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Centre for Stories

Craig Ensor

"...imagining what the world would look and feel like if the warming of the earth went unchecked and the battle to reverse the trend of warming was effectively lost in 200 to 250 years’ time."

Between the Lines interviews a diverse selection of Australian writers to uncover the hidden processes, research, and inspiration that goes into the making of a book.Craig Ensor is a partner at a leading commercial law firm. He lives in Sydney with his wife and two children. He has published numerous short stories and The Warming is his first published novel.

The Warming – Synopsis
The year is 2221 and the world is dying. Temperatures soar as high as fifty degrees every day. Sea levels are rising year by year. The population has fallen to below 2 billion people. The ruined cities of the north—Sydney, Brisbane and beyond—were abandoned as the rising sea and the sun’s intensity turned them to wastelands.

In an isolated coastal town south of Sydney, young Finch Taylor is captivated by the mysterious beauty April Speare and her pianist husband William when they move into a nearby beach house with a piano and a tragic secret. Finch soon begins a lifelong love affair with music, and with April. But as he and April follow the great migration south to Tasmania, and eventually to a warming Antarctica, they must decide whether to bring children into a world without a future.

Hauntingly beautiful, The Warming depicts a nomadic existence, where love and hope are the only means of enduring a world that has turned against humanity.Black and white portrait of Craig Ensor

Tell us a bit about your story Craig—who or where you came from, where you are now, and how you got there.

It’s a long story to publication, given that I’m 47 now! I was born and raised and live in Sydney and had a love of reading and writing stories as a young child and adolescent. The love was sent underground as I became more interested in sport (cricket, soccer and golf) and went through university with a view to becoming a lawyer. I have been practicing as a solicitor now for over twenty years, with eight of those years as a partner of commercial law firms. Throughout that period I continued to write on weekends and holidays and whenever I had spare time, juggling the demands of marriage and having young children. It is definitely a passion which I cannot shake. Logic told me to stop doing it years ago. But I don’t necessarily write for publication. One attentive reader would be enough. For a decade or more everything I wrote stayed firmly in the bottom drawer until The Warming was sent out into the world in 2018 and was lucky enough to pick up Ventura as a publisher.

I’m certainly glad you didn’t listen to logic and slipped your writing in between everything else. I feel like I’ve been chatting to a lot of writers who work outside what is conventionally considered the arts sector—which has been incredibly interesting! Has your work in law influenced your writing, or your work as a writer influenced your practice as a lawyer in unexpected ways?

There is a professionalism and discipline that comes with being a lawyer that needs to be applied to writing—a writer should wait for inspiration as much as a lawyer does; that is, never! Attention to detail is key to being a good lawyer, as it is for writing, although the nature of the details obviously differ. It is also important in legal writing to put yourself in the shoes of the imagined audience, whether that be a client or another lawyer or a judge, and tailor the argument and complexity or simplicity of the language used to the intended audience. Good legal writing requires a mastery of different styles. This in many way is the goal of good writing—to gain the empathy and engagement of an imaginary reader.

As far as content is concerned, there are key methodological differences. Legal writing is focused in many ways on persuading the reader in respect of a particular argument or position, to close down meaning in the reader’s mind. Writing is designed to open up meaning in the reader, through ambiguity and suggestion and the poetic connotations of language.

I’m never surprised by how roles outside the arts sector impact writing—we are, after all, always writing in one way or another. So where did this story come from then? The Warming might be described as timely by some, and overdue by others. In it, the world is dying, we have become a nomadic people, some believe humanity will be washed away by rising tides while others believe that we well rise above it artificially. What fuelled this haunting response to climate crises, this play between despair and hope, especially given the gradual turn of the world, as opposed to the sudden collapse that is depicted in so much popular culture?

The story started as a simple story of love lost set at a beach house, where a fifteen-year-old boy proved to be the wedge that ultimately forced the couple apart. It grew organically into something altogether epic—imagining what the world would look and feel like if the warming of the earth went unchecked and the battle to reverse the trend of warming was effectively lost in 200 to 250 years’ time.

It seemed to me, as I imagined the world, that an apocalypse as slow moving as global warming would not produce a world of warfare and disease as other post-apocalyptic fiction does, relying upon some seismic event (i.e. nuclear explosion, epidemic, asteroid strike) which alters the world fundamentally and instantly. With global warming, the world would continue as normal and we would adapt as we have always done to the changing conditions.

Once this speculative outcome is adopted, it opens up a whole new line of enquiry about what may happen to civilisation. The population drops by choice, there are new fertile lands and yet everything the human race has learned that is good and productive has not been lost. It is still there. And with that it is easy to imagine a humanity that is highly civilised and generous and open as most people are in times of sadness and death. Their hearts are inflamed and turn outwards to others in such times. It seemed believable that this would happen on a worldwide scale. And it is this which gives the novel its central paradox; it is set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic world but the society enduring this world have happened onto a late utopian age.

Photo of Craig Ensor's book "The Warming". It is bright red and orange with the title in large, centred font.

That’s probably why the book has been described as hauntingly beautiful—because of that paradox. And in that paradox we have Finch, your protagonist. I was really taken by him, especially the honesty—when he revealed ugly thoughts, or admitted his shame around certain actions. Where did he come from?

Finch is narrating the novel from the position of a 76-year-old man at the end of his life. With that comes a certain honesty and candour in accounting for the major emotional events of his life in a time of rampant change.

It was also important that Finch be an everyman, a good man, but not perfect; a man who the reader can identify with. Unlike other post-apocalyptic dystopian science fiction novels,  there are no thrills of plot—no bullets or cannibals to escape from or risky scavenging for food—so it was important that the reader could see themselves in Finch and April and want to follow them through the journey of their life, which is as slow moving and eventful as any life.

It was just as, if not more so, enthralling to read though—without the cannibals and meteors. Not only the slivers of a changed and changing world but also, as you mention, the eventful lives of the characters and their relationships.

I must admit I was fascinated by Finch’s relationship with William Speare. When he mentioned that together, they had a full life—one a musician of the highest standing, the other a husband and father, I thought about that for a long time. What are your thoughts on the sacrifices of work and family?

Thank you for picking up on this. This for me captures the deep emotional connection and shame that Finch feels about his relationship with Speare during those months at the beach house. It casts a long shadow over Finch’s life. Speare is a failed family man. He rose to great prominence and height as a composer, but that height will inevitably cast a long shadow in other areas of life—in Speare’s case his lack of attentiveness to April and his lack of family.

Finch is the counterpoint to Speare—he is a successful family man. His love and attentiveness to April and his children is shown by the fact that his only composition is essentially something he stole from Speare and he cannot finish it.

I think it is possible to have one character that contains within him or her both of the capabilities of Speare and Finch but it would require great balance and awareness and care to make a success of it.

It may result in a less interesting book though—if Finch had it all he might be less relatable for the reader. Certainly less so for me, anyway. So how do you approach your writing then? What is your practice like? I love your style—how descriptive it is perhaps, but also the observations your characters make of the world around them because it is and it isn’t our world. Did this flow naturally for you, or did you take careful measure to weave this in?

The voice was critical to this novel. It is a memoir of a 76-year-old man who bears witness to not only the death of loved ones but the nearing death of the world. The voice and the language had to be in equal parts elegiac and melancholic and lyrical because in many ways it is a love letter to the beauty and wonderment of a world in a state of passing. It took a lot of work to get the tone of voice to accord with that overarching narrative. The sentences also had to be musical in sound, to reflect not only the major themes of the novel but also Finch’s occupation as a music teacher. Once the tone of voice was set it became easier to find that key, to use a musical expression, but I did read aloud the novel in full twice to ensure that the sentences were not abrasive or clunky.

Wow, that’s incredible, I wish my practice involved such thought—at the moment it involves key-board smashing things to life, but I suppose I have time to figure my process out a bit. So how about the publishing process in relation to this writing process—working with editors and designers and a marketing team? Was there anything you weren’t prepared for or were surprised by?

I was surprised by how nice and polite everyone is! You don’t always get that in the legal profession, particularly with lawyers on the other side of a matter. Otherwise I felt like Finch when he says that every day in Mawson “felt like a first attempt”. Every aspect, from the structural edit to copy editing all the way to the marketing side of things, such as participating in podcasts, has been new to me. New and exciting and fun. Everyone within the editorial and marketing team were great to work with and everyone shared the passion for making the novel the best it can possibly be.

I’m glad to hear that, though not  surprised—independent publishing has so much heat. So what are you reading at the moment? What else are you writing about or do you plan to write about? Or are you taking a well-deserved break from all that?

I’m going through a phase where I’m dipping in and out of my library, reading short bits and pieces, because time is short with work and family commitments. I’ve started Richard Powers Overstory, but its length, given the short rags of time available, is a bit daunting!

As for new work, I have two old manuscripts which may get a dusting and re-evaluation over the next year. They both have similar overarching themes of technology and climate.

You can purchase The Warming via Ventura Press.Jay Anderson is a professional writer and editor, with a background in Literary and Cultural Studies. He’s currently completing an Honours of creative writing at Curtin University—where he is the Chief Editor of the campus’ student publication, Grok Magazine.

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