In the Spotlight: Susan Watkins

What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?

I had seen the previous year’s call but wasn’t in a position to apply because of responsibilities in the UK. When I saw the advert again, things had changed, so I was really excited – I desperately needed a space for reading, thinking and collegial conversation after the pandemic and various other things. I thought: ‘I HAVE to apply for this!’

What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?

As you probably know, higher education in the UK, especially in the humanities, has been under sustained attack from the central government – the government recently tweeted about ‘cracking down’ on ‘low value’ degrees – and by this they mean humanities degrees for students from disprivileged backgrounds (lots of members of the government have humanities degrees themselves, but that’s OK if you’re posh). So, these are apocalyptic times for anyone teaching and researching English Literature, but also for the humanities in general, where there is a crisis in the perceived value of the humanities, who it is for, what it does that is worthwhile. In the context of other apocalyptic changes like Brexit, Covid, anthropocentric climate change and right-wing populism, we need more than ever to sustain research and study of the humanities, literature and culture. I often think of the ‘slow apocalypse’ described in something like Octavia Butler’s Parable novels (written in the 1990s but set in 2024 onwards), where there is no one all-consuming destructive apocalyptic event; instead, there is a horrible endurance of a series of slowly-occurring apocalyptic changes to society and culture. And people believe for a long time that these can be remedied.


What is your fellowship trying to achieve?

My project is about how we view ageing in apocalyptic terms in the Global North, as a disaster for both the individual and society. For example, we use phrases like the ‘silver tsunami’ and ‘demographic ticking time bomb’ to refer to the implications of an ageing population, and we think of ageing as a process of apocalyptic personal decline. Instead, I want to think about how we could view ageing as a process of adaptation – in the cultural studies sense of adapting texts from one medium to another (e.g. novel to film). Theorists of adaptation in the humanities have moved away from discussing how faithful an adaptation is to its source text and towards thinking of it as a creative space for improvisation. Perhaps we could think about ageing in those terms instead? I will be looking at how speculative fiction is capable of adapting ideas and sources in order to offer different visions of ageing and the future. 

How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography?

Previously I’ve worked on dystopia and apocalypse with particular reference to gender. My most recent book was Contemporary Women’s Post-Apocalyptic Fiction (Palgrave, 2020). In that book I argued that women writers tend to view the apocalypse differently from male writers. Because of their position in a patriarchal society, women are less invested in the status quo or things as they are, so after an imagined apocalyptic event, women writers are less interested in nostalgia, or recreating what went before, and more concerned to transform society and change it for the better. I’ve always loved speculative fiction, including sci fi, utopia, dystopia, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. I have worked on Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing, both writers who turned to speculative fiction later in their writing careers. They found something in this genre that allowed them freedom to think differently about the world and society and culture, and that is what interests me about this form of writing.

What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?

By the end of the fellowship, I’m hoping to get to the point where I have a pretty good book proposal ready based on the CAPAS project. And then once I return to the UK, I want to write the book about ageing and the apocalypse. 

What are the aspects you are looking forward to at CAPAS? 

I’m very much looking forward to the working groups, the lectures and the new perspectives from different people with backgrounds in disciplines and contexts other than my own. I also really need the time of the fellowship for cultural conversation and thinking with other scholars– a big refresh after the difficult work and isolation of the pandemic.

To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?

I think a huge ‘Prepper’ style bunker – that’s the only thing that’s going to cut it. But you couldn’t share that with everybody, which is inherently unequal/ unfair and that’s a big problem. I think I’d be like the mother figure in The Road – just call it and say time’s up.

What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse?

In fiction, Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). In film, older sources like The Omega Man (1971), which was remade as an inferior film (in my view) I am Legend (2007). The novel on which both are based, by Richard Matheson (published in 1954) is also good. Another recent novel I really enjoyed is Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God (2017) and I also have always loved the film Logan’s Run – in which everyone has to die at the age of 30 – I remember watching that at my friend’s house when I was quite young – it had a big impact.


Susan Watkins is Professor of Women’s Writing at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. Her research focuses on contemporary women's writing and feminist theory, with particular interests in dystopia, apocalyptic fiction, ageing and the future.