James Bradley’s climate of fear
When he talks about fiction, James Bradley is insightful and affecting. He tells me there’s something extraordinary and possible about fiction, that it can help us to think about and understand the world. “Good writing has the capacity to crack the world open. You see things you haven’t seen before. Possibilities.”
We’re at his terrace house in Sydney’s inner west, where he lives with his partner, the novelist Mardi McConnochie, and their two young daughters. Behind his chair are floor-to-ceiling bookcases loaded with novels. Fiction, he says, gives things imaginative dimensions. “It’s fascinating to me that we, as a species, invest so much of our energies into things that aren’t true. Clearly fiction is a process we get something from.”
Bradley is candid and quick to laugh. His brightness belies the seriousness and urgency of his latest novel, Clade. Spanning 60 or 70 years into the future, the story follows three generations of one family as they learn to live in a rapidly changing, harrowing world. It’s a world besieged by climate change, pandemics, collapsing bee colonies, lost species.
Clade is a book Bradley had wanted to write for years. And it’s one that means a lot to him. “Climate change is a very big and abstract idea – hard for us to comprehend. The process of writing this book was a way of me getting to grips with climate change myself.” But it’s not just a book about climate change. “This book is personal in a lot of ways. It’s about kids and family.”
Success has followed Bradley through his writing career. His novels have all been shortlisted for, or won, major awards. In 2006 his international bestseller, The Resurrectionist, was chosen for the hugely popular Richard and Judy Book Club in Britain. As a way of making money Bradley started reviewing novels, by accident, he says. Then in 2012, the “accidental” reviewer won the Pascall Prize for critical writing.
In between novels there were bouts of anxiety about his writing. He felt stymied by his need for perfection. “I had a terrible time writing the two books prior to this.” Writing had started to make him unhappy. He stopped and started various novels, finished one that he hated and didn’t publish it. “Then with Clade I made a conscious effort not to predetermine what I was doing. I stopped worrying. I had to teach myself not to be frightened all the time, to trust the material. I’d forgotten how to do that.”
We talk about depression. Of his experience, Bradley says it is the formlessness of it that he hates the most. His voice lowers and the easy laughter leaves him. “I fear it. That sense of absence within yourself.” He tells me it’s not accidental that lots of writers and artists suffer from it. That in order to write, feelings need to be magnified, and perhaps you need to bruise easily, to have that kind of thinness of skin.
“Depression can be isolating, but it does give you a sensitivity to the people around you. It gives you an insight into a different way of being in the world. That’s useful for writers, but a tough way to get it.”
Bradley reads about 150 novels every year.
I’m baffled. As well as his professional life of writing, reviewing, blogging, and teaching at Faber Writing Academy – Bradley actively co-parents his two young children. School drop-off and pick-up, park excursions and swimming lessons are all part of his weekly routine.
How does he find the time?
“I don’t sleep much,” he says, laughing. “I read at night and write during the day.”
For Bradley, writing a novel is a process of discovery. “If you know what you want to say, it usually won’t work. You need to discover it along the way. Letting the characters be who they want to be, letting the thing emerge.” He pauses. “Writing books is such a long process. When it’s working well it’s like being hypnotised, that sense you’re barely there. You lose a whole lot of extraneous stuff that gets in the way.”
How do you know it’s working well?
“You just have a sense that it’s right, that it’s got energy, that it’s moving. Something about the textures of it – you can kind of feel it. There’s an energy to what’s coming out of you.”
What is it about good writers? Do they have a certain way of seeing?
“One of the things that makes writing feel really alive is that kind of electric noticing of things, that awareness of what’s going on – both internal states and of the world.
“Most of the time we go to a writer because there’s something about their sensibility we respond to.”
Since becoming a father, climate change has become more tangible and urgent to Bradley. He believes the planet needs to be better managed, starting with conversations about money, wealth and power. In Clade, he has brought together some of these longstanding anxieties.
Is the novel a warning?
He pauses, ponders, admits that it would be great if it were. But he’s wary of the idea of fiction trying to drive social change. He believes it’s the wrong place to start with writing. You write because you’re trying to understand something.
“I wanted the book to say that we don’t have to talk about the end of the world or paradise, because it’s probably going to be neither and both. And the future is still there for us to change.”
People often shut down when you try to talk about climate change, he tells me, but a shift is beginning. Climate change has entered people’s imaginations. And the imagination can nudge the world.
“If you give people something tangible – something they can engage with imaginatively – perhaps you can get them to shift their thinking a bit. Climate change is probably worse than most people realise,” he says. “I can’t make it stop, but I can write a book.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2015 as "Climate of fear". Subscribe here.