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SRS Interviews

"An Interview with Scott Russell Sanders” Fugue (Moscow, Idaho), Vol. 25 (Summer 2003), pp. 163-175.

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Interview conducted by Jen Hirt:

Scott Russell Sanders is one of the most widely published and highly respected practitioners of the personal essay. He is the author of numerous essay collections, as well as works of fiction for adults and children. A long-time resident of Bloomington, Indiana, where he teaches in the Indiana University MFA program, Sanders was the University of Idaho’s Distinguished Visiting Writer for a week in April, 2003. In addition to holding nightly workshops and daily conferences for graduate students, he also gave an evening reading and was generous enough to offer Fugue an exclusive interview.

Fugue: I think young writers are constantly trying to judge praise and criticism, trying to figure out when they’ve "made it" to the next level of the writer’s life. Can you describe some of the successes and setbacks you have experienced?

SRS: As it happens, I didn’t come to writing through workshops. I didn’t take creative writing classes. In college I studied physics before I turned to English, and I knew nothing about MFA programs. The first workshop I ever attended was the first one I taught. So I never had anyone, a teacher or a classmate, tell me whether I was making progress in my art. Of course, like any writer, I’ve wanted to improve, and I’ve looked for signs that I’m learning the art. In the early years, when I wrote fiction, that meant aspiring to make stories good enough to engage my fellow graduate students in literature. The next step was to persuade an editor to publish something I’d written. So I began sending off short stories and essays to magazines. I wasn’t seeking fame and fortune—and a good thing, too—but rather for confirmation that what I had written was of interest to people who cared about contemporary writing.

Perhaps because I was living in England at the time, and because my stories stood out as different from the usual run of fiction by young English writers, I had some early luck in placing work in magazines—in Cambridge Review, Transatlantic Review, StandI and others. And that was tremendously encouraging to me. I remember vividly those early publications. In one instance, I ran into Jon Silkin, a fine poet and the editor of Stand, as he was selling copies of his magazine on the main street in Cambridge. We struck up a conversation. You must understand that I was shy then, am shy now. I’m reluctant to impose my work on anyone. That patient man kept asking me questions until I confessed my passion for writing. He asked to see something I’d written, so I bicycled home, grabbed a story, bicycled back, handed it to him. And I stood there while he read it slowly, the pages ruffling in the wind. I imagined my inexpert sentences coiling through his mind. When he finished, he said he’d like to publish it in Stand, and I was ecstatic. A couple of years later, when Silkin returned to Cambridge to read from his poetry, I reminded him of that act of generosity, and I gave him a great bear hug.

Many years and many publications later, I still hope to improve as a writer. I don’t measure growth by sales figures, reviews, or prizes, but by what I’m able to take on, the questions I’m able to ask and the forms I’m able to achieve. My work has become more complex, more layered, over the years, as I learn how to gather more and more of my experience into a coherent shape. I also measure success through the impact of my work on readers—people who send me letters or email, who speak with me after a public reading, and who say how something I’ve written has given them pleasure or helped them see their lives more clearly.

Fugue: And what of any setbacks you faced?

SRS: When I returned to the States after graduate school, I continued to publish stories and essays in magazines, but I struggled to find publishers for my earliest books. I wrote two novels and two collections of stories over an eight-year period before I was able to get any of them published. It was hard to keep writing the next book when the previous ones had found no home. But instead of breaking my desire to write, this period of waiting toughened me. I was serving an apprenticeship, like the potter who must knead clay and practice on the wheel for years before he’s allowed to show his work to the world. Even without publishing any books in those years, I learned how much writing mattered to me. I drew meaning and pleasure from the work, even though I could never be confident that anybody else would ever read it. If I’d had success in publishing right away, I might have grown discouraged whenever I hit a hard patch later on. And all writers hit hard patches, periods of discouragement and darkness. Merely getting a book in print is not the end of your challenges. I’ve had books orphaned when editors leave the publishing house. I’ve had books lost in the shuffle of multinational takeovers. I’ve had books buried in jackets ugly enough to make me wince. I’ve had books ignored by reviewers because I live in an unfashionable part of the country and write about unfashionable subjects. But by and large, my experience as a writer has been one of slow and steady growth in the practice of my art and in the span of my audience.

Fugue: Nonfiction has been coined the "fourth genre," behind poetry, drama, and fiction. Of the other three genres, can you explain which one might be the closest cousin to nonfiction? Last year, visiting writer Mark Doty said, without hesitation, that poetry and nonfiction are more closely connected than any of the other genres.

SRS: Most people think fiction is the closest analogue because it’s written in prose and it tells stories. Certainly there are affinities between fiction and nonfiction. I came to the writing of essays by way of short stories and novels—as did such notable essayists as Peter Matthiessen and Edward Hoagland. But actually I would agree with Mark Doty’s answer; there is a more intimate connection between poetry and the personal essay. For one thing, much poetry, like the essay, is told directly out of the writer’s own experience, rather than through invented characters. And essays can be organized in a variety of ways reminiscent of the strategies in poetry. They can be organized around an image, for example, or variations on a theme. They can be collages or mosaics or quilts. They can be eulogies, elegies, lyric outbursts, or reveries. They can be held together by voice. By contrast, I think there are fewer ways of organizing short stories, and nearly all of them rely on narrative.

Fugue: In some fiction and poetry, there is a degree of experimentation. Meanwhile, nonfiction seems to be fairly traditional. In your experience, have you come across any nonfiction you would call experimental?

SRS: I think nonfiction is on the whole more conservative in form than poetry or fiction. Much"“experimental" writing is read only by specialists, people with an expertise in the genre, whereas nonfiction is usually intended for a general audience—for what Virginia Woolf called the Common Reader. Certainly I aim to reach ordinary, literate, curious people, people who work with their hands as well as their minds, people for whom reading is neither pastime nor puzzle, but an essential nutrient, like water or salt. I like to invest my energy in asking hard questions and telling complex stories clearly, rather than in playing with the shape of the essay. The original meaning of essay—as understood by Michel de Montaigne who invented the term—is a trial, an effort, a weighing out, and so it is an experiment in understanding, a search for pattern.

At the same time, we should remember that the essay can take many different shapes, and some of them may be as daring as anything in fiction or poetry. I think of Walden, which is still a radical work, or some of Emerson’s essays. I think of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller, Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, or Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. In those books, and others I could name, one feels that the driving impulse is not experimentation for the sake of novelty, but the searching for an adequate form, for a way of saying something no one has quite said before. That edge between what is sayable—and therefore thinkable, feelable, imaginable—and what is not-yet sayable, is the frontier of good writing. If working on that frontier requires me to try a new form, I’ll do so.

Fugue: Leap by Terry Tempest Williams has moments where it breaks into poetry. Even though nonfiction and poetry are so closely related, did you find that decision detracted from the larger impact of the book?

SRS: I love the work of Terry Tempest Williams. But Leap seems to me less successful than several of her other books—Refuge, say, or Pieces of White Shell or Red. I sense that she was trying too hard for lyricism here, and that she was trying to link too many things to Hieronymus Bosch’s painting, "The Garden of Earthly Delights." Even if the book doesn’t quite work, in my view, it’s still a garden of delights.

Fugue: When I think of nontraditional forms of nonfiction, the use of fragments – on the sentence level – comes to mind. When you come across fragmentary writing in nonfiction, what is your reaction?

SRS: I think fragments ought to be used sparingly, and only for good reason. They ought to signal that language is breaking down, that the pressure of feeling or event or insight is too great to allow for the formation of complete sentences—like the breakdown of matter under extreme conditions. In contemporary writing, however, sentence fragments are often used out of laziness. I suspect that writers hope a sequence of punchy little phrases ending in periods will lend an emotional power to their work that the material itself doesn’t justify. That’s an illusion, and it comes from reading advertising copy. If you look at ads in magazines, on television, or on billboards, you’ll see skeins of fragments. New! Improved! What you need! Those shards of language are aimed at persuading us that the item for sale is more alluring, more necessary to our happiness, than it really is. When any writer lapses into ad-speak, I become wary.

Fugue: How about essays that have a fragmented narrative? Annie Dillard’s "The Wreck of Time" comes to mind. Everything in that essay is thematically related, but it’s broken into chunks.

SRS: Interweaving several story lines can be a powerful way of organizing an essay. Each line of narrative has a structure, and the whole essay, if it’s skillfully made—as Annie Dillard’s essays certainly are—will cohere into a complex pattern. I’ve used this technique in a number of essays, and in entire books such as Hunting for Hope and Staying Put. The sections of the essay may not be explicitly connected one to another, but if the reader stays with the work, the links between the various strands will become evident, and a larger vision will gradually appear. The universe is extraordinarily complex, intricate, and grand. But it all hangs together. It’s a single reality. What seems fragmentary is only the result of our partial seeing. The same is true of our lives.

Fugue: Nonfiction writers often have an obligation to reflect extensively not only on personal events but also political events, to shed light and reposition these events in a unique way. What role might literary nonfiction writers play in reflecting on 9/11, and (in general) all the other major events from the last few years?

SRS: We are a society infatuated with experts. On television, on the radio, in the newspapers and magazines, the people who offer opinions on 9/11, the war in Iraq, or global warming, say, are retired generals, scientists, physicians, policy makers. Sure, we need to hear their opinions. But finally, we must make up our own minds. And we’re amateurs. As citizens, we need to inform ourselves on the vital issues, but we can’t become experts.

Personal nonfiction is a place where the writer can think aloud, as it were, in public, as an amateur. The essayist does not ask us to accept his or her opinions, but rather invites us to ponder our own lives, and to reflect on the momentous events that shape our society. Since 9/11, there has been an outpouring of essays, stories, and poems written in response to those terrible events. I’ve written my share. As I’ve read the responses of writers from around the country, I’m struck by how much they differ from what the media and our so-called leaders have been telling us in the aftermath of that attack. What we hear from the poets, the fiction writers, and the essayists is often much deeper, more compassionate, and more helpful than anything we’ve heard from the experts.

Fugue: What have you read in the last 18 months that’s informed your opinion about 9/11?

SRS: I look at opinion from periodicals around the world. I turn to poets such as Pattiann Rogers, W. S. Merwin, and Robert Hass. There’s a volume edited by William Heyen, September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond, with strong work from all over the country. I’ve been moved by a couple of essays from Wendell Berry, which appeared in Orion and have been gathered in a small book called In the Presence of Fear. There have also been several other extraordinary pieces in Orion, including essays by David James Duncan and Barbara Kingsolver.

Fugue: You’ve said Orion is your favorite publication. What do you like about Orion?

SRS: It’s a magazine that explores issues of social justice, conservation, science, and spirituality, all through the medium of visual and literary art. Orion is the only place I know of in America today where one can move across all of those realms, and show their interconnections. Too often, these themes and concerns get divided up into separate boxes. Yet the world is one. It’s only our approach to the world that divides it into specialties. Caring for the Earth, for example, can’t be separated from caring for people. Searching for a spiritual ground can’t be separated from the pursuit of scientific understanding. In Orion, writers, photographers, painters, scientists, and grass roots activists try to see our lives, the Earth, and the universe as an integral whole. This wonderful magazine unites vision and activism, a regard for beauty and a regard for concrete results.

Fugue: Is Orion succeeding?

SRS: I think so. It has attracted many of our country’s most exciting writers. I’ve mentioned Wendell Berry and Barbara Kingsolver. There’s also Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Rick Bass, Robert Michael Pyle, Ann Zwinger, John Elder, Peter Matthiessen, Richard Nelson, Gary Nabhan, Alison Deming, and many others. That’s a sign of a magazine doing really important work. Over the past ten years or so, I have sent to Orion the essays I care most about.

Fugue: What are some other magazines you read regularly?

SRSB I read Resurgence, which comes out of London and is widely circulated in the United States. It aims at the same intersection of social justice, environmental concerns, science, art, and spirituality, with a global perspective. It’s less interested in literary qualities, and more focused on the issues. But it’s a wonderful magazine. I also read Wild Earth, which comes out of Vermont, and Northern Lights, out of the Rockies, as well as Audubon, Parabola, The Georgia Review, the Buddhist magazine Tricycle and the Christian magazine Sojourners.

Fugue: What have you read that wasn’t directly in response to 9/11, but spoke to the situation?

SRS: I read the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, especially Being Peace, and Ursula Le Guin’s recent translation of the Tao Te Ching. And I reread Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr. It’s a book about responding to violence with compassion and courage, very much in the tradition of Gandhi and Jesus. Along with millions of other black people, King was contending with daily terrorism. He was facing the KKK, club-wielding policemen, attack dogs, fire hoses, and he was arguing for nonviolence as the only viable response. He insisted that it’s wrong to answer violence with violence, because many innocent people will be hurt, and because you will only perpetuate the hatred and sow the seeds of future suffering. Only a compassionate and courageous response, while avoiding violence, can break the cycle of murder. We still have much to learn from King’s Letter as we react to terrorism and to threats—real or imagined—from countries like Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. I’ve also returned to some of Thomas Merton’s essays on nonviolence. Merton was a Trappist monk who died in 1968, and who was profoundly disturbed by racial strife, the Vietnam War, and the nuclear arms race. Unlike many people who call themselves Christians and advocate war, Merton took seriously Jesus’s instructions that we love one another and make peace. The books of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible and the gospel accounts of Jesus in the New Testament are among the most thoroughgoing calls for compassion and forgiveness ever recorded, and yet they’re often used as recipes for judgment and domination.

Fugue: What writing projects are you working on now?

SRS: I’m working on a book called A Private History of Awe, which records my efforts to understand my own life, the meaning of community, and the fate of the Earth in light of spiritual wisdom. I’m drawing on such wisdom wherever I can find it, but for me this has chiefly meant Christianity, Buddhism, and various Native American traditions. I’m a beginner in my knowledge of Buddhism and Native American teachings, but I’m grateful for all I’ve learned. I was reared in Christianity, steeped in the Bible, marinated in sermons, so I know that tradition fairly well, but now I look at it from outside the church. If one sets aside the claims about immortality and special deals from God, what values and truths remain, and what do they have to teach us about living in our place, in our time? For example, during this war with Iraq, I’ve been rereading the Psalms, thinking about the pain, anger, violence and longing that inspired those grand songs more than 2,000 years ago. They are poems about exile, loss, fear, and revenge, and they still speak to our condition today. During my visit to Idaho this week, I’ve been making notes for an essay entitled "Quarreling with Emerson." Whether this will become part of the Awe book I don’t yet know. I’ve been trying to discern my own lineage, my debts to particular writers in the tradition of social and wilderness thought. In Emerson’s case, I have a sense of gratitude for lessons learned, and also a sense of the need to go beyond him.

Fugue: What elements of Emerson do you think we need to move beyond?

SRS: Emerson was an idealist, in the philosophical sense. He believed that mind is primary, matter secondary. Such a philosophy has the dangerous effect of treating the natural world as an illusion, a side-effect of our own clever thoughts.

I don’t believe that Nature is a creation of consciousness, even though of course our perceptions and language are shaped by our thoughts. I believe that we are a creation of Nature, including our apparatus of perception and our speech. Consciousness itself, the very shape and texture of mind, is a response to a fabulous, amazing, intricate reality that transcends us. The universe is much older, wiser, and subtler than we are. If Nature is an illusion, as Emerson claims, then anything we do to the Earth—extinguishing other species, destroying habitat, poisoning rivers and seas, disrupting the atmosphere—does not really matter, since it’s all only a side-show, a phantasm. I want to turn Emerson on his head, and reclaim the natural world as the primary reality, with consciousness as secondary, however curious, complex, sometimes terrible, and sometimes beautiful our minds may be. Also, Emerson doesn’t speak much about community, about living in relationship to other people. He’s the great proponent of self-reliance and splendid isolation. "Is not a man better than a town?" he asks in one of his essays. Well, yes and no. We shouldn’t have to choose between honoring individuals and honoring community. By putting so much emphasis on the solitary person’s freedom to define the world as he or she sees fit, Emerson slighted the pleasures and obligations of living alongside other people.

Fugue: What are the implications of all this for the traditional nature writer?

SRS: In a sense, Nature is already doing the writing. We are the eyes, ears, noses, and mouths of the creation, gazing back at the universe, listening, pondering. Whether we respond in song, painting, poem, essay, dance, or scientific formula, we are the product of the Earth, the mountains and rivers, the seas, and the starry skies. Other creatures gaze back as well, but they don’t record their responses in books.

Thoreau, Emerson’s greatest disciple, accepted this role. He started out as an Emersonian idealist. But the more time he spent outdoors, the more he came to acknowledge that what he called wildness is not derivative of mind, but is the original reality. Human thought, feeling, perception, and language have all evolved in response to that primal reality. Over the course of his life, Thoreau shifted from being a Transcendentalist to being a quizzical animal, tromping around in all weathers and all seasons, studying birds and flowers and ponds, responding to the beauty, intricacy, power, and rightness of Nature. His early journals were filled with metaphysical musings, but his later journals were mostly field notes. While Emerson sat indoors and thought about Nature, Thoreau went outside and watched what was going on.

Fugue: So do you consider yourself a nature writer?

SRS: When you label somebody a nature writer, it implies that to pay attention to the natural world is a special interest—like being a film buff or a racing car enthusiast. We have food writers and sports writers, who pay attention to some field of activity. But Nature is the field of activity, the ground for everything. Seeing our lives within the context of the greater life of the Earth, therefore, should be normal. What’s abnormal, what begs for a special label, is literature that ignores the fact we live on a planet in the midst of a several-billion-year-old-evolutionary stream, alongside millions of other species. My friend Gary Nabhan only half-jokingly suggests that such writing should be called "urban dysfunctional literature." Gary, by the way, is someone who knows we live on a planet, and who’s fascinated by all the critters, including the two-legged ones—as you can see in his wonderful books, such as Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves or The Desert Smells Like Rain. The fact is, I don’t write just about hiking in the mountains or paddling in rivers. I write about families, houses, towns, good work, good food, the discoveries of science, the mysteries of spirit, the pleasures of community. I’m trying to understand my life, and the meaning of life, within the embrace of this glorious creation. We shouldn’t need a label for writing that acknowledges we are animals among other animals, that we live and breathe and drink the world constantly, that our lives unfold within the web of starfish and stars. Such writing merely accepts the most elemental truths about our existence. This is very old and essential knowledge, as recorded in the traditional lore of our species, from ancient cave paintings and myths to folk tales and songs. Our species happens to have spun this wonderful fabric of language, which enables us to make books, but this skill doesn’t make us fundamentally different from the bears and the bees, the mushrooms and mice. It’s all one great family. Since we’re the noisiest members, we ought to take care to say something useful and true.

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