Monday, July 30, 2018

On Cockroaches, Kudzu, and the Eco-Essay: A Conversation with Clinton Crockett Peters & Amanda Yanowski

Recently, I sat down in my North Texas home with Clinton Crockett Peters, author of Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and other Misfits of Ecology, to escape the summer heat, drink iced tea, and, mainly, discuss his new essay collection. Clint was kind enough to answer my questions about his writing process, how he balances research with personal essaying, and his hopes for the future of the eco-writing genre.

This book has such an intriguing premise. I am wondering, first, if you would speak about how the project came together?

Right. I’m going to go deep here. When I was in college, I did this major called Natural History and Humanities, which was actually the brainchild of Barry Lopez, the author, and E.O. Wilson, the ant biologist. They came up with this degree to bridge the gap between environmental science and fields like writing and journalism, because they felt like there was a lack of science literacy in the public. They started the major, and I just happened to land at [Texas Tech University] right when they were piloting it. It was great. I had just been backpacking for the first time and had fallen in love with the outdoors, but I had a very old-school idea about what environmental writing was. So I got involved and started reading people like Barry Lopez, like Annie Dillard, of course, and John McPhee, and I loved what these writers did with environmental writing, with the outdoors, with researching and going out into the world to find stories and essays.

Then in the second semester of my MFA, I took this elective called Biogeography. I didn’t know what that was until I signed up for it, but Biogeography is the study of why animals and plants live where they do and why they don’t live elsewhere. So like, why are marsupials in Australia but not in Alaska, or why are penguins in the South Pole and why are polar bears in the North Pole—those kinds of questions. The class was basically the story of life, and it undid a lot of my assumptions about the world.

What sort of assumptions?

One of the main ones is that whole circle of life thing. I know we both love The Lion King—it’s a great movie, I love the music—but unfortunately, in ecology, the circle of life doesn’t really work because there’s no stable tapestry in any environment, anywhere, and there never has been. And that’s one of the things that class taught me: things have always been shifting, have always been moving. The continents and cells have been moving since there have been continents and cells. Species have always poured across time zones and boundaries, mountains have eroded, there have been mass extinctions. And so this really shifted the way I saw the environment—not as this stable tapestry, but basically as chaos that’s only there for a moment of time.

That’s how I got interested in assisted species migration, which was my MFA thesis. Assisted species migration is about people who have moved plants and animals from where we found them to other places, often with disastrous consequences.

Yes, readers of your book will certainly be familiar with these sort of disastrous consequences.

Exactly. You know, the big example for me is in “Rabbits and Convicts,” which was one of the first essays I wrote for the book. I was just fascinated—how did rabbits take over Australia? How did that happen? And people built the world’s longest fence to stop the rabbits? This sounds like science fiction. But no, it really happened. Pandora’s Garden grew out of this fascination with assisted species migration, but I felt like that was too narrow. There wasn’t enough of a story there, so I turned to misfits. I’ve always been attracted to ecological misfits, so I kind of wanted to give them their due. I mean, everyone hates cockroaches—and, by the way, I want to go on the record and say that I also don’t like cockroaches—but I’d like to understand why I don’t like them.

In general, I thought there was enough to talk about with misfits that reflected on humanity—how we see ourselves as part of the ecological world, and also how we have enabled and created misfits. Like with cockroaches—there’s actually several thousand species of cockroaches, and most of them are part of the ecological tapestry of rainforests and are very helpful because they’re scavengers. But we only talk about the cockroaches, like six species, that live with us. These species live with humans and nowhere else because they’re evolutionarily designed to live with us. We have enabled them. We are their benefactors. We are their soil. And they’re here to stay. Cockroaches aren’t going anywhere, kudzu is not going anywhere. They keep wiping out the rabbits, and they just keep coming back, so I guess they’re probably there to stay in Australia.

So it’s like, since these things are going to be around, why don’t we try to understand them? And since there is no stable ecology, since everything is flux, where are we going with these misfits? Can we imagine a future where we don’t live in harmony (because that’s also an ideal), but how can we live together? How do we want to live? How can we shape our future in a way that isn’t reflective and retroactive, but is more proactive? I think those are the things I was interested in.

For me, much of the collection is framed by the claim you make in the prologue that you are agnostic about “human knowledge of our place among other creatures…” I’m wondering if you could speak a bit about how this identification might have shaped your research and writing process, and also how it might inform a reading of the collection?

Absolutely. I’ve been steeped among people who have been interested in preserving wildernesses and prairies and to maintain some semblance of life as these things know it. And I feel like a lot of them have this good intent to promote life, and promote care, and promote concern for the more than human world. So I understand what they’re trying to do, and that they’re trying to get people on board with their cause. But the idea that things stay where they are is, I think, really undermined by the work that paleontologists and paleobotanists and other scientists are doing. Doreen Massey is a theorist who talked about how everything in an ecological system—any system, even this room that we’re in right now—will eventually dissolve. The air in this room will go somewhere else; we’ll leave and go have a beer. Even your computer, which you just got and is really awesome, will eventually break down and go somewhere else. And that’s fine. That’s just how things are. I mean, everything came from places before. The metal for that computer was in a mountain somewhere, and was in some other mountain before that. 

So that’s why I’m agnostic. We try to understand these things—where they are, and where they need to be for environmental purposes, or environmentalist purposes—but the problem is that the geological record is pretty scarce, and we still don’t know a lot. Our ability to know things is really hampered by this sense that we just haven’t been around that long as a species, and science hasn’t been around that long, and ecology hasn’t been around that long, and our ways of knowing are still very limited. It’s just really hard to know what is the most healthy way to live in terms of humans as ecological beings. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try! I really don’t want to have a nihilistic outlook. I think we should still try, and it’s fun to try.

It wouldn’t take more than skimming a few pages to see how much research was conducted for this book. An impressive amount, an intimidating amount, I think, for a lot of writers! So I am curious about what your research process looked like.

I tend to do the research first. I think about the pieces in terms of collage or sculpture—first I have to make the individual parts, usually through research, and then I can put them together in the essay. I actually love doing research. I’m a big nerd, and I’m old-school in the sense that I still love going to libraries. I love sitting in libraries, I love going to stacks, I love looking at books. Even if the material in the books is comparatively outdated, I still love that process.

Why? I mean, I love library stacks, too, but when you think about the material potentially being outdated, what value does this sort of research add?

There’s two sides to me. There’s the kid in the candy store who just wants to browse the books. I really feel like this is just pure joy, and I like to mine any kind of joy I can get out of the research process because that keeps me motivated. But the other side, the responsible writer in me, does have to cross-reference things with more updated journal articles or interviews with living scientists who are actually in the field.

I don’t tend to start with interviews because I don’t like to come off as completely illiterate. I think it was Richard Preston—who wrote The Hot Zone and First Light—who said he likes to become like a first-year graduate student before he interviews scientists. I might be wrong about that being said by him, but I like that idea of at least getting semiliterate in the subject matter. Books are great for this because they often start with a general overview of a subject, where journal articles are usually knee-deep in some controversy and not interested in offering that sort of background. So, process-wise, it usually starts with books. But I do read a lot of journal articles, and I do a lot of Google searches—who doesn’t these days while doing research? Why wouldn’t you?

And different essays require different types of research. Some subjects have been widely reported on—the Asian carp was a big controversy in the Great Lakes region, so there was a bunch of reporting in the Chicago mass media that I could mine. But the Texas snow monkeys, there’s still not a lot in the public media about that.

That is really surprising, especially when you throw Nolan Ryan into that conversation!

Yeah, it is really surprising! I mean there was some reporting out there. There was one story about fifteen years ago in the Austin American-Statesman, and a sports radio show called The Ticket did an interview with Nolan Ryan that kind of went viral, but mostly just because it was funny. I couldn’t find this story, which is when on-the-ground reporting can really come in handy. I talked to a snow monkey primatologist in Japan (we Skyped at three in the morning, my time), and then I talked to the person who is actually in charge of wrangling these monkeys at the refuge right now. They were both really helpful. 

I wish I was braver about talking to people over the phone than I am, but I’m a terrible reporter. I could never be a beat reporter. I’m such a nerd; I just want to curl up with my books and take notes. While writing “The Carp Experience,” I really wanted to see a picture of the dam—this electric current that’s blocking the fish from going up the Chicago Canal into the Great Lakes. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to find a picture, or how to get there and see it. Finally I just called the head of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, who obviously has bigger fish to fry but was willing to talk to me—people are so generous with their time! He said I couldn’t come see the place, so I asked what it looked like and he sat there and described it for me in detail. It’s in the book, his description, and that’s how I accomplished that task—just calling this person who works there to figure out what does this look like, how does it operate, that kind of thing. I got information that was impossible to find anywhere else.

As a last resort, go straight to the source!

I know, it’s terrible. But the other thing is, when I go the circuitous route I often find these really fascinating tidbits that I think make the piece more fun and lively and interesting, and I also try to follow the rabbit holes because they often take me in fun directions. In “Rabbits and Convicts,” in particular, I follow a lot of rabbit holes. I went all kinds of places with that essay because I didn’t really know where it was going and I wanted to follow some different threads. Originally it was about rabbits. It was always about rabbits, but then it started to be about the First Fleet and branding in the UK and criminals, and then I brought in Percy Shelley. And I think all that stuff kind of works, right? I think it all comes together. Whereas, if I had gone straight to the source maybe I wouldn’t have found that stuff—that quirky stuff that bounces off other places and then makes it into something better.

Absolutely, and I think these sort of intriguing connections appear throughout the book. I also think you answered a question I didn’t ask yet, which is why do you think the book doesn’t feel bogged down with research.

Oh thank God. Thank you for saying that.

It doesn’t! Actually, much of the book is deeply personal, and I’m wondering if you might talk about the balance you arrived at between research-driven writing, which seems to be the place you start from, and personal essaying.

At first the book was very research-driven, always looking out of the self. I feel part of the change was just me growing as a writer and as a person, really. I started this project in 2011, and I like to think I’m a more mature writer and individual now. I think that seven years ago I wasn’t able to look at my background, or my dad, or myself, and hit upon subject material that could be fodder for an essay. I was just way too close to the material, and the personal stuff I was writing was way too narcissistic, nostalgic, and all of the other things that I think are often wrong with early drafts of essays. It just took me six, seven years to get to that point where I could write personal stuff that I thought still connected with the material and the book. So the research-heavy essays came first, for the most part. (Although “Evolving the Monster: A History of Godzilla” was one of the later ones and “Recycle Prairie Dogs” was actually the last one that I wrote.) But by-and-large, the personal essays, and the personal stuff within the other essays, came later, when I felt more comfortable writing about myself and finding the material. 

And you know another thing is, my dad died, and I just didn’t think I could write about him before that happened. I just couldn’t. One of the worst experiences of my life [was when] I wrote an essay about my dad and for whatever stupid reason—maybe it was Freudian, I don’t know—I left it sitting on a counter and my dad saw it and read it. And he was really hurt because it was really honest. He was in the middle of his unending slide into cancer and dementia at that point, and I was really brutal and honest. I was not intending him to read that. So that left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I really didn’t think I could write about him again until he finally died, and then things just opened up in me. I think things changed for me, too, and in this change I was able to reflect and think about what his life meant to me at that point. That didn’t happen until 2013 and then, you know, you’re always kind of slam-dunked for a year after a death—or at least a year, I guess. I don’t think I even started writing “The Genealogy of Extinction” until the end of 2015, and didn’t finish it until way late in the process. I actually was still working on that essay after it was published, so I have an even newer version than what’s in the book. It just had to go to print.

That’s interesting. At some point it has to be done, it has to go to print. But I’m sure the essays could keep changing endlessly.

Exactly. So, perfect example—that kudzu essay? I finished that in 2013, but when I was reading it at the American Literary Review reading a couple of weeks ago, I was still changing things. As I was reading it.

I’ve seen you do this! With a pen or pencil, making notes while you’re reading to a crowd.

Yeah, it’s great! It’s like, this is a book and I’m still rewriting. That’s one of the best things I’ve ever learned, though. What is that old line—perfect is the enemy of good? When I learned that perfect is never the goal, but just can you make it sing in all of its messy sloppiness? That liberated me from whatever constraints I felt.

I love that. And at the very least you can keep making margin notes in your own published book until the end of time, and someday read entirely different scribbled-margin essays.

It’s my book, dammit. 

Could you speak about your relation to genre and how much that factored into your writing process?

I could honestly go here all day. This would be a great point to link to a piece that I wrote for Essay Daily in 2016 called “A New ‘I’ on Nature: An Exploration in Eco-Essays” because most of the things I want to say about the environmental genre I said in that essay. It’s sort of my manifesto. I actually am not kidding about this—I still think it’s my favorite thing that I have written, because it’s something I really care about. How can we reshape the environmental genre, which I want to call eco-writing now because the terms environmental writing and nature writing have so much baggage.

So you would title the genre eco-writing?

Yeah, or eco-essays. 

I love eco-essay as a title. It has some great connective tissue for what you do in combining environmental writing with the personal essay.

But I also think there are a lot of cool novelists that are doing eco-writing. A great example is Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. Yeah, dude, that’s eco-writing. Maybe she doesn’t want to use that term (and that’s fine, she can call her writing whatever she wants), but I just feel that she’s so aware on the page of the more than human world and how it connects to humanity. Huge thumbs up.

Novels are doing this, but I tend to write eco-essays. Other examples are Elena Passarello’s Animals Strike Curious Poses, which came out last year and is really great, or Angela Pelster’s Limber, which I talk about in that Essay Daily article, along with Yelizaveta Renfro’s Xylotheque.

I try to do a couple of things in my own eco-writing. One is to have humor, because I feel like so many people have (rightfully) criticized nature writing/environmental writing of being humorless, stodgy, and sermonizing. And I just don’t want to do that; I want to have fun and I want to show that this is fun stuff—it’s really fun to research things like kudzu or rabbits that are taking over a continent. It’s like, why mire yourself in a guilt-trip when, (A) I don’t think that even works, it probably backfires, and (B) I don’t want to read that, so why would other people want to read that? Maybe that worked back in the day, but I feel like we’ve had that note for fifty years now and it’s just time to move on.

So, for you, this genre title shift from environmental/nature writing to what you’re calling eco-writing has a lot to do with tone? With humor?

Yes, but not just humor. It also has to do with the issue of nature writing being this male-dominated, heteronormative, white, classist thing—where it’s mostly white, male writers telling other people what to think, feel, and do. The epitome of this, of course, is Edward Abbey. I think he writes a good sentence, and I know he captivates people—when I worked at an outdoor shop at Texas Tech, we literally carried all of his books. We had this tiny library in the store, and it was like “how to tie knots,” “how to cook outdoors,” and then it was Edward Abbey. Everyone would read Edward Abbey, including myself. He’s captivating. But he ties so much into this toxic masculine view of nature as this proving ground for white heteronormativity, and that just is not cool anymore. It was never cool, but it’s really not cool now. And if we environmental, eco-type people want to bring people into the fold and increase and make connections, it’s best to call people out for their bullshit. I just don’t think we can excuse it anymore.

That’s another thing—taking ownership of privilege and not seeing the outdoors as something “out there,” because nature is never “out there.” There is no nature separate from humanity. There is no out there, there is no not-nature. And we are part of nature. We’re still animals, we’re 98% like other primates, and we have something like a quart of bacteria swimming around in our gut right now that we couldn’t survive without. We’re just a conglomeration of stuff. We eat other things every day that become us, right? And then we excrete them and they become part of—well, anyway, we’re never separate from nature.

I feel like that dichotomy is actually conversely upheld by environmentalists who want to show that we need to help out nature. They uphold the binary, and I want to do away with that. There are a lot of things that I think are possible in the eco-writing genre. (Which, again, a lot of other writers are doing this well, like Elena Passarello, Angela Pelster, Amy Leach, and Luis Urrea.) I think it’s really exciting right now. And in the academic field, eco-criticism has come a long way and has actually been on the forefront of pushing these antiqued genre ideals forward for about a decade. A great example of this is UNT’s own Priscilla Ybarra—her book Writing the Goodlife does this well.

So eco-writing’s distinction is clearly not all about humor. But you’re a funny guy, and there are some laughs to be had in Pandora’s Garden. Could you talk a bit more about the function of humor in your own writing?

A lot of the humor is in direct response to the unfolding conversations in the eco-writing genre. I don’t believe in guilt-trips, I don’t believe in sermonizing. I have something to say, and I have questions, but I don’t like lecturing. I don’t feel like that works. I don’t want to tell people what to think, but if they want to follow me into whatever I’m thinking then I want to make it fun. I learned this working as an outdoor guide, actually. You lead a bunch of people who have never been backpacking before, and backpacking’s hard, right? You’re putting this fifty-pound bag on your shoulders, which you’ve never done before, you’re getting blisters, you’re hiking up a mountain. It’s exhausting. So how do you make this better? Well, you have fun. You sing songs, you tell jokes, you pull some pranks—the guides would do this as a way of shepherding people to the point where we would camp and they would get this wonderful view. Humor has a way of moving people to a place they want to get to.

In writing, I think humor can be such an effective delivery mechanism for theme, or metaphor, or whatever it is you’re going for. I would not call my writing humorous; I would just say that I understand that reading a bunch of research can feel overwhelming, and having something that sparks a smile can really help pull a reader through. A lot of what I do when I rewrite is actually trim some of the heavier research and focus more on those bright spots that cause this spark. So when I’m researching, a lot of what I do is look for those fascinating moments (and sometimes disgusting moments because I think disgust can lead to pleasure.) Basically, I try to skew toward humor and zaniness, hopefully not to the detriment of accuracy, but to the benefit of readability.

When a guy eats too many cockroaches and dies, that’s disgusting. And fascinating.

A fascinating moment, especially because it’s not even the most disgusting part of your cockroach essay, “Water Bugs: A Story of Absolution”.

What is the worst part? That’s not the worst part?! I thought that was the worst part, which is why I put it at the beginning of the essay. That was actually originally in the middle, and I made the choice to move it. So, what’s the worst part for you? The bug in the ear?

The bug in the ear. Because that’s something you can’t avoid. I can choose to not enter a cockroach-eating contest, but I can’t necessarily choose what happens around me and to me while I’m sleeping.

That’s a good point! 

But that moment offers an interesting coalescence of disgust, humor, and fear. And you do warn readers—there’s a cockroach right on the cover! Actually, do you want to talk about the cover? It’s a bold choice, and it seems to underscore your use of humor.

Yeah, I chose that! That was my decision and the University of Georgia Press was really on board with it, which was great. And there’s absolutely some humor behind the kind of insane choice to put a cockroach on the cover of a book. And it might hurt book sales, but that’s completely fine. I think it’s kind of self-selecting; if someone is willing to buy a book with a cockroach on the cover, they’re going to (I hope) enjoy it, and are probably willing to think through all of the things I am trying to think through. I hope. I also thought it was eye-catching.

I wonder if you could talk more about the concept of monster-wonder. It’s a term you only use once in the collection, but I felt its presence in a number of the essays.

You’re right! I don’t think I thought that, but now that you say that it makes sense. Even the rabbits turn out to be monsters. I also talk about kudzu monsters, how when they grow over telephone poles and houses they look like prehistoric creatures. That makes a lot of sense. Of course in “Beasts on the Street” I talk about how cars are monsters, and then Godzilla, duh. Wow, that’s cool. I mean, monster-wonder might relate to the whole misfit-love that I have.

So monster-wonder, for you, is less fear-based (which you bring up as a possibility in “Becoming Mascot”) and more rooted in curiosity?

More awe-based. Not fear-based. I would actually say that I even have an awe for something like the cockroach. They’ve been around for 350 million years, there are millions of them, they are everywhere, they can survive so well—as I researched I found that it’s true that they would survive a nuclear bomb, not the blast but the radiation fallout. So part of me is in awe. Obviously Godzilla is awesome. And I’m in awe of kudzu, that it can grow so well and grow so much. It can literally grow a foot in twenty-four hours. It’s insane that a plant can grow that much, that anything can grow that fast. I definitely like utilizing the fear to create interest and entertainment, and to make connections. But for me, personally, I just wonder what these creatures’ lives are like.

Pretty hard-hitting follow-up question: Which version of Godzilla pairs best with Pandora’s Garden? Which of the films do you think relates best to the work you are doing in this book?

Oh, you know the answer to that! Because you’ve seen it.

I think I do know—the only Godzilla film I have ever seen.

I love that this is the only one you’ve seen. But, for the readers of Essay Daily who have not checked out Godzilla vs. Biollante, this is where Godzilla fights a giant rosebush that is part Godzilla cells, part radiation, part rosebush, and has the soul of a botanist’s murdered daughter who died in a terrorist bombing. And if that doesn’t sound crazy just wait, because there’s more. There’s a psychic, there’s a thunder-making device, there’s a flying UFO militarized weapon, and there’s a love plot. There’s also this nuclear-eating bacteria, oh, and there are spies. This movie is just whacked out, but the reason that I like it (aside from the fact that it’s funny) is that it’s Godzilla fighting a rosebush. Parts of it are stupid, but that just describes all of the Godzilla franchise.

I’m going to really shift gears on you here. I think it would be difficult to read this book and not draw some parallels to our country’s fraught history and complex relationship with immigration. I am wondering if this was an intentional effect on your part, or if these connections were just a natural byproduct of the subject matter.

Surprisingly, they were a natural byproduct. As an example, I did not intend to talk about colonialism when I started talking about rabbits in Australia, but for me that’s what that essay is about. And in “The Texas Snow Monkeys,” I did not think I would start talking about Texas’s treatment of its immigrants and America’s treatment of immigrants. And the carp essay, same deal.

What I’m pointing to is the rhetoric and some of the actions that are used in order to undermine and to erase these creatures and these people. And there are parallels between the two, right? For instance, the carp did not ask to be brought over here. That was not their decision. They just survived and did what they had to do, and then rose in prominence and become very successful. And when they become successful, that’s when America was like uh-oh, we’ve gotta do something about this! And that just struck me as a huge parallel to how America treats its immigrants: you’re welcome to come here and do shit work, but once you become successful—oh no, we can’t let you, and now we have to elect Donald Trump to stop you.

This is all toward that cause of connecting eco-writing with humanity. You can look at the natural world, the more than human world, and see politics. I don’t think I’m any kind of genius for doing that; I think it’s completely on the surface. I tried to be subtle about it because, again, I don’t like sermonizing. I wanted the reader to stumble on these themes and conclusions organically, the way I did while researching and writing. My writing process works well, I think, when I don’t have an axe to grind initially—when I come at it with a curious mind and I find quirky things that lead me to other topics.

You’ve referenced a number of writers and books in our conversation, but I’m curious if you want to add to that list? Did you have any models for the work you are doing in this book? Writers you kept in the back of your mind?

Yeah, oh man. I mean, Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams is just a dream of a book. Again, Luis Urrea’s Devil’s Highway. But thinking of people I haven’t mentioned, he’s controversial, but I really like John D’Agata’s About a Mountain. He mines the poetry of the world in a way that I deeply admire. I kind of wish that other writers who write about the natural world would do that a little bit more. Elena Passarello does this beautifully in Animals Strike Curious Poses.

And more that I have mentioned already—I talk about Angela Pelster’s Limber in my manifesto. There’s also Yelizaveta Renfro’s Xylotheque, which is really good. Xylotheque is just an archaic word for an arbor—a tree farm. Actually, Limber is also about trees. They’re both great eco-essay collections.

Nick Neely’s Coast Range is another good example. Of course, Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss.

I actually did a panel once with Roger Reeves, who is a poet. I feel like his work touches on things that I talk about. Apparently his first book, King Me, was originally going to do even more in terms of incorporating the natural world with other things. And speaking of people I admire in other genres, Toni Jensen is doing that with fiction in ways that I also really admire. She does write essays, too. She is doing a lot of research about fracking, and frack camps and prostitution—really important work. She’s an incredible writer and person.

A book I was really interested in was Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, which won the Man Booker prize a couple of years ago. I think it’s so eco-feminist, how she connects the maltreatment of animals in animal farming to the treatment of women and feminism. I think that Jesmyn Ward does that, too, in Salvage the Bones. There’re connections between her treatment by the men in her world to how this dog is treated.

Oh, and Linda Hogan. Dwellings is magical; you can’t put that book down. Yeah, anything by Linda Hogan.

Well then, Dr. Clinton Crockett Peters, what’s next for you (beyond striving for that trophy for “World’s Best Human” that you mention in the book)? What writing projects are you working on? More eco-writing, I assume?

There’s my dissertation—another collection of essays, which I kind of have on a shelf right now because I just need to take a break from it. It’s sort of eco-writing, but it’s actually more personal. It’s about me living in Japan and about my dad, and about me trying to become a human in his shadow.

But I’m really, really excited about my third book project, which I am calling Wilderness Warriors right now, ironically. I want to research all of these people who I think are very unlikely environmentalists and, often, very troubling environmentalists—to sort of see how we look at environmentalism and maybe to undercut some of those assumptions we make about environmental figures.

Can you give us a little preview? An example of someone you are profiling in the book?

Oh yeah, are you ready for this? I am knee-deep in George W. Bush research right now. I have this huge stack of biographies in my study. I’m really interested in his Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, Texas. It’s big—something like 1,600 acres—and he spent over a million dollars on it. He’s taken really good care of it; I mean, Texas master naturalists sing its praises. It is this beautiful, wonderful place that he has taken really good care of, yet this is the president who decided to do nothing about climate change. I feel like the tension there is really fascinating. I’m having a lot of fun researching, and it’s probably closer to Pandora’s Garden than my second book is.

As we wrap up, is there anything else you might want to talk about? Something else specific to your book or your writing process that a person might not know to ask about after reading your work?

Yeah, actually! So, I have ADHD, and I’ve always had ADHD. Focusing on one thing for very long is something that doesn’t feel natural, so I tend to not focus on one particular part of the writing process for a long time. For instance, I don’t think I would work on composing one essay for more than two days in a row. But that’s the great part about writing essays. With research, with composing, with shuffling pieces, editing, retooling, proofreading, submitting—I have all of these moving pieces, stages in the writing process that I can focus on. So if I get tired with composition, I can go back to research. If I get tired of research, I can go to editing and retooling. As long as I don’t stay on one stage of the writing process for very long, I find that I can keep my motivation going.

It’s like the ADHD is maybe your biggest challenge as a writer, but has also helped you structure how you approach the process in a particular way that works.

I actually like to think of it as the biggest help! I like doing all of these stages, because they keep me going. The only thing is that it just makes everything take longer, individually, which can get frustrating. Actually, this second book, my dissertation, I started working on that in 2007—way before I started writing Pandora’s Garden—and it’s still not finished.

I think that’s because of the personal nature of that book. I didn’t know how to write the thing that was more personal until I had written the thing that was more objective. Writing about kudzu and rabbits taught me how to write about myself as a subject. 


Clinton Crockett Peters is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Berry College. He is the author of Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology, from the University of Georgia Press. He has been awarded literary prizes from Shenandoah, North American Review, Crab Orchard Review, Columbia Journal, and the Society for Professional Journalists. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow, and a PhD in English/creative writing at the University of North Texas. His work also appears in Orion, Southern Review, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Catapult, Hotel Amerika, Electric Literature, and elsewhere.

A native of central Minnesota, Amanda Yanowski currently lives in Denton, Texas, where she teaches writing, literature, and theatre. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of North Texas. Her writing has appeared in The Carolina Quarterly and South Dakota Review.

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