David Gessner, I


Maybe it’s an honor that the New York Times has not reviewed David Gessner’s “All the Wild that Remains.” It didn’t review coverwild2_3-210Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose” either, and the novel went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972.

Gessner’s new book is part road trip, part environmental reportage, part study of arguably the most significant writers of Western wilderness in the 20th century: Stegner and Edward Abbey.

They were the Felix and Oscar of early environmentalism out here. They are “the contrasting heroes of a profoundly relevant and readable new book”, as the Christian Science Monitor wrote.

The author of “Sick of Nature,” Gessner is indeed a “nature writer” but an inventive and imaginative one. He brings to the genre what bronc-rider and rules-breaker, Paul Zarzyski, brings to cowboy poetry.

Gessner followed the Harvard-white-guy-loves-nature lineage of Henry David Thoreau and Henry Beston. But, thankfully, he squirmed out of that cocoon of self-serious wilderness writing to take the genre in a new direction.

He got out of Dodge, too. The Massachusetts man spent years in Boulder, Colorado and calls himself ‘an apprentice Westerner.’

David-Gessner copyNow, he’s a professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington where he urges his students to mix it up and take the “precious” out of their writing. With the acclaimed journal, Ecotone, he advocates for new voices and mediums. With his YouTube channel, he crawls in the mud, parodies his professorial self, and drinks beer.

We met in Salt Lake City and spent some time talking, hiking, birding, and quaffing before his book signing at The King’s English Bookshop. Enjoy these conversation excerpts on three UtahOutsider pages:

On the challenges of making nature writing fresh, interesting, and relevant:

DG: I like to learn about birds and animals. But I’d like to learn about them in a new way, where it’s not predictable and boring.

I used to be a political cartoonist. With the great political cartoonists like Pat Oliphant, for example, you don’t even notice that the lines of Nixon’s jaw or Carter’s smile going from thick to thin. Variety attracts the eye. Same with writing. With Abbey, you’ll go from his waxing poetic about a juniper tree to philosophical thought to a fart joke. That to me is very exciting.

Stegner said of Abbey: “He moves more on the page than any writer I know.”

One of the reasons I wrote this book the way I did, was not to bore myself. I thought, “What if I do this travelogue and thread greenmanifesto042-210in biography and throw in literary criticism and some memoir. It’s going to challenge me and excite me.”

My professor, Red Saner, writes about the pleasures of the difficult. He was a mountaineer as well as a writer.

It seemed to me this would be a hard book to write which made it an exciting book to write.

What I tell my students, in terms of creative non-fiction, is that we’re at a thrilling time. We can bring in journalism and research here. We can do essaying here. We can do memoir-ing here. That, to me, is super exciting.

There’s a lot of writing that’s taking nature writing in new directions. And I’m happy about that. At Ecotone (which is celebrating its 10th year), our goal is to do things not in a staid, traditional way…Let’s let different voices speak. Let’s do it through humor. Let’s not do the traditional walk-through-the-woods, have-a-profound-thought, contemplate-it, walk-out-of-the-woods type structure of a nature essay.

For instance, I was teaching a class in Vermont. I had a student who wrote beautiful, lyrical, personal stuff about the Gulf of Mexico. This is great. But, what if you got on a boat with a fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico, then interwove the personal with the more objective and journalistic. I think there is a real opportunity there that sometimes writers don’t see because it’s me, me, me, me.

Read Part II

Read Part III

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