HC: You’re obviously comfortable reading and writing on both literary and scientific subjects. How have you managed to bridge the communications gap between these two worlds?
AMJ: This topic is (to me) so interesting I could write a dissertation on it... oh, wait, I did: my PhD dissertation focused on the public’s perception of science.
When it comes to communication about science, I think the problem is an overabundance of garbled messages rather than a gap. The spillover from academic bickering about the two cultures of science and literature or the rift between science and religion as a way of explaining the universe only adds to the muddle because it implies that you have to pick a side, which is just silly. The situation is further confused because a lot of the chatter about science and science education fails to make a distinction between doing science and learning about science. The skills and frame of mind that make for good scientific research are particular and specialized, but the average Joe or Jane doesn’t need to be an amateur scientist, they just need to feel free to pursue the topics that interest them.
I interpret the idea of scientific literacy in a very basic way: reading about how the world works. There’s a universe of popular science writing out there that’s clear, accessible, and thought-provoking, and a lot of it is beautifully crafted, too. I read mostly nonfiction, but I don’t want to make too much of genre categories. I was a heavy user of science fiction in my youth. Natural history frequently offers a seamless crossover into scientific topics. Biography, memoir, and history can all weave writing about science in with their primary subjects.
HC: As your editor, I appreciate the fact that you are an editor yourself. How has this kind of detailed work on others’ manuscripts affected your own writing?
AMJ: I’ve done some editing and proofreading in various capacities over the years, but my focus now is on indexing, which is kind of a hidden niche in the publishing world—a lot of people don’t realize that indexes (good ones, anyway) are a form of written text, not computer-generated.
Editing and indexing both emphasize the needs of the reader over the desires of the writer. Now, I won’t say that I always live up to the ideal of clarity, but I do aspire to bring the reader along with me, whether I’m following the trail of an idea or trying to capture the look of a place or the feel of an event. When I get stuck while writing, I’ll sometimes use the same technique I rely on when I come across a convoluted passage in a book I’m creating an index for, stepping back and asking myself, “What is this about, really?” If I can keep the writing oriented so that it relates to the “aboutness” of the piece, even if the narrative is moving around a lot, I stand a better chance of making it work.
The other question I ask when I get stuck is one that an editor might ask on behalf of the reader: “So what?” Writing words down is a solitary activity, but written communication is ultimately a social endeavor. Without readers the process is incomplete. If I don’t offer something that matters not just to me but to some reader somewhere, then the writing is bound to short-circuit and fail.
HC: What are you working on now?AMJ: My local terrain constantly offers up new material, and I continue to work on essays inspired by the events and issues around me. What I’m most focused on at the moment, however, is a project that’s been steeping in the back of my mind for a long time. Like Between Urban and Wild, the new book (tentatively titled Identity’s Edge) is about the human relationship to the world, but in this case I’m exploring how individuality and the sense of self emerge from the body’s interactions with its environment.
Don't miss your chance to meet Andrea Jones and hear her read from her new book! She will be in Boulder, Colorado tomorrow night to give a reading.
Date: Thursday, November 21
Time: 7:30 pm
Location: Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St., Boulder, CO
Between Urban and Wild: Reflections from Colorado, by Andrea M. Jones