books climate change

Interview: William Sutcliffe on energising and positive climate fiction

Over the holidays I read The Summer we Turned Green to the kids at bedtimes. It’s by William Sutcliffe, aimed at an early teenage audience, and it’s funny and wise and well observed. We rather related to it: it’s about a family involved in an airport expansion protest, as we are in Luton. And while the town in which the book is set is unnamed, Sutcliffe admits that it is a “Luton type place”.

What I particularly liked about the book though is how it talks positively about climate action. Many climate-inspired novels bring the environmental threat to the foreground, but going big on the drama of fire and flood risks either denial (that could never happen) or despair (we’re all doomed). The Summer We Turned Green picks a third way between those outcomes, focusing instead on ordinary people rising to the challenge and working together across the differences that divide them. I talked to author William Sutcliffe about what inspired the book, and what role storytelling has in addressing the climate crisis.

Could you start off by giving us the ‘elevator pitch’, on what the book is about?

William Sutcliffe: “It’s about a family who find themselves over the road from a climate change protest camp. The teenager daughter, on the first day of the school holidays and without telling her parents, jumps ship and moves into the camp. It’s about how the family react to that, as they find themselves on a road that is symbolically divided between the people who want to save the world, and the people who just want to carry on as before and can’t acknowledge that there’s a problem.”

What inspired the book?

“My emotional connection to the book, and the ideas behind it, were directly inspired by my teenage son going on a school strike with his friends. He’s very interested in politics and talks about the climate with his friends. They feel it very deeply. For my generation, however much we understand it, we don’t quite feel it in the same way. That generation knows that they will live the real consequences of this, in a more visceral way than my generation knows that.”

“That’s why Greta Thunberg is such a powerful figure. There are lots of people who can communicate facts, but she is this lightning conductor for the emotion behind it and the urgency.”

There are points in the book where child characters get their chance to speak to the media and communicate with the world. I was struck by how much hard-hitting climate truth there is in what they say. Did you draw on the speeches from Greta and the climate strikes to get the tone of that right?

“Very much so. I watched her videos and I read her book Nobody is too Small to Make a Difference. It’s about the tone of it – when you see her deliver her speeches, it’s the power of the way she speaks, that incredible clarity. The other thing I really admire about her demeanour, and it’s the thing that makes her a hate figure to some, is that she cuts through the crap. It creates a sense of urgency – this is not a time to be polite, or to be over-awed by the fact that you’re in the UN or surrounded by famous and important people. It’s very impressive the way she does that, and I took that and used it.”

“There’s a character called Sky who is important in the book. It’s her lack of concern for fitting in and being normal or polite, her willingness to break the rules and be herself, that allows her to do the right thing in certain situations, when she needs to get attention.”

You have these rather hard-hitting sections of the book, where it’s really blunt about climate change. How did you balance the need to keep it fun and accessible with the need to – as the title of one chapter puts it – ‘say what needs to be said’?

“Before this book I wrote a novel for older teenagers called We See Everything, and one called The Wall, which both draw on the situation in Palestine. We see Everything is set in what’s called the London Strip, and it reimagines London in the conditions of Gaza, being watched over by drones. Having written those two dystopian books I often got put on panels with other writers of dystopian young adult fiction. A lot of those are about climate, about the end of the world basically – an overheated planet, a drowned planet. Some of them are very good, but they’re bleak.”

“We need more than dire warnings. Not everyone is receptive to them, and it makes a lot of people switch off. I’ve written a mixture of dystopia and humour, and as a writer of funny books, I realised there’s a way of dove-tailing those things together through the window of activism.”

“The activist movement is incredibly positive, and it’s fun and it’s something you can affectionately satirise. It does attract eccentric characters that you can poke fun at lightly, while respecting what they do. There’s that tightrope walk of honouring the movement and respecting what it does, without being overly reverential about it.”

“From day one I wanted to write a book that was about the climate crisis but not a book that depresses you and makes you feel doomed. I hope it will make you get up off your sofa and do something – join the protest, because the school strike movement has made a difference, and has raised the level of urgency. I wanted to write something energising, positive and funny.”

There is this theme of dialogue in the book, of people learning to communicate across cultural, generational and political lines. One thing I particularly liked was the intergenerational exchange. You have young people talking about climate change as a betrayal, and you also have a dad relating to his father, and not wanting to repeat the mistakes his father made as a parent. Tell me about that theme, and why it’s important.

“It’s about creating dialogue between those sides of the street. That’s one of the messages of hope in the book, because it shows that dialogue is possible, and people are willing to change in response to this emergency when they’re addressed in the right way. It also demonstrates how young people are leading the way, reflecting the way that young people have been taking the lead on climate change.”

“There’s also, in a novelistic way, a story about three generations of men: the grandfather, the father and the son. There’s a conversation going through the whole book about masculinity, and what it is to be a man, a son and father. You either get marketed as a young adult writer or an adult writer, but I think this is secretly two books wrapped together. There’s another book for adults between the lines!”

What do you think that young people’s fiction can bring to the climate conversation at the moment? Because it is scary, and some of it is quite traumatic when you face the facts of it. How can storytelling help with that?

“I definitely feel that as a parent – you can’t forget that it’s terrifying. Children need to understand it, but you can’t pile in and explain genocide to a five-year-old, and similarly you need to explain climate change in ways that are sensitive. There is a degree of terror, in some ways that’s an appropriate reaction, but it’s not helpful for a seven-year-old to feel that way because they have to live their life.”

“From my eighteen-year-old I can see that teenagers get it, and in some ways they’re quite angry. That’s something I put into the book too, the sense of the young feeling betrayed by the old, and I wanted to get that down on paper. The young have made a lot of sacrifices. For the old to carry on doing whatever they want because they won’t face the consequences is appalling, morally. That needs to be thought about.”

“The apocalypse isn’t necessarily the right way to address that for young children, but there are so many great writers out there. Piers Torday’s books, for example, introduce some of these ideas for younger readers. It has to be done sensitively, but it’s right that it should be at the heart of a lot of the fiction that young people read, because it’s such a huge issue for that generation. I hope that this book can be part of that conversation, and can get young people engaging with this topic in a way that doesn’t fill them with despair, but that inspires them to get up and do something.”


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