Sarah Blake’s “Clean Air” offers readers a lot: It’s a dystopian novel set in the near future, a decade after The Turning – where tree pollen becomes deadly and kills vast swathes of the population, forcing everyone to live indoors or wear protective masks outdoors.
But it’s also a utopian novel, where society has been rebuilt in a safer and fairer way…until it’s all threatened by a serial killer who rampages through a town, slashing the protective exteriors of homes, killing entire families.
And although much of the book is a novel about mother nature, it is also a novel about the nature of mothers and daughters. Izabel still mourns the loss of her mother, who died just before The Turning, while raising her precocious daughter, Cami…and feels like the rest of her life is meaningless. Then Cami, who considers the trees outside the car windows her friends, starts having strange, possibly supernatural dreams, and Izabel is pulled into the serial killer’s orbit, endangering safety. from his family.
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The book’s premise may seem otherworldly, but much of it, from the emotional details to the anecdotes, comes from the real life of the poet and novelist Blake, whose previous work of fiction, “Naamah”, reinvented the story of Noah’s Ark from the perspective of Noah’s wife.
“The bonds are really strong for me,” Blake said in a recent video interview. “I was writing about the death of my grandfather 15 years ago, but my mother passed away and I was working on the revisions after suffering this kind of loss.”
But just like with his book, all is not gloomy. “The book was partly inspired by my son who had a tree friend at the bus stop when he was five,” she says. “Every day he had to say hello and goodbye and hug his tree friend.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. You wrote about a catastrophic event that kills people and changes society, creating a world where no one can go out without a mask. But you started three years before the pandemic.
People have written to me about the opportunity. It was really weird. I had friends in California who, because of the wildfires, had children who had to wear masks to go to school. There are so many different ways the air can go unclean.
Also, my allergies were getting really bad and there were a good three years where I ended up in the ER because my asthma was getting so out of control. It could be a good six months before my breathing returns to normal.
Q. So the pollen was a real danger to you.
Willows are my worst.
The reactions really blew me away. It’s better in the UK for some reason. When people say how unrealistic it is in the book, I say, “Well, look at me.”
I drew a lot on my reactions to find out how they experienced the exits in the air; I am a cougher which is very frustrating as it is difficult to communicate.
Q. To what extent does this book stem from your own fears about the climate crisis and environmental degradation?
I go through waves of that. I remember seeing with my own eyes the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Watching him was something. I recycle and I don’t even have a car. But you realize that’s up to the companies at this point – the big differences should come from there, so you have to accept the loss of control.
I started getting involved in local politics and working on newsletters on issues like fracking. Some of the ones Izabel reads online are the ones I did. There is always something new to be terrified of and in “Clean Air” I was trying to write about all the disasters that worry me.
Q. In terms of environmental damage, do you think we will only change our ways after something as dramatic and destructive as The Turning?
For a change that really made the world amazingly better, then yes. Instead, I think we’ll find ways to survive shit for a really long time, making small changes so people feel like they’re living a normal life even when one normal quickly overtakes another.
Q. You write literary novels that deal with serious issues, but you seem to like building alternate worlds.
I’m a science fiction kid at heart. My dad always had “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” so world-building has always been fascinating to me. I continue to watch and read science fiction but found myself on the literary side. There aren’t many poets like me who write science fiction poetry.
This book lived in my head for a while once the world popped into my head. I did a lot before I even started writing. It’s such a nice part for me. My next book is a completely invented world although it is the closest to contemporary times.
Q. And then you work a serial killer crime thriller into all of this. Where does this come from?
I love procedurals and murder mysteries. They are my outlet. I’m watching “Elementary” again with Lucy Liu and I think they do a really good job with the characters. The genre is huge; I find my niches. As a teenager, I fell asleep on “Law & Order”. I probably watched all of ‘Law and Order’ until season 18. And ‘Law and Order: SVU’ helped me deal with some of my deep fears about rape – they were talking about it on that show surprisingly and directly. and honest ways that really helped.
After building the world, I started with Izabel by writing letters to Cami; and once I developed this mother-daughter relationship and started to understand who I was spending time with, I sat down to write and the first thing that came out was this trip to the hospital and that there was a serial killer.
Part of what makes writing fun for me is that my main character is usually stuck in a way that can seem hopeless. It’s usually based on times in my life – sometimes for years at a time – when I felt very stuck and hopeless, whether it was within the confines of a marriage or being away from my mother as she was dying or lived in a country where the government was failing.
So I thought what can I offer Izabel, who feels totally adrift and aimless? It’s weird but I got her a serial killer. It loosened her, oddly enough.
Q. For a dystopian novel, your characters live quite comfortably. Given how dysfunctional our society is already, wouldn’t things be much worse if we had something like “The Turning,” something closer to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”?
I honestly think people would die. I’m not optimistic about human nature, but I wanted to write a book that was.
The core of it all was that I didn’t want to read “The Road”, I thought that would be too much. Then I had to read it to teach it when I was a long-term replacement. I wasn’t wrong. It destroyed me.
I was wondering if there was a way to have the dystopian but still have the other side. I knew if you couldn’t even get out, you couldn’t poke around and couldn’t riot. I went beyond the utopian aspect.
I want people to have an enjoyable reading experience. I’ve had enough heartache in my life for the past few years, so I wanted to do something that’s not just going to make you cry for ten pages. Joy is what I write to.