By Jeannine Hall Gailey
What’s the first thing you think of when I say the word “apocalypse?” If you think of bleak landscapes reminiscent of Mad Max, The Road, or The Hunger Games or zombies; well, you wouldn’t be alone.
When I started writing my latest book, Field Guide to the End of the World, I was thinking of the grimness of the news footage, politics, civil wars…even the weather reports sounded frightening, with their floods and snowpocalypse, the occasional meteor passing close by the earth. The grimness of today’s YA literature and movies, in which every government is sinister, every adult is out to steal your blood or control your mind and life isn’t about happy endings, but rather a set of confusing and meaningless experiments run by shadow organizations. The dour headlines of scientific news: endless stories of killer antibiotic-resistant germs, global warming, that we’re heading for a sixth extinction, also inspired more than one poem.
I started this book thinking about one of my mother’s job titles, the head of “disaster preparedness” and how ridiculous it is, really, to plan for disaster. I lived in California when I started writing the poems in this book, and of the two apartments I rented, the one in Southern California burned down, and the one in Northern California had its street ripped in two by an earthquake. Living in California will give one an acute sense of apocalypse that way. But I found that Californians were remarkably forgetful, optimistic, hopeful in the face of fire, mudslide, earthquake. Was it the sunshine? The way pomegranates and lemons, avocados and strawberries grew in everyone’s yard, available every roadside stand? What was their secret to cheer in the face of chaos?
I also was struggling with some ongoing health issues, trying to figure out how to respond to life’s hilarious practical joke that was my physical self. I ended up in the hospital with double pneumonia, in a wheelchair from multiple injuries, and diagnosed with brain lesions all within a couple of years. Trying to navigate life from a vantage point of being acutely aware of limitations and mortality—well, let’s just say I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be one of the tough ones that survived an end-of-the-world scenario.
So I started thinking about how to face adversity, disaster, and YA Lit’s horrific futuristic dystopias with a mixture of American optimism, practical application of hope, and the sort of gritty survivalism practiced by my Appalachian relatives and passed down in various things like Almanacs and Foxfire Books. What should our response to the end of the world be? Turning to religion? To friends and family? To hording ammunition, canned and freeze-dried foods, and seeds? In my futuristic dystopia, Martha Stewart dispenses post-apocalypse advice and a wandering survivor writes and mails off postcards to an unknown loved one. She considers options: Smoky Mountain tourist chalet? Luxury hotel in a decimated Santa Monica? Cabin on a Northwest unnamed island?
Is it possible to face disaster with light-heartedness? Is there any benefit, after all, to bitterness, cynicism, and despair? I think Jean de La Bruyère said, “Life is a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel.” (I originally thought this was Voltaire, but he has an entirely different but amusing quote: “You must have the devil in you to succeed in any of the arts.”) I may not 100 percent behind that quote, but I do believe that even the bleakest scenarios will not be as bleak as we fear (or the best scenarios as cheerful as we hope).
Lately I was given a pretty serious and scary diagnosis, a terminal one. My response was to turn to gardening, to walking in parks (out of my wheelchair for the time being,) getting a kitten, writing poems. I said no to things I didn’t want to do, which it turned out was a lot of things. I spent time with people who made me feel happy. I watched 1940s comedies. If the time we have is short, my reasoning goes, let’s make the best of it. Let’s party, as my deceased musician hero Prince said, like it’s 1999 (or 2012, as the apocalypse of choice warrants.) Celebrate the hot air balloons rising in the distance, the glass of wine in your hand on a hot night, the hummingbird buzzing your shoulder. Let’s not give up celebrating until the very last moment.