Interview: Nick Fuller Googins
Nick Fuller Googins is the author of the novel The Great Transition. His short fiction and essays have appeared in The Paris Review, Men’s Health, The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. He lives in Maine and works as an elementary school teacher.
The Great Transition, Googins’s debut, accomplishes a rare and remarkable feat: it’s a hopeful climate-disaster novel. The novel is set in the near future, after the climate crisis has reached its breaking point, motivating humans to take collective action and reduce emissions to net-zero. People live communally in green cities in the parts of the world that are still inhabitable. The story follows a family living in this newly remade, semi-utopian world, though their lives are far from perfect.
In this interview, Googins describes what it was like to write about the planet’s future from a place of hope, shares what he uncovered in his extensive research for the novel, and discusses how he balances his writing practice with his career as a fourth-grade teacher.
Rebecca Turkewitz: This book’s optimism makes it stand out from other climate-disaster novels. Although The Great Transition fully—and at times unflinchingly—acknowledges the extremity of the current climate crisis, it also charts a potential path forward toward a more just and sustainable world. What moved you to write a climate-change novel grounded in hope?
Nick Fuller Googins: I was installing solar panels in Maine when I first had the idea of a climate-crisis “utopia,” as I originally conceived it. This was back in 2018, which was a really hopeful moment for the climate: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had won her primary, the youth-led Sunrise Movement was having sit-ins in Congress, and the “Green New Deal” was becoming a household term. I grew up in the woods of New England and have always loved nature, and I was feeling pretty despondent about the climate crisis. So, the Green New Deal, in particular, was extremely influential on me, as the first serious plan I’d ever heard of to actually save us, and future generations, by putting tens of millions of Americans to work installing solar, wind, and so on. I found solar installation to be hard but super-fulfilling work, and started fantasizing that the Green New Deal might actually pass and I could enlist and spend some years installing solar around the country, doing some tiny part to help save the planet. Obviously, that did not happen (yet!), but that idea was the original seed of the novel—a feeling of hope in a big collective project to save ourselves, a mass mobilization of humanity at the eleventh hour.
RT: The narrative moves between two perspectives: that of the teenaged daughter, Emi, and that of her dad, Larch. Did you always know these two would be the point-of-view characters, or did that change partway through the writing or revising process?
NG: I set out with 100% determination to make my life easy and write The Great Transition from the perspective of one character, Larch, who had come of age by enlisting and fighting through the Transition, and now, decades later, is a father and husband, enjoying the utopian aftermath until things start to fall apart. My plans changed after my first draft, when it became clear that Larch’s daughter, Emi, was starting to steal the spotlight. I’d planned for Emi to be more of a supporting actor, and then, over multiple drafts and revisions, her voice just kept demanding more camera time. I got this same feedback from one reader, a second reader, an editor, another editor, until finally I had to go back and rewrite most of the book to make Emi the costar she’d become. I’ve worked with kids for so many years, as a tutor, a teacher, a camp counselor, including some of the richest kids in America who are totally crippled with anxiety, and some of the poorest, most traumatized, who are sarcastic and funny, yet hopeful. Kids, and particularly teenagers, can be such a wonderful and unique web, simultaneously frustrating and joyful, and I think a lot of my experience working with them went into Emi’s character. I was happy in the end to see her front and center in the spotlight.
RT: I think a lot of early readers are responding to how realistic the environmental collapse in the novel seems, and I was struck by the creativity of some of the solutions, such as the energy farms in abandoned cities. How much research went into your writing process?
NFG: So much research! I’ve been involved in climate and environmental groups like Sierra Club, 350.org, and Sunrise Movement, so I had a decent understanding of the bleak foundation of climate-crisis science. But before starting to write the novel, I spent about four months on research, reading a book on sea-level rise, a book on wildfires, a book on restorative justice, a book on climate-crisis urban planning, a book on climate-crisis political economies, a book on the fossil fuel industry’s misinformation campaigns, a book on the Green New Deal, a book on Israel’s covert assassination campaign against former SS officers, plus lots of articles on climate refugees, New York City climate resilience projects, and so on. Like many writers, I really love this kind of research and probably could’ve kept at it forever. I also pulled a lot of research from my personal experiences, like installing solar and working for Common Ground Relief after Hurricane Katrina, deconstructing homes, and joining the Standing Rock Camp in 2015.
RT: Can you share something interesting or surprising that you uncovered in your research for this novel?
NFG: Gravity storage warehouses! We hear about the limitations of solar during night, or periods of low sunlight, but there are creative solutions to harness that energy during the sunny days, then release it in different mechanical “analog” ways when needed. For gravity storage, think of a giant warehouse with cranes hoisting huge blocks of concrete. Extra solar during the day would lift the blocks to the ceiling. Then, when that energy is needed, the blocks would be slowly released, gravity pulling them back to the ground and releasing that stored energy along the way.
My other big finding is less exciting, more enraging: the troves of documents and evidence that show how oil, coal, and gas executives knew the precise science of the climate crisis decades ago, as early as the 1950s. I learned how corporate scientists for Exxon, Chevron, and other companies predicted with uncanny accuracy exactly what would happen to the climate if they kept on drilling and pumping. Executives took this information and either ignored it or actively worked on disinformation campaigns to sow doubt. That’s why these people are referred to as “Climate Criminals”—the small group of a few thousand people who knowingly drove our planet and civilization to the edge of the cliff that is the climate crisis, all in the name of profit, and they are still doing it today. The scope of these crimes is almost too much to comprehend.
RT: Community is really important in the novel. The book deeply explores our obligations to the earth and to each other. Can you talk a little bit about how community is important in your own life?
NFG: If I think about the times I’ve felt most “alive” in life, they almost always involve being one of a group: dances, protests, picket lines, sing-alongs, making music, playing sports as a younger guy, helping out on a big project like disaster relief, or even pulling a fun group prank, or watching a scary movie in a theater where everyone is screaming and laughing together. Capitalism works hard to make “individuals” out of us, but I think it feels so incredibly good to be a part of something bigger than just me. So I’m a member of the Sierra Club, the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and I’m active in my union, the Maine Education Association. Human beings are one of a relatively small group of social species—it’s baked into our DNA to be part of a group! I think it’s healthy to lean into that innate sense of community, both as an antidote to the alienating forces of contemporary society, and also just because it feels so fulfilling.
RT: The novel moves deftly between three different time periods: one in which climate collapse is imminent, one in which people are heroically taking collective action to slow emissions and restructure society, and one in which a fragile stability has been reached. Which time period was easier for you to write about and why?
NFG: It was really fun to write about the period of The Great Transition in which humanity mobilizes to save the world, and that feeling of near-enrapturement that comes with being part of a big collective project. I loved imagining how events could cascade and build on one another to really make a difference for the climate, the economy, and society. In the novel, a crisis leads to the formation of the Department of Emergency Transition, which hires millions of people to save the world. But then I started wondering, what if those workers took over the department and steered the resources toward true change. I often think of what Ursula K. Le Guin said: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings.” Change seems impossible, but then once it happens, things can move so quickly. It was very fun to imagine how that change might happen.
RT: What books influenced you the most as you were writing your novel? Are there any particular writers or books that were important in shaping you as a fiction writer?
NFG: Okay, back to Ursula K. Le Guin, my literary hero: I love the way she writes big societal novels with an intimate heart. Above all, her novel, The Dispossessed, was the number-one source of inspiration for The Great Transition. I knew I wanted to write a climate-crisis utopia, but I wasn’t sure how to make a utopia a full story with conflict. In The Dispossessed, the utopia is alive and doing fairly well as the novel opens, but it’s under threat, and this tension provides the source of conflict. Since writing The Great Transition, I’ve been really excited about other contemporary utopian writing out there, especially in relation to the climate, including authors such as Allegra Hyde, Chana Porter, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Eman Abdelhadi, all of whom I read for inspiration while writing The Great Transition.
RT: I love the focus on music in the novel, which opens by describing how Emi and her classmates become enamored with “Oldies” music, like U2. What music were you listening to during the period in which you were writing this book?
NFG: One of Emi’s friends describes the 1990s as “IGAM”: the Indisputable Golden Age of Music, and I wholeheartedly agree. My adolescence overlapped with the greats: Britney, the Fugees, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, No Doubt, A Tribe Called Quest, and on and on and on. As I started going down this path in the novel—having Emi discover and appreciate the “Oldies”—I began revisiting the music from my teen years in a big way, and fell in love with it all over again.
RT: In addition to writing, you’re a full-time public-school teacher, which is a demanding job in its own right. How do you find the time and energy to write? How do you create space for writing in your life?
NFG: After coming home from teaching, I have zero brain for anything as creatively demanding as writing, so I have to write before school. Usually, that means just thirty or forty-five minutes in the early morning. That isn’t a ton of time, but I’ve found that quick sessions add up over the weeks and months, and regular practice keeps the thread of a project going. This realization has been important for me as a writer. In my younger years, I think I believed it wasn’t worth writing if I didn’t have hours of uninterrupted time. Life makes that rather impossible now, so I’m thankful to see how these smaller chunks of time can lead to paragraphs and pages that I’m happy with.
RT: As a fourth-grade teacher, you’re working with, talking to, and caring for young people all the time. How do you think that influenced the writing of this book? And how do you think that influences the way you think about our planet and its future?
NFG: Most teaching, in my experience, is an extreme in-the-moment, present-tense activity, but sometimes I’ll have these brief moments to project ahead, imagining my students as fifth-graders, high school students, young adults, and so on. In The Great Transition, Kristina, Emi’s mother, holds a lot of anger about what happened to the planet, directed especially toward that small group of fossil fuel executives who knowingly led us into the climate crisis. And I do get flashes of that anger sometimes when I imagine all the climate-related chaos and misery that my students will likely have to experience unless we take action, soon. Most parents probably get flashes of this climate fear. I have it for all my kiddos, past and present. It’s all the more tragic because the crisis was totally avoidable, and still is. So that gets me thinking, “What am I doing to stop this?” and “Am I doing enough?”—all questions the characters in the novel explore in different ways.
RT: If you could visit any of the new (or newly remade) locations in the world you’ve imagined for The Great Transition, where would you visit?
NFG: I wrote the city of Nuuk, Greenland, as a gorgeous modern utopia where everything is worker-owned via cooperatives. The idea of a place with zero corporations and the Northern Lights? That would be the true dream vacation.
NICK FULLER GOOGINS is the author of the novel, The Great Transition (Atria Books). His short fiction and essays have appeared in The Paris Review, Men’s Health, The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. He lives in Maine, and works as an elementary school teacher. He is a member of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, as well as the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the United States. Find him on Twitter @FullerGo.
REBECCA TURKEWITZ is a writer and high school teacher living in Maine. She is the author of the story collection Here in the Night (Black Lawrence Press, July 2023). Her fiction and humor writing have appeared in The Normal School, Electric Literature, The Masters Review, Best Microfiction 2023, The New Yorker’s “Daily Shouts,” and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @R_Turkewitz.