Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Interview with Andrea M. Jones: part 3

Andrea M. Jones is the author of Between Urban and Wild: Reflections from Colorado, published just this month. University of Iowa Press editor Holly Carver asked her a few questions about the book.

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

Monday, November 18, 2013

Interview with Andrea M. Jones: part 2

Andrea M. Jones is the author of Between Urban and Wild: Reflections from Colorado, published just this month. University of Iowa Press acquisitions editor Holly Carver asked her a few questions about the book. We'll be posting the final section of the interview on Wednesday!

HC: In Between Urban and Wild you focus on the realities of settling and living in a partially wild environment. Have you ever lived in a totally urban environment?
AMJ: I lived “in town” in Boulder during college, and Doug and I lived in a condo a few blocks from downtown there before we moved to Fourmile Canyon, but in the sense of big-city urban living, no.

I’m fascinated at how major urban areas like New York City function. Although we gravitate toward destinations where we can hike when we make travel plans, Doug and I often incorporate “city breaks,” in which we partake of public transportation and walk-to amenities for a few days. And when we talk about retirement, we talk about settling someplace urban. As much as I love my home ground, I can foresee a time when the chores and harsh weather and distance are more than we want to cope with. Between Urban and Wild is a chronicle of the effort to be present in a place, and attentiveness is portable. Urban areas are very much a part of our world, and they represent a type of environment I’d like to dedicate some time to exploring at some point in my life.

HC: Tell us more about your horses.
AMJ: Sadly, Max died in January 2012. He developed a case of colic after a string of hot days (temperatures in the low 50s, in January) followed by a cold snap; we think he wasn’t drinking enough water once it got cold to keep his digestive tract moving, and he developed an impaction. For Doug and me, our horses are our family, and Max’s death was devastating. He was a great horse and a great character.

Jake is Moondo’s new pasture-mate. He’s a dapple gray Quarter Horse-Percheron cross, the Percheron being a draft breed. He’s about the same height as Max was, but a totally different build: stocky and massive. He’s got a sweet personality but was spoiled as a youngster. He assumes everyone loves him, so he tends to walk up too close or push too hard for a scratch or snoop too aggressively at a pocket where he thinks there might be a treat, none of which is all that endearing when an animal weighs around 1400 pounds. We continue to whittle away at his bratty habits, which is made easier by the fact that he’s smart and wants to please, and is frustrating in that he’s a little bit of a smart aleck.

Jake pushes Moondo around but seems to have developed a respect for Moondo’s experience when it comes to dealing with their environment. This was no doubt helped along by the fact that Jake got bit on the nose by a rattlesnake a few months after his arrival. I can’t help but think that Moondo was dancing around behind him at the time, trying to convince Jake to leave that thing alone!!

Jake is nine years old and remarkably athletic for his size. He loves a good run across the field, and when I ride Moondo in the arena he will sometimes canter laps up and down the pasture to keep himself occupied. Moondo, now nineteen, is healthy and, with Jake as a personal trainer, more fit even when he’s not being ridden regularly. He’s still sweet and, if it is possible, more maddeningly persnickety than ever. He still loves his pasture, hates the barn, and has very firm ideas about the daily routine and what activities the neighbors should NOT pursue, notably target shooting and riding ATVs.

HC: What are your favorite natural areas?
AMJ: The glib response is the one I’m in at the time, which is usually the landscape around our home. I like the element of exploration that a new place affords, and I like the sense of recognition that comes with visiting a familiar spot. I’m easily entertained by small details, so vastness and grandeur aren’t important criteria. Still, the deserts of the Southwest’s Colorado Plateau fire my psyche in a way that no other place does—any place in Red Rock country will do.

Having said all that, the recent drought has got me thinking how nice it might be to explore a wet coastal environment for a change.

Between Urban and Wild: Reflections from Colorado, by Andrea M. Jones