Edward Kanze, writer, naturalist, and guide, visited SUNY Potsdam December 1, 2016. Between visiting a class and a public reading from his vast array of essays, we had the opportunity to talk for an hour over a range of topics covered in his six books -- his deep and abiding appreciation for the work of John Burroughs and his engagements with other writers deeply invested in nature and the environment: Thoreau, Emerson, John Muir, and Rachel Carson. We wandered about Australia and New Zealand, from his early dash to New Zealand to see the last surviving Rhynchocephalian, and his 30,000 miles exploring with his wife across the two countries, to his current travels leading tours there for the Smithsonian.
Adirondack: Life and Wildlife in the Wild, Wild East (SUNY Press: Excelsior Editions, 2014)
Over The Mountain And Home Again: Journeys Of An Adirondack Naturalist (Nicholas K. Burns Publishing, 2006)
Kangaroo Dreaming: An Australian Wildlife Odyssey (Random House/Sierra Club, 2000)
The World of John Burroughs (Random House/Sierra Club, 1999)
Wild Life: The Remarkable Lives of Ordinary Animals (Crown, 1995)
Notes From New Zealand (Henry Holt, 1992)
An excerpt of this interview was published in Blueline, vol. 38, 2017.
R. What is the fascination with New Zealand and Australia?
E. I was raised an Anglophile. My mother was a great reader of English literature. All things English were always high on the list in our house, so that is one of the underpinnings. I have a huge interest, and have since I was a kid, in reptiles and amphibians. The most unusual reptile in the world lives only in New Zealand. It's called the 'tuatara.' How I got going traveling down there is I worked as a naturalist in a couple of parks and I loved the work. I had a great job at a small not-for-profit nature sanctuary downstate. Thought I'd stay there forever. And I lived on the property. Then I got a new boss, the boss from hell. He meant well, but we struck sparks at every turn. My boss lived on the property too, so I saw him seven days a week and more than eight hours a day. He and his wife had horrible screaming fights late into the night. He was very religious and holier than thou; all day long he was mister sanctimonious. Anyhow, I went from being at the top of my professional arc to the darkest pit I could imagine. I interviewed for a couple of other jobs. It wasn't a great time for the economy. The right job didn't come along. I was getting tired of being negative, bitching about my job and my boss. I was tired of my own company. I was looking up a word in the dictionary one night, in my Webster's Collegiate, and I saw the word 'tuatara.' It rang a bell but I couldn't think what a tuatara was. The dictionary said the tuatara was a rare reptile, the last surviving Rhynchocephalian, a kind of reptile that once lived all over the world. Only one species remained, surviving only on remote islands off the coast of New Zealand. I read that and said, 'That's it. I'm quitting my job tomorrow, and I'm going to those islands.' I saw this as an opportunity to do something really interesting and to just wipe the slate clean and to start my life over again. But I saw it as a writing project, too. I loved naturalist travel books, Peter Matthiessen's, for example, and I really wanted to try my hand at the genre. But I hadn't done anything interesting enough to write a travel natural history book about and I thought 'this would be it, nobody's done it, it's original material.' So, I set off for New Zealand. I made three trips there in the 80s. My first trip, the one I quit my job to take, I discovered, when I got there, that no one was allowed anywhere near these animals. They only lived on remote islands off the coast and only scientific expeditions were allowed to visit, and none were planned that year. But, you know, I just regrouped, I traveled around New Zealand, had a great time, made a lot of good contacts, and that led to me taking two more trips there in the 80s, where I got my hands on those creatures on those beautiful wild islands. So that led to book number one (Notes From New Zealand). I always wanted to go to Australia, and Australia's just a thousand miles or so away, which is close in that part of the world. I'm a nature nerd and love and have interest in the wildlife there. But Australia is a big continent and a dangerous place to travel in, not so much because of all the wildlife, people talk about the crocodiles and the snakes, but because the climate is hot and dry and the distance between settlements is often vast. So I really didn't want to travel there alone. I wanted a companion and I didn't have one. Well, I met my wife on a nature walk, in 1990, on my birthday, and we got married. One of the things that clicked with us early on was we both really wanted to do an Australia trip. She'd wanted to go there since she was a kid. But she didn't have anybody to go with. So we were each other's enabler for that journey. We spent a year on the road, living in a tent. We drove 25,000 miles around Australia and 5,000 or so around New Zealand, which is much smaller, and just followed our bliss. For a year, we woke up every morning and said, well, what should we do next? So all this led to the writing of my book, Kangaroo Dreaming.
R. You talk about wanderlust in your essays, how hard is it to make the transition to settling down when you still have that wanderlust?
E. Yeah, I definitely do, I have the wanderlust still. These days, I'm sort of having my cake and eating it too. I lead a trip, one a year, for the Smithsonian to Australia and New Zealand. It's not sleeping on the ground, living in a tent, chasing wildlife all the time; it's fancy hotels and fancy restaurants every step of the way. I give lectures, four of them, and serve as a traveling host. My title is Study Leader. The people that go on the trips are bright and hungry to learn anything you can share with them as they experience places along the way, and that's the fun of it. There are all sorts of negatives about being a writer, like not making much money, but there are some great advantages that come with it. You have a job, and I can look at your position here and be envious. But of course it works the other way, too. You might be envious of me in that I make up my own schedule and go where I want to when I want to do – that's worth something obviously. Twice in the last five years, my wife and I have taken our kids and gone on trips to Australia and New Zealand and just done what we damn well pleased. Those trips are only four weeks because there's a limit to how much the school system can stomach the kids being out of school, but they do homework along the way. They've made friends down there too, great friends in Australia and New Zealand. It's an incredibly hospitable part of the world. People go out of their way to wine you and dine you and help you, help keep your money in your own pocket so that you can come back and visit again. So it's a part of the world that I'm definitely very fond of.
R. There is something exotic about it....
E. A neat thing about that part of the world is that it's the most, from the standpoint of the rest of the world, exotic region on earth. Here in Potsdam, you can look out the window and see a squirrel or a woodpecker. You go to Europe, and there are squirrels and woodpeckers. You can go to Africa where there are squirrels and woodpeckers. You can go to Asia where there are squirrels and woodpeckers. There's only one part of the world that's so different from every other place that there are no squirrels. There are no woodpeckers. There are kangaroos and all these things that aren't related, and, so, the Australian region is the most different and exotic place biologically. For somebody like me who's monolingual (I wish I spoke Spanish and Portuguese and could wander all over South America but I don't), it's ideal that the language is English, which makes the travel incredibly easy.... And it's safe.
R. Does your own backyard seem that much more exotic on your returns from New Zealand and Australia?
E. Yeah, it does, absolutely. I just was out in the woods, I've been back just a week and a half, and I was out in the woods just yesterday for the first time and walked our goats yesterday afternoon in the spruce-fir forest in the snow and yeah, it's like a whole new place. I was just gone for three weeks. A great thing about travel is that it educates you about other places, and it also educates you about your own place. You see and perceive things and appreciate things that you wouldn't if you hadn't been deprived of them for a while.
R. Like mice?
E. I have written a bit about mice.
R. And bear?
E. Yes, we had a bear in the house.
R. Are you running an animal hotel?
E. It seems that way sometimes. But we work hard at keeping the animals out.
R. What else, besides mice and bear?
E. Inside the house, we maintain a list. We've identified ... well, we have a friend who's an entomologist out in Buffalo who's a great guy – Wayne Gall – and he's helped us in a lot of our IDs. Entomologists just do insects but Wayne has a side passion for spiders. So the spider you have all over your office here probably, the one that leaves so-called cobwebs, is the long-bellied cellar spider. We've got those all over the house. We have had two species of shrew in the house – masked shrew and short-tailed shrew. You may or may not know that North America has at least one species of venomous mammal, and that is the short-tailed shrew. It lives in your yard. It lives all over North America. There are two species, and they're venomous. Their saliva has a neurotoxin in it, similar to that in the venom of cobras. And they stink, which we know because we keep a short-tailed shrew in captivity once in a while. In fact one of my son's claims to fame is he was reaching his hand into the shrew tank to fiddle with something and he got nicked by the venomous mammal. He had no reaction to it. Years ago I had a naturalist mentor downstate, a woman named Kaye Anderson, and she was, like me, curious about everything. She was a hero of my early professional life, and she handled a short-tail shrew. She couldn't resist just picking it up, and it gave her quite a vigorous bite in the arm, and she absorbed the venom. Kaye didn't have any systemic response, but her arm swelled up about double and stayed that way for two weeks. She had this massively swollen arm from a shrew bite. So, we've had two shrews in the house. I'm just trying to think what else. Red-backed voles, which are one of the most beautiful mammals in this part of the world. They're very small. If they were big, we'd put them in zoos and gawk and say how lovely they are, but they're small, so we don't. We keep track of everything on our property. We have this biological survey project going on. We're interested in even single-cell things like bacteria. Until recently, we only had four species of bacteria on our biological survey list, all recorded in the house by reading the words on a yogurt container. My wife, about a year ago, had strep throat, and when the strep tests came back positive, we added Streptococcus, I forget the species name [pyogenes], so we knew we had another Streptococcus bacteria. One of the bacteria in yogurt is Streptococcus, too, but it's not one that causes strep throat. We've had a red squirrel in the house. We had droppings up in the attic before we insulated the house that were very likely American marten droppings. They had a lot of mouse fur in them. It's not surprising that a predator would be in the house after all of the mice that we've had. I'm pretty sure they were marten scats. That's probably the most exciting house mammal that we've had.
E. We've had one species of bat that we've seen in the yard. That's a red bat. It's about the only bat that you can have 100% confidence identifying on the wing. It flies in the day. And it's red. None of the others are. Red bats migrate, and the one we saw was probably a migrant. Recently, we had a biologist friend, Larry Master, over with a bat detection device. It picks up the ultrasonic sounds that bats make, the sonar. Larry did a quick analysis of what he recorded on our property and believes he detected five or six species, one of which is federally endangered. Larry sent the recordings to Department of Environmental Conservation biologists in Albany. We won't add those species to our list until the Albany biologists confirm them. Still, Larry is pretty sure we have five species of bat and possibly six. Mind boggling. It's funny, because when he was making his recordings, we didn't see any bats. They were just up there. Bats are declining in the Northeast, so this was particularly exciting.
R. Your engagement with John Burroughs was born of 'curiosity,' as you say in your introduction to The World of John Burroughs. How world-changing was his philosophy for you?
E. In a way it wasn't world-changing at all, but it was affirming. When I started reading Burroughs, I found a kindred spirit, more of one than I found in Henry Thoreau or John Muir. Thoreau was a pretty cranky guy. I like Thoreau and loved Walden when I read it the first time. Still, Thoreau is a thorny character, who had pretty extreme views at times. If we'd shared time and space, I'm not sure I would have liked him or that we would have been friends. We certainly wouldn't have been close. Muir is something of a swashbuckler, a macho adventurer who really wasn't a very good naturalist, at least not across the board as Burroughs was. Muir didn't know birds well. I know Burroughs was disappointed at how little natural history Muir knew. Muir knew geology, and he knew plants. He wasn't much of a zoologist. His interests were somewhat narrow. He was very politically active. He was a good guy who did good things. But I don't relate to him in the way that I relate to Burroughs. Burroughs was much more like me. I was a shy kid, and am essentially still a shy person. Burroughs was very shy. That's why he didn't do the things that Muir did. But his shyness, he channeled the energy of that, his love of quiet, his love of studying things thoughtfully by himself, to the point where he became a phenomenal naturalist. He was probably one of the first people in our country, maybe one of the first in the world to learn all the birds in his region by their voices. He could identify them just by their sounds. Quite a common skill to have today, but it was rare in his time. Everything about Burroughs appealed to me. He was like me. He was a little further down the road than I was in doing various things. How I got interested in Burroughs ... I don't remember how I describe it in the book, but I used to climb Slide Mountain in the Catskills, which was important to him. There's a plaque near the summit with his name and a quotation. I saw the plaque up there several times and had no clue who John Burroughs he was. I guessed he was a geologist because his name was bolted to a rock. I was working at a nature center in the Hudson Valley, where a neighbor and friend of mine was an old friend of the editor of Vassar College's magazine. Vassar had just acquired Burroughs's journals from the Burroughs family, and they wanted somebody to write an article about him and the importance of his journals. My neighbor friend, who was a newspaper editor, he got tapped to write the article. He told the editor he could do the piece, but that he had a friend who lived just around the corner who was a naturalist like Burroughs and also a writer, and that he was better suited for the job. I don't know whether that's true or not. My friend Steve would have done a fabulous job. But generously, he tossed the bone to me. I had to send some writing samples to Vassar and got the assignment, but I didn't know a darn thing about Burroughs, really. I hadn't read a word he'd written. So I plunged into reading his stuff and found I loved it. I think partly what attracted me to Burroughs is that I've always been attracted to underdogs. Burroughs was hugely influential. In the late nineteenth century he achieved a fame in his lifetime that far outstripped anything Thoreau ever achieved while alive. And when he and Muir side by side traveled together, Burroughs was by far the bigger name. But today, everybody knows Thoreau, and everybody knows Muir, but very few people know Burroughs. The Hudson Valley has seen a resurgence of interest in him, but nationally, he's largely forgotten. I don't think his importance is gone. He launched the whole nature study movement, the thing that has us all running around looking for birds and things. He did more than everybody else put together to get people outdoors studying flora and fauna, yet by name, he's all but forgotten. I think, partly, it's because of his shyness, his modesty. Burroughs tended not to seek credit for things. Part of the reason we read Thoreau today is that Burroughs, at the height of his own celebrity, wrote essay after essay proposing that our supreme American nature writer is not Burroughs but Henry Thoreau. The force of Burroughs's celebrity was considerable, and Thoreau took off, but long after his death.
R. You invoke Emerson in Kangaroo Dreaming. Can you talk about his philosophy and how it intersects with Burroughs -- both in general, and how that intersection affects your own world view?
E. My wife and I launched our Australia trip in 1996. I'm a binge reader. At the time, I was on an Emerson binge. The interest in Emerson came from studying Henry Thoreau and in particular from studying John Burroughs. Burroughs met Emerson three times. He wasn't a neighbor and close confidant like Thoreau was, but Emerson was a huge influence on Burroughs, more than Thoreau was. In writing about Burroughs, I immersed myself in Emerson, but never really caught the excitement of Emerson's writings. I wanted to, because they meant so much to Burroughs. I dipped into them in order to be informed to write my biography of Burroughs, but I never quite broke through. Then I read one of the best nonfiction books one could ever read, Robert Richardson's Emerson: The Mind On Fire. The book is an intellectual biography, Richardson calls it, of Emerson. He doesn't worry about whether Emerson skinned his knee in an accident falling out of a tree when he was five. The focus is on the evolution of Emerson's thinking. Richardson leads you through all of the influences, the books Emerson read, the philosophies Emerson was exposed to, and you go on the journey of Emerson becoming Emerson. It's a fascinating way to approach a biography; I just love that book. I found that at each step of the way, when Richardson was writing about what Emerson was writing, it wasn't good enough to read Richardson, as good as Richardson was. So I would stop. I bought The Portable Emerson [ed. Carl Bode, Penguin, 1946] and read the original essays as they were coming up in the Richardson biography. And I got hog-wild on Emerson. I loved the stuff. I took pages and pages of notes and still have them. Emerson stirred my thinking about my own self-reliance, about doing things originally, about experiencing things not second-hand through books but plunging in and experiencing life on its own terms. I hadn't done that as much as I'd wanted to, so I found things in Emerson that were very exciting and empowering. They led, at least in part, to our taking that trip to Australia.
R. You also mention Rachel Carson. She saw much of what the government and chemical industry was doing was ultimately, as you might say, in the man vs. nature relationship as seen by John Muir. How much does Carson affect your daily life, your relationship with your 18 acres, etc.?
E. I'd like to know more about Rachel Carson than I do. I know a little. I read Silent Spring  long long ago, before I was interested in nature writing. I was an environmentalist in high school. I loved [Silent Spring]. I've tried reading her natural history books, The Sea Around Us [1951; also Under The Sea Wind, 1941, and The Edge of the Sea, 1955]. I hope I live long enough to find some time to jump into Rachel Carson and really explore her. She's very much in the John Burroughs mode. She was a quiet person. She wasn't a swashbuckler like John Muir. She was retiring like John Burroughs and immersed herself in nature. She's someone who I admire and find a kinship with. But I picked up those three books she wrote about the sea and not gotten up to speed. One of the things that pulls me into Burroughs, and it's missing in Carson and Muir or doesn't loom large, is something that's present in Thoreau and on display to a greater degree in Burroughs: humor. I like humor in nature writing. I hope there are some laughs in my own nature books; and I hope there aren't too many. I enjoy a playful, humorous angle. Life is funny. Studying animals. Looking at birds. Watching them engage in reproductive behavior isn't much different in the end from being a Peeping Tom, so there's a comical side to what we nature lovers do. Burroughs, to my mind, and not many people have said this about Burroughs, is a very funny writer. At his best, he's hilariously funny. He has a wonderful way with words, always circling back and comparing things to people. It's one of the things I love about Edward Abbey. There are things I totally disagree with him about. Edward Abbey is a bit of a sexist. I'm not sure I would have liked him had I known him. But by golly he's a great read because he's so funny. And he's a brilliant writer and he makes you think about things even when he says extreme things. I'm not sure even Abbey believes them all. He just likes to just twist the knife and provoke you. There's a sedateness about Rachel Carson's writing that really hasn't grabbed me. Obviously, as an individual who exerted influence, she's a towering figure with Silent Spring and how it changed our awareness of what we're doing to the environment. She was writing about pesticides, but the technology of using electricity to run our devices twenty-four hours a day must be an enormous concern, too. We need not just to look backward and praise ourselves for building pyramids and the Eiffel Tower, but also think critically about the things we do that aren't good. We we need to be mindful of that and mend the errors of our ways.
R. She's an advocate. Do you see yourself in any way as someone who is an advocate, or a political activist?
E. Certainly, I like the idea of having an effect. I was the middle child in the family and the peacemaker between two sisters. I grew up in a household with a lot of strife, although my older sister disagrees and took exception when when I wrote about it in my recent book Adirondack. My take on my parents is they didn't get along very well. I remember a lot of fighting and screaming and anger and stuff that didn't just get resolved year after year, decade after decade. Maybe that's why I tend to be a lover of peace and not much of a fighter. One environmental writer I have the pleasure of knowing personally and think the world of is Bill McKibben. He's John Muir, a crusader. He's politically active, and the world needs Bill McKibben. It needs lots like him. If everybody was like me, and if everybody was like John Burroughs, we might be in trouble. We need people to do what those guys do. Yet those guys wouldn't get anywhere without people like John Burroughs and me, maybe like you, too, and lots of others. I don't mean to hold myself out to be a great example. But I guess my approach has always been not to tell people how to vote or tell people what to do, but to try to just stir their interest and appreciation of this world that we live in, and show that our place in it is relatively small. That we are part of a democracy of species. It's not all for us. I think this is why I relate so much to Burroughs. It was my approach before I knew Burroughs, but when his books entered my consciousness, he helped me see that I wasn't an inferior John Muir or an inferior Bill McKibben. I was something else, a different kind of animal. Paul Brooks, who was a conservation historian, wrote a wonderful book called Speaking for Nature , which is a history of nature writing. He points out that Burroughs made more converts to nature appreciation than anybody else, and that their successors have been fighting our environmental battles ever since. So, we need leaders like John Muir and Bill McKibben and others, we need Al Gore and Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, and we also need the non-confrontational. Approaches supplement each other, affirm and help each other. There are a lot of people who wouldn't listen to Bill McKibben or John Muir for two seconds. They hear the beginning of it, and they're done. They're not listening anymore. I write a newspaper column. I've written it for thirty years, for a wealthy, conservative community. Most of my readers are probably Republican, and the column isn't political. If it was, well, I would lose a lot of my readership. I don't want to make anyone feel better because they voted for Donald Trump, nor is it my aim to make them feel worse. My approach is to help readers appreciate nature, and to see their place in it, and to help them think critically about it. They can take their thinking and actions in whatever direction they want to.
R. You've mentioned working on a video in recent days.
E. Well, the videos I've been doing for about three years are made in partnership with a neighbor in our little tiny town of Bloomingdale, a hugely talented guy named Josh Clement. He's quite a bit younger than me. One thing we share in common is a love of The Beatles. I was around for The Beatles the first time. Josh is in his early forties. He's utterly fanatical about The Beatles. So it all comes back to The Beatles sometimes when we're talking about stuff. The Beatles have influenced some of the videos we've made. The writing game is always evolving, and what I want to do is to evolve with it so I can reach out to people. I've realized in recent years that there is more than one way to do that. You can write for print, and you can write for other media. One of the things I did with Josh is develop a podcast that we distributed via Mountain Lake PBS's website for two, two-and-a-half years. It was named after my newspaper column "All Things Natural." I have over a thousand of these columns just sitting around, gathering dust. There are a few clunkers in there, but there are also lots of good ones. Some of them were published in the late 80s, early 90s, and it's a shame that they're just forgotten. So I dug into the archives, and I also used some of my current stuff, and we made audio podcasts that got listened to all over the world. That was fun. I did it as a volunteer for the station, with the idea that it would get funded, but it never did. Eventually PBS wanted to produce a video series, and so we took the plunge into video, Josh and I working together. He does work on his own, too. We produce a series called "Curiously Adirondack." The videos are mini-documentaries. Most are five-to-seven minutes long. I think the longest goes around twelve minutes. They're human interest stories, not just natural histories. Some are just wacko crazy, like we did one on giant beavers in the Adirondacks. There aren't any, but we pretended that there were. We interviewed people who had seen them, and we had a lot of fun with that. One of the things I enjoy about the video world is that it reaches a whole new audience for me. I just turned 60, and I'm definitely an old dog who wants to learn new tricks. So I'm having a blast. I find the video work really hard. I write scripts and read the voice-overs. One thing Josh and I share in common is that we both like to be highly creative and to work spontaneously. I'm a writer who never starts with an outline. You could say that there's a loose outline in my brain, but I like to just jump into material and work with it and to see where it goes. And that's the way I like to produce these videos. Fortunately, Josh does, too. So we come up with ideas, we go out, and then we have hours of material that has to be boiled down into a five or ten minute video. He picks out the stuff that works best technically. Then I've got to sit through an hour or two of that, and figure out which pieces I can grab, here and there, to tell a story, and what the story's going to be. We don't really know until we're in deep. It's a sort of backwards way of working, but I think the results are good. I find it incredibly demanding, psychologically, to sit down with raw video footage and try to make sense of it. But I'm loving the process. I wanted to try my hand at something totally new, to learn new tricks. And I am. It's like no other kind of writing I've done before. Some of the skills I've acquired writing for print apply to the visual medium, and some don't. I'm having a blast doing it.
R. That's part of another question. You're writing essays. You're writing longer, more meditative work. You have a journal that you're keeping. Writing as something more contemplative. You now also have the novels. Are there differences in terms of process or time commitment?
E. The time commitments for me are mostly the same. Because I'm a writer who has to pay bills. I also have a guiding business, which keeps me busy mostly during the summer. Otherwise, when I've got time, I'm writing. I love to work. I don't have a hard time getting myself motivated. I wish I had more time to work.
R. How is your approach to an essay different from a novel?
E. The novel is a whole new thing for me. I find that fiction writing is sort of like video writing. Except while video writing is really hard, novel writing is ten times harder. I think part of the reason I find it so hard is that if I had started out as a fiction writer, and that's all I'd done from day one, I would find it easier. I don't think hard is bad. I teach my kids that all the best things in life are hard. You don't want to spend your life steering your way around the hard things. You sometimes want to go right for the hard things because those are the best – like having kids. What could be harder? There are nonfiction writers who are cavalier about the facts, but I like to think I'm not one of them. I'm certainly not one by intent. I'm sure I've gotten facts wrong here and there, but by golly I work hard not to. When I write a nonfiction book or a nature essay or a newspaper column, I research it backwards and forwards. If I think I've got something wrong and can't find out what's right, I leave it out. I write about scientists and their work a lot, and they are people I want to be willing to work with me on the next story. So I've got to get it right, and I want to get it right. It's just the decent thing to do. My whole being as a writer is tied to getting the facts right. I'd started various novels over the years. The first I'd actually finished writing, thanks to good advice from our mutual friend Maurice Kenny, was about Henry Hudson. The reason I finished it, unlike other novels I'd started, is that when I said to Maurice one day, "Gee, I start novels and I never finish them," he said, "Well, do you talk about them?" And I said, "Well, yes, I talk to my wife about them, I go out for coffee and talk to writer friends about them." He said, "You've gotta stop doing that. You can't do that anymore, Ed. You cannot." Maurice, you know, was a man of strong opinion. "You cannot talk about a novel while you are writing it," he said. And he was absolutely emphatic in that. I'd never thought about the issue before – he put an idea in my head that had never been there before. I'd read tons of books on fiction writing, but what Maurice told me was revelatory. Maybe it's true, I thought, and maybe it's not true, but I decided to try it. So when I started my Henry Hudson novel, I told my wife that she's not going to hear a word about it until I put the dot at the end of the last sentence. And I was true to that. I did not describe the book to her or to anybody else. It takes huge psychic energy to work your way through any large project, particularly a novel. You can't tap that energy. You need every bit of it to drive you forward and sit down and do the hard work of getting the story down on paper. So that's why you can't talk about it. You dissipate the energy. Anyhow, I didn't dissipate my energy and I finished the novel. And I've written another one, and I'm into a third one. And all thanks to Maurice for giving me that good idea. Back to the hardness of it, I find it so difficult because writing a novel is the exact opposite of writing nonfiction. From the standpoint of a nonfiction writer, it's all a lie, everything's a lie. I write about people, I describe them, I describe thoughts, I describe things that they did. Yet they didn't do those things, and they didn't have those thoughts. They don't even exist. I'm just making it all up. It's all just a big pile of lies. So when you sit down to write a fictional story or a novel, it's just serial lying. Even aside from being a writer, I guess as a person, all my life I guess I've told some untruths along the way, but not many. I take truthfulness and being a straight shooter in life quite seriously. So, it requires a big personality adjustment for me to sit down and make it up. Writing the first hundred pages of that Hudson novel was just brutal. I was determined to do it, and Maurice's trick helped me to get it done. But once you really get into it, then there's a level of excitement, a thrill that you get from it that is way above anything you can get from nonfiction writing – there's characters and people and relationships, you're digging into things, you're creating the material from scratch. In the case of my Hudson story, you can say, well, I wasn't really creating from scratch because I was working with a historical figure. Well, I was, and I was not. It's ironic that the first novel I wrote was a historical novel, because I don't actually like historical fiction much, but I was attracted to this story because Hudson disappeared up in Hudson Bay. There was a mutiny. He vanished. The mutiny took place in June. It was warm, it was sunny, the days were long, and they'd survived a winter there. They'd built a hut and had shelter. There would be birds everywhere, nesting on the ground. You could eat their eggs. There'd be frogs all over the place to eat. So they didn't starve to death, they didn't die of exposure, they knew how to survive there through a winter, and this was late June, the height of summertime up there in the Arctic. So what happened? How did Hudson and his companions feel when the mutineers sailed over the horizon with their ship, and they were left there. It was like being stranded on the moon in those days. I was determined to write the story and make it work. In the process I learned an amazing thing about the process of writing fiction. I'm sort of a meat and potatoes guy intellectually. I don't believe in spiritual things. One of the things that attracted me to Burroughs was he was not religious. I don't have a religious bone in my body. And one of the things that fiction writers said to me always sounded a bit new-agey, like complete b.s., was that characters just create themselves, and the story writes itself. It sounded like a bunch of hocus pocus to me. But I really did find that happening with my Hudson story as I began to flesh out the characters. They began to take on their own lives. The scenario is real. There was a mutiny. We know where they were. We know the geography. We know the climate, the wildlife, but no one knows a darn thing about Henry Hudson. No one knows what year he was born. We know that he was English. We know that he was from London. No one knows how old he was when he died. No one knows when he died. Or where he died. The men who were castaway with him, who would have attempted to survive along with Hudson – we know their names, we know their job titles, but that's it. We don't know what they look like. We don't know if they were friendly or nasty. They're all just blank slates. So, in a way, my novel is not a historical novel. It really is close to being pure fiction. I have a bunch of names. I have a predicament, like at the beginning of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Beyond that, I made the whole thing up.
R. But you'd done a ton of research.
E. I did do a ton of research. I spent months immersing myself in the ethnography of the Indians who were up there, the climate, and if I'd had more money in my pocket, I would have chartered a plane and had somebody drop me off up there, and lived in the bush south of Hudson Bay for a while. I've never actually been there. But I wanted to write the novel responsibly, and I did. The process is fascinating. Interesting things came up. There are very sketchy (they don't amount to a whole lot of words) logs of Hudson's four voyages of exploration. Those were my primary sources. There's little interpretive stuff in them. They're just sort of a bare bones journal: we did this, we went there, this is where it played out. But when you look at what played out, you can glean things about Hudson and who he was, what sort of ship's captain and leader of men he was: not a very good one, I think. There were near mutinies on other voyages. Hudson had a mercurial personality. He was too nice a guy, not firm enough at times, and then he would go the other way. People would take advantage of things and go behind his back and get the upper hand. And then he would be brutal, not a good formula for an effective leader. The other novel I've completed (because of the Maurice formula, I won't talk about the third one that's in progress) is of a kind I've always wanted to try my hand at: a murder mystery. I don't read a huge number of them. The best murder mysteries, I think, are good fiction. The mystery is the little hook that keeps you turning the pages when you're tired and really ought to be asleep, but you want to read a few pages. It's a device to hold the reader's attention. A good murder mystery has riveting characters, a physical setting that you get immersed in, and often some technical information. A good example is Umberto Eco, who wrote The Name of the Rose, in which you learn all about a Benedictine monastery and how it works while a murder mystery plot drives you through all the detail. My favorite mystery writer is a writer few read today – Arthur Upfield was his name. He was from England and as a young man moved to Australia. He worked as an outback border rider and sheep drover and did all sorts of things in the wilds of Australia, in the remote places, often living on his own for months on end, moving herds or mending fences. In his forties, Upfield started writing mysteries. He became quite popular. Most of the income derived from his writing came from the United States, so his biggest readership was here. He wrote about the same time as Agatha Christie. His novels take place in remote places all over Australia, and there are Aboriginal characters in quite a few of them. My wife and I love the Australian landscape in all its myriad details, and Upfield he knows that landscape better than we do. These are not naturalist books. They're murder mysteries. But any detail about the birds or the geology or the climate or the salt pans and the stinking heat on a summer's day – Upfield gets all that stuff right. I just love those books. His model for his detective was a half-Aboriginal, half-English guy that he worked with on one of the ranches, a sheep station. This guy was brilliant and self-taught. He gave Arthur Upfield the gift of a book, and the book was a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. So the detective in these mysteries is named Napoleon Bonaparte. He's half-Aboriginal and half-English, like Upfield's friend. Half-breed kids were often taken away and raised by Catholic or Protestant missionaries, and their Aboriginal names were taken away from them. Often they were given names from history books. So on one hand it sounds ridiculous that there should be a detective roaming around Australia named Napoleon Bonaparte, but it's actually totally in keeping with the history of the place. Anyhow, I'd long had the idea to write a series of mysteries. Whether I'll write any more or even get this one published I don't know. I need to get back to it. It's finished as a first draft. I always thought it would be fun to write a mystery where the detective was a naturalist. Somebody like me. Somebody who'd pick up the nuances, who would notice when things don't quite add up. There are little towns in the Adirondacks such as Long Lake and Newcomb, rare in the modern world, that are perfect places to set mysteries. I thought it would be fun to do that. My favorite Adirondack town is Long Lake, so that's where the mystery that I wrote is set. As you know, living in the area, we have all sorts of tensions between the locals and the summer people, between those who want to preserve everything and those who want to preserve nothing and all the shades of opinion in between. It's a fertile environment for a novelist to work in. When I had the idea thirty years ago to write a series of mystery novels with a naturalist detective, there wasn't much of anything in that vein on the market. Since then, others have gone before me. The most well-known is Nevada Barr. She's written maybe twenty. They're set in national parks, which was my idea. But I haven't warmed to hers. She's a good writer, but her detective is a law enforcement ranger. I used to work for the National Park Service. There were law enforcement people, and there were naturalists and historians – interpreters, the Park Service calls them. We all had our ideas about who was doing important work. Barr's detective is just a cop, a cop in a park ranger uniform, whereas I wanted to create a sleuth who would be tuned in to the nuances of place. For me as a reader, it's not a willful thing, it's who I am, I guess: I love place. I love every place I've ever lived, every place I've ever traveled. I don't like fiction if it's just a bunch of characters sitting around suffering from suburban angst talking about their neuroses. I find that boring. I can't read it. I can only read fiction that's grounded in place. It's one of the things I like about Hemingway. There are things I don't like about Hemingway, but Hemingway was a naturalist. He knew birds. He knew the trees that were there. And place in his novels is very much a living breathing three-dimensional entity because he was a fisherman and a hunter and a naturalist. He didn't just like to kill things. He has a nuanced feel for place, and that's something I'm drawn to in fiction, so that's why I wanted to try it. Upfield did it in Australia. I'm a writer who has kids who need to eat, and they'll be wanting to go to college before too long. Its important to think about writing things that will put money in the bank. I figure I'm a good enough writer to pull it off. It's a fickle market, the whole book world. We'll see where it goes. I certainly had fun writing the book. I work alone, mostly, as a writer. I'm not one to workshop around my stuff in progress. Maurice convinced me I shouldn't, but with a mystery novel, I really felt like it needed another eye. I have a friend in the Adirondacks by the name of George Bryjak, who writes commentaries for our newspaper. He's a retired University of California at San Diego sociology professor, relocated to the Adirondacks, a brilliant guy, a great guy, and very critical. He loves to read mystery novels, and he reads a lot more than I do and knows the genre better than I do. So I thought, George is the perfect guy to read this, and he was willing. I handed the draft over to him nervously because I thought he really might not like it. But he's pretty jazzed-up about it. I knew the story had shortcomings. I knew that some elements were missing and just couldn't quite nail down what they were. I knew the plot needed a bit more complexity. George has given me some great ideas. So now I'm eager to sit down with his notes, with his suggestions on my manuscript, and give it a rewrite and see where it goes. This is my second novel. It was easier to write than the first. So I was used to lying. Used to making it up. And I was writing about a place that I know, Long Lake. I know the woods and the trees there, so I was writing about something that I'd experienced first-hand. When I was writing about Hudson Bay I was not, although most of the plants and animals living where the Hudson novel is set are the same ones that live in the Adirondacks.