How Jenny Offill predicted our current 'ambient dread' in Weather
When Jenny Offill started writing her third novel, Weather, in 2015, the concept of dread — towards society, the world, your neighbor — was, comparatively speaking, almost a novelty. Bad things were happening every day, to be certain. It's just that there were so many other, non-society-threatening elements at play, too. Most of us didn't even know the term doomscrolling, much less use it regularly to rehash our evenings. One could say, even, that Jenny Offill was a preeminent doomscroller.
The author, whose work includes the lauded 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation, was halfway through Weather when Donald Trump was elected, which caused the rest of the country to, essentially, get on her level. The singularly-named novel, which released in paperback this month, follows a New York librarian (Lizzie) as she grapples with stessors in her personal life (helping a recovering-addict brother, the raising of her young sons) and a quickly-expanding fascination with the climate crisis. Told in short fragments — inner monologues, snippets of her day, passages from a podcast she works on with a renowned climate scientist — the book documents Lizzie's obsession with all things doomsday and, of course, dread.
As the country itself grapples with its own, er, stressors, Offill spoke to EW about the story behind her eerily prescient plotlines and delivered a few knowing reassurances along the way.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is crazy timing to be doing this interview; could you ever have imagined that you would be promoting the paperback release of Weather amidst an attempted coup and a pandemic?
JENNY OFFILL: It's funny, when the first book came out I talked a lot about all of the climate change elements. And then when the pandemic hit, the discussion became centered around disaster psychology and the parts of the novel that skew in that direction. All along I've had this other doomer streak, about encroaching fascism. That was a slightly quieter element in the book, but it's definitely there. At the end of the book, I project this character a year and a half down the road, to the 2020 election. I thought a lot about whether there was going to be violence and whether this long-threatened civil war-like atmosphere would come to pass. And it's also funny to be talking about that now because it was part of the book that most people didn't pick up on before this moment in time.
To predict something like that, years ago, and write it into the narrative — was that, essentially, an educated guess?
In imagining this kind of future threat, I had been reading about the Q-Anon conspiracy theory and I'd been really drawn in by it. [After 2016] I didn't see a version of the  election where people would just move on after the results. I was doing a fair amount of traveling for work and I would be talking to the cab or Uber driver and would hear things that, I now realize, were conspiracy theories. At the time they just felt like someone's strange personal point of view. Of course, they were probably listening to, and getting it from, Info Wars. On the day of [the insurrection], I saw the beginnings of what was clearly about to happen and I decided to play a video game with my daughter, where you pretend to work a farm, instead of watching.
Out of all the unsettling topics in the book, what keeps you up at night the most?
I kind of alternate between several topics that keep me up at night. For a long time, I resisted the idea of putting climate change into a novel — one of the main reasons was that I thought, I don't actually know enough about this. But I started to read a lot and notice how that kind of ambient dread would enter my everyday life. I saw something the other day, where an authoritarian scholar was on a news show and they referred to her as a 'vindicated alarmist.' That was very funny to me. One of the tensions in the book is that my main character, similarly, doesn't want to think about climate change all the time. She wants to keep seeing it as something that's quite a bit in the future. That's very true to the experience of my own life: I constantly think, I wish I hadn't read this paper, or I would like to unsee that.
Did the act of writing Weather, and spending so much time with these ideas, feel like something you had to escape from or work to shake off?
I actually think that I felt more dread and more fatalism before I wrote the novel than afterward. While writing the book, I learned about all the people in different parts of the world who are working on this problem. Even though there's no magic answer or silver bullet, there's the beauty and hope of that collective process.
Your last novel, Dept. of Speculation, followed a marriage collapsing, which is a very specific but highly emotional plot point. Do you have a sense of whether that novel or Weather, elicits more reactions in your readers?
With Dept., I got a lot of very personal reactions to it and different elements of the book would elicit people's personal stories. I now know about the affairs people have had — people whose names I don't even know. Or they wanted to talk about the depression storyline in the book, or the complexity of emotions you feel when parenting. With Weather, if there was a pattern, it was that people in their 30s and under were extremely happy to see someone older than them discussing the way that thoughts can become intrusive. I've noticed this with my students, too, that they absolutely think the way Lizzie does. Lizzie sometimes seems like an anxious or obsessive person to older people, but that's run-of-the-mill to college kids and people in their 20s.
Can you talk about using the style of fragmented entries — is it just coincidence that it appears in both books, or is this something you'll continue to use in your novels?
Going back to the comparison to my last two novels, Dept. is a very interior book. It felt like it was very much taking place in [the narrator's] head, with people occasionally entering that space. I knew I wanted Weather to be more outward-facing. That's why I made Lizzie a librarian. As someone who spends a lot of time in local libraries, I've noticed that the whole world seems to come in and tell [the librarian] what's happening in their lives. I used the same style of fragmented writing because I find it's closest to the way that I think, but the structure, I think, has a flow that resembles the seasons. The increments of time are subject to the elements.
In all your time researching for Weather, what was the most outrageous doomsday prepper purchase you made?
I have built, hilariously, quite the doomsday library. Guides to things like what to do when there is no dentist, how to forage, all those kinds of books. I did order some Iodine a couple years ago, when the issue of North Korea was looming, but that's not the kind of thing that has gotten humans through crises in the past. They've made it through by building small communities where people are looking after each other. At the beginning of the pandemic, though, I did order a lot of dry goods. [Laughs]