New Climate Fiction Author Sarah Ruiz-Grossman’s Favorite Cli-Fi Books

This Earth Day, settle into "A Fire So Wild," Sarah Ruiz-Grossman's debut novel about the societal impacts of climate change.
"A Fire So Wild" is Sarah Ruiz-Grossman's debut novel.

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In January, the European climate agency Copernicus reported that the Earth was on track to break annual global heat records, the latest undeniable symptom in the climate crisis. One month after this report, Sarah Ruiz-Grossman released her debut novel, “A Fire So Wild,” adding to the vital voices in climate fiction, a literary genre marked by notable works such as Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 “Parable of the Sower.”

As a former HuffPost reporter, this isn’t Ruiz-Grossman’s first foray into writing about the environmental predicament and, more specifically, about how climate change affects the population unequally and leads to further social injustices.

Informed by this breadth of knowledge, “A Fire So Wild” tells the story of a wildfire overtaking Berkeley, California. We observe the Bay Area city through the perspective of characters who possess vastly different socioeconomic statuses and access to resources, yet are interconnected in some way. As the blaze transforms homes and precious wildlife into ash and the city’s residents are left with the scorched aftermath, readers truly understand that natural disasters, though indiscriminate, never hit everyone the same way.

Shortly after the book’s release, I had the opportunity to hear Ruiz-Grossman talk about her novel alongside the creator and host of “The Stacks” book podcast, Traci Thomas, at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. Appropriately nestled in front of a live tree growing at the shop’s center, we listened to Ruiz-Grossman explain the ways that works of fiction like hers can impart necessary commentary on the climate crisis in ways that nonfiction cannot.

Here is some of their conversation, followed by a few of Ruiz-Grossman’s recommendations on climate fiction.

As a HuffPost journalist, you reported on the climate crisis. How was this transition into writing something fictional?

I was feeling the call to have a project outside of my journalism as I was isolating, not socializing with anybody, so I started working on fiction. And this felt like the only story I could tell. It was that fifth year of seeing the fires get worse. And just this past summer, I went to New York, which is my hometown, and there were orange skies blanketing our city for the first time. There was just no closing your eyes to this anymore. What I was able to do with the fiction that I couldn’t do in my reporting is that, in your reporting, you’re telling a very narrow story. It’s the story of this one fire and this one community. These stories are important, and sticking to facts are important, but there’s a lot more truth you can get in fiction in the ways that you thread in the relationships and the lives of people, and how those are impacted not just on this one day and the aftermath and the policies, but who are they as people before leading into a disaster like this, and who do they become on the other side of that? Because that’s going to be all of us at some point, affected and changed by this.

I just read a piece by Matt Salesses in Literary Hub about climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” that the genre has been heralded as this tool for kind of sounding the alarm on what would come. He goes on to say how we’ve had time for these warnings, and now cli-fi needs to serve a new purpose because the future we’ve been warned about is already here. So I’m wondering what you think about your work entering that space?

There’s a fine line when you’re writing something that’s both present day and dystopian. I found it hard not to be too heavy-handed with the politic because so much of it you want to feel infuriated and moralistic or self-righteous, and I don’t think that makes for good fiction or good politic. I hope that this book doesn’t feel like it comes in from on high as though I figured out what it is that we’re supposed to be doing or how we’re supposed to live our lives in this moment. I think what I hope it does is puts questions into all of our minds of how we’re supposed to live, how we can be our best citizens in this moment, knowing that we are making decisions every day that put our comfort ahead of what is best for the planet.

When you’re writing, are you writing toward a question? Or how does the question come to you in the creative process?

I think I’m always writing toward the same question, which is, how are we supposed to live this short, precious, insane existence in this really fucked-up society? And I think that question never gets answered by the work, but it is a way of being in community with other people and with other questioners and examine how the characters [in the book] are put in the world to see what decisions they make and see how that shakes out. Because that’s all we can do, right? Be community with each other and struggle to do our best.

In the book, you write from different character perspectives, about seven or eight characters. Why did you choose to do that?

I was really uninterested in writing a climate story from just one perspective. I feel like the story shouldn’t be what happens to this one family. It’s about how are the structures of our society baked-in so that even though the effect of the disaster is indiscriminate, the aftermath and recovery is. And that is all pre-existing historical and ongoing structures of inequality, race and class and how we create our cities and who gets placed where and who has access to insurance that places them in a hotel after a fire and who has nowhere to go and gets stuck in a shelter. So I didn’t ever consider telling the story from just one of those perspectives. The story that’s worth telling is one in which we’re all complicit in the society that we accept. The politicians, we continue to vote for who just keeps the status quo in which those inequities are what’s going to happen on the other end of each one of these disasters every single year.

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