Apocalypse, not – why I wrote a romantic comedy about climate change

by Lisa Walker, plus Laura Lam interviews Lauren James about Green Rising

‘What is the krill issue, Rory?’

‘The krill issue is...’ Rory ponders, ‘very serious. Very, very serious.’

Melt by Lisa Walker

I’m the kind of writer who likes a challenge. Tell me that climate change is the most boring subject ever, as many have done, and I can’t whip out my laptop and start a novel on the topic fast enough.

But wait, climate change guru Bill McKibben says that climate change stories are difficult to tell. They’re too big, we are all to blame and there isn’t much chance of a happy ending. Ouch. This climate change thing is a bit of a downer.

It’s no wonder that climate change fiction has mainly been dominated by apocalyptic narratives – The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and A Friend of the Earth by TC Boyle, to name a few. These novels are amazing but, while I’m as frightened and angry as anyone, apocalypse isn’t my bag.

I’m a one trick pony – rom coms are my thing. I like to make people smile. So, being the over-confident fool that I am, I decided it was time I rolled my sleeves up and wrote a romantic comedy about climate change. Humorous love stories with happy endings can be climate change fiction too. Let’s face it, there are only so many scorched wastelands and mutant animals one can take.

The issue I faced in writing ‘Melt’ was to link this serious global issue to an entertaining and relatable story. Carbon dioxide and rising sea levels do not a novel make. Stories are about people – they thrive on the personal and particular. I needed a character and a situation that readers could relate to.

I’ve always loved fish-out-of-water comedies. Watching a character battle their way out of circumstances which they don’t have the skills to handle is so much fun. In ‘Melt’ my main character, Summer, is forced to impersonate a television science superstar in Antarctica. She knows nothing about glaciology, penguins or krill and her boss forbids her to talk about climate change…

‘There will be no mention of climate change on Channel Five. It’s boring and it’s bad for business. It makes people feel bad. Our job is to make people feel good. Is that understood?’

‘Yes, Maxine.’

Author Jonathan Franzen says that as a reader, if he senses he is reading environmental advocacy, he puts the writing down. Authors need to seduce their audience, not knock them over the head with a message. This is where comedy comes in. It can allow us to consider realities that would otherwise be overwhelming.

While Summer initially hams up the sex life of krill for her television program, she later discovers exactly how serious the krill issue is. My use of humour doesn’t belittle the climate change issue, but rather engages readers in thinking about it. Despite her strict instructions, Summer finds that she can’t resist going off script.

I take a deep breath. ‘Hurricanes are increasing! Bushfires are raging! Polar bears are at risk of extinction!’ Polar Fun for Kids filled me in on the polar bear situation. It seems the thin sea ice in the Arctic is leading to polar bears having difficulties in catching seals.

Rory is wide-eyed. It’s hard to know whether he’s impressed or alarmed. Maria opens her mouth, but I hold up my hand. I am Cougar. I have the floor. I have no idea what I’m going to do with it, but I haven’t finished yet.

As well as humour, relationships play a key role in my novel, in terms of providing hope for the reader and alternative perspectives to the issue. It is not unprecedented for romance to tackle environmental issues — authors such as Jennifer Scoullar and Rachael Treasure are known for this. Romance can offer a story which shows how climate change plays out in characters’ lives in an extremely personal way. In ‘Melt’ I try to leave the reader with a subtle feeling of hope, rather than a disempowering notion of catastrophe. Even the villain is last seen riding his bike to parliament.

Environmental change is intrinsically linked to cultural change and fiction can be persuasive. Sadly, the arguably most influential climate change novel to date – Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, which was made required reading for the US government – is on the denialist side of the debate. But still, I live in hope.

We authors are sneaky, we like to seduce and as everyone knows, where hearts go, heads will follow. We need climate change stories in all sorts of genres, as many as possible.  Sci-fi and romance, comedy and thrillers. Writers, open your laptops now!

An early review of ‘Melt’ by author Kim Kelly says that it is “… so much more than romcom… It’s a bittersweet, cleverly nuanced exploration of climate change – how we’ve failed to market it and how urgently we need to turn our minds to the task.”

So maybe climate change really isn’t the most boring topic ever.

This essay was previously published here.

You can find out more about Melt here.

Lisa is an Australian author of quirky, thoughtful fiction for both adults and young adults, with seven novels published to date. She has also written an ABC Radio National play and been published in The Guardian, The Age, The Big Issue, Griffith Review and the Review of Australian Fiction. Her current novel, ‘Trouble is My Business’, is the second in a humorous teen detective series. Other recent novels include ‘Melt’, a romantic comedy about climate change, and ‘Paris Syndrome’, a young adult coming-of-age story. She has a PhD in creative writing and has previously worked in environmental communication. Lisa lives, surfs and writes on the north coast of NSW, Australia.

New Release

Laura Lam, author of sci-fi Goldilocks, talks to Lauren James about her new climate thriller Green Rising, out now with Walker Books.

I zipped through Lauren James’ Green Rising when I was offered it for a blurb. It’s a perfect call to arms for teens (and adults) for climate change, while also being a rollicking good read! After I finished, I interviewed her for my YouTube channel, C.Y.O.Topia, which I do with my friend Dr. Sinead Collins, along with marine biologist Dr. Johanna Vad. This has been linked on this newsletter before, but thought it’d be a great excuse to link it again if you missed it last time. We delve more into the science side of things. 

I’m excited I can now ask some more questions about Green Rising I didn’t have a chance to ask in the interview or else it’d be too long. 

What were the different challenges and opportunities you faced while writing Hester, Theo, and Gabrielle?

 I really wanted to capture a mix of responses to the climate crisis, but without having any characters be totally uneducated about the topic – I feel like that’s unrealistic in this time, when we’re all very aware of the future we’re facing. Hester starts out the novel as someone who is against climate action, but she considers herself very educated and engaged on the topic and can debate very well on it. She’s been raised by an oil tycoon, so she knows all of the economical and political background of the climate issue.

Meanwhile, Theo is a fisherman’s son, and he is aware of the need for climate action but isn’t very educated about the topic. He just knows that action needs to be taken, even though he doesn’t know what or how it would be possible.

Gabrielle is a climate activist, and she knows what needs to be done, and specifically is willing to break the law to do it. She sees it as an ethical responsibility.

Their views all change over the course of the book, as the three of them start being able to grow plants magically, and use that power to tackle the climate. It was difficult to construct the character arcs for them that felt realistic and built into their cultural upbringing. I wanted it feel genuine to the experience of becoming more involved in climate issues.

If you could grow plants from your hands, what kind of plant would you want it to be?

Since researching rewilding for the book, I’ve become so aware of wasted land spaces, particularly in cities. I wish I could seed-bomb them all with wildflowers! It would be great to do that magically.

I always find it weird when you write things in near-future SF (like my book Goldilocks, set in a future in environmental collapse) and then see a version of it come true. What are some developments in climate change news since you wrote the book have really struck you?

 Oh, it’s been so depressing. There are lots of news articles in the book which include headlines for climate articles. I read lots of non-fiction about the future, and a lot of these events were inspired by predictions of the future. I was trying to pitch things happening a few decades from now, but several of them happened during the writing process itself. In particular, I remember reading about a spate of mystery elephant deaths in Botswana, and adding it into my draft as being a result of climate change. A few months later I checked the news and found out that there it actually was due to algae blooms in their water sources from heat waves.

Did you have to kill any darlings you wish could have made it into the book, i.e. some of the research that just couldn’t fit into the story?

Oh, gosh. So much. It’s such a huge topic, effecting so much politically and economically. I really wanted to dive more into how fossil fuel investments effect the US political system, but it was too far away from the main plot. I think I cut 50,000 words from the first draft to the final version.

I also really wanted to dive more into how we could use plants to deal with plastics in landfills, but it felt too small an issue when there are so many bigger, greater threats!

What’s the main thing you hope teens take away from Green Rising?

As individuals, we can't do anything. But as a collective we have the power to make change. Make sure you are adding your name to that collective, so the people doing the active work have enough clout to get noticed. It takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in protests to ensure serious political change. That's such a small amount. We can do this.

Some important things you can personally do, right now:

-check your bank/savings/pension scheme isn't investing your money in fossil fuel companies

-change your energy supply to a green energy tariff

-find a climate action group in your profession & sign up for their newsletter

Good luck!

You can find out more about Green Rising here.

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is also a Creative Writing lecturer, freelance editor, screenwriter, and the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League.

Originally from sunny California, Laura Lam now lives in cloudy Scotland. Lam is a Sunday Times Bestselling author whose work includes the near-future space thriller, Goldilocks, feminist space opera Seven Devils (co-written with Elizabeth May), BBC Radio 2 Book Club section False Hearts, the companion novel Shattered Minds, and the award-winning Micah Grey series: Pantomime, Shadowplay, and Masquerade. Lam’s short fiction and essays have appeared in anthologies such as Nasty Women, Solaris Rising 3, Cranky Ladies of History, Scotland in Space, and more. Lam’s romance alter ego is Laura Ambrose. Lam lectures part-time at Edinburgh Napier University on the Creative Writing MA.

Climate Change in the News

The winners of the Environment Award For Children's Literature 2021 announced

Books to help take action on climate change [Lovemybooks]

More than 200 health journals call for urgent action on climate crisis [Guardian]

A new wave of climate fiction could help young people’s mental health [Bright Green] - by League member Rab Ferguson

The definitive climate fiction reading list [Grist]

Orna Ross Green Stories Novel Prize Dec 2021 - Climate Fiction competition for unpublished novels showing a positive vision of what a sustainable society - short story competition here and under 18s competition here (all free to enter)