Nathaniel Rich: A Storm Foretold

Nathaniel Rich: A Storm Foretold

Odds Against Tomorrow book coverNathaniel Rich discusses the eeriness of seeing the New York-ravaging hurricane at the center of his post-apocalyptic novel Odds Against Tomorrow come to life in Superstorm Sandy.


Zola: In your book, New York City is devastated by Hurricane Tammy—a close fictional counterpart to last year’s Hurricane Sandy. Did Sandy inspire Tammy, or did you conceive of Tammy before Sandy? If the latter, did you have to do much revising after witnessing the effects of Sandy?

Nathaniel Rich: I began writing Odds Against Tomorrow in 2007. I was reviewing the final copy-edits when Sandy hit. I chose a hurricane for the novel’s climactic event because I learned that it was the catastrophe most likely to hit New York City in the near future (which is when the novel takes place). I endured six hurricane seasons during the composition of the novel, each year wondering whether my fantasy would be scooped by reality. I thought I was in the clear, but then Sandy hit in late October, at the very tail end of the season. It was eerie, to put it mildly.

But I had to change almost nothing. That’s because I had drawn all of the technical information about the hurricane from reports by government agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers, which predicted the effects of a catastrophic hurricane on New York in exquisite detail. Those predictions turned out to be accurate, which made the novel’s account of a catastrophic storm accurate as well. Although those who reported on Sandy made it sound like a huge shock, the truth is that scientists and federal officials knew exactly what would happen.

Zola: Your protagonist, Mitchell, is a math wiz whose Poisson distributions and Fibonacci sequences allow him to predict disaster. Did you already know the math required to write such a character, or did you learn it as you wrote him?

NR: The job of the novelist is to learn enough about his subjects that he can write authoritatively about them. That’s true whether a character is a mathematician, a soldier or baker or prostitute, a mother or father, a child or a senior citizen. I didn’t have to become an expert statistician, but I did have to learn enough about Poisson curves and stochastic processes to write about Mitchell without embarrassing myself. There is one very scary formula in the novel that I don’t understand, but I had a mathematician friend verify it for me.

Zola: While Mitchell is, throughout most of the novel, afraid of impending doom, his college friend Elsa seems able to accept it. When it comes to dealing with potential crisis, which of these two characters do you resemble most?

NR: I resemble them both. I’m hyperaware of all the bad things that are coming for us (thanks to Mitchell) but I’m also an optimist. Mitchell and Elsa, at least as they appear at the beginning of the story, occupy two opposite poles of the fear spectrum; I think most of us lie somewhere in the middle. But I also think we all have our Mitchell moments, as well as our Elsa moments. As the journalist Willi Schlamm once said, “The only respectable attitude of the educated man today is one of objective pessimism, and subjective optimism.”

Zola: Mitchell also tends to obsess over his work. Do you? What are your quirks and habits as a writer?

NR: Looking back over my work—not just Odds Against Tomorrow and The Mayor’s Tongue, but also the nonfiction—I can see that obsession is my big theme. One reason might be that I obsess in my own life, beginning with work. I force myself to work every single day, no matter what. When writing the first draft of a novel or short story, I try to hit 1000 words a day. It’s an arbitrary number, but I’ve found that it’s a helpful target for me. I outline rigorously, too, but usually drift from the outline as I get deeper into the work.

But I have other obsessions, too: my hot sauce collection, for instance, or the New York Mets (a truly unhealthy obsession). Or, most recently, my worm farm. I probably spend way too much time with my worms.

Zola: Since your novel deals so amply with the future, what lies in store for its author? What are you working on next?

NR: I’m obsessing over a new novel about obsession.

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.