The third and final part of my interview with Karen Babine, author of Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life. Follow the links to read Part One and Part Two.
Throughout your years of graduate work, professional teaching, and attending and presenting at writing conferences, what has been some of the best advice you have ever received? Who have you looked to as mentors?
I have a Post-It note above my desk with two pieces of advice. The first comes from my advisor, Jonis Agee: "Just write the f****** thing." And the other is Chuck Wendig: "That story's not going to unf*** itself." The vulgarity makes me laugh and takes away any of the excuses I might give myself. Just do it. Put your butt in the chair and do it (or in my case, now that I have a standing desk, just stand there…). But over the course of my writing life, my process has shifted as I learned better who I am as a writer. I don’t have a daily writing routine—and I’ve needed to accept that it’s okay that I don’t. I may read, I may work on Assay, I may work on an interview like this that helps me articulate better things that I hadn’t thought about that way before, but like I said earlier: I’m always writing; I’m not always typing.
My mentors have been everyone from my undergrad nonfiction professor, Scott Olsen, and my undergrad Irish lit professor, Dawn Duncan--who are now friends and colleagues, as I’ve taught alongside them the last two years--to the inimitable John Keeble and Jonathan Johnson during my MFA, to Jonis Agee in my PhD. The best part is when the mentors become friends, colleagues, and you're on more of an equal footing, rather than professor-student. I also have a great friend, Jim Rogers, who started out as a mentor and now is a dear friend. When I need somebody to unequivocably tell me the truth, I send it to Jim. He has no problems telling me the piece is garbage. On the other hand, when he tells me it's good, I believe him.
One of the amazing joys of writing is the ability to research and delve into topics covering just about anything. There have been innumerable times in my own research and writing where I have stumbled upon the most random and fascinating tidbits. Sometimes I have been able to incorporate these pearls into my writing and sometimes I just file them away as part of the fun of the process. Can you think of any similar finds you have encountered over the years?
Being an essayist is all of this. The world is a ridiculously cool place. I’m reading some classical essays right now, and I love Alexander Smith’s “On the Writing of Essays.” The whole thing is full of quotable moments, but here’s one that sticks: “The essay-writer has no lack of subject-matter. He has the day that is passing over his head; and, if unsatisfied with that, he has the world’s six thousand years to depasture his gay or serious humour upon. I idle away my time here, and I am finding new subjects every hour. Everything I see or hear is an essay in bud. The world is everywhere whispering essays, and one need only be the world’s amanuensis.” You just need to pay attention. My volcano essay came out of learning that the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption was the largest landslide in recorded history. I could talk for hours about the ice age Missoula Floods. The natural world is a never-ending source of wonder--and I'm lucky that I can teach those things and those texts to my students, as well as explore them myself. But one of the things that's great about teaching things you love is that you get to learn alongside your students--and that's always much more fun than doing it alone.
If you had one year of your life fully financed by a private donor in which you could do whatever you wanted and live wherever you wanted, where would you go? How would you fill your time? Would you use it as an opportunity to write and research or would you just try to experience things and reflect on it later?
Oh, wow. I'd probably do both: a month out, a month at my grandparents' cabin in my hometown. That place is still my heart. I was there last weekend for Author Fest at my hometown bookstore--and it's just magical. I know every inch of that place, I know what time the water off the lake turns the knotty pine to gold (I call it the Golden Hour), I know where to find the raspberries in the summer. But I'd also probably spend some time in my Scamp, maybe to hit up as many national parks as possible (someday, I'd like to make a circuit of Civil War sites). I'd go back to Ireland. I have this dream of, someday, going to London for a week and doing nothing except the British Museum. I'd like to visit and I'd keep extensive journals, so I could expand on what I saw and experienced when I came home. My life seems to be this combination of home-body and wanderlust.
Below are three free-use images I randomly chose off the Internet. When you look at the images through the eyes of a writer, what ideas come to mind? Does one of them appeal to your imagination more than another?
The first appeals to me as a photographer, the adjustment needed in my own eyes to see the movement between light and dark. What do we see when we look? What do we see when we only have a narrow beam of light in front of us? How does that sharpen our experience? I have this memory of being in Galway and walking back to my hostel around 11:00 or so, but the evening twilight was still strong, because Ireland is on such a northerly latitude. The lights on Shop Street were beginning to appear, but the sky was such a deep twilight blue that I just wanted to sit down by the Corrib River, leave my shutter open, and see what happened.
The second reminds me of my essay on the Missoula Floods, that the geologists who first proposed that the landforms in eastern Washington were the result of water were nearly laughed out of the academy for it. We wouldn’t know until we went to space and first saw images of the area from space that the land really does look like ripple marks, the same ripple marks I know from my childhood lakes. But essays really are a matter of perspective—sometimes you look closely, with a microscope, to see what’s there, and sometimes you need the wide view. And sometimes, like those geologists, you need to take a huge risk.
The third made me laugh, for two reasons: the first is that I love to cook and the second is that I come from a long line of Germans and Swedes who love their food in shades of beige. It’s really amazing how many foods come in beige—and my grandmother wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. She was Swedish enough that salt and pepper for seasonings were pushing it—and she bought her dill pickles without garlic. That said, some of my favorite summer meals were full of color—and all those memories have my grandparents at the table with us. Light green sliced cucumbers in salted, iced water, sliced red tomatoes, corn on the cob, potatoes with milk. Rhubarb sauce or fresh strawberries or raspberries, whatever was in season at the time.
Last question (my favorite): In the world of make believe, if you could pick five authors from any time period in history to spend a year with on a desert island, who would you pick and why? How do you think they would get along together? When a ship came to rescue you one year later, what would we find?
I’m going to go super weird here with my choices:
I’d pick Montaigne, because he’d find something interesting in the most mundane of things, and when you’re on a desert island with the same people for a year, you’re going to need somebody who just looks at the world in a different way.
I’d want a nature writer and as much as I love Paul Gruchow, I’d bring Tim Robinson, who seems to know everything about everything. I once hiked Errisbeg with him outside his hometown in Roundstone, Ireland, and even though he was 75 at the time, he had more energy than I did. He’d know enough about various plants and geography that we wouldn’t die immediately and going on long walks with him would be super interesting.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for the double-edged delight of loving his stories and his creation of a character who pays such close attention to details—and to then discuss with him how he feels about the various incarnations and spinoffs of Sherlock Holmes.
I’d pick two of my favorite romance writers, Jennifer Crusie and Eloisa James, who in addition to writing really great romances, both have PhDs in English (and Eloisa James’ parents were Robert and Carol Bly, two heavyweight Minnesota writers, so she’s got some really interesting literary pedigree). I think Crusie’s books are laugh-out-loud funny and real and James’ books like to mess with standard romance tropes, so I think they’d be good company.
After a year, everybody would survive, except that I think somebody would have offed Montaigne, because as interesting as his essays are, he’d probably drive us all nuts after a while. Doyle would figure out who did it, but he’d never tell (because it might have been him).