10 Questions for Jenn Dean
- By Emily Wojcik
"We pored over several more boxes, then I followed her into a windowless chilled room lined with open metal trays that pulled out of the wall, like trays at a bakery. Instead of pastries, the trays held dozens of 'skins'—birds preserved for study, their soft organs removed. To say that my spirit lifted might sound odd, but the beauty of the dead can awe as much as the living."
—from Keepers of the Ghost Bird (Working Title 2.4 Setpember/October 2017)
What were the influences behind writing this piece?
It was my first trip to Bermuda, and I was riding in a taxi van driven by an exuberant woman named Foxie. At the time, I had chronic pain, and was looking for something to do while my husband (I was married back then), was working on the island. I’m not your typical birder, running around with a “life list” and such, but I’ve always been intrigued by bird behavior and survival. It was Foxie, in her lilting accent, who first told me about the cahow, or Bermuda petrel, and about David Wingate. The next day I was on a boat to Nonsuch. I had no inkling what I was going to find out. It took me several more trips to get the story, but it was the first time I really understood how paltry our own capabilities are. Humans have devolved—most of us can’t survive a night alone in the woods, let alone live completely on the wing at sea, and forget about any of us memorizing a star map in a matter of moments. There’s some dazzling capabilities all around us, yet for some reason we continue to think we’re superior, and we’ve gone so far as to label certain creatures “bad” (snakes) and “good” (dolphins).
I was coming back through customs and immigration, still on Bermuda, when a uniformed official asked me what I had been doing on the island. "The cahow was stupid,” he said, which shocked me. He was referring to its tameness with settlers. I told him it wasn't stupid at all, and reminded him that it was, after all, his national bird. But I had been blindly following signs and lines of people for twenty minutes, and hadn't realized he was actually a US customs official. “It's not my national bird,” he said, and then began rhapsodizing about the eagle and its great comeback after DDT. People tend not to see beyond symbols or clichés, and when it comes to wildlife, they like to admire only the "noble" or flashy species. Had I been more prepared, I would have told him some eagles kill their siblings and scavenge on carrion. How do we get folks, in a world increasingly divorced from its physical origins, to care about things they can’t see, and to see beyond the charismatic? More, why should they care? That was the impetus for the piece.
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I have a theater background and was on the standup comedy scene in Boston for a few years. I grew tired of writing setups and punchlines, and spending my nights in dark cellar-holes and clubs telling jokes. I took writing classes at Harvard Extension School and was fortunate to intersect with Jane Brox’s memoir class. When you’re toying around with assignments, your true subjects emerge. Prior to that I was still in “funny” mode. I began writing about my mother. A fraught and difficult subject. I trace my first attempts at the essay to a piece I wrote in that class called Swimming Lessons, which tried to wrap it all up in a neat bow. My writing wasn’t developed enough to handle the task, and neither was my self-understanding .Jane was kind enough to encourage me.
I ended up at the Bennington Writing Seminars program. What I started at Harvard Extension School blossomed into a memoir at Bennington, and became my thesis. But it still needed time to coalesce—it almost sold to a small publisher, but the structure didn’t work. I was setting it aside in a closet (last January), when the narrative structure occurred to me. Now I just need to go back into it, and kill my darlings written during those grad school years. Writing is easy, right? You just need to figure out what to leave in, and what to leave out. Ha! I should write a comedy routine just for writers.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek still leaves me, though I’ve read it numerous times, speechless and gasping. John Ruskin, the nineteenth century art critic, has a description of moss from Modern Painters, that’s one long astonishing sentence of 149 words. Anything by Thoreau (his natural history essays, and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers). Goethe’s Italian Journey, which I’m reading now, with his minute observations of geology and landscape — breccia, polders—is an influence. As are writers such as Peter Matthiessen, Robert Finch, Diane Ackerman, and Sy Montgomery, but also scientists like Bernd Heinrich, Alan Rabinowitz, Loren Eiseley, and Gerald Durrell. Everything from Doug Peacock’s Grizzly Years to the works of Mary Gordon, J. M. Coetzee, May Sarton, W. G. Sebald, and Jane Brox. Also, Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, Kathleen Norris’s Dakota, Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain, and Kuki Gallmann’s African Nights. Perhaps what unites them all is a sense of place—whether that place is physical landscape, or the landscape of self.
But the seminal influence, when I look back, was a set of books my father purchased, called The Life Nature Library. Dozens of tall slim hardbound volumes, put out by Life magazine in the early 1960s, with titles like The Birds, Ecology, The Desert, Animal Behavior, Early Man, The Poles, The Sea, The Fishes, all written by leading scientists of the time. They had searing photographs and little drawings in the margins, and fold-out illustrations. I pored over them as a child, absorbing more than I realized. I recently purchased the whole set again, and when I opened them, was jarred by recognition, and nostalgia, every time I turned the page. The science is obviously dated now, but not the impact. I trace my love and fascination with the natural world back to those books.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
There were two places, or landscapes of my childhood, each with their own gestalt. There was Troy, New York, where I was born, with its industrial past, and spalling brick buildings with tea-colored lace curtains hung in the windows, and old taverns. At the time, there were still some cobblestoned streets. Over the years they’ve tried to revitalize the area, but at least when I knew it, it felt permeated with a past it couldn’t overcome. So that accretion of loss and decay has stayed with me.
And then there was the grand sweep of the Hudson Valley. I couldn’t help as a child but be infused with the history of the land. Bison, wild horses and mammoths had roamed the hills I grew up on. A mastodon, with blunt tusks and a puny tail, was unearthed along the Mohawk River in nearby Cohoes. The skeleton is posed in the lobby of the New York State Museum. Then, there were the people, the Dutch, and the English, and prior to that, the Mahican Indians. We lived outside Troy in a rural, sylvan landscape of lakes, all connected by the Wynants Kill. There are farms, and abandoned barns, and withered apple trees. The Hudson River used to be full of sturgeons, or “Albany beef.” The shad bushes still bloom along the fields in the spring, though the shad runs have significantly declined. It felt timeless, that endless summer of childhood. The quarter moon hung like a sock drying on a line, and you half expected a horse and carriage to come clip-clopping down the road. There were deep winter snows, and you could ice skate at Crooked Lake—there’s an old hotel made of fieldstones, with a big moose head on the wall, and a huge fireplace. I think I would have been at home in the 19th century, if they had vaccines.
Why this length for your work?
The work was much longer. There was a story behind the story, and a lot more “me” in it, which had to do with the physical pain I was in, and how difficult it had been to physically get the story, etc., but thankfully I got some people to read it and help me focus on the only story that mattered, which was the bird’s story, and the boy who found it. This is the organic result. It’s too long for most literary magazines, so thankfully I found this outlet, and you published it. Happy for me, happy for the bird, too, I hope. And, I’m no longer in pain.
Is there any music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I can’t write with music on. The exception is Arvo Pärt. I have a CD of his spooky, minimalist, minor-chord choral works that, if I’m just writing in my writer’s notebook, can be helpful in getting under the skin of what’s around me, because the natural world is, when you look at it intensely, full of things that evoke spooky, minimalist minor-chord choral works. Like cougars. Or tardigrades, or “moss piglets,” micro-animals that can go for thirty years without food or water. They can dry out and rehydrate. I just bought a 30x microscope so I can hunt for them.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I wish I could say I drank a cup of bat’s blood every morning. If only. (Actually, these days it would be “organic bat’s blood substitute”). I used to be very disciplined in graduate school. As I’ve gotten older, my procrastination techniques have gotten better. To tame that, I schedule myself. Goethe said, “Use the day before the day. Early morning hours have gold in their mouth.” I find the early morning hours are most fertile, and fresh. I rise at five or so. That’s when I do most of my writing, and thinking, and reading. I also like his “Never hurry. Never rest.” If my butt isn’t in the saddle every day—even for a few moments, nothing will get done.
Brenda Ueland, who wrote that marvelous book If You Want to Write, said “What you write today is the result of some span of idling yesterday, some fairly long period of protection from talking and busyness.” I need a lot of space, and time, around my writing. If I don’t, I become, as they say, off my feed. So, I suppose another ritual or tradition, call it habit, is my daily ramble. I’m fortunate to have a wild river trail that starts right outside my door, so I make sure I get out in the woods every day, alone. Always alone. Ideas and connections come from your mind gnawing on the bone of your thoughts, so that’s what I do on my rambles. Nearly twenty years out of grad school and I’m just beginning to realize what it takes to be a writer. I haven’t had a television in ten years. Which sounds like I’m more productive than I am. I’m not. It’s a struggle.
What did/do you want to be when you grow up?
Gina Miller and I had a specific plan in fourth grade. We were going to get a jeep and go to East Africa and save all the endangered species there. We hadn’t yet figured out how to get the jeep across the Atlantic. Details! My home life was chaotic, to say the least, and I ended up studying theater, mostly to escape, physically and mentally, from my life. I think I would have made a bad field biologist—taking data can be tedious and boring, but I really enjoy connecting science to the layperson, and writing this essay, because I discovered that scientists love to talk about their work. In a way I’m doing my small part to save endangered species. I also do some minor and occasional work for a national radio show call BirdNote, based here in Seattle, whose mission is to create positive conservation actions by turning people onto cool things about birds.
I finally did get to East Africa. Bob Shacochis was my graduate thesis advisor. Besides being a great novelist, he’s a journalist, and had written a piece on Gorongosa National Park for Outside Magazine. He had to go back to do some more work, and because he knew of my childhood dream, he invited me to come to Mozambique, with he and his wife Catfish. He wanted to show us—there were several others along—the rebirth of the park, destroyed after years of civil war. Hearing lions at night on the other side of the lion fence, then seeing them out in the bush, then being mock-charged by an elephant and getting heat exhaustion, then finding a spider in my hut the size of a dinner plate, which I captured and put outside: good times! No wonder Bob smokes.
What are you reading right now?
I'm working my way through, in no particular order, Thoreau’s Cape Cod, the works of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus, and some of Emerson’s essays and lectures. I just finished two admirable biographies about Emerson, and Thoreau, written by Robert Richardson, Jr. Reading Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and some of his miscellaneous prose. I’m intrigued by what the transcendentalists were exposed to and reading; next I want to read Margaret Fuller, and other women of the time. Back to this century, I just finished Jo Ann Beard’s Zanesville, and some of the political essays in A Grace Paley Reader. In a pile to be read is The Strange Lives of Familiar Insects, and I’m dipping into Mushrooms Demystified, this latter choice mostly so I don’t die. You have to know when the look-alikes can kill you, or just make you sick. For fun I’m re-reading Timothy Egan’s The Good Rain. It’s a relieving counterpoint to Emerson’s dense style.
What are you working on currently?
I’m writing what I call a “natural history of here, of now” which loosely follows one year in the (mostly) natural life of this valley. It’s a kind of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for the Snoqualmie Valley, but written instead by a pagan atheist science geek. It’s tentatively called Letters from the Valley of the Moon. When I first moved to the Puget Sound area, ten years ago, and settled in Carnation (east of Seattle and up against the Cascade foothills) I couldn’t believe that this place existed. There’s the sky, in which you see ten different painters in one day, there are forests that look like they came out of the Carboniferous period, two wild rugged rivers, and this old logging town. I used to live up on the valley’s ridge. Out into the clearing one day walked by a small Yoda. It was a small, furred, grey creature, waving his little Yoda-like fingers at me and ignoring the dog, who was barking at it. Then he calmly turned and began plucking leaves off the bushes. A mountain beaver! Even people who grew up here don’t believe me when I tell them about mountain beavers. They aren’t true beavers, they eat plants.
Up in the highlands behind town, four cougars were recently spotted--hanging out on someone’s porch. The next morning my friend Robbie, who lives up there in the woods, woke at dawn and discovered two of them sauntering beneath his window. Thankfully, he lives on the second floor. We’re not prey for cougars, but they change the equation for us. Wake us up a bit. Which is one idea behind Letters From the Valley of the Moon, to wake people up. Microsoft, Amazon, and the creeping tentacles of uber-materialism are changing even the rural life here. Then I have a bunch of essays I want to write, like the one you just published, and the memoir to finish. I’m fifty-six, and the thought that I might only have forty summers left, if I’m lucky, is frankly terrifying.
JENN DEAN holds an MFA in Literature and Nonfiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars. A portion of her book-in-progress, House of My Sleepless Nights, was published in Salamander, and her interview with the writer Jane Brox appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle. Awarded a Millay Colony residency, she’s been a featured artist in SoundFalls, an evening of music and stories, in Carnation, WA, and was a finalist for the Lamar York Non-Fiction prize. Her essay, After Pilgrim, was published by Platypus Press. The Keepers of the Ghost Bird will also be anthologized in Trailhead, Literature for the Backcountry (LimeHawk Press). It was a 2016 finalist in the New Millenium Writings Literary Awards.