Interview with Sherry Simpson

CNF asks Sherry Simpson some questions about her recent essay, "Killing Wolves"

What pleases you about the way your story turned out? Are there any ways in which it fell short of your original goals?

 “Killing Wolves” pleases me because it attempts to consider the ambiguities of trapping in Alaska rather than simply laying out the black-and-white positions. It’s difficult to write about any environmental cause or nature issue without staking ground in the land of either-or, but so much of that writing preaches to the choir rather than raises honest questions about the way we live and the choices we make. In this essay, I tried to address those grey areas and to avoid easy answers. I was interested in what trappers think about wolves because people don’t often ask them. I want readers to think about where their own convictions spring from. And I was also curious about my own conflicting responses to wolf trapping.

I wish I had done a better job of capturing the individual personalities of the trappers. This essay arose from a reporting assignment and so I focused on that particular weekend and the people I encountered there. I wonder if the essay would have been richer if I had picked one of the trappers I met and spent time with him outside of the seminar. I also regretted not being present when a wolf was taken in a trap—although that would have been awfully hard to witness.

How did your essay develop, both in your initial thinking about it and in the revision process? What happened in writing that you didn’t expect would happen?

My first “draft” of this essay was a reporting assignment. The editor encouraged me to incorporate my own viewpoint, but because the piece was weighted toward journalism, I was fairly reserved about my own opinions and feelings. When I wrote the essay version, I loosened up quite a bit in style, and I widened my field of view. I wanted to be a faithful reporter not only of events but of feelings and ideas. As so often happens, I didn’t know exactly what I thought until I began writing. I never intended to write a piece slamming trappers, but I found myself to be much more sympathetic than I thought I would. In fact, although I consider myself to be an environmentalist (whatever that really means), I’ve since found myself much more dismissive of knee-jerk and simplistic environmentalist positions because I don’t think they serve anybody or anything in a useful way.

As my thinking on the subject developed, I found it easier to switch back and forth from the “reporting” elements of the essay to the “thoughtful” elements, where I could report on my own complicated responses. I didn’t want to be the center of the essay, but I wanted to be an emotional sounding board in a way. I thought of myself as the stand-in for all those people who, like me, don’t know exactly what they think about wolves and trapping but who are willing to confront this painful subject.

If you write in other genres (poetry, fiction, playwriting, literary criticism, etc.), how does your experience writing in creative nonfiction depend on or depart from your other writing?

The only other genre I have tried is poetry. I believe all good writing is poetry: in rhythm, in word play, in metaphor, in the exciting and surprising juxtaposition of idea and image. The discipline and economy required by poetry offers a useful frame for creative nonfiction as well. I am still learning the art of distillation and the art of letting myself go, which I find a little easier in poems. I also appreciate the way poetry unravels stories in suggestive, unconventional directions, a technique I wish I could apply more successfully to nonfiction writing.

Give some of your reflections about creative nonfiction as an emerging genre in American literature. Where do you see it going in the next several years, or even farther down the line?

I am still trying to explain creative nonfiction to a friend who is a history professor. He will have none of it. I think the label may still interfere with the genre. Many people don’t yet realize they’ve been reading creative nonfiction all along. However, in Alaska, the best and the best-known writers are creative nonfiction writers (except, of course, for the poet John Haines). Anthologies and literary books are coming out of our ears. Alaska is not exactly the center of the literary universe, but I can’t help but think this trend means only good things for the genre’s future.

What interests me more is the direction of creative nonfiction. I hope that soon there will be a vigorous open debate about the issue of telling the truth (or is that “truth”?). Perhaps because I started writing as a journalist, I am Victorian about making things up and calling it creative nonfiction. I have often been horrified to discover that writers I admire have invented characters, anecdotes and events in the service of “emotional truth” and then called it creative nonfiction. I recognize that there are plenty of fuzzy areas and valid questions about how much tweaking is too much. Still, I may be provincial or naive, but somehow I never thought the creative part referred to wholesale fiction rather than fiction techniques. I sense that not many others feel the same as I do.

I find this question fascinating: Why does it matter if something really happened or not? I wonder if eventually creative nonfiction as a genre will lose credibility and power if it turns out that much of it is just stuff writers invented to jazz up their stories because they were too lazy to dig harder for the real thing. Even now, I read things by certain writers and think, “Yeah, right. Sure it happened that way.” I don’t trust what they say anymore, and I think that sense of trust between the reader and the writer really matters in creative nonfiction.

What are the specific literary techniques you attempt to use as a creative nonfiction writer? For example, do you attempt to write in scenes? Do you employ dialogue? Do you employ specific detail? How and why?

Nothing makes me happier than to capture a scene where people are talking the way people do, where events unfold in Technicolor with Dolby sound, and I’m there scribbling it all down. The telling detail, the evocative description, the big picture–that all matters. But I find it terribly difficult and terribly exciting to relate the way people talk–he exact things they say and how they say them. It’s a technique I’m always trying to improve because that kind of realistic dialogue evokes the scene naturally and compellingly.

What advice might you offer to young people interested in writing?

I love reading advice about writing more than I like writing. It gives me the feeling of having accomplished something profound without having moved a finger.

All I can say is this: I agree with Naomi Shihab Nye that the beauty of nonfiction writing is that it allows you to live things twice: once as you experience them and again as you write about them. My advice, then, is to live an interesting, complicated life, both inside and outside of your head.