The epic struggle of our time – pitting characters against the climate storm

Apple blossom to illustrate hope in cli-fi Image by Ruby and the Blue Sky author Katherine Dewar

Like Amitav Ghosh, I’m fascinated by the role of novels in exploring climate change.  Though over 100 have now been published, collated here on GoodReads by Karl Friedrich Lenz and by Dan BloomAdeline Jons-Putra and Ted Howell and among others, they tend to assume we fail, using a climate-ruined world as a dystopic setting.  As literary scholar Howell asks, “where are the utopian visions of the future?”  Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior is a notable cli-fi exception, as a contemporary story of hope in the struggle, and I’m on a constant look out for more.

My fascination became an inspiration, so I recklessly centered my debut novel in the heart of the climate storm.  As a theme, it proved compelling and rewarding to write about, pitting my characters into everyday dilemmas against an epic backdrop.

Ruby illustration from the cover of Ruby and the Blue Sky by Katherine DewarLike many young people, my protagonist, Ruby, vents her frustration at climate inaction one weekend.  Less commonly, as a Grammy-winner, she has the power of “the mic and a global feed to millions” when she does.   Her words inspire a greek chorus of eco-groupies to chase and chivvy her to do more than speak out. Nevertheless, Ruby at first feels powerless to make a difference, as do most of us in our climate-wrecking society.

Responding to climate change, or not, is essentially an inner conflict, generally expressed as an external one.  It disrupts our everyday decision making if we choose to let it.  If it’s raining, will I walk the 800m to buy a pint of milk or will I take the car?  Will I fly or spend an extra day travelling and take the train?  Will I buy an imported mandarin because I love their citrus zing or settle for a local apple’s crunch today?  Good climate choices can often still be more difficult, inconvenient, or expensive, so dependent are we on fossil fuels.

Climate change isn’t something we can attack; it mostly requires us to exercise restraint in what we buy or what we do.  It requires us to relish the heady pleasure of the wind in our hair at 10km/hr on a bicycle rather than 100km/hr in a convertible, to extend Ghosh’s metaphor for cultural desire.  It is an daily struggle in our hearts against a threat we can barely imagine, until the local river floods or our rains fail.

Externally, powerful forces, including the oil and coal giants and much of the car industry, are obvious in preferring our dependency.   Even as I was making final edits to Ruby and the Blue Sky, my feminist climate change thriller, new evidence of the oil giants’ duplicity was revealed.

Less obviously, our whole economic model, founded on consuming, is pitted against the finite loveliness of Earth.  To meet even the Paris climate change targets we’ll need to do more than switch to buying fair trade, organic stuff.

In my business-life, our team support organisations working to be less bad and there is work internationally to shape businesses that benefit society and nature, as well as shareholders.  In my political life, I volunteer for a Party striving to move my country onto a footing our land, rivers and oceans can endure, where everyone has enough to eat.  I undertake both these roles carrying a silent scream inside me; while everything we are doing is worthy, it is not enough and far, far too slow.  Writing my novel let the silent scream become a cathartic, urgent roar.

But I like to entertain and polemic alienates me personally as a reader so, while it’s based on fact and science, you won’t find complex climate explanations in the pages of Ruby and the Blue Sky.  You will find a story about the epic struggle for power over our climate future and the sacrifices it asks of all of us.

I found, in the heart of writing it, the potential for humility; a humble remembering that while we have altered the future of our planet, we are just a temporary beast on its surface.  Our lair is overheating under the blanket of gases we have made and, like Ruby, each of us must decide how much more hot air we’ll tolerate.


Ruby and the Blue Sky


Ruby and the Blue Sky is a feminist, climate change thriller. Katherine Dewar‘s debut novel, it’s a tale of fame, power, sacrifice – and tea.  Where to buy >

The three things I’m getting asked most, as a new author

Katherine Dewar - notebook with work in progress towards her next novel

It dawned on me yesterday that, as an indie author of six months, I could see a trend in what I get asked about writing my first novel, Ruby and the Blue Sky.

The most common question is ‘how long did it take?

Really I want to answer ‘a lifetime’. It feels two blinks and a heart beat since I was writing Hobbit fan-faction featuring giant spiders aged 10 and since I gave Crime a human form. There’s a been a lot of practice since then and a lot of learning. Much of it under the talented tutelage of Dame Fiona Kidman in her classes that later became a Whitirea Polytechnic course. I’ve had a couple of dry runs at novel writing, photocopied and shared with  whanau. One whispers to me from its box under the spare bed. One day it might entice me to unleash it on you.

Nicola Patrick and author Katherine Dewar
Nicola Patrick interviews author Katherine Dewar

What people really want to know is how long did it take me to write the 75,000 words that are this novel and, implicitly, the 75,000 more that were scrapped along the way.  The collection of scribbles that became Ruby and the Blue Sky started to accumulate in my notebooks around 2010. They settled around the ‘What if?’ question. What if someone with mass popular appeal really worked to lead change?  As I’ve written int he guest-blog here, the novel didn’t take shape until the following year, when I visited Leeds and the city crystallised the scribbles into the drafts that became the book.

I set it aside for most of a year at one stage, finding myself failing to progress either the manuscript or a non-fiction publishing project, an online course in ethical marketing. Once the course was launched, I revisited the draft with fresh eyes and the novel is better for its fallow time.  By December 2015 it was written, rewritten and a year of major edits complete. From then til I published took another six months of research into how to self-publish, commissioning the cover design, proof-reading, copy edits, layout, file formatting, completing tax forms and launch organising.  So, about four years writing, very part-time, around running one business and launching another, and six months to publish, all told.

The second most common question has been ‘how much is autobiographical?

Ruby illustration from the cover of Ruby and the Blue Sky by Katherine DewarWhen people have read the novel, this is frequently focused on the music; Ruby, the protagonist, fronts a band, singing and playing guitar. I don’t do either but it pleases me immensely I could imagine it well enough to make Ruby so convincing.  The only elements drawn from my life are a passion for nature, living in Leeds, which I did for nine years, and working in groups to make change, which I do to this day. The rest is made up. Except for climate change of course. THAT IS ALL REAL, whatever the US president might think. All the science is as accurate as I could make it, including the geo-engineering.

Thirdly, and easiest to answer; ‘are you writing another one?

Yes, dear reader, I am.

Katherine Dewar - notebook with work in progress towards her next novel