‘Though the Earth Gives Way’ — Q&A with author Mark S. Johnson

This apocalyptic cautionary tale about climate change is the first novel for the Pulitzer Prizing-winning Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter.
Side by side images of the book jacket for Though the Earth Gives Way and its author Mark S. Johnson wearing a dark shirt and glasses.
Courtesy of Bancroft Press.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mark S. Johnson's first novel is a cautionary tale about climate change.

Mark S. Johnson has written about science and health for more than 35 years as a journalist, earning a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting and a finalist nod three other times throughout his career. But this is the first time the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter is putting that vast skill set to use in the realm of fiction. “Though the Earth Gives Way” is Johnson’s debut novel, out this month from Bancroft Press. Part apocalyptic horror story, part cautionary (if hopeful) tale, Johnson’s narrative follows the journey of Elon, who has fled a home that no longer exists, in a coastal town swallowed by the rising ocean and catastrophic storms. The rest of the world has met a similar fate as wildfires, earthquakes, mass systems failures and other consequences of climate change have finally brought modern civilization to its knees—not 20 or 50 years from now, but in the year 2028. Instead of speaking in the broad brushstrokes that have arguably helped us stay numb to climate change’s potential wrath, Johnson paints a vivid picture of exactly what that breakdown looks like through Elon’s experiences on the road, as well as a storytelling cast of characters he meets along the way. Although “Though the Earth Gives Way” is a work of fiction, Johnson’s acquired knowledge and decades of extracting stories from sources clearly inform the tale. He also tapped University of Wisconsin–Madison epidemiologist Tony Goldberg to bring further validity and horrifying detail to a doomsday scenario that most scientists agree is not imaginary, but inevitable.

Had you always wanted to write a novel?
I actually hadn’t thought about writing a novel until about five years ago. My computer is full of unfinished short stories. I also have an embarrassing assortment of dreadful poetry, most of which hasn’t been shown to anyone or submitted anywhere for the simple reason that it’s dreadful. Horrible. Shame-inducing.

Five years ago, I was going through a rough period working long hours on a story that ultimately never got published. I’d gone through so many rewrites that I was starting to hate writing — something I had not imagined possible. At about the same time, I began to feel that my news stories — all of them — were trivial when measured against the one news story that matters exponentially more than anything else: climate change.

For some reason, I remembered reading Boccaccio’s Decameron in high school European Lit. It’s about noblemen and noblewomen who flee the Great Plague and take refuge in a villa outside Florence. To pass the time, they tell stories. I wondered: What if that happened now, but instead of the plague, people were fleeing a climate apocalypse? I liked the idea of using The Decameron as a model. I planned to have every character tell at least one story. I wanted the stories to scrape at the soul of the teller. Together I hoped the stories would form a snapshot of America in the 2000s, the issues we deal with, the kind of people we have become.  

You’re a seasoned working journalist. When did you write the novel, and did anything surprise you about the experience?
I usually read about 90 minutes a night in bed. I decided to cut that in half and spend 45 minutes every night writing the novel. I worked full days on Saturdays and Sundays. The love of writing returned. I wrote the first draft in about two months, had some friends and relatives look at it and began revising. I have a cousin who had worked in publishing and she read it chapter by chapter, making suggestions. I found that no matter what happened during my day at the newspaper — good, bad, indifferent — I had this present waiting for me at home. It was like having the most delicious amaretto cheesecake sitting in the refrigerator. I couldn’t wait to get back to it. Within five or six months, I’d gone through a couple more drafts.

As for the experience, it was strange at first. I’ve worked exclusively with true stories. I didn’t trust myself to make up something believable. So, I went back to some of the stories I’ve written over the last 35 years, now buried away in dusty folders in the basement. They helped ground me in the way the world works. Of course, I could not do that with the overarching story about the climate apocalypse and how it would change people and the world. This will sound odd, but I watched a lot of YouTube videos of disasters, especially tsunamis. I’d also thought a lot about how polarized our country is now, and I tried to envision how much worse the divide would be if one side felt the other had doomed the planet. Think of it. That would make the violence of Jan. 6 look like children bickering in a sandbox. I began to trust my imagination more the deeper I got into the novel.

Some of the characters’ stories were so specific — I’m thinking in particular of the lottery ticket guy — that I kept wondering if you’d actually been told these stories in real life by sources along the way. Were you?
Yes. Many of the stories were based on stories I’d come across in 35 years of reporting. The lottery story was one. It was a story I feel sad about to this day. I had written it as a much longer, more detailed story for my newspaper in Providence and was told to go cut it in half. There are some stories that you encounter and you just know, ‘I will never see one like that again.’

The story about the Ninja turtle is based on a story that actually happened my second or third week reporting for the newspaper in Rockford, Illinois. I got in a limo with our mayor and this guy in a ninja turtle costume. I knew it was a softball story so I tossed out a real underhand lob: What’s it like to be a ninja turtle? The guy in the turtle costume turned to me and said, “It sucks.” I’ve never forgotten that. It was so not what I was expecting.

The specificities of what climate apocalypse could look like — one of things I both enjoyed and found most alarming — also seemed informed by your journalism background. There were consequences I just hadn’t pictured or considered before reading. Was that your point? 
Yes. I wanted readers to feel as if they’d glimpsed the other side, the world to come. We are good at divorcing ourselves from consequences. That’s true of small things — What will happen if I cut corners on my tax return? What will happen if I ignore that person on the street holding a hand out for change? It’s also true with bigger things. What will happen if I tell my child there are only two kinds of people — winners and losers? What will happen if I trade job satisfaction for a bigger paycheck? In the case of climate change, it takes a grim mindset to picture in detail the world that will remain. But if we don’t go there, if we don’t try to see it, imagine the guilt and regret that will consume us when we realize this picture (or something like it) is what we’ve left our children.

I was also influenced by the work of Tony Goldberg, the UW–Madison infectious disease expert — he read a draft of the book and offered wise advice. More importantly, because of his work I was able to spend a fellowship year traveling and studying zoonotic diseases. What I saw in Uganda, Kenya and Brazil helped inform different aspects of the book. It’s hard to be specific, but it broadened my world view. I got to see firsthand how much my own selfish energy habits, and those of many others in the so-called developed world, place a great weight of climate misfortune on the backs of those with whom we share this planet.

The systems breaking down really fascinated me, particularly this idea that most of us don’t really understand how everything works. Is that something you’ve thought about for a long time?
Yes. It has bothered me for as long as I can remember. I don’t like to think of things as “magic boxes”. Press a button and they do something amazing through a process most of us cannot understand. It’s something I try to combat when I write about science. My son was also very good about instilling that need to explain. He used to jog with me when he was a little kid. One day when he was still in elementary school, maybe third or fourth grade, he asked me how an atomic bomb works. I don’t know what put that question in his mind, but there it was. I do understand the general idea of it, so that’s what we talked about for 10 minutes or so while we were jogging.

I think that there is a fear that lies behind the lack of understanding of the world. If we don’t understand how to make paint, how to make a fire by rubbing two sticks together (it is really hard), how to make a shelter or a system to pump water in and out of our homes, what will we do if we have to start again? Technology is not our slave. We are its slave. We are at its mercy.

2028 is only six years away. When Elon ponders how quickly everything fell apart and how everyone assumed it would be temporary, I couldn’t help but think of the pandemic and how it felt in the beginning (and pandemics are a symptom of climate change). You write, “Climate change was the most democratic of ends.” Do you believe we still have the ability — or personal responsibility — to change? Do you feel hopeful or doomed?
Believe it or not, I feel hopeful and I’ll tell you why. Bad as the pandemic has been, we’ve learned two things we did not know before. The first is that researchers have built a vast knowledge of basic science, and many or most have a steadfast dedication to solving problems. Yes, a great deal had been learned about coronaviruses over the years. Nonetheless we began 2020 with no vaccine and little reason to expect one anytime soon. Not one scientist I interviewed early in 2020 believed a vaccine could be developed within a year. Not one. Some thought maybe 18 months, but that was only if everything fell into place. Instead, extremely effective vaccines began going into arms before the year was out. I wonder how many people realize what an extraordinary technical feat that was. So I have faith that the best scientists will focus their high-powered intellects on the problem and find answers.

The second reason for optimism is that despite all of the shouting and complaining about wearing masks and getting vaccinated, we learned that we can change very quickly when forced. When governors instituted stay-at-home orders America turned on a dime. A large percentage of the country did what was asked, and the pandemic did recede for a time. The problem was that we let up too quickly. Many in public health knew it was too quick, but they feared asking Americans to sacrifice more. If there had been more and longer stay-at-home orders our economy would have been strained, but we would have gotten the virus under much better control, which would have given the economy a smoother path to full recovery.

What did you want to say with this novel that you couldn’t say as a science reporter?
The short answer is: We do not want the end that awaits us, if we fail to change our behavior.

It’s hard to get that across in non-fiction for a couple of reasons. First, we don’t know exactly what that end will look like. That takes a leap of imagination. Second, it has been hard to put a human face on the climate apocalypse. For example, there are distant places, where droughts have been occurring regularly, killing thousands of people. But their stories don’t make it through today’s news feed.

The problem struck me as similar to that of the Cold War: getting people to truly care about the threat of nuclear weapons. That threat was something I grew up with. I had nightmares of nuclear war. There were great books about the dangers and real life mistakes involving nuclear weapons. But I remember reading the Nevil Shute novel “On The Beach” in high school. That changed me. I cared so much about the characters. The death they faced from a slow-moving cloud of radiation headed for Australia made nuclear war real, urgent and heartbreaking. I took part in anti-nuclear marches in college. I would argue that fiction has the power to drag readers into the unthinkable — the places we’ve never been, thank God. Think of movies like “The Day After,” “Threads,” “Failsafe” and “Dr. Strangelove.” They are chilling in a way that is hard to capture in non-fiction (with the exception of John Hersey’s masterpiece Hiroshima).

I should say that the human face I’d like people to see is not that of any specific character in the novel. The face people need to see in the story is that of their own child, the person who will be left to live a much harder life because of the way we, their parents, have lived.

Did fatherhood influence your telling of this story? One of the clear threads is the ways in which we’ve cheated our children with our apathy toward climate change. 
Yes. Definitely. I was a coward about becoming a father. My excuse was that I was too selfish and would be no good at putting someone else’s needs above my own. The moment my son was born, seeing this tiny person I’ve helped bring into this world, that fear vanished. Once you have children, you learn about a kind of fear you never knew existed. When he was 2 our son, Evan, disappeared for 10 or 15 minutes in our backyard. That was the worst thing. The icy panic. The momentary thoughts that cross your mind: How would I go on if something happened to him? I am nothing without him.

I guess that sounds extreme. Think of it another way. I’m a reporter, a writer. That’s what I often tell myself.

No. From the moment Evan was born (he’s 23 now), my job was to give him everything I possibly could. Often I think about the world he will grow up in after I’m gone: the gifts of the planet that we’ve squandered, the harder life he will face, the human capacity for cruelty. It is not a good feeling.

Was it difficult to find a publisher?
I had an agent from a non-fiction book I co-authored about gene sequencing, so I went to her and said, “What do you think?” She took a look and said, “I don’t really work with fiction that much. Good luck.” A writing buddy of mine at The Tampa Bay Times, whose work I admire, introduced me to his agent, Jane Dystel. She had three people at her agency read the book. One said, Nah. The second was on the fence. Jane was the third.

She told me the deciding factor was that the book stayed with her after she finished reading. It lingered in her mind. She knew the structure (a hybrid of novel and short story collection) would make it a tough sell. It was neither fish nor fowl. I got lots of rejections — three rounds worth. Jane would send the book out to a dozen or so editors. Many said, essentially, ‘We like it a lot, but we’re just not in love with it.’ (That sounded a lot like what girls used to tell me in high school.) After each round of book rejections I would take the specific criticisms from all the editors and use them to rewrite the novel. Despite the rejections, I told myself I would not give up. One of my favorite publishing stories concerns Robert Pirsig, author of “Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Pirsig had his book rejected by 121 editors. The 122nd said that the book forced him to ask himself why he’d gone into publishing in the first place. He told Pirsig he could only offer a small advance and that Pirsig should not expect much in the way of royalty checks. But he told the writer not to be discouraged. It was a great book. The editor was right about the greatness of book, but wrong about the sales. Zen sold 5 million copies worldwide and stayed on best-seller lists for more than a decade.

It was similar for me — not the part about selling 5 million copies, but the part about receiving rejections. The last publisher I submitted the book to was the one that said Yes.

What are you working on next?
I’m finishing up a story on the science of empathy and why empathy seems to be in decline in America. There’s a fairly large body of neuroscience research examining how empathy operates in the brain. It’s fascinating. I’m also working on a second novel tentatively titled, “Pete The Arsonist.” I’m a little more than 80 pages into it.

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