Why We Co-Wrote a Novel: The Offset by Calder Szewczak

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By Calder Szewczak

One of us wanted a child and the other didn’t. It was from this difference that our co-written novel, The Offset, was born.

No one ever asked Emma why she wanted children. But Natasha would be asked, all the time, why she didn’t. We found this disparity both intriguing and disturbing. Surely the decision to have children should require more justification than the decision not to have them? Of course, we both had more than an inkling as to why that wasn’t the case, living as we do in a society that is still largely heteronormative and constantly enforces the idea that a woman’s most important function is to bear children, to the point where women are made to feel insufficient and incomplete if they either cannot or choose not to reproduce. It’s no understatement to say that they are not fully considered women unless they have children. And this, of course, they must do in the “right” way; at the right age, with the right person and with the right amount of money in the bank.

But times are changing, and it is no longer always assumed that having children is the right thing to do—at least, not in our small part of the world. In recent years, more and more people have started grappling with the idea that to have children is to speed up the death of the planet and the demise of all humankind. It is to fill up the carbon-choked atmosphere with yet more carbon; it is to add to the mounds of trash filling up the Maldives; it is to take food from the hungry mouths of others. It is to take up space. It is to pollute. It is, ultimately, to kill.

It’s no secret that having fewer children is by far and above the most impactful way to cut your carbon footprint. Switch to a plant-based diet? That will save you 0.82 tonnes of CO2 per year. Cut out a single transatlantic flight? 1.6 tonnes. Eschew your car in favour of public transport? 2.4 tonnes. But have one fewer child? 7.8 tonnes.

(c) Kaity Barrett

The conclusion seems obvious: the fate of the planet depends on fewer of us living on it. With every child we bring into the world, we are adding to irreversible decline; heaping stress upon stress onto an already failing ecosystem. All parents are guilty of adding to this burden.

Imagine, though, that you could banish this guilt with a fair compromise. If you could have children in a way that wouldn’t add to the population, because—when the time comes—you could step aside for your child, thereby opening up a place for them to take. And your child would get to pick which of its biological parents they want to replace: which one of you they want to live, and which one they want to die. Seems fair, right? A life for a life. A wrong is righted and balance restored.

Would you do it? Would you choose to have a child, knowing it could cost you your life but not, necessarily, the world?

This is the world of The Offset, in which those who do choose to have children must justify their decision, and not the other way around. Anti-natalism, the ethical view that one ought not to create new people, rules the day and most decide against ever reproducing in the hopes that doing so will help to save the burning planet on which they live. Those who choose to have children suffer the consequences: on their eighteenth birthday, every child picks one of their biological parents to die as a carbon offset for their own life. 

If the concept behind The Offset is a matter of balance, then so too is the book itself, which is centred on a single family: half of it belonging to mothers Alix and Jac, and half to their daughter Miri, just on the cusp of her eighteenth birthday.

It is in this context that Jac and Alix must ask themselves: why did we have a child? And was it, in the end, worth it?

At the same time, Miri—who struggles to understand how her parents could ever have decided to bring her into the world—is staring down the barrel of her own life-changing decision. In two days’ time she must choose which one of her mothers will die to make way for her, and she finds herself torn between the mother she loves and the mother she hates who, incidentally, is working to save the planet. Somehow, Miri—although still, really, a child—must shoulder the responsibility of not merely deciding her family’s fate but that of the world. Like all of our children today, Miri has been asked to shoulder the responsibility for a planet that others have destroyed. In that, we force our readers to ask themselves a question usually not required of them: why would you do this to a child? Why do you want to have children?

(c) Calder Szewczak

Twitter @calderszewczak

Author photo credit: Kaity Barrett

About The Offset:

It is your eighteenth birthday and one of your parents must die. You are the one who decides. Who do you pick?

In a dying world, the Offset ceremony has been introduced to counteract and discourage procreation. It is a rule that is simultaneously accepted, celebrated and abhorred. But in this world, survival demands sacrifice so for every birth, there must be a death.

Professor Jac Boltanski is leading Project Salix, a ground-breaking new mission to save the world by replanting radioactive Greenland with genetically-modified willow trees. But things aren’t working out and there are discrepancies in the data. Has someone intervened to sabotage her life’s work?

In the meantime, her daughter Miri, an anti-natalist, has run away from home. Days before their Offset ceremony where one of her mothers must be sentenced to death, she is brought back against her will following a run-in with the law. Which parent will Miri pick to die: the one she loves, or the one she hates who is working to save the world?

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Calder Szewczak is writing duo Natasha C. Calder and Emma Szewczak, whose debut novel The Offset is published on 14th September 2021 by Angry Robot. Emma and Natasha met while studying at Cambridge University. Natasha is a graduate of Clarion West 2018 and her work has previously appeared in The Stinging Fly, Lackington’s and Curiosities, amongst others. Emma researches contemporary representations of the Holocaust and has published work with T&T Clark and the Paulist Press. Find them on Twitter @calderszewczak

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