Claude Nougat is an outstanding storyteller who has written several books that are among my favorites, including the Forever Young series and Crimson Clouds. But before becoming a writer, she had a very colorful career at the U.N. Born in Brussels, she is a true citizen of the world who has made her home in Europe, Africa, and the U.S. She currently resides in Italy with her husband. She is also an accomplished artist, as this cover art she created for Forever Young amply demonstrates.
Thanks for joining the discussion, Claude. I always enjoy talking to you. For a starter, pronouncing European names correctly (from the page) is difficult for many Americans, including me. Phonetically please tell the readers the correct pronunciation of your first and last names.
Don’t tell me you can’t pronounce “nougat”, such a wonderful sweet, my favorite at Christmas! Okay, here goes: the “au” in Claude is like in laud(atory) and not clod! Nougat sounds like noogah – don’t sound the “t”!
That’s easy enough. Okay, lets talk about Climate Fiction, AKA Cli-Fi It seems to be the hot new emerging genre for storytellers and, not surprising to me, you seem to have your fingers directly on its pulse. Your futuristic series Forever Young, while technically not Cli-Fi, certainly does have climate destruction as one of its central motivating themes. The earth is dying and the main characters are searching for a place ‘somewhere out there’ where they can hit the reset button. As an accomplished storyteller, what excites you about the new genre of Cli-Fi?
The built-in suspense! Some people insist that global warming is a fib, but who cares? From a storyteller standpoint, it’s a gift from a wrathful God. The setting of your story is under water (like in Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow),
invaded by insects (like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior). It’s just a way to turn the screw and get the best (or the worst) out of your characters…
Yes, it always comes back to good storytelling regardless of the genre. What do you feel are the most common misconceptions about cli-fi?
That it is a way to push the agenda of climate activists. I do think that’s a pity because it is a bona fidae literary genre in its own right, regardless of anyone’s views about global warming. Cli-fi is not a genre meant to push a political agenda. In my view, it shouldn’t be and indeed, it has shown that it can accomodate all kinds of views about climate change. At least one major cli-fi novel, Michael Crichton’s State of Fear was definitely on the side of climate change deniers. He describes climate activists as “eco-terrorists”. But the problem remains.
Climate activists hope that cli-fi, by pulling emotional strings in readers, will get people moving where cold, hard scientific facts about climate change leave them unmoved. Maybe so, but as I said, that’s a shame. I really don’t think you need that dimension as part of a definition of Cli-Fi to make it a viable genre, on the contrary.
My personal observation, especially as a filmmaker who has made many films concerning the environment, is that pollution control and effective conservation practices are very high on the public’s priority list, and has been for many decades. Few readers enjoy being lectured to, so what can storytellers do to keep Cli-Fi from becoming an agenda rant, yet still provide a strong narrative platform?
Any novel that tries to lecture is not a novel in my book. The message is implicit, it cannot be forced, it must come naturally, evolving out of the plot and NEVER be the subject of a speech by one of the characters – unless the plot demands it, of course.
Amen. Along those lines, what are the human elements of Cli-Fi that you think contribute to compelling storytelling?
Cli-fi puts characters in extreme situations.The characters are forced into a corner, what they do (or don’t do) next, will determine their survival. That brings out their qualities (eg. bravery, imagination) or their defects (cowardliness, stupidity), so expect to see some very strong characters!
A basic element of good storytelling is that the protagonist must have something vital at stake. Cli-Fi seems to offer this in spades. What are your thoughts about this?
What could be more vital than have one’s very life at stake? In a flood or a fire, you run the risk of losing everything you love, your house, your dearest possessions and of course your loved ones – not to mention your own life. But you have to realize that in cli-fi novels, this is not just any disaster: cli-fi is about the collapse of what one is used to. That feeling of familiarity is important, suspense in cli-fi works particularly well because it happens in a world that is familiar to the reader. The apocalypse is not something happening on a distant planet or in some unimaginable future. It is happening in the near-future – or at least at a time that we can imagine easily because it is similar to our own. That’s what makes it always so scarily plausible.
Well put, Claude. I don’t think it’s ever been explained so precisely. share with us your thoughts on the special ingredients of a Cli-Fi story that might not be found in other genres.
Special ingredients? Yes, there are specific features that you find across all Cli-Fi novels, above all, in the characters. In Cli-Fi novels – I’m only speaking of the good ones, of course – characters are never stereotypes, they are very “human”. For example, the young mother who lives in a poverty-stricken part of the Appalachian mountains in Barbara Kingsolver’s Cli-Fi novel, Flight Behavior, is incredibly real, you can identify with her, you worry along with her, you root for her. That is an essential “ingredient” of Cli-Fi, that feeling of familiarity. The novel’s setting is one of apocalyptic collapse, sure, but what makes Cli-Fi so special is that there’s something else at work here – not just sheer collapse and terror. The world in a Cli-Fi novel that is coming apart is a world you recognize, a world that you know intimately, and the people who struggle for survival are people that you know, they could be your friends, indeed they could be you. In Cli-Fi, Man is placed at the center of the plot.
Some might say that Climate Fiction is a contradictory term that undermines the important issue of climate control by labeling it as fiction. What are your thoughts on that?
Climate control? That is not a term I associate with climate fiction. Actually, the term “climate fiction” is a contraction or shortening of “climate change fiction” and it merely means fiction where climate change is given a major role, either primary, like in Ballard’s book, Drowned World, or secondary like in my own book, Forever Young. Incidentally, Ballard’s book was first published in 1962, well before the climate change controversy began!
Yes, that makes more sense to me. I know that climate and/or environmental destruction is something you personally feel very strongly about. It’s also something our generation has witnessed during our lifetimes. Contrast the world today to the world you knew as a child. Is it better, worse?
I know what you expect me to say, that it’s worse! Well, no, at the risk of surprising you, I don’t think it’s worse or better. It’s very, very different. I remember walking in downtown Brussels when I was a child, and there was nearly no traffic. Blissful peace! And you could walk into a restaurant without booking and always find a place. The economic rise of the middle class has meant that millions have today the kind of life I was lucky enough to have been born into. So that’s good, very good. But what worries me is something else: in the last 20 years, something strange happened. The rich got richer, the rest didn’t move up along with them. I noticed it but thought I was wrong, but now we’ve got statistical confirmation that this is indeed what is happening. The difference between the rich and poor is as wide today as it used to be back in the 1920s and at the time of the Robber Barons, and it’s growing. I’m not making this up, all you need to do is read Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century,
he’s shaken Wall Street! It’s a huge book, a compilation that he put together over several years and with the help of many graduate students and fellow professors. And the verdict is in: the 99 Percent vs. the One Percent is not the result of some feverish imagination. And that is what has really changed since I was a kid! And to be honest, that’s a change I don’t like.
Couldn’t agree with you more. We absolutely have entered a new age of robber barons and the politicians and the news media totally ignore this fact because they are members of the One Percenters. I thought you addressed this brilliantly in your Forever Young series. Which leads me to my next question: Cli-Fi at first glance wouldn’t seem to offer opportunity for much humor. But a story without humor, even a drama, is pretty dull reading (I wrote a post about humor in drama on this blog). In your books you employ an almost Hitchcock-like dry humor that I love. What’s your thoughts about humor in Cli-Fi?
Hitchcock-like dry humor? Bob, I’m immensely flattered! Yes, humor is important, especially in the face of adversity. Drama is too and I believe cli-fi is well suited to provide a stage for both…
Do you see story and character development being different for Cli-Fi than other genres? If so, how?
No, sorry, I see no difference. These are stories of love and death and suspense, and the characters are tried to their utmost…Which is exactly what you want from any good story regardless of genre.
What unique storytelling opportunities does Cli-Fi provide?
Unique? Whenever you are dealing with the collapse of the familiar and well-known, you have a unique opportunity. I think Stephen King understood that very well: he is not dealing with cli-fi but with supernatural horror stories and he is always careful to start his novels with a highly familiar setting and everyday characters, people like you and me. This is how he draws you, the reader, in, and that’s how cli-fi authors also draw their readers in.
That’s a good comparison. Hitchcock was also a master of this. Take an ordinary guy, put him inexplicably in a corn field, and have a crop duster try to kill him. Totally bizarre way to kill someone but we don’t think about that. We’re too busy gasping and screaming. How about you? Do you have any Cli-Fi books in the works?
Yes, a sequel to my Forever Young. All my characters are waking up from hibernation 400 years later. Those who have opted for space travel will find themselves on the Forever Planet, one thousand light years away, a planet that is supposedly pristine and green the way Earth was before industrialization – yes, that’s the way it’s supposed to be but of course they’re in for big surprises! The others will wake up in an unfrozen Antarctica that looks a lot like the Japanese archipelago (that’s what’s said to be under all that ice!) and get ready to resettle Earth where life by now has gone extinct. How will they all fare? To find out, you’ll have to read “Forever Young, 400 Years later”!
Yes, I’m waiting impatiently to get my hands on it. What Cli-Fi books and/or authors do you admire the most?
I love Michael Crichton, though his State of Fear was perhaps not his best novel and I find Nathaniel Rich’s tale about New York under water highly compelling and extremely well-written – and of course, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel I just mentioned. But I have only started reading cli-fi, there are so many fascinating titles, you can find them on Goodreads or on the website run by a small Canadian press that features cli-fi novels with the intriguing sub-title “climate change in literature”.
Do you have additional comments you’d like to add about Cli-Fi?
A: One last remark: some people see cli-fi as a “literary” genre. For example, for the Christian Science Monitor, cli-fi is about a “dystopian present, as opposed to a dystopian future”. And they further admonish: “don’t call it science fiction. Cli-fi is literary fiction.” Well, maybe. Though I would argue that the best science fiction has always been literary, think Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, both scary, full of suspense and…literary masterpieces! To be honest, so far I don’t think cli-fi has produced the equivalent but it may very well do so one day!
And one last comment: thank you so much for having me on your wonderful blog, I’m honored!
Thank YOU, Claude. I always enjoy hearing your views on the craft of storytelling, which you have certainly mastered. Those of you interested in learning more about Claude and her books, please click here.