Scott Russell Sanders is the author of twenty books of fiction and nonfiction, including, most recently, A Private History of Awe, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and A Conservationist Manifesto. Among his honors are the Lannan Literary Award, the John Burroughs Essay Award, the Mark Twain Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is a Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Indiana University, where he taught from 1971 to 2009. He and his wife, Ruth, have reared two children in their hometown of Bloomington in the hardwood hill country of Indiana's White River Valley.
Superstition Review: You have received awards including the Associated Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction and the Kenyon Review Literary Award. Which of these awards do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment? How has receiving awards helped you grow as a writer?
Scott Russesll Sanders: The honor that has meant the most to me is the Lannan Literary Award, which recognizes not merely a story, an essay, or a single book, but the entire body of a writer's work. Since the Lannan Foundation began making the awards in 1989, the recipients have included many writers whom I greatly admire, including Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, Bill McKibben, Alice Munro, Gary Nabhan, Mary Oliver, Chet Raymo, and Terry Tempest Williams. Of course it's reassuring to receive awards, but I don't think they have affected how I practice writing. I write about what moves me, puzzles me, intrigues and concerns me, and I do so in the literary mode that seems best suited to the matter.
SR: You write in several different genres—novels, short stories, personal nonfiction, and have even written a few children's books. How do you transition from one genre to the next? Do you feel that this versatility has helped shape you as a writer?
SRS: I never set out to write in so many different forms; I set out to tell stories, and over the years I found that the stories I wished to tell required me to try out a variety of literary modes. I've written historical fiction and science fiction, magic realism and plain old realism; I've written modern folk tales, and stories for children's picture books. Within nonfiction, I have worked with personal essay, documentary, and memoir. To someone who merely reads that list of modes, it may seem miscellaneous. But through all of those forms, I have been pursuing a coherent set of ideas, questions, and concerns.
SR: A Conservationist Manifesto was published in April of 2009. In this book, you focused on what you feel is “the greatest challenge facing our society, which is to shift from a culture based on consumption to a culture based on caretaking.” What drove you to write this piece? Why did you feel the need to share this intriguing idea with the world?
SRS: It's clear that we humans are on an unsustainable path, and nowhere more clearly than in the United States. We are destabilizing the climate, using up nonrenewable resources (such as petroleum) at an accelerating pace, driving other species to extinction, disrupting living systems on land and in the sea, and condemning future generations to live on a degraded planet. In A Conservationist Manifesto I sought to identify the major forces that are driving this destruction, and to suggest hopeful responses. Some of those responses are practical—the recovery of local economies, for example, including local sourcing of food and other necessities; some of the responses are intellectual and spiritual. And here is where art comes in, because it can help us imagine our lives afresh. We might begin by refusing to think of ourselves as “consumers,” the way advertisers and economists and corporations urge us to do, and to think of ourselves instead as creators, conservers, and stewards.
SR: I read that your book Hunting for Hope: A Father's Journey was inspired by a lack of hope that your students and children felt you possessed. It must have been difficult to hear those words, especially from your own children. How were you able to tackle this pain and present it in a book? How did you know that you were ready to approach the subject with an even perspective?
SRS: In Hunting for Hope, I tell how my son and daughter and my students kept asking me questions about the challenges humans face—wars, racism, sexism, poverty, environmental devastation, on and on. Could we deal with those challenges? they wanted to know. Did I feel hopeful? And, if so, why? While I was trying to imagine how I might respond to these questions, the issue of hope and despair boiled up in a quarrel between my son and me, during a backpacking trip we took when he was seventeen. He accused me—as well as his teachers, the news media, politicians, and adults generally—of denying hope to him and his generation . As his words sank in, I realized there was justice in his accusation. I also realized that I did in fact live in hope, and that I owed him and my daughter and my students an accounting of where that hope was grounded. And so, on that backpacking trip I began making notes about the sources of healing and renewal, and when we returned home I began composing Hunting for Hope.
SR: Several of the interns at Superstition Review are hoping to one day get published. You have published over twenty books. What advice do you have for those aspiring to be published authors? What is the most important piece of information you have learned over your years of writing?
SRS: The likeliest path to publication is to write well. Even writing well is no guarantee that your work will make its way into print, however. Many manuscripts compete for every spot in magazines and for every slot in publishers' lists of books. So the overwhelming majority of submissions must be rejected. There are obvious, sensible practices that can increase your chances of publication: studying the magazines and book lists to see where the sort of work you're doing might fit; following up on any encouragement you may receive when your work is turned down; above all, continuing to write, in spite of discouragement. For writers early in their development, it's not wise to put too much emphasis on publishing. It's better to concentrate on learning your craft, seeing what others have done (and not only your contemporaries, but also your ancestors, and not only within your favored genre), and delving into the material that most deeply engages you. If the practice of writing is necessary for you, you'll keep at it, and keep improving, and odds are you will eventually find a way to share your work with readers.
SR: You taught English at Indiana University for thirty eight years and retired just last year. What was your favorite part about teaching? What quote or piece of advice did you find yourself telling every class?
SRS: The best part about teaching is being in the presence of eager learners—students who are excited by ideas, by language, by the process of discovery. I'm grateful to have been able to earn a living by reading, writing, conversing, and thinking. How many professions allow one to delve into the questions that have always haunted our kind? In my teaching, I've given many sorts of advice, some of it practical, some of it intellectual or aesthetic, depending on the nature of the class or the needs of the students. Most often, perhaps, I urge students to treasure their minds, this amazing capacity we have for taking in the world, pondering it, and creatively responding. Of all the wonders in the universe, consciousness is surely among the greatest. In us, and no doubt in many other species, on this planet and elsewhere, the universe has become self-aware. What a responsibility that is, and what an opportunity! So, I tell my students, don't squander your mind or your fleeting hours; don't lapse into routines, don't fall asleep. Live wakefully. There are many paths that allow us to cultivate awareness and insight; writing is one of them.
SR: You once said, “Writing is work, and it can leave you gray with exhaustion, can devour your days, can break your heart. But the same is true of all the real work that humans do, the planting of crops and nursing of babies, the building of houses and baking of bread.” What has kept you writing through the hard times? How did you keep writing amidst writer's block, rejection and all the other challenges that writers face?
SRS: Writing is indeed hard work. For me, it has become harder year by year. You might wonder how that could be. Having written so much, I've already explored the most accessible reaches of my experience; I don't want to repeat myself, so the search for fresh material and new insight becomes increasingly difficult. The more I've read, the more ideas I've encountered, the more I expect of my own work; my literary and intellectual standards keep rising. Also, as I've matured, everything has come to seem more complex and mysterious—our lives, the cosmos, a stranger's smile, a maple leaf, a quark. Trying to convey something of that complexity and mystery pushes me to the limits of language, and of my abilities. Of course I have faced discouragement; every artist does. And I have suffered through long periods of drought, when nothing would grow. In spite of discouragement and drought, I am moved to write by curiosity about this life, pleasure in the uses of language, and a desire to pass along some of the gifts I have received.
SR: I read that you prefer writing about things close to home and that traveling does not inspire you as it does many other writers. What is it about home that motivates you to write about it?
SRS: Actually, I enjoy travel, and I often write about journeys. At the same time, I am firmly rooted in a place, which happens to be the hill country of southern Indiana, in the Ohio Valley, and more broadly within the Midwest. This is a region that writers have tended to leave and then to write about, if they wrote about it at all, from a nostalgic or contemptuous remove; so there is much pioneering work to be done by those of us who choose to stay here and pay attention. I've written in several books, especially in Staying Put, about why place matters. In Writing from the Center, In Limestone Country, and other books, I've written about the human and natural history of my region, about its culture and prospects, as a way of inviting my neighbors to live here with deeper awareness. From this home base, I journey out across the length and breadth of North America, and occasionally to other countries, and on returning home I share what I've learned. I aspire to be an inhabitant rather than a tourist. I value fidelity more than mobility.
SR: What is your favorite piece that you have written? Why does this writing stand out to you?
SRS: It's difficult to choose one piece out of a body of work produced over four decades. Of all my essays, perhaps “Under the Influence” is the strongest. Of my stories, I might choose “Mountain Weather.” Of my novels, maybe Terrarium. As for my books of nonfiction, the one that means the most to me, I suppose, is A Private History of Awe. In every case, the work I've named is one that draws on my deepest experiences and on the full range of my powers.
SR: In The Country of Language, you state, “I enter the country of language not to escape the chancy world that precedes and surrounds all language, but to ponder that world, to hold up portions of it for examination, to decipher its patterns and celebrate its wonders.” How do you know when a work is finished? How do you let go of imperfections and “celebrate [the] wonders” of a piece?
SRS: The wonder I'm celebrating is not in the art, but in the world. My art is a response to what I behold, outwardly and inwardly. I sense that a work is finished when the changes I'm making are as likely to weaken as to strengthen it. One can go on revising a piece of writing forever, of course, but at a certain point you need to let it go—not because it's perfect, nothing is ever perfect—but because it has taught you all it has to teach. For me, writing is a way discovery, line by line and book by book, a practice that in rare moments discloses glimmers of the truth of things.