Saturday, October 18, 2014

AN EXCHANGE ABOUT WRITING WITH DOUGLAS WHYNOTT



Douglas Whynott

He's written about beekeeping, he's written about tuna fishing and in his latest book The Sugar Season Douglas Whynott writes about maple syrup.  We probably all know about the timeless New England tradition known as sugaring off. I won't bore you with my childhood introduction to the practice, which was actually a disaster. We'll leave that one alone.  What I didn't know was that maple syrup production has now developed into a sophisticated and complex industry. This book tells that story, as well as the story of the Bascom family and the wonderful characters who have produced maple syrup for generations.

Doug comes from Cape Cod and although our paths have not crossed exactly, he now teaches at Emerson College from which I graduated years ago, and where I also taught Creative Writing.  So in the spirit of my recent posts about writers and their work, I contacted him and asked a few questions. I was delighted at his response, which I share with you here:

You are a non-fiction writer - but you have a strong sense of narrative in your work.  How do you think the approach to writing non-fiction differs from the approach to fiction?
Of course the basic difference is that in nonfiction you are trying to develop a narrative based on facts, that nonfiction is a literature of fact, though both are rooted in realism.  When I was an undergraduate studying journalism and anthropology, I asked a professor how I could succeed at writing what he called documentary journalism and I now call narrative nonfiction.  He told me to study fiction in an MFA program, and that’s what I did, study fiction with the intention of writing nonfiction like that of John McPhee, Peter Matthiessen, Lillian Ross and others.  (I loved Ross’s essay about the group of kids that came on a school bus to New York, how she described their everyday lives in such a way to convey so much that was sociological and yet also meaningful in the way a short story or novel is meaningful.)  While in that graduate program studying fiction I began my first book about migratory beekeepers, Following the Bloom.  I have continued to try to learn how to write strong extended narratives that are nonfictional but also literary in the sense of a story that conveys some sort of human meaning. 
In your latest book the Sugar Season - you write about maple syrup and the industry behind producing it.  How did you realize that you had a book in this subject matter?
I began with the idea that I wanted to write about trees and forests through the eyes of a forester—I wanted to know how they see the woods.  I had moved to New Hampshire and was hiking in the woods and mountains, as a way of recreation and also contemplation.  I live in a prime region for maple syrup production, and after the discovery of an invasive insect that attacks maple trees I called someone named Bruce Bascom, who is the largest producer of maple syrup in New Hampshire.  I immediately thought that writing about the maple syrup industry through his perspective, and getting out to others through him, including a couple foresters, would provide a great set of themes for a book.  It took me a couple of years to convince others of that, however.  My agent at that time thought it was “too small a story,” so I found a new agent.  Eventually I found an editor, Lissa Warren at Da Capo Press, who was very interested and took it on.  The issue that eventually sold the book was the effect that climate change could have on the industry, though that theme had been present from the beginning. 
You write a lot about nature.  How do you find your way into your subjects - which in many ways are rather ordinary subjects, and yet you make them so compelling!
Thank you for saying that.  I write about nature because of where I grew up, Cape Cod, because I inhabited the marshes, woods, and shoreline.  I studied marine life from a young age and thought I wanted to be a biologist, but in college I got interested in anthropology, which I thought would be an ideal way to approach writing, with the study of human culture.  I then left college, feeling my education wasn’t going in the way it should, and that’s when I got a job as a fish curator and dolphin trainer at Sealand of Cape Cod.  I left that job after a year, with a new plan—to become a piano tuner and go to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst to study journalism and anthropology.  I think the dolphins inspired me to do that.
What is your day like, as a writer.  What are your writing habits.  What do you find particularly difficult about the craft and what comes more easily?
My days and habits depend on what phase of the process I’m in.  When I was researching The Sugar Season I went to the maple farm every day I could, and also took trips out to other places,  such as northern Vermont, Maine and Quebec.  I love the travel and fieldwork part of the process. When I move into the writing phase and as the work progresses I spend longer days at the desk.  I wrote the first draft with daily work, nine to four, over a six-month period.  I took the second draft to Colombia, where I had a Fulbright fellowship to teach at a university in Bogota, something I had arranged so I could work on the book in seclusion.  I taught one day a week there.  For most of the other days I wrote, producing through three more drafts in six months.  Each day I usually worked for about four hours, then took a break, usually a walk, and wrote for another four hours in the afternoon.  I sent my drafts to a former teacher and editor, someone whose advice I really trust, who read each draft and helped me immensely.  I think that’s highly important, to get another reading of your work, from someone you admire and trust.
How do you find teaching complements your writing life?  You've had so many other interesting jobs - working with dolphins, as jazz pianist etc. How did those activities feed
into your writing life, or draw you away from it?
In the beginning I tuned pianos as a way of making a living, and that supported much of my education.  Tuning was a good complement to a writing life, and I would have continued had I not started teaching freshman composition in graduate school.  When I finished my degree I was invited to teach a junior-year writing course in the Agricultural Economics Department at UMass, a good match because I was working on a book about migratory commercial beekeepers.  I taught in that department for six years, and picked up other courses as an adjunct, in fiction, literature, technical writing, and journalism.  Eventually I retired from piano tuning.  I think teaching is also a good complement, though getting writing done can be difficult when the semester is in full swing.  I can do research though, and am investigating new topics now.  I believe that it’s necessary to read a lot between books, to develop and renew yourself, to almost become a new person before getting fully involved in the next project.  



Thanks Doug!  I hope some time to meet you face to face - in the meantime, there are your lovely books...
Maple woods




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