Sharman Apt Russel Q&A

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012 at 5:09 PM
Sharman Apt Russel Q&A by Randi Jones

Nature and science writer Sharman Apt Russell will be reading in Smith Chapel at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College on Thursday, April 19, as the final reader in the 2012 Creative Writers Reading Series. She is the author of many books, both fiction and nonfiction. While some of her topics include public lands grazing, archaeology, flowers, butterflies, hunger, and pantheism, she writes about what engages her, what is important.

Russell’s stories have been widely published and translated into Korean, Chinese, Swedish, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and Italian. She has been decorated with many awards for her work including the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, New Mexico Zia Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Henry Joseph Jackson Award, and the Writers at Work Award. Praising her book Hunger: An Unnatural History the San Francisco Chronicle said, "Russell's writing is luminous."

Randi Jones: In your book, Standing In The Light: My Life As A Pantheist, you do a wonderful job of balancing research and historical information with personal experience. It is evident that you have sifted through mounds of historical texts; how difficult is it to exclude information that you find valuable and what process do you use to determine that perfect balance?

Sharman Apt Russell: You definitely have to keep your focus because there are so many intriguing byways and “sideways,” always more books and articles to read. I might read a book and only use a few paragraphs of information from it. I don’t mind because I love that kind of research, following bread crumbs and finding myself in new territory. By nature, however, I’m a generalist, not a specialist, and that helps. In my research-based prose, I stay very aware of my relationship to the subject. I don’t pretend to be a historian or a botanist or a lepidopterist even if the project I am working on uses a lot of research from those fields. I work hard to mitigate the disadvantages of being a non-expert or outsider—by reading a lot and double-checking my facts and collaborating with my sources--even as I exploit the advantages. As a lay person, I’m automatically interested in the big picture, in how this specific subject relates to me and my world. I haven’t been socialized in this discipline. I don’t know the rules. I don’t have mentors to please. I get bored by too much detail. I can step out of certain boxes. I am liberated in ways that the academic in the field is not. I also stay very aware of my contract with readers; they know I am approaching this subject much as they might, as a child or parent or lover, filled with grief and wonder and joy and daily concerns. The personal voice, perhaps, is a kind of touchstone.

RJ: Your book, Hunger: An Unnatural History, gives hunger a narrative by commenting on issues of hunger as art, hunger and religion, hunger and war, hunger experimentation and hunger diseases. You seem to be very concerned about food security; why did you decide to not really comment on the political and social issues that cause hunger?

SR: I had been trying to write about hunger for twenty years and my first attempts were about political and social issues. Dealing with those meta-systems—industrial agriculture, the inequities in capitalism, the legacy of colonialism, how we structure trade and foreign aid—all this became somewhat abstract. It wasn’t news to me and it didn’t feel like I could translate these large ideas effectively. I need, as a writer, to follow some mystery. What does hunger feel like in the body? In my body? What does hunger do to the body and how do we adapt to hunger? Psychologically, how do we live with hunger—in our family, in our community, in our country? Why don’t we see food as a basic human right? I needed to personalize hunger, make hunger come closer to me, through stories, and through questions that have no easy answers. While writing the book, I started a program for school children in Silver City who go hungry over the weekend, and I’m on the board now of the group who runs the local food pantry and organizes community gardens. One in four children and one in six seniors in New Mexico are food insecure. I see every day the direct connection of hunger in my small town to political and social policies concerning minimum wage, health insurance, social support systems, etc. As one hunger organization says, “Ending hunger is not rocket science.” We already know how to do this. We know what causes hunger. We know what steps we could take to drastically reduce hunger. For me, the question, the mystery, remains--why don’t we?  
RJ: Your website says, "My teaching philosophy is simple: my goal is to increase a student's authority as a writer." Can you provide some tips for aspiring writers to increase their authority?

SR: I think there is an authority in discovering your own questions. What don’t you know and what do you really want to know? Writers don’t write, in my own opinion, out of the pedagogical instinct. We don’t have answers we want to share so much as questions we want to explore. We write out of that explorer’s instinct. In the middle of writing, in that wonderful state of flow, we usually feel pretty authoritative! We are in love with the creative act. Then, later, we need to develop our authority as an editor of our own work. We need to feel confident that we can make changes. We can prune for repetition and over-explanation and we can listen for musicality and we can pay close attention to the honesty and intimacy of the piece. We can consider things like structure and audience and tone. That is where a writing teacher can help, I think—in modeling ways of revising and editing. In that modeling, there is a clear agreement between the editor and the writer. If the editorial suggestion resonates with the writer, great. That increases the writer’s authority. If that editorial suggestion doesn’t resonate with the writer, great. That increases the writer’s authority. The writer, of course, has to be a good listener, not only to the teacher/editor, but to that voice within.  
RJ: You write both fiction and non-fiction; how do you decide which genre will better fit your subject matter and which do you prefer?
SR: I love both genres. I love the personal essay and what I call research-based prose. And I love writing fiction, especially children’s literature, especially—at this moment--young adult. I can’t imagine not being able to do both.  Writing fiction, for me, is like listening to a story, having it rise up inside you, letting and listening to these “memories” unfold. Writing research-based prose gets you out in the world in a wonderful way. You are energized by the subject—whether that be the pollination of flowers or archaeology in the Southwest or how the body metabolizes fat. It’s all so interesting. Writing the personal essay means relying on the strength of that first-person voice, just trying to be as clear and honest and authentic as possible. The very act of trying makes me a better person. I definitely feel that I am my best self when I write. And probably that’s because creativity seems to work best when the ego is put aside, when you are writing or drawing or performing from some larger Self rather than the smaller seeking-approval, wounded-from-childhood, look-at-me self. All the genres do that. They will all take you outside yourself.

When I can connect my personal experience directly to a subject, then I do gravitate to creative nonfiction. Right now I am working on a book about citizen scientists and their expanding role in the world, and so I am becoming a citizen scientist, studying the charismatic Western Red-bellied Tiger Beetle and becoming an “authority” on this obscure and relatively unimportant insect. This gets me out talking to people and walking along river banks and engaged in the world.  At the same time, when I get the chance, I want to go back and rewrite my young adult novel about Cabeza de Vaca’s fictional daughter. Cabeza de Vaca was a real-life sixteenth-century Spanish explorer who walked across the American Southwest in 1528-1536, sometimes a slave, sometimes a trader, sometimes a medicine man. The world was full of miracles then, the landscape steeped in magic. Fiction is the only way to tell this true story.

The reading will be held in Behrend’s Larry and Kathryn Smith Chapel at 6 p.m. A reception for the author will be held at 5:30 p.m. All events are free and open to the public.

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