The Writers Rebel event in Trafalgar Square. Photo by Ben Sullivan

The past week or so has seen Extinction Rebellion organise massive climate protests in as many as 60 cities worldwide. On 11 October in London’s Trafalgar Square, a group within the movement staged an event featuring Simon Schama, Ali Smith, Naomi Alderman, Helen Simpson, Susie Orbach, AL Kennedy, Paul Farley and Daljit Nagra, among others.

We caught up via email with one of the organisers of Writer’s Rebel, the novelist and academic James Miller, to find out more. The interview contains links to further information. These were added by us.

How did Writers Rebel come about? 

It started with a tweet from Monique Roffey saying she thought writers should do more to address the climate crisis in their work. My second novel, Sunshine State was a cli-fi novel (and largely ignored/ dismissed as unrealistic at the time) so this resonated with me. A few of us got together – initial conversations didn’t lead much beyond slightly dull discussions of doing something safe and academic, like a conference or whatever. Another founding member, Liz Jensen, said her son was heavily involved in XR and from him we met writers and XR activists Jessica Townsend and Roc Sandford who were separately thinking of beginning a writers project within XR. We all formed an organising circle and Cath Drake came on board at that point and Chloe Aridjis a little later.

Via Jessica we were able to get a slot in Trafalgar Square/ Burning Earth stage from XR and we realised this would be the most amazing place to stage a literary event. However on the day, were dismayed to find that the police had overnight taken away the stage and the sound system had been removed to prevent it being confiscated so Jessica  had to work her XR network hard to make sure there was any event at all!

Does Writers Rebel have any specific aims in addition to those of the wider Extinction Rebellion movement? 

At the moment we’re all exhausted and reeling from the success of our event and have yet to have a meaningful discussion about our wider aims. However, we are thinking about how we might draw up a manifesto for writers engaged in telling the truth about the climate crisis. Speaking personally, I believe writers have an ethical duty to engage with these issues: for me, this means our work must explore the impact of the crisis and looming ecocide, whether implicitly or explicitly – it’s not something we can ignore any longer. Writing about the weather can never ‘just’ be about the weather. I also feel that writers with a public platform now have a duty to speak out, to do what they can to spread the word and influence public opinion – we need to put intense pressure on our politicians to impose the structural changes necessary for our survival.

The Writers Rebel event in Trafalgar Square, London, on 11 October. Photo by Habie Schwarz

What was the response to the event in Trafalgar Square? 

The response has been incredible. There were hundreds, maybe thousands in the crowd and the event when viral on social media – and we’ve had messages or tweets of support from so many great writers: Margaret Atwood, Amitav Gosh, Irvine Welsh, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Kamila Shamsie, Nick Laird… Zadie Smith recorded a beautiful reading for us as she couldn’t be there in person. We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of new followers – I think for many concerned people in the industry, not just writers but publishers, agents, booksellers, readers, this was something they had been waiting to see. Plus, of course, the incredible generosity and passion of our performers – all of whom gave their time, talent and energy to make the event (conducted in the chaos of an on-going illegal protest, surrounded by police, with the audience engaged in non-violent protest by blocking the word) something quite unique.  

What’s next for Writers Rebel?

Again, this is something we as a group need to discuss. We are hoping we will be able to hold more events and continue to engage with BAME and other voices that have perhaps been a little neglected or excluded from some aspects of XR. Again, speaking personally, I don’t see us as having any real ‘ownership’ of Writers Rebel – rather I hope we can develop it as a platform for other writers around the world to create their own events. Again, in my personal opinion, if you’re a writer an you’re worried about climate change and your work engages, in some way, with the issue, you are a Rebel Writer.

How can people get involved with the Extinction Rebellion movement?

Join your local group. If there isn’t one, set it up yourself. All the tools you need are on-line, you just have to agree with the fundamental principles. It’s a decentralised organisation made up of semi-autonomous groups unified by a common objective – it’s up to the concerned individuals to act. 

You can find out more about Writers Rebel on Twitter here.