“Like a lot of men in our society, I didn’t grow up with great role models”: An Interview with Scott Edward Anderson

Scott Edward Anderson’s most recent book, Falling up: A Memoir of Second Chances, recently won an award from the Azorean publisher and bookstore, Letras Lavadas, in collaboration with PEN Azores. He is also the author of Dwelling: An Ecopoem and the poetry collection Fallow Field. A Concordia Fellow at the Millay Colony and winner of the Nebraska Review Award, Anderson’s work has appeared in the American Poetry Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cimarron Review, The Cortland Review, Many Mountains Moving, Terrain, as well as the anthologies Dogs Singing (Salmon Poetry 2011) and The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody 2013). Anderson founded TheGreenSkeptic.com, which he wrote for ten years and worked for The Nature Conservancy from 1992-2007. Scott has lived in Alaska, Germany, and Paris. In this interview, Anderson discusses his writing process, publishing his collections, and his life as an environmentalist.

I understand that this is a very common question writers get asked. But I am just dying to know what inspired you to become a writer, and have you always wanted to become a writer? Just reading some of your poems makes me feel as though you’ve had a knack for writing for a long time now.

That’s very kind of you to say. I was first turned onto poetry by Gladys Taylor, who was a caregiver to me when I was a little boy. We lived above Gladys in the house she shared with her companion, Ga Morrill, in East Providence, Rhode Island, and spent summer vacations with them at their summer house in Brookfield, Vermont. I often say that everything I know I learned from “Aunt” Gladys. She took me under her wing—I was a sort of protégé of hers—and taught me about nature, art, and poetry, all things she dearly loved.

I wrote about this education received from her in my poem, “The Postlude, or How I Became a Poet,” which appears in my book, Fallow Field. Gladys would stand in the center of her study and recite her favorite poems to me—poems by Robert Burns, Walt Whitman, and Robert Frost. One of these, Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain,” I chose to recite in a grammar school English class. I was around nine when I started writing my first poems. Thankfully, none of them survive!

Later, in high school in Upstate New York, I had two English teachers, Jack Langerak and Richard Taddeo, who encouraged my writing and reading poetry. They suggested writers to me, turning me on to a wide variety of writers, including two with whom I later went on to study: Gary Snyder and Donald Hall.  

How long did it take you to write both your book Falling Up: A Memoir of Second Chances and Dwelling: An Ecopoem? Did you run into any blockages or difficulties with writing either of them? Just from reading, I feel as though Falling Up would have come more easily to you than Dwelling based on its content. Falling Up is about changing your life for the positive and making a conscious effort to better yourself, while Dwelling is a series of essays about how humans live on earth and the effect we have and poems about the relationship between us and the natural world.

I wrote Dwelling, for the most part, during a residency at the Millay Colony for the Arts in November 2002. It was my first experience with such a residency—an entire month devoted to writing. I had been working for The Nature Conservancy for ten years by then and took a sabbatical to attend the residency, which I went into with this project in mind. Dwelling started out as a response to some of the ideas in Martin Heidegger’s essay “Building Dwelling Thinking,” which I explored in poems and short essay “questions” on the themes. The project quickly evolved from there to explore the nature of how we dwell on the Earth and our relationship with the natural world. The writing came easy—once I settled into the residency and got over my initial feelings of how daunting a task that I’d set for myself!

Publishing it became much more difficult. There weren’t a lot of venues for such hybrid works at the time. After a decade of trying to publish the manuscript as I envisioned it, I gathered several of the poems that had appeared in print and online journals into a section of my book Fallow Field, which came out in 2013. Then, in 2017, the entire Dwelling manuscript received an honorable mention for The Hopper Prize in Poetry, which encouraged me to submit it to publishers again. Shanti Arts Publishing, which has a mission devoted to writing at the intersection of nature, art, and spirit, was the first publisher to respond enthusiastically.

Christine Cote, the founder, and editor of the press, understood my vision for the book and encouraged me to include some illustrations by my friend, the artist Hans van Meeuwen, whom I had met when we were both at the Millay Colony where I wrote the book. She also embraced my crazy notion of having a sequence of short poems that explore the etymology of “To Dwell,” running along the bottom of the book’s pages. Really, I can’t think of a better press to have published this book.

As for Falling Up: A Memoir of Second Chances, I got the idea for the book when Leslie Browning, the founder, and editor of Homebound Publications, launched a new series of short, book-length essays, Little Bound Books. I knew Leslie and her press was sympathetic to my worldview—she had published some of my Dwelling poems in her magazine, The Wayfarer. The books in the series are meant to be no longer than about 10,000 words. A few years earlier, I’d experimented with writing short memoir essays, especially about a period of great transition in my life in the wake of the great recession of 2008-2009 and its aftermath, but I didn’t quite have the distance from it to make it work at that time. I reached out to Leslie and briefly described the project and she encouraged me to send it to her. So I dusted off what I’d started, polished it over the course of a month and submitted it to her. To my surprise, she loved it and so did the rest of her team.

Ironically, just after the Advanced Reading Copies came out—about six months before publication—when I was supposed to finalize the text, I felt dissatisfied with the book as it was written. I’d also changed the subtitle to “A Memoir of Second Chances,” and because the covers had been printed, we couldn’t change it. Still, what I’d written was not satisfactory. I asked Leslie if I could rewrite the book. Although she said she was happy with it the way it was, she graciously granted my request, giving me two weeks to turn in a final revision. I turned to my friend, Lee Kravitz, who has written several memoirs and was formerly the editor of Parade Magazine, who I knew could help me identify the flaws in the manuscript, which he did. I ended up rewriting about two-thirds of the book—and it’s a much better book as a result!

I understand that you drew inspiration from your children when writing  Falling Up. Your website states “Scott Edward Anderson learns to see the world anew through the eyes of his children, through a deep engagement with the natural world, and through learning—and teaching others—to tell stories in a more personal way.” Did the idea for the book come before they had given you the inspiration or after? If it was before your children giving you the inspiration, where did the original idea to write your first book come from?

As I mentioned, my childhood was spent under the tutelage of my “Aunt” Gladys. A big part of her education of me was through “nature study”—an old practice, really, of observation, identification, and association, that was promulgated by the educator Anna Botsford Comstock, one of the first to bring her students outdoors to study nature. Gladys embraced the ideals of Comstock’s approach and used her Handbook of Nature Study as a guide in her efforts with me. (I’ve kept a copy of this book for many years and often turn to it.) Later, around nine and ten years old, I roamed around in the woods alone, observing and studying the plants, animals, and areas around me. This came in handy later in life when I went to work for the Nature Conservancy. When my first child was born, I was working for the Conservancy in Alaska, and I wanted to share with him the approach to nature that Gladys used with me. We spent a lot of time outdoors.

This continued when my twins were born, and I began to think about writing a book about studying nature in one’s own backyard as a way of learning attention. Life got in the way, however, and I never finished that project. Parts of it show up in chapter four of Falling Up. I may take it up again someday, as I think it’s increasingly important we relearn how to connect with the natural world and realize we are part of nature not apart from it—the central theme of Dwelling as well.  

What made you want to write about the “struggle to become an authentic, vulnerable, purpose-driven man in the 21st century”?

Like a lot of men in our society, I didn’t grow up with great role models. Throughout my life, I’ve struggled to maintain my authentic self—there are so many demands to conform to a certain way of being, especially for men and boys. We are taught that to be a “man” you must be tough, suck it up, and never show vulnerability, to be callous and hard-shelled and even uncaring. This is a terrible lesson we teach our boys and it leads to the toxic masculinity that breeds misogyny, violence, and mistreatment of others, especially women, but also of nature. I wanted to share my experiences, especially those associated with a difficult period of transition in my life following the great recession and leading up to the break-up of a marriage. Yet I didn’t want to dwell on the negative aspects of that period; I wanted to show what my struggle was like and how I was able to navigate that difficult time by trying to stay true to who I wanted to be in the world.

As I was working on the book, I realized that so many times in my life when I faced adversity—from falling in a gorge as a teenager to failing in a business venture—I survived best when I paid attention to what mattered most to me and, ultimately, to my true self. In other words, I had “fallen up” rather than down, and I wanted to share that with readers who may be struggling as well in the hope that it will inspire them to look for ways to fall up too.

When writing Dwelling, did you experience any complications with friends or family?

It’s interesting. Several of the men in my ex-wife’s family worked in the oil business, including my late father-in-law, a man I dearly loved and admired. He spent his entire career in oil exploration, and I know he had some difficulty with the fact that I was a conservationist, an environmentalist, at least initially, and we had some serious, even heated discussions about it at first. I worked for the Nature Conservancy at the time and, curiously, the more I spoke with him about our work—a lot of which centered on buying land to protect it—the more interested he became. He had been a “land man” for Continental Oil and later his own firm, which basically meant he made deals to lease properties for development and exploration. He’d brokered deals all over the world, from the Middle East to Indonesia, and the more I told him about land deals we were working on, the more fascinated he became. He wanted to know all the details of some of our transactions and studied the various ways in which we created increasingly sophisticated mechanisms to achieve our goals. While I don’t think he’d ever become an environmentalist by any stretch of the imagination, he really appreciated how good we were at deal-making—and that we worked with all sorts of people and weren’t always opposed to development, at least if it wasn’t destructive.

Things all came to a head with him when I went to Indonesia, where the Conservancy was working in the Raja Ampat region near the Bird’s Head Peninsula of West Papua, Indonesia. He had negotiated the first production sharing project for oil exploration there in the late 1970s and many of the people he knew from that time were still there. It was remarkable to be there for conservation some 30 years after he’d been there for oil exploration, and we both appreciated the opportunity to connect over that place.

I think that whole experience—turning an “adversary” into an “ally” through exploring our commonalities rather than our conflicts—helped me not only in my work with the Conservancy but also with my writing. For over a decade, I wrote a blog called The Green Skeptic, which was known as an even-handed source on environmental information. It also helped me when I became a regular commentator on Fox Business, where host Stuart Varney said I presented “the voice of common sense from a seasoned environmentalist.” It was important to me to not be speaking to the choir when it came to environmental views.

So when you finished writing Falling Up, did it alleviate any underlying anxiety or stress because you had gotten it off your chest? Is there anything you wish you would’ve written that you didn’t or vice versa?

Interesting question! I think writing Falling Up may have been cathartic in the sense that I needed to better understand what that period of transition meant for me—and to help others who may be struggling with similar difficulties now. The response to the book has borne this out and I’ve heard from many readers, women, and men, young and old, that they’ve found meaning in the book for their own lives, which is all a writer can hope.

As for the second part of your question, I am an inveterate tinkerer with my work and I constantly find things I would like to change in the book—in all my books—but I don’t have the heart to do that to my editor again!

Taylor Matlock is a sophomore at The College of Saint Rose. She is dual majoring in special education and childhood education with a concentration in Spanish. She was on the principal’s list all throughout high school and has received multiple awards for playing softball.

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