Monday, December 12, 2016

An interview with Vanderbilt professor Edward Rubin, author of the climate-themed novel THE HEATSTROKE LINE

Literarily Speaking

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Edward Rubin! Can you tell us where you are

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York.

Q: How did you come up with your title?

The basic purpose of the book is to envision the future of the United States if
we fail to take action to slow down global warming. A number of books about
disastrous futures have addressed this issue, but none, so far as I’m aware,
depict the basic problem, which is simply the increasing heat levels. In my
book, average temperatures have increased to the point where the southern
part of the U.S. is virtually uninhabitable. That area is described by the
characters in the book as being “below the heatstroke line” because people
suffer from heatstroke there if they are outside for any extended period. This
in fact happens to the main character during the climax of the story. The
original title was “Under the Heatstroke Line,” which is where most of the
action takes place. But I decided that the book should have a shorter title.

Q: They say you can judge a book by its cover. Can you tell us a little about
your cover and who designed it?

The cover depicts part of the book’s climax, where the main character has to
walk over a mile in the part of the U.S. “below the heatstroke line” and in fact
suffers from heatstroke. He is walking alongside young girl with a blood-
covered leg, but I won’t give away that part of the story. What I can tell you is
that the reason the buildings along the street where they are walking look so
dilapidated is that this part of the country (it’s Birmingham, in the former
state of Alabama) has become so hot that only a fraction of its former
population remains, and they have been reduced to poverty. The drawing was
done by Emma Podietz, a highly talented friend. She had already done the
cover for an academic book I edited, and was about to do a second; both
designs received raves from my co-editors and from the publisher, Cambridge
University Press. I came up with the basic idea for The Heatstroke Line cover
and Emma did a wonderful job of bringing it to life. Just before the book went
to press, I traveled down to Birmingham to make sure my descriptions of the
setting were accurate. I called Emma from the street where I envisioned the
scene on the cover taking place and described it to her over the phone. She
got it exactly right.

Q: Can you tell us something about your book that would make me run out and
buy it?

Everyone who has read the book has enjoyed it. People who know me in my
professional capacity, which is a professor of law and political science at
Vanderbilt University, were surprised that I was able to write a work of fiction
with a well-constructed plot and convincing characters. They were also
surprised, since I have a generally affable disposition, that the book contained
a number of violent and horrific scenes. But that’s part of the message and it
sustains the action.

Q: Are there any messages in this book that you want the reader to know

The book is centered around a message, which is that our country will suffer
catastrophe if we fail to take action to slow down global warming. I think
many of the climate change deniers, who now include the President of the
United States and a majority of the U.S. Congress, think that increased
temperatures will only cause suffering in remote tropical places. They are
tragically wrong; if the process continues at its present pace, our coastal cities
will experience repeated inundations due to storm surges, average
temperatures during the summer months will render the southern part of the
country (where climate change denial is currently most prevalent) nearly
uninhabitable, and droughts will devastate our agricultural production. The
resulting population dislocations, economic decline and disaster-related
fatalities will subject our political system to enormous stress. I doubt it will be
able to survive in its present form, and that is what I depict in the book. If
there are any nations that will benefit from increased temperatures, it isn’t
the U.S. but more northerly ones, such as Canada, Greenland, and Russia. I
also depict this in the book. The U.S. has broken up into small, warring
principalities and it is dominated by a more populous Canadian nation, which
has taken Alaska away from us. The book was written to confront people with
the reality of the oncoming disaster, and to induce them to take action to
prevent it.

Q: What was your most favorite chapter to write and why?

The longest one, Chapter 18. It would be hard for me to single out any other
chapter; the book tells a continuous story and each chapter follows from the
previous one. Chapter 18 is the exception. It consists of the first part of a
novel written by one of the characters in my book, a teenage girl named
Deborah, who lives “under the heatstroke line” (see “Deep Dark Secret”
below). I noticed that most books that predict a disastrous future (a genre
often called post-apocalyptic science fiction) use the disaster to clear away all
the governmental control and technological complexity of modern existence
and tell an adventure story. I wanted to confront people with the reality of a
world where global warming hasn’t been forestalled, so I don’t do that. My
characters have to deal with all the problems of modern life; the change is that
those problems are much worse, and their capacity to deal with much reduced.
But Deborah’s novel is a piece of typical post-apocalyptic fiction, envisioning a
world where small groups of people live inside an enormous underground
computer that controlled the previous society, while the surface of the planet
has returned to being a primitive jungle. It was huge fun to write something
that made use of all the tropes of post-apocalyptic science fiction, and to write
it in a narrative voice that wasn’t my own, but rather the voice of a character
who’s completely different from me.

Q: Why did you feel you had to write this book?

I find it hard to believe that so many people in this country deny the fact that
climate change is occurring and that it will have such disastrous consequences.
If a doctor told you that your child would suffer a debilitating disease unless
gave the child a preventive medicine, and nineteen out of twenty other doctors
that you consulted agreed with that same diagnosis, would you even consider
ignoring their advice? The only possible explanation for our failure to join
together and take some sort of decisive action is that we believe other
countries will suffer, but not the United States. My book is designed to bring
the reality of climate change home to Americans. We Americans are the main
impediment in the world today to the creation of a responsible, international
effort to rescue our planet. If we continue to play this role, there will be a
world-wide catastrophe and it will destroy our way of life as well as the lives of
people in other countries.

Q: Now, some fun questions - What deep dark secret would you like to share
with us?

In the book, the main character is a professor of entomology who travels to the
American South (below the heatstroke line) to combat an infestation of two-
inch long flesh eating insects. Once there, he is captured, forced to work in a
laboratory, and placed in the private home of a family with two daughters.
The older one, Deborah (her younger sister is the girl on the cover), is an
enigmatic, astonishingly perceptive person who is able to make the main
character realize things about himself that he never knew. To his surprise (she
is plain-looking and much younger than he is) he falls in love with her. To my
surprise, I fell in love with her as well. I found myself engaged in imaginary
conversations with Deborah, I dreamt about her at night, and I felt a sense of
desolation whenever I reminded myself that I would never meet her. But I
realized that Deborah had done something for me that was similar to what she
did for my main character. In writing this book, and struggling to create an
engaging story filled with real people, I realized things about myself that I
never knew before.

Q: If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

I am fortunate enough to have the time and money to travel wherever I want.
If I am traveling by wish, rather than in reality, I guess I would pick a place that
is currently closed to me for political reasons. Since that’s no longer true of
Cuba, and I don’t really want to go to North Korea, here’s a less-than-obvious
choice. The city of Norilsk, in northern Siberia, appears on nearly all the lists
of the world’s most polluted places. The reason is that it was built around a
gigantic nickel smelting plant and the Soviet Union never bothered with
environmental controls (nor does Putin, so far as I can tell). Most of the other
places on the most polluted lists are in warm climates, but Norilsk is brutally
cold. No one would live there if it weren’t for the nickel mines and the
smelting plant. So picture this: Norilsk is so far north that the sun never rises
during the winter months, the daily temperatures often run around minus
twenty or thirty degrees Fahrenheit and the air is filled with deadly nickel
fumes that have killed all the vegetation (such as it is) for miles around. I
would like to see how people manage in this miserable place and what they
think of it. But, for obvious reasons, the Russian government doesn’t want me
to know that.

Q: Are you a morning person or a night person?

I am night person. This book, like most of my academic scholarship (I’m a law
professor), was written during the hours of ten in the evening to three in the
morning. I chafe against the “early to bed, early to rise” American schedule. I
much prefer Italy, where dinner is at nine or ten and the streets are filled with
people past midnight.

Q: Are there any members in your family who also like to write?

My daughter, now studying to be a biologist, also writes fiction. She gave me
excellent advice about the novel, and also about a follow-up short story that I
wrote for an anthology on climate change by the same publisher.

Q: As a child, were you a dreamer?

I was, and I still am. Wordsworth says: “My heart leaps up when I behold, A
Rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a Man; So
be it when I shall grow old; Or let me die!” That’s the way I feel.

Q: Last but not least, the magic genie has granted you one wish. What would
that be?

Our nation is facing many problems. I would like to see us united around
serious and conscientious efforts to solve these problems. Climate change is
real. We should work together to save our environment in ways that don’t
decrease our prosperity. Automation will eliminate millions of low-level jobs in
the coming decades. We need a much better education system if we are to
find work for people in a high-tech world. Too many people in our prosperous
society lack basic needs such as food, housing and health care. Even if you
think that people should earn what they need, can there be any justification
for denying these necessities to innocent children? That is unfair, and it breeds
social problems such as dependency and crime. We need to find ways to give
every person born into this society a fair chance of succeeding in it. An
insanely high number of our citizens are in prison or otherwise under the
control of the criminal justice system. We need to find alternative ways to
change undesirable behavior that don’t ruin people’s lives, put enormous stress
on government budgets, and create social hostility that probably increases
rather than decreasing crime. I could ask the magic genie to simply solve these
problems for us, but I don’t need such a powerful genie. We can solve these
problems ourselves. All we need is the will and the commitment to do so.

Q: Thank you so much for this interview! Do you have any final words?

Although my day job is as a university professor writing factual work (at least I
hope it’s factual), I believe fiction can be a powerful force for good. It can
encourage people to sympathize with those who are different from them, alert
them to dangers that they may not recognize, and impel them

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