BEHIND THE BOOK
A CONVERSATION WITH DAVID GESSNER
New York Times bestselling author thinks on forthcoming "A Traveler's Guide to the End of the World"
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How did you come to know Torrey House Press, and why did you choose to publish with us?
I used to joke that I was the token Easterner in Red Rock Testimony, the book that Stephen Trimble and Torrey House publisher Kirsten Johanna Allen put in front of congress to protect Bears Ears in 2016. (If you want to learn more about the creation of that book, read this great interview with Trimble in Orion magazine.) 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 about Air Mail by Pam Houston and Amy Irvine, a wonderful book that THP had published with a quick turnaround, and I called Kirsten to see if we might be able to do the same with my Thoreau book, which became Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight. Privately, ambitiously, I hoped to publish the first thoughtful memoir about the pandemic.
It felt natural to return to Torrey House with my new book, A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World.
We’ve recently started to talk about our work as “books the world needs.” What are your hopes and dreams for Traveler’s Guide once it is published? In a perfect world, what impact might your book have?
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. But on the other hand, it is a genre well suited for contemplating the world beyond the human and how we interact with that world. By having first person encounters, not alone but with other people and animals and habitats in the climate-plagued places that increasingly make up our world, we can help make the larger story personal.
“Each disaster is that person’s experience,” a victim of the Paradise fire said to me.
So my hope is that readers who are not moved by statistics will be moved by actual people.
If you could put a copy into the hands of anyone in the world, who would you want to read Traveler’s Guide — and why?
This is usually a theoretical question, I know. But in this case I may actually have a chance of making my wish come true. I am hoping that Jamie Raskin, whose story is central to the second section of the book, which weaves the story of January 6 with my climate-focused explorations of Chaco Canyon and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, will read it. We were college classmates so maybe there is a chance this will happen, and while Jamie has his hands full saving democracy, my hope he will at some point turn his eloquence and energy toward the even greater threat facing us, the one that threatens our very existence.
Less specifically, I would hope I can do with this book what THP did with Red Rock Testimony, create a work of art that makes its way into the halls of Washington and has a real world impact.
What do you hope readers will come away with after reading Traveler’s Guide?
I believe that in ignoring the hard truths about what is happening to our world we are committing a great failure of empathy and imagination. 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.”
We focus instead on our own lives, our own problems. 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.
If we could ask every reader to do one thing after reading your book, what should we ask of them? And why?
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. The way it helped me, ultimately, was to 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 live at best: by being exactly ourselves.
The way I can help, if I can help, is through language. And for me any answer comes, in turning to nature, whether it is while hiking to the source of the Colorado River or witnessing the rebirth of Louisiana marshes through the channeling of the Mississippi or the rebirth of canyons long drowned by western reservoirs. While nature alone cannot save us in this time of crisis, 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 the fight. What I would ask of readers is to ask themselves what their slice is.
Can you talk about your daughter, and how you have come to empathize with younger generations that have climate anxieties constantly in their thoughts? Have your daughter and younger generations influenced you to think differently about the climate crisis? Write differently? Act differently?
Sometime during my year and a half of travel after the pandemic I began to ask a question to scientists, environmental thinkers, and pretty much everyone else I ran into. The question was this:
What will the world be like in forty-two years?
The question is a father’s question.
Why forty-two years? Well, then, in 2063, my daughter Hadley, who is now nineteen, will be the age I am now. So I wanted to imagine what the world will be like and think about what exactly she will be facing.
It is not that far away. Think of how time moves. I remember being eighteen and graduating from high school like it was a blink ago. 1979. Now flip that into the future. What will it be like?
In the course of writing the book I interviewed Hadley and her friends. One thing I learned is that climate anxiety is real, real in a way that older people, who often joke that they won’t be around anyway, don’t seem to feel, at least not the way the young do. This added an urgency to my work and writing. Like many people of my generation, I first came to the idea of an altered future theoretically, through books like The End of Nature and films like An Inconvenient Truth. But for these kids it is not theoretical.
Where do you write? Where is a space you have written extensively, or a place where words or creative connections seem to come to you organically? Is place important to your writing practice?
Place is vital to my writing, but as I have written about over the years, 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.
For twenty-five years David Gessner has reported from climate hotspots, from the Gulf of Mexico during the BP oil spill to fracking towns and fires in the West to the fragile Outer Banks, where homes are being swallowed by the seas. He has been recognized for changing the face of nature writing, both in his own work and through the magazine he founded, Ecotone. The Washington Post writes: “For nature-writing enthusiasts, Gessner needs no introduction. His books and essays have in many ways redefined what it means to write about the natural world, coaxing the genre from a staid, sometimes wonky practice to one that is lively and often raucous.”
Gessner is the author of twelve books that blend a love of nature, humor, memoir, and environmentalism, including the New York Times bestseller, All the Wild That Remains, and his latest, Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis and Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness. A professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, his magazine publications include pieces in the New York Times Magazine, Outside, Sierra, Audubon, Orion, and many other magazines, and his prizes include a Pushcart Prize and the John Burroughs Award for Best Nature Essay for his essay “Learning to Surf.” He has also won the Association for Study of Literature and the Environment’s award for best book of creative writing, and the Reed Award for Best Book on the Southern Environment. In 2017 he hosted the National Geographic Explorer show, "The Call of the Wild."
He is married to the novelist Nina de Gramont, whose latest book is The Christie Affair.