An Interview with David Gessner (2012)

On March 1, 2012, David Gessner, the author of eight books and the Editor in Chief of Ecotone, visited UConn as part of the Edwin Way Teale Lecture Series. LRR was able to catch up with him prior to his lecture.

Long River Review: Did any other particular writer(s) inspire you? Who are your influences?

David Gessner: Well, I think if you look at what I call my literary family tree, you can see where certain things in my work came from. The most obvious influence is Thoreau. Not long ago I went to Walden Pond with my then six-year-old daughter and my wife, who pointed at where [Thoreau’s] cabin had been and said, “That’s where the house of the man who ruined daddy’s life was.” In other words, I think she was saying that Thoreau sent me in the direction of nature, nature writing, and non-conformity. A less obvious influence on my work is Phillip Roth, who gets a bad rep these days for writing blatantly about sex, but I like the humor and energy in his sentences. Other satiric writers like Vonnegut also influenced me. It’s interesting that you can see humor and monologue’s intensity colliding with Thoreau and the nature writing that creates a combination in me where in some ways, I feel like My Green Manifesto was my Portnoy’s Complaint. I have to say Mad Magazine and “SNL” were also influences. I read a lot of fiction, too.

LRR: When writing, do you sit and think through every word, or do you write freely?

DG: Lately I use my recorders so that I can write while I’m walking. I do my early morning work at my computer at my desk. When I’m burned out on typing away on my computer, I go down for walks along the river because I lean on a quote that Churchill was fond of, “A change is as good as a rest.” I speak things into the tape recorder so I get the energy of the walk and try to convey my voice. Then I’ll come back and type up those things and edit. Generally, I’m not a big pre-planner. The planning comes through in my journal notes and when I scribble down things to myself. Then, when I get to the desk, I like to let it go where it’ll go. There’s the famous Frost line, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” which I very much believe in. There’s another quote, too, that I really like: “Good writers make outlines, great writers throw them away.” In my early days, I made a lot of outlines and was very organized, but now I go more on intuition and follow the flow of things.

 LRR: What sparked your passion for nature writing?

 DG: I would say when I moved west at age 30, both Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner were big inspirations in writing about nature. Abbey showed me that it was possible to write like Thoreau in a modern idiom and take that essential experiment of being in the natural world and communicate it in blunt modern language. Abbey also showed me that comedy was possible in nature writing, which was important for me.

 LRR: You have traveled through many different terrains and countries to order to write each work. What was your most thrilling adventure?

 DG: I would say it’s a tie. One is a story of getting lost in the rainforest where my wife, my friend, and I took the wrong trail and we there after dark. We were picked up by a local man nicknamed Dungo, who was poaching deer. The punch line of the story is that after we got out, my wife and friend fell asleep in the hotel room that Dungo brought us to. Dungo and I went downstairs and drank a lot of beer. He became our guide and right-hand man after the next few days, as well as our friend.

The other one is a more conscious adventure, when I followed Osprey migration down the east coast and traveled illegally into Cuba and down to Venezuela. In the Cuban mountains, you’re really supposed to stay in your hotel, but first of all, I wasn’t really supposed to be there according to the United States, and Cuba monitors your movements pretty closely. I stayed in a cabin up near the mountains where the birds come over. I managed to get in trouble with both their country and ours, but I had an amazing time and it was a really stunning and beautiful view. These were the same mountains where Castro hid out before the revolution.

The interesting thing is that most birds are hydrophobic, so they migrate through Mexico and follow the land. Ospreys, being water lovers, hopscotch down through the islands in the Caribbean so you can look up as they migrate over. In Pennsylvania, you’d see a few Ospreys mixed with hawks and eagles. Down in Cuba, you’d see all Ospreys flying overhead. It was a pretty miraculous sight. It was like a river of birds.

LRR: On your website, you wrote, “I had never defined myself as a journalist before, but the story I was seeing…seemed to take a fast, angry journalistic take. The resulting book is a strange mix: part nature book, part new journalism and part adventure story. There is no time for pussyfooting around, no time to follow literary rules, or any rules that get in the way of the work of the world.”

How or why is your new book, The Tarball Chronicles, so different from your previous works?

DG: I think that I’m more overtly dealing with environmental issues. I’ve always been regarded as a nature environmental writer. I would have taken some offense at that name in earlier books, when I thought I was writing personal essays and memoirs that just happened to take place in nature. With these last two, I’ve cast off into real environmental issues, being down in the Gulf during the oil spill. I’ve also said that I want to mix genres and jump across genre lines. I don’t mind if there’s a good journalist portrait, but I can follow that up with an essayist excursion into my own thought. For example, you have a scene of me and a fisherman in Louisiana, followed by my thinking in more of the spirit of Montaigne, about what all this means, followed by a comic sketch, followed by an interview.

I’m trying to bring a lot of things together and not write thorny, non-categorized writing. Of course when they throw it in a bookstore, they just slap environmental writing on it, but I think it’s more than that. There’s a lot of memoir in it for one thing. When I teach my students at North Carolina in Wilmington, the nonfiction writers are working on memoir- a focus on things that have happened to them. I keep saying, “That’s great, but what about something else with it?” You see, when I write about birds, there’s the science of birds to also write about. There’s this whole world other than me and that actually makes it more interesting. You’ve got the “me” aspect, and then you learn about something beyond “me.” That’s where I try to push my students when I ask, “What is there, other than you, that fascinates you?” ‘Cause if its only you that fascinates you, you may not fascinate others. You have to break your world open a little bit, without becoming stiff and merely scientific so you can keep a human story in there too.

LRR: Has the direction of your writing changed after publishing My Green Manifesto and The Tarball Chronicles?

DG: I started as a fiction writer and wrote two novels to start with. I guess if you were writing a textbook on how to become a creative nonfiction writer, I was following a plan that I didn’t know was a plan. I was training myself in writing scenes, character, dialogue, and using fictional techniques that I transplanted to nonfiction. Will that become the way I write? Yes, to some extent. The next book I plan on writing is about Wallace Stegner and Abbey. I’m going to go out West and follow their trail next summer, and do the same thing I did with The Tarball Chronicles. I will blog and write a book that is going to be three threads: a biography of the two writers I admire, the personal thread of my story and travels through the West, and environmental issues. So in that way, it’s similar to the Tarball Chronicles since I’m trying to weave three things into an overall cloth. I do have dreams of getting back to writing fiction, but we’ll see. The market will dictate that somewhat.

 LRR: If Fahrenheit 451 came to life, which book would you “become” in order to save and preserve it?

DG: Walden. I’m sorry to give the easy and cliché answer, but the more I read it and think about it, I always come back to it. Wherever I go, whenever I walk out, I find him coming back. That’s how I feel about Thoreau. I feel like I’m doing these new things and exploring these new places and then I read something and then I’m like, “Damn this guy did it 150 years ago.”

LRR: Yes, you did mention that you loved doing new things in your “Skiing On Beaches” video.

DG: [Thoreau] definitely hasn’t skied on beaches like I have, so I’ve got him there.

LRR: Do you ever feel you are unable to write out of fear? Do you get writer’s block?

DG: No. Well, never, but I think the speed and ease with which I write is built on almost a decade of writing haltingly slow, which was in my twenty’s. When I was writing two big novels then, I didn’t get writers block, but it came out slow and I feel like I was developing habits of discipline that have come in handy later on. What I didn’t know then was that I was actually going through my apprenticeship. I didn’t have that word in my vocabulary at the time, but it’s only later that I realized that. I had defined myself as a failed writer because I hadn’t published yet. I didn’t understand that it often takes eight years to find your legs. That knowledge of those years comes incredibly handy in teaching grad students. Now I’m keenly aware of the apprenticeship and how long it can take to hit your stride as a writer. It certainly took me a long time.

LRR: What advice do you have for young poets/writers?

DG: The word I constantly say, to the point where my students are probably rolling their eyes, is momentum. A story I like to tell is about Keats, who starts writing late at 22 and dies young 4 years later, so there’s a small window to become a great poet. One of the best things he does is, almost by instinct, is writes “Endymion,” which is this long, bad poem. He forces himself to write it. It’s not that good, but there’s a William James quote, “You learn to skate in the summer.” The rewards of putting in that time on “Endymion” come later in the poems that follow. I think Keats learned the habits of composition and momentum, and not to have any fear of the blank page. My big advice is to put yourself in movement, even if the demons are trying to stop you from writing. Push through it and don’t worry if the work’s no good. You just get it down and get going because things are going to happen to you as a writer that you can’t anticipate in theory and you can only work out in practice. The way to do this is just to write and write and write, so you end up busting through something that you didn’t even know was there.

LRR: As the Editor of Ecotone magazine at UNC-Wilmington, what has your experience been and what would you say to editors working on literary magazines in college?

DG: It’s great to be on [literary magazines] and reading submissions because you get a sense of the writing that’s out there other than yours. You begin to see simple mistakes or limitations of writers. You can see them in other people in ways that you can’t see them in yourself. If there’s too much “me, me, me” and then you read six essays like that, you may say, “Wow, maybe this writer needs a greater focus.” Then you translate that to your own work and say, “Maybe I need a greater focus.” So I think one of the pleasures as a young writer, of working on a journal, is to be able to see the field more objectively. We’ve been very lucky at Ecotone because we’ve published young and upcoming writers and really well-known writers. One thing it’s taught me is how much great work is out there right now, despite the moaning and groaning of the death of the book and death of writing.

Personal quote: A.R. Ammons quote, “Firm ground is not available ground.”

Why I’m a geek: I know the Latin names of some birds because I bird watch.

My addictions: I’m addicted to writing and coffee.

My heroes: Wallace Stegner. He was a great writer, great teacher, and worked in a variety of forms.

Books I’m reading: I just finished Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. I’m teaching On Writing Fiction by John Gardner, and I want to read the book Mentor by Tom Grimes.

Subscriptions:  I don’t think I have any.

What I wish I invented: The pint glass. I’ve become kind of a snob where I can’t drink beer out of the bottle unless I’m in a pinch because I really like pouring it into the glass and drinking it.

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