Interview: A Conversation with Julia Whitty
Friday, March 29th, 2013
9th Annual Symposium on Wildness, Wilderness & the Environmental Imagination: The Future of Water
Interview by Tegan Swanson
Listen to an audio recording of this interview:
Or download the MP3.
Julia Whitty’s latest book Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of our Wild Ocean was a Washington Post Best of Nonfiction Book of 2010. Her previous book The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific was the recipient of the John Burroughs Medal Award for Outstanding Natural History Book, the PEN USA Award for Creative Nonfiction, the Kiriyama Prize for Nonfiction, and the 2008 Northern California Book Awards for Creative Nonfiction. Whitty’s fiction, collected in her debut book A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga, received an O. Henry Award and has appeared in Harper’s, The Paris Review, Zoetrope, and Story. Her environmental correspondence for Mother Jones has been anthologized the Best American Science Writing 2011. Whitty is a former filmmaker whose more than seventy nature documentaries have aired on PBS, Nature, The Discovery Channel, and National Geographic.
When Julia visited Iowa State University for the 9th Annual Wildness Symposium, we were lucky enough to spend a few days talking to her about oceans, the art of writing as activism, and the many ways in which science, spirituality, and the everyday world interconnect.
Flyway: My first introduction to your work was the story “A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga,” which I read when it was anthologized in Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Awards. The tortoise itself, the story of it, you talk a little bit about in Deep Blue Home too—what was it about Tu’i Malila that made you want to tell that story?
JW: Well for me it was the realization that this tortoise, which lived for 200 years, witnessed one of the most critical 200 years in the history of this island, where everything changed. You had one human culture that was suddenly more or less invaded by another human culture, and all of the natural systems were impacted, and I thought: to tell a story in a 200-year span from the point-of-view of one tortoise witnessing it, that immediately intrigued me. I also really like messing with time when I write. I like to telescope huge spans into short stories, and tiny spans into full-length things. I like to do the opposite with time. That was what really intrigued me.
Flyway: Yeah, I think that was one of the coolest parts about that story, too, just thinking of narrative structures. You’re not giving these really strict, firm points of reference because it’s still from the tortoise, but I loved getting to know the new royalty that she’s interacting with. It was a beautiful story. I read the rest of the collection in Utila, Honduras in January. “Darwin in Heaven” was wonderful, and “Lucifer’s Alligator”—the one from the perspective of the marine aquarium animals, their sort of revolt. How do you pick point-of-view when you’re writing stories, fiction-wise?
JW: I know that in short fiction, which I haven’t written in quite awhile, but when I was working on that collection, I almost always got a title first. And from the title, I got the voice. I spent so much of my life working on nature documentaries, spent vast quantities of life staring at animals doing their thing, trying to capture it on film, and lots and lots of time of animals not doing their thing, or waiting for animals to do their thing, or hoping they’ll do it, and that period just sort of freed my imagination to go wherever it wants to go. I always got the title, and often I’d get the first sentence. And from there, the story would unspool from its own momentum, the sentence guided the voice. It was that “not-planned,” frankly.
Flyway: Do you have similar subconscious response when writing nonfiction too, or is that a different impulse?
JW: Yeah, I actually do. I’ve learned of late to be a lot more targeted, because I write in more journalistic form, although it’s long form and different and more creative, but I have traditionally let myself follow these currents, the way I think of it. They curlicue and eddy and do strange things, and I have no idea where they’re going. I feel it’s all-magical where they take me. I’ve never been someone who writes to an outline, or even a particularly well-developed idea, but I’ve become more so in an attempt to become a higher word output writer.
Flyway: Needing that structure to keep going that way.
JW: But that’s not what I like. I like the currents, the serendipitous discoveries and the feeling of connectedness that you couldn’t possibly have planned for, that’s what gets me. A day with that in the writing is a day that’s made me happy.
Flyway: I think your nonfiction definitely reads like that. I mean, one of the most engaging parts of it for me—in Deep Blue Home and to a similar extent in The Fragile Edge—you’re bringing in ideas of spirituality and philosophy, threading this idea of rasa and the river around the world and the many other multiplicitous meanings of that word. You start Deep Blue Home on Isla Rasa and go from there. It’s sort of a Pandora’s box of all of these things you could put in there, so how do you pick?
JW: Ultimately, I let a later stage, another draft [decide for me]. I sort of employ a different brain. I also think of it like, “Now I’m being an editor. Now I put on my editor’s hat.” I let that brain choose which ones make it in, and I recycle a lot. Stuff that got chucked out of one manuscript, I’ll be in a pinch when I’m working on something else, and I think, “Well I wrote something that I can sort of slot right in here.” I’m a great fan of recycling my own writing. And I save everything, good, bad or indifferent, and I hope I can salvage it. Do something with it.
Flyway: What is it for you about the spiritual aspects? Why are you so inclined to link that to the ecology and the scientific world? What is it that pulls those two things together for you?
JW: Well I think it’s all part of the same questions. The science questions are the same as the philosophical and metaphysical questions. All the same questions, using different tools. But I believe that part of our human progress is that we’re honing in toward a common answer. These things are coming closer, rather than further apart. And so that’s what’s happening now in the 21st century particularly, a reintegration of things that were very disparate in the 20th century. I like helping connect those dots, if there’s anyway to do that, even within my own thinking. When you have a question, you search around for tools, and I don’t rule out any tools—I’m happy to use whatever. Hammer, wrench, or saw will work. I naturally start investigating tool sets of everything I can possibly figure out or understand, and eventually help to build the house, whatever the house is, the house we live in.
Flyway: You said yesterday at dinner that you would like to be, in another life, a linguist—what would that next dream project be for you? What is something that you haven’t worked on yet, that if someone called you up tomorrow and said, “I’m doing this_____” you would jump on it?
JW: Most of what I write in nonfiction ends up being big picture, and so that’s sort of what I do. I have a lot of big picture stories that I’d like to write, but I suspect there’s not enough people interested in them to make them work. So then I feel—more than anything, what I feel at this stage in my life—I feel the shortage of time. If I could have anything more, I would have a really long lifespan, so that I could keep pursuing these things. It might take me five or ten years to do a project like that, but I only have a few bunches of those decades left, I don’t have many of those decades left, and as a working writer, you look realistically at your writing lifespan, and you become a lot more targeted. What are you going to spend your time doing?
When you’re young, you think, “I can write about everything eventually,” and then one day, you wake up and go, “Wow, I will never be able to…” When I was young, I was absolutely certain I would get to go into space in my lifetime, and there was a point where I realized, “You know—
crap—I’m not gonna get to go into space.” I was really disappointed, I thought it sucked. I actually started working on a short story, which I’ve never finished—although I may someday—which I call “First Writer in Space,” because I thought, “If I can’t do it, I can imagine it. If NASA sent a writer up, what would they write, what would it be?”
Flyway: What would they notice that the astronauts wouldn’t?
JW: Yes. Because a writer is going to report things absolutely differently, that’s what we do. We’re a different eye, we’re always a far outsider eye, an outlier-eye on the world around us. So, more time is what I wish I had. One of those tortoise life spans.
Flyway: You could be Tu’i Malila.
Flyway: One of my favorite anecdotes from Deep Blue Home is when you’re working with bathypelagic worms, losing a new species, and then the researcher doing something very similar a few days later. What have your experiences in working so closely with the scientists been like? You, not as the scientist but as the writer, doing something similar to being the writer on the moon, but instead you’re the writer in the submersible, or the writer on the boat.
JW: It’s really different depending on who the researchers are. When you’re on research cruises, there’s a personality that is the cruise, and it’s a result usually of who the chief scientists aboard are, and the sort of structure they create and the people they’ve brought along. They’re radically different. The thing about going to sea in a ship for any length of time at all is that you create a closed ecosystem that is its own world. The outside world doesn’t happen. And if nothing else, it’s a fascinating thing to be part of this ephemeral closed ecosystem, that just exists for the duration of this cruise and then it’s gone. Depending on the personality of the principal investigators, sometimes it’s multiples these days, that will radically affect how I interact and what I come away with, how much hands-on I get or don’t get, how much they let me in or don’t let me in. That’s a big part of it.
Flyway: If you had to choose a favorite marine organism: air, sea, bird, diatom, what would it be?
JW: I can’t even begin to answer that kind of a question. I find everything basically equally fascinating. Because if it’s not fascinating, it just means we don’t even know enough about it yet. That’s why we’re not fascinated, because we haven’t learned the really bizarre, fascinating things about it. Increasingly, I’ve come to see an isolated species is irrelevant, it’s the movement within the ecosystem, it’s the flow of energy between organisms, the interaction with inanimate things. That level is what’s interesting to me, not a species. Even though an individual species can be utterly, completely fascinating.
Flyway: I’m coming to realize that, too. I’ve noticed, working with students who are just sort of learning about the ocean or marine ecosystems, that they have a lot trouble connecting because they just can’t envision being in that kind of environment. It’s so disparate from how we function, you know, we can’t even be in the ocean without the help of artificial machines and things like that. How do you think writing about the ocean just generally, or when you were making films, how is that helping to bridge that gap for people?
JW: In the beginning of The Fragile Edge, I think I wrote the most succinct thing I’m ever likely to say, which I don’t remember and couldn’t possibly quote, but basically I talk about the challenge of writing about the underwater world. When you go into the underwater world, you don’t speak. You don’t get to speak under there, because you can’t talk underwater, and I believe this affects the way you form memory. I was also struck, from diving, that I would come back with strange hazy memories, because I wasn’t talking about it. When you come up from a dive, you’re usually in this kind of — I don’t know — we don’t have words, we don’t have descriptive words for those things down there, and so we’re in this realm where language is not what we’re operating from. So the struggle for me is trying to translate this experience that happens without language into language. And that has been incredibly fun, and incredibly challenging. In the end, about all you can do is work with metaphor, because we don’t have words for those things, so they are “sea pens” and “sea fans,” and everything has a thing about this world that has nothing to do with that world. We don’t actually have language for that world.
Flyway: We can’t echolocate, so you have to explain how that would function. Do you do that differently in fiction and nonfiction? In trying to write about whales in nonfiction, or the orcas in “Lucifer’s Alligator,” how do you change the use of those metaphors?
JW: Not a whole lot definitely. The one thing I do, which some people are so opposed to, I do a lot of anthropomorphizing in fiction. I’m a big fan of anthropomorphizing, because I don’t think we’re so special that we even need that word, frankly. I think, we’re all on the continuum somewhere. So, I think that word is arrogant.
JW: At any rate, I like to do that in fiction. To challenge people’s assumptions about the difference between animals and humans. In nonfiction I can’t quite do that the same way, I have to do that in a more technical fashion, but in a way I’m kind of aiming to do the same thing. A lot of the descriptive writing though can be the same. I was surprised. When I started writing fiction, first of all I wasn’t even sure if I could write fiction. I was like, “Well I don’t know, but I really want to try.” I had been doing films and I’d been writing scripts for documentary films, I did a lot of freelance work where I wrote other people’s [scripts], and I realized I’d been writing scripts almost daily for years and years. Basically in my opinion, playing the scales on the piano, practicing the scales until I was an extremely proficient writer that had learned to be really succinct and short. If you’re writing a script for TV, you can’t take any length of time to say it, it has to be unbelievably targeted.
But I found I could write fiction, and when I had my first fiction starting to be published, I had a lot of editors coming to me and asking if I could write some nonfiction. I went into it not knowing if I could, but I was surprised that it was rather similar. There wasn’t that much difference. Particularly with creative nonfiction and fiction, there’s a lot of shared territory. I mean, in the Venn diagrams, you have the fiction circle and the nonfiction circle, and where they overlap is creative nonfiction. It’s a beautiful ground, I love it in there.
Flyway: We talked a little bit about getting to tell the good news, having a good story to tell. I think that can be really difficult, and it’s really hard for me to read, particularly about the ocean and marine environmental issues, without becoming misanthropic. The sonar testing and the whales, the disappearance of any number of species that we didn’t even know existed, the trophic cascades that you talk about, people taking phytoplankton as a layer of the ecosystem for granted. If that disappears, it’ll be catastrophic. Who or what keeps you from despairing when you’re thinking about that kind of problem?
JW: Well it’s hard. It’s hard to not succumb to despair, writing about this kind of stuff. I’ve been living my life, even the films were always this subject matter, and I think the act of writing is an antidote to despair, that’s number one. So that’s a great thing. If you’re feeling despairing, well, communication helps! I covered the BP spill down in the Gulf, and the aftermath of that was a particularly despairing time for me because I felt I really had very high expectations. It might have been a seismic shift where things would have really changed, and then they didn’t. Then we had the Copenhagen thing, where I really, really believed there would be a shift that took place, then and there, and it didn’t happen. I realized, “Wow, these things aren’t happening.” I probably retreated for almost a year, where I had to rearrange my world, where I had to think about how I was going to survive.
I read a seminal paper in a science journal—Trends in Evolution & Ecology called TREE—by these two Aussie researchers who wrote about how conservation science is not doing a good enough job talking about the successes. Consequently, all the science journals are publishing is the doom—saying and the failures and the utter horrors, and what’s happening are policy makers and the public and even the scientists are left thinking, “What’s the point? This is all shit, why even bother? Just live my little life, close the shutters, and don’t think about it.” And they said it’s not accurate. There’s really, really good stuff happening out there. Every one of us in conservation science has good stories. About things we thought were going to go much worse faster and/or forever, and they haven’t. They haven’t done that. What are those stories, and why aren’t they telling them? It was a call to action. I decided I was going to do that.
The next article I wrote called “The Power of One” is where I went to next. I believe we have machinery in place that is despairing and gloomy and dismal, and accurate, but I don’t believe it’s counterweighted properly with the fact that as a species, we’re doing incredible stuff. We’re learning amazing things. We’re adapting to things that are just becoming clear to us. We’re adapting and making changes, shifting course. We need to give ourselves more credit. We need to broadcast these triumphs, and analyze them, and grow them up. All these things, we need to scale up. We can’t live in despair. You can’t live there. There’s nothing to be gained by living there.
Flyway: That’s a great answer. I read The Log from the Sea of Cortez [referenced in Deep Blue Home] last summer when I was in California, and it quickly moved into my top five of books. I didn’t even know Steinbeck wrote nonfiction before I came across that. The relationship with Ed Ricketts is beautiful; the appendix at the end, I think, is the most beautiful thing he’s ever written. It’s him just telling stories about this man he worked so closely with. Do you see yourself forming relationships with people like that, who sort of follow throughout your career?
JW: Somewhat yeah, there are some people. I’ve made a point—not exclusively, but I’ve tried— one of my objectives has been to write about women in science, and that’s part of my agenda. So I’ve sought out women in science. And I’ve found honestly, they’re more receptive to letting me come along. Maybe men feel secure enough in their positions that they are not so interested in having what might be a challenging situation, of having a writer tagging along. They’re like, “Eh, I can’t be bothered.” Right? And women for some reason are like, “This could be good, I’m gonna let you come. I don’t know what it’ll lead to.” And you don’t when you let an outsider into your world. So I’ve had a lot of good relationship with women scientists, and I tend to keep connecting with them, and I follow their careers and we give each other feedback. It’s nice.
Of course, things are different than Steinbeck and Rickett’s day. Everything’s faster paced, so much more is happening. He had this one relationship. It’s different now. You have many relationships, and you can just touch base with each other. But it’s good. Maybe not as personally nourishing as Steinbeck had with Ricketts, but it’s professionally very nourishing.
Flyway: My students read [Steinbeck’s] introduction and the first chapter [of that book], and they really responded to it well because he’s bringing in humor and some philosophy, but there’s also the science involved and he’s explaining the technicalities of it. From an outsider’s perspective, they could sort of access that world because of the way that he was he’s telling it. I think you do a lot of similar things with science: You’re weaving the Viking stories and the mythology, and then the linguistics, and then the science, the people you’re working with. Is that an intentional thing, or is that just, you know, “I want to talk about all these things and they’re interconnected, so this is what I’m going to give you?”
JW: More the latter. I’m just interested in those things and I’m tracking them down and investigating and rooting around. And I’m finding connections. Actually, what makes me excited is connections. Finding a connection is like finding treasure for me. When I’ve found a connection, that’s just what I live on. Some way that the mythical and the metaphysical, the philosophical, the scientific and the biological worlds connect, that’s just the stuff that makes my blood run. I like that, and I like finding it. I actively look for it. Where they connect and where they overlap, those Venn diagrams. I’m always looking for that overlapping territory.
Can you say me please the e.mail address of Ms. Julia Witty? I would ask the consent for translating an article in Slovak language. Rastislav