April 2008

Sarah Burke


An Interview with David Gessner

I cannot call David Gessner a nature writer because I have read Sick of Nature, in which he rails against the marginalization of the genre, the tedium it implies, the curse of a limited readership and the sense that being “praised as ‘quiet’ by quiet magazines” is never going to get the person building a mansion to think about the ecosystem being destroyed in the process. I don’t know who praised Gessner as “quiet,” but that reviewer can’t have been listening very closely: Gessner’s writing flashes with humor and energy. He considers himself a New Englander, although he’s lived primarily in North Carolina for the past five years. Several of his books are set on Cape Cod and his most recent, Soaring with Fidel, follows ospreys as they migrate from Massachusetts down to Cuba and Venezuela; it’s a low-budget, haphazard trip that succeeds because other bird lovers frequently show him extraordinary kindness. It’s also not really nature writing; or, to be precise, it’s nature writing only after being both travel writing and anthropology. More than nature, Gessner is preoccupied with wildness: ospreys that move onto electric poles, coyotes that live in cities, and the people (himself included) who are drawn to these creatures. Nature isn’t quiet, he keeps asserting. It’s vibrant and sometimes brutal and totally indispensable.

We spoke recently while he was walking home from work at UNC, Wilmington:


Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I have to apologize for the sound quality. I am trying to record this call on my computer. It’s very 21st-century.

Well, you know, I speak a lot of my work into a micro-cassette recorder. I try to make my essays really voice-driven. For instance, for an essay I wrote a long time ago called “A Letter to a Neighbor,” I essentially spoke the whole thing into a tape recorder. Of course, then I went back and transcribed it myself. I’m interested in this Dragon NaturallySpeaking program, where apparently you can train the computer so that you can speak your e-mails. I’m a bad typist. It seems like an easier way to go -- but it is a little weird, a little Star Trek: “Computer, listen to my essay!”

I wonder if you could invent an author program to write your essays.

That’d be good, actually.

I really enjoyed that essay. I think I may know the mansion it’s complaining about.

Yeah, that essay was literally composed below the bluff, looking up at the house, tape recorder in hand. So it was a reactive kind of essay, as I saw the house: getting so pissed off and trying not to say it in an entirely pissed off way. I have another, later essay where I describe a less literate protest I made against the house [“Marking my Territory,” an essay on urinating out-of-doors].

And in one of your books you talk about wanting your ashes put there, when you die...

I want my ashes not in his house, but on the bluff in front of it. But in my next book I may try to prove that owners of trophy homes are human beings, also.

So, what are you working on now?

Well, I’ve got a lot of things going on right now. But I’m working in this world where everyone’s geared toward “the big book.” I’m close to the point where I’m just going to publish with whatever university press comes along, and just go for getting all the books out that I can, but I’m not quite there yet. I have a book proposal going out in about a month. But I also really want to find time to do this graphic novel about Worcester, MA called Wormtown. I’ve written it as a memoir about a hundred times, but it’s hard to pitch a story about a guy having testicular cancer in Worcester. It doesn’t sing to the money people in New York. But I think as a graphic novel it would be really fun.

It will take a long time if you’re doing all the illustrations as well.

I’m thinking it would take two months. It’s funny, as I’ve written more books, I make these predictions and – I don’t know where it’s coming from – but they’re getting to be ridiculously accurate. Maybe it’s just that I’m getting old and have a sense for it. With me, usually, a rough draft is a month and a half and then I go away for a while, and I come back and do another two months for the next draft. With Return of the Osprey, I was taking field notes throughout the year and keeping a journal, and I was chomping at the bit to start the book. But I really couldn’t start it because I didn’t know enough about the birds. I had to watch the whole nesting season. So when I finished, when the birds finally flew off in September, and I could actually start the book, it was like a gun going off. I just sprinted through a draft of the book. It was the most intense speed-writing experience I’ve ever had. It came charging out and then I put it aside for a while, and then revised it. I used to think fast equaled sloppy, but now I feel comfortable working at a good speed. Maybe it’s a fear of slowing down.

I used to be more of a just-getting-it-down draft guy, but I edit a lot more as I go now. I think for new writers the whole Anne Lamott “shitty first draft” thing is really important, just to have something on the page.

Has your writing become more novelistic over the years? Not to say that you’ve introduced fictional elements, but has there been more of a focus on developing characters or following storylines?

Well, that’s what I did in my twenties. I wrote unpublished novels. I had a piece last summer in the Oxford American. I called it “The Pig-Picking” and they called it “The Dreamer Does Not Exist.” It’s an attempt at weaving things together into a lyric essay, which is really exciting for me to do. I think the one book that’s most old-fashioned and novelistic in style is Soaring with Fidel, just because there wasn’t a lot of nuance in it. I just wanted to tell a story in the past tense and with a strong narrative voice. One thing that’s happened -- and it’s really not because of James Frey or anything like that -- is that I think I’ve become much more strict. There are some creative nonfiction things that everybody does. Like, they recreate dialogue, they move things in time or compress time, and the James Frey debate has made everything about “true” or “false.” But it isn’t always that simple. Thoreau, for instance, made Walden into one year at the pond instead of two years and change.

And today he’d be taken to court for it.

Exactly. So I have, not out of fear of that stuff, but I have become a lot more strict with myself. There are a lot of things you could do that no one would ever catch. It’s up to you to decide what code to go by.

Can I ask about your writing schedule? The way you described your writing earlier, it sounded so athletic, somehow.

There have been some changes. My daughter’s turning five, so the past five years have been a little different. The previous six years my wife and I were renting off-season houses on Cape Cod, and then one year we were in Cambridge, and we were both writing full-time. She had a book of short stories come out [Of Cats and Men by Nina de Gramont] and we were cranking along, and I was getting up very early to work. I like the book Life Work by Donald Hall. It kind of freed my inner workaholic. He’s so gleeful about getting up at four in the morning. I’ve always been kind of obsessive about writing, and I was like, shit, I’ll do that, too. Sometimes I got up at four, sometimes five. I’d go until about noon, then go for a run or a big walk, take a nap, and carry on with the rest of normal life. It’s changed because I teach now and edit this literary journal, Ecotone. And I have a child. But even more, I find the early mornings are the only time I can carve out. So I still get up really early and write for three hours in the morning. To a certain extent, I’m still living off all the work I did in those Cape years. But there’s some new stuff, too.

But it is kind of athletic. One thing I always come back to is Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of John Keats. At 23, Keats was writing a certain number of lines a day toward Endymion, and he called it “an extended gymnastic event.” He kept pushing himself and a year later the Odes come out. There’s this William James quote, “You learn to skate in the summer.” It’s the momentum created by the first thing that allows the next.

You mentioned Ecotone and I just wanted to say how wonderful the journal’s covers are.

Yeah. The new cover is all bugs, by Suzanne Stryk -- it’s really great. And one of the previous cover artists just won a MacArthur. We’ve really pushed for color inserts and great covers, and the covers do the same thing the writing does. We want artwork and writing that straddles that line between the scientific-environmental and literary. We use “ecotone” fairly loosely -- it means the borderland between two different ecosystems -- and it’s generally a place where you get more species because animals are coming from both ecosystems, and there’s more opportunity and more danger. We don’t just have nonfiction pieces about place or nature. We also have fiction and poetry. But we’ve been on a real roll recently. Kevin Brockmeier’s essay was just picked up for Best American Short Stories. It’s cool: we don’t think of ourselves as an eco-journal necessarily, but we do have that element of the natural world.

There are so many ways to think about what landscape is. It can be very personal, it can be political. You even have maps in the newest issue.

Well, place is a really pervasive metaphor. I was walking on the beach yesterday and some guy was saying, “Well, I got the raise, so that’s good. But I just don’t know where I’m going next.” Where is so pervasive. In the old 1950’s writing books, “setting” always comes number six, below plot and whatever else, and as a journal we kind of turn that on its head and say, “We’re going to start from place.” You know, our next issue is going to be an evolution-themed book for Darwin’s 200th birthday, and the 150th anniversary of Origin of Species. It ought to be great.

Another essay I really liked in Sick of Nature was the trilogy of essays about, among other things, urban coyotes. It ought to be required reading for anyone who sees a clear division between wilderness and civilization.

I wanted it to be loose, to jump around from subject to subject. I liked that I was living in Cambridge, MA, and there was all this wildness around me in this supposedly civilized place. I just read a great book by John Hanson Mitchell, a natural history of Boston [The Paradise of all These Parts]. It talks about the fishers coming back and the coyotes coming back and the wild turkeys, and just how much nature is infringing and impinging on the city. This summer I kayaked the length of the Charles [River] and it’s so exciting to see the herons coming back to the Charles, to see man’s plans undermined.

It makes me think of something so simple as gulls. They get kind of a bad rap, but I love watching them fly up and use the parking lot to break clamshells open.

Yeah, that’s great, using our parking lots as a tool. They way they lift off, and then the “crack” noise. In our old house, we could hear them cracking shells in the parking lot down by the harbor. And also, they’re really underrated as flyers. Because they are common they are not appreciated for what they are. It’s just like anything else. When it gets to be common everybody grumbles about it.

That may open me up to my obligatory osprey update. I saw a few the other day when I was traveling from New York to Boston, somewhere in Connecticut.

What’s today, the 20th? Probably tomorrow is the day they’ll come back to one of the marshes I watched on Cape Cod. They usually come back right around now. It’s funny that you said “obligatory” -- you’d be amazed at the number of e-mails I get where people tell me their ospreys have returned. It’s like, okay, I’ll check that one off my list. I still like them, though. I don’t plan a Sick of Osprey book any time soon.

Do you still consider yourself a New Englander?

Yeah. This [North Carolina] is kind of a marriage of convenience. I love the creative writing program, I love my colleagues, I like having the magazine. It’s a great job within a creative writing department as opposed to an English department. I went out on the job market this year and decided to stay here because it’s such a great program. The problem for me is that it’s in the South, and if I had to rank my regions in terms of the ones I feel close affiliation to, the South would come in last. But, you know, I’m on the coast. As we speak I’m looking out at the water, seeing pelicans come overhead, so it’s not bad. This is the fifth year where we rent on the beach here in the off-season, and we put everything in storage in May, then we travel to the Cape for three and a half months, staying with people, then we come back and winter here again. It’s very transient.

My introductions to Ecotone are often on place. I was so influenced by Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Long-Legged House.” I love that moment – it’s the early ‘60s and Berry’s in New York and they’re telling him “you can’t go home again” – and he goes back to Kentucky. He does this kind of radical thing where he marries the place and all his words spring from there, and I think that’s wonderful, and it’s great that John Hay did it too. But one of the things I’ve made a point of saying in these introductions is that we can’t all be that way. My Dad moved from Worcester to Charlotte because of he worked in textile machinery. It’s great to bemoan the mobility of society, our rootlessness and all, but most of us have to move for jobs. I’m not marrying my true love. I’m marrying this place that isn’t my ideal, but I’m going to make a good life out of it. Sometimes I think there’s a holier-than-thou element to the place-marriers.

Of course, one of the functions of that sort of art is to give us an alternative. As I’m rumbling through my day-to-day and have way too much to do, too many calls and too many emails, certainly I think, “I’m choosing this. I’m choosing this not-so-quiet desperation.” I admire what those authors are saying, but they’re not the only people allowed to make use of place as metaphor. And I’ve already had many significant moments in the South, watching gannets dive, or pelicans. And there are moments with my daughter, who, when we’re away, wants to go “home” to North Carolina. I’ve recently made the decision to stay here, and I recognize that means that for the next fifteen, twenty years I will not be in the place that’s the most important place for me. But overall, of course, I have a pretty happy life. And I can still write, and I think I’ll get involved as an activist again, too.

The idea of living alone with nature is certainly appealing in theory. It’s kind of like how the idea of monasticism really appeals to me, but I don’t think I’m going to become a nun.

Right. The question that interests me is, is it just that I’m not good enough at it? Or is it that it’s antithetical to my nature? Because I’m not just some guy sitting in an office dreaming about a cottage in the woods. I’ve actually been in the cottage in the woods enough to know that when I’m there I need more stimulus than just writing and walking on the beach and meditating allows. And I’m not saying that mockingly, because I have a very good friend here who goes on silent retreats on the weekends. I’m full of admiration for that, just like I’m full of admiration for Wendell Berry, but I just know it’s not my thing. For instance, there’s no drinking at those monasteries.

Well, I think you can drink at some monasteries.

The Trappists and wine, right.

And the Benedictines. This is a big question, but since we’ve gotten onto religion, I’d like to ask about that. Occasionally in your books there are asides about “Bible-thumpers,” and you seem to have a pretty healthy cynicism about religion in America today. What do you think about scientists, like E. O. Wilson in The Creation, who attempt to reach out to Christian America?

I’m sure it’s a good thing, and I’m sure there are people who are good at it, but I’m more in the “poke-a-stick-at-them” camp, rather than the “reconcile” camp. I grew up a Unitarian and I don’t know what that means, but it doesn’t mean a whole lot of God. And if anything I’ve moved further in that direction. But look, my sister just got ordained as a minister and she’s coming down for Easter this weekend. I’m not going to spend the weekend ridiculing her, I hope.

It’s not like I want to make a pagan replacement [for religion] out of nature, because that’s a bad cliché. Like, “I don’t believe in God. I believe in the hides of beasts.” I mean, I have some rituals having to do with nature. What I don’t replace is reassurance. I believe that I’m rotting in the ground when I die. I know there’s more to religion than the afterlife, but I think that’s the big lie. My wife says I’m an asshole for saying that.

You’ve written so much about birds, and I think that for some people they embody spirit. The way that flight is this perfect match of form and function, the way they manage to take off every time.

What if scientists find out in a hundred years that birds are incredibly anxious and all they do is worry?

You won’t know about it because you’ll be rotting in the ground.

But my books will be read everywhere! I’ll be immortal!

Right, you’ll live forever in the libraries! I do think it’s a shame when people impose too much of a narrative on nature. It’s so chaotic that it seems the opposite narrative is always also there. It must be difficult not to narrate.

I like essays that are more open-ended, you know? Uncertainty is always there, in the natural world, metaphorically and realistically. That’s why I love A. R. Ammons as a poet. Today’s walk in the dunes is different in so many variables from yesterday’s walk in the dunes.

And embracing the entirety of it means embracing the brutality of it, too, the way -- for example -- animals give birth to three times as many babies than will actually survive.

If it were your own kids, and you knew two out of three weren’t going to live, it would be hard to be philosophical about it. It’s kind of ugly.

That’s a sad note to end on.

No, we can’t end on that.

Well, the cicadas are coming back to Cape Cod this year. That’s a nice rebirth story for spring.

I know, and I’m going to be there for it. Maybe you could make up an ending for this interview, some creative nonfiction. Make me say something brilliant at the end. I’ve got to go take a nap.

That’s not a bad way to end it.