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For Woman At Heart Of 'Weather,' Storms Loom Over Every Horizon


Let's ask Jenny Offill to share some of the style in which she tells her new novel, "Weather."

JENNY OFFILL: (Reading) When I get home, the dog wants an ice cube. I give her one, but she keeps banging her bowl around the kitchen. There is a heroic tower of folded things on the table. I spot my favorite shirt, my least-depressing underwear. I go into the bedroom and change into them. Now I'm a brand-new person. On her third day of marriage, Queen Victoria wrote, my dearest Albert put on my stockings for me. I went in and saw him shave - a great delight. My mother calls and speaks to me of the light, the vine, the living bread.

SIMON: "Weather" is narrated by Lizzie, a university librarian who sometimes seems to tell her story in short bursts like phrases to remember on an index card. It is the third novel from Jenny Offill. She joins us from the studios of WAMC in Albany. Thanks so much for being with us.

OFFILL: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Did you develop the style to tell the story or did the story you want to tell dictate the style?

OFFILL: I think that because I did want to talk about some sort of swirling concerns that Lizzie has, I wanted to make the book kind of literally atmospheric. So it's broken up into small pieces, but it's not broken up into chapters. And that gives it sort of a feeling that what concerns her, what moves her, what interests her kind of eddies in and eddies out at different points. And that's the way the book is structured.

SIMON: Lizzie, we'll explain, is married to Ben, a classic scholar who now makes video games. And there you have the story of modern academia.

OFFILL: Indeed.

SIMON: They have a son, Eli. And I made a note. You go from Eli dipping his markers into a bowl of water, trying to revive them, to a note - really almost an epigram - that New York City will have life-altering temperatures within 25 years. Now, that's just one sentence right into another. Did an editor ever say, that doesn't go?

OFFILL: I think there are more and more people who are finding that their daily concerns are also sometimes being overlaid with very grand structural and systemic concerns. And certainly something like wondering about how we're going to deal with the future of climate change is something that you could think of only in a classroom or when you read the newspaper, but I think it's also sort of seeping into our everyday things. If you are cutting an apple and you've just read an article, and it says, apples need frost, you might suddenly use that as a springboard into thinking of the bigger picture. And that's what she does.

SIMON: Lizzie is convinced apples will disappear, too.

OFFILL: Well, there's been articles. I feel like they're actually trying - people have nobly tried almost everything to get people to care more about climate change. So it's like, you're going to lose your coffee. You're going to lose your chocolate. You're going to lose your apples. So that was one of the ones that came across.

SIMON: She takes a job. A former professor of hers named Sylvia offers her a job answering her correspondence that's mostly produced because Sylvia has a podcast that makes her a lightning rod for all kinds of opinion, doesn't it?

OFFILL: Right. She has a podcast called "Hell And High Water," which deals mostly with climate change and ecological emergencies, but also with some of the sort of rising tide of political despair and polarization. So she - as she becomes more and more famous, she asks Lizzie to take over answering the questions. And the questions range all over the board. Some of them say things like, how does the last generation know it's the last generation? Why do humans like applause? How can I prepare my children for the coming climate crisis?

SIMON: What effect does this have on Lizzie?

OFFILL: Well, I think it starts to bring these concerns which perhaps she'd only thought of abstractly or sort of intellectually - they start to have a more visceral impact on her. She starts to wonder, what does it mean that she's quite the caretaker of her own family and those very close to her, but she doesn't really ever feel like she has enough time to think about what responsibility do we have to the rest of the world, not just our own people?

SIMON: As someone who works in a library, I found myself wondering, has all she read given her a sense of empathy, too?

OFFILL: Well, as someone who both loves to read and loves libraries, I always loved that idea that it increases your empathy. I hope it does. It certainly, I think, gives you a place to go in your imagination where there's great vistas and great possibilities. And it seems to me some of the things that, you know, we're struggling with as communities and as a country we are going to need imagination to solve. So the library seems as good a place as any to go to.

SIMON: Jenny Offill talking about her novel "Weather." She left us with one especially useful tip from her book. If you find yourself in the middle of a catastrophe, she says you can start a fire with just a battery and a gum wrapper and make a candle from a can of tuna.

OFFILL: The key is that you have to use oil-packed tuna. If you try to do it with water-packed tuna, it won't work. But if you stick a wick into one that's oil, then, yeah, it's a mini candle for you, and you can eat the tuna afterwards. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.