Sally Abbott: Cli-Fi and dystopic futures

The invention of the term ‘Cli-Fi’ has been variously attributed, but it was this piece by NPR in 2013 that took a niche fiction movement mainstream.

Cli-Fi, or Climate Fiction, depicts our certain ecological and environmental collapse. Nathaniel Rich, interviewed by NPR at the time, said the dystopian style became popular because “we need a new type of novel to address a new type of reality.”

That reality, of melting ice-caps and of a destitute barrier reef and rising sea levels, is a jumping off point to ask – can it get worse?

Sally Abbott won the 2015 Richell Prize for her vision of a future Australia under the strain of financial crisis and climate change. We speak with her about Closing Down and impending doom.

Tell us what inspired you to write Closing Down?

I don’t think there was any one particular thing that led to me writing Closing Down. I just seemed to have some stories and characters in my head that simply wouldn’t go away, no matter how hard I tried to ignore them. Clare, in particular, was most insistent. She was adamant Closing Down should be written.

What does the bleak future you present in Closing Down say about the world we’re living in now?

I suppose it suggests that living in the world is becoming, for many, more difficult and challenging:  some of  the many social, ecological and economic impacts of climate change are becoming more apparent; some governments are becoming perhaps less transparent and question marks are emerging over the traditional functioning of democracy; and while most people believe they are more connected with the world than ever before I suspect there is, in fact, far more disconnection than there has ever been. However, while the state of the world in Closing Down is certainly grim and uncertain and absurd, I hope it makes the point that human kindness, decency and generosity matter more than ever.

How did your former careers as a journalist and PR director influence the way you observe the world?

Journalism, in particular, teaches and reinforces the age-old lesson that every single person has a story, so listen carefully to the people you meet, ask questions, learn. Both careers are probably useful  for gaining insights into how the world works, or doesn’t at times. And both are certainly helpful for understanding deadlines, and just getting on with the task of getting something written.

What compels you to write about the environment?

I think I write more about landscapes than the environment per se. A landscape may be environmentally ravaged, of course, or thriving, but it is the details of that landscape that matter to me. It doesn’t matter whether I’m in a city, walking in the bush, or driving down a country road: I just like looking at things. And it seems very important to me to put that sense of place into anything I write: a smell,  a colour or a shade of a colour, heat or cold, light.

What compels you to write about dystopian futures?

Probably a sense of the absurd! Part of imagining and writing about the future is that you can pretty well have anything happen. Things can be as strange or unexpected as you can make them. I also think that helps the magical realism elements work within the narrative. The other  element is just asking “what if?” I mean, look at the state of play in the world today. So, what if you simply stretch out that scenario, or that one. What if X or Y happens. Trying to answer that, or just picture it, is part of what makes it interesting to write about a dystopian future. Having said that, my next book, which I have started to work on, is set in the here and now. Although, of course, anything can happen.

How did winning the Richell Prize assist in writing your first novel?

The prize was absolutely invaluable in several ways. Firstly, it gave me some confidence that the book was worth writing and finishing. I had lost my way with it a bit and to have some professional writers and publishers say, this is good, was huge for me. Secondly, it led to a publishing contract with Hachette Australia for the book and that meant I was given a deadline for delivering the full manuscript. And that meant I had to actually do it. Anyone who procrastinates as much as I am able to do will  understand how hugely important that is. Finally, I had the advice and interest of my publisher, Robert Watkins, and the wonderful team at Hachette Australia. Suddenly it all felt do-able. I think the Richell Prize, which was established in memory of Hachette Australia’s former CEO Matt Richell who died suddenly in 2014, is an extraordinarily generous and important prize for emerging writers and I would urge anyone with a few chapters of their first book sitting dormant on their computer to enter. You have until July 3.

Apply for the Richell Prize today! Enter here.

Sally Abbott appears at the following Emerging Writers’ Festival events: Writing The Environment; Literary Dystopias; Masterclass: Pitching In Publishing; The Next Big Thing; Faber Writing Academy Case Study.