makes you look harder at it again, I think.
I think maybe one example that you find a little later in the book is when my characters are in a fancy restaurant and they’re eating quail and suddenly we pop out of the scene with them eating it and talk about the quail, which is an animal that has a very short gestational period that sleeps like human beings all through the night with the occasional intermittent wakings. I think that these facts that aren’t at the forefront of our mind when we think about that tree, or that place, or that type of rock or soil, they can sometimes unsettle the balance between the boundary between the human and the inhuman make us think, am I more quail than I thought?
To me, literature is a place where these sorts of distinctions can be made plastic again, and you can play with them and you have a chance to get people to recategorize and rebuild the categories that they use in their lives. I think a lot of other writers bring their own sort of body of knowledge outside that into like, especially folklore myth, culture, history. Whatever is your own unique rabbit hole, I think it can help you both feel like you’re making a really particular cut through the world that you want to carve out and put in your piece of fiction, and also urge people to expand how they think of that thing, that place, or that people that you’re writing about.
HS: That’s what you’re doing here. I mean, you’ve got a lot of precision and you care so deeply about the physical world that it really pulls us in, in a way that’s visceral and intense. That scene that you’re just talking about, the quail-eating scene, was horrendous. It was, they’re horrifying people, but it was also really funny. That was something I wanted to talk to you about because the subject matter of the book is so dark and the outlet for the future kind of relentlessly hopeless, but I laughed out loud a lot and sometimes I did spit takes. One of Patrick’s other books is referred to as an epic novella, for example. How does the humor in your work come to play? Do you plan for it? Do you feel like it’s necessary or does it sneakily manifest its way in on its own?
AK: I love that question. I actually remember talking about something similar at the reading that I did at The New School years ago, where I was thinking through what the role of fiction may be when you want to get people to read about topics that are difficult and that they might not always feel up to engaging for the prolonged period of time that it takes to read a novel or a book. I think I said that I feel like humor is the sweet coating on that pill. It’s the first thing you taste; and it’s the thing that makes it possible to swallow the harder stuff.
But there’s another aspect to it too, I think, when you’re writing, is that in addition to wanting to produce a particular kind of book, you have to be the person who sits there and writes it 100 percent of the time. I think it comes into play when we’re writing bad things that causes anxiety. They’re difficult for us when you’re writing about trauma and you know it’s important to write about it, but you also know that it takes a toll on your body to write about it. How can you shape your project so that it gives you spaces to rest in, gives you spaces to breathe in, and otherwise it takes on the gentler shape for you as the writer so you can move through it and get to the end of the project?
I think about humor in that way too, in that when I feel like I’m really weighed down by some of the implications of whether I’m writing about a privatized water system or continual presence of wildfires, that adding a joke doesn’t change the situation, but it lightens it temporarily so I can keep going. And enlightening it maybe makes you think also that, I think this is the case too with jokes that take aim at power systems or at those at the top of power systems: powerful, authoritarian people hate jokes because jokes unsettle the sort of complete power that they feel or might feel they have over the situation. I think this is another way that humor shows us that these things are absurd and could be removed, redone, or destroyed.
HS: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently—one reason is because I have to do this talk about writing about the hard places—but it’s also about how we get the courage to really be in our books when the books are tough. I mean, as you say, you have to be 100 percent the person who writes it. I think that, that while you’re living in it the whole time you’re writing it: when you’re in the shower and you’re supposedly talking to somebody, when you’re out to dinner, you’re still in that world. That’s so interesting to me that you feel that the humor alleviates it for you because it’s something that I look for as a reader to alleviate it for me.
But your book made me really anxious, I have to say. Not that that’s hard to do, especially as I said, when I was in California and there was smoke all around and all this non-potable water, it’s just really so gorgeous and so beleaguered. But when talking about anxiety, there’s another compelling plot line in your book that we haven’t gotten to yet, which is Patrick’s wife and daughter who are back in New York state and they joined a cult. While he’s in California being a PA on his own movie, they join a cult of like-minded people who ritualistically, actively mourn the planet. That’s the purpose of the cult.
There was also a cult in your first novel, I think. But in some ways, Alison—the wife—is perhaps the moral center of your book or perhaps the character easiest to relate to, even if she suffers from a panic disorder and an acute case of passivity. I just wondered what inspired you to create her, and how she’s a foil for her husband, because it really enriches the book to have her there.
AK: Thank you so much for seeing Alison in that way, because I think that she is exactly that for me. On the one hand, she’s a foil for Patrick, but also an emotional resting-place for the reader too, because in a fictional world where there are problems that you can see unfolding in the background or sometimes the foreground (but no one is taking them quite as seriously as you think maybe they should), there’s one character at least who seems to be watching the world and watching the environment, thinking about how her decisions as a consumer, her trips to the grocery store affect this other, larger world. I think that it gives you a place to put, or rest, some of the anxieties that the rest of the book stirs up.
I also wanted Alison to be there as a character connected to Patrick in this intimate emotional way, but really at a physical distance from him because when he’s going through all of these things in Los Angeles, she’s having a completely other experience in far Upstate New York where this commune is that she’s decided to join. She’s trying to consider what he’s going through, trying to get information from him about it, trying to help sometimes; but it’s really difficult to do that when you’re communicating about two very different situations across this vast amount of space.
In another way, I feel that she’s also occupying a position that I felt that I had been sometimes where I believed 100 percent in the manmade climate crisis. At the same time, when it’s a beautiful day and everything seems fine, it’s hard to feel like there’s really a threat that’s present and palpable in other parts of the country or other parts of the world. It’s such a huge amount of space on this planet; and I think that in order to really wrap our minds around this and mobilize action, we have to think of our local surroundings as just one little piece in that chain and then try to stretch ourselves to feel connected to other people who are experiencing a very different world in a very different sort of connection of conditions than we might be at the moment.
HS: Well, that’s what I was trying to get to in the introduction when I was—maybe evasion is the wrong word—but it seems like because there’s this whole memory problem that’s afflicting people maybe because of the WAT-R, we don’t know. But I feel like you were really talking about the only way that we can see surviving is by forgetting or not seeing or not finding the language for it, for what’s happening to us. But on the other hand, that’s also the key to our demise. Is that the tension you were looking for? Is that what you’re speaking about now?
AK: Yes. I think that this is all going to start sounding pretty sentimental, but I feel like there’s something so precious about the idea of a world, a shared world, that we share with other people. One of the things that’s really caused me the most anxiety in recent years has been the feeling that, that shared world is eroding in the political landscape of the United States to have people who you’re close to and care about, family members or in-laws who believe that COVID is a hoax, for example. How can you be living in the same world if you can’t agree on something as fundamental as that? And yet we do, and we don’t.
I think that rebuilding a sort of shared sense of reality seems really important to me; and in the erosion of it, I think I was channeling a lot of my fears about that into the creation of this fictional disorder that sort of subtracts people from their shared reality. They live on maybe in their memories or maybe in a sort of limbo, whatever it is that they’re experiencing, wherever it is that they’re living in their mind, we can’t access it from the outside.
HS: A lot of prescience in this book, it feels that way. I think sometimes it’s because writers have their ears to the ground. You clearly have your scientific ear to the ground. But also, there’s so much denial in this book, even to people who are poisoning themselves, it just feels quite prescient along the line of what you’re talking about. Did you surprise yourself that way—that you were writing into the future from when you started, when I met you three years ago?
AK: Yeah. When we were talking about this three years ago or so, I wanted to write and I still did write a near-future novel—so set in a time that’s close to our own, but I’ve pushed it into the future. I was drawing on a lot of my memories of being a child living in California in the San Gabriel Valley, mostly Asian, Hispanic, and not a place that tourists go to. Out there, I would see our subdivision, lush and green with grass: and then suddenly, a sharp line where you stopped watering it and it was all desert-like and grassy hills all around.
I would see wildfires burning on the side of the highway by Fry’s Electronics when we were going home and everyone would just casually keep on driving. I thought, “Well, this sort of landscape, if you turn the temperature up on it as is predicted in a number of years, is going to be like this.” I wanted to put that on the page. But it’s arrived much faster than I thought. While I was doing my final edits in Colorado where I grew up, I experienced so many things I had never seen in my whole life of living there and going back to visit.
I saw so much smoke that the mountains, the Rocky Mountains, were invisible on some days. I saw the sky red for a week or two at a time. I saw my friends go and buy air purifiers and things to keep in their houses as normal sort of appliances. It was three of the biggest wildfires in Colorado history that single summer; and it was both unprecedented and it’s happening again this year.
To anyone out there writing a near-future novel, I’d say you can make quite good predictions, but the future may come at you pretty fast.
Read an excerpt from Something New Under the Sun, courtesy of Alexandra Kleeman and Hogarth Books.
Alexandra Kleeman is the author of Something New Under the Sun, (Hogarth, 2021), Intimations, a short-story collection, and the novel You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, which was awarded the 2016 Bard Fiction Prize. In 2020, she was awarded the Rome prize and the Berlin prize.
Helen Schulman is the author of the novels Come With Me, This Beautiful Life, A Day At The Beach, P.S., The Revisionist, Out Of Time, and the short story collection Not A Free Show. Schulman is the Fiction Chair of the Creative Writing Program at The New School, where she is a tenured professor.