Interview with Scott Russell Sanders
By Patrick Madden
River Teeth, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Fall 2007)
[back to "About SRS"]
INTERVIEWER: You began your education studying physics,
and then switched to English. If you were starting over, would you take
the same path?
SANDERS: I would still study science. That is, given the passions I had
as a boy, and also given my abilities. All the standardized tests showed
that I should go into science and math, and those were the subjects I
loved as a boy and young man. I continue to be fascinated by the vision
of the universe that science is gradually unfolding. At the same time,
I don’t regret abandoning the formal study of physics in order to
pursue literature, because I actually have much more aptitude for reading
and writing than I do for abstract theoretical analysis. Even from my
limited study of science, I gained a vision, a way of seeing the universe,
a way of appreciating human ingenuity that I would be very reluctant to
INTERVIEWER: What do you see as the goals of creative nonfiction?
SANDERS: The goals depend, of course, on the writer. For some writers,
creative nonfiction may be a way of making sense of life. It may be a
way of recording a memorable person, event, or passage of history. It
may be a way of thinking on paper, of clarifying a confusing experience.
I think creative nonfiction should provide the reader with the same kinds
of pleasures and satisfactions that other literature does. It should be
entertaining; it should be inspiring; it should be well made. In addition,
the essay, memoir, autobiography, or other varieties of personal nonfiction
can help readers think about the shape and meaning of their own lives,
can help them think more deeply about war, sex, nature, race, and other
important matters. So creative nonfiction can serve many different purposes,
both for the writer and for the reader.
INTERVIEWER: In your interview with Robert Root [Fourth Genre
1.1 (Spring 1999)], you said that you feel an obligation to be honest
and represent scenes as accurately as you remember them, but your writing,
especially in Hunting for Hope, is so meticulous. You even talk
about the fly that landed on your son’s back. Did you record these
details as they happened, or did you go back and reconstruct them later?
SANDERS: It depends on how far back in the past the event occurred. For
example, that detail about the fly landing on my son’s back was
something I wrote into my journal a few minutes after I observed it. As
I mention in Hunting for Hope, I was taking notes during my hiking
trip with Jesse as a way of pondering the challenge that he posed to me
when he said he felt he had been denied hope. Since I felt hopeful about
the future of humankind, in spite of my many worries, I wanted to figure
out where my hope comes from, so I began taking notes to provide Jesse
with answers. I usually write in my journal or a pocket notebook when
I travel, because I’m stimulated by new places. Thus, many of the
details you find in my work were recorded on the spot.
On the other hand, some of the details about events and people and places
encountered long ago, as in my coming-of-age memoir, A Private History
of Awe, are drawn from memory. And we know that memory is creative
and transformative: it moves things around, provides atmosphere, fills
in blanks. We don’t recall the past unerringly. But I take seriously
the prefix “non-” in nonfiction. When I’m writing nonfiction,
my implicit contract with the reader is that I’m not making anything
up. The reader can trust me to give an honest account of what I actually
remember. At the same time, I realize that memory will fill in details.
And you can’t be sure whether the details that memory provides would
have been recorded had a film crew, let’s say, been on site at the
time the event occurred. I happen to possess a powerful memory for sensory
details; that’s one of the reasons I became a writer, because I’ve
always been haunted by vivid scenes from the past.
INTERVIEWER: How do your children respond to what you write about them?
SANDERS: Whenever I write about my children or my wife, I show them what
I’ve written before I show it to anyone else. For instance, the
first portion of Hunting for Hope I composed was about the fierce
quarrel that Jesse and I had during a backpacking trip in the Rockies.
In the midst of that quarrel, he accused me of having denied him hope,
and that challenge inspired me to write the book. I showed the narrative
first to Jesse, and I asked him how he felt about it, whether it represented
him fairly, whether it coincided with his own memories. And I asked him
whether he would mind other people reading this account, or some revised
version of it. When Jesse returned the draft to me, he laughed, saying
my description seemed fair, even if he remembered things a little differently.
By then, a year had passed since the quarrel, and so he was seventeen
when the events occurred and eighteen when he read my narrative. He said,
sure, it made him seem kind of young and immature, but it also made me
seem immature, and at age fifty I had a lot less excuse for bullheadedness
than he had at age seventeen. So he could accept this account because
it did not portray me as the all-wise, all-knowing father and him as the
brash teenager. It showed that I had listened to him and had sought to
learn from him.
If Jesse had said, “Oh, Dad, this seems wrong to me,” I would
have tried to address his criticisms. And if he had said, “This
is embarrassing, please don’t publish this,” I wouldn’t
have published it. He is far more important to me than my writing. I would
never knowingly hurt my son, my daughter, my wife—or anybody else,
for that matter—for the sake of a good story. I love my family dearly,
as I trust is evident in my books, and I write out of that love.
INTERVIEWER: Have there been times where you have decided not to publish
something, or delete it, or edit it?
SANDERS: Yes, a few times. For example, I first wrote about my father’s
alcoholism seven years after his death, in an essay that was eventually
published as “Under the Influence.” I showed the draft first
to my mother, who had never been willing to talk about my father’s
drinking, and she was appalled. For this was the family’s deep,
dark secret—that my father drank. She was upset to discover that
I remembered so many painful episodes, and even more upset that other
people might learn about them long after my father’s death. She
begged me not to publish it, so I put the essay in a drawer. Eventually,
my sister and brother caught wind of it from her and asked to read it.
They found the essay so helpful in dealing with their own troubled memories
that they prevailed on my mother to let me publish it, so that other readers
might be helped. At last my mother gave her blessing, and the essay appeared
in Harper’s and was later collected in Secrets of the
Universe. It has since been reprinted in anthologies perhaps thirty
or forty times. But if my mother had not changed her mind, I would have
left the essay in my drawer, at least so long as she was alive.
INTERVIEWER: Going back to the part in Hunting for Hope where
you describe the argument with your son: Before you give the conversation,
you give a sort of disclaimer: “I do not pretend to recall the exact
words we yelled at one another after my challenge, but I remember the
tone and thrust of them.” How important is such a disclaimer when
you’re going to reconstruct, not exactly verbatim, what happened?
SANDERS: I didn’t make notes on the argument in my journal until
that night. Even a few hours later, I couldn’t remember the exact
words we had flung at one another in the heat of argument. And the final
version of that scene was not written until a year after the events. So
I used that disclaimer because I didn’t want the reader to imagine
that I was pretending to offer a verbatim transcript. Instead, I was dramatizing
the scene as it stayed with me, trying to be true to the situation, the
emotions, the setting, to my son’s character and to my own, and
to our relationship.
Your question raises the larger issue of how dialogue functions in creative
nonfiction. Unless the nonfiction writer is using a tape recorder or taking
detailed notes, the dialogue is always derived from memory. It’s
not a transcript, but a more-or-less faithful account of how the persons
involved actually speak, how they relate to one another, and what’s
at stake in their exchange. My own practice is to use dialogue sparingly.
When a nonfiction writer presents page after page of dialogue, I grow
suspicious; I sense the fictional impulse taking over. For example, Frank
McCourt’s justly celebrated book, Angela’s Ashes,
seems to me not a memoir but an autobiographical novel. I would say the
same of Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. Used carefully
and sparingly, dialogue can play an important role in nonfiction, because
it can bring voices onto the page other than the narrator’s, it
can enliven a scene, and it can reveal subtleties of feeling.
You’ll find brief exchanges of dialogue scattered throughout my
books, usually without disclaimers. But that particular scene from Hunting
for Hope is so crucial to the shaping of the entire book that I wanted
the reader to know I was reconstructing the nature of that conversation,
capturing the feel and rhythm and import of it, as accurately as I could.
INTERVIEWER: Do your meditative and narrative movements in essays weave
together on their own—do they come out of your head that way—or
do you have to assemble the pieces as you go?
SANDERS: Needless to say, the language was revised a great deal, draft
after draft. But the chapters were generally written with the sequence
of materials as you find them, alternating between narrative and reflection.
In other words, I didn’t first compose the narrative and then go
back and insert the commentary. In the “Beauty” chapter of
Hunting for Hope, for example, I weave together the story of
my daughter’s wedding with a series of reflections on astronomy,
owls, mathematics, and other analogous materials, and that’s the
way the composition actually flowed.
My mind works that way, shuttling back and forth between storytelling
and analogizing. I knew, when I wrote the book, that I wanted to thread
a narrative through it, and not simply offer a series of reflections.
I wanted a story line not merely to make the book more accessible to readers,
but also to reveal that my ideas, values, and commitments arise out of
my life experience. The chief narrative thread is provided by the four
“Mountain Music” chapters, which tell about hiking with my
son, first in the Rocky Mountains and then in the Great Smoky Mountains.
There are, in addition, many smaller stories throughout the book, such
as the account of my daughter’s wedding, all designed to connect
thinking with living.
INTERVIEWER: On a related note, as you write an essay, do you find structure
revealing itself, or do you set out with a formal structure in mind?
SANDERS: I usually discover the structure as I go. I may have preliminary
hunches about the shape of the piece. So for example, I might imagine
a certain interweaving of storytelling and reflection. But the working
out of such a scheme is highly improvisatory, rather like the way jazz
musicians elaborate on a skein of chords. In the case of Hunting for
Hope, I began with a series of chapter titles, each one pointing
to a thematic focus. For most of a year, I made extensive notes for each
of those prospective chapters, sometimes renaming or revising the topics,
and I kept compiling ideas, images, memories, and episodes until a given
chapter began to feel ripe. When I have a critical mass of material, I
look for a beginning point—a scene, moment, or image that excites
me, that carries energy. Once I discover the beginning, I see where it
leads, finding my way forward sentence by sentence. I keep going back
to the notes, but they impose no structure; they simply provide an array
of potential materials. I’m willing to go wherever imagination,
memory, knowledge, and the texture of language lead me, so long as the
sentences ring true, so long as the path of words convinces me of its
relevance and power. I realize it may be frustrating for young writers
to be told that I have no step-by-step method, that I can offer no firm
guidelines for writing. But for me the making of essays is a highly intuitive
process, as mysterious as dreaming.
INTERVIEWER: When and how you did you begin discovering your deepest concerns,
which would serve as themes for a lot of your work?
SANDERS: I wrote fiction for a dozen years before I started writing essays.
And in my stories and novels I explored some of the same concerns that
I have since explored in my nonfiction. But when I began writing essays,
some twenty-five years ago, the medium of nonfiction seemed to me more
hospitable to reflection—about family, marriage, religion, science,
race, war, the future of the planet, and my other preoccupations. Some
of these concerns have been with me since childhood—questions about
the origins and meaning of the universe, for example, and questions about
how we should treat one another. Other concerns have come to me gradually
as I became a husband, a teacher, a father and, most recently, a grandfather—questions
about our place in nature, for example, or about the meaning of wildness,
the sources of beauty, the promise of community, and our responsibility
to future generations. Hunting for Hope gathered up the most
pressing concerns I had felt up to the time of that writing. My more recent
book, A Private History of Awe, chronicles how these concerns
arose from the circumstances and events of my life.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve mentioned before that you desire for your readers
to gain insights and to find beauty or meaning in your work. How do you
test your words to see that they’re fulfilling your desire to connect
SANDERS: Well, one test is to hear what people say when they’ve
read the book. While I’m interested in the reactions of professional
readers such as reviewers and critics, I learn more from the notes and
letters people send me about what they’ve found in my books, what
pleasure or insight they’ve gained, and occasionally what bones
they want to pick with me. So that’s one measure. I also gauge the
reactions to my books by giving public readings—which I do twenty
or thirty times a year. Every time I read from my work, I sense reactions
from the audience as I speak; I entertain questions afterwards, if the
hosts allow for that; and I always talk individually with members of the
audience who seek me out. They tell me what they have taken from the book,
if only from the portion they’ve heard me read. Sometimes, again,
they’ll challenge an idea or opinion, and that’s fine. More
often they tell me how the work has spoken to them, how it has clarified
or ratified something for them. I want readers to come away from my books
thinking harder about their lives and about the life we share. So, responses
from readers, whether written or spoken, are the most important measures
for me of how well or poorly I have succeeded in doing what I set out
to do. It’s also the case that the more experienced I’ve become
as a writer, the better I’ve been able to judge the quality of my
INTERVIEWER: And before you publish, what’s the process you go through
before you get that feedback from the readers?
SANDERS: I started writing when I was a graduate student in England, in
isolation. I didn’t know any established writers, or even any apprentice
writers. The only person whom I could ask for a response was my wife.
So I began by giving my work to Ruth, whom readers can meet in Hunting
for Hope and A Private History of Awe. She’s a scientist,
and a skillful writer of scientific papers as well as lively personal
letters. Her comments on my manuscripts tend to be factual or technical,
noting when a passage is confusing or inconsistent, when a word has been
misused, when more evidence is needed to justify a claim. To this day,
she is the one person who reads everything I write before I send it out.
Now that I know quite a few writers, I occasionally exchange work with
a friend. And yet I’m reluctant to impose my writing on others,
figuring they already have more than enough to read. So I don’t
often circulate my work before I submit it for publication. And so, apart
from Ruth, the first person who reads one of my pieces is usually an editor.
Some editors at magazines and publishing houses still take time with a
manuscript and make useful suggestions for improving it. Nowadays, however,
they often don’t have the time to truly edit the work, and so they
publish it more or less as I submitted it. While I had an excellent relationship
with my editor at Beacon Press when Hunting for Hope was published,
she did very little actual editing of the book. On the other hand, A
Private History of Awe benefited significantly from revisions that
I made in response to questions and suggestions from my editor at Farrar,
Strauss & Giroux, which is my new publishing house. My work has also
been thoughtfully edited at certain magazines, such as the Georgia
Review, Missouri Review, and Orion. Any sensible
writer is grateful for keen-eyed editors; I certainly am
INTERVIEWER: What advice would you give for writing candidly and intimately
without being confessional?
SANDERS: My writing is personal, but it’s not confessional. I don’t
present myself as the focus of interest. Rather, I am a witness who glimpses
things, has hunches about things, and wants to convey those glimpses and
hunches to the reader. To switch metaphors: I use my personal experience
as a lens through which the reader can see things that are far bigger
and more significant than I am. The stories I tell are not about me, even
if I participate in them; they are about us, about being human, about
other people, other creatures, the wild world, and the universe, all refracted
through one person’s consciousness.
When you write personal nonfiction, you must be clear in your own mind
about what you are willing to make public, about yourself or about other
people, and what should be kept private. Not everything should be told,
especially if the telling would invade the privacy of someone else, or
if it would play to the voyeuristic strain in our culture. You should
consider your own experience as significant not merely because it is yours,
but because it gives insight into something larger than yourself. Depending
on your interests, that larger thing could be religion, or wilderness,
or science, or race, or gender, or anything else under the sun. The point
is not to admire the lens, but to see through it to what is beyond.
INTERVIEWER: Do you ever find yourself “dumbing down” an essay
linguistically to appeal to a wider audience? Do you ever decide not to
use a word or a phrase because it might be too obscure, maybe something
that would confuse your readers?
SANDERS: I write for literate, curious readers. Still, even for such readers,
my books may pose difficulties, if not of vocabulary, then of structure.
Sometimes I tell continuous stories, which are easy to follow. But other
times the sentences make leaps and connections that readers may have trouble
following. I’ve had students in high school, and even in college,
tell me that they found Hunting for Hope to be challenging. Well,
it’s meant to be challenging. If I aspired to write a best-seller,
I would make fewer demands on the reader’s attention or memory or
understanding. But such an easy-reader book wouldn’t have allowed
me to fully explore the ideas I wished to explore. I want to reach people
who are willing to examine their own lives, who appreciate rich language
and complex thought, who enjoy using their minds. Judging by the letters
I receive, those people come from all walks of life, all social classes
and professions, and from all over the map. To go back to your question:
I’m never aware of censoring myself, of avoiding an idea or a word
because I think it’s too sophisticated for readers. What I do avoid
is jargon, the specialized language that may be appropriate to a given
domain, such as medicine or astrophysics or literary theory, but which
is incomprehensible to outsiders.
INTERVIEWER: It has been said that one of the most important traits a
writer can have is the ability to take criticism. Do you agree, and how
much weight do you give to criticism and feedback you receive?
SANDERS: If you’re going to survive and improve as a writer, you
must maintain a balance between accepting and resisting criticism. On
the one hand, you must be open to those voices that challenge your work,
that identify its weaknesses or suggest how it might be made stronger.
You must learn to discern what’s valuable, what’s well-meant,
what’s useful in the comments that other people voice about your
work. On the other hand, you must have enough confidence in yourself,
in your command of language, and in your vision of things, to keep going
in the face of discouragement. Every writer faces discouragement. You’re
going to send work to magazines and publishing houses and have it rejected;
you’re going to publish work and have it misread, or have it ignored.
So if you don’t possess a certain belief in yourself, and a certain
ambition, you’ll quit. And a lot of aspiring writers give up for
just this reason. However, if your confidence borders on arrogance, if
you believe you’re a genius with nothing to learn, then you won’t
benefit from criticism. Cocky writers also tend to quit, because they
don’t get any better. So you need to maintain a balance between
self-confidence and humility. I’ve been writing seriously for thirty-five
years, and I am proud of what I’ve accomplished, but I also know
I have a lot to learn. I hope to continue gaining skills and extending
my range as long as I keep my wits about me.
It’s also vital to develop one’s own critical judgment. You
must learn to see when your work is succeeding and when it’s not,
where the weaknesses are. You have to develop the ability to hear your
work as though you were a stranger—to read your work as though you
hadn’t written it. Ultimately, you must become an astute, hard-nosed,
and honest critic of your own work.
INTERVIEWER: What is your revision process like? How do you know when
your essay’s finished, when to stop revising and call it good?
SANDERS: I revise constantly, line by line, sentence by sentence, paragraph
by paragraph, as I work on a piece. When I’m writing an essay, for
example, I might work back through the opening paragraph a hundred times;
the second paragraph, ninety-five times; the third paragraph, ninety times,
and so forth, all the way through to the final paragraph, which might
be revisited a dozen times. I revise as I go; I have to feel good about
what I have put down before I can move forward. This isn’t the method
of writing I recommend to my students; it’s just what works for
The method I recommend to my students is to write a quick first draft
so as to get a sense of the overall shape, and then to go back in subsequent
drafts to patiently refine the language and tighten the form. I suspect
this is the method that works best for most writers. For me, however,
the only way is to work slowly, line by line. I’ll cast and recast
a sentence in my head, until one version satisfies me, and then I’ll
type it out; then I’ll compose a second sentence, which often leads
me to reconsider the first sentence, and so I inch forward. This sounds
cumbersome and tedious, and it is. The only reason I’ve been able
to produce so many books is because I’ve been working steadily for
so many years.
Now, how do I know when a piece is finished? As I keep reworking the story
or essay, eventually I reach a point where to change anything more requires
me to undo too many other things. Eventually, the removing of a sentence
or the replacement of a word would lead to a cascade of other, undesirable
changes. To keep on tugging at threads is to risk weakening the fabric.
So at that point I declare it finished. I don’t declare it perfect—nothing
I’ve written has been perfect—I simply admit that I have carried
the piece as far as I am able to carry it. Of course I remain open to
insights from editors and other readers who can suggest ways of improving
INTERVIEWER: Speaking about publication, you have said “If a writer
learns well enough and has the necessary talent, then publications will
come in due time.” How much of the creative writing process can
be learned, and how much needs to be raw talent, something you can’t
buy or learn?
SANDERS: Success in writing depends as much on character as it does on
training and talent. And by “success,” I don’t mean
fame or fortune, I mean a lifetime of work good enough to merit publication.
The training comes not primarily from formal classes, such as workshops,
but from reading high-quality books. Such reading tunes our ears to hear
the power and music in language; it gives us an intuitive sense of storytelling;
it supplies us with a repertoire of literary forms and moves; it teaches
us ways of revealing emotion and recording thought. We internalize the
standards of quality we encounter in books, so when we sit down to do
our own writing, often unconsciously, we will draw on that whole lifetime
of reading. Of course we also learn about writing from talking with others
who are struggling to master this demanding craft.
Talent is important, but it’s not sufficient. The verbal gifts a
person might have, the degree of inventiveness, or the freshness of perspective,
do not necessarily predict how likely that person is to succeed as a writer.
Without certain qualities of character, talent alone will not make a writer.
I’ve already spoken about one necessary trait—the balance
between self-confidence and humility. But a writer also needs patience,
curiosity, a lively sense of humor, a degree of stubbornness, and a willingness
to work hard. I recently turned 60, and I’ve published twenty-odd
books, and I still get up at 6:00 a.m. to write. Students often ask, “Well,
Mr. Sanders, is writing easy for you?” and I have to tell them the
truth is, no, it’s hard. It grows harder every year. Because I’ve
already written so much, I must take care not to repeat myself. Because
I keep reading the best of what others have written, my standards keep
rising. So whatever one’s training, whatever one’s talent,
in order to succeed as a writer you must keep striving. You must sit down,
hour after hour, day after day, year after year, and search for words
to say the most elusive things.
INTERVIEWER: To send us off on a light note: Do you like James Taylor,
and if so what’s your favorite song of his? And have you ever been
confused for James Taylor in person?
SANDERS: [laughs] Clearly, you’ve seen a photograph of me. Yes,
people have told me I look a lot like James Taylor. When my children were
teenagers, they introduced me to his music, and his song “Carolina
in My Mind” became my favorite. If I remember correctly, James Taylor
is the son of a professor at the University of North Carolina, so there’s
a little more of a connection between us than you might imagine. But he
sells more records than I do books, I’m sure.