Today I speak with the author of the new book Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First European Artist in North America, which has been getting excellent reviews. In short, it tells the tale of the first European artist who came to the United States to chronicle the new land (but I'm really simplifying). It's the follow-up to his prior book, another book of history and mystery, The Island of Lost Maps. Also, he was my thesis advisor in grad school, and if you live in Chicago you can see him read tonight.
How difficult is it for you to balance teaching and your own writing?
So far, it's been a good balance. Teaching gets me out of my head, which can be a cramped and claustrophobic place. On the other hand, I've always been a part-time teacher--until now. I'm starting a full-time gig at the University of New Orleans in a few weeks. Right now I'm very anxious about how to balance teaching and writing, not to mention being a moderately good husband and father.
What advice do you have for those new to teaching nonfiction writing?
There's a really fine new textbook coming out by Eileen Pollack, which I think will be a huge help to both students and teachers. It's called Creative Nonfiction: Form, Content, and Style (Cengage/Wadsworth, forthcoming 2009). I've learned a lot from Eileen's approach to teaching.
Is having a space dedicated to writing/researching important to you?
I used to think so. But laptops and wi-fi have really changed my life.
Where do you do it now?
I do my best work in coffee shops. (In fact, I'm writing this from one.) I like the ambient noise, which helps me concentrate, and I like being around other people, even when I'm deep in my own little rabbit hole of words.
Do you feel a different vibe, as a writer, from town to town? Or are you doing the same time of work in New Orleans as you were in Ann Arbor as you were in Chicago?
I'm actually writing this from New Orleans, but I'm only here to find an apartment. In Ann Arbor, writing seemed simpler than in Chicago--but so did everything else. I love the scale of college towns. You can have coffee with a friend, hop on your bike, and be back home at your computer in 15 minutes. In Chicago, you'd have to schedule that same cup of coffee a day or two in advance and it might take you 45 minutes to drive each way. I could not love any other big city more than I love Chicago, but sometimes I find the size of the place frustrating.
Do you have a writing schedule?
I'm a painfully slow writer, so my days often go from just after breakfast until long into the evening. The schedule that you read about in those Writer's Digest books is the correct one: Get up at 4 or 5 a.m. and write until noon. Alas, I've never been able to pull it off. I think I'd be a lot more productive if I could just get to sleep at a reasonable hour and wake up before the sun.
What did you learn from working on "The Island of Lost Maps" that helped you with "Painter in a Savage Land"?
I learned the books happen at their own pace. You can try to rush them, but they will be done when they damn well feel like it. They don't care about your pathetic deadlines or monetary needs. At least mine don't. They seem to be completely indifferent to my demands.
How did you choose the subject of this book?
It's a long story. Luckily, you can find it on my web site.
How did you pick the last one?
I read a brief wire-service article about the map-thief Gilbert Bland in the Chicago Tribune. Somehow, I managed to convince the editors of Outside Magazine that a story about library crime would fit right into their extreme-sport publication. It took me around two years to get the piece published--but once it came out, there was a lot of interest from editors and agents in New York. It was a pretty good article, I think, but I also had a little luck. Outside was a very "hot" publication at the time; the bestsellers Into the Wild, Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm had all grown out of stories from the magazine. So for once, I was in the right place at the right time.
Do you know what you'll be working on next or are you just basking right now on this book's completion?
I'm working on a book proposal. If it becomes a book or even a book deal, I'll be glad to discuss it.
Both of your books have been historical nonfiction: do you ever see yourself working in a slightly different vein, like memoir?
My impulse write about myself is not particularly strong, which is probably a good thing. I haven't had a particularly noteworthy life. My parents, I'm afraid, cursed me with a moderately happy childhood.
Which work of the engravings based on Jaques Le Moyne's work is your favorite?
I like a lot of them, but I have a particular fondness for the one on the cover of the book. It looks like such a pleasant, even pastoral, scene at first glance. But then you notice all these human scalps and severed limbs hanging from poles in the background.
All the reviews of this book reference your 'meticulous' research--so how did you research the book? What was your process?
My process was entirely driven by fear. Unlike an actual historian, I knew precious little about the 16th century when I started. So I had a lot of homework to do even before I tackled the story at hand. In truth, I did not add that much to what scholars already knew about Le Moyne, though I did make some interesting discoveries in French and English archives.
Both of your books are connected to Florida--how do you like that state in general?
I like to write about it, but I don't think I'd like to live there.
How does it feel to be the 212th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
I'm a big Zulkey fan. And the number 212 feels lucky.