Wednesday, October 22, 2008

SO Good Interviews Nature Writer Eric Pinder

Before his public reading on October 27th, So Good sat down to ask Eric Pinder the method behind his writing, his advice, and what is up with the unicycle?

So Good:
Most of your writing has to do with nature or the outdoors. How do you keep your work interesting with a medium that is so often overused/used incorrectly?

Eric Pinder: Well, some reviewers would say I don't keep my work interesting. Everyone has different tastes, and no matter how widely praised a book is, you'll find someone somewhere who thinks it's terrible. No matter how despised a book is, you'll find someone somewhere who thinks it's the best book ever. I guess the moral is, you can't please all the people all the time. So write about what interests you. If you're passionate about your topic, you'll find readers who are too.

Or use bears. It’s hard to be boring if you're writing about bears.

SG: How much of your writing would you say is motivated by a desire to conserve the earth or raise environmental awareness?

Pinder: I have strong opinions on certain issues, and I'm sure those opinions creep into my writing. But I don't think that’s the primary motivation, at least not anymore. It's there in the background, though. I spend a lot of time outdoors, climbing up mountains, getting chased by bears, and those experiences are always going to influence whatever I write, whether fiction or nonfiction. Lately, especially with the children's books, I'm more interested in teaching neat facts about nature and conveying my own sense of awe at how enormous and weird and fascinating the natural world is. I've become less interested in environmental politics. There always seems to be an underlying anger when it comes to politics. I'd rather convey a sense of awe than a sense of anger.

SG: Do you write any fiction, and if so what is your inspiration for it?

Pinder: I've only published a handful of short stories over the years, but did recently complete a novel manuscript. It's a mystery novel set in Maine. As with nonfiction, the things I'm most interested in help drive the story forward. Mythology, science (the main character is a high school science teacher) and nature all figure into the plot. I'm actually grateful to the Chicago Cubs for losing this year, because in one chapter there's a funny conversation between two characters about famous sports "curses." If they'd won the World Series, I'd have had to completely rewrite the chapter. So I panicked a bit when they made it to the playoffs. Until this novel gets published, I'll be rooting against the Cubs.

When I'm in the middle of a project, reading other books always helps spark new ideas. It doesn't even have to be a book on the same topic or in the same genre. Sometimes I'll be finished writing for the day and will go relax and start reading a Carl Hiaasen novel or something like that. Two paragraphs later I'll have to put the book down and run and find a scrap of paper or quickly get my computer to jot down whatever great idea it just gave me. That happened a lot when I was writing the novel.

SG: Who is/are your favorite authors and why?

Pinder: I could probably fill a book trying to answer this question. Among nature writers, Annie Dillard, John McPhee and Edward Abbey are my favorites. I like Dillard for her poetic language and philosophical digressions, Abbey for his humor, and McPhee for the way weaves interesting facts and people into his stories about nature. I suppose you could say that Dillard makes me think, Abbey makes me laugh, and McPhee makes me learn. I admire Loren Eiseley and Carl Sagan for their ability to make science interesting and understandable to a general audience.

Madame Bovary, by Flaubert, is one of my favorite novels. I liked this novel so much in college, I tried to brush up on my high school French in order to read it in the original. (I didn't get too far.) Flaubert's strength is how musical his language is. There's a cadence, a rhythm, to the prose. Some translations of Bovary fail to capture that, and end up sounding like someone whistling a familiar melody out of tune.

I ought to mention Herman Wouk, too, even though I've only read three of his books. For whatever reason, I keep reading and rereading The Winds of War and The Caine Mutiny, both set in World War II. Wouk's topic, style, and genre are nothing like what I normally read and write, but something about those books keeps bringing me back to them.

SG: What is your writing process like?

Pinder: Slow and painful. I've never been prolific and really envy writers who are. That's one of the reasons I'm sympathetic to Flaubert. He took five or six years to write Madame Bovary, and he was in agony the entire time.

Recently I shocked one of my friends by saying, "I hate writing." She stared at me with a mix of horror and exasperation. "So why have you been doing it all these years!?" she asked.

The answer is that I really, really like finishing a piece of writing. The accomplishment of finishing a story, an essay, or a book and seeing it in print makes all the suffering worthwhile. The hard part for me is getting started. My routine, in theory, is to force myself to sit in front of the computer with Microsoft Word open for at least two hours a day. No playing minesweeper, no checking the news, no talking on the phone. If I can’t think of anything, I don't have to write, but I do have to sit there. Usually that gets me writing just out of sheer boredom. And often I'll get on a roll, lose track of time, and suddenly realize that the sun has set, my stomach is grumbling, and I've been writing nonstop for ten straight hours. Other times I'll struggle for two hours, shut down the computer, and go for a bike ride instead.

SG: Are there any generally accepted practices in nature writing that you feel are overdone or don't like working with?

Pinder: In honor of the recent presidential debates, I'm going to dodge and evade this question to disguise the fact that I can't really think of a good answer. There is one thing that should probably be included more often in nature writing: people. People, with all their foibles and conflicts, keep things interesting. You can write beautiful descriptions of the trees and the eagles and the sun setting behind the mountains. But put a person in the wilderness, and suddenly the reader has someone to relate to. Put two people there, especially two people who don't get along, and suddenly you have narrative tension, conflict, and the start of a good story.

SG: Do you ever worry about coming off as too ‘granola’ or pushy when you write about things like humanity invading the outdoors, like in your book "North to Katahdin"?

Pinder: I think writers, as narrators, should strive to be neutral in most cases. We all have our biases and opinions, and those opinions are going to show through in our writing no matter what. But if you have two characters arguing about a volatile topic, try to make the character you personally disagree with the most win. You won't succeed, but the attempt will make the story less heavy-handed. I can't remember where I read that, but it's good advice. I haven't always taken that advice. Looking back at things written years ago, there are places where I wish I'd phrased things differently. One sentence in particular in North to Katahdin makes me cringe a little.

John McPhee is a good example. In Encounters with the Archdruid, he somehow talked a radical environmentalist and a conservative, dam-building engineer into getting on the same raft for a week-long trip down the Grand Canyon. Meanwhile, McPhee watched them squabble and took notes. How he talked them into it, I don't know. But as a narrator, McPhee remains remarkably neutral. It's hard to tell whose side he's on, at least at first. I think that makes the story compelling. "Pushy" environmental writing only preaches to the converted, and that doesn't seem as useful or effective.

One nature writer who is "pushy," without apology, is Edward Abbey. He's the exception. I suppose you can get away with being pushy if you're also very funny. I've been trying to find one universally loved (or at least universally liked) story or essay, and for a while I thought it might be Edward Abbey's essay, "Down the River with Henry Thoreau." Abbey gets in a canoe on the Green River on the eve of a presidential election and spends the next week mercilessly poking fun at Thoreau, politicians, and his vegetarian friends. It's very funny, and there was one semester when everyone in my nature writing class seemed to like it. (Thoreau himself didn't fare so well.) But even "Down the River" has its detractors. I'm still looking for that one universally loved piece of literature.

SG: Recently you've been working on writing for young adults and children. How is this different than your usual style, and what changes have you made to accommodate your younger audience?

Pinder: Writing children's books--especially picture books, Dr. Suess-type books--is in some ways like writing poetry. Every single word has to count. There can be no stray words, no digressions or indulgences on the part of the author. Meter and cadence are important. You'd think it would be easier to write a kids' book than, say, a novel, because it's so much shorter. But you end up spending almost as much time making every line perfect. Sentence structure has to be simpler. You have to be more like Hemingway than Faulkner. But vocabulary doesn't have to be as simple as you might expect. I know a four-year-old who regularly uses words like "paleontologist," which he picked up from children's books about dinosaurs.

SG: How have your experiences with the business of publishing changed your outlook on getting works into print?

Pinder: Publishing is a slow business. If a magazine accepts one of your stories, you might not see it in print for six months or a year or more. Books can take even longer. I've always wanted to be a writer, but if I'd known back in high school how long it would take and how difficult it would be to achieve any kind of success, I'd probably have given up right then. It's a very competitive business. Unfortunately, the business side or writing requires at least as much time as the artistic side of writing. It took me a while to realize that.

SG: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Pinder: Persistence pays off. Keep writing and keep submitting your work, and don't let rejection slips discourage you or intimidate you. A single rejection means nothing. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was turned down by a hundred different editors. Then it turned into a New York Times bestseller and has been in print for decades.

SG: And finally, what’s with the unicycle?

Pinder: I think unicycles should be part of every school's science curriculum--it's a great way to learn about the theory of gravity. Not sure what prompted me to buy a unicycle. One morning I woke up and wanted one. Maybe it’s an early mid-life crisis. My friend Sarah said I should write a magazine article about learning to ride a unicycle, and then I can deduct it as a business expense on my taxes. I think I'll do that.

For more information on Eric Pinder you can check out his website www.ericpinder.com and his new book
Among the Clouds: Work, Wit, & Wild Weather at the Mount Washington Observatory.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Great interview. I loved North to Katahdin. Thanks for the writing tips.