Writing Fiction at the End of the World

Writer Adam Nemett on his new novel We Can Save Us All and being a novelist and a father during very dark times

What happens when the work of speculative fiction you’ve been writing for years is suddenly overcome by current events like superstorms and the 2016 election? For Adam Nemett, it was a little bit good and a little bit bad. Good because the world falling apart turned the attention of agents and publishers towards his manuscript. Bad because, well, the world was falling apart.

We Can Save Us All, Nemett’s debut novel, is set a few years into the future, at a time when the extreme weather driven by climate change has begun to truly alter daily life in a way that even the cosseted undergraduates at a place like Princeton University can no longer ignore. But instead of giving into the apocalypse, Nemett’s main characters — confused David Fuffman, outsider Haley Roth and the charismatic Mathias Blue — create something between a student cooperative and a paramilitary organization, and start training like-minded students for the end of the world.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Adam since we were both undergraduates at, yes, Princeton. He was one of the most creative people I met during my time there, and I can tell from We Can Save Us All that he’s just as funny and sharp as ever. I spoke to Adam about writing his novel, the fine line between a religion and a cult, and how to make climate change into art. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bryan Walsh: How long had you been working on the novel, and where did the ideas come from?

Adam Nemett: I guess, time-wise, I started writing this in the fall of 2005, which is not something I’m necessarily proud of, but it is the truth. I would love to say that I put it aside for six years and then picked it up again, but no. I’ve been giving it pretty consistent effort over the last 12 or 13 years.

I had been reading a lot of the English literature and world literature canon at the time for MFA-type work, but I always found myself gravitating toward any number of nonfiction topics, and in this case, it was kind of inspired by a documentary I saw on the History Channel called “High Hitler.” That’s H-I-G-H. It was about all of the drugs and a good portion of the Nazis, but specifically Hitler, the crazy amphetamines and cocktails of drugs that they were pumping him up with at the time.

That was sort of the genesis of that first piece, thinking about a very charismatic, very unhinged and drug-addled leader during a really stressful and catastrophic period of history. In this case, I was also looking at climate change and mass flooding. What would happen if a leader ascended to power amid that kind of backdrop? Someone who was maybe somewhat brilliant, but also completely unhinged and driven by some sort of cocktail of drugs. That’s where it started

So it took a while to kind of go through all of the literary steps, but then I think frankly it was the election of 2016 that shifted something. People started getting back in touch with me, and it was something suddenly less speculative.

“By the time my kids are 70 or 80, the sea level rise is going to be 5, 6 feet higher than it is right now and they’re going to have a whole different set of issues that go well beyond just water in the basement.”

Bryan Walsh: Climate change obviously plays a major role in your novel, which is set in a near-future where extreme weather events have become even more common than they are today, almost apocalyptic. I’ve written about climate change as a journalist, and I’ve always found it a difficult subject to illustrate in art. How have you managed to make climate change real for people?

Adam Nemett: Climate change is so nebulous, it’s so long-term. The narrative analogy that I went with is a frog in a boiling pot, both for climate change and also about joining what I call for lack of a better term a “cult.” The idea is that part being in a cult that you don’t realize it’s a cult until too late. That mimics the same frog in a boiling pot metaphor of climate change. In both cases, short term, it’s kind of giving me what I want, and then somewhere down the line, too late, I realize I’m in too deep and boiling. That’s where we’re at on climate change too.

Bryan Walsh: Do you think the movement your characters create is a cult? That word comes with such pejorative meaning, and sometimes it’s just used to dismiss any kind of activity we find compulsive and distasteful.

Adam Nemett: I keep coming back to, “What is a cult?” If we say, “Oh, it’s something where there is a charismatic leader that everyone follows,” that’s almost every religion that has a prophet, you know? You could say that about Christianity. If it involves some kind of sexual abuse where the more powerful members take advantage of the weaker ones, you could say that about the Catholic church right now, you know? Is that a cult?

Bryan Walsh: So where do you draw the line?

Adam Nemett: I think what I’ve come down to is that the thing that defines a cult is the inability to leave, the extreme lengths cult leaders take to make it so that you cannot get out. It’s might be hard if your whole family is Christian or Catholic or Muslim and you say, “I want to renounce this religion.” But a cult would be a different thing altogether.

In a lot of ways , I don’t see what the students create as a cult. It’s envisioned very differently by its three different figureheads. You have David, who I think sees it from a very practical, operational point of view. This is a great way to gather people and get them prepared for what’s going to come with climate change.

I think for Haley, it’s a very personal way to come into her own power after it was taken from her brutally in a sexual assault. I think for Matthias, he legitimately believes that it is his charge to save the world through some kind of sacrifice of other people, as well as an exaltation of himself. Those are three very different motivations. I think all three of them have a certain major foundation of selfishness built in, whether it’s profit motive or self-aggrandizement or whatever. But I think at the core, each one thinks, “This is going to save the world. This is really going to help.”

Bryan Walsh: Do you think as climate worsens, you’re going to see people looking for more extreme answers or solutions?

Adam Nemett: I think regardless of what time we live in, people crave authority. Either they want to be a top or a bottom in that scenario. Either they want to be the dominant authority figure that everyone else is following, or they want to kind of relinquish that accountability and follow someone else.

That’s maybe a way we can do it. It’s not just who can find the last can of beef stew on a shelf somewhere and murder everyone around them to hold onto it. Is there a better solution than the Mad Max hellscape we’ve all seen in movies? That’s sort of the best-case scenario. And then, what inevitably happens is that people as they’re building up their own authority in this one way, they’re also handing over their authority to the institution and to a set of figureheads — in the book it’s Matthias. Suddenly their will is gone before they even know what’s happening.

Bryan Walsh: Is the future a place that scares you?

“If you’re paying attention, you’re probably taking some precautions. You can’t necessarily rely on the government. That’s where self-reliance comes in.”

Adam Nemett: Yeah, I certainly have fears and I think those fears get exacerbated when you have kids, which I do. It’s one thing to be a lone operator and imagine you’ll survive no matter what. It’s very different when you have a family relying on you whom you love. You’re worried for that next generation in a totally different and more specific way than a sort of vague: “Oh, what about the next generation?”

Bryan Walsh: Right, it’s no longer theoretical.

Adam Nemett: Right. I feel like I myself am probably going to be okay. I’m pretty well set up right now and I live on highish ground and I think I’ll be okay. But by the time my kids are 70 or 80, the sea level rise is going to be 5, 6 feet higher than it is right now and they’re going to have a whole different set of issues that go well beyond just water in the basement.

So I am scared about it and I think that’s part of why I wanted to write this. I think it was my way of sort of figuring out for myself whether I would want to exist in that world. You and I went to Princeton and we’ve spent most of our lives being able to do high-minded work. But frankly, if you’ve spent your whole life working on a PhD in 18th century French poetry and that’s your number one focus, that’s going to serve you maybe less well than if you really know how to rebuild small engines, or grow food, or something similar.

So you have this sort of class warfare, or the sort of gulf that exists where on certain levels we kind of elevate the liberal arts, while the idea of trade schools are thought of as less important. I think that could be completely flipped on it’s head if the power grid collapsed or there was a pre-apocalyptic type scenario where you really need to rely on yourself for basic human needs.

Part of going through the writing process made me realize how limited my education is in all of its expense and awesomeness. I loved Princeton. I had a great time. I met amazing people, and I learned a ton. I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. But it does make me think as a father and as a person in the world right now, it would be good to learn some more practical skills and be able to be more self-reliant if the power goes off for seven days at a time, as it does in the novel.

Bryan Walsh: Was the novel always going to be set in Princeton?

Adam Nemett: In the beginning, it was set in college, but I made up a fictionalized university. At the end of the day, I thought “Why am I inventing universities? Let’s just set it at Princeton.” I think there’s something useful both from a narrative perspective and from a social commentary perspective about just situating it somewhere particular. And Princeton is what I knew.

Bryan Walsh: I also think that place will survive the apocalypse. I mean that mostly seriously. I think as an institution Princeton is more secure than the United States of America, probably.

Adam Nemett: Yeah totally, and I think a lot of places like that that are sort of privately owned or privately driven. I saw a saying somewhere: “If you’re not building a boat, you’re not paying attention.” If you’re paying attention, you’re probably taking some precautions. You can’t necessarily rely on the government. That’s where self-reliance comes in.

Bryan Walsh: The novel is set in 2021. Do you think of it as speculative fiction?

Adam Nemett: I certainly did 12 years ago. Part of the weirdness of doing this over a long period of time is that what I was writing about felt more and more plausible. I’d start off imagining what felt like a strange scenario for the future, and in the last year or two of writing it became: “Oh, we’re probably about three years off from this.”

So, I don’t see it as speculative in any sort of “what if” sense. I see it more as this is probably going to happen, and what’s one way we could deal with it?

“If the Earth is done with us, she’ll just throw us off and keep going.”

Bryan Walsh: Do you feel optimistic about the future ultimately? What do you imagine yourself telling your children about the future they’re going to grow up in?

Adam Nemett: My day job is working at a company called the History Factory where I write these books about companies that cover 100, 150, 200-year expanses of time. It’s changed my view of the timeline, turning down the volume on those five-year increments we tend to focus on. Over such a long period of time a corporation could fail any number of times in any number of ways. But the ones that survive figure out a way to improvise and adapt. I think that’s certainly what humans do.

Even reading about the 1960s, you see what a truly messed up period of time that was. Everything seems like a disaster. I was reading Clara Bingham’s book, Witness to the Revolution, and I was thinking “Wow, there’s a lot of parallels but I’m really glad we’re at where we’re at right now. I wouldn’t trade places, and despite a lot of steps back I feel like we are trending in the right direction.”

I think there’s going to be a collective mental shift that’s going to happen over just the next generation among those who are actually going to be alive in 2100, where self interest is maybe going to work in our benefit. It might be because of a scientific breakthrough or innovation. Maybe we’ll all upload our consciousness into AI cyborgs and go off into some sort of ether. We’ll find a way out and I think the Earth will definitely find a way.

If the Earth is done with us, she’ll just throw us off and keep going.

Bryan Walsh: As has happened before.

Adam Nemett: Yeah, but I’m generally optimistic that while the status quo as we know it is toast and there are going to be a lot of really difficult painful changes that we have to adapt to, I think humans have shown an ability to adapt and improvise and survive.