Left: Cover of Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (2009). Right: A view of a home in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. (Photo: Rebecca Solnit)

Rebecca Solnit is the author of ten previous books, including Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West (1994), Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000), and River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (2003), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Mark Lynton History Prize. Her latest book is A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.

THE 1989 LOMA PRIETA EARTHQUAKE IN CALIFORNIA was an extraordinary event for me: I remember noticing that people appeared to be having a relatively positive experience. I also observed that my own emotional tenor shifted radically; even my sense of time and place shifted. After 9/11, I found that people were having what I couldn’t possibly describe as a good time, but what you might call a “deep” time. If one of the problems besetting American internal life is shallowness, suddenly people found some satisfaction, purposefulness, and unity, and for a couple of weeks an openness to rethinking everything about our role in the world.

I was invited to give the Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture at Jesus College of Cambridge University in 2004, and I thought––in honor of Williams––that I should start something new, so I decided to do a lecture on the subject of disaster. This was not long after the publication of my book Hope in the Dark [2004], but for at least a decade before, I had been writing about the personal and emotional sides of public and historic events.

I didn’t necessarily expect the subversive positivity of disasters to play such a large role in my research, but I became interested in the ways that such events have been misrepresented by the media and the film industry, as well as the studies of disaster sociologists––who for the past sixty years have done extraordinary work documenting the constructive and imaginative responses to catastrophes. It’s as though I thought I was opening a door to a room, and the door opened to a huge landscape that I then felt compelled to explore.

After the talk, I published a piece in Harper’s, which went to press the day Katrina hit. This immediately involved me in trying to interpret Katrina and provide a counter to all the (untrue) narratives of marauding barbarians and savagery that the media, pundits, and a lot of elected officials were creating. I hesitated a bit after Katrina, as I wasn’t sure if this was the material that I wanted to commit myself to for the next few years, but it felt so important and so divergent from the ways that people are given to imagine what happens during disaster that I felt I had to do it.

One crucial discovery during my research was the writing of Charles Fritz. Disaster scholars seem to revere him, though they would also say he is a little too perfectly sunny. He writes, with inspired clarity and precision, that everyday life can itself be a kind of a disaster in which we’re alienated and suffering from a sense of purposelessness. He argues that disaster can amend all those things, which is why it can be a tremendously positive experience. He also points out that illness, suffering, and death go on all the time—that it’s not as though these things only happen during disasters. It’s similar to what William James says about the 1906 earthquake in what may be an ur-essay for disaster studies: that we’re not alone. James says it so beautifully: “Surely the cutting edge of all our usual misfortunes comes from the character of their loneliness.”

I also drew on the research of J. K. Gibson-Graham, two women economists who write as one voice and who discuss existing counters to capitalism. Their work made me see more clearly what I had talked about in other ways in Hope in the Dark: that our society is purportedly capitalist but sustained by a host of unaccounted-for gestures of altruism, generosity, barter sharing, and other forces that keep the official system from entirely destroying us. And even though the rhetoric is always, How can we start from scratch to find something good?, while writing the book, my rhetoric instead became: How can we work with the good that is already there to make it more pervasive, more available, and, most important, more visible?

I wanted to incorporate that last question into another: What are the altruistic, improvisational, and sociable responses that disasters provide us with? For one, they give us a sense of the depth and intensity of our desire to be members of civil society, to belong and connect and do meaningful work. The task is not simply to respond better to disasters (which are intermittent) but to rethink who we are and what is possible every day. It’s very much a prescriptive and a utopian book in that sense.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler