BEHIND THE BOOK
A CONVERSATION WITH ZAK PODMORE
author of Confluence: Navigating the Personal & Political on Rivers of the New West
Help us publish this title by giving today!
So far, what’s been the most surprising (and/or difficult, and/or enjoyable) part about writing your book?
When I began writing the first essay four years ago, I did not expect to include anything too personal. My mother had just passed away from lung cancer, and I was trying, more than anything, to distance myself from that loss by reporting on environmental issues and desert rivers. As the book progressed, however, I realized that project was itself an homage to my mother who, along with my dad, brought me down the canyons of the Green, Colorado, San Juan, and Dolores rivers year after year as I was growing up. She steeped me in the beauty of the Colorado Plateau and taught me to appreciate what is still a centerpoint of my life—flowing water in the redrock desert. Slowly, her story began to intertwine with the stories I was writing about dam removals, restoration efforts in the Colorado River delta, the battle against tourist developments in the Grand Canyon, Trump’s immigration policies, and the battle against uranium on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation in southeast Utah. The book still isn’t exactly a memoir, but my mother is present on every page—sometimes explicitly, sometimes not.
Tell us about your dream book launch party.
I’d hold it on the banks of the San Juan River near my home in Bluff, Utah. We’d begin in the afternoon when the sinking sun lights up the sandstone cliffs with a riot of orange and red. Ellen Meloy, the Pulitzer Prize finalist and Bluff resident who wrote more about the colors in those same cliffs than perhaps any other topic, would attend. She passed away suddenly in 2004, but Torrey House will posthumously publish a book of her radio essays in 2019, and I’m honored that my first book will be in such fine company. Confluence would not exist without her work.
And as long as we’re allowing spirits to attend, I’d send out an invite to Charles Bowden and Edward Abbey, who, together with Meloy, account for my favorite three Southwestern authors. My mother would be there, of course; she was the one who first brought me down the San Juan River when I was one year old. She loved desert canyons as much as Ellen. The living could come too—Craig Childs, Amy Irvine, David Gessner, and Mark Sundeen, all of whom read drafts of my manuscript. And a boatload of other friends. There would be a pot of green chili, a blazing fire, a cooler of beer. The book would be there, and maybe we’d say a few words about it. But we wouldn’t dare speak too loudly. For what is a book about rivers when you’re standing on the banks of a river flowing golden in the sunset?
“For what is a book about rivers
when you’re standing on the banks of a
river flowing golden in the sunset?”
Describe one of your favorite places. What makes this place special to you?
The confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers in Canyonlands National Park. The confluence is only accessible by boat, so every time I’ve been there I’ve been on a river trip, about to head into the whitewater of Cataract Canyon where the opening essay in my book takes place. It’s a spectacular place to spend time, but it jumps to mind as one of my favorite places because of the way it symbolizes the various ways my life is held together by rivers in the Colorado basin. I’ve paddled the entire mainstem of both rivers that come together at the confluence; I’ve paddled from Rocky Mountain National Park on the Colorado to Lake Mead and, on another trip, 1,700 miles from the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, where the Colorado used to end.
At the confluence I can remember my way up and downstream across the American West. But it also stitches together water from the Dolores River, where my parents learned to raft, and the Roaring Fork River near where I grew up in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. And it’s not far from the confluence with the San Juan River, the river that flows past my current home. It’s a meeting place of water, of redrock landscape, and of stories.
Why Torrey House?
When I submitted my manuscript, I wrote that I could think of no publisher that would be a better match for what I am trying to achieve in Confluence than Torrey House. Their commitment to telling conservation-oriented stories about the Colorado Plateau in a literary manner is exactly what I hope to do as a writer. Other pluses: small press where editors and other staff are accessible and willing to work with authors; nonprofit; committed to preserving the landscapes I love most.
What are you most looking forward to in 2019?
Where I live in San Juan County, Utah, voters just elected a majority Navajo county commission for the first time ever. The fight over Bears Ears National Monument is likely to drag on for several more years, and I’m looking forward to reporting on how the new county leadership (which supports the monument) is going to operate. It isn’t going to be easy for the commissioners, but the fact that Native Americans will have more of a say over public land management and local politics in the county in 2019 is a bright spot for me.
Favorite Torrey House titles?
I’ve read Jonathan Thompson’s River of Lost Souls, which is the best environmental history of the San Juan River basin that I’m aware of. It’s informative, entertaining, and lays out in a single narrative the remarkable impacts humans have had on the watershed over the last 150 years. I recommend it to everyone who brings up environmental issues related to the Animas or San Juan rivers. I’ve also read Edge of Morning and Red Rock Stories, the two excellent collections of Native and non-native writers speaking on behalf of Bears Ears National Monument. I cannot wait for Jacqueline Keeler’s forthcoming book on the Bundys and Standing Rock, Standoff.
And my favorite Torrey House publication is Amy Irvine's beautiful, provocative conversation with Edward Abbey written on the 50th anniversary of Desert Solitaire. Amy grapples with Abbey's work in a way that shows deep respect for his contributions to Southwestern literature while challenging his less-than-inspirational legacy on issues of gender and racial justice. Desert Cabal should be read by everyone who cares about the desert.
Help bring Confluence by Zak Podmore to the page.
Zak Podmore is a Utah-based freelance writer, film producer, and editor who covers conservation issues, outdoor sports, and Utah politics. An editor-at-large for Canoe & Kayak magazine, his work has appeared in Outside, High Country News, Four Corners Free Press, and the Huffington Post. The films he has produced have been selected for the Wild & Scenic Film Festival, the Reel Paddling Film Festival, and the Colorado Environmental Film Festival, and his magazine writing won a 2018 Folio Eddie Award. His essay collection Confluence is forthcoming October 2019 from Torrey House Press.