Interview with Jordan Fisher Smith

I read Smith’s book, Nature Noir, in 2013 when it was the featured book for Placer County, California’s “everybody reads” program, “One Book, One Community. I really loved the book (and the event), so when I ran into Jordan at a recent writer’s workshop I couldn’t resist trying out his new book, Engineering Eden. I wasn’t disappointed, in fact, the book was so great I was inspired to see if Jordan would let me interview him for my blog so I could share this great writer with the rest of you.

Jordan Fisher Smith spent 21 years  as a park and wilderness ranger. His 2005 memoir of ranger work, Nature Noir, was an Audubon Editor’s Choice and a San Francisco Chronicle Best Books pick. The New York Times called it “Eloquently meditative,” and The Boston Globe judged it “Daringly original and gorgeously nuanced.” Smith’s new book, Engineering Eden, was nominated for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. He has also written for The New YorkerTime.com, DiscoverThe Daily Beast, and Men’s Journal. He appeared in and narrated a documentary film about Lyme disease, “Under Our Skin,” which made the 2010 Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature, and in a 2014 sequel, “Under Our Skin 2: Emergence.”

Jordan, tell us what inspired you to start writing? How long have you been writing? 

I’ve been writing for publication for 26 years. During the first nine, I moonlighted writing for magazines while working as a park ranger. I was inspired to write by two forces in my life: First, by reading other writers whose work I particularly admired since I was a teenager. Second, by reading about anthropogenic climate change and what is now called Earth’s sixth major extinction. My undergraduate degree was in Environmental Studies and Planning and my profession was the preservation of nature, so I was well-educated on all the different forms of damage to our life systems going on around me. In 1986 and 1987 I began reading about and keeping a clip file on climate change. By 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen testified to a Senate subcommittee that human-caused climate change was well underway, I was already convinced. So next year I will have been waiting for thirty years for people like Donald Trump to catch up.

At the point I realized this thing was really happening, in 1988, it seemed to me that I could not do what I had sworn to do—to protect my parks—under these conditions. So I set out to have a little campfire talk with everyone I could reach through the print media.  My idea was that a ranger was privileged to witness things that a lot of other people didn’t see, because we were always out there watching nature.  I planned to share these things with others.

What influenced the way you tell a story?

To begin with, I spent years writing complicated narratives in accident, death and crime investigations on my job as a ranger. These were dispassionate, written in a “just the facts ma’am” voice designed to explain some heinous event to a busy deputy district attorney or federal prosecutor. That had a lot to do with the way my writing ended up sounding—when mixed with the lyrical sound of the nature writing I was also reading at the same time. That is exactly where the book title “Nature Noir” came from—a description of that weird mixture of the noir cop voice and the lyrical nature writer.  But first I had to get all the didactic, polemical writing out of the way. My early writing was very didactic—I wanted to convince, to cry out, to explain. But before too long I became very interested in just telling a story with all the skill I could develop, and letting the story do its own mysterious, healing work. At 16 I read Gary Snyder, 18 to 20 the other Beats: Kerouac, et al, along with the things they recommended, Baudelaire and the Diamond Sutra. At 24, when I was a backcountry ranger in Idaho and Wyoming, I was reading Thomas Mann, D.H. Lawrence—whom I particularly liked, and everything I could get by Edward Abbey. As time went on I read the nonfiction essay: Charles Lamb, Thoreau, Montaigne, E.B. White, everything by Wendell Berry, Scott Russel Sanders, Terry Tempest Williams, Edward Hoagland. A lot of John McPhee. T.C. Boyle. World history, the history of ideas, environmental history. Literary criticism, E.M. Forster, John Gardner, Alvin Kiernan. Barry Lopez, for his perfectly-crafted language.  When I began publishing I fell in with the writers at Orion magazine. They became my friends and mentors: Terry Tempest Williams, Wendell Berry, Scott Russel Sanders, Barry Lopez, Gary Nabhan, Robert Michael Pyle, and others. Those people were so kind to me, and had a huge influence on my work. I read Richard Tarnas’s The Passion of the Western Mind one summer in Alaska. I read The Columbia History of the World twice, cover to cover. Carolyn Merchant’s feminist environmental history The Death of Nature was a strong influence. George Orwell’s nonfiction voice probably had more to do with the development of my own than any other writer I can think of. When I was writing Nature Noir I slowly slogged my way through Robert Pinsky’s bilingual edition of Dante’s Inferno with an Italian-English dictionary, Domenico Vittorini’s The Age of Dante: A Concise History of Italian Culture in the Years of the Early Renaissance, Betty Radice’s Who’s Who in the Ancient World, and other resources, D.J. Waldie’s luminous little memoir, Holy Land, James Elroy, Dashiell Hammett, and later John Fante influenced Nature Noir, too. Aldo and Starker Leopold were big influences on Engineering Eden. And my editors have also had a big influence on me: Jennifer Sahn at Orion, Deanne Urmy at Hougton Mifflin Harcourt, Pam Weintraub at Discover, Kevin Doughten at Penguin-Random House. Novelist Louis B. Jones has been an influence on me, along with Brett Hall Jones, Sands Hall, and Amy Tan.  Bill McKibben. My agent, Sandy Dijkstra, through her steadfast friendship and guidance.  My longtime friend, the late folksinger and storyteller Utah Phillips, taught me much about storytelling. So did working with Andy Abrahams Wilson on the film “Under Our Skin.”

Your stories have deep messages, but you present things in a way that I felt left me to make my own decisions. Kind of a “both sides of the story” method. I think I fell in love with Engineering Eden because I have spent time in all those National Parks. When you talked about the history in Yosemite I had several “aha” moments, thinking “so that’s what was happening in 1978” and it really took me back. Do you work on these issues outside of your writing?

Thank you for noticing.  Yes, I believe in trusting the reader to form her own impression.  We are all being assaulted from all sides by powerful opinions and angry diatribes without an ounce of truth, depth, or documentation—some of the most ludicrous of them, from the White House. I just try to research my stories deeply and tell them as well and completely as possible. I try not badger, and certainly not to bore, my audience. And I try to see the humanity in my characters, and portray them with deep compassion for the imperfections of human beings.

What are you working on next?

I’m very quiet and mysterious about new projects. A lot of writers are.  Ask me again later.

What do you read for pleasure?

I like to read my fellow narrative nonfiction writers: Erik Larsen, Timothy Egan, John Vaillant—the latter two are now being edited by my editor on Nature Noir, Deanne Urmy. Richard Preston, John Krakauer. I recently read David Gessner’s All the Wild that Remains, about Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner—really liked it. Lately I’ve been enjoying the novels of Richard Ford, so sumptuously rich in sense impression, detail. I read the New Yorker.

Recommendations?

My recommendation to your readers is that they fork out for a subscription to an excellent newspaper or magazine that still employs people to write responsible, fact-based journalism. The New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, The New Yorker, Atlantic, the High Country News. Placing the name “Breitbart” and “News” too close together is likely to corrupt one or the other. Since the name Breitbart is entirely corrupted, the word “News” is in severe danger of meaning nothing by being placed next to it. Make a commitment to consume real journalism in long form!

Any upcoming events? 

I’ve been doing a lot of lectures and book-signings and radio interviews around the country, and it looks like it will continue for a while.  See http://jordanfishersmith.com/events/ for upcoming dates. See http://jordanfishersmith.com/podcasts/ for podcasts of radio interviews.

Thanks so much, Jordan. You are a wealth of information.

For more information and to watch some great videos, please follow the links below.

http://jordanfishersmith.com

Facebook: Writer Jordan Fisher Smith,

Twitter: @JordanFSmith