Author Interview: “Hopeful climate fiction helps change ideas about climate change,” says Rajat Chaudhuri 

Climate fiction writer Rajat Chaudhuri was at Kunzum for the signing of his new book “Spellcasters”. Kunzum caught up with him for a brief chat on his books, climate change and what he likes reading. Some excerpts:

Bhavneet: Let’s begin with your writing style. Your sentences are very short and abrupt, and they almost feel like bullets. Was that intentional? 

Rajat Chaudhuri: It depends on the scene and what is happening in the story. What I usually do is, when I’m writing noir scenes or if there is a fight involved or some very tense scenes, then my sentences are like machine gunfire, they help shorten the length of the sentences. That’s what they do. But when the story moves slowly, when, suppose the character is going up on a hill and staying alone, then the sentences naturally become longer, and I have more detailed descriptions. So, it always depends on the setting of the story. That’s how I choose. And because this book begins with action, so you will find at the beginning there is a very short, staccato beat. 

Bhavneet: Is this inspired by something or someone? 

Rajat: Well, I did read a lot of pulp and noir at some point of time, Raymond Chandler and all those people, so that might have been an influence. But it comes naturally also. You find that when you are describing a fight scene or a very tense scene, naturally your sentences will become shorter if you want to make it more interesting, if you want to get the reader absorbed in it. So, there’s some naturalness to it, but that noir, hard-boiled influence is also there. 

Bhavneet: Your stories are mostly about climate fiction. How are you mixing crime and climate change? 

Rajat: There have been studies about this also. Climate fiction is actually a very big ‘super genre’ kind of thing. It’s like an umbrella. And it can include everything. There is realist fiction under climate fiction, and there are adventure stories, like Liz Jensen’s one example. She has written a very engaging adventure fiction which is also climate fiction. And because I have this attraction for strangeness, for crime, so maybe that’s how adventure and crime come into my travel fiction. 

And then there is a lot of climate crime also happening, like industries hiding their pollution and things like that. They come in indirectly into my stories. So maybe those two ways it’s kind of joining together in my fiction. One is from my background or liking for adventure, low probability events, and things like that, what happens in Arabian Nights, for example, where the plot moves very fast, but the reader is still engaged. That is one way it comes into my fiction. And the other thing is there is a lot of crime involved around the environment. I try to boil those down into a character and then tell my story. 

Bhavneet: Is climate change a huge problem for us? Is it something that people need to worry about a lot more than what they’re doing right now? 

Rajat: Absolutely, it’s an existential crisis. There have been 5 pathways that have been designed and the most probable pathway to the future is horrendous. It’s horrible. Large parts of the earth will become uninhabitable. Many species will die. Humans will begin to die. When the heat events lead to death it’s called heat, depth. Heat death is a common word, but there’s something called the Wet Bulb Thermometer Temperature. So if it goes close to 40° in the wet bulb thermometer, then people begin to die if they’re not in an air-conditioned room. Kim Stanley Robinson’s new book begins with this. So many kinds of horrible things will begin to happen very soon, and it’s already happening. People have to migrate because of climate change. People are dying from heat death. Agricultural productivity will also fall after a certain amount of temperature. So it’s a serious existential crisis that we’re facing, and drastic measures are needed which are not being taken yet. So, you know how slowly the world moves. The future looks very dark, but it still has some hope, which is why I write.

Bhavneet: This book mixes crime and climate change. Are you planning to write a book that is wholly about climate change? 

Rajat: I am trying to write a book which is talking about hopeful stories around climate change. I have already edited two such books. These are called Solar Punk Fiction. Solar Punk is, as you know, where solar energy is very important, where communities are strong, where non-humans like rivers, and animals are at the centre of the plot. We have already edited two such books. And I am now trying to write a novel along those lines. There’s hardly any being written in India. However, studies show that hopeful climate fiction helps to change beliefs and ideas about climates among people rather than dystopian fiction. Dystopian fiction turns people off from the issue, even though the people do get entertained. That’s what studies find. But there are problems with the studies also. I can go deeper into that. 

If you think about the Buddha, for example. Those five sights that he saw led him to leave his home, and he then founded a world religion that might have saved many people with spiritual upliftment and all those things. So, darkness is not always bad. Dystopia can also lead to spiritual enhancement. It can move people to action also, but for a large number of people in this country, or anywhere, hopeful stories work better. So, I’m trying to write one. It’s very difficult because fiction always needs conflict, and action and the character has to develop. If you’re writing hopeful fiction, how do you do that? There are new kinds of schemas being tried out by writers, mostly in the West, but here also some of my colleagues are writing those kinds of stories. I haven’t seen a novel yet, but short stories are being written. And I do want to do that and that’s my next plan. 

Bhavneet: What kind of research went into this book?

Rajat: A lot of it. This book has a psychological layer. The main character is kind of breaking up. Two things are happening in this book: One is the Earth is falling apart because of climate change. There are avalanches and other things… the Delhi smog is a big character here. And also, a person is splitting up, not in the sense of schizophrenia, but he is kind of getting dissociated. And to develop that character, because he is at the centre of the story and holds the story together, I had to do a lot of research. I made friends with a senior psychiatrist who is based in Delhi, Dr Anurag Mishra. He is the founder of the Indian Psychoanalytic Society and had long sessions with him talking about patients, what the symptoms of this kind of illness are and what can that kind of person do. And I was beginning to walk in the shoes of this character. At times, my friends also found me behaving strangely. This happens when you’re writing a book, you kind of try to enter the skin of the character. So, that was a major research. I didn’t need to do a lot of research for the climate part of the book because I have been working as an activist in this field for a very long time, so I know. I have read the science, I mix with activists, I write about climate change in newspapers and stuff like that. But for that psychological layer, a lot of research was involved. 

Bhavneet: So how long did it take you to write this book?

Rajat: I’m a very slow writer, so my previous book took five years and this is almost like that. It took me four or five years because that was published in 2018. This was published in late 2023 or early 2024. In between I didn’t publish any novel, but I edited and translated books. So yeah, it takes around four to five years for me to write. 

Bhavneet: So what do you think is the importance of reading in one’s life? 

Rajat: It’s one of the most important things we can do. Stories are important. Stories remain with us for a long time. There’s this anecdote, actually it’s a true story. There was a conference in Europe a few years back where each participant was asked to tell a story to the next person. And they did that. Then a few years later, the two of them met at a railway station and they couldn’t remember each other’s names, nor at which college each other was from. But they remembered the stories they had told each other. So stories are like that, they are very sticky, and that’s why reading is very important. 

Especially when you are reading climate change because this kind of book helps to pass along the climate message and helps people to connect with the climate message. It helps people imagine what a climate change future could be, and in certain cases, many people have shifted their ideas about climate change. Some have even begun to take action after reading some of these books. And there are good studies to back this. I’m not talking off my hat about this. Studies by the likes of Matthew Schneider-Myerson and others show that some of these books are leading to changes in perceptions, beliefs, and ideas… those who are cautious have become alarmed. Those who are alarmed have begun to take action in their own small ways, maybe by cutting down consumption. 

So, reading climate change is very important, and reading every other kind of book is very important too because it increases your knowledge, it helps you to understand about people who are very far away, people you won’t ever meet. It opens up your mind and makes you more liberal. All those things without books, there is nothing else actually. Like what else? Just entertainment. What else is left in the world? Work, entertainment and more books. 

Bhavneet: How much time do you spend daily reading?

Rajat: When I’m writing fiction regularly, my reading comes down, but then there are large gaps when I’m only reading. So my average would be about four to five hours in a day. Other than reading books, I read papers, you know, scientific papers, journals, and such things. If I add that it will be six to seven hours and then six hours of writing. In six hours, someday you produce 500 words, someday you produce 200 and on good days, it’s 800. It takes a lot of time. You have to play the story in your mind. You have to think about what the character will do and then write a few lines. You cut it and then again edit it. Six hours would be my average. 

Bhavneet: Would you walk us through your writing process?

Rajat: It depends. It varies from book to book. Usually what happens is after I finish a book, I go on vacations, meet people, go out to bars, have a drink and mix with people generally. And then suddenly an idea began to form in my head and then I wondered if it connected with my politics somehow, which, at this point, is climate change. Usually, it builds around a character. I think of one character who can carry the story forward, which is forming in my mind and then I write it. When I’m writing a chapter I don’t think much about editing it. I do edit my novels, but that’s much later and that may lead to 5-6 versions of the novel I have written. But when I start writing I go on. Sometimes I do plan what will happen in the next chapter, but usually, I kind of know the beginning. And very vaguely know how the story will end. But other than that, the story just meanders, and I let the book write itself, as Hemingway says it. So yeah, I do that kind of writing. 

Bhavneet: You don’t create character maps? 

Rajat: Yeah, I do create character bios and character maps which are very important actually. Even if those things don’t come out in the story, I have separate bio files at least for four or five of my main characters. I know where he went to school, what are his beliefs and ideas, what kind of food he enjoys, and where he goes for vacation. All of that doesn’t come into the story, but if you have that in your mind you know when two of these characters interact, how they will behave with each other, and what kind of dialogue they will have. I always do that. And how these characters connect when the novel becomes very complex, you have to have those maps, otherwise your character begins with brown eyes. And then in the middle of the book, the colour of his eyes becomes yellow, and many other different kinds of problems happen. It happened in one story that I had written. It was based in Amsterdam and was something like a fantasy science fiction kind of novel. 

So, I was writing the euro as the currency, but my editor pointed out that the story was set in a time before the Eurozone came into being. It was Guilders then. So those kinds of mistakes also happen. If you don’t have character bios, character maps and some of the basic, you know, things connected to the setting of the novel. I do all of that, but I don’t use any software for writing. You know, there are new software that people use for novel writing that might be easier, but I haven’t tried anything. 

Bhavneet: So you don’t use artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT or anything?

Rajat: It has just arrived. By the time I finished this book, AI was just arriving. I might use it, but I will always check back with encyclopedias and other authoritative sources, I would never use it to become more creative or improve my writing in any way. I don’t think it makes sense. Human beings are much more creative than AI at this point, but we don’t know where it’s going. 

Bhavneet: So what kind of books do you read when you’re reading? 

Rajat: I am a very eclectic reader and I read anything from non-fiction to Bengali novels to old classics. All of those. Right now I’m reading a lot of climate change climate fiction. 

Bhavneet: Can you give us five books that you think everybody should read? 

Rajat: When I am asked this question, I usually mention climate fiction nowadays, so I will mention five climate fiction novels that are very important, I think, and which might help to change our perception, beliefs and ideas. One is Amitabh Ghosh’s The Great Derangement is a very important novel. It’s not a novel, it’s a non-fiction. Then Liz Jensen’s Rapture. It is a very important novel. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior is another important book. From India, there’s hardly any climate fiction being written here which can kind of be branded as climate fiction because they deal with many other issues also and these are important books too. So, Anita Agnihotri’s The Sickle was originally written in Bengali but translated by Arunava Sinha and it’s in English now. And of course, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Bhavneet: What kind of crime fiction do you like to read? 

Rajat: Very dark noir, you know, hard-boiled. I don’t like cosy mysteries. I prefer hard-boiled fiction. The Raymond Chandler kind of fiction. Those are still my favourites. 

Pick up Rajat Chaudhari’s “Spellcasters” from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

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