Wednesday, September 10, 2008

An Interview with Diane Ackerman

Through my work with Writer's Digest, I am often given license to root through some fascinating literary minds - none more so than that belonging to Diane Ackerman. Starting out as a widely admired poet, Ackerman took her deeply lyrical use of language and combined it with a talent for interpreting scientific knowledge to produce A Natural History of the Senses, a collection of essays on our perceptual equipment that became a surprise best-seller in 1990. She has since applied her unique package of talents to such topics as the human mind, the animal world, the history of love and the sources of creativity. I had the chance to interview her for WD articles on author-poet "double-threats" and the application of brain science to creativity. Her answers were like small poems, ink candy, so beautifully wrought that, frankly, I felt like I was cheating. She made my job too easy.

Ackerman's latest venture is narrative non-fiction. The Zookeeper's Wife (2007, W.W. Norton) chronicles the use of the Warsaw Zoo as a hiding place for Jews during World War II. In a sense, the story is right up Diane's alley. Her descriptions of the animal population, of Polish culture, and of the attempts of Nazi scientists to re-create extinct species through back-breeding are filled with the same sense of wonder and precision that imbue her essays.

Ironically, it was precisely that fascinating brain that kep me from finally meeting Diane in person. She was scheduled to appear at a bookstore near my hometown of San Jose, but suffered a concussion and couldn't make the flight. Still, she was gracious enough, as always, to answer a few questions.

MJV: How did you come upon this remarkable story? Was it something that you've been considering for a long time?

DA: Decades ago, I proposed an essay for National Geographic that would carry me into the primeval forest skirting Poland's border with Russia, to see animals of the sort paleolithic artists painted in ochre on the cave walls at Lascaux. I'd heard that a few living fossils-- including ancestral horses-- were still running around this Polish preserve, and also that they had something to do with Nazi perversity.But I didn't know, when I proposed the story of ancient horses in Bialowieza Forest to my editor at NG, that I was sharing some of Adolf Hitler's, Hermann Göring's, and zoologist Lutz Heck's passion to revive extinct animals. NG had a photographer sailing to French Frigate Shoals, in the Hawaiian archipelago, to chronicle the last few monk seals left on earth (they used to pepper the Mediterreanean, Caribbean, and South Pacific) and he dispatched me there instead. But over the next fifteen years, all sorts of miscellaneous facts, lore, insights, and other fare began to accrete, until I rejoined my quest where I'd left it, on the trail of horses, bison and Nazis, and layer by layer, a bizarre fascinating story began emerging.

MJV: How did you find the shift from your more essay-style works to a narrative form?

DA: I had to learn how to write narrative nonfiction, but many of its elements were familiar, since I'd written a lot of nonfiction prose about studying animals in the wild, which required merging drama, conversations, facts, observations.

MJV: The amount of detail is (no surprise) just amazing. How much time and effort went into the research for this? Did you do any traveling to investigate things first-hand?

DA: Because The Zookeeper's Wife is nonfiction, I couldn't make anything up, but I needed to detail the sensory texture of daily life at the zoo in Warsaw for this particular woman. So I saturated myself in Antonina's world and the era. In Poland, I spent time at the Warsaw Zoo and in the villa where the Zabinskis lived; followed Antonina's footsteps down some of the streets she wrote about; spoke with people at the Warsaw Zoo; interviewed the Zabinskis' son; spoke with women, now in their eighties, who served in the Underground during the war; visited outlying cities and Bialowieza Forest; located the insect collection that plays an important part in the story, and visited other relevant sites and museums. I read a sea of books, interviews, and testimonies-- by and about people who witnessed the holocaust-- and studied WWII history, armaments, cuisine, leaders, airplanes, medicine, architecture, fashion, music, films and such. And I studied the sounds and smells and behaviors of the animals that the Zabinskis adopted as pets and those they tended in the zoo. I had great fun learning about Polish plants and animals and folk customs. The whole process was completely fascinating and absorbing.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Phoning Molly

Molly Ringwald was coming to town, starring in a touring production of Sweet Charity, and the young men of the San Jose media community were freaking out.

"One of them said he's afraid he'll start drooling halfway through the interview," said the PR agent, who was clearly enjoying all the hoo-hah around her latest assignment.

As the senior journalist in the bunch, I had a distinct advantage. About the time that Molly was making her mark in The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, I was in college, and in that superior way that college men adopt, had no time for some teenage actress.

Looking into Molly's post-stardom bio, though, I found something pretty intriguing. She had a propensity for hooking up with (and, on one occasion, marrying) novelists, and had surprised everyone in Connecticut by writing a series of book reviews for the Hartford Courant. Apparently, the woman who always played the strange-but-smart girl actually was a strange-but-smart girl. That afternoon, I called the interview number - a rehearsal hall in Boise - and we were introduced. After covering some expected subjects regarding the show (singing in her dad's jazz band, honing her dancing skills), I told her I was a novelist and really appreciated her enthusiasm for the form.

"Oh!" she said. "What kind of books do your write?"

"Literary, mainstream. They're sort of slice-of-life, a lot of contemporary issues."

"So what's your latest about?"

"It's called Frosted Glass. It's about a Silicon Valley woman who..."

You can see where this was going. I had succeeded in getting myself interviewed by Molly Ringwald! Sadly, on the cusp of launching into a digression about mythological motifs in modern narrative, a little switch went off in my head, and I realized two things: 1) I had been granted only 15 minutes for this interview, and 2) I had not yet obtained enough material for my article.

"Geez, Molly, as much as I love talking about my writing, I think I need to ask you some more questions about the show."

"Oh. Okay. Sure."

She actually sounded disappointed - and it's easy to figure why. Considering the cold realities of a national tour, she probably had to conduct one of these interview sessions for each new city - repeating the same snappy quotes to several different reporters at a sitting. (And I hate to think of the lame questions the droolers came up with.) I flatter myself to think that she much preferred talking about my latest book.

Thanks, Molly, for turning the tables. Don't you forget about me.

Read the original article at:

Boredom breeds creativity

And this blog is proof.

In my constant pursuit of verisimilitude in fiction, I have talked myself into forsaking my current novel, Monkey Tribe, for two weeks. The story centers on a life coach who's trying desperately to broaden the horizons of his client, a nerdy Silicon Valley accountant who has recently been tossed out of his narrow, workaholic life. Some of the early ventures are visits to Burning Man parties and to the pagan drum circle of the title, but recently I decided that this client, Jack, had to experience the hoity-toit side of life, too - and had the perfect setting just waiting for me.

Thanks to 25 years of covering the performing arts in Silicon Valley, I will soon be escorting a genuine diva, soprano Barbara Divis, to the 25th anniversary gala of Opera San Jose (and yes, my journalism career coincided divinely with the birth of the opera). I met Barbara years ago, when my reviews of her singing became ridiculously poetic; divas like nothing better than critics with an ear for genuine talent. But Barbara was also interested in my tennis skills. It has since become my assignment to run her ragged around various courts, so she may continue to fit into all those gorgeous gowns that her roles provide her.

Beyond this plot twist of sending our hero unexpectedly into the higher levels of society, Barbara fits neatly into a running theme of the book: unassuming characters who turn out to have extraordinary talents. So the novel demands that I include her, and it would be silly of me to write the scene until after the actual gala, when I will assuredly pick up all kinds of helpful details.

I harken back to Randall Platt, a gifted young-adult author in Gig Harbor, Washington, who tattooed me with this thought: if you are able, in any way, to personally experience what your character is going to experience, you have to do it. This is not always easy. Years ago, for my novel Painting Tacoma, I made plans for my character to walk out on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge late one night, leading the reader to believe that he was contemplating suicide (don't worry, he was not). "Well, you know what that means," sayeth Randall. "You better go walk that bridge." Damn, I thought. She's right.

As you might expect, the subsequent trek produced all kinds of details that I might never have dreamed up otherwise. Primarily, that the bridge's narrow sidewalks and lack of separation from traffic make it the Worst. Bridgewalk. Ever. Helped very little by the carload of teenagers who drove by yelling "Jump!" (I also spotted two other teens walking the other direction, apparently on a date!)

My big problem is that I am addicted to the novel-creating process, and the idea of going two weeks without, whilst I wait like a 17-year-old for the senior prom, and dig through thrift stores for a do-it-yourself tuxedo (another assignment I have given my hero), fills me with dread. So, I thought, why not start that blog that I have been putting off forever?

Welcome aboard. I hope I can be of service.

Upcoming: a few words with Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses and the recent The Zookeeper's Wife.