BEHIND THE BOOK
A CONVERSATION WITH DAVID GESSNER
The New York Times bestselling author contemplates climate & his forthcoming book
A Traveler's Guide to the End of the World
How did you come to know and work with Torrey House Press?
I used to joke that I was the token Easterner in Red Rock Testimony, the book that Stephen Trimble and THP Publisher Kirsten Allen put in front of Congress to protect Bears Ears in 2016. In fact, while many defenders of the land in RRT were from Utah, many weren’t, emphasizing that our public lands belong to all.
So I knew about THP, and their record of publishing great work about place. My own work has always been place-based as has that in the magazine I founded, Ecotone. During the pandemic I began turning back to Walden and other writings by Henry David Thoreau, and I decided to write a book on the heels of experience about Thoreau’s influence on my life as the pandemic unfolded. Since the book was being written fast and in real time, I wanted it to be published that way too. I knew that Air Mail, a wonderful book by Pam Houston and Amy Irvine, had been published by THP with a quick turnaround. I called Kirsten to see if we might be able to do the same with my Thoreau book, which became Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight.
It felt natural to return to Torrey House with my new book, A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World.
If you could ask each reader to do one thing after reading your book, what would you ask of them?
I just finished The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. I had not read it while writing my book, but it does many of the things — in a completely different way — that I was trying to do.
On the one hand it is a brutally depressing book, on the other hand it is a hopeful one. It helped me clarify something in my thinking.
I have long beat myself for not doing more to fight climate change. But in this work of "cli-fi," the fight to save the world is fought on many fronts, with each fighter battling in their own arena. For some that might be law, for others politics, others activism. The point is we can fight just like we live: by being exactly ourselves.
The way I can help, then, is through language. And for me any answer comes, in turning to nature. Nature alone cannot save us in this time of crisis, but the lessons it teaches, of resilience, humility and yes, that overused word, hope, are a vital component of the fight to save the planet.
That is my slice of this fight. What's yours?
How is place important to your writing practice?
Place is vital to my writing, but I am not a one-place man. Colorado,
Cape Cod, Carolina, and in recent years Utah, all vie for my affections.
Unlike my heroes, Wendell Berry and Henry David Thoreau, I have
long defined myself as a polygamist of place.
As for where I actually write, I split the difference between Annie
Dillard (who said she wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek while facing a
blank library wall) and Wendell Berry (who in A Long-Legged House
said he could never work facing a wall but needed “a window, or
porch, or even the open outdoors”). I follow the Dillard route in the
morning, doing the vast majority of my work in my study facing the
wall, and I do this daily, no days excepted, like a banker trudging to work.
But in the evenings I free myself by taking the hundred foot walk down to my writing shack on Hewlitt’s Creek, and some of my best sentences have come from the open air on the porch in front of the shack.
What are your hopes and dreams for A Traveler’s Guide once it is published?
One of my goals with A Travelers Guide was to write about climate change in a new, more personal way. Why, I asked myself, do we treat what is perhaps the most important issue in the world like it is the most boring. Maybe it has partly to do with the language we use. Climate books tend to be either warnings of doom or statistic-crammed book reports, but I wanted to write about climate with language that is contradictory, energized, wild and, hopefully, sometimes funny.
Famously, people don’t like to face the facts of climate change. Doom alone doesn’t inspire. It occurred to me that the long-scorned genre of nature writing could help. (Maybe thinking nature writers can save the world is a little like thinking hobbits can save Middle Earth. But hey…)
I am not naïve and, given the scope of the crisis, I don’t see a gang of nature writers riding to the rescue.
What I have tried to do with this book is break through the ice of repression and make us see what is coming and what can be done to avert the worst.
In 2019 the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication conducted a national survey and consolidated the results in a report called Climate Change in the American Mind. One of their conclusions was: “About six in ten Americans (63%) say they ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ discuss global warming with family and friends.”
One of the admittedly not-so-modest goals for this book is to make readers take a short break from their own preoccupations and really imagine the world we are leaving our children.