A conversation with Prose Writer John T. Price

February 6th, 2012

John T. Price reads at the Poetry Center at 7 p.m. on March 19 as part of the UA Prose Series, curated by the Creative Writing Program. In this interview with Price by nonfiction M.F.A. candidate Sarah Minor, Price discusses the ecological crisis out of which his commitment to writing emerged, his relationship to faith and spirituality, and more.

Also in the UA Prose Series lineup this spring:

Daniyal Muennuddin, whose award-winning collection of stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, was reviewed by fiction M.F.A candidate Lajla Cline, reads on February 24.

Monica Drake, author of the critically acclaimed indie novel Clown Girl, which was recently optioned for film by Kristen Wiig, and The Stud Book, forthcoming from Crown in March of this year, reads on March 29.

These pieces were originally published by the Poetry Center: poetry.arizona.edu/features.

On Tuesday, January 24th I call John T. Price in his basement study in Western Iowa from a cell phone bearing a deceivingly Eastern-Iowa area code. The late afternoon sun has warmed the bench where I sit outside my low adobe house in South Tucson, and we begin our conversation by discussing our similar Iowan roots. John and I were both born in the Hawkeye State to Iowa families and spent much of our childhoods exploring its landscape. Our conversation seems more like a discussion of art and the land of our beloved State than an interview, and John provides expressive, honest answers to questions from a fellow nonfiction writer far from home.

We know that you’re a native Iowan who has lived, worked and studied in the state for your entire life and now writes as a regional Midwestern and nature writer. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to writing and how the ecological crises in your home state inspired your work?

I came to writing late. Other writers talk about how they knew they knew they were going to be writers when they came out of the womb, and I envy them for that. A career in writing wasn’t even in the realm of possibility for me until I got to college. As a kid I was surrounded by books and appreciated the power of words and literature but didn’t think of going into writing. Then I took one nonfiction class at Iowa late in my undergraduate career. I was originally in the sciences but was gradually converted to the art of writing after that, and I’m very grateful for it. The first essay I really wrote was the piece called "Night Rhythms," and that was my first real experience of that kind of writing. I was, of course, taking a class and had an assignment, but I realized that I could, in some way, use words to convey to others what I most cared about and that it actually might work. I kind of got hooked on it that way.

I’ve never been someone who was very comfortable with language. It was always a sort of fear for me. Writing allowed me to slow down my thought processes and control something I was afraid of and make it do what I wanted it to, so it helped me overcome that fear.

As for Iowa well, it’s everything. I’ve never lived anywhere else, and that’s intentional.

I think, like a lot of Midwestern kids, there was a lot about Iowa that I loved, a lot of nature areas that I loved. As I became an adolescent moving into adulthood, I thought of the most beautiful places as being elsewhere—Mountains, Oceans, Forests—and that was a big reason why I wanted to leave initially. I wanted to live somewhere “beautiful.”

In college, I was a memoirist and then, you’re right, there was that flood in 1993 when we were living in the small town of Belle Plaine. There was so much destruction from the floods, and that was really tragic, but there was also an immense amount of natural beauty associated with them. Afterwards, ditches that were normally mowed and burned erupted with wildflowers that I had never seen or recognized before, and I started to get a rough reflection of what Iowa used to be: this immensely diverse place of prairie and wetland where so many species of birds thrived. When the floods left I felt myself springing after them, and that’s when I took a journey across the Midwest and the plains to visit what remained of the prairie and natural habitats and to connect with natural and family history. Our relationships with family and our heritage can connect us to things and places in ways that other things can't, which is one of the reasons I’ve stayed in Iowa. I also journeyed to visit with writers who were modeling a sense of responsibility to the places they were writing about. I needed that model, and I emerged from that writing my first nature essays, with a new commitment to my home place and wanting to live and write here.

We want our words to do some good work in the world, and when you see that happen you have to take it seriously and follow it.

Was it was that year after the floods, 1993, that you first considered yourself a nature writer?

Yes. I didn’t really consider myself a nature writer or see environment as my primary subject until that event. It evoked in me that passion and concern, which I think had been there all along in a latent way, but the floods brought it to the surface. For the first time I think, I really felt an acute sense of loss. Iowa is the most altered state, ecologically speaking, in the union with only one percent of its native habitats still present. The flood kind of gave me my first taste of that and that really made me care in a way I hadn’t cared before.

The second thing was that I found that my writing about this place was finding an audience. When you’re trying to become a writer, you don’t really know what your sort of core subject or approach is going to be and it takes a while sometimes and your audience determines that for you. I wanted, at least initially, to be a fiction writer but found that I was a better writer of place and nature. I think that’s what our mission is as a writer in a way. We want our words to do some good work in the world, and when you see that happen you have to take it seriously and follow it.

I think nonfiction is a lot like Jazz. You have to be able to improvise.

You pull together a lot of different kinds of research-based information in your work, especially in Not Just Any Land. Can you tell us a little about your writing and research process?

It depends on the piece; sometimes I begin with the personal story or narrative and then, along the way, research assignments kind of present themselves. The process could be more traditional—text based research, interviews, archival research, pop culture history, biblical references...Nonfiction allows you just to explore all sorts of different things. Other times I begin with the research. I think nonfiction is a lot like Jazz. You have to be able to improvise. You have a baseline theme or voice that you use, but in and around that you improvise according to the moment and the subject and the moves you make. That’s why it can be very difficult to be a nonfiction writer, you can get in a rut and you can feel sometimes that you’re being defined a certain way, but the form can allow you to get beyond that. In nonfiction you can do or be anyone, the family historian over here, the family guy there, the humorist...that’s the love of it for me. I just have a hard time making any commitments, so nonfiction is perfect for me in that way.

I think, at the center of all my work as a nature writer, is this conviction that we can’t separate our relationship to nature from our relationships to each other.

Land, place and family are central to your work. The passages where you write about personal experiences with other beings like your family dog, individual family members, the baby bird you try to save in the beginning of Man Killed by Pheasant, and especially the “Pagan God Woodchuck” from the same book, seem full of such wisdom and clarity. How do these important moments with individual beings become part of your work to save the greater landscape and region in which you live?

I think, at the center of all my work as a nature writer, is this conviction that we can’t separate our relationship to nature from our relationships to each other. By relationships I mean romantic relationships, our relationships to a community, friendships, religious communities, neighborhoods, families...Within all of these there are also individual spots of wildness—whether they’re in our backyard or in an urban garden—that become like extended family. I’ve called this kinship. I define kinship as the familial embrace of nature, body and spirit and what I like about that concept is that kinship is not something that we choose, it’s something that’s given to us. Whether it’s our family or the places into which we are born or raised, what we chose or choose not to do ultimately is to return that embrace. That’s really what my work is about, returning that kinship in relationships to people and to natural areas.

Writing Man Killed by Pheasant confirmed something I knew about memoir. That memoir, to me, is about tracing the sources of our ethical lives, seeking the origins of our values and beliefs. So much of my work focuses on ethical relationship to nature and I was looking for where that came from and how it informed me. There are several pieces in the book that have to do with the loss of my infant brother. Writers have this thing all the time: the thing that keeps coming up but that they run away from. That was my thing, and I thought it was separate from my work, but in writing this book I found out that it was intimately related. After my brother was stillborn when I was just seven years old, I walked around looking at the world for what wasn’t there for many years after. I felt this longing to restore him to life, to bring him back. Kids have that magical realist perspective. “If I’m only good enough or pray hard enough, my brother will come back to me...” Children can think that way. The natural world helped me articulate and wrestle with some of this and find some peace or larger understanding of loss.

I don’t think it was as sudden as those floods, my relationship to the prairie. I think my work with prairie [restoration] taps into those early emotions that I felt. It was another entity that was seemingly dead and beyond hope but that many people were longing to restore and were actively involved in restoring. That seems like a kind of resurrection and taps into some of that early childhood loss. So there’s another example of how our relationship to humans and landscape informed me. I feel a deep sense of kinship with the prairie.

Much of your work integrates science into a narrative quite seamlessly. Can you talk a little bit about this integration and the challenges that come along with this integration?

I’m constantly trying to translate facts and figures into stories and metaphors and allegories.

I always loved science growing up, but I didn’t love math, which was a bit of a problem (laughing). But the concepts, the theories, the beauty of it intrigued me even as a kid, and they still inspire me, and I feel that to be instinctive. I love reading science books that tell a good story and force us to make all kinds of imaginative connections. But it’s sometimes difficult to integrate science into a piece of narrative nonfiction in a way that’s still artful and entertaining. I’m constantly trying to translate facts and figures into stories and metaphors and allegories. This was true in [Man Killed By Pheasant: And Other Kinships]. An immense amount of research went into that, far more than I ever wanted to. But I zeroed in on some key stories that I thought would be good for the reader.

Faith and spirituality also seem integral to your work in protecting and educating others about the environmental crises in your region. Historically, faith, art and nature have been connected to ideas of the Sublime. Can you tell us about their role in your writing and in nature writing today and how this might be different?

Well I was raised in a family that was Congregationalists, and Congregationalists value the role of religion as a tool for intellectual discovery and exploration. That’s how I always thought of it. It was another vocabulary to talk about the things we most valued. Religion has played a significant role in distancing human beings from the natural world and promoting some of the fears and phobias that have lead to its destruction, but I think also—and there are a lot of writers and theologians who are talking about this—it can offer a door into connection and stewardship. I think of Terry Tempest Williams’ work. She disagrees with many things in her Mormon faith, but there are also things that have enriched her relationship with the natural world. That’s true for Mary Swander, who was also a model for this and an inspiration to me.

One example, from my own work with prairie [restoration], when I first started to get involved, is the community I worked within. It became clear to me that these people were not only a scientific community but a people of faith, a deep spiritual faith. They were restoring a place, a land, an ecology that they had never seen or known. They were working out of a sense of faith that what they were doing there would someday blossom, that it would someday grow into something. But what they are working toward won't happen for years or centuries. What we do here relies up on a deep faith in the possibilities for the future, in the healing work of our own hands, not just the destructive work. That’s why I include that epigraph in Not Just Any Land, that’s a quote from the Bible, and so much of prairie restoration is about that.

...out here we don’t really have the luxury of separating the needs of the people and the needs of the environment. We have to talk about both things at the same time.

I think a lot of people here, too, in the Loess Hills, who are in agriculture, who are farmers, who work the land for a profit, still see their role as stewards, and many see that as not just an ecological mandate but a spiritual mandate. I think that comes home to many of them when they are retiring from farming. They worry about what will happen to the land, so you see them donating it to environmental preserves and projects. What your grandfather [Roger Lande, head of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources] does is another indication of how out here we don’t really have the luxury of separating the needs of the people and the needs of the environment. We have to talk about both things at the same time. In order to recover a plot of prairie needing help, we have to articulate why that will be good for the prairie and for the people who own it. That’s what Richard Manning and some others have said, that if the environmental efforts don’t succeed out here in the heartland, where they have to, they won’t succeed anywhere.

American nature writing has come a long way since the work of Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. What is nature writing today and how has it changed?

From my perspective here I still think American nature writing is largely about a Mountain, Ocean, Forest, Desert tradition. I think that comes from our European backgrounds. We’re far more comfortable experiencing those kinds of landscapes in a spiritual and transcendental way that wants us to keep them alive. Prairies don’t lend themselves to that in a natural ways, even though our species evolved on the grasslands. Aesthetically we have difficulty with them, and I think that’s hurt us and hurt prairies—the fact that so few people have treated it well in literature, though I think that’s changing. I think that’s one of the good things about nature writing today, that there are many more voices out of the Midwest appreciating and writing beautifully about our native habitats. Scott Russell, Lisa Knopp, Paul Gruchow, Twyla Hansen in Poetry, Linda Hasselstrom….The other thing is that urban Nature Writing is really exploding, people like Tom Montgomery Fate, who just came out with the book, are breaking down this division between urban and rural which I think is a great development.

I’m sure you’ve often heard about traditional Nature writers lacking a sense of humor. Ironic and self-deprecating humor plays a significant role in your writing, especially in Man Killed by Pheasant. What are your thoughts on the role of humor in nature writing?

Well there really isn’t a lot of humor in nature writing as you know, and there’s a good reason for that, but all of that is changing with writers like David Gesener and Michael Branch who are integrating humor into their work as well. To me, I think there are a couple reasons I gravitated to it. One, I think Midwesterners understand instinctively the power of humor to overcome grief, anxiety, or anger. Midwesterners are some of the funniest people I know and it always strikes me when people such as journalists come through our states and marvel that we’re just laughing in the aftermath of a disaster, not realizing it’s a method of coping. I think that’s true for a lot of humor in my work. It doesn’t come from a sense of arrogance or flippantness, instead it emerges from a sense of my own smallness and vulnerability in the face of such problems, from an imposed sense of humility, a mechanism to deal with loss. I often get so overwhelmed by environmental issues that I feel like I can't control or help, and that can lead to a sense of paralysis. But if in our writing, we can acknowledge our infallibility, our failures, laugh at that and maybe get beyond them, we can maybe do some good work in the world and contribute in our own small way.

Humor, to me, hopefully offers a sense of courage to say, yeah we are a fallible species, we’ve made huge mistakes—a lot of it having to do with the human ego, which is probably the most destructive force in the history of the planet. But if we can somehow check that ego through laughter, maybe we can get beyond it. Mark Twain once said that there won't be any laughter in heaven because it's not needed there, it's here on earth where it does its work.

The kids are really the stars of [Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father]. They’re environmental absolutionists. They declared our whole yard a no-kill zone. You can’t harm or kill any living thing, that includes stuff like flies and spiders, that we normally wouldn’t like to leave there.

Your upcoming memoir, Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father, is set to come out next year. How has the process of writing your second memoir been different? What can readers look forward to in this upcoming book?

Well Man Killed By Pheasant is very much a memoir in essays, published individually. The process of writing that was to connect the pieces and that included writing additional essays and chapters that would fill in the blanks to create a kind of rough narrative and development and that really was the challenge in that work, kind of like the Midwestern landscape, pieces that come together to create a whole.

The new book is my first extended narrative. It’s definitely a narrative memoir that begins in the early spring of 2006 and ends in the fall of that same year and it’s also a braided memoir in some ways. There are three major threads and one has to do with me turning 40. Early in the spring I suffered what the doctor thought might have been a small heart attack, though its not proven, it was scary, probably stress induced. That kind of forced me to reevaluate my life, ask some of the questions that a lot of people ask when they turn 40. Who am I? What do I care about? What are my reasons for living? At the same time that I was kind of trying to check back into life, my Grandmother Catherine, at 92 years of age decided she was going to go off all her medications and end her life with dignity, pain free. I was very close to her and my kids were very close to her as well. I began to ask myself how I was going to talk to them about this impending loss. Well the natural world kind of provided us with that vocabulary. The Loess Hills provided us with that. The hills here are unique and lush. 300-foot high, wind-blown, glacial silt hills that hold the majority of what remains of the prairie. The only other place in the world that has them is China, along the Yellow River. But like in China, most of the hills have been destroyed, and ours are vulnerable as well. There were those issues of life and death, and what to hang on to and let go of, and my kids kind of—through their adventures in the natural world—kind of brought me back into an understanding of that.

The book starts with what I was going to teach them, and ends with what they are teaching me. About these cycles of life and how to approach them in a way that’s full of adventure, vulnerability, hope, fear, grief. It focuses a lot on my life as a father, and that role is again filled with humor. The kids are really the stars of the book. They’re environmental absolutionists. They declared our whole yard a no-kill zone. You can’t harm or kill any living thing, that includes stuff like flies and spiders, that we normally wouldn’t like to leave there. Like, our pet brown recluse, the most venomous bug in America that lived in our bathtub because my boys wouldn’t let me kill “Brownie.” They take something that would normally be a source of fear and turn it into something that’s a subject of love and affection, and that is all about the book’s purpose.

Where do you think your work is headed next?

I really don’t know. I’m glad you asked because I haven’t had much time to think about it because I’m involved in writing [Daddy Long Legs] and in putting together an anthology of tall grass prairie literature for the University of Iowa Press called “The Tall Grass Prairie Reader.” But, you know, I think I might want to write more about the Loess Hills: a book actually focused primarily on that. I’m also interested in trying my hand at some fiction again. I’ve always been interested in justice issues; my father is a lawyer in Fort Dodge, and one of my good friends is a director of Legal Aid, so this would be a big departure, but I would be interested in writing about the work of lawyers with the poor. I don’t know if I’d do that as nonfiction or fiction. Again it would be very much focused on place and nature and community.

Sarah M. Minor is from Iowa City, Iowa and is an MFA student in the University of Arizona’s Creative Nonfiction program. She likes to experiment with form in her writing, make messes, and pursue her passions for experimental baking, visual art and women’s and environmental advocacy.