Braving It

categories: Cocktail Hour

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braving it 3James Campbell’s Braving It came out last week. It’s a great book, beautiful and original, the story of a father and a daughter and their adventures in Alaska. It’s about wildness and beauty but also about family and the encroaching fear of aging, of a father coming into a strange new time in his life just as his daughter is coming into a strange new time in hers. There has been nothing like it as far as the nature/father/daughter combination, and it is much more interesting to me than the theory/Last Child in the Woods-type stuff. Nothing feels forced and the relationship comes across as very real and moving. Meanwhile the writing about the natural world and the descriptions in general are great.  Creosote in the stove is like scurrying mice and spruce trees are “weary white-robed pilgrims worshiping December’s new moon.” It’s both taut and lush, a tough combo to beat.


braving it2

I was honored that Jim asked me for a blurb. Here is what I came up with:


Braving It is a beautiful and original book, an antidote to the screen-ification of modern life, and if there is any justice in the world it will be a huge hit. Wilder than Wild, it is also the most honest, moving and true story of a relationship between a father and a daughter that I have ever read. As the father enters the country of middle-age, and the daughter edges toward adulthood, they share an epic Alaskan braving itadventure that includes running rivers, polar and grizzly bears, and bitter cold. They also encounter something even more dangerous: fleeting time. They both seem to realize that they will never again have this moment, which,for all the book’s beauty, gives it an edge of sadness. Countering this sadness, is the gift that father gives daughter and that the writer gives the reader: the gift of the elemental now, of moments of wind, fire,water, snow, cold, beauty. And of equally primal moments of human love and connection.”




Lewis Robinson’s “Talk Shop” Podcast, with Yours Truly, Bill Roorbach

categories: Cocktail Hour / Podcasts / Table For Two: Interviews

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Lewis_RobinsonI enjoyed this talk with Lewis Robinson, which took place in his man cave with microphones, with an actual train going by.  I sound like I’m almost asleep–and it’s true, I was very tired.  But Lewis drew me out, and as David Olson said on Facebook: “This view into the writer’s mind is both fascinating and scary. In three words, I loved it!” I loved it, too, as Lewis is a new old friend, and an awfully smart, sweet guy, also a novelist.

All episodes of Talk Shop are free: check out past interviews with Justin Tussing, Richard Russo, Susan Conley, Ron Currie Jr., Jen Blood, Monica Wood, Callie Kimball, Brock Clarke, Megan Grumbling, Gibson Fay-Leblanc, Kate Christensen, Phuc Tran, and Keith Lee Morris.

Here’s the link to the podcast.

Guest contributor: Debora Black

Table for Two: An Interview with Mira Ptacin

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns / Table For Two: Interviews



Debora: Poor Your Soul is such a lonely title. Very sad. Tell us about what’s inside your pages.

MIRA: Here’s the story: in 2008, at age twenty-eight, I accidentally got pregnant, despite taking birth control pills and never missing a dose. (I’m that 1 percent.) It wasn’t easy, I wasn’t happy about it, but I embraced it. And even though we’d only known each other for just three months, my boyfriend Andrew and I got engaged. Five months later, during the ultrasound that was to predict the sex of our baby, doctors found instead that our child had a constellation of birth defects and no chance of survival outside my womb. I was given three choices: terminate the pregnancy, induce delivery, or do nothing and inevitably miscarry. Poor Your Soul simultaneously traces my mother’s immigration from Poland at the age of twenty-eight, the adoption of her son Julian, his tragic death, and her reaction to the grief that followed. Both our stories examine how woman copes with the inevitable but unexpected losses a woman faces in the search for her identity. But overall, this isn’t a sad story. It’s a love story, about how I found love in my marriage, in my family, and for myself when everything around us was in chaos. It’s about perseverance and will. Continue reading →


categories: Cocktail Hour

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ocracoke-islands-featureWhat does it mean to love a vulnerable thing? A thing that won’t keep still or remain the same?


I took the Cedar Island ferry to Ocracoke Island for the first time almost 10 years ago. On the boat, I became engaged in an animated conversation about birds with one of the deckhands. I pointed out a Northern gannet off the bow, a diving bird that migrates to Southern waters only in the winter.


“They come in with the cold,” he said. “We had a crowd of ducks — pintails — yesterday, too.”


From his emphasis on ducks, I assumed he was a hunter. Hunters are the only other group that knows birds as well as bird-watchers. We talked some more about what had been migrating through, and then he pointed ahead, to where 20 or so dolphins were swimming. Three veered off and headed straight for us, silver shining off their backs, and soon they were surf-riding in the bow right in front of the ferry. They were obviously doing it just for the fun of it, since they had originally been traveling in the opposite direction. Soon, other people got out of their cars and started snapping photos.


It was a delightful escort into the southern end of Ocracoke, and the delights continued ashore. I drove about halfway up the island before I pulled over at a beach access. The entrance was directly across from the pens that held the island’s famous Banker ponies, a species of small horse unique to Ocracoke that roamed wild on the marshes and beaches for centuries after they were left here by Spanish explorers. Continue reading →

Wild Ways

categories: Cocktail Hour

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wild-ways-viI have mocked the editor-encouraged tendency of all nature essays and articles to “end hopefully,” no matter how dire the subject. But on this Earth Day I’ll throw a little hope into the mix. Last Wednesday Nova aired a show called Wild Ways, featuring the idea of connecting large patches of the wild with wilderness corridors. Thanks to people like Banff’s Harvey Locke, who is featured in the show, this is no longer as far-fetched an idea as it once was.


As I wrote in All the Wild that Remains: “Rewilding is a radical idea, but so was saving parkland when it was first proposed. With the creation of the parks we did something that no one expected, something no one had ever done. Now imagine if parks became not just museums of remnant ecosystems but beads on a much larger rosary, stopover points in a migratory corridor that runs up and down the continent’s spine. Anyone who looks too long at the environmental problems facing us can become overwhelmed and dispirited. But the thought of rewilding gives me hope. It is big. It is bold. It excites imaginations. And, as ideas go, it is wild.”


Here is the link to info about the show.

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Big Sur!

categories: Cocktail Hour

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big sur 7When Wendell Berry returned to Kentucky as a young writer he said that one of the challenges was that it was unwritten ground. I always thought Cape Cod was the opposite, over-written ground, where every rock and tree already had a poem or essay written about it. Well, Big Sur, where I spent a couple days last week, gives Cape Cod a run for its money.  As beautiful and wild as the place was, almost everything I saw triggered a literary association, starting with the great sea cliffs I knew until then only through the poetry of Robinson Jeffers….”We must uncenter our minds from ourselves/We must unhumanize our views a little/and become confident/As the rock and ocean we were made from.”

All photos by Deborah Lorenc


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Guest contributor: Bill Lundgren

Lundgren’s Lounge: “Stop Here, This is the Place,” by Susan Conley and Winky Lewis

categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence

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Susan Conley and Winky

Words and images on the page have a variety of purposes: to instruct, to persuade, to ediify, to entertain, to evoke… and it is this last that comes to mind while reading and looking at Stop Here: This is the Place, A Year in Motherhood, a unique collaboration between photographer Winky Lewis and writer Susan Conley.  Continue reading →

Immortal Freemasonry Explained

categories: Cocktail Hour


keats          It was Keats who coined the highfalutin phrase “immortal freemasonry.” What it means in simple English is this: dead writers are alive to us.


I have no idea why this idea, of connections and literary lineage, kept weaving through my dreams last night. I am in LA at the Associated Writers and Writing Programs conference, an event where my brain is usually at its soggiest, and my dream life is rarely so highbrow. But last night I couldn’t stop thinking, or sleep-thinking, about teachers and students and the way we pass things down over the generations.


Maybe this had to do with reading about my former student Carson Vaughan’s encounter with Jim Harrison before he died. (Nina and I were lucky enough to have a similar encounter with John Updike not long before he died.) Or maybe it has to do with the fact that later today at a ceremony at our school a friend is going to quote from a T.S.Eliot poem I suggested about the way the past is present.


But back to the definition. The idea is that writers are “freemasons,” part of a secret society, and that membership in that society doesn’t end just because you are dead. This can be as simple as picking up a dead writer’s book. Inert print becomes something else when another mind revives it. For me a perfect example is the liveliness of Montaigne, despite being 500 years dead, and I have recently been fond of quoting Emerson’s line about him: “Cut his sentences and they bleed.” Continue reading →

Publication Day: Where’s my Marching Band?

categories: Cocktail Hour

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smallteachingWhen I was a child, my father’s best friend hired a marching band to show up at our house on my mother’s birthday one year.  This was one in a series of outlandish birthday events he arranged for her, but it remains the most memorable in my mind, seeing that band marching up our street with the neighbors wondering in disbelief whether they had forgotten to mark some holiday or parade on our calendar.



That event left such a permanent mark on me that I still consider the arrival of a marching band as the ideal way to celebrate a momentous event in one’s life—which, in my case these days, takes the form of the publication of a new book.  Each time one of my books has been published, I sit around the house expectantly all day secretly hoping that a marching band will appear around the corner at any moment, the leader carrying a box of my author copies, neighbors standing agog in their driveways, my family smiling and proud.


marching band

It hasn’t happened yet.


The publication day for my newest book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, came and went in mid-March without so much as an oboist serenading me from the driveway.  But even though that has Continue reading →