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Books by Diane Ackerman
- Deep Play
- I Praise My Destroyer
- The Rarest of the Rare
- A Natural History of the Senses
- The Moon by Whale Light
- Jaguar of Sweet Laughter
- Reverse Thunder
- On Extended Wings
- Lady Faustus
- Twilight of the Tenderfoot
- Wife of Light
- The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral
- Monk Seal Hideaway
- Bats: Shadows in the Night
- The Book of Love (with Jeanne Mackin)
If I had my druthers every prose book I wrote would be like inhaling jungle. It would all be at a level of poetic intensity that I would find satisfying word by word. Sentence by sentence. Page by page. But, unfortunately, I've discovered that books have to have transitions. The sun can't always be at noon and there are times when you actually have to explain yourself. Or you have to move people around in the landscape and stuff like that. But I have a poet's heart and a poet's sensibility.
Her husband calls her "Swan," and I did not think to ask her why, though perhaps I should have. At the time, however, it seemed self-evident. Swans are graceful and strong, they are curious and sometimes seem filled with humor. Yet their very presence inspires awe and admiration. They are regal of bearing and soft on the eye, but you know there is steel that lurks just beneath the surface. You might admire a swan, but you don't want to mess with one unprepared. Somehow, all of these things can be said of Diane Ackerman. Regal, gentle, determined and beautiful. All things that anyone who has ever read one of her 16 books will have suspected. It's reassuring, then, to know that -- sometimes -- things can be just as they seem.
An admiring writer at the Chicago Sun-Times made a wonderful observation on the author. "If you're lucky," they wrote, "you have someone in your life like Diane Ackerman -- smart and capable, and successful in the world of grownups, but still brimming with the kind of infectious enthusiasm and wonder found generally only in children."
I read this passage to her, and she laughed happily -- not an infrequent sound in her presence -- and said, "I suppose that's the sweet way of saying that mainly I'm 11. I spend most of my life at 11." Life, she says, is something she enjoys deeply and her work satisfies her. And she gets to write books where, "you get to create your own astonishment. Which is pretty wonderful."
Roughly half of Ackerman's books have been what she refers to as her "prose books." These books are as difficult to label as the writer herself. "People don't know how to describe me usually, so what they do is say, 'Poet, essayist and naturalist,' because they're not sure what I am."
Ackerman's latest book, Deep Play deals with how play enriches adult lives and how to find, "these altered states that we spend our lives in pursuit of."
Now 50, Ackerman is working on another book of prose as well as a new collection of poems. She lives in Ithaca, New York with her husband, the writer Paul West.
Linda Richards: Thanks to A Natural History of the Senses, you are widely considered the goddess of sound, among other things.
Diane Ackerman: It does come back to haunt one. I went to the post office the other day and had to confess to the man behind the desk that I'd forgotten my P.O. box number and could he please tell me. And he said, "Well, can you remember vaguely which strata it's in?" I told him I wasn't quite sure. And he said, "Well, think of the scent." And I thought, oh dear. He's read the senses book. He's going to tease me relentlessly about this.
To date that's been your biggest seller, hasn't it? It's been a huge seller.
It has been, yes. It continues to sell, which is very gratifying. People still send me their smell memories, which I like. I've become the repository of everbody's smells. [Laughs]
I smell a book coming!
Now, the moment you said that, I just started registering the smell of books. Libraries and stuff like that.
What type of smells do you hear from readers about?
Most often, smells relating to memory. Sometimes people do contact me because they have smell hallucinations or something like that, in which case I direct them to the institute in Philadelphia that does that kind of work. But I still do hear from people about the senses book, which is really nice and because my muse is very miscellaneous -- even though it always seems to me like I'm writing the same kind of book out of the same concern -- I will find certain readers who just know me through the love book [The Book of Love]. Or certain readers who just know me by A Slender Thread about crisis center work and mental health work. So there are different facets of readers who write to me about one subject and just kind of exclude the rest of it. And then, of course, fortunately there are some who know several of the books.
And the poetry as well.
Yes. Half the books are books of poetry. As I was flying transcontinentally I was working on a manuscript. I love doing that at 31,000 feet. Pegasus has changed for poets these days. [Laughs] Our winged beings are more rigid.
Yes, but more tangible as well.
More tangible. Yes, that's a very good point.
You're working on another book of poetry now?
I am. And I just had a new collection come out this past year. That was wonderful. To travel around talking to people about things.
Tell me about it. What's the new collection called?
I Praise My Destroyer. The whole collection really includes poems about love and death and the usual suspects for a poet. But there is an underlying spirit to it, I think, that has to do with being at a point in your life when you can accept all of the mischief and mayhem that the universe is going to throw at you and nonetheless feel a sense of praise. Not because you're in denial about all the harshness. The tough thing is to get to the point where you can accept it and still think it's grace to be born and live. That quest is what I Praise My Destroyer is about.
Your husband is also a writer.
Yes. Paul West. He's published about 30 books, including a book that came out recently called Life With Swan. I'm Swan. I'll show you something which is an in-joke. A very tiny joke. He publishes with Simon and Schuster, I publish with Random House, but nonetheless, look what Random House agreed to emboss on my latest book: a little swan. Isn't that adorable? So the few people who know this will say, "Very cute." [Laughs]
Have you guys been together for a long time?
We've been together for 29 years. He raised me. [Laughs] But anyway, he's a fiction writer. A literary fiction writer and we have careers that are somewhat alike and also somewhat different. He uses an old-fashioned typewriter and he cuts things out and pastes them up and they have many layers to them and he types over things. It would drive me crazy.
I'll bet they're cool-looking though.
They are cool-looking.
Have you always been a writer?
I was writing since I was little. Composing things and trying to write a novel when I was 12. Except that I was trying to write a spy novel and I understood that it had to have a lot of kissing in it and romance and stuff and violence and all that. But I didn't know anything about any of those worlds. So it was just hopeless. Instead I started writing a novel about a girl and a horse that she loved, which I knew more about.
What was your first published book?
That was Twilight of the Tenderfoot. I was on a cattle ranch in New Mexico off and on during different seasons for a year. I'd gone out there because I thought I would write on aesthetics of the horse. When I got there I was so surprised to find ranching with cowboying going on just as it had 100 years before. So instead I just signed on, essentially and it was wonderful to be herding and roping and just doing all the stuff on horseback that cowboys do.
That was my first prose book. Up until then I'd been writing poetry and I had published books of poetry. I was doing this while I was in graduate school.
What year would that have been?
Well, let me think. The first book was a collection of scientifically accurate poems based on the planets. And that was in 1973 or 74. Maybe 1972. The Voyager space crafts hadn't gone up yet. The best NASA pictures of the planets like Pluto were little bursts of light with arrows pointing at them. And it was possible to know everything that we knew about the planets. Which is an amazing thought, because now you can't; there's such a flood of information about them. But at the time we knew so little that you could learn it. I was an MFA student at Cornell and then a Ph.D. student at Cornell. Carl Sagan was on my doctoral committee, because I wanted to work with the arts and sciences. I didn't want to be a scientist. I just felt that the universe wasn't knowable from only one perspective. I wanted to be able to go exploring: follow my curiosity in both worlds. So I had a poet on my doctoral committee. And I had a scientist -- Carl Sagan. And I had someone in comparative literature. Essentially, they all ran interference for me so that I could -- ultimately -- write a dissertation that was about the metaphysical mind: science and art and be teaching and be in school while I was writing books.
Anyway, the first one was called The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral and I worked with space sciences people at Cornell. I went out to all the fly-bys at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and did night watches at the space shuttle: all those wonderful things. Carl was the technical advisor on the book of poems. I had a wonderful time working on it as a grad student and Morrow published it.
My next book was a collection of I guess the normal poems -- miscellaneous poems -- called Wife of Light and then I was suddenly going out west. This prose book [Twilight of the Tenderfoot] is not in print now, which is probably just as well because it was my first attempt at prose. After that I returned to school and continued writing books. The next book was a collection of poems, Lady Faustus . After that perhaps On Extended Wings , about learning to fly.
How many books in total?
Sixteen. 15? I think. I'm not quite sure. There's a children's book coming out next year which is a book of silly poems about the senses of animals. It'll be illustrated by the same person who did the illustrations for Deep Play , Peter Sis who is such a wonderful illustrator.
So I don't know exactly what number that would be. And as I said I'm working on a collection of poems which is all around a theme, but I'm not going to tell you what. And also the prose book which I will have to return to quite soon and that's been preoccupying me in different ways.
So I'm always busy on something. And last year I edited The Norton Book of Love with a friend of mine. It's an anthology of writings about love through the ages. So there are miscellaneous things that I've been doing.
This year I started doing forewords, which I like a lot. It is so much fun to write a foreword which is essentially a fantasia around a theme to something. I just did one to a wonderful collection of sensuous, voluptuous photographs of flowers. The book is called Open Secrets. How could I resist writing a foreword to this? On a subject like that? I had to. There's one I'm doing about nature writing, so I've just been doing lots of them. One to a book of photographs of couples -- famous couples.
How do you view yourself at this point in your career? Are you a poet? Or a travel writer?
Not that! [Laughs] But what does Clinton say? It's all a matter of definition. Well, we could define travel in such a way that it would include the passage of Earth through space. Then everyone is a travel writer. [Laughs] Or, you know, if you want to use the cliché as life as the journey...
People don't know how to describe me usually, so what they do is say, "Poet, essayist and naturalist," because they're not sure what I am.
What do you say?
I don't know what to say either. If I say, "Author" then people follow it up with a question. "Well, what kinds of things do you write?" Well, I write poetry and non-fiction. I write about nature and human nature. And most often about that twilight zone where the two meet and have something they can teach each other. I like that best. When I was writing A Slender Thread I was writing about the dark night of the soul -- and squirrels, but that was incidental. But when I was writing about squirrels and nature I was writing about the context in which human beings fit. Because we share instincts and emotions with the rest of the natural world. And part of the predicament that we find ourselves in -- existentially -- is this tragic attempt that we're making to separate ourselves from nature. To exile ourselves from nature. Which is biologically impossible. And yet we pretend that we can do it, as if nature didn't include us somehow. But I also see nature as including everything that is made. The technological wilderness of cities. I started out as a nature poet, I'm still a nature writer. Nature includes everything.
Do live in the country, or in a city?
I live in a town of 17,000 people, but the county that uses the services of the town includes 90,000 people. I live in Ithaca, which is a latter-day hippie community that consists almost entirely of therapists and artists, with a few massage people thrown in. About every ten years, for some reason, the therapists and artists swap jobs. I don't know why, but they seem to. It means that everyone you meet has at least two jobs. A good example of that is when I was remodeling my house and there was a lovely man who was plastering and it was the winter and I asked if I could pay him a little extra to shovel snow. He said, "Of course," and he was very sweet and he's in there plastering. After he finishes I discover in the college catalog that he's an internationally known fresco painter. Oh yeah, I think he could plaster. Sure!
But, the town is like that. Everyone has this other life and I love that about it. It's quite wonderful. And small enough that there is a sense of neighborliness. Neighbors help neighbors, I was a telephone counselor at Suicide Prevention for five years. Now I'm just a little bit involved with the hospice. I like that element to the town. I grew up in the 70s with the idea that an individual not only could make a difference, but had it as a duty to try.
Do you have children?
I don't have any of my own. I don't need kids. My neighbor -- who is a wonderful high energy physicist, one of the very few women in that field -- has been kind enough to have three children right in a row for me. [Laughs] So I have all the joy of watching them grow up and go through their fascinating phases and watching their different personalities develop. One of the most interesting phases was when one of the little girls -- it seemed on the same day -- learned how to say, "No" and open and close drawers. They're wonderful, wonderful kids and great neighbors. One of the kids will, I think, be a naturalist when she gets a bit older. She always has live things in pockets. [Laughs] Which is a pretty good indication.
You're working all the time.
I am working all the time, I guess partly because that's how I support myself. Since I'm mainly not on salary anyplace. But I would be doing it anyway. And notice that I just said that half my books are books of poetry. That I do just because it's the source of my creativity. Because poetry has so much to teach us about who we are, where we come from, what we wish to become.
Your prose is enhanced by poetry. Your prose is wonderful. And poetic.
Very often I don't know the difference. I end up insinuating into the prose sometimes what I think of as unrequited poems. They're ones I've been working on for a long time and for whatever reasons I couldn't make them sort out but they're extremely relevant to what I'm writing in the prose, so they just slide in. One way or another. Or there will be lyrical times when I'm engaged in deep play -- I'm feeling rapture -- and it just comes out in prose. How could it not?
If I had my druthers -- which is an interesting word -- every prose book I wrote would be like inhaling jungle. It would all be at a level of poetic intensity that I would find satisfying word by word. Sentence by sentence. Page by page. But, unfortunately, I've discovered that books have to have transitions. The sun can't always be at noon and there are times when you actually have to explain yourself. Or you have to move people around in the landscape and stuff like that. But I have a poet's heart and a poet's sensibility.
My husband, as I said, is a fiction writer. And I have enormous respect for fiction, but I consider it a very high class form of lying. I like it a lot. I admire it. I'm just not very good at it. It's not something that appeals to me to do myself. Which is not to say that non-fiction writing is any closer to the truth all the time because of course it's subjective and you choose what you're going to include. You can't lie about something, but you can choose, for example, the people you invite on an expedition with you. You can choose the places you are going to go and in what order. You can choose what you are going to write about and what you're not going to write about. The minute you bring all of these things into it you've added fine arts elements to it. It's not a cold-blooded or completely objective search for the truth.
So you don't see yourself writing fiction in the near future?
It could happen. It's just a question of how it would happen. It might be thinly veiled autobiographical something or other.
Oh, that would be fun.
It could be fun. Or it could be protective. I don't know. I've thought about it. I've tossed a few ideas around. But I do love writing the creative non-fiction or the literary essay. Whatever you call it. That strange beast which has -- thank goodness -- become popular again. It was for a while and then it got out of fashion and now it's back in. Which is wonderful.
Deep Play. Is that something that you tossed around for a while?
I realized when I started looking through my journal from expeditions, that I kept -- without realizing it -- jotting down accounts of transcending moments. They all had the same ingredients in them. I was using the same kind of language throughout. I thought, well this is curious. What on earth is going on here? Isn't it interesting that they all seem to have play elements involved?
Then I started thinking about culture in general and realizing how much of it is saturated by play, even though we're not aware of it. We don't think about politics or in-law escapades or courtship as games but they are. They include playgrounds where things have no religion. They include a time limit, a kind of absorption in the moment, their own specialized rules and regulations and some type of competition, whether it's with yourself, the universe or somebody else.
In the case of something like religion: music, decoration, costume. A lot of play elements in it. And I found that so fascinating that I just started researching the history of play. Animal play. Human play. Where were they in common? Where were they different? And especially, something that humans specialize in: ecstatic play. Transcendent play. These altered states that we spend our lives in pursuit of. I have. I get into them pretty easily, actually. For example, biking in the sun for me is an experience that is like meditation in motion. And I think an awful lot of people -- especially baby boomers -- who have turned away perhaps from organized religion can not turn away from needing a sense of the holy because it's instinctive in us. They're looking someplace else for that sense of spirituality, relating us to the universe. And very often they turn to deep play to do that and you'll hear someone talking about a basketball game that they were involved in as though it were a religious ritual.
There are certain elements of spirituality in this book.
Quite a lot. I'm probably the most religious person you know, I just don't require a supernatural deity. If there is one, that's fine. If there isn't one, it makes no difference in how I regard the universe. I believe in the sanctity of life and the perfectibility of people. And that pretty much includes everything when you think about it. In Deep Play I say that the church that I belong to is not the "Seven Day Opportunists." Not "Our Sisters of Perpetual Motion," but that I am an Earth Ecstatic. I just told you what the creed is: all life is sacred, life loves light and we can always improve our behavior towards one another. | August 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.
You can visit Diane Ackerman on the Web.