Friday, April 8, 2011

Exclusive Interview with Philip Connors, Author of Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout

Book Passage contributing blogger Dax Proctor interviewed author Philip Connors about his new book Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout ($25.99). Connors will be appearing at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Wednesday, April 13, 2011 at 7:00 pm. Don't miss it!

Philip Connors
Fire Season ($24.99)
Dax Proctor: This summer will mark your tenth year working as a fire lookout in Southwest New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. When did you realize you wanted to write a book about your experience as a lookout?

Philip Connors: Almost from the beginning I figured I’d write a book about the experience— someday. I tried a couple of times over the years to interest editors and agents in the idea, and I was always greeted as though I’d proposed to write a book about watching paint dry. This worked out to my benefit, because the longer I kept going back to my mountain, the deeper my knowledge of the country became, and the more I understood what I truly wanted to say about wildfire, wilderness, and solitude. In early 2009 I lost my offseason bartending gig when the bar where I’d been working closed. That made my desire to write the book more urgent; I had bills to pay. I looked around the town where I live in southern New Mexico and thought, “There’s no other job here I’m fit for.” Luckily, I had met a young editor at Ecco Books who was open to my writing him a book proposal—who even seemed excited about it—and the rest is history.

DP: How long did it take you to write the manuscript? Did you go through an extensive rewriting process? 

PC: I put my work on the book aside during my father-in-law’s battle with cancer in 2009. After his death, needless to say, it took a while to get my head and heart back into it. Starting in November of that year, I wrote most of the book in one six-month burst, sitting surrounded by many seasons of diaries and copies of the hundreds of pages of letters I’d written to friends from the mountain. Also, during the season I recount in the book, I wrote long letters to my editor, Matt Weiland, whose guidance about what moved him and what did not guided my own decisions about where the book should lead and what it should cover. There was a bit of rewriting, but not much; my deadline was pretty tight. I sent Matt chapters as I finished them, and he gave them a smart edit, and then we moved on to the next one.

DP: You give us a tremendous amount of “felt life” in Fire Season—your observations of the wilderness landscape and your relationship to it make this an extraordinary read. During the process of shaping your field notes into the book, did you gain any new insights into your own relationship with the Gila? Did the writing itself allow you to say something about humankind’s connection (or disconnection) to nature, that hadn’t occurred to you before?

PC: I honestly don’t think I came to new realizations during the writing of the book. Most of what I say in the book can be found in my journals, though maybe in a form that’s not quite so polished. I’d been sitting in my tower a hundred days a year for almost a decade, having thoughts both silly and profound, and writing them all down. The book was merely a vehicle for selecting, honing, and enlivening an experience I had felt very deeply for many years running.

DP: How much of the book did you write while you were on duty in the Gila?

PC: The actual, finished book: not much. I had visions of writing it the way Kerouac wrote On the Road: feeding a giant continuous roll of paper into my typewriter and making a record of events as they happened that season in the lookout. When the time came, I was paralyzed; the thought of immortalizing the experience between hard covers made my writing initially too self-conscious, so I resorted to that strategy I mention of composing long letters to my editor. I also, of course, continued the practice of journal-keeping. Then, months later, I used those letters and diaries as raw material. In a way, I suppose you could say I’d been practicing to write the book for years.

DP: You mention in the book that you are fond of boundaries—where landscapes shift and connect. I found Fire Season to concern itself with this theme and return to it in a number of ways over the course of the book—nature and civilization, wilderness and technology, self and community (society), destruction and creation (as a result of fire). Could you elaborate on this idea? It seems to be central to your point of view.

PC: As a child I grew up in a place, southern Minnesota, where the plow had almost completely obliterated a magnificent grassland ecosystem. But a few tiny remnants remained, as well as some little pothole lakes and sloughs, and those were the places I felt drawn to: edges, transition zones, borderlands. In another context entirely, while I lived in New York City, I likewise sought out the unexpected: for instance, abandoned railway lines that had gone to seed and grown back wild with grasses and flowers. I feel most stimulated by a life of variation and a balance of opposites, and I love the place where such opposites meet and create a little friction. I guess I want it all: the city and the country, the skyscraper and the mountain, community and solitude, jazz and moonrise, the sacred and the profane. We’re here on Earth too short a time to limit our enthusiasms.

DP: I think of Fire Season as a mongrel work of the best kind—a masterful weaving of memoir, history of forestry and conservation, meditation on wilderness writing, with a healthy dose of “how things work” narrative. Was it a challenge to strike a balance between the personal and the factual elements of the book?

PC: I’m glad someone finally called this book what it is: a mongrel work! I’m partial to books like that. I think of some of Geoff Dyer’s work, for instance, and also the great Ellen Meloy, who wrote beautifully about uranium mining in Utah, the Trinity Site, desert wilderness, and her own funky soul’s experience with landscape in her book Last Cheater’s Waltz. I wanted to achieve something similar; I was absolutely committed to writing a book about watching mountains that left out the boring parts. That obligated me to make it more than mere memoir. In fact it freed me and even inspired me to explore the history of the land, the history of Smokey Bear, Jack Kerouac’s one season as a lookout, even certain of my experiences of New York City.

DP: You bring up a good number of other writers in the book—Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Aldo Leopold, and Norman Maclean to name a few.  How much did their writing, or wilderness writing in general, influence your own writing? Were there other writers you read or looked to for inspiration while writing Fire Season?

PC: All of those you mention were major influences. There’s just no way around them if you’re writing a book about being a fire lookout in a wilderness area that bears one of their names. I wanted to nod to them in homage without getting too bogged down in literary criticism. There’s also, of course, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, a classic of the genre and a model for how to keep a sense of humor when writing about a solitary experience in the great outdoors. The bane of nature writing in general is a somber, solemn, hushed-bordering-on-funereal tone that smothers me like a chloroform handkerchief whenever I encounter it. On that score, again, Ellen Meloy is a masterful model: go out right now and get your hands on her last book, Eating Stone, if you haven’t already read it. You’ll see what I’m talking about.

DP: As a fire lookout, you and your colleagues possess a deep knowledge and profound understanding of the importance of wilderness to humankind. Does a book like Fire Season—a document that enters this knowledge into the record—play a part in the future of conservation? How so?

PC: I hope it does. I hope that without sermonizing overmuch, I’ve been able to make an indirect case for the necessity of wild places to the future of the planet and the sanity of the human soul. Any one book can only impart a finite amount of knowledge about a certain place—can only scratch the surface, you might say. But a beautiful book that touches on our relationship with the Earth can perhaps inspire us to see more clearly and feel more deeply in our own lives, about places we love, wherever we live. I don’t think a lawsuit can do that; I don’t think an environmental-impact statement can do that, important as these things are. Too often the fight for conservation seems hopeless anymore: a game played by lawyers and technicians and refereed by people for whom the fix is in. There’s just so much profit to be made in savaging and raping the earth, and the savagers and rapers have all the money and all the power in our distant capitals. I’d like to see a new generation of rucksack wanderers, radical amateurs, redneck patriots of the Big Outside, and even clean-cut Midwesterners like myself advocating and agitating for the sanctity of nonhuman life on good old planet Earth. As Gary Snyder once said, if we’re here for any good reason at all it is this: to be a gang of sexy primate clowns who run rivers, write poetry, and play good music for the entertainment of our fellow species. That seems to me spot-on. And you know where I got that? I got that from a book.



Anonymous said...

Thanks Phillip. I love your connection to the environmental writers.

Anonymous said...

I came to know and truly adore this book when I heard it read out as book of the week on the BBC world service/BBC RADIO 4.
Reader in ireland