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Ghost Species: In Conversation with James Bradley

James Bradley on the power of speculation in storytelling, for our Sydney Writers' Festival coverage.

The resurrection of the extinct gives James Bradley’s latest novel Ghost Species its title. An introspective tale of connection and loss, the novel ruminates on man’s relationship with nature after scientist Kate Larkin is caught up in a covert project to bring back the Neanderthals in the midst of climate catastrophe.

James Bradley is an award-winning author and critic. An Honorary Associate of the Sydney Environment Institute, he is also a prominent voice in our current climate change discourse, having written various non-fiction articles and essays about the issue.

I had the pleasure of speaking with James ahead of his two appearances at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on 29 April and 1 May.

Leo Su: What was your experience like writing Ghost Species? How did you first conceptualise the novel?

James Bradley: When I first came up with the idea, I’d been thinking a lot about a series of questions about climate and collapse and our kind of inability to visualise or imagine disaster, that sense that we find it very hard to think forward into worlds that are radically unlike our own.

I began writing Ghost Species just about the time my dad died. And then I kind of floated through the next couple of years. I was doing the editing for it while the bushfires were burning through the east coast and the city filled with smoke and then my mum died just as it came out. I mean, it was very much framed by that kind of personal loss and hastening environmental disaster.

It’s very difficult to think about climate change; it’s some kind of overwhelming environmental crisis you can’t get your head around. One the things I think fiction does effectively is that it gives us those frameworks, it gives us a way of imagining our way into that kind of loss by exploring it at a human scale.

LS: On that note, speculative fiction is very broad as a genre but obviously there’s been a developing body of work which is specifically engaged with questions about our current environmental crisis. What are your thoughts on the term ‘climate fiction’ or ‘cli-fi’?

JB: I think one interesting thing that’s very exciting over the last five years is watching more and more kind of fiction that’s explicitly engaged with climate change coming out.

I’m not particularly convinced by the idea of climate fiction as a genre. I mean, the climate crisis touches everything in our lives and culture. It seems to me more like a condition such as modernity—it’s something that is everywhere.

And it seems to me that all fiction now is kind of climate fiction because it’s part of our world, it’s the inescapable fact that’s going to shape our lives over the next century. Some work is more explicitly engaged with it than others, but the climate crisis touches everything. In a weird kind of way, even not writing about it is a way of writing about it since you’re obscuring it.

LS: Speaking of the climate, you’ve written very-well informed essays like ‘Unearthed: Last Days of the Anthropocene’ but you’ve mentioned in the past that you consider yourself to be an “educated layman” as opposed to an expert. What’s your approach with translating science and technical information in your novels? How much research do they involve?

JB: When I’m writing fiction, I take a fairly free and easy attitude to science in regards to what I want it to do for the book rather than to be accurate. But certainly in all of my books, I do a lot of research. In fiction, you want to do enough research to feel and look as if you know what you’re doing. You want to get yourself to a point where in a sense you don’t have to show your working. You do the research so that it’s there in the background and you know you have it under control but you don’t want it on the page, you don’t want to be throwing it at people or showing off all the detail all the time.

In a weird way, it’s slightly the opposite process to non-fiction where you really want to depend on knowing everything accurately and being very clear and methodical.

LS: You’re appearing on two events at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival including one where you’ll be speaking in conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson. How are you feeling?  

JB: I’m really excited about it. I think Stan is one of the most important writers working today. He’s someone who has spent particularly the last 10 or 15 years thinking really deeply about questions of climate crisis and the connections between capitalism and the future.

But yeah, I’m really excited for the Festival. It was very sad when last year’s got cancelled so I think there’s a real hunger for people to get out and engage with each other again.