Nicole Walker and David Carlin met in 2014 when he traveled from Melbourne to Flagstaff to help plan the 2015 NonfictioNOW conference. As they walked back and forth across Flagstaff, trying to find the perfect venue, they found they had a similar take on climate change. They both knew global warming was already happening—not something coming in the future. They also knew they were complicit and guilty, but also fascinated and in love with the science about it, and the science to help counteract it. In 2016, during the planet-changing election, Nicole flew to Melbourne to give a talk. There, David and Nicole thought about how else, beyond conference planning, they wanted to collaborate. They realized, to borrow Donna Hathaway’s phrase, to make sense of climate change, they had to “stay with the trouble.” They also realized the trouble was here to stay.
Walker and Carlin decided to write The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet(Rose Metal Press) about the trouble, how to stay with it, how to wrestle with this new truth, how to admit complicity but still find joy in the tiny things that make the planet worth writing about. They chose to write an abecedarian because they wanted to spill everything there was to know and feel and think about climate change into a book but realized that taking everything a letter at a time might be a good way to get a snapshot of the planet’s wonders and troubles without destroying a whole forest putting them to paper.
NICOLE WALKER: How do you think the book has evolved over time since its first inception?
DAVID CARLIN: Since the first draft?
NW: Since the first idea…
DC: When something turns out in a certain way you tend to think retrospectively that that’s how it was always going to turn out. You kind of erase all of the other possible worlds that the book could have grown up in. I remember we started with the idea that it was a “Survival Guide for Life After Normal.” It wasn’t going to be a straightforward Survival Guide—it was going to be an ironic version of a Survival Guide, but also deeply serious. That gave us something to hang onto.
I suppose one of the things that changed throughout the writing process was the sense of how we were talking to each other through it and how we were talking to the reader. We always worked it out as we went along. “Oh, let’s try this experiment.” I think it’s really important that we sat down together in the same room to write our first brief essays for “A,” at the very beginning, as a kind of proof of concept. I could see, because we’re usually so geographically far apart, how you approached it, how you were able to generate a draft of an essay quickly and fluidly. That was really great for me because I’m always looking for ways to be freeflowing as a writer, rather than thinking that I have to plan things out, and think about it for weeks in advance.
I think at the very beginning, we built in a sense of the unknown. We knew we had the Roman alphabet; we knew that there were twenty-six letters and we would write essays for each letter but we didn’t know what was going to happen in that back and forth and that was really crucial to the fun of it. And to the nature of it, that it’s kind of surprising for the reader—that they probably have no idea where we’re going to go next. We hadn’t worked out a clever narrative arc.
NW: We had a rule right, that you couldn’t respond directly to the other person’s essay, in your own essay. You weren’t supposed to read it first.
DC: Yes. It was like simultaneously giving each other a present every week and you are not allowed to open the other person’s present until you’ve prepared yours. And we weren’t supposed to end game each other. Saying well, you did this and therefore I’ll cleverly do that.
Although when we got up to D, you know, when we get to your Dear David, I must have seen the heading when you put it in the Google drive. I thought I’d better cheat and read this, because you’d played a totally different card, you played like a wild card, which I thought was great, I thought that was a real turning point, because it was really messing with the game. Up to then it had been Albatross—Atmosphere—Bitumen—Bacteria—Catastrophe—Chicken. And that was like shifting the goal posts in an interesting way. Which then I felt like I needed to respond to in a different way, too, with Dear Nicole.
NW: It’s fun because then we had a couple different D’s too. And lots of I’s! And that opened the way for Xtinction with an X, and Jerms with a J. Let the project be a little bit less deterministic. A little less prescriptive. OK [in Grover voice] this is what an Abecedarian does and we cannot stray from that. And that was fun.
DC: Yeah, yeah, exactly. The danger of that kind of form. Where you get to about E or F or so and think, well, I guess they’ll go through the rest of the alphabet now. It can feel a bit like, how many letters are there to go?
NW: [Laughs]. I’ve heard a couple people who are reading it only give themselves a couple letters a day, which I think is really sweet because, you know, the essays are really short, well, mostly brief, You could read them all at once, but I appreciate that they can mete them out because they know how many letters there are to go.
DC: And the other fun thing that happened later on—because we wondered what would happen if we both chose the same topic for a certain letter, since that could happen because we didn’t know what the other person was choosing—we got to O and we both did Opossum or (O)possum, which was like the most ridiculous thing that we would both choose at once.
NW: Because we’re both obsessed. With the strange beasts. The cute ones in your world. The not so cute ones in my world. Although, apparently, they eat like 350,000 ticks a day or something. Maybe just 35,000. But still. They’re very useful. Do not abuse the possums. Opossums.
DC: Well, they’re kind of cute in our world but they’re also, you know, they’re like your neighbors, they can get on your nerves.
NW: They’re similar to bats in our situation. If we get bats in our eves, you have to get a special bat remover person. You can encourage them to leave but you can’t really evict them.
DC: We have big fruit bats. but they just live in the tree in the fig season and then fly off again.
NW: OK. Well, that leads us to a question. The Roses (our publishers) have sent us a question.
DC: Oh, they did?
NW: They asked: “We especially hope you’ll talk about how the Arizona to Australia nature of the project emphasizes the uniquely global (but sometimes overlooked) aspect of global warming—we like how your book re-emphasizes that we’re all in it together. And then also how the abecedarian form—by its small, calculable and orderly scale—lets you make a colossal topic manageable in a sense–emotionally and literarily?” Oh, those women. They’re very smart. I’m very impressed with our editors’ savviness about these things.
I do think that is one of things I like most about the book is its globalness. You know, I have this metaphor for the words/essays that we send back and forth—because it’s not really an epistolary—we’re sending these gifts back and forth, like you say, but to me they’re these strings, into which we put all these ideas and thoughts and that sense of hopefulness that we wanted to have early on. We throw them across to each other and they create a kind of net that holds these big ideas. I mean, writing from Flagstaff can seem rather myopic but when we send these presents back and forth, aloft, it feels like you’re stitching across the whole planet.
DC: Yes, like in Australia, we hang our washing outside, you know on a line. And it’s like we were putting our little pieces up alongside side each other, one after the other. You knew something else would come sit by your thing. That was such an interesting thing about writing with someone else. I keep thinking of it now as being like a duet. That’s another thing I was really conscious of when I was writing it, was listening to your voice and your concerns and letting myself be influenced be them in a certain way, like not directly, but trying to—I just remember when you wrote your Catastrophe one that it had a lot of poetry and word play, and I thought: ah, that’s something I’m going to try and listen and respond to in a way. It opens up possibilities—that we’re making a tentative, patchwork world together and as we make it, the possibilities and textures become evident. I think the thing of writing with someone on the other side of the world meant that we had to translate from the parochial. You have to keep thinking, how does this make sense to somebody in another place? Even though there’s lots of ways we coincide and lots of things we have in common.
And then we have all those bits where we go to other places and the bits where we meet up again. I hadn’t really thought about the little bites making it digestible, but then that’s the premise isn’t it: here’s this huge thing we’re confronting, in all its overwhelming enormity and web of connections, and it’s coming at us all at once and in all different ways and we are immersed in it. We were trying to make the impossible survival guide. How do you have a survival guide to the 6th great extinction event?
NW: And the idea that Bitumen or Plasmodia might save you. That to me is one of the best parts. We didn’t reach for words that were climate change-based or that we’d agreed upon. We reached for words that were present and in front of us and on our minds in that same way that climate change is on our minds so we get them to connect. In a sense, anything, everything could be in here but we’re limited to twenty-six times two plus a couple extra iterations of that. We have this opportunity to say, look, anything can be in this, anything can be part of this survival guide—that’s the deep paradox here, that we’re trying to survive a thing that is fundamentally survivable, if we could get it together. The only thing, I feel, you and I can do is to make a list of all the things we should be doing and the thing we should be most doing is making a list. It has the real mise en abime feel, we just keep going deeper and deeper into this situation where the more present we can be, the more stuff we can get into this book, maybe we can get it enough energy for it itself to be paid enough attention. That to me is the urgency of this book. That we have to stuff as much as possible in this book, like a knapsack. That the most important things are those we have right in front of us, like opossums.
DC: We also tried to develop a practice in ourselves of noticing and paying attention and grounding ourselves, whether it’s with the bitumen or the plasmodia. It’s not like we have the answers and we’re tying to tell people what the answers are. We’re trying to work out how to be in the world and what to do and to see how things are connected. That’s one of the things we started with is that, sometimes, environmental writing and nature writing is related to forests, or reefs, or to some sort of pockets of life, but we’re trying to see how it’s also connected to our jobs and our kids. We’re trying to think about the way these issues and other political things like racism and sexism, or class issues, are all interconnected—and then how do you plot how it feels and how do you band together with people to try to work out what to do? That’s a really important part is that we’re doing a kind of fragile banding together process through writing the book.
NW: [Laughs.] If we can do it, anybody can! That does go to the idea of trying to understand my voice and to say, OK, Nicole is invested in word play and she has lyricism, that she works with. Because for me there were things that I wanted to incorporate into my writing that I learned from you like that sense of history you bring to the essays. This deeper sense of knowledge, where some of these ideas came from. Or when you’re traveling and you pay so much meditative attention to the ice or to the bird. Again, I flit around too much. It’s hard for me to stay in a place. And that’s one of the tenets of our book is to stay with the trouble so I really take how you are able to stay with an image and stay with a story and so I try, at least letter by letter, at least in this letter, even as I flit around inside it, I have to stay within that topic, and that has been really instructive to me. And I thank you for it. Because we balance each other out pretty nicely.
DC: We joke about it a lot. We pick up the book and I say, Ahh, that’s a beautiful bit of Nicole’s. Oh, mine. Not as good. But if we both wrote exactly the same as each other, there wouldn’t be any point in doing it together. If it works, then it’s because of this back and forth and that the relationship between the two voices and how we’re shifting in ourselves is never resolved. It’s got all these tensions and senses of movement and different senses of flitting or staying. And, I think that’s what I found interesting about the dynamic of it.
NW: One of our goals, we didn’t want to segment this book into—we just didn’t want to look at reefs or glaciers. The other thing we didn’t want to do is write a really gloomy book. Did we succeed? Is it gloomy? Is it joyful? Sometimes I worry that when I’m flippant and jokey that I’m being glib and not paying good enough attention to things. Did we end up making a less gloomy, less eulogizing book?
DC: We can’t really tell that can we.
DC: My fear, which is why I really loved your influence, my default tendency is to lecture. It’s a really gloomy situation in that lots of species are going extinct, and people all around the world are suffering the effects right now, in ways that we’re not. But then it comes back to the question of: Well what do you do with that? Well you need to organize politically but in order to do that you have to be able to hold on to the connection with joy and love and those things that make life worthwhile. That sense of bond and connection within us, between us as fellow human beings and friends is hopefully what counteracts the gloom. The sense of building things on a micro level and the endless possibilities of play and outside of a heteronormative relationship. I remember our editors at one point saying: “You have to be careful, it sounds like you might be having a romantic relationship.”
NW: And we’re like, where?
DC: And how do you enact a creative partnership and a playful endeavor that involves, in some sense, a kind of loving, but without it being a romantic relationship: that this is the kind of thing we could have with lots of people.
NW: I do think if there’s one thing we model—We create those relationships. Our relationship is outside the normal definitions. We’re not just friends. We’re not partners. We’re partners in the project. We’re creating things. There is this great love and great appreciation that is as important and intense to me that can be as, at times, as important as my relationship with Erik. Plus, we bring Linda and Erik [our partners] into our conversations all the time. It isn’t meant to be an exclusive kind of relationship that you and I have. It’s a totally an inclusive one where it’s not like: Linda and Erik, get out! It’s more like Linda and Erik, look at this! Are we being totally goofy right here? I don’t think all relationships can do that but it says to me that we can do this with more people.. An exponential way of spreading that communication around and intensive communication to a project, or to something bigger than us as an individual. That is the thing I’m most proud of that we did.
DC: That was beautifully put. That kind of commitment to a project in a bigger sense is which is: what is the world we all want to live in together? In our jobs [at universities], we put so much energy and enthusiasm into these things which can be counter productive, which can be using up energy, focusing on passing our KPIs [‘Key Performance Indicators’—management for meeting your targets] or whatever. It’s great to remind ourselves of what it is possible to do together.
NW: That kind of thing. That’s the mind-blowing thing, that is going to lead—if we’re able to make any kind of change, you have to think outside of what you normally think of as the proper rules or the proper situations. You have to go beyond the normal, easy version.
You know, [my previous book] Sustainability just came out [last year], it being a single authored book, it could seem like something that I’m more invested in it but I’m truly not because this book is a testament to what can be. Like you’re saying, the world we want to live in, and just having both our names on it is to me what writing really is. Writing to me is super-collaborative. Everything you write, you share with somebody, you know, your agent or your editor or your friends or your family and then they give you input and then you give the page some more input and it goes back and forth and to me, what we have done with the Roses and with our other readers (I don’t know if they know we call them the Roses?) just like we say in the acknowledgments, this is the real thing, this doesn’t come from one brain, and that sort of collectiveness is the beginning of some sort of solution. Not to think just of ourselves and our individual projects but our combined ones.
DC: But somehow that connection between the big picture and then the really small picture, that’s why, looking at plasmodia or things like that, just seeing how things operate at the tiny scales and how there’s always a connection between how things operate at the tiny scales and how they operate at the large scales.
NW: That’s why writing such a great way of thinking about climate change—the individual is not going to be the one person who saves us. I think we both recognize that even if you are the most sustainable person on the planet it’s not going to change the bigger thing. That the most important thing you can do is communicate, talk to, influence, excite somebody else about it. So as writing is our main platform, that says, we’re not only going to collaborate on our writings but on that larger project of motivating people and hopefully that ripple effect moves out further and further.
DC: Although we might collaborate again.
NW: I would hope so. We can do Z through A or 1 through four thousand million gillion. Then that won’t know when it will end.
DC: Or do the Fibonacci scales. Prime numbers?