Nature in Fiction: An interview with Glendy Vanderah
Glendy Vanderah's Where the Forest Meets the Stars is an Amazon Charts, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post bestseller, will be translated into 11 languages, and has a phenomenal 4000 overwhelmingly positive reviews on Amazon (UK and US combined). It is Glendy's debut novel, a love story that has touched the hearts of tens of thousands. For me, it had an added attraction: one of the main protagonists is a biologist, like me, who conducts research on nesting birds, and Glendy herself is an endangered bird specialist. We share another connection: by an extraordinary coincidence, Glendy's husband, also a renowned ornithologist, has spent many weeks at the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Peru, for which I serve as the Communications Coordinator. What was that about 'six degrees of separation'?!
Over the past two years I have read and enjoyed LOTS of non-fiction nature writing, but found myself also increasingly interested in how and why fiction writers incorporate nature themes into their work. I resolved to read more such fiction - Richard Powers and Barbara Kingsolver are next on my list - and Where the Forest Meets the Stars seemed an excellent place to start.
Some time has passed since I read it (life has a habit of interrupting my plans) yet the characters of Jo, Gabe, and Ursa remain fresh in my mind. The novel focuses on their individual stories and how they come together, but nature, too, has an important presence. Glendy's handling of the 'nature connection' thread is light and deft: think spider's silk rather than nylon fishing line. By the time I finished Where the Forest Meets the Stars I was curious to learn more about Glendy herself, especially her transition from field biologist to fiction writer, and she kindly agreed to 'join' me in an interview, with a focus on featuring nature in fiction.
Glendy, which books influenced you most as a child and who are your favourite authors now?
I started going to a public library by myself at a very young age. The selection at the little library was limited, but I didn’t know or care because the idea of checking out books was like a dream for me. I devoured stories about animals. I liked E.B. White’s books, and The Secret Garden and The Yearling. I was thrilled to learn what a ‘naturalist’ is from many books written by Joy Adamson and Gerald Durrell. I discovered I loved fantasy when I read Sheila Moon’s Knee Deep in Thunder. As an adult, my reading is as eclectic as it was when I was a child. I read contemporary fiction, magical realism, fantasy, science fiction, young adult, nonfiction science, and really anything that captures my interest. I love poetry, especially Mary Oliver. I can’t name particular authors I love. Typically I’ll like one book an author wrote, but not ALL.
How do you think your experiences as a child, “studying every creature in my parents' tiny, wild-grown backyard”, influenced your creativity and your life choices?
I was raised in a Chicago neighbourhood where ‘nature’ was small yards with mowed lawns, a few trees, and trimmed shrubs. But my yard had more wildlife than most because my mother had planted it with fruits and flowers that grew ever wilder as her mental illness subdued her interest in gardening. We had untamed thickets of concord grapes and raspberries, currant bushes, an old tangled apple tree, and overgrown lilacs, peonies, and irises. The snow storm of fluffy seeds that came from our three cottonwood trees every summer was magical. The yard was an important escape for me when situations in my house became unbearable. Whole new worlds could be explored by the simple act of turning over a rock. I discovered how to be still and gentle with animals from teaching squirrels and baby cottontails to feed from my hand. The fascinating variety, and often brutal interactions, of insects provided drama that distracted me from my own harsh world. At age ten, my first ‘novel’ was about an ant that meets other insects, good and bad, during her journeys. As I got older, I conducted small experiments, such as setting out foods for birds and seeing which they liked best. That was when I started telling people I wanted to be a zoologist. I suppose my escape into my backyard did have a lot to do with who I became. I still remember every detail of its nature fondly.
Your website bio states that you studied writing, literature and poetry for several years. Did you do online courses or read books on writing? Become a member of a writing group or critiquing site? I'd love to know more!
In my twenties, when I was working as an avian biologist at University of Illinois, I felt something was missing from my life. Science didn’t satisfy the creative urges I’d had since I was a child who could spend hours drawing pictures and writing poems. I started writing courses at the University as a non-degree student, and also pursued watercolour and nature photography. I loved my poetry and literature classes, but unfortunately my writing classes mostly focused on nonfiction writing (popular science articles), and I discovered I didn’t like that kind of writing. As I approached age thirty, I thought I had to make a decision about my future and choose a direction. I decided to get a master’s degree in biology rather than in writing. I’ve often wondered how things might have been different if I’d tried writing fiction at that time.
Your Instagram bio mentions nature connection, and Rachel Carson once said: "There has never been a greater need than there is today for the reporter and interpreter of the natural world." In Where the Forest Meets the Stars, Ursa's first miracle is a nest with baby birds. Did you consciously set out to connect your readers with nature on some level? Have any of your readers commented on your use of nature metaphors, such as the concept of 'nest' – "these little secrets of the wild" - and the setting of the forest to develop a sense of place?
Yes, almost anything I’ve written has some theme of nature connection. I suppose that’s because nature connection is such a huge part of who I am. When I look at today’s world, I see so many people who are disconnected from the earth that created them—and I often wonder how many of humanity’s increasingly dire problems are related to people’s unacknowledged, spiritual hunger for nature. In answer to the last part of your question, many readers have appreciated the nature metaphors and descriptions in Where the Forest Meets the Stars. Other readers are more focused on the plot and characters. The book has several layers of meaning and readers can go as deep as they want.
Someone recently commented that "writing focused on the natural world carries a stereotype of reverence and awe—and, often, boredom for the reader". Does your own awareness of your readers' potential reactions affect how you write about nature?
Years ago, upon hearing I had started to write fiction, a friend said (advised), “I don’t like stories with lots of description. I don’t want paragraphs about what a tree looks like. Just forget the damn tree and get on with the story!” Around the same time, I discovered my kids had been bored with the long nature descriptions in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling. When I was a child, I’d found the nature in that book fascinating, but now I saw that the general population wasn’t necessarily of the same mind. I decided to write brief nature descriptions in Where the Forest Meets the Stars. During the editing process, when I tried to add more explanation about Jo’s science, my editors asked me to remove it. I’m not resentful about this. They knew better than I did how much science a general readership wants, and I’d rather my writing connect with more readers than a select group of nature or science lovers.
What do you think is the best way, as a writer, to communicate the urgent need to protect nature? Do you think words and storytelling have the power to make a lasting impact?
Well written non-fiction, such as Silent Spring, A Sand County Almanac, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is one of the best ways to communicate the need to protect nature. If you’re talking about fiction—what I write—yes, conservation concerns can be translated through that kind of storytelling. But I think those messages won’t work with a general audience if they’re too dogmatic. For example, Delia Owens’ bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing has messages about conservation of saltmarshes, but it’s the STORY about the girl who loves the marshes that really makes the reader see their value and beauty, and maybe want to protect them.
I came across this suggestion the other day: "I would like to see wildlife artists taking more risks and daring to pepper our social feeds with visual warnings about the state of our planet and its animals. The narrative for wildlife is a lot bleaker than it once was. It’s time that art reflected that." Writers are artists too. Do you agree with this sentiment?
Yes, but trying too hard to convey messages in fiction can backfire if it takes the reader out of the story. Rather than preach, you want to create emotion that’s well integrated within a good story and characters. Also, I think anyone who has conservation messages to offer the public has to be careful about overwhelming people with too much negativity. Today’s news is full of dire messages of every kind, and I increasingly see people need to tune out (maybe escape into a good book!) to keep their stress levels manageable. I recently read that dystopian stories aren’t as popular now because people are already overwhelmed with thinking about calamitous futures.
Jo likes Gabe saying "I've contributed a data point to science. My existence is no longer meaningless." Your Instagram bio and Facebook intro describe you as a writer and bird biologist, in that order. How do you juggle the two careers? I imagine one feeds the other, but they are both full-time jobs! What sacrifices do you find yourself making?
I listed myself as a writer first because I don’t do much work in avian biology anymore. When my kids were young, I stepped away from my biological work to be with them. My husband and I are both bird biologists, and travel to research sites and dawn bird censuses don’t easily mesh with life with young children! I never regretted giving up my biology work to be with our kids. What could be more fascinating to a scientist parent than experiencing the development of human beings and parent-child love? I’m thankful that my husband and I had the resources to raise our kids this way. And I doubt I’d have become a novelist if I’d kept working as an avian biologist. I started writing my first novel when the kids were older, away at school during the first half of the day, and that timing was perfect.
Jo says of field scientists that "the natural world is vital, a spiritual experience." And later she declares that someday she'd rather live in the woods like Gabe: "I want nature out my front door". The last line of your website bio suggests you've managed just that. In what ways do you personally connect with nature and why is it important to you?
To feel well, I have to have connection with nature. ‘Nature’ means different things to different people, and the nature I crave is as uncontrolled by humans as possible. My husband and I preferred to live in the ‘woods,’ but until two years ago, we sacrificed that dream to keep our kids in the schools we thought were best for them. Life in town didn’t agree with me. The constant sound of mowers, edgers, and blowers, excessive use of lawn pesticides and herbicides, neighbours killing snakes and cutting down gorgeous healthy trees—it was all so painful for me! I made a tiny wildlife refuge around our house to bear it, but as soon as we could, we escaped to the 23 acres we now manage as wildlife habitat. Near the house, I create native flower gardens and ponds that attract wildlife and look natural. My husband and I are much more relaxed since we moved out here.
Being a biologist or conservationist sometimes feels more like a curse than a blessing. I'm thinking of Aldo Leopold’s quote: “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, in Gabe's words, "the horrific crush of humanity on my soul"?
That quote is so true! As I mentioned in the last answer, the routine disregard and disrespect of the natural world in our former neighbourhood was a constant wound for me. As for coping, I’ve learned quiet and solitude are essential to my way of experiencing nature. As the poet Mary Oliver said, “If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much.”
Lastly, what advice would you give to writers wishing to connect their audience with nature?
Create vivid, sympathetic characters and an intriguing plot in a story that’s set in nature or has a conservation focus. The more readers become invested in your characters and story, they more they’ll care about what the characters are thinking and doing. It’s more about letting your story flow from true emotions than trying to transmit some ‘message.’ As the familiar writing adage says: show, don’t tell.
Thank you, Glendy, for your thoughts and time. It was a pleasure to 'talk' nature in fiction with you and I wish you continued joy in your writing career!
To order Where the Forest Meets the Stars, and for more information about Glendy Vanderah and her work, visit her beautiful website.