By Emmett Rensin and Lucy Schiller
Diane Ackerman is the author of over twenty books of nonfiction and poetry, including A Natural History of the Senses, One Hundred Names for Love (which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) and, most recently, The Human Age. Her book The Zookeeper’s Wife was adapted into a film in 2017. We sat down with her at the Pullman Diner in Iowa City to talk research process, the institutionalization of creative writing, and detail.
Essay Review: What stands out for many people about your books and essays are how heavily researched they are, how labor intensive the preparation feels like it must be. Do you think that’s essential for an essayist? How much does somebody need to become an expert in something before they write about it? Is it possible to deliberately foster doubt, or turn lack of expertise into a propulsion mechanism of its own?
Ackerman: When you say a sense of doubt, do you mean a doubt about the authenticity of what they’re writing. Or what?
Essay Review: There’s an argument that an essayist can’t—and so shouldn’t—try to be an expert. That they learn what they can and think through it on the page and that this is more intellectually honest, or more “essayistic”, perhaps.
Ackerman: I love doing research, but I don’t like to stick to the research to the extent that I don’t feel like I can just travel off in different directions if I want to. I’m always interested in nature and human nature, and where the two meet each other. And the kind of light that they can kind of throw on each other. But I don’t always want to represent all the research I’ve done in the actual essay. Sometimes I’ll be caught up in some philosophical implication of something and want to pursue that. And so people refer to all the digressions in my work. Some people love them. Some people hate them. But, for me, it’s very much what draws me to working on something.
So let’s take Zookeeper, for example. I came upon Zookeeper the story through the horses. Because I had been a horse girl in my teens, and I knew there were ancient horses in a forest in Poland. But the more that I tried to learn about them, the more I began learning about the zookeepers and the zoo where they were adopting orphan animals from the forest. And then in time I found that actually they were adopting humans also who were kind of orphaned by society, and the story began opening up.
So at the point, when I knew that I really had to write about this woman and her sensibility, I had to face the question of: How do I write about it factually when it was all unfolding in a time when I wasn’t alive. And I write about it in a way that is so on the senses that readers can experience it through my eyes. And how do I do that? So that was my challenge there. But that was also the thrill. Because you can learn about the navigation patterns of birds over Warsaw in 1939. So you can know what Antonina saw when she looked up. They rebuilt the old town after it was leveled according to Renaissance drawings, brick by brick, so you can stand on the villa, upstairs in the villa, and look out over the old town and see exactly what she saw. It’s possible to learn what the animals were in the zoo, which animals called in which order. What they smelled like, you know. How they moved. You could begin to fill in the sensory stuff and every time that someone speaks in the book, I’m quoting directly from one of the memoirs or Antonina wrote a book about life at the zoo. Or interviews that were done. Or testimonies that were given after the war. So it’s possible, through the research, to create the life, it’s possible to do that. And with that given, then to become creative and poetic and philosophical, while clinging to the facts.
I know that sounds odd. How do you do that? How can you be both imaginative, creative, and also fiercely loyal to exactly what happened and what was said. But it is possible to do that and it’s very exciting to do it. So that was a situation where I had to do the research in layers. Just one layer after the other. But when I was a poetry graduate student, as an MFA student at Cornell, I was a writing a book-length suite of poems about the planets. The real planets not the astrological planets, which was a kind of weird thing to do in the early 1970s because there was nothing known about the outer planets. They were just little balls of light with arrows pointing at them, you know. But I also was doing that in layers. I was doing the research, learning about them, and I was drafting. Before I was drafting, I was figuring out what form I wanted to use, what verse form, with each of the planet poems and so on. And just breaking up the creative process into manageable pieces. Because it was kind of complicated to me, what I was doing.
The Essay Review: That idea about layering—one detail that really comes across very early in Zookeeper, for example, was the discussion of the blonde Birchwood bed and what other uses it has. But how does one find that kind of detail? Or really, how does it occur to you that this is the sort of detail you’d like to have? There are so many.
Ackerman: Well, it seemed to me that those those the things that surrounded her life, even small things, that those were part of the culture that my character lived in. So, for me, the motive was wanting to somehow create the atmosphere, the sensory details of the atmosphere for life, and that had to include nearly everything—that’s the motivation, I think—and it included what was happening outside of the house also.
The Essay Review: The noises of the animals, for example.
Ackerman: Everything. All of the perceptions she would have encountered, even if some of them would have been so habitual that she wouldn’t have paid attention to them. Still, they would have registered on her and had an impact.
The Essay Review: We’ve heard other writers use the term “resurrecting” for this. That is, using historical documents and details to summon not just a person but a time and their surroundings. Does that word feel applicable to what you try to do? Or is it too simple?
Ackerman: It’s not that it’s too simple. It’s kind of like, it’s a little too rectangular. It has kind of harsh edges. I’m not sure what the right word is. It’s not really reimagine or refurnish. Or I don’t know. Or reconstitute. Because there is no one word that would kind of capture the many different directions that are involved in it. But, well, for example, it was important for me to know what was being invented at that time. That staplers were coming in, you know. That the jukebox was coming in. What they were dancing to, what kind of clothes they wore. What they ate. Because all of these things help us now to travel back in time, into that era. And you can’t do it in a one-dimensional or two-dimensional way. You have to do it four-dimensionally. But how do you do that? That was the challenge. But it’s also the excitement.
The Essay Review: Do you ever worry about whether the sheer extent of the detail might alienate readers?
Ackerman: No. Because I assume that those are not readers who would want to read my books, I think, and I try really hard not to swamp them in detail. That certainly is a challenge. You know, if I’m doing that, then I’m not doing my job right. The details should be making them say, “Wow, I didn’t really see that before. But now I see the world in a way that I didn’t see it. You know, I was—yesterday, in seminar—talking about, we’ll say a masterclass, I was talking about several texts. And one of them was The Hidden Life of Trees. And when you read that book, you walk outside and the world is different, because you just see things you couldn’t see before. And there is certainly a lot of detail in there. The challenge is somehow balance the detail to the keep it awe-inspiring and make the reader want to continue learning about it. And also make it so integral that what you’re really doing is scene setting, character setting, and that’s the nature of narrative nonfiction. That you use all of the fictional techniques without making things up. But you do need to use them. So you do need to set the scene. You do need to do character development, but you can’t make it up. So how do you do that? You can piece things together and when you’re not sure, say that you’re not sure. I think she would have. Maybe what she felt was….In a biography… in an autobiography written by a friend of hers, one discovers…whatever it is. You can hedge in different ways.
The Essay Review: Right.
Ackerman: Yeah. But the research is the fun part! And everyone I know who does books that have some kind of bedrock of research involved from which they kind of launch says the same thing–that they love that.
The Essay Review: How do you organize your research?
Ackerman: I have what I think of, what I call my portable universe. And they’re three-ring binders, white. And I have all different subject matters related to whatever the work is. And over a period of maybe a year or two years or however long it is that I’m working out in writing the book. I will be clipping things, noting things, and they’ll all just be going into the separate one. So I don’t have to hold any of that in my mind, which would be impossible for me. I would be swamped. I really don’t think about it until I’m ready to work on the book and then I’ll start reacquainting myself with all these different things. And mainly what they are . . . they’re mainly springboards for thinking about things and different kinds of ways apropos of whatever the book is. So in The Human Age, for example, that was very much the pace.
The Essay Review: You’d said earlier that your research process was layered—so you keep adding to the protable universe?
Ackerman: You have to. It’s, research, then draft, then research. On and on.
The Essay Review: Maybe you haven’t detected this, but it often feels as if the more usual, or more amateur impulse, is to go, “Okay, I want to write about this.” And then make a list of stuff that you need to know. Then go through a sort of research binge, and then produce after that.
Ackerman: But you don’t know what you don’t know.
The Essay Review: Right.
Ackerman: Or you don’t know what’s going to captivate you.
The Essay Review: Right. So the question is, if the research itself is what reveals the subject but the research is also an ongoing process, when does a project start to take on a definitive form? For example, even concretely, where do you decide “Ok, this is an essay”, “this is a book”, “this is the shape of what’s emerging”?
Ackerman: For a while I was doing a series of op-eds for the New York Times that were very discrete essays, that were kind of somewhere between science and belle lettres. I don’t what they are exactly. One of them was on all of the invisibles that surround us, including the sound of crickets in the fall. And, because of our studies, we know what they look like and how they make the sounds and all of that, even though you’re not seeing most of them and so on. Just different things of that sort. Those were discrete essays. I knew they were going to be essays. And one of them was about the discovery of a new planet in the solar system far away and our quest for discovery. But they all had discrete topics that they were about.
In the case of a book, it’s more symphonic. There are many—it’s not so much that there is a story to tell as that the long essay that you want to write is very tapestry like and there are many different aspects to it. So even though the horses drew me to the story and then I discovered that actually there was this human drama taking place, I was still really interested in the horses. And I continued thinking about the horses and about the forest. So the forest was, still is, the only remnant of primeval forest left in Europe. Why? Why is it still there? And then minute you start asking that, you’re brought back into the story of the Nazis. That they needed to have a pure, Aryan forest to hunt in after the war. You know, all of that. And it becomes suddenly something philosophical too, something moral. It becomes a theme of good coming out of evil. And that’s part of the larger story that is being told. It’s as if it’s just all one chord, one musical chord. But, as in a musical chord, there are distinctive notes. The notes are separate, but together they give this effect.
The Essay Review: This is a terribly open ended question, but connected to the question of research—what your research tends to accomplish, above everything else– is a sense of place. That can be difficult for essayists, especially when the form lends itself so heavily to being driven by ideas. Could you talk about how place informs your work, or how you think of it, and what you want from it? George Saunders—who is a fiction writer, obviously, but still—likes to talk about how thinking of a strip mall in a suburb is really what gets him going, creatively. Is there something similar for you?
Ackerman: I think more than sense of place, a sense of presence informs my work. Wherever I am, if I can persuade myself to somehow be fully present to the landscape, then my creative sensibility will open up. I’ve lived in Ithaca for like 40 years. I’ve kind of grown up there. I went to school there and just stayed. It’s a wonderful place for me because it’s a later-day hippy community. And everyone has, essentially, two day jobs. People will stop you on the street and want to have conversations about profound things. So in that sense it’s wonderful. It’s a very high population of psychotherapists and artists and massage people. But it means that there is a lot of thinking by your neighbors about being human is. And that’s a good landscape for a poet to be in. But I’ve loved wherever I’ve been. And I grew up in the Midwest, outside of Chicago in Waukegan, Illinois. So the heart of the country speaks to me too. The landscape is very different. I think probably I would be writing descriptively very different and using different imagery and metaphors in my work if I lived here. I live in a very mountainous area, Ithaca, and there are lots of gorges and fossils and things like that. So it’s just a very different backdrop for choosing imagery.
The Essay Review: This may be impossible or ridiculous to answer, but could you imagine what you might write like if you were still centered in the Midwest?
Ackerman: Boy, that’s a good question. But—and notice that I think of it in terms of imagery. Because I began as a poet, you know, about half my books are books of poetry and I still feel that’s very much the source of my creativity, even though I write more prose these days than anything else. But I don’t like having to choose. And there is something about the epigrammatic quality of metaphor and similes that is just very appealing to me. I like trying to reduce something to . . . to that kind of concision. And I think, as I say, I think I’d be writing differently. But if you ask me, “Well what exactly?” I can’t tell you that unless you go outside and sit for a moment and look at some prairies.
For example, flying in [to eastern Iowa, where this interview took place], I was looking out the window thinking visitors from other planets, all they have to do is just look down and know that there is intelligent lifeforms or at least OCD lifeforms that have cleared the land among other things. And as we were driving from the airport I was looking at the trees. And, of course, we weren’t passing forests. Just, you know, little ribbons of trees, here and there. And they didn’t look very old either.
The Essay Review: Yeah, they were planted mostly as windbreaks.
Ackerman: Yes, that’s what they look like. So I don’t know exactly. I’m sure I would be out discovering nature because I like that a lot. And probably gardening because I like that a lot. And I would probably still be writing about some of the same critters, like snails and stuff. And flowers. But I have a sense that the architecture of the style would change. I mean, I can be in Ithaca and I can talk about the sun setting at the end of a valley like a thick yellow vitamin pouring out, or something like that. But I couldn’t really do that here.
But then, I don’t think it matters where you are. It’s, you know, it’s just getting used to what level you’re going to be looking at. And it’s always question of looking, paying very steep attention and being thrilled by the details that you discover.
The Essay Review: Right. And often times, the place where a writer is working has as much influence on the work as the place they are writing about. For example, here in Iowa City, you have this enormous assembly of fiction writers and poets and essayists who are approaching a wild range of topics in wildly different ways, but they’re all in this single geography. You have to wonder if that moves into their writing in some way that is maybe subterranean or at least not necessarily detectable—is that part of the flattening effect critics of MFA programs talk about sometimes? People mention the “academic capture of the writing world”, but that’s physical, not just metaphorical.
Ackerman: Yes, there is that landscape too. And I was going to mention that. It’s not just the physical landscape, of course. It’s also the social landscape that you’re in. The cultural landscape, the ethnic landscape, and so on. And all of that can change dramatically. I spent about ten years, I guess, writing about endangered animals in different places around the world. And so the landscapes there in all of these dimensions. If you go to the Antarctic, it’s very different from the Amazon. Or an unpopulated Japanese island, you know, looking for albatrosses. It’s all very different in terms of the history of the place. And the history is part of the landscape. It’s present and it’s absent. It feels like, to me, like it’s visually present. Like you can see it surrounding you when you are in any of these places. Plus, there is whatever is happening in the now. And how long the now is varies from place to place. And what the different social groups are.
For example, I went with the Washington National Zoo to a little piece of rainforest that is not technically the Amazon, but it’s kind of connected to the Amazon. It’s called the Mata Atlantica. And we were turning lose a golden lion tamarin, a male, to join a troop of very endangered, very scare golden lion tamarins. In the wild. And they’re very beautiful. Orange, kabuki-faced, monkeys. They’re wonderful. And we spent a lot of time in the forest following them, which meant that we had to essentially brachiate, you know, kind of low down, but the minute you start doing something like that through the landscape, you become different. You become part of a prehistoric landscape. Part of the different landscape that you feel physically in your bones. Kind of in your memory. Your racial memory. And we sat and watched them, and the family dynamics and you would see things like a potential male, a potential father, picking up one of the children, of the female, and putting the child on his back, essentially, parading in front, saying, “Look how good I’d be with your kids.” You know, wink wink kind of thing. And it’s, it’s so human a drama that the landscape that you’re in, just in anthropological terms, widens. And that affects you too. And I consider that the landscape in addition to this incredible seething of fertile density of the rainforest, which is where there is life at every single level that you’re looking.
The Essay Review: Not many academies are in rainforests. Perhaps it’s the same question, whether or not the institutionalization of creating writing is a great thing, in that way.
Ackerman: It was good for me. When I did an MFA at Cornell, I needed those two years to just be alone with my muse and figuring out what I wanted to do. I had been writing all of my life, shyly but enthusiastically. And I did not begin that way. I began in physiological psychology, I thought, as a freshman at Boston University. And I got married and divorced very young, transferred to Penn State, and the computer put me into English by mistake. And I, you know, I was eighteen and I thought it was fate. But I had been writing since I was little. But I was still interested in how the mind works and what it means to be human. It was simply that I found that I could combine those things. I wanted to stay in English, I loved books passionately. How much did my interest in our mental lives and the neuroscience of it, as well as the subjective experience, how much did that influence how I was reading the books in the English lit classes? I’m sure it did. I think that could only be a good thing, if you’re at an institution that encourages you to look at things in as wide of a perspective as possible.
But, unfortunately, what happens most often is that you have to choose between the arts and humanities when you go to college. You can’t say, “I want to do both.” I was lucky as a grad student because I was able to put a poet on my committee, A.R. Ammons, and a scientist, Carl Sagan, and between them I could poach in the sciences but I could mainly get a degree in English and Comp Lit and be a writer. But you’re usually forced to narrow it down a little bit more. As I say, I think I was just a little bit fortunate in that. For me, the MFA worked great, because I not only needed that time to just obsess and concentrate on writing, I profited from the feedback from the other people and the workshops and from the professors and from the community of people who were equally obsessed with writing.
There is still something at Cornell called the Temple of Zeus where there are a lot of oversized Greek statues, for some reason they don’t have necks, but there they are. When I was there, it was a much smaller area, there was a coffee shop, and once a week people would come in and they would just sign a register. And in that order they would get up in read what they had been writing that week. And it could be undergraduates, it could be graduates, it could be part of the MFA program or not. It was a wonderful way to feel part of a different kind of landscape, a creative landscape, and a community of writers in which it was not only good but valuable. It was not just acceptable to be creative in that way, and it wasn’t considered self-indulgent. It was something to be examined and to try to perfect and so on. And so that was very useful. It also has been the lifesaver for people teaching creative writing. You know, this is really new that writers are mainly living on campuses. They had to have at least two full-time jobs. Many writers still do. But, very often—I think, what was it? T.S. Eliot was a bank person. Wallace Steven was an insurance salesman. This was the way it went.
The Essay Review: Who are some writers you’re reading right now? What trends have you noticed?
Ackerman: Well, the minute you got to who, a little list was forming in my brain, but it wasn’t just necessarily including people who are writing now. The people that I am continuing to read, or let’s say the people that I’ve been reading over the past month, May Sarten’s journals, Mary Oliver’s prose. I like her poetry a lot too, but she has some new prose books out. Mary Karr, who’s reading. Annie Dillard, I’ve been reading a lot of her things of late. Not Pilgrim some of the other essays. Virginia Woolf’s very little read but beautiful autobiographical pastiche called Moments of Being about her childhood.
What I’m picturing now are books in my wet library. I have a dry library, and many of those around the house, but I have a wet library of things I read in the bathtub. And this is about 60 pages every night. And there was a time when I would take a sandwich with me or stuff like that, but I don’t do that anymore. Glass of wine and a book before I got to bed. The Hidden Life of Trees was one of them. Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, which is really wonderful. I want to read, I haven’t gotten to it yet, Nabokov’s unfinished memoir Speak, Memory, is really beautiful.
I’m trying to remember what I’ve got there. Jana Levin’s Black Hole Blues, I’ve been reading which is very good.
There’re just so many people. What happens is, and I’ve always done this, I’ll be reading maybe 20 books at the same time. Yeah. If it’s something like fiction, probably I’m just going to sit down and finish it. Otherwise, I really like dipping in and out of things. I’ve reading several books about grief because my husband died about a year and a half ago, and I’ve thinking about that. Yeah. Oliver Sack’s autobiography I thought was really wonderful, and now there is a new book by his lover that I haven’t read yet that I would like to read that’s just come out. Yeah.
The Essay Review: Are there any directions in which you would love to see the essay, or the nonfiction genre more largely, go?
Ackerman: Yes. I would like it to be as densely lyrical and metaphor sodden as humanly possible, with no known direction needed. In other words, I know that for a lot of people it really is a very creative and imaginative art form, and that’s the kind that I like the best. I don’t prefer it when it’s working towards some end of is trying to be marketable. And in publishing right now there is a really strong emphasis on that. About how nonfiction books have to be written so that they can sell better, the thinking is, because publishers feel that everyone is being read online, and therefore it’s urgently important that they only take on books that will do really well, so then the question is what will cause them to do really well. You don’t really know that. But there’s certain guessing. And the guessing can be surprising. When A Natural History of the Senses came out, it was a surprise to the publisher that it did well. Because, after all, it’s just essays that celebrate the senses. Why would anyone be interested in that, right? And when they were trying to figure out the color of the dust jacket, they told me they wanted one that wouldn’t just be feminine? I said, “You think there are feminine colors, okay.” So they decided on a kind of forest green as opposed to any other shade of green. And a very voluptuous woman smelling a rose. And her hair is embossed so you can stroke her hair, right, if you wanted to. And the kind of thinking that went into it kind of surprised me.
The next book that came out with that publisher was a collection of poems because I insisted that I sign a contract that was a two-book contract with a poetry collection—because otherwise why would they want to publish poetry? One book would offset the other in sales. So it was to their advantage, the poetry wasn’t going to do anything. So, you know. But, for me, it meant that I meant I knew I would be able to spend the next period of time writing poetry. Anyway: when the book was going to come out, what color should the dust jacket be? And I said, “Why don’t you humor me. You don’t think poetry is going to sell anyway, how about purple?” They said, “Okay, we’re going to put a male purple on the outside and female purple on the end papers.” I said, “Okay. Tell me what colors you think this is going to be.” You know, it was so strange. It was a darker purple on the outside and a very lavender on the inside, you know, Proust would have loved the inside kind of purple. So there was all that going on as well as what kind of themes they think are very topical and what kind of trend in reading they think very topical.
I never tell writing students about any of this, because it’s really important we just try to create perfect and beautiful works of art, you know. And by the time you get into that other phase, where you’re in the publishing business, maybe things will have evolved and they will be in a slightly different place or something. And why discourage you now, that you also have to put up with this other feature of it? But it is a business and what does happen at a certain point if you decide to work and live and support yourself as a writer, is that you have to find a way that you are writing books that will sell and support you that you also feel very good about artistically. And that can require some interesting conversations with yourself. And also research to figure out, for example, what is a story that has been untold. For example, there’s Hidden Figures, the untold story of a number of women. The fact that’s untold and about women meant that the writer would be able to sell it, immediately. And probably also she just loved the story and was personally interested and so on, but I bet she had other choices of things she could have written about and so on. So this was that. And I have another friend who’s written about some early women discoverers. Same thing. An untold story about women and so on. In the case of Zookeeper, that isn’t why I chose it. It was ten years ago, it wasn’t popular to do that then.
The Essay Review: That wasn’t such a booming genre then.
Ackerman: It wasn’t. It was just that the minute I started hearing her sensibility speak in her journals, I felt such a kinship with her. And I felt so much that her story should not have disappeared between the seams of history. So it was, technically, an “untold story”. But it came out of pure impulse at the time.
The Senses came out of pure impulse too. I was telling my agent and editor of a period of years this is what I wanted to do. And they said no one will ever be interested in this. Find something else. It just got to the point where I said this is what I want to do, you know. And just sit [sic] down and did it. And so my advice with writers is always follow your curiosity and write what you’re passionate about and don’t worry about whether it’s going to be successful or not. Because if you choose something that really excites you, that keeps you fascinated, that you’re passionate about, it probably will succeed because all that passion will translate well to other people. But even if it doesn’t you will have had an interesting life.