Part Skeptic, Part Believer: A Conversation with Cai Emmons
Climate change gets plenty of news coverage these days, and speculative fiction has long been a place to find stories set amid harrowing, post-apocalyptic worlds destroyed by global warming. But it is rarer to find a work of fiction set in the present-day that focuses on the current state of natural affairs. On November 13, Red Hen Press will release Weather Woman, the ambitious third novel by Oregon-based author Cai Emmons, which takes a nuanced, disturbing view of one of the most pressing issues of our time.
Central to Weather Woman’s story—a plot at once realistic and fantastical—is Bronwyn Artair, a thirty-something Atmospheric Sciences grad student turned meteorologist, who discovers on a fateful hiking trip up Mount Washington that her deep affinity for the weather has given way to an ability to control the weather. What follows this discovery is a whirlwind of action (much of it generated by Bronwyn) that spans the country’s embattled landscapes, from Tornado Alley in Oklahoma to the raging wildfires of southern California, and eventually lands Bronwyn on a research trip to the Arctic, where she almost dies attempting “to assist the tundra, help it thrive, restore it to the way it’s been for millennia.” A noble, if dangerous and perhaps impossible, pursuit, one that ultimately forces Bronwyn to recognize her own inability to save the planet. While the novel is topically about natural forces, it is also an intriguing examination of how women wield power.
The author of two other novels, His Mother’s Son and The Stylist, Emmons currently teaches fiction and screenwriting at the University of Oregon.
I recently spoke with Cai via email about creating a fictional ability rooted in scientific theory, what it means to be a woman in the world, and what it’s going to take to reverse the momentum of climate change.[Don’t miss a special Rumpus signed book giveaway of Weather Woman, available through October 31! Details here. – Ed.]
The Rumpus: How did the idea for Weather Woman come to you?
Cai Emmons: I’ve always been really excited by extreme weather events. When I was a kid growing up in the Boston area we would go up to the attic to watch hurricanes and we thought of that as great entertainment. The same was true of the two-foot blizzards that sometimes kept us home from school for days. It was a lark—not dangerous, just fun. Along with that excitement was a feeling that I was sometimes so attuned to the weather that I could almost imagine that I was changing it. So the character of Bronwyn has deep roots in my childhood and, for reasons I can’t exactly pinpoint, she surfaced now.
Rumpus: What was the process of writing the novel like—did you know the story arc beforehand or did you figure things out as you went? Or a bit of both?
Emmons: One of the surprising things is that when I first started the book I was writing about a male meteorologist who had this power. Then someone suggested I turn him into a woman, and I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t begun with that idea. When I made that change, the story took on a whole new urgency. I’m sort of embarrassed to admit this, because I now see the book as being first and foremost about female empowerment. I honestly have no idea what that other book would have been.
I felt my way along during the writing, without seeing the end in advance. New questions kept cropping up about what it would be like to have such a power, how secret or open you would be, how isolating it might be, how hard it would be to talk to others, etc. Those questions just kept leading me forward, and I really loved being in that process of discovery right alongside Bronwyn. The end posed some problems because I really didn’t want to write a simplistic superheroine story with Bronwyn saving the world. Noodling out the ending put my imagination into overdrive, in part because I was writing about a place, Siberia, where I’d never been.
Rumpus: The book stirs up many timely themes, one of the biggest being women’s power—how, when, and why women utilize (or don’t utilize) their strengths—but it also takes on how power is used by men and corporations. Whereas Bronwyn is willing to risk “losing her toes, her life, [risks] never returning to the self she’s been” in her attempt to heal the earth, in contrast, we’re shown men and corporations who want to gloss over the catastrophe at hand (or worse). Why push gender politics to the forefront of a novel about climate change?
Emmons: I didn’t begin the book with the idea that I was writing about climate change. I was focused more narrowly on writing about weather and how we interact with it as humans. But of course, if you begin to think a lot about weather, you very quickly start thinking about climate change.
I am interested, in both my writing and my life, in what it means to be a woman in the world, living in a woman’s body and usually relegated to second-class status. I have this idea that women possess a phenomenal amount of power that many men are afraid of, a power that rumbles beneath the surface of day-to-day life. This power may originate with female reproductive power, but it doesn’t always manifest in that way. Women are often the invisible force behind so many operations—families, work groups, social groups. Men are often the figureheads, but it’s the women who are doing massive amounts of work and keeping things organized behind the scenes.
Bronwyn has had this rumbling energy since she was a child, but she hasn’t fully understood it. Diane, her mentor, recognizes that she possesses something special but also can’t identify it accurately. So the novel charts the emergence of Bronwyn’s power and follows her path to recognizing and claiming it. I see this as a common progression for women—it often takes almost a lifetime for us to see and claim our true power.
The melding of climate politics and gender politics was also not exactly a conscious choice but more a matter of constructing a world that mirrors the one we currently inhabit in which men do predominate in the halls of power and often act out of self-interest, and women are often engaged in acts of healing and nurturing. I was aware, at some point in the writing, of having created some fairly unpleasant, blindered, and even downright mean men—Bronwyn’s boss Stuart, her mentor Vince, and Retivov, most notably—but there are also some men in the book who I think are quite wonderful—Earl, Matt, Diane’s husband Joe, Archie. It’s interesting to me that these likeable guys don’t have much worldly power. I think that reflects my own experience—many of my favorite men have very little power in the world. They aren’t alpha males. I am drawn to humility in all people, men and women.
Rumpus: How did you go about developing Bronwyn’s power of controlling the weather?
Emmons: This was the one of the biggest challenges in writing the book. It was a classic case of needing to get the reader to suspend disbelief, to accept that Bronwyn can really do this, as far as we know, unrealistic thing. I wanted it to seem almost believable scientifically, but of course it isn’t, so…
First, I read a lot about meteorology, about the brain and neuroscience, and about physics. I became really fascinated with the idea of entanglement. Einstein is famous for having first observed entanglement and calling it “spooky action at a distance.” The way I understand it—and I’m not a physicist so I’m simplifying wildly—is that when subatomic particles have interacted in any way, they thereafter always influence each other in some observable, measurable way. I began to extrapolate what that might mean in terms of human interactions. And then I went on to read things about how the roots of trees transmit information about things like water availability to the roots of nearby trees. And all of this made me begin to understand that we’re living in a world where all around us are these massive, invisible transmissions of energy. Even thought is a byproduct of energy, of atoms firing. And then I ran across the idea of coherence, how when atoms are oscillating synchronously there is great energy efficiency and therefore a greater overall force in that energy. I read about these things with an eye to how it might apply to humans.
So, I developed this pseudo-scientific idea that Bronwyn harnesses colossal energy within her own body and is able to transfer it outward. Each time she does this, she moves into a kind of trance state and loses herself. She does this a number of times throughout the book, so I had to make sure that those passages weren’t repetitive, while also making it clear that the process she was undergoing was the same.
Rumpus: If you possessed Bronwyn’s power, would you use it?
Emmons: Great question! Yes, I think I’d use it to do some band-aid work that could buy us some time—you know, slow down global warming while we’re still guzzling fossil fuels. I’d probably focus on both poles, refreezing the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and refreezing the permafrost to keep the methane impounded. I might also try to lower the ocean temperatures, and maybe I’d bring on rain in places that have been facing unrelenting drought, but slowly so as to avoid floods. And I might try to teach others how to activate the power. Once I got going it might be hard to stop!
Rumpus: Will you talk a bit about the struggle between belief and skepticism, as it applies to the novel, and how you decided to write the various ways in which people approach that which they do not understand?
Emmons: That is such a relevant question these days! So much fake news on the loose. I have my trusted news sources, but sometimes I wonder why I believe them so wholeheartedly. How should we decide what and who to believe? The importance of that question kind of crept up on me unexpectedly as I wrote. Life requires us to be part skeptic and part believer. It would be a disaster to believe everything we see or hear, but it would be equally crippling to believe nothing we see or hear. We have to have some kind of barometer for identifying true news, true scientific fact, but how do we find that barometer? Should it always be fact-based, data-based? Are there times when intuition is enough of a reason for belief?
Bronwyn realizes very early that most people are not going to believe her claim that she can change the weather. I wanted to show characters along a spectrum, some believing her very quickly, intuitively, like Lanny, Nicole, Earl, Lyndon Roos. Then there are others, like Vince and Stuart, who are never going to believe in her power no matter what they’re presented with, not even if they see her in action (similar to many climate change deniers). And another group believes her when they see what she can do with their own eyes. Matt and Joe are in this category, as is Diane, though she still wants more data before she is all in. I hope readers will consider where they would fit on this spectrum of belief and how they decide what to believe.
Rumpus: Would you consider yourself a believer if you observed a scenario like Browyn’s? Why or why not?
Emmons: I was at a wedding recently and I got into conversation with a woman I’ll call Cindy. She described to me a situation she had witnessed. A Native American woman had “stopped the rain” in order to allow a ceremony to go forward. They conducted the ceremony and as soon as it was over, the rain resumed, according to Cindy. She was amazed, but she did not question that the woman really had stopped the rain. Cindy believed what she’d seen without question. I, listening to her, wasn’t sure what to think. I have to admit I was skeptical.
If I encountered Bronwyn, I think I would react like Matt or Joe. If I witnessed her changing the weather with my own eyes, especially more than once, I would definitely believe in her ability. I listen to and trust my body’s messages and my senses, probably more than I ought to. I often make up theories about all bodies based on my own.
Rumpus: You must have done quite a bit of scientific research for Weather Woman—how challenging was it to incorporate what you learned into a fictional work?
Emmons: As I mentioned earlier, I did a lot of reading about science. I began with a twenty-four-lecture series from Great Courses called “Meteorology: An Introduction to the Wonders of the Weather” taught by UCLA Professor Robert Fovell. That was essential. Then I went on to read books about physics and neuroscience and a bunch of books about climate change. There is a wonderful book on clouds called The Cloud Collector’s Handbook, by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, that I still consult frequently. I am eager to reread Craig Childs’s book Apocalyptic Planet, in which he visits places around the world like Greenland and Tibet and the Atacama Desert of Chile, places that are changing rapidly and are case studies for where the planet is heading. I knew the novel needed enough science for credibility but there was a danger of overloading it with too much scientific fact, so I looked for balance.
I tend to do research after I’ve begun working out a story so the research is somewhat focused. I don’t think I’ve ever done research without having taken lots of story notes and written a number of pages beforehand.
Rumpus: Did you enjoy the research process? It seems like it might have been really depressing, given the current thoughts on the direction in which climate change is headed.
Emmons: I did enjoy the research! One highlight was going on a trip to Greenland at the suggestion of glaciologist and climate scientist Jason Box. He was the resident scientist on the trip and has since become a friend. We were there in late June and above the Arctic Circle, so it was light 24/7, and the strange blue quality of that light was truly ethereal. And so many icebergs! I’m really glad to have seen the Arctic while there was still plenty of ice.
Was the research depressing? In a way, yes. There’s no question that the Earth is moving rapidly in the direction of becoming uninhabitable for humans, and we’re doing very little, nothing meaningful at least, to stop that progression. In the time that has elapsed since I began writing and researching this novel, I’ve begun to see human extinction as inevitable. I think there will be a time in the not-too-distant future when extreme weather, floods, fires, drought, famine, disease, etc. will have killed us all. Strangely, I’m not sure that matters. Are we humans really so great? Am I a traitor to my species?!
Rumpus: Is there any hope for the future?
Emmons: Well, for things to improve significantly, people and nations would have to begin cooperating on a scale we’ve never seen before. That would require a radical change in human behavior that I have trouble envisioning. Near the end of Weather Woman, the Arctic fox says to Bronwyn: “Where are your people?” His message is that she can’t do this alone, cooperation with others is essential. Can we cooperate to the necessary degree? I’m not confident that we can.
Photograph of Cai Emmons © Paul Calandrino.