The Reassurance of Dystopias: Talking to Jane Rawson

Attention Conservation Notice: a couple of ravy paras about how much I like Jane Rawson’s novel leading into an interview that shows her to be smart and funny in which we talk about dystopias, utopias, her new book and the inevitable reality of climate change (1992 words).

WrongTurnI really really love Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists. It’s a dark and surreal urban fantasy partly set in a dystopian, tropical future Melbourne, partly set in an imaginary space accessible only through the worn-through creases in reality that are indicated by the worn creases on an old map, and partly inside a fictional version of San Francisco written by Caddie, the story’s protagonist who lives in the aforementioned dystopian future Melbourne.

A lot of authors would be satisfied with simply working out how to hold together such disparate elements without their story exploding, but Unmade Lists does more than just hang together – it tells an entirely convincing emotionally compelling story about the lives of the people who exist and interact in these places. It’s a case study in exactly how the freaky crazy worlds of fantastic writing can properly coexist with the emotional weight of realism without ever seeming like they don’t belong together.

Seriously, I cried. At least a couple of times. It’s a brilliant book. You gotta read it.

A while back I convinced Jane to let me interview her about Unmade Lists, which at the time had just deservedly won that odd award for most under-rated Australian book of the year. We spoke about Unmade Lists and also about her new book: The Handbook: Surviving and living with climate change, which is exactly what it says on the tin and which will be out in September this year.

WrongTurnDinkus

Do you see Unmade Lists as a dystopia?

Yes. Definitely. I’ve got my notes from when I was first thinking about it and I’ve got a list of “OK, what would a terrible Melbourne look like?” It would include lots of things like being really hot and dusty, you don’t have enough food today… Cockroaches, which didn’t make it into the final draft, but I pretty much set out to work out a future Melbourne.

And did that tie neatly into your own mental exploration of the refinery explosions?

Yeah, the imaginary explosions in Yarraville in my book are set very close to where I used to live.

“OK, what would a terrible Melbourne look like?”

You’d been thinking about that independently of the dystopian Melbourne scenario, though?

I think about all kinds of crises all the time. It was actually really reassuring. The guy I talked to said, “All of Yarraville would go up if these explode. You’ve got a $100,000 discount on your house because you’re so close to it, but ha ha, sucks to all those other people further away who paid more – they’re going to blow up too.” So that was nice.

What do you think of dystopia as a genre? Are you a fan of dystopias?

Yes – I don’t read in just one area – I’m pretty much a dilettante across most areas, except romance, but I’m going to get into that. Yes, dystopian books are among my favourite because I’m a worrier about things and because I like being prepared for things. It’s sort of like research for me. I find it quite reassuring to read dystopias.

Dystopian fiction or non-fiction?

Fiction. It’s like, “What are all the worst-case scenarios you could come up with? What would I do in that situation?”

Do you think it’d be possible in this day and age for someone to write a convincing utopian story?

This is a very good question. I think so – definitely. I think that people who are interested in dystopias are still quite a small subsection. When you talk about real-world dystopias, like climate change, for instance, most people are like, “Yeah that’s probably a thing that’s happening, but we’ll figure out something. We’ll figure out a way to fix it. Humans are infinitely resourceful. We’ve sorted out every other problem so far, right?”

It’s sort of like research for me. I find it quite reassuring to read dystopias.

Whether that’s true or not, I think that’s what most people believe. They have a lot of faith in us coming up with technological solutions for things. So yeah, I think there’s a lot of appetite for stories about our ability to solve problems.

You don’t think there’s too much cynicism in contemporary society? Personally I have trouble imagining what a literary utopia would look like.

I would like to spend some time sitting down and thinking about, “How would you write that? What is a modern utopia that would be satisfying to us?” Maybe it’s more a Brave New World utopia, if you could write that as something that isn’t a dystopia. Because it kind of half is and half isn’t, I guess it depends on how you feel when you read it.

It kind of is a great world, right? Everyone is comfortable and happy, everyone has a job that’s the job they’re meant to do and they’re satisfied… I think it would have to be here on Earth. I think we’ve missed out on a space Utopia. It’s not going to be a space Utopia. It’s going to be a structured, social Utopia.

Which is what Utopia was. So going back to the original model I guess. Is that something you’d be interested in having a crack at?

Yeah. That is what is most interests me in writing: here’s a problem, how do you solve it?

WrongTurnDinkus

Your follow-up book is a climate change survival guide. Was there a natural progression from working on Unmade Lists and then starting work on this new book?

I think so. Especially to people reading them, there might seem a natural progression. The research I did for Unmade Lists was not really what you’d call research, but it was informed by work that I’d been doing, particularly at Department of Transport – what Melbourne might look under various climate change scenarios and how would we adapt transport to suit that.

We feel like a lot of people say, “It’s okay we’ll just adapt to it,” as though that’s an easy thing to do.

The stuff I’ve done for the book has expanded a lot from that, because we were trying to consider all kinds of scenarios for all over Australia. The main thing I guess is that it’s still really speculative. A lot of what we’ve done is, “Okay, well this is the range of possible physical affects – what might that mean for society?” Like, trying to figure out if there’s any reason that rubbish wouldn’t get collected anymore? I had to go through a bunch of possible different scenarios – it’s very fictional, really. And then, okay, if that IS the case, what are some ways that people can work with this and what could they do?

A whole bunch of this stuff may never happen, and a whole bunch of other stuff will, but what we’re trying to do, I guess, is start getting people to do this work in their own heads. This is the possible range of effects – how might that affect my life? What do I need to think about? Can I be prepared, should I give up?

Which one are you veering towards? Being prepared, or giving up?

The main thing that we want – we feel like a lot of people say, “It’s okay we’ll just adapt to it,” as though that’s an easy thing to do. So we’re trying to lay out how expensive that will be and what it will mean if you don’t have enough money to do that, so that people start thinking, “Actually it will be easier to start doing stuff now. The stuff that seems impossible now is actually easier than the alternative, so maybe I should get on with… I should stop doing my job and go and campaign for renewable energy.” I don’t know, but the more things we can impress upon people that they can do now, the less awful the long-term project will be.

Are you touching on ways to mitigate climate change itself?

Nope. That’s covered in so many places already. Essentially we’re saying we’ve got two degrees of climate change locked in already, probably more, today. We’re stuck with that. You’ll have to at least prepare for that. And given the attitude of previous and current governments, both towards preparing and mitigating, you’re probably going to be on your own. They’re not that interested in it; they’re not putting nearly enough money into it, so expect to be flooded!

WrongTurnDinkus

So what kind of time frame are you pushing for?

We’re being fairly vague about it, I’ll admit, because the thing people always want to know is when is this going to happen to me? And we can’t answer that question – no one can answer that question. So we’re sort of looking 2030 to 2070. Kind of. Later in your life. Within your children’s lifetimes.

That’s the general consensus of when, yeah?

Sure. We’re getting more bushfires now. We’re getting more heatwaves now. It’s happening now. It’s happening to YOU now. It’s just that we’re looking at it as one-off events instead of, “Oh, that’s climate change – now!”

Was it the release of Unmade Lists and your work at the conversation that made someone say you’d be a natural fit for this idea?

It was sort of a combination of that. Barry Scott at Transit Lounge, having published Unmade Lists, before that even came out he started talking to me about doing more nonfiction, doing some environmental writing.

Then James Whitmore, who’s my co-author, who was at the time my deputy editor at The Conversation, and I started talking about this cool interview we’d heard with this guy who’s a Queensland adaptation scientist. Waleed Aly was interviewing her and he said, “So I guess I should find a new place to live – where are you moving to? ” and it was kind of a joke, but she said, “Okay, I’ve been through the options – ideally you want to look at Canada and these sort of areas, but if you need to stay in Australia, I’d recommend here…” and he was like, “Woah – are we thinking about this? Seriously?” and she was like, “Yeah of course we’re thinking about this.”

They were all still, “What am I going to do to reduce my emissions?” and we were like, “Forget that, you’re gonna die – what are you gonna to stop dying?”

And then I talked about this with other climate scientists I was working with and they were all, “Yeah I’ve bought property in Tasmania” or “Yeah I’ve moved to this part of England, I think that’ll look good” and we were all, “Hey, this is – these people have ideas.”

This is real.

And there are people we can talk to about what people should be doing and we had a look around and there was no-one else who was really looking hard at this idea – they were all still, “What am I going to do to reduce my emissions?” and we were like, “Forget that, you’re gonna die – what are you gonna to stop dying?”

So we went to Barry and he said, “Can I move to India? Is India going to be good?” And we were like, “Don’t Move to India” and he was like, “Oh this sucks. Alright, let’s publish.”

WrongTurnDinkus

In moving from fiction to nonfiction, did you find there was anything you had to unlearn or relearn in progressing from one form to the other? And how’s that process been for you?

I don’t feel like I’m any good at writing nonfiction. I don’t know if it’s just the standard writer’s crippling self-doubt thing, but especially the kind of book this is – it’s not narrative nonfiction, it’s a handbook. It’s a bunch of facts, basically. It’s been interesting to research, but really boring to write. Because it’s really just, “How can I keep this clear and simple and not repeat myself and get this information across?”

I was curious about that, because you’re currently working in technical writing, and you have a background working for Lonely Planet… is any of that giving you a scaffolding to build on?

I think so, yeah. It’s basically the skills I have learned in my work life. Not the fiction-writing skills. I think the main thing I’ve learned from fiction writing is the fact that I’m not getting paid for this, I’d rather be doing something else, but I have to just! sit! down! and! do it! That’s the main thing.

I’d like to finish this up with something inappropriate and flippant, so can you give me some quick answers to the following questions? What’s your top tip for surviving a climate change dystopia?

Okay. Have friends, or at least people around you who care if you live or die. A strong community will get you through many things.

How about an alien invasion dystopia?

Um, have interesting plumage: make sure you’ll look good in an alien zoo.

Post-nuclear?

Live on a small, fertile island far from shipping routes and strong wind and ocean currents. Own a good coat and some tinned food.

Post-peak-oil?

Same as post-nuclear and climate change, I reckon.

Lastly, what about a zombie dystopia?

Aim to be patient zero. Zombies survive, right? Just not as humans. And if you’re first you avoid the panic, which surely is the worst part of any apocalypse.

A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists is out now and available from Transit Lounge Press. The Handbook: Surviving and living with climate change is due for release in September 2015 from Transit Lounge Press. Jane Rawson blogs regularly at Jane Bryony Rawson.

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Poet. Author. Beard. Husband. Dad. Four chickens. Dog. Cat. I can sometimes fix my lawnmower.

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About Adam

I'm a dad and the author of the poetry collections The Third Fruit is a Bird and Not Quite the Man for the Job, the novel Man Bites Dog and the short story collection Heroes and Civilians.
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