I first discovered Sy Montgomery's work in her children's nonfiction book from the Scientist in the Field series, The Quest for the Tree Kangaroo (see my review). From there I read her earlier entries in the series and eagerly sought out the reissues of her older adult titles when they appeared this year from Chelsea Green (two of which were reviewed as my "Cool Reads" in a column in May). I find her writing style to be quite compelling, especially the way in which she blends careful animal research and an anthropologist's glee-filled curiosity about the people who study and live among them. Sy is so excited about the people and places and creatures she writes about that readers can not help but be swept away by her enthusiasm. The Boston Globe quite famously referred to her as "part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson." In an interview with Paper Tigers she responded to that quote a bit with this:
It's a huge honor for me to even be mentioned in the same breath as Emily Dickinson. I could never be as splendid a writer as she though perhaps I share some of the ecstasy that powered her poetry. When I find myself swimming with pink dolphins, or face-to-face with a kind of bear no scientist has ever described before, or watching a wild tree kangaroo in a cloud forest, my life feels full enough to contain all the blessings of both adventurer and poet.
Sy was kind of enough to invite me to interview her over the phone and in the course of our hour-long conversation we discovered shared passions for books and animals and writing and all manner of other subjects (even, bizarrely, to include discussion of banshees in Ireland of all things). To say chatting with her was delightful would be a gross understatement and I hope someday to meet her in person so we can talk again, for hours and hours and hours. Because the conversation jumped in so many different directions, I decided to split the interview in half so be sure and check back tomorrow for more. And now, here's author and adventurer (grin) Sy Montgomery!
SM: Nic and I met at a nature writing conference at Boston's New England Aquarium in the mid 1990s where I was a speaker. Strangely, I was the only woman on a panel and even though I wrote at that time for adults, when a question came up about nonfiction for children everyone turned and looked at me! I came up with an answer and later Nic approached me, explained he was a wildlife photographer specializing in books for children, and asked if I might be interested in working with him. He sent me some of his work and we came up with the idea of developing a series of books on scientists for kids. (CM - Sy has referred to this series elsewhere as "a line of nonfiction adventure books that told, with equal parts photos and text, true stories about passionate people whose love of wild animals leads them to solve scientific mysteries and to dedicate their lives to protecting these animals and their homes.") Nic approached Houghton Mifflin and we connected with editor Amy Flynn (Kate O'Sullivan is the current editor). The idea was not embraced by everyone at first - some folks at HMCO wanted "fact books" but we really wanted to focus on people working in unique situations who loved animals and wanted to give something back. It's not just about solving the mystery, but conservation which both Nic and I feel very strongly about.
People are fine but just one species among many and you can't just focus on humans. So much in this world is strange and real and needs your attention, in fact demands it.
SM: Nic handles the creatures he photographs - he actually captures their faces. He doesn't refrigerate them first to keep them docile. (CM - I had no idea some photographers did this for spiders, etc. I'm totally freaked out now.) I was a snake wrangler for him for the Green Boa which was a lot of fun. What I really like about Nic is that he takes the time to get to know the animals he photographs; he likes to show them "as they really are" and make them as comfortable as possible.
CM: In Journey of the Pink Dolphins and Spell of the Tiger: The Man-Eaters of Sundarbans you wrote extensively not only about nature but also the folklore surrounding these particular animals and the people who live among them. This was a unique approach in a natural history title which usually focus only on the animals. Why did you decide to approach the titles in this way?
SM: When dealing with animals you can't see (like some who want to eat you), the people who live among them often know excellent natural history but unfortunately it is often dismissed. You have to listen for truth when writing and sometimes that truth is cloaked in myth or story. I believe though that when the student is ready the teacher will appear and you must be ready to recognize that teacher.
You know the deepest truths we know in Judeo-Christian tradition are told in story. I think it helps to go to the people who live close to the earth you are visiting and thus are close to the story. And all stories tell us important truth. In fact, science and story tell us mirroring truths - listen to them both.
CM: It seems like there are two different ways to write about nature - the fact driven, heavily observational titles and those that incorporate those stories you mention.
SM: You know, I wrote a book about Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall and Birute Galdikas (Walking With the Great Apes) and they really transformed the way in which scientists both observed and wrote about animals. They brought emotion and intellect to their work - it was ground breaking in fact when Goodall named her subjects.
SM: I actually camped at her grave a year after her death. All night long the hyraces called - they sound like women screaming. It was a very hard night...but the stuff you do for research, right?
Continued tomorrow with discussion of The Good Good Pig and two upcoming bird books.
[Post pic of pink dolphin in the Amazon and Dian Fossey.]