Interview: Sarah Blake
In Sarah Blake’s sophomore novel, Clean Air, the cause of the climate apocalypse comes as a surprise. It’s not rising oceans or wildfires or air pollution. The trees release enough pollen to suffocate humankind: a drawn-out, mass-casualty event known as “the Turning.”
Now, ten years later, Izabel lives with her husband, Kaito, and young daughter, Cami, in the post-Turning world: dome housing constructed out of thick plastic sheeting, air filters in every populated space, face masks, people moving as quickly as possible from house to car to school to mall. More than a few minutes outside will kill you.
Then one night, a human starts killing, too, slashing through a home’s plastic walls and exposing the family to the lethal pollen. The first serial killer of the post-Turning world has emerged and, soon, Izabel finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the investigation.
I met Sarah Blake at Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, New York, during pre-COVID times, at a reading for her debut novel, Naamah, a genre-busting retelling of the biblical story of Noah’s unnamed wife and the ark. I was eager to discuss similar genre blurring in Clean Air, as well as worldbuilding a fictional realm that is a realistic imagining of our possible future, family and community dynamics in an era of climate catastrophe, and the abiding nature of story.
Melanie Pierce: Clean Air came out in 2022, and aspects of the fictional post-Turning world bear uncanny resemblance to our COVID-19 pandemic experience: the forced closeness and domestic claustrophobia of the shutdown, mask wearing, our internal clocks tracking exposure time. As I was reading, I wondered if COVID could be the initial seed of the novel, trying to work out if you were on some insanely fast publishing timeline, but then I read your essay in CrimeReads about how your severe allergies prompted this story about killer pollen. Did COVID inform your writing at all? What did your research and worldbuilding process look like?
Sarah Blake: I thought COVID would inform my revisions. I saved countless emails about how my community was responding. But as similar as the worlds are, the details that captured me the most about our response to COVID (selling out of toilet paper and flour for weeks!) were details that didn’t fit into the Turning.
The parts that have moved me (crushed me) about COVID—watching my son adapt to this new world with such agility and ease, all of the needless deaths—those are parts of the Turning, and they were present in the first draft, before any signs of COVID. They were based on how I watched my son growing up in a country that’s comfortable with gun violence. My son hardly commented on the shooter drills at his school.
Worldbuilding is something that I like to do before I start drafting. I daydream about a world for weeks or months. I talk through it with my friends. I draw pictures and floorplans. I don’t feel confident enough to start drafting until I have a very clear sense of my world. I think that’s why I don’t end up writing out much of my world. It’s all perfectly set up in my head, so I only mention what needs to come up as I’m drafting.
My research comes as I write. I like how research breaks up my writing days. Over the months of drafting, I read articles about pollen, about mycorrhizal networks, about serial killers. I interviewed a child-trauma therapist, a city planner, and I saw a tarot reader. I interviewed the therapist before writing one scene with Opa. The questions she asked and the activities she did with Cami are as accurately portrayed as I could render them from that interview. Similarly, the tarot reading was done before writing about Izabel’s visit. I knew it was coming about fifty pages before I got there, and I made my appointment. She was a fantastic reader and let me record the whole thing. I wasn’t able to interview the city planner until after the book was drafted, but I did my best to make sure I had done a decent job.
I sometimes forget I’ve researched as much as I have because it blends so seamlessly into my days. Even as I write this, I have a website open about forest-floor plants because I wanted to get some good details into a story that takes place in the forest and the word undergrowth didn’t seem good enough!
MP: There are also parts of the post-Turning world that feel totally foreign—issues that are discussed in our society but feel frustratingly out of reach: universal basic income, guaranteed housing, free transportation. Why did you write these progressive policies into your postapocalyptic world?
SB: I felt bizarre in my life. I still do. I love being a mother and a writer, but neither of those things is fully supported by the world we live in. I don’t feel like I’m allowed to dedicate myself completely to being a mother or I will have to rely on my son in my retirement. The success I’ve had as a writer comes nowhere close to supporting me, let alone supporting me and my son. This is all to say that the ways I feel stranded, stuck, scared—I know that they’re wrapped up in the limitations of our societal structures, the hesitancy to support mothers, artists, and the poor, along with the intentional holding back and holding down of women and the middle and lower classes.
But I didn’t think that was all of it. So I wanted to explore if a woman would have these same feelings even if she was inside of a very different society. I wanted to set her up in a society that felt, in many ways, utopic. Get rid of car accidents, guarantee housing, offer universal basic income, get rid of crime. And still, she was a wreck. Life is difficult. We lose people we love, in any world. We question ourselves and our parenting. We navigate our relationships. And I thought her unrest was so stark against the background of this perfect-ish life. It felt like her unrest could actually be examined, as isolated as it was.
I felt like I was a scientist, controlling my environment so that I could better trust my results.
MP: Clean Air is part science fiction, part crime fiction, all literary. You push the boundaries of genre to serve the story and your thematic concerns, like motherhood, grief, and anxiety. This is especially true in Izabel’s storyline—through a series of wild circumstances, she becomes involved in helping the (wry, hilarious) Inspector Paz catch the killer and subsequently grasps for self-determination, really for the first time in her life. You busted genres in Naamah as well, utilizing magical realism to enable the titular character, Noah’s wife, to have agency in an underwater world. What do you find artistically compelling about busting genres? From a craft perspective, how do you layer genre upon genre?
SB: I grew up watching science fiction with my dad, and as soon as I discovered Law & Order, I developed a deep, deep love for crime procedurals. And my mother read everything, from Stephen King to the annual Booker Prize winner. When I began writing, I never imagined that any genre would be off-limits to me. Sci-fi, especially, is so ingrained in me!
It was through the writing community that I learned that there are these distinctions being made between genres and that not all of them are seen as literary. I have done a lot, even in my poetry, to confront our ideas of high and low culture.
I, very selfishly, am following what I want to write about, and what gets me to the page and keeps me there. Part of me wants to write the gem that is the first season of Altered Carbon (sci-fi meets murder mystery to the extreme). But part of me wants to make sure literary fiction also contains depictions of mothering and going to the bathroom.
I feel like I still haven’t answered your question! Other than to say that layering genres happens naturally for me. If I don’t want to write about our contemporary world, which is the root of so much of my anxiety, then I have to create a new world, and I am participating in sci-fi. If I want to have crime happen in my book, then it’s crime fiction. But if it’s me writing it, then it’s always going to be literary, because I have such a strange voice and my focus is often somewhere unexpected.
MP: The economic prose in Clean Air makes it seem as though the characters are holding their emotions at arm’s length. At the same time, you excel at pulling emotion from your reader in a few words, like when Izabel sees Cami automatically pull on her mask to exit a car: “Child of this world, she knew what to do.” Such a short sentence celebrates the resilience and adaptability of children while capturing the horror of recognizing that resiliency is a prerequisite for their survival. How did you develop the voice and style of the book?
SB: I think this voice and style is similar to my voice and style as a poet. People thought Naamah was clearly the voice and style of a poet because there was so much imagery and so many descriptions, so many sensory descriptions. But that’s not actually what my poems are like! Naamah was a departure for me, and a bit of an escape even from my own economic writing style. I wanted to take all the time I needed for Naamah and her world to be lush.
For Clean Air, I was much more successful at combining my poetic style with the writing of a novel. I love punchy one-liners like the one you mentioned. I love seeing how little is necessary to get from one point to the next.
Part of it must also be Izabel, because I’ve drafted other (hopefully future) books and none are quite as close to my poetic style as this one. I began writing this book by writing letters from Izabel to Cami. She doesn’t sound quite how the narration sounds, but the letters definitely informed the narration. And those letters were intimate and felt very much like me writing to my son, which is perhaps why Izabel ended up closer to me than any of my other main characters, who I never let write in their own voices. (Which makes me sound quite cruel until I remember they’re all made up by me.)
MP: Izabel’s voice in the letters is different! She’s philosophical and vulnerable and sometimes dark, which is especially intriguing when considered in contrast to the other way we see Izabel spending her alone time: reading old news and watching pre-Turning TV shows, like What Not to Wear. Can you speak to how these activities came to you as a way to illuminate Izabel’s internal life?
SB: I pulled from my favorite TV shows! I was so eager to include anything and everything from contemporary times. Writing about Naamah was so, so difficult. We have some decent information about life five thousand years ago, but not so much for ten thousand. There was the obvious stuff—she couldn’t doomscroll. But she couldn’t even get bored and read a book! It was infuriating. So I wanted to fill Izabel’s life to the brim. It’s wild how difficult it is to actually depict how much time is in each day, and all the varied ways we fill that time. Today I watched Chernobyl, Andor, Escape to the Country, House Hunters, listened to music, wrote, read a book I’m editing for a client, picked up my son from school, walked with him to a café where we ate and he did his math homework, I shopped for some groceries, I ate, I went to the bathroom a few times, I did dishes, I folded laundry and hung laundry, and I played a bunch of puzzle games on my phone. If I had a character do all those things, it would seem unrealistic. And today was a quiet day for me!
And when it comes to the balance of light and dark, I definitely like to balance my love for serious shows with lighter ones. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of balancing my own darknesses, and Izabel’s, too, but that makes sense. When you spend your days reading about how the world is failing and we’re failing the world, it’s nice to spend some time watching Is It Cake?
MP: Izabel and Kaito tell Cami folklore stories about the yōkai; posters keep appearing in the mall with monsters, many of them women, like Baba Yaga and La Llorona; and a key character in the book is a kodama. These supernatural presences stand out especially because organized religion is a relic of the past in this world. However, there is a spiritual center, tarot card readers, mediums, and inspirited characters in the book—also mostly women. Do you think folklore and spiritual practices will stand the test of time? What were you examining about the human capacity for belief?
SB: I think spiritual beliefs will stand the test of time because stories stand the test of time, and people love stories about gods and ghosts. They love origin stories and myths. And if the stories last, then beliefs will spring out of them, and maybe practices too. I don’t necessarily think any particular story has to last for it to happen. It could be all new stories! But it seems inevitable.
For me, it wasn’t about what humans are capable of. It was what I hope for humans. Organized religion is so destructive, but practicing religion can be so many beautiful kinds of community building. Exploring spiritual beliefs is part of feeling connected to everything in the universe. I would like it if we all moved toward an understanding of our connectedness.
SARAH BLAKE is the author of Clean Air, a cli-fi domestic thriller; Naamah, a novel reimagining the story of Noah’s ark; and poetry collections Mr. West, Let’s Not Live on Earth, and In Springtime. She received a Literature Fellowship from the National Education Association. Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Catapult, The American Poetry Review, and Kenyon Review. She lives outside of London, England, United Kingdom. Find her on Twitter @blakesarah and Instagram @sarahblakeauthor.
MELANIE PIERCE lives and writes in Kansas City, Missouri. She holds an MFA in fiction from Stony Brook University, where she was a 2020-2021 BookEnds fellow, and her stories and interviews have appeared in Electric Literature, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Pleiades, The Pinch, and elsewhere. Currently, she is a two-year studio resident at the Charlotte Street Foundation, and she teaches writing at the Kansas City Art Institute. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @melanie__pierce.