An Interview with Sharman Apt Russell
By Shawnsey Rudolph and Adam Pearson
Sharman Apt Russell is the author of several books of non-fiction including her latest, Hunger: An Unnatural History. Russell teaches at Western New Mexico University in Silver City, New Mexico, and at the low-residency MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles, California. For her writing, she has been awarded a Fellowship at Rockefeller’s Bellagio Conference Center, a Writers at Work Fellowship in Nonfiction, a Henry Joseph Jackson Award in Nonfiction, a Pushcart Prize, and a Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award.
Russell was chosen as the Emporia State University Creative Writing program’s Distinguished Author. In addition to giving a reading, she agreed to be interviewed by FHR.
FHR: Why did you become interested in the science of botany?
SR: Well, I’m a generalist, so I’m interested in a lot of things. I’m interested in the natural world, and I’m interested in connecting to the natural world. You know, flowers are so emotional. They just kind of gladden our hearts. We have a strong immediate reaction to flowers. I was interested in that human response, but I was also kind of interested in that secret world because everything that flowers do has nothing to do with us. They’re interested in the pollinator. So I’m interested in that other world that’s a non-human world that we coexist with and we live beside and we don’t really look at very closely and that goes on without us. So whether it’s flowers or butterflies or fish or clouds, I’m interested in the places where humans don’t dominate, and the mysteries that are going on around us. Flowers are just one example of that.
FHR: There are so many flowers that have stories, from The Metamorphoses, like the Hyacinth and Narcissus and the Sunflower. Do you have a favorite story for a flower or is there a flower you think needs to be represented by a story? Or that you would like to give a story to?
SR: Probably not, but I think orchids are kind of amazing, because they’re very beautiful and they’re very elegant and they’re very artistic from the human point of view. They’ve evolved all these different shapes to attract pollinators. There’s an orchid that looks like a female wasp and then the male wasp comes and tries to copulate and gets very excited and then that’s what pollinates the orchid. There’s orchids that have little chutes and ladders and the fly comes in and falls in the chute, and sometimes in another orchid it will fall into a little puddle of water and it’ll come out dripping and fight its way out. And all of this is about pollinating, dusting the insect with pollen and then letting the insect free to fertilize another plant. Something that to us looks so contrived, artistic and almost bizarre in its shape is shaped very specifically for reproduction. I like that juxtaposition of what the flower is about and how we perceive the flower. We’re really kind of voyeurs to something that we don’t understand. I also like the philodendrons that heat up. There’s just so many flowers and I like the amazing things they do that are outside our normal conception of what a flower does.
FHR: As you said earlier, you teach at Antioch. Do you teach creative nonfiction?
SR: I teach creative nonfiction at Antioch, yes.
FHR: When you were writing [Anatomy of A Rose], was there anyone you were reading or anyone you would attribute as an influence?
SR: No. No, I was just reading a lot of research by botanists. I hadn’t really read another book that dealt with science in this way, except for Annie Dillard and her earlier Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She certainly also approached science with this kind of playfulness and the willingness to write as a literary writer, not as a scientist. To break out of the box. To be willing to write about what you’re not an expert in and to bring all your techniques and gifts as a writer and not to be afraid of that. I felt the same way. I felt I could anthropomorphize flowers and be sly and playful. My readers are so sophisticated now, they’re not going to be worried about that. They’re not going to think, “Oh, she thinks flowers can feel.” Well, of course not. Readers of science now, I just feel intuitively, are sophisticated and ready, ready for another dimension to their science, which is to be literate.
FHR: What do you contribute as your greatest influence in your writing as far as fiction or poetry? Do you think any poetry has an effect on your writing or fiction has an effect on your writing?
SR: I think, creative nonfiction, there has kind of been an explosion in it and I started writing it without a lot of models. They might have been out there, but I wasn’t particularly reading them. When I went to MFA school there was only fiction and poetry, there wasn’t creative nonfiction. So I wrote fiction for a long time before I started creative nonfiction. I think that’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to be in a box, there’s lots of room for you to explore as a writer. I suppose Annie Dillard would be a model, but I really think you can just forge your own way too. There’s more and more creative nonfiction being written now. I hadn’t really seen that much. I call it research-based prose and I can’t say that I had seen a lot of it before. I’m not actually a big one for models.
FHR: As a teacher of nonfiction do you read a lot more nonfiction now?
SR: I do. I read what my students are reading and try and keep up on the new things. Like David Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, his first fifty pages was this kind of acknowledgements or footnotes. That’s what I’m saying. There’s a lot of room now for just making something up and breaking the envelope and trying different things. I mean, creative nonfiction is this field where you can explore and do totally different things. You can have a ten-page footnote. Try it. Why not? If you can think of it and your publisher will go along with it, then you can do it. So it’s a very flexible form. Now it has a core. It has a core of the first person voice and it is different from fiction, but once you stay with that core you can bring narrative, you can bring dialogue, you can bring academic forms, you can bring poetry. You can bring all the other forms to it because it’s all filtered through who you are, it’s all filtered through the I voice. So anything that you are as a writer you can throw into your creative nonfiction piece, you can throw into your memoir. As far as your mind can range, that’s as far as that book can go. As long as we know it’s your mind. It is always filtered through that first person. That’s what makes it creative nonfiction as opposed to fiction. I can’t make up a character named Sharman Russell who has three kids instead of two and who is actually from the planet Solarius. You know, I’m always who I am, Sharman Russell, but I can, within my creative nonfiction, go to the planet Solarius in some imaginative way. I can do far-ranging things in this field.
FHR: How much of creative nonfiction do you feel is substance versus form? How much is the actual quality of writing or how much of it is experimenting with structure?
SR: It’s true that creative nonfiction is probably a bigger umbrella than the other two genres, fiction and poetry. It’s going to range from literary journalism in which the whole point of the piece is a kind of transparency to allow the subject to come through, and that’s good in its own right, to a very lush kind of poetic, lyrical memoir. It has such a range because it has so many different sub-genres to it. I would certainly consider some really well written articles creative nonfiction. Research-based prose, creative nonfiction, memoir, biography – each one of those has their conventions and each one has to abide by that. If I’m writing a book on hunger, the subject is in some ways a priority. It becomes a better and better book if I can write about it well, and for me as a writer that is the point. That’s a pleasure. But the subject doesn’t take a back seat to the writing, and the accuracy of the science can’t take a back seat to the writing. So there’s this very collaborative process between good writing and a focus on the subject. Now if you write a memoir, then the subject is you, and again there’s a balance of the story you’re telling and how you’re writing it. That’s more true of fiction, too.
FHR: You have very pure prose, very straightforward and concise. Do you write like that to put more emphasis on the subject or is that just your natural style?
SR: It varies with the subject, I think. I think with Anatomy of A Rose and Butterflies I let myself get a little more lush. I mean my prose is always fairly clear, but I let myself get a little more playful than with a subject like hunger. Sometimes you don’t want to detract from the story with your own flourishes, and other times your own flourishes or playfulness can be part of the subject matter.
FHR: We’ve had visiting writers come before and they talk about a ritual that they use, but most of these writers are fiction and poetry writers. I was wondering if a creative nonfiction writer would still go through a ritual to get yourself in the mode to write?
SR: I don’t think I would have anything different from a fiction or poetry writer, except that I don’t have much of a ritual. I like to get up in the morning and start writing. If I’m flying over here and I can write in the airport, I will. I wrote this morning. I write whenever I can. I wrote raising children, so when they take a nap, you write. I don’t recommend, or have for myself a sense of this ritualized, particular environment you need to write. I think that will restrain you. If you’re a single guy, no cats, no dogs, no children, no girlfriend, well maybe that will work for you. But if you have a rich, complex life, you’re going to fit writing into the interstices. You’re going to fit it wherever you can. And I write a lot. I write a lot of books. I’m pretty disciplined, but part of that is just not being a diva about it. I’m not saying the other writers who did this are, I’m just saying, I guess I have been writing long enough now, for thirty years, that it’s an interior thing. I’ll just click into that mode, that consciousness from which I’m going to write. I have to be able to do that. So I’m sure if I was emotionally distressed or too tired or something like that, I could not do that, but if I’m rested and alert, I’m going to click into that. It’s an invisible shift and it doesn’t need anything exterior.
FHR: Do you have any ideas on where you think creative nonfiction is going to go? Maybe something you’ve read that you’ve found really innovative and you say “this may be the next trend?”
SR: I think creative nonfiction right now is working through concepts of what is literal and what is true. You know there’s been some flap with the James Frey book about how much can you fudge, how much can you not. So in terms of memoir and personal story I think that has to be resolved. I don’t think it’s hard to resolve that. I think any reader or writer knows that if something is changed which changes the substance or the organic truth of the story, it’s not right, it’s not creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is never truth. Memoir is not truth. Memory is not truth. Research-based prose is an approximation. Science is not truth. So, first we have to understand that nonfiction does not equal the truth of things, how things really are. Nor does fiction mean lies about the world, in the same way. So we have to get a little more sophisticated about that. I think people will be experimenting with form and with structure all the time, just as people are still experimenting with that in fiction. We will start recognizing the boundaries between things a lot more, but we’ll also see a lot more blurring of them at the same time. I think what we’ll end up doing is signaling more to the readers, publishers will and book owners will, so that actually I think our readers will become more sophisticated and understand that there is no real boundary between truth and lie. It’s how we perceive life. It’s not that kind of objective reality, and that all writing comes out of that subjective consciousness. So my consciousness of what I’m seeing right now is mine, but it’s not truth, whether I have it as creative nonfiction or whether I have a character perceive it.
FHR: In Anatomy of A Rose, you said that you’d never seen a cereus cactus bloom. Have you seen one yet?
SR: I have, yeah. I have a friend who had one. I went over to see it. And then I walked around the White Sands Missile Range looking for the plant itself and I never found it. They’re really kind of rare.
FHR: It’s interesting going in there. Did they search your car?
SR: Yeah, yeah they did. They’re pretty serious about that. And then they say, “Don’t photograph that!” “Don’t talk about that!”
And then these herds of oryx, you know, you’re driving along and this huge herd of the gemsbok, those oryx. They were introduced from Africa, so they’re these big, big antelope who are black and white. They look very clownish and weird. And they’re all over. They’re overrunning the missile range and so there are constantly African herds of oryx coming up and stopping what they’re doing.
FHR: Well, thank you for your time.