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Each month we celebrate an Australian debut release of fiction or non-fiction in the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club. For August that debut is Everything Feels Like The End of the World by Else Fitzgerald (Allen & Unwin)—a collection of short speculative fiction exploring possible futures in an Australia not so different from our present day, to one thousands of years into an unrecognisable future. Ellen Cregan spoke to Else in an Instagram Live conversation earlier this month. 

The author Else Fitzgerald.

For people who haven’t had a chance to read your book yet, can you give us a brief introduction?

So it’s a collection of short stories, and it’s speculative futures, plural—so each story moves forward in time. The collection starts in very near future Australia, which feels almost now, but slightly more affected by climate change. And each story moves forward in time, and you see the progression of the climate degradation and also how emerging technology starts to intersect with our lives more and more. I’ve always imagined it not necessarily as one linear timeline, but more like each of these things could happen at some point in time—so lots of the stories later in the book are much more futuristic and very further forward imaginings.

Can you speak a bit about how this book came to be published?

I’ve been working on it in between other things for six or seven years. And in 2019, I was very fortunate to win the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers with Hachette Australia, and I had a year developing the manuscript with the publisher there. And then when it came time to shop it around, when it was finished, there were a couple of people interested in it. I was very lucky to have a fantastic agent, so that definitely helped me with that part of the process—I just wouldn’t have known how to advocate for myself without that person.

‘I wanted to keep it very close to home—to use this one place that you kept seeing over and over again, but how different it would be each time.’

A lot of the apocalyptic scenes in the book are quite familiar to a lot of us; they resemble the floods and fires that we’ve seen sometimes in our own neighbourhoods over the past couple of years. Did you take all of your details about these climate catastrophes from the world around you?

A lot of the stories came from reading the news. Obviously, some of the very near future ones were absolutely informed by what’s happened over the last couple of years in Australia and around the world, and even some of the more speculative, futuristic pieces, I definitely felt that those came from things I was reading on the internet, like news and articles—I would read something like, ‘oh my God, I can’t believe that could actually happen’. A lot of it’s also informed by where I grew up in rural Victoria. I remember we went through a horrific drought when I was little, and my dad was in the CFA, so had a lot of second hand experience of what catastrophic bushfires and floods could be like. So I lived through some of that as a young person, and then it’s not difficult to imagine how these things are just going to keep escalating. And all the stories in the book are mainly set in or around Melbourne and regional Victoria, so I wanted to keep it very close to home—to use this one place that you kept seeing over and over again, but how different it would be each time.

So, beyond absorbing the news and those personal experiences growing up, what was the research process like? Because there is a lot of technology and science in this book as well.

It sounds reductive, but a lot of times I would just see a headline on the internet and think, ‘what on earth?’, and investigate further. So some of those technologies, like solar shields or the idea of shooting gas into the atmosphere to create a protective layer between the sun and us, those are things I gathered from reading news articles. Some of the stuff is completely made up in some ways, but I do think that it’s informed enough by all the reading that I’ve done that it seems like it could be plausible.

Did that help a lot with some of the really far flung futures? There’s a couple of pretty wild far futures that you have there towards the end of the book.

Yeah, definitely. And also, I mean, I love watching sci-fi movies, I’ve always liked reading sci-fi. So I definitely think that has informed the writing that I do. It’s almost like there’s a pivot halfway through the book—you’re reading this near-future Australiana, and then it almost flips and it goes much more hard sci-fi, still kind of literary, but much more in that genre space. And I think a lot of that writing is informed by the things I like to read and watch.

I’ve always maintained that even though it’s quite hard going at times, at the centre of all the stories is hope that we will be able to keep going, no matter what happens.

The book goes to some pretty dark places—do you have a self care process while you write about these issues that are going to affect us really severely in our lifetimes?

That’s a very good question, and the answer is sadly no. I guess writing this book—even though it was really difficult—was an act of self care for me, because it was about articulating, in some form, just this frustration and grief and anger. And I found that writing these stories, and there’s so many that didn’t end up making it into the final book, but there’s a kind of catharsis in putting it into words. But I definitely struggled with my mental health at times through the process of working on it. I did not find the COVID lockdowns a good time creatively. I know some artists were like, ‘oh, it’s amazing, I’ve got all this time and I can do all this work’—I had time, but I did not have the mental wherewithal to do much at all, especially in this dystopian space.

I can’t even imagine, because it’s almost like—I have a lot of climate anxiety, and reading these stories, I loved them, but it was like you pulled my anxieties out of my brain, and you were teasing them out. But I do think that there’s a lot of hope in the book as well.

It isn’t a cheerful read, I know that. It was funny when it came out and reviews started going up, a lot of people posting about the book were saying that they really liked it, but that it was so heavy, and difficult and challenging. And I knew that was true, but I think because I’d been sitting with it for so long, I’d almost become inoculated, in a way, to how much it punched you in the heart. But I’ve always maintained that even though it’s quite hard going at times, at the centre of all the stories, they’re about love and relationships, and there is hope in lots of the stories that we will be able to keep going, no matter what happens.

What role do you think climate stories have in the literary sphere? Because this is definitely a literary book more than a genre book.

I’m trying very hard to be on the fence about that, because I love genre fiction and I want to be a sci-fi person, but I also recognise that it’s definitely written in a style that leans more towards literary fiction. I think it was Jane Rawson who said something like ‘calling climate fiction a genre is a mistake’, because it pushes it into we’re putting it in the realm of fantasy and sci-fi, where we can feel as though it’s not real, or it’s not close to us. And she says anything that’s not explicitly about climate change is genre fiction now, because that’s just the world we live in, you can’t avoid engaging with it. I feel like it’s a little bit naïve, but I used to say this work can function as a form of protest, because you’re showing people how bad things could possibly go, and potentially through that you might inspire someone to change, or perhaps realign their thinking. And that still might be true in some ways, but I think it’s always the role of writing for me, it’s reflecting the world around us back at us in a way that makes you stop and think and engage with it in a different way.

Pregnancy and children and the decision to have children comes up quite a lot, particularly in the early stories. And through a few different characters and stories, you show heaps of different experiences and perspectives. Can you talk a bit about writing about this particular issue from a bunch of different standpoints?

I didn’t intentionally set out to have that be one of the throughlines of the book, but more and more stories started emerging that were engaging with this idea of whether or not to have children in a climate affected future, what it means if you do, how you live and how they will live, and then how certain kinds of technology will start to change the way we might do that in the future. I don’t have any children, and I have never really wanted to, in part because for me, climate change has always been pressed very close, I’ve always been hyperaware of that as a concern. But at the same time, such a central part of being a human being is that we have families, we have children and we have this lineage backwards and forwards. So I think for me, it was just really important to explore what that would look like and what it would mean.

One of the things that caused me the most anxiety when writing, I think, was that once I knew I was writing a whole collection about climate change, I just had this anxiety that it had to be a book about everybody, and everyone’s experience of climate change had to be included, and I had to be really respectful about making sure I did that in a way that was not appropriative, but not excluding anybody, and I really tormented myself about that for quite a while. And in the end I realised that was an impossible thing to do, to include every single perspective on what it would be like to live through a climate affected future, and also that the place that I could write from most authentically was informed by my own experience. Obviously it’s fiction, and some of it is completely impossible that I’ve had any experience of it, but I’ve tried to make them come from a place that’s close to me.

In this book, there’s a mix of longer stories and really short flash fiction stories. What are the good and bad things about working in that really short form on such big topics?

For me, it’s almost like exercising different muscles, and just being really able to experiment. And some of the stories are written using code; I like writing in second person a lot, but I think that can be a really challenging tense to read a long piece of work in. So it’s interesting to me to be able to try these different modes of telling stories. But there are definitely challenges to the brevity of the form, in that they’re about moments rather than a full story, so you don’t often get resolution. I think it might be Ursula Le Guin or someone like that who said novels have a resolution at the end, where stories end on disjunction. And I definitely feel that’s the case with lots of these stories, that they end in a place that’s not resolved.

‘For me, writing short fiction is almost like exercising different muscles, and just being really able to experiment.’

You do have a certain freedom, I think. Obviously there’s lots of ways in which I’ve written some of these stories that I think would be harder to sustain in a novel length work. But yeah, you just have such a freedom to show all these different characters and perspectives, and it’s something that I love about short story collections, writing and reading them.

Do you think you would like to write something longer in the future? Do you think you want to try a novel next?

I kind of do—I’m a bit scared of the idea, that’s a big undertaking. And also there is a definite pressure, I think, when you start working in the space of commercial publishing—even when I signed the contract for this book, everyone saying, ‘the next book has to be a novel’, because that’s just the way the market works. I have a project I’ve started working on, which is more novel-length, but I’m still doing that classic David Mitchell thing where I’m like, ‘it’s actually just six novellas woven together’. I just love the brevity. I find that there’s something amazing in thinking about the poetics of the sentences, and the cadence of words, and I think there’s something in the short form that allows me to be a bit more abstract, and yet play in that space. But I just don’t know if I could do it if I was writing this 100,000 word novel. But we’ll see. Maybe I’ll surprise myself.

Did you write the stories in order or did you rearrange as you went? Was it hard to leave some of the stories out?

I definitely did not write them in order. Some of the stories are quite old because I wrote them at the beginning of the process and then some very new. And as I was working on the drafts, there were definitely times when I thought, ‘oh, there’s a gap here’, in terms of a timeline. And then there was a point in time where I started thinking, ‘oh, no, this timeline thing is not going to work, it’s just going to confuse people’, so I scrambled them all up and had one version of the manuscript where there was no chronology at all. It was very much a playful and emerging process of where things would go. And even right until the very last edit, I was still moving things around.

What do you hope readers are going to take away from these stories?

I hope people will be able to share in the emotion of the book, and whether that’s a cathartic thing for you in terms of helping to process some of your own feelings about climate change and this rapidly shifting world that we live in, or that people read them and potentially have some reaction that is saying, ‘I don’t want this future, and I’m going to do something to make that not happen’.  The main thing I hope people will take is that hopefulness, that even though these are dark times and it’s tough going, both in the book and out in the world, that there is still hope at the end of it, and we can hold on to that.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. To watch the full conversation, visit KYD’s Instagram profile.

Everything Feels Like the End of the World is available now from your local independent bookseller.