Nature Writer Interviews
April Pulley Sayre, Lyrical Science, Nov. 2015
Tom Moorhouse, River Singers, Oct. 2015
Robin Moore, Lost Frogs, Sept. 2015
Wendy Townsend, Lizard Lady, Aug. 2015
April Pulley Sayre, Lyrical Science
April Pulley Sayre is an award-winning children’s book author of over 55 natural history books for children and adults. Her read-aloud nonfiction books, known for their lyricism and scientific precision, have been translated into French, Dutch, Japanese, and Korean. She is best known for pioneering literary ways to immerse young readers in natural events via creative storytelling and unusual perspectives.
In 2008 Sayre accepted the Theodor “Seuss” Geisel Honor Award given by the American Library Association for her book, Vulture View. It was also named a finalist for the 2008 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for excellence in Science Books. Stars Beneath Your Bed: The Surprising Story of Dust, won the 2006 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books and was named an 2006 ALA Notable Children’s Book. One Is a Snail, Ten Is a Crab was a 2004 ALA Notable Children’s Book and a 2003 Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books Blue Ribbon Book. Dig, Wait, Listen: A Desert Toad’s Tale received a Riverbank Review Children’s Book of Distinction, and was the 2001 ALA Booklist Editors’ Choice. The Bumblebee Queen marked her third win of the John Burroughs Award.
I see you’ve eaten piranha in Peru. They’re tasty, aren’t they? Especially fried! I live in Cusco and enjoy hearing about people’s experiences of the country. What brought you to this corner of the world?
APS: My husband and I visited Peru to go birding, study nature in general, and check out some lodge sites where we were thinking about leading ecotours. We hope to return someday. The diversity is incredible!
JG: Judging by your page on Amazon, you are a prolific and very successful children’s author. In addition to being entertaining, your books are informative, educational and inspiring, with a strong basis in science. Some even promote healthy eating! In your experience, what sort of nature stories do children respond to with most enthusiasm? What is the best compliment you’ve received from one of your young readers?
APS: It’s not set in stone what will intrigue young readers. Most of all, it’s the passion of the author and the skill with which they convey that passion. It doesn’t really matter what that passion is about. Tactile details, mysteries, oddities, pathos—it can all attract young readers if authors share it properly. The only thing that does not go over well is nostalgia. As adults we have connections to some things because they are related to our personal experiences or experiences of a generation. Kids are coming fresh to a topic, in general, so the nostalgia ties do not work.
I have had all sorts of lovely responses from readers. My favorites are from families who have bonded through reading my books or young scientists who find inspiration from reading my books. I love it when kids write and say they are motivated to write or study science after reading my books.
JG: You've made me think about nostalgia and at what age kids first experience it...Which books influenced you most as a child and who are your favourite authors now?
APS: I think field guides, such as the Petersen’s Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, have had the biggest influence on me. I also collected old poetry books until I discovered they bothered my allergies and made me sneeze! My favorite authors today are still field guide authors. I love when someone writes a book that shares their scientific passion. One of my favorite books is Caterpillars of Eastern North America by D.L. Wagner. I also have a special fondness for The Field Guide to Wildlife Habitats by Janine M. Benyus. And now, I’m married to a field guide author because my husband Jeff, a plant expert, co-authored Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest.
JG: Speaking of scientific passion, my popular/scientific book about giant otters, Giants of the Madre de Dios, co-authored with my husband, certainly was such a project. If you were asked to choose a favourite amongst your own books, which would it be? Why are you proud of that one in particular?
APS: I can’t choose one favorite. But I do have a special fondness for my recent book, Raindrops Roll, because it’s my first book with nature photography. Vulture View, illustrated by Steve Jenkins, is another one whose words stick in my head and I love how he illustrated it. And Stars Beneath Your Bed: the Surprising Story of Dust is a book that has layers of meaning for me and many others who read it, as well.
JG: Tell me, what do you find most difficult about writing for children?
APS: Writing can be joyful, bubbly, and a breeze. But it can also just be plain hard work, requiring tenacity and grit. That is true whether it’s for kids or adults. It’s not coal mining kind of hard work but it is a different kind of slog, one that has to be very self motivated. Your brain gets tired, your body gets cramped from working long days on projects which are a total gamble. There’s no telling if they will be published or if anyone will care. I do sometimes fifty or more drafts of a piece of writing, and the many stages of production, once I’m working with an editor and art director, can be intense, too. It’s pretty crazy the lengths that we go to to make a book as perfect as possible. Usually, the easier a book appears, the harder it was to actually create. You have to leave your ego at the door and cut away many slices you thought were drippingly beautiful and crucial to the book before you find the perfect words, flow, and images for young readers.
JG: Yes, indeed! In 2014 I published a book for Matsigenka children in southeastern Peru. It was a full year in the making. If I'd known beforehand how much work I was taking on I might have thought twice before starting it! Have you ever written a nature book of some sort for adults? If not, would you consider doing so in the future?
APS: My most recent book for adults is called Touch a Butterfly: Wildlife Gardening with Kids. Years ago my husband and I co-authored a book about hummingbirds. I have also written a book of essays about the creative life. That is self-published. I would be happy to write another book for adults. But I’m so busy with books for young readers, I don’t know if I’ll get around to another book for adults for some time.
JG: I know you are a keen naturalist and gardener. Somewhere I read that you believe “Planting a tree and seeing it grow is one of the most rewarding things you can do for wildlife and your family.” Could you give us some advice on how best to plant a tree?
APS: Dig a hole larger than the root ball of the tree. Twice as wide and deep. Loosen that soil and maybe add some better soil, if necessary. Keep an eye on the level of the tree, where it is in the pot. Place it at that level in the ground. You don’t want to overbury the tree. In the temperate zones, fall is a good time for planting trees because they are more inactive and can get settled before the heavy growth season of spring and summer. Or, my favorite way to plant a tree around here is this: Let the squirrels do it for you. Then rethink your garden plan around what they’ve done!
JG: I wish we had a few squirrels here in Cusco. We need more trees! On your FB page you mention you followed Liz Cunningham’s journey in the writing of her book ‘Ocean Country’. It is good to see such support for fellow nature authors. I reviewed Ocean Country a few weeks ago and agree with you that it is an important read, especially, as you say, for people ‘trying to find the emotional courage to face an environmental issue.” Which environmental issue do you feel most strongly about and how do you cope when confronted by our destructive nature?
APS: She did a beautiful job with that book. I read many of the chapters as she was working on it and was there as she struggled through earlier parts of that journey. She’s inspiring. I’m a tree person so destruction of forests, both rain forests and temperate forests, is gut wrenching for me. It does not get easier. I compartmentalize and I move on to what I can do. I addressed this issue in a post I wrote.
JG: Thanks for sharing your post, April. You make excellent points. One of your recommendations, to spend time in nature, is something I don't do enough these days... I’m highly intrigued by The Slowest Book Ever, which wll be released in April 2016. Please tell us about it?
APS: The Slowest Book Ever is for grades 3-7. It’s a quirky, at times humorous dive into scientific creativity. It’s about slow animals, slow science, slow art, slow digestion, and staring at slugs. It’s a little like one of those awesome, brain frying conversations one has with creative, scientific people—the kind where you’re staring at stars and so charged up with ideas about the world that you overlap one other with the joy of blurting out thoughts and chewing over them. It’s that—well, sort of!
JG: Now I'm more intrigued than ever! May we know a bit about your next major project?
APS: My next big project is about the science of sound.
JG: That's a succinct answer :-) Lastly, April, what advice would you give to writers and photographers wishing to connect their audience with nature?
APS: I think there’s a lot of room for how-to kind of materials for parents and kids with interests in nature. Such material, in written and video form, can be powerful. The more specific it is, and regional it is, the better. If you know the plants or animals of an area, share that. Don’t ruin it by making it too general or too cutesy or just doing fiction. Fiction has its place—I love it! But that, too, takes finesse and skill. Lots of great scientists and nature writers run away from their strength: real world facts and experiences. They get confused and think giving a cutesy name and human-centered story to a nature element will make it a kids’ book. In fact, that can ruin the material. (I’m not saying that can’t be done well. It can be. But it can be a road to disaster in many writers’ hands.) Kids want to know about the real world, too. Kids have a lot of pride and they like to be respected, as thinkers. Never forget that, and your writing will work out, just fine.
JG: That's valuable advice, April, thank you. And thank you for slipping this interview ino your busy schedule. Your book concepts are so unusual, imaginative, and diverse, you've given me lots of food for thought. Best of luck with your science of sound project!
Tom Moorhouse, River Singers
Tom Moorhouse is a strange hybrid being, half children's author and half research ecologist (an entity probably not called an "authologist"). His debut novel The River Singers (published 2013) was nominated for the 2015 Carnegie Medal and longlisted for the 2015 UKLA and 2014 Branford Boase awards. It follows the adventures of a family of water voles as they journey down the Great River in their battle to escape a new and terrible enemy. Its sequel The Rising (published 2014) sees the voles facing their most dangerous enemy of all: the Great River herself. His books have so far been translated into six languages, the French translation winning Le Prix LibbyLit for junior fiction in 2014. He works for Oxford University, writes for himself and is published by Oxford University Press.
JG: Tom, I’m delighted to have this opportunity to talk to you again. I say ‘again’ because we first met, albeit briefly, in Oxford through our links with the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU).
I am currently mid-way through reading our copy of The River Singers to my two kids, while avidly studying your craft. In an early chapter, the barbed dialogue between Daphne and Mistress Valera made me chuckle. And the part where Daphne falls prey to the mink brought tears to my daughter’s eyes. To create that kind of emotional connection is what every author longs for. But did you set out to write with any other particular goal in mind?
TM: That's an interesting question, because I think the answer is both no and yes. I had the goal of writing a fun, engaging book about water voles, and showing their world with all its dangers and beauty, while keeping the action going and the characters squabbling (i.e. behaving as much like contemporary children as possible within an anthropomorphic water vole novel). But a lot of what I now see I was attempting to achieve - with the benefit of hindsight and afterthought - I was probably oblivious to at the time. In a sense I think that's what writing is all about - you have a feeling for where you want the story to go, and you are guided by that feeling... and sometimes it's only when the story is drafted out that you go "Oh, that's what I had in mind!" - and then you can tweak and edit to make the themes clearer, and to make your thoughts a bit more concrete. It's kind of like whittling away at a block of wood. At some point a shape becomes clear and you think: "I'll carve that into a horse."
JG: I know that you visit schools to talk about your books and work. In this age of video games and television, have you found that kids still enjoy a good animal story? What has been the most difficult hurdle you’ve had to overcome?
TM: To be honest, there have been no hurdles connecting with children whatsoever. It's a really easy sell. They LOVE animals and love finding out about them. If you put up a picture of a water vole, and start telling them about the water vole's life - then asking them questions about why they think females leave droppings in piles and things like that - they are all rapt attention, and all want to show off what they know about nature. Basically, everyone loves animals and everyone loves good stories. Combining the two is always going to be a winning combination at school events.
JG: So far you have written two novels with animal characters, The River Singers and its sequel The Rising, and I believe you’re currently working on a third, Trickster. Do you envisage yourself ever writing a similar novel for an older audience, along the lines of, say, Watership Down, Duncton Wood or The Art of Racing in the Rain? What kind of mind shift and approach would that require?
TM: Actually Trickster is done - and it's coming out in February 2016 (with, I might add, an extremely cool cover)! I certainly would write for an older audience, but probably wouldn't make it animal fiction. Animal fiction (I think) is a subset of a wider genre which could be termed fantasy or magic realism - but Terry Pratchett thought that term was pretentious, so let's go with fantasy. It's all about putting characters with human traits into a world that is alien to the reader, and full of danger - and then we can look to see what sort of people our characters actually are. So I would continue with that general theme, but use fantastical situations as a device to explore different characters and situations.
And of course writing for older audiences requires a different writing style. That's not a problem per se. (As an aside, a lot of people seem to think that children's authors are somehow lesser types of author, and can't write for grown-ups. I haven't tried an adult book, but knowing how difficult it can be to get the tone just right for a particular age of children, I suspect that if you can write for children you can write for anyone... but I digress.) It can, however, take a lot of experimentation to hit the right tone for the type of story you are writing. I think that's a generally applicable rule - every story has to be right for its audience and for the sort of story it is; and that's all a question of the tone, and its constituent parts (pacing, language, sentence length, rhythm etc.).
JG: Having two keen young readers myself, I can well believe that writing for children is just as much a challenge as writing for adults! Did you have to put up with a bit of ribbing from your fellow WildCRU researchers about your water vole personalities? After all, many scientists are critical of people who anthropomorphise animals.
TM: Not at all, thankfully. I think there was a sort of generally supportive bemusement surrounding my getting published. But they made allowances for the fictional nature of the books. I wouldn't have got away with talking water voles in any of my papers, though!
JG: I love the look of your novels, the covers and illustrations are stunning. How much input did you have in the cover design and illustrator choice?
TM: They really are stunning, aren't they? I can say that because it was essentially out of my hands (barring "we like really this, we hope you do too" sorts of remarks). Simon Mendez is the illustrator and he's just a massively talented individual. Having seen a range of his work I'm in awe at his abilities.
But yes, in answer to the question I didn't have a huge amount of input, and that's a very good thing. I'm very clear that my talent is writing, NOT graphic design or illustration. After a while you start to develop a feel for what a good cover looks like, but there are many, many unnamed people who contribute to a book, each with their own talents and expertise - weights of paper, lines per page, hardback or softback, numbers of illustrations... these are all decisions that need to be made and which an author isn't necessarily the best equipped to deal with. Especially on his first book.
JG: Tell me, how do you find the time to be both an ecologist as well as a writer? I imagine one feeds the other, but they are both full-time jobs. What does your daily routine look like and what sacrifices do you find yourself making? Have you been tempted to focus entirely on your writing?
TM: Sometimes something's gotta give. When I started writing The River Singers I was still working five days a week as an ecologist. That meant that most evenings and all weekend I was writing...which in turn meant that I was spending all day, every day, in front of a computer. I lasted about two months before I was miserable. So then I dropped my ecology career down to four days a week. Working four days as an ecologist meant that I wrote The Rising and Trickster at about seven days a week, with the occasional day or evening off. This year I dropped down to three days a week (which is about as little as I can do and still call myself an academic). So I'm essentially working six days a week, but get a day off a week and most evenings free. For the moment this suits me just fine. And it is tempting to focus entirely on writing, but I suspect I'd miss the challenge of academia. I think I've found a nice balance.
JG: Yes, I have often thought that without my part-time job to take me out of the house and among conservation people, I’d be in danger of becoming a laptop-bound hermit. What is your current field of scientific research?
TM: I'm studying ways of educating people about the impacts of the exotic pet trade and of visiting wildlife tourist attractions overseas. (Spoiler: if you buy an exotic pet or visit any non-zoo tourist exhibit with animals, that isn't a wildlife sanctuary, then you are very likely to be doing something with massively negative animal welfare and conservation implications. So be very, very careful what you buy and what you visit.)
JG: Sadly, there is a strong tradition here in Peru of keeping wild-caught animals as pets and I would say most people are ignorant of the impact of the wildlife trade... I notice in The River Singers you don’t attempt to directly bring humans and their impact on nature into the picture. Yet, as an ecologist, I imagine you succumb to moments of frustration and dismay at what we are doing to the environment. Was it a deliberate decision not to address the human angle, perhaps to avoid preaching? And what is your strategy for coping with the daily barrage of bad news? Do you think we have reason to be hopeful about the future?
TM: Yes, I deliberately kept humans out of it. People don't need preaching-at in a story... the second children get a whiff of the lecture theatre they are out of the story and the book's on the floor. There's a much more subtle way of getting the message across, which is to show the lives of the animals, and show what they're up against, and make them heroic and likable, and to make the story exciting and perilous, so that when it's done some child somewhere might ask, "Hang on... where did the mink come from, and how can we help the voles?" And for me that's job done.
Regarding being hopeful for the future...sheesh. No idea. Personally I'm an eternal optimist, but I have moments when I think "How on earth can we stop all this stupidity from happening?". If I could sort it all out tomorrow I would. But nobody can, so we all just carry our own grain of rice to the anthill, and that's all we can do.
JG: That’s an excellent point, about getting the message across, in effect by showing rather than telling :-). May we know a bit more about your current/next major project?
TM: I have a few ideas on the go, but at the moment I'm writing a series of books aimed at 7-9 year old readers. I'm not sure how much I can give away, but let's say they involve a certain green-coloured gentleman with a predilection for fast cars and large riverside properties... I hope that's sufficiently obscure. More will become apparent soon!
JG: Oh, exciting! I suspect I know the main character... Lastly, Tom, what advice would you give to writers and photographers wishing to connect their audience with nature?
TM: Make it fun. Make it a breathless, adventurous and hilarious adventure. Make the stakes high, and the characters strong. And make the nature beautiful and deadly. People love nature. They just need to be shown why.
JG: Yes, indeed. Thank you so much, Tom, for your time and writing insights. I wish you lots of success with your current and future projects and will keep my eyes peeled for your coming publications!
Robin Moore, Lost Frogs
Since venturing into the rainforests of Cameroon at age 20 to study chameleons, Robin Moore has been a powerful advocate for often-overlooked animals. After gaining his PhD in Biodiversity Conservation, he headed up the amphibian program at Conservation International, where he spearheaded some of the organization’s most innovative campaigns to raise the profile of this, the most threatened group of vertebrates. The Search for Lost Frogs was the largest coordinated global search for species lost to science and resulted in 15 rediscoveries, 650 news articles in 20 countries and a billion potential viewers. Robin has documented the search in narrative and images in his recent book, In Search of Lost Frogs, which was featured as one of the best nature books of 2014 by the Guardian, Mother Nature Network and the Dodo.
Robin is a Senior Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers and uses his photography to challenge perceptions and inspire change. In 2010 Robin co-founded Frame of Mind to empower youth to connect with their natural and cultural worlds through photography and visual storytelling. The initiative has proven to be a powerful platform for giving marginalized youth in Haiti a voice in the future of their country. Robin currently works with Global Wildlife Conservation and the Amphibian Survival Alliance to advance conservation of threatened species and ecosystems around the world.
JG: Robin, I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to talk to you and grateful to Wendy Townsend for introducing us. The more I explore your work and website, the more questions I have!
First things first: how did you come to be involved with chameleon poo?!
RM: Haha. When I was doing my undergraduate degree in Zoology at Aberdeen University (in Scotland), the time came for our final year projects. While most people found something local, I decided to head to the jungles of Cameroon in West Africa. I had always had a fascination with amphibians and reptiles, and chameleons just seemed so exotic and fascinating that I chose them as my study subjects. There were eight species living on the mountain where I would be staying, and I decided to look at how the eight species partitioned resources to allow them to live side by side. One of these resources was food – and, it turns out, one way to find out what a chameleon has eaten (without harming the chameleon) is to let it poop, and then dissect the poop. I would capture chameleons at night, keep them in a large net cage for 24 hours, and release them and collect their poo. Because the diet consists mainly of insects, there are many hard parts that cannot be digested and pass through the gut. I filled a notebook with drawings of wings and legs as I tried to identify them.
JG: When I lived in Tanzania as a child we kept a chameleon and fed it insects from our garden. But I can’t say I ever studied her poo! Gerald Durrell was an important influence during my childhood. You received your Ph.D in Biodiversity Conservation from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE). Can you tell us a little about that experience?
RM: Gerald Durrell was a very formative influence for me – his book My Family and Other Animals resonated deeply as I found so many similarities with my childhood (at least from the animal perspective – I’m not sure my family was quite as eccentric!). I stalked a professor at DICE for some years before I snagged a funded Ph.D there, with fieldwork on the island of Mallorca. I remember finding out via letter that I had been offered the scholarship when I was in the middle of a rainforest in the Philippines, and I was absolutely elated. I felt extremely privileged, and it just felt right to be doing my PhD somewhere named in honour of Durrell.
JG: You are evidently a person of many talents: an extraordinary photographer, a compelling storyteller and, to top it all, a skilled painter. How do you think your experiences as a child “chasing frogs and newts across the Scottish moors” influenced your creativity and your life choices?
RM: Well, you are very kind. I have been lucky to have had the opportunity to indulge my passions and develop my talents. And I am not just saying this to try to sound humble – I genuinely believe I could easily have gone through life without ever developing my skills as a photographer or picking up a paint brush or trying to write a book – I just happen to have followed a path that has allowed me to be flex my creative muscles in these areas. If I think about my creative endeavours, they are all informed and inspired by a connection with the natural world. My experience chasing frogs and newts across the Scottish moors definitely piqued my curiosity, but it was also driven by a predisposition to explore what the natural world had to offer. I think that growing up in an environment where I could form a meaningful relationship with the natural world certainly has influenced my creativity and life choices.
JG: On your Facebook page, you don’t call yourself a wildlife photographer, or a nature photographer, as many do, but a conservation photographer. I imagine this was a considered choice. Tell me, how do you see yourself, in your role as photographer, contributing to conservation?
RM: I was trained first as a scientist, following a path that most with an interest in the natural world tend to follow. Research satisfied my curiosity and allowed me to be in the field. But I saw a career in research taking me down the road of increasing specialization and removal from real world application. While I would end most publications with “these findings have significant implications for conservation”, deep down I knew that in reality they probably wouldn’t. It was a way of justifying the value of my work, to the reader and to myself.
After starting a Post Doc I decided to move closer to having an impact on protecting species and habitats by transitioning to a conservation NGO, with a focus on supporting conservation projects and garnering support for the protection of amphibians. But I would still rely on facts and statistics to justify to people why people should care. “A third of amphibians are threatened with extinction – and therefore we should do something about it. We are causing x number of extinctions per day, and therefore we should do something about it.” But people generally don’t really care, and these facts and figures wash over them easily. You can’t tell people what they should care about – you have to lead them to feel it. What I learned when I started to bring photographs and stories from the field was that these connected with people in a much more visceral and direct way. A photograph and associated story about an individual frog can be much more powerful than statistics about thousands of species. Beyond a magnitude of one we become desensitized, and photographs can bring it back to the individual level – they allow us to connect directly with a person or an animal and their story. And that is how I try to use photographs to promote conservation – through individual images and stories I try to connect people with issues affecting species and ecosystems around the world in a way that resonates on an emotional level.
JG: Somewhere I read that you “go into a zone” when you photograph. Describe this zone to me?
RM: That zone is a place where the chatter in my head dissipates and I am completely present in the moment. I become singularly focused on freezing that moment; on translating a personal experience into something with universal resonance. This makes me very attuned to what I am feeling, as it is this feeling that I am trying to capture and convey, regardless of the subject. If I cannot convey that feeling then the photograph will be dead. It is a zone of heightened awareness.
JG: I experience something very similar when I write; not always, but when I’m lucky. Tell me, what appeals to you most about “our scaly and moist friends, the reptiles and amphibians”?
RM: I always found them fascinating - ever since I can remember. I think what first captured my interest was their prehistoric looks - they reminded me of little dinosaurs (and indeed have been around since the dinosaurs). Watching a tadpole hatch from a jelly egg and transform into a froglet was almost like watching the great exodus of life from the water to the land. That just blew my mind! Growing up in Scotland, I didn't have much choice in terms of wildlife that I could interact with, but I could go out and find frogs and newts, and I could collect spawn and raise tadpoles in my bedroom. This afforded me an intimacy that I never got with birds or mammals. Had I had pandas in my backyard my life might have taken a different course. But I had frogs and newts, and they invited me into their world. And as with most things in life, as I grew to understand them, I only became more interested. The fact that there are more than 7,000 known species of amphibians means that there is no end of surprises - I continue to be amazed.
JG: David Attenborough said he’d “never met a child who was not interested in natural history”. My son is a passionate frog-lover. The transformation from tadpole to frog is one of the most fascinating and accessible in nature. How do you feel about children taking tadpoles home to witness the magic? What advice would you give parents?
RM: I would never discourage a child who wants to take tadpoles home to witness the magic – I believe this is such an incredible experience. I had the opportunity and would not like to deprive others. The reality is that many species lay tens of thousands of eggs, most of which will be predated as tadpoles, so collecting a few to raise at home is not going to dent the population. The main things to ensure are that you are not moving animals or water from one pond to another (and potentially moving disease), that you are collecting relatively common species, and that you have permission from the landowner of the pond or stream from where you are collecting the tadpoles! There are plenty of resources online for how to properly raise tadpoles so I won’t go into this. I would also add not to purchase tadpoles from a pet shop, raise them, and then release them into the wild – this could result in the establishment of exotic species and the spread of disease.
JG: Thank you, those are important guidelines. You recently highlighted a passage from George Monbiot’s article ‘Why We Fight for the Living World: It’s About Love and It’s Time We Said So’. When it comes to nature, I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve. I thought most nature lovers did. So I was a bit taken aback by Monbiot’s words that “By being honest about our motivation we can inspire in others the passions that inspire us." Do you agree with him that we sometimes fail to be honest? If so, why do you think it is difficult for us to simply admit we love nature?
RM: I actually believe we do sometimes fail to be honest. I think if we follow our passion into a career, there can be pressure to suppress the emotional side in a bid to be taken more seriously. As a researcher I found it quite a challenge to write scientific articles because they had to be objective and dry – it didn’t feel a natural way to write. Writing a book was an incredibly liberating experience for me because I could say what I wanted – I could express what it was about amphibians I found so fascinating. In the conservation world I think many people feel the need to make arguments about the protection of species and ecosystems that are based on science. We talk of Ecosystem Services and make economic justifications for why a species or a place should be saved. But in making these arguments that appeal to reason rather than emotion, we assume that people base their decisions on reason (which most often is not the case!), and we are perhaps not being entirely honest about why we think these species or places should be saved. This is where the arts have a role to play – they provide a vehicle for connecting with people on a more emotional level. We tend to separate the sciences and the arts but I think there needs to be a stronger union between the two.
JG: You explain Monbiot’s words better than he does himself! A few weeks ago I commented to my husband that being a conservationist sometimes feels more like a curse than a blessing. I was reminded of Aldo Leopold’s words: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” What is your strategy for coping with these wounds? Do you think we have reason to hope?
RM: Funnily enough, I read this quote again the other day and wrote it down! Well, I think without hope we have nothing. I think as a species we are capable of blinding stupidity, but I think we are also capable of incredible compassion and phenomenal resourcefulness. We are complex as a species and as individuals – I too am capable of both extremes (especially the stupidity)! But I try to find examples of compassion and resourcefulness to inspire me. The days when everything seems hopeless are tough. But, some days, glimmers of light come through and I chase them. Yesterday, we announced a new reserve in Guatemala for salamanders that were rediscovered after not having been seen for over 30 years. That is just amazing. We live in an incredible world in which new species are being discovered and lost species rediscovered, and where an international team comes together to save salamanders. Being a part of something like that – well, it gives me a phenomenal sense of purpose, and this keeps me chipping away.
JG: On your website, you mention you “discovered the incredible potential of photography and storytelling to connect a message with a broad audience.” Your book ‘In Search of Lost Frogs: The Quest to find the World’s Rarest Amphibians’, combining words and photos, has been a resounding success. What was your specific aim with this book?
RM: My specific aim was to tell a story that would connect with a very broad audience. I knew the photos would be a big part of the appeal, but I did not want this to be viewed as a coffee table book of pretty photos, since I spent a year crafting and writing the narrative. Publishing it was fairly nerve-wracking as I waited for a response - I felt I had poured my soul into it and so was pretty sensitive to feedback. Ultimately, I wanted people to come away from this book with a different perspective on amphibians. They are typically overlooked in favour of the more "charismatic" creatures, even though they are the most threatened group of vertebrates. They deserve their share of attention. The Dodo featured it as one of 14 books that changed the way we think about animals - and that's awesome. The feedback has been amazing.
JG: It’s well-merited. May we know a bit about your current/next major project?
RM: I am currently working on a collaboration among Global Wildlife Conservation, The Grammy Museum and California Science Center to deliver a conservation message through high profile musicians. There will be a visually stunning travelling exhibit and concerts, and I think it’s going to be a really exciting way of engaging people in conservation through music, photography and film. The exhibit is going to open in LA in early November. I am also working on a film about an impending environmental crisis in Jamaica (threatening the Jamaican Iguana – one of the rarest lizards in the world). Lastly, I am developing ideas for broadening the “Lost Frogs” concept to other groups.
JG: Finally, what advice would you give to writers and photographers wishing to connect their audience with nature?
RM: When it comes to photography, it is less about depth of field and more about depth of feeling. If you love what you are shooting or writing about, try to convey that feeling and don't let the medium get in the way. Don't get distracted by the competition (other than to gauge your own progress or draw inspiration) or the need to have the latest and greatest equipment - ultimately it’s the story that matters. Focus on what you are trying to say, and why you really care about this, because that will be how you get others to care. In terms of writing, don't try too hard. I say this because when I started writing my book I tried way too hard, as if I had something to prove, but I found my writing improved dramatically when I relaxed. I imagined I was writing for one appreciative reader - and that helped me to feel less overwhelmed. I probably still have a tendency to over-write, but I'm working on it ;-)
JG: Yes, Stephen King says every writer should have an Ideal Reader. Mine are my parents... Robin, thank you so much for these fascinating insights into your life, and for the work you do to help conserve endangered amphibians and reptiles. I wish you every success in your future projects!
Wendy Townsend, Lizard Lady
Wendy Townsend is a graduate of the Vermont College MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She is a lifelong lover of animals and has shared her home with many large lizards since she was eight years old. Wendy is on the faculty at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. Her third novel, Blue Iguana, was recently short-listed for the 2015 Green Earth Book Award.
JG: Hi Wendy, I’m so pleased you agreed to participate in this author interview. The moment I finished reading your essay The Gift of Connecting with Animals, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit and wanted to learn more about you.
First things first, why do you write?
WT: I hated to write all through high school and college. I’d write a sentence and scratch it out immediately, because it was dumb and awkward. But I found out that writing could be my own way to say what I wanted and needed to. So I had to get over myself (still working on that) and put words on paper no matter how awkward it felt.
JG: Well, you’ve clearly come a long way since then! Which authors/books inspired you most as a child?
WT: Island of the Blue Dolphins was my all-time favorite. The Jungle Book, of course, though I didn’t like it when Rikki-Tikki-Tavi killed the mother cobra and her eggs. I loved a book called Golden Dog, about a girl in Australia who spends her days with all kinds of animals, and then, White Ghost Summer, also about a girl who moves from the city to a big house near a park where there are horses. I read nonfiction, too, about dinosaurs and reptiles around the world.
JG: Reptiles, and especially lizards, hold a special place in your heart. An Amazon search reveals you’ve written three Young Adult novels, all with a theme of connection with animals: Lizard Love (2008), The Sundown Rule (2010), and Blue Iguana (2014). Of which novel are you most proud, and why?
WT: I’m proud of the Prologue to Lizard Love, which is the story of the origin of my love for wildlife. The rest of the book is awkward at times, like the character. I was trying so hard to learn to write fiction! But I did it, and though I didn’t feel completely satisfied, it’s still a great story. The Sundown Rule is well crafted and I’m proud of that, and happy that I got to tell about some of the wildlife in the Midwest, and how I love crows. It’s actually a ‘middle grade' novel, pre-coming-of-age, and that voice comes more easily to me than the teen voice that’s so complicated and filled with angst. I love Blue Iguana because I got to tell about some amazing lizards, and about how one very sensitive young person begins to find her place in conservation work. One of the best compliments I received about the book was that it “brings to light what would otherwise go unnoticed.”
JG: I have a young nature-loving daughter; I will buy her a copy of Blue Iguana for Christmas. I know she’ll love it. And then I can read it myself! In your essay you wrote that, as a six-year-old girl, you wanted a frog to know you were his friend. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wished an animal to know this, that I could be trusted and meant no harm. And I think you’ll agree there are few greater privileges than being trusted by an animal.
Your words “When a praying mantis visits my rose bush, I stop what I’m doing and go outside to see her closely—to see her head turn to see me” reminded me of my great liking for jumping spiders. Have you ever watched one, let it walk over your fingers? If you do, you’ll see it turn its head, or look up at you. They’re fearless and so appealing. Tell me, what is your most memorable encounter with an animal, whether wild or pet?
WT: We are definitely kindred spirits! I adore jumping spiders, and yes, being trusted by an animal is an immense gift. If only we humans could all see that!
What we tend to forget is that animals look at us, too. Dogs study us to know our emotions and indeed, jumping spiders watch us with great curiosity. When we think we are the only ones who see and feel, we isolate ourselves by disregarding the emotional lives of animals –we harden ourselves when we are indifferent to what they endure by our unchecked expansion on the planet. Actually, in the essay, I wanted the frog to know that I was his friend, but more than that –I wanted him to know that I loved him.
My memorable encounters are so numerous! But I’ll tell you about meeting a rhinoceros iguana named Mao in 1991. I entered his enclosure and sat down on a rock, just to watch him –he was so big, more than twenty pounds-- a magnificent lizard with a real presence. He came to me and investigated my sneakers, and presented himself for a rub. When he climbed into my lap and tilted his head to see into my eyes with his gray ones, I never wanted to leave him. Ten years later I was finally able to provide a home for rhino iguanas. The lizard in the photo is Sebastian, Mao’s grandson.
JG: I have to say, I hadn’t heard of rhino iguanas before I met you. They are imposing animals, dragons brought to life. How do you feel that fiction and non-fiction books can appeal to readers to care about wildlife and nature?
WT: Whether fiction or nonfiction, the connection we have to animals needs to be emphasized. Readers must not believe that we are separate from animals. The “natural world” is not some other world; it’s the one we all live in, and all beings, human and non-human, have not only a purpose in the ecosystem, but a right to exist and thrive for their own sake.
Nonfiction can give readers a portrait of animals in the wild, showing their lives and ways of being, inviting curiosity instead of fear. For instance, a rattlesnake is not a cold-dumb creature that slithers through the bush with no intent but to bite people, but is in fact a sentient vertebrate animal, like us, that bears live young, and can experience fear, pain, contentedness, and more.
I love a good story. Fiction can really go into the emotional experience of our connection with animals. In a story about a child and an animal, we are free to follow the characters on a journey of discovery, loss, struggle, triumph, and love. And citing Cousteau again, “we protect what we love.”
JG: You wrote “Scientists who want readers to care about biodiversity loss can take a lesson from my favorite authors, those whose passion for wildlife gets readers to laugh, cry, and take action.” I long to know now, who are your favourite authors?
WT: There are so many wonderful writers doing fantastic work for animals and the environment! And to be honest I am not up-to-date on my reading! I think of things I’ve read that resonate, like Severn Cullis Suzuki’s 1992 speech at the Rio summit, and Joseph Bruchac’s poem, “Birdfoot’s Grandpa.” Then some of my favorite authors are Martine Leavitt, who wrote Blue Mountain, about bighorn sheep and their struggle to survive. Terry Tempest Williams –her passion for what’s happening to wildlife is unrivaled in its vividness and strength. I love Jane Goodall’s book Through A Window, and Jerry Spinelli’s book, Wringer, which perfectly captures a boy’s choice to stand up for what he believes. Joseph Monninger’s Hippie Chick is about a girl and her connection to manatees –it’s fabulous. I admire Temple Grandin’s work, I look forward to what Robin Moore writes next, and then one of my very favorites is Sy Montgomery.
JG: I thought I was well-read when it comes to nature writers but you’ve given me a treasure trove of works to investigate. I recently finished Meadowland: the private life of an English Field, by John Lewis-Stempel, and I found myself envying the author’s profound connection with his meadow; he is one of its residents, as much as the vixen, the mouldywarp (mole), the curlew. You describe how a place you knew as a young child was dug up by bulldozers and how the animals you had known were being run over by increased traffic. What is your coping strategy to deal with this kind of change and the resulting heartache?
WT: Good question –I am glad to know that I am not alone in having a rough time coping. I carry terrible images in my head that I have to push away all the time. There’s no escaping the heartache. But I remind myself that it’s okay to be happy. I tend to my lizards and tell them I love them and do all I can to give them a good life. I get back immense comfort and joy. Being kind to animals and people whenever possible helps. And then, writing.
JG: Coming now to the craft of writing, in our conversations before this interview you mentioned that, as a writer, “learning to trust your voice is one of the hardest things.” Could you elaborate on this statement?
WT: We don’t live in an era or culture that encourages us to trust our instinctual, emotional natures. We are intellect-driven. In my early education I got it in my head that my creative impulses were awkward and sentimental and not good. But in the Vermont College MFA writing program, I learned that emotion carries the energy that’s needed for a good story, and that learning to trust my voice means trusting my instinctual nature. If you really think about what makes a book great, it’s the emotional connection you form with the characters, or the subject. The same can be said about painting, sculpture, photography, a great performance in theater or music. And nature –being in the forest or the sea or the desert is coming home, in essence, and connecting with wildlife is connecting with what is instinctual.
Watching a spider build a web –that privilege of being trusted by an animal– connects me with my humanity. All of this is inchoate; words can’t quite get there. The closest I can get is to say that I feel grace. All the sad feelings, all the happy ones merge together so that I feel whole and present with my feet on the ground. This is being alive and to feel the relatedness to all life puts me at ease and I don’t feel so alone. It’s also a big part of why I live with lizards. My lizards are tame; their fight-or-flight response is not driving them (though biological ones do), yet they are still wild animals. Not domestic. I pay attention to their eye and head and body language that is showing me how they are feeling. A relationship of respect means that I don’t get bitten and my exchanges with them are meaningful, more equal, more being-to-being, less keeper and kept.
JG: You also mentioned in our correspondence that “working with a good editor has been the best education, and my most fortunate gift.” I’d love to hear a bit more about this experience. How did you meet your editor, and what makes a good editor in your opinion?
WT: I met Stephen while I was in the MFA Program. He saw the story I was trying to write before I did. But rather than tell me, he asked questions to help guide me in understanding the story for myself, since after all, it was my story and I was the one who needed to write it. A great editor knows that a writer needs to grow into his or her ability and that may take one, two, or even more books. And so I am very fortunate, because today’s economy does not allow for such patience in publishers!
JG: The best books on craft in your opinion are Robert Olen Butler & Janet Burroway's From Where You Dream. Also, Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. Why these in particular?
WT: Both emphasize the connectedness between imagery, emotion, and energy. Ueland’s book is intensely supportive of the human spirit, imagination, passion, and how to bring all this to the craft. One of many great things she says about the struggle to write a scene is that it is not yet deeply enough imagined. This is exactly right: until you can really see what’s happening in your mind’s eye, you will grapple with words on paper or screen, and that’s not where the story is happening. Joan Didion said, “The picture in your mind tells you what’s going on in the story. It tells you, you don’t tell it.” From Where You Dream –the title says it all. The book follows a workshop led by Butler and offers one way of organizing the structure of a story through seeing it scene by scene. It’s a great approach that helps you feel less overwhelmed when you begin, or even revise a story.
JG: I have yet to read From Where You Dream, but yours is the second recommendation of this book so I will get hold of a copy. Please tell us a little about your next writing project?
WT: The story I’m working on now has been simmering on the back burner for a long time. I’ve filled notebooks with bits of dialogue and images, feelings, and lots of questions. Why this story? What must I say? What does my character really want? That’s not always clear. But now I think I’ve got it. And there are definitely lizards in the story!
JG: Lastly, what advice would you give to writers wishing to connect their readers with nature?
WT: Find the connection in you. Make it personal. That doesn’t mean it has to be about you, it means bring the energy of the passion that connects you and all of us to the story. Nonfiction can be just as powerful as fiction, and that energy has to be there. Here’s an example: I wrote an op ed for CNN about what’s happening to the Goat Islands in Jamaica. Of course, the plight of the Jamaican iguana cuts me to the bone, and of course I’m terribly upset about the devastation of so many animals’ and people’s lives. But the central force of the piece is the yearning and heart-breaking voice of a young man in a video, talking about what’s happening. I connected with his loss and his plea for conservation –for sanity, really—and that drove the piece.
JG: I entirely agree with you that nonfiction can pack the same punch as fiction, if written with passion. Wendy, thank you so much for sharing some of your nature writing and animal experiences. I’m delighted to have met you through your writing and I hope one day to meet you in person. In the meantime, I will keep an eye open for more of your work. Let’s keep in touch!