Today, Author Brenda Peterson takes some time to talk about books, seals, nature, and family. She’ll be around September 24; be sure to stop by and say ‘hi.’
I never thought after Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals that I’d write another memoir, but this new one was so insistent – and funny. I wanted to follow it and see where it took me. I mean this to be a bit of a divine comedy of family, faith, and country.
Let’s talk about the list you make in one chapter comparing fundamentalists and environmentalists. What prompted that?
I was on the front line of the environmental wars for so long as author and reporter. I witnessed a lot of true believers and infighting among environmentalists. Sometimes I noticed a self-righteous and blaming tone in the environmental movement; it reminded me of my fundamentalist childhood. This comparison was unsettling, to say the least. I think humor is the highest form of intelligence and goes a long way in changing hearts and minds. Have you ever seen a fundamentalist or environmentalist stand-up-comedian? Why not?
How have the fundamentalists and environmentalists of your acquaintance responded to that list?
I’ve tried to use humor to defuse fundamentalism in both environmental and religious debates. And storytelling. Stories can by-pass dogma by creating an experience that all listeners or readers can share. Empathy. That’s one way to ask people to take other points of view than their own cherished opinions.
The book is full of these stories. And I’ve also learned to laugh at myself more — the comedy of my own survival. Trying not to take myself so seriously. An example is in the chapter “Fire From Heaven” when I’m on a cruise ship with my family and find myself obsessing over maxing out my credit card, instead of arguing about global warming. My credit card, after all, has a photo of a polar bear.
Writing, and particularly writing a memoir, is an act of self-exposure. Writing a memoir about family in a sense lays certain parts of family life open to public view. How do you balance the need to tell your story with the need to preserve your family’s–and your–privacy?
Carefully. Very carefully! Know thyself, is one of the most famous dictums from ancient Greece. Self-knowledge is only achieved by sometimes stepping outside of the collective – one’s family or society. And then looking back from a more detached point of view. I certainly did this in considering how some beliefs I grew up with had shaped my world. Every family tries to find the middle ground between enmeshment and detachment. By choosing the theme “I Want To Be Left Behind,” I narrowed my focus; so that helped me know what stories to tell and what not to bring into the public spotlight. When you read the book, you’ll see that it is not a “tell-all” book. Some critics have even called it a “love letter” to my family – though some in the family do not see it that way.
On the same subject, families often differ in how they remember specific events. As a memoirist, how did you address those differing memories?
I’ve written two memoirs now and taught memoir for over 20 years. One thing I know for sure: everyone in a family has different memories of the same childhood. When I could, I checked my memories with a sibling, parents, relative, or friend. My younger brother read along with me as I worked on this book and we had long conversations about ideas – and memories. He advised and challenged me; and I sometimes left out certain scenes because I completely trusted him.
And though my brother and I are very different in our politics and religion, we have found a spacious and open-hearted middle ground. We can talk about anything – and for that I’m truly grateful.
I was often surprised at how big the gaps were between the memories of my other family members. We were each tracking our lives with vastly different lenses. Some of my family very much disagree with my story and have not hesitated to say so. Those that are the most Far Right are quite angry that I’ve taken a rather humorous look at the Rapture and some of the Religious Right’s beliefs. At some point, I just have to say, “Well, I look forward to your book on the subject.”
Let’s talk about seal-sitting. How did that start? How did it evolve? Can anyone do this? Is there a website or contact number those interested in joining can contact for more information?
About ten years ago a neighbor, George, and I just began informally sitting watch over seal pups resting on our beach. Their mothers were far out fishing and sometimes, at four-to-six weeks, the pups were struggling to survive weaning. The first chapter of this book which focuses on Seal Sitting appeared in Orion Magazine here:
There is also a wonderful website www.sealsitters.org that has more information, fabulous photos, and media coverage. Since 2007, when we had a bumper crop of seal pups on our Alki Beach here in West Seattle, Seal Sitters has grown to an all-volunteer grassroots group of 125 trained “citizen naturalists.” This year they have literally saved seal pups’ lives and also educated people about marine mammal conservation. It’s possible to make a difference right in your own backyard. And Seal Sitting is the subject of my new children’s book, Pups on the Beach, due out from Henry Holt in early 2011.
In some ways, your book can be seen as an examination of the relationship between religion and spirituality. How would you define those concepts? Can the two co-exist?
I discovered early on that I was a lone mystic in a family that preferred organized religion. Dogma holds no appeal for me. So I’m what some teasingly call a “green sheep.” Some people are most moved and inspired by spiritual structure; I am not. Give me an ocean and a forest and another animal soul – and I’ve found my true faith. A “still, small voice,” as the Bible says. A reason to be left behind.
How about the relationship between love of nature and environmentalism?
All that is alive is sacred. E.O. Wilson talks about eco-philia, the love of life as opposed to ecology, the study of life. I think that says it all.
I Want To Be Left Behind is about finding middle ground, and loving the earth. What would you see as ‘the middle ground” in conversations about things like endangered species, global warming, and development of delicate habitats?
Listening goes a long way in any environmental debate. I spent many years as an environmental editor and writer covering such issues as old-growth forests in Living by Water and Singing to the Sound; the Makah whale hunt for National Geographic Books in Sightings with my Native co-author, Linda Hogan; and in my first memoir, Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals, covering the reintroduction of the wild wolves to Yellowstone and the military sonar that has such fatal effects on marine mammals. I discovered that simply listening to the opposite point of view really helped establish some civility, if not trust.
So many peoples’ opinions are formed from fear and that constricts both the conversation and our imaginations. I ask a lot of questions, as a reporter, like “Why do you want to hunt whales in this century?” or “How do you think we can actually solve global warming on a day-to-day or local level?”
Everyone likes to be heard in any debate. And I often find that middle ground is revealed when all sides are given the chance to hear each other out – then turn their minds to problem-solving together, instead of polarizing ideologies.
You talk a lot about writing in this book. Do you keep a diary or journal? How did that play into writing this book?
Writing is the highest learning curve, the most rewarding challenge, and the most mysterious art I’ve ever practiced. As I move into my 17th book – a new YA novel, sequel to Animal Heart – I’m even more awed by the process of making stories.
I don’t keep a journal of my daily life. I’ve kept a dream journal for many decades. Only I can decipher it. There are no exposes! It’s a landscape of my deepest meditations and a fertile ground for all my work. As W. B Yeats says, “In dreams begin responsibilities.” For me, in dreams, begin books.
Have a question for Brenda? Click on the “Comments” link in the paragraph below her bio and ask it there.
Brenda Peterson has taught writing for 27 years, first as a Writer-in-Residence at Arizona State University, then at University of Washington, and since then over two decades of private classes. She works with people from all over the world on bringing their book projects into the world. “It’s my way of giving way and passing on all I have learned — from my first five years as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker magazine in the 1970s to all I’ve figured out in writing and publishing my sixteen books,” Peterson says. She is currently working on a book about writing, as well as the YA sequel to Animal Heart. For more on Brenda Peterson’s books check out her Amazon author page, or visit her website here:
Author photo by Chris Stuvek.