Creative Nonfiction

Discovery, Environment, and the Physical World

An Interview with Suzanne Siteman by Creative Nonfiction Associate Editor Andrew Miller

“I think the physical world is on all of our minds, we often just don’t know where to drill down, what to look at first. That’s our opportunity.”

–Suzanne Siteman

You expressed valid ecological concerns without over-sentimentalizing. Was that an active decision on your part? Should that approach be a goal of good environmental writing?

Thank you so much. Absolutely I was intentional about that balance though it was often tricky to assess because of my emotional attachment to all of the fish and coral I wanted to represent. I have a more than thirty-year relationship with these beings, and the ocean itself. But I do think if a writer can translate their wonder and their worry onto the page, curiosity can be sparked, and curiosity can turn into empathy, and empathy can lead to action. The environmental writing I read and research is always embedded with that hope.

MSR appreciated how you wove descriptions of snorkeling with your experiences raising two daughters. How did that approach strengthen your essay?

My writing is rooted in sensory and emotional experience, and many scenes in this essay naturally carried both, which made the space I had to work with more expansive. Toggling back and forth I could come in close with pure description or pull back into memory, changing up the rhythm and sonic and visual feel of the essay.  I enjoy layering that kind of texture throughout a piece. And certainly the sea served as a solid frame to allow me to move through time without losing the reader.

EO Wilson introduced the term “biophilia” which proposes that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other life forms. Do you think that teaching and writing about the natural world is also part of Wilson’s Concept?

I do. His books were much more than the results of his own scientific research and data; he showed us the value he placed on biodiversity, social biology and the necessity of preserving wild land. Yes, he was a scientist but also an emotionally driven educational and literary advocate for environmental stewardship. He wrote to convince us of the urgency for greater action, to avoid “the inadvertent degradation of the natural world.”

“Holy Water” is an excellent example of a braided essay. Why did you choose that style rather than a more traditional approach?

One of the first pieces I read in grad school was Jo Ann Beard’s “Fourth State of Matter” and the beauty and vulnerability and propulsion and craft of that piece drew me to the alchemy of the braided essay. I am humbled every time I read it and I make sure I do at least once a year.

Water, motherhood and faith so converge in my real life; I knew I would build the essay out as a braid as soon as I began to write it. I think the form allowed me to permeate the essay with a tidal-like feel, an ebb and flow of image and emotion through time that helped me evoke what I wanted the reader to feel with me.

MSR was impressed with your familiarity with so many different species of fish. Why is knowledge of names, whether plants, animals or even characters we meet in literature, so important to humans?

Well, the vocabulary of the environment is just so lush and lyrical and waiting to be found; it’s a gift for any writer. When we use the proper names of animals, marine life, insects, botanicals and landscapes we humanize our relationship to the natural world and create a way into seeing every living thing as distinct and divine. The use of proper names also helps ground the reader in place and builds trust in the narrator’s knowledge of her subject.

In Rebecca Solnit’s  A Field Guide To Getting Lost, there is a passage, “Mexican grasshoppers flung out their wings, black, yellow, and scarlet, vivid like butterflies while they flew, drab again when they landed.” That one sentence compelled me to look up the Mexican grasshopper; I had to see one for myself. I try not to underestimate the power of the words I choose to use.

In “Holy Water” you admit to “spawning  your children’s love of water.” In our modern society—increasingly burdened by social media, computers and communication devices—do you think parents are remiss in not doing more “benign manipulation”

I had the great advantage of being able to choose to stay at home while my daughters were growing up and I can’t discount the abundance of time and energy that afforded me with them. A child’s delight and absorption in a new discovery is so thrilling— it brought me great joy to introduce what I loved to my girls and to bear witness to their excitement. In other words, I think both parents and children benefit from “benign manipulation”! But parenting is an ongoing lesson in releasing expectations; as a child I loved dance and I enrolled my daughters in ballet class as soon as they were old enough—it did not take. Tutus and tights were not for them. We moved on.

What more can writers do to raise environmental awareness?

Contemporary environmental writing is no longer compartmentalized; it shows up in poetry, screenplay, fiction and nonfiction; it’s beyond genre. I think the physical world is on all of our minds, we often just don’t know where to drill down, what to look at first. That’s our opportunity. Right now I am reading the anthology The World As We Knew It. In the foreword editor Amy Brady explains that she asked her contributors, “At a time when our planet is experiencing terrifying and unprecedented levels of change, what corresponding transformations have you witnessed in your own lives, yards, neighborhoods, jobs, relationships, or mental health?” We only need to remember our interconnectedness and the ways in which the natural world can illuminate our human experience; that is a good place to begin.

What other writers-or scientists, educators-inspire you?

I was fascinated by Jane Goodall as a child; the respect with which she treated animals was so novel at that time. I’m sure that Jacques Cousteau likely gave me my first look at what lives underwater. The works of Pam Houston (her essay “On (Not) Wanting To See A Wolf” in the anthology First & Wildest The Gila Wilderness at 100 is a revelation), Annie Dillard, Terry Tempest Williams, Rebecca Solnit, Rachel Carson, Lydia Yuknavitch and Wendell Berry inspire me. This past year at a writing workshop I was introduced to the gorgeous memoir The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey.

And I can’t forget Craig Foster, the documentary filmmaker who made My Octopus Teacher in his backyard in South Africa. He captures the everyday extraordinary life of one gorgeous octopus and what can happen when we allow ourselves to be in relationship with nature. I’ve seen it five times. After the film’s Oscar-winning success Foster founded the Sea Change Project, an organization whose mission it is to “tell stories that connect people to the wild, motivating them to become a part of the regeneration of our planet.”

Will your future writing deal with the environment or other issues?

Currently the ocean does make an appearance in much of my writing in one way or another. Given the years of underwater images I carry in my head, when I sit down to write, they tend to surface. And there is so much metaphoric material to mine. I am deeply disturbed by the ongoing exploitation of animals who live above ground and expect to turn my attention toward that in future writing projects as well.

By Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is the creative nonfiction editor of Mud Season Review. He has a BA, MS, and Ph.D. in biology and spent most of his career at the US Army Engineer R&D Center in Vicksburg, Mississippi. After retiring from the government, he taught at Thomas University in southern Georgia. He now lives in Florida, volunteers in prisons, restores antique stained-glass windows, and writes.  His nonfiction and fiction have appeared in Front Porch ReviewBlue Lake ReviewThe Meadow, The River, Arkansas Review, Northern New England Review, Northern Woodlands, Maine Homes, Fatherly, and Toastmaster Magazine. His website is