By Eric Olsen
Journalist and author William Souder lives and writes in Grant, Minnesota, which is far enough into the country that he gets to watch his neighbor cutting hay three or four times a summer, and where he can see five barns from his office window but still make out the Minneapolis skyline looking like Oz in the distance, and where it gets so dark at night that you can sometimes see the coyotes by starlight. He’s the author of three books, so far: A Plague of Frogs, about an outbreak of deformed frogs in Minnesota and elsewhere; Under a Wild Sky, about the bird artist John James Audubon, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and On a Farther Shore, a biography of Rachel Carson that will be published by Crown in September on the 50th anniversary of Carson’s Silent Spring.
Eric Olsen: In your first book, A Plague of Frogs, released in 2000, you explore the various possible causes of a rise in the incidence of mutations among frog populations here and elsewhere. Was your interest in the topic a result of your interest, mentioned elsewhere, in molecular biology? Or the environment in general? Or in mutated frogs more specifically?
William Souder: The book originated in a story I wrote for the Washington Post about an outbreak of deformed frogs in a Minnesota farm pond. It landed on the front page and generated a lot of interest. I thought it could be a book, but before I could figure out how to make it one I got a call out of the blue from an agent who’d just had lunch with an editor who’d read and liked the Post story. They wanted to know if I could turn it into a book. I said I could. And in about three weeks I had a surprisingly lucrative deal. It rarely happens that way and one of the hard lessons you learn is that publishers are only interested in how good your latest idea is. I’ve written three books now—and have had many more rejected out of hand.
I’ve always been interested in science and for the frog book I had to learn a lot of biology, especially the molecular basis of development, which I found fascinating. Molecular biology is the study of life at its most fundamental level. A century ago we knew little about the internal structure and functions of cells. Then Linus Pauling discovers the chemical structure of proteins and a few years later Watson and Crick discover the structure of DNA—which leads them to formulate the Central Dogma. A biologist will tell you that life resists a simple definition. That’s true. But one of its main features is the flow of information within cells. The Central Dogma holds that DNA makes RNA, and RNA makes proteins—a one way flow of information upon which every living entity depends. In this and in many other things that go on inside of living cells there’s a chemical tendency toward self-assembly that is astonishing and that seems to me to lie close to the secret of life. You can make a living cell out of just a handful of light elements that want to organize themselves into specialized macromolecules and complex structures. I mean, how cool is that?
EO: Your next two books, Under the Wild Sky and On a Farther Shore, are biographies — the first about John James Audubon, the next, to be released in September, about Rachel Carson. But both also involve the natural world and environmental issues. Why these two figures? Why your interest in the environment?
WS: I felt like I understood both Audubon and Carson as people even before I looked closely into their lives. And in both cases I thought they were important historical figures overdue for a fresh look. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only writer thinking that way about Audubon and mine was one of several books about him that came out in 2004. There was no special reason for this and it was pure coincidence, though one that probably annoyed all of us involved.
I started thinking about Rachel Carson right after I finished the Audubon book and I always planned to publish it in 2012, which is the 50-year anniversary of Carson’s most consequential book, Silent Spring. Strangely—at least strangely to me—Carson is a largely forgotten figure. I’ve spent the past several years getting a lot of blank looks when I tell people what I’m working on. In a way this is good—I have a chance to introduce Carson to a whole new readership that I think will find her fascinating and her work of even greater importance than ever. Carson is the fault line between conservationism—a gentle, optimistic approach to natural resource preservation that dominated the first half of the 20th century—and environmentalism, the more dire and urgent and divisive and frankly apocalyptic movement of the second half.
One thing I wanted to understand is why the environment has become a partisan issue. We all live on the same planet, live in the same global ecosystem. Why should democrats and republicans have different attitudes toward it? Turns out the answer is in how Silent Spring was received when it was published in 1962. The chemicals industry—and its allies in government—were desperate to discredit the book and, if it could be done, to destroy the author’s reputation. There was a concerted and well-funded effort to portray Silent Spring as a biased and dishonest book. And there was a similar undertaking against Carson personally. The code word “spinster” got tossed around a lot. But the real focus of the attack was to cast her to the far left of the political spectrum—all the way out to a fringe element that, at the time, included organic farmers and food faddists and anti-fluoridationists.
More ominously, Carson was rumored to be in league with “sinister forces” from the eastern block—meaning, plainly, that she was a Communist or a front for the Soviet Union and its interests. The idea was that Carson wanted to limit or end the use of pesticides and in so doing reduce American agriculture to the level of the Soviet Union and its eastern-European satellites. None of this was true—except for the part about her being unmarried—but it set the terms of a partisan argument over the environment that continues to this day. On one side are the voices of science and fact and for the defense of nature. On the other are rumor, innuendo, and a dogged resistance to science. Also an abiding concern for corporate profits and hatred of government regulation in every form.
By the way, 1962 was also the peak year for the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. In 1962, a nuclear device exploded somewhere in the world every few days. And one result was a serious problem with radioactive contamination from fallout—a threat and a technology that precisely paralleled what was happening with chemical pesticides like DDT. Rachel Carson put this all together and the generation that would become the vanguard of the environmental movement—who had all grown up in the Cold War and understood the threat of nuclear annihilation—got it. I thought this connection between pesticides and radiation was a critical feature of Silent Spring and something that hadn’t been deeply explored before.
The environment is a compelling subject. We all live inside it and we all suffer from the damage we do to it. I have no doubt—zero—that climate change is going to be the big story of the coming decades. Everything else—politics, economics, cultural upheaval—is going to pale by comparison.
EO: You went to journalism school. What possessed you to do that? What school?
WS: I grew up in Florida and did my first two years of college at Vanderbilt in Nashville, until my studies were interrupted by a close call with the draft and probably some inattention on my part. I enlisted in the Navy. I spent most of my enlistment on a NATO base in Naples, Italy…a great place to spend a lot of time reading and watching movies and thinking.
When I got out I had two years of college to finish and was by then interested in writing, photography, and filmmaking—all of which were part of the curriculum in the journalism school at the University of Minnesota. Back then, Minnesota was one of the best j-schools in the country and the Minnesota Daily was considered among the finest student newspapers. Once I got there I was hooked on writing right from the start. Reporting—that was harder of course. Not many people are natural interviewers or instinctively see every question that needs to be answered in a story, as these are skills that take time to develop and require you to get over whatever shyness and cluelessness are part of your make-up. You have to learn to be a skeptic and not be afraid to let people know that’s where you’re coming from. In any case, I was part of a BIG influx of students into journalism schools that swept the country in the mid-1970s, following Woodward and Bernstein’s takedown of President Nixon in their reporting on Watergate. I think I must have been one of the few who didn’t want to be an investigative reporter. At the Daily, they gave me the science beat. It was great. And I’m still writing about science.
EO: Was there a particular book, article, or journalist that inspired you to become a journalist?
WS: I love and have been influenced by many of the usual suspects, writers of both fiction and nonfiction, though to name them seems presumptuous, doesn’t it? Like I’d be putting myself in their company. Just about everybody I went to school with admired the New Journalism and long-form reporting of writers like Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, Nora Ephron, Molly Ivins, and Gay Talese.
We take for granted today that nonfiction writers can use all of the narrative techniques that make novels compelling, but back then it was a new and intoxicating idea. And one big effect of it was that journalists were as likely to be inspired by novelists as by other journalists. I remember two utterly different books that I read in college that made me think about the world and about writing in ways I hadn’t before: Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. A couple of years later a friend gave me Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall, a collection of three novellas that completely knocked me over. The title story has, I think, the best opening I’ve ever read—it transports you, in the space of a few sentences to another time and place so completely that you feel immersed in a story that is only beginning to unfold. These are all books that have nothing to do with my work—and that in some ways have everything to do with my work.
On a practical level, I can say this: The two books that have influenced me above all others are Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Anybody who wants to write should read and study these books regularly. They both explain The Secret, which is that writing is mainly a process of de-cluttering and stripping down your prose until it says exactly what you mean and not a syllable more. Easier said than done. Good writing should be simple. It is never easy.
EO: Do you make a distinction between a “journalist” and a “reporter”?
WS: I think “journalist” and “reporter” are interchangeable. I’ve been happy to be called either. Now that I’ve written a couple of biographies I’m not sure what I am, but I’ll always take “writer.”
EO: You’ve said that you “still think of reporting as a high calling.” I think the public in general views journalism as an institution even more dimly than the public views Congress. While I think Congress’ low standing with the public is justified, I’m not sure about reporting. Why do you suppose reporters are held in such contempt, and why do you “still” view it as a high calling?
WS: I don’t know why reporters are held in such low esteem. I suppose people see reporters on TV who come off as opinionated and obnoxious and that gets translated to the whole profession. And certainly in recent years the Right has been successful in characterizing the mainstream media as biased. So about half the country simply doesn’t believe what gets reported. The truth, of course, is that 99.9 percent of what is in newspapers every day is completely straightforward and factual and dependent on accurate, skilled reporting. What the city council decided. Who crashed their car. Which banks are merging. What time the parade starts. The jury’s verdict. That sort of thing. Just the facts well-reported, checked, well-edited, and with the prestige of the publication on the line every time a reporter says something is true. I do have a lot of respect for that process.
The alternative press—I worked a couple of stints at an alt-weekly—seems to be under the same duress as its mainstream cousins. Both were about print and print is dying. I think how well online news sources will fill the void is an open question. I do worry that we are losing a lot in the transition from analogue to digital. One thing that happens is that the process gets hollowed out—there are fewer and fewer institutional checks on what gets reported as fact. And the incentives are cratering. What bright, ambitious person in their right mind would want to be a reporter today? The journalism schools still fill up every year, but I have no idea what their graduates are going to do. I suspect the number of people recently forced out of journalism will soon exceed the number still in it—if that hasn’t happened already.
EO: Can you describe your “creative process”? Do you write in the morning? In a café? Late at night? Do you try to write every day?
WS: Let me just say that I love this question because it’s one every writer fantasizes about being asked. We all want to know how our colleagues actually work. So the thought that anyone might care how I do it is inherently flattering—though also reasonable, as anyone who has worked at this trade for as long as I have should by now have learned something.
I work at home, where I’m lucky to have a big, comfortable office where I can keep all my materials organized and at hand. The challenge in biography is one of organization, because in most cases you’re working with a long, complicated paper trail. We live in the country and from my office window I can see five barns, a string of lakes and ponds, and several big fields where our neighbor cuts hay every summer. It’s nice to be able to look out the window while you work.
I’m a morning person. I get up early, make coffee, see my wife and kids off for the day. Then the house gets very quiet. I don’t need quiet to work, though it reminds me to get started. But I don’t begin immediately. First I read the New York Times online, check the weather and the local paper, check and answer emails. Lately I’ve tried to do something constructive on Facebook and Twitter, though that is a recent development. After all this it’s mid-morning. I make a cup of tea and open up whatever I’m working on. The first thing I do is revise the latest section, the one I wrote the day before. Then I start on the new stuff.
I usually spend a few weeks on the first chapter of a book. I just have to get it as right as I can make it before I feel ready to dive in for the long haul. But once I’m going I am very regular about the process. I write every day, no matter what, and keep careful track of how much I write. I try to do at least 750 words a day and I almost always make it. Usually it’s more like 1,000. I have two additional rules. One is that I never go over 2,500 words in a day. Beyond that is burnout territory for me. Everyone has their own limit and that’s mine. The other thing—and I can’t stress this one enough—is that I always stop when I know what comes next, and never when I’m stuck. Usually I actually stop in mid-sentence. And here’s what that does: The next day, after I revise what I wrote from the day before, I hit that stopping-off place not only knowing what I’m going to write next but also with a real head of steam. Momentum is a big part of writing consistently and well.
I think that’s why I feel nervous and out of sorts right now while I’m waiting for the new book to come out in September. I’m thinking about the next book. But I’m not writing it yet. I hate that.
EO: Do you have a favorite author or authors? If so, can you tell us a bit about them, and what books by them we should be reading?
WS: I have read everything written by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joan Didion, Jim Harrison, Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, Norman Maclean, and Richard Ford. Also a writer I’m confident you will have never heard of, Jack O’Connor, who was for many years the shooting editor at Outdoor Life, and whose book The Art of Hunting Big Game in North America I regard as a masterpiece of no-nonsense nonfiction. So I guess as a practical matter, those are my “favorite” authors and I think anyone would profit by reading them.
That said, my tastes are so wide-ranging—and so generally different from what I myself write—that it’s hard for me to rank writers. And I agree with what Hemingway famously told the Paris Review when they asked him which writers were over-rated. Hemingway answered that no serious writer can be over-rated. The truth is, there are so many great books—far more than you can ever hope to read—that you pretty much can’t go wrong with your reading list, whatever it is. Some years ago the late poet Bill Holm told me something I’ll never forget: “I’ve never been skunked in a bookstore,” he said. We were in a bookstore at the time.
Two books I’ve read recently that stand out: John Vaillant’s The Tiger and Hitch-22, by the late Christopher Hitchens.
EO: In the “Books by the Bed” you contributed a couple months ago, you mention that Franzen’s Freedom is by your bed, because, you write, “it’s about time I got to it and also because I love the way he bashes e-books and social media. I guess you could say I’ve got a bad attitude about certain things, which is, of course, essential for a writer.” So you have a bad attitude about e-books and social media? Anything else?
WS: Did I really say that? I guess it’s true—writers need to look askance at everything. I am not a fan of e-books or Amazon’s predatory tactics. I don’t think an e-book is simply a “book” delivered by other means. I think it is a completely different animal. I’m old enough to remember Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “the medium is the message.” Digital media are, by their nature, more ephemeral and fragmented and have lower qualitative thresholds than do traditional analogue media like newspapers and magazines and books. We are gaining a great deal in the digital bargain. (For example, I just now checked the spelling of “McLuhan” with a few taps of my keyboard.) But we’re losing something, too. And I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game.
EO: Do you have a good attitude about anything? Besides molecular biology and reporting, I mean.
WS: I should say there are lots of things I don’t hate. Cycling. Fly fishing. Wingshooting. Reading. Good scotch. European soccer. And cooking. I’m a really good cook. People tell stories about my curry. I have an excellent attitude about eating.
Bill says having a bad attitude about certain things is essential for a writer. About what do you have a bad attitude?