By Daphne Larkin
Norwich University Office of Communications
Dec. 2, 2015
Norwich University Assistant Professor of English Sean Prentiss’ book, “Finding Abbey,” was recently awarded the National Outdoor Book Award for history/biography. “Finding Abbey” is part-memoir, part-biography and centers on a two-year search for environmental writer Edward Abbey’s hidden desert grave.
Prentiss is in his fourth year at Norwich. He teaches Introduction to Creative Writing, Environmental Writing, Natural and Environmental Literature, Professional/Technical Writing and Composition. He is a co-founder of the Norwich University Writers Series and the faculty adviser to the student literary journal, The Chameleon.
What is Edward Abbey’s relevance to these times?
Abbey talked a lot about overpopulation and other environmental issues. With climate change, one of the major things we have to do is reduce our carbon footprint, which is pretty simple in theory: we just reduce it. But with the world population growing from under four billion when I was born to over seven billion now, it just makes it more and more tricky. And Abbey had a really complicated view — a problematic view — on overpopulation. He just wanted to stop people at the borders; he was Donald Trump before Donald Trump was Donald Trump. And that doesn’t work because all that does is we have overpopulation around the world and then fewer people in America. But I think his view on the need to consider overpopulation is a primary concern, and I would argue that is done by education. So, that was his stance on overpopulation. He also looked at wilderness issues and how humanity was overrunning America. And we can look at that again with the world and how much land humanity uses and how it has grown exponentially with the expansion of cities. So, something’s got to change. Those were some of Abbey’s ideas, but again, he was complicated, he had ideas that many view as racist — he had ideas that many viewed as misogynistic, but his overall stance is valuable.
What drew you to him and/or his writings as a topic for a book?
He was one of the first authors who seemed like someone I would know – not like a friend, but like someone who fit my lifestyle, so that was a big part of it. But then the reason it was a book topic for me was: I was living in a city, and I don’t work well in cities, and I was trying to figure out – is it me, or do I just need to suck it up and figure out how to live in cities or should I leave the city and get a new job? I had a great job at a great university and I thought what I would do is chase down the spirit of Edward Abbey and in the end go searching for his hidden desert grave as a way to really just continue to question him on how he decided what home was. And I thought he’d be a good person to ask this because he spent his whole life bouncing back and forth between spots he did not want to live (normally around New York City) and spots he did (normally the Desert Southwest), and family and employment kept moving him back and forth, and I thought if anyone has wrestled with this question it is Abbey. So I went to a lot of places he lived, a lot of places he didn’t want to live and kind of interrogated him through his works and through his friend’s ideas and then I went searching for the grave, but the big reason was to try to figure out the idea of home and what I should do for home.
When did you discover Abbey’s writings?
My senior year of college, and it kind of transformed my worldview. I was a business major having no idea what I was going to do. And that was maybe the second major step towards an environmental focus. My mom was the first one and then Abbey was the second one.
How many books have you written?
I have one book, “Finding Abbey.” I have an anthology called “The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: Explorations in Creative NonFiction” — that’s a book just about looking at creative nonfiction itself and that has a whole bunch of wonderful authors contributing essays.
Why did you choose creative nonfiction – what is it about this genre?
It’s my first love, and I think I fell in love with it as a young adult 19-25 when I was just writing journals because it really helps you learn how to be human and as a young adult I needed that. I needed to figure out who I was; why I was who I was; what I was. So, again, I was a business major coming out of college having no idea what to do. And then I went into the Peace Corps and then I somehow ended up building trails in the woods. And I’m making these big giant not just career leaps but also human leaps, and I’m just transforming myself trying to figure out who the heck I was. And I think creative nonfiction allows us to repeatedly look at an idea and kind of just circle around it and see it from all different perspectives. It helps me wrestle through my ideas, through my weaknesses, through my flaws, and that’s one of my big things I love about it. The other thing I love is that it’s real; I’m not inventing a story to highlight the human experience; I’m saying this is the human experience. This is Abbey’s experience here – the quagmires he got himself into, and here’s how I can directly relate it to my own experience. When I’m driving across country from Michigan to Colorado I envision Abbey sitting next to me and we’re having this conversation; that’s what’s going on in my mind. I’m interrogating Abbey — “can you help me out, help me figure this out, be a mentor of mine?” And that’s how we live life. So, I’ve written fiction; I write lots of poetry, but for me creative nonfiction is the most useful and the most beautiful form to me because it’s about the art of human experience.
What is your process for writing a book?
I do a lot of research; so a lot of times before I do any project, I will read many many many books. I will have this vision for a book to write, but I also am envisioning a pile of books around me, and I don’t want to start writing until I get maybe halfway through, so we’re talking about 30, 40 books. A lot of it is just understanding the subject. I love Edward Abbey as a writer; I love his ideas, and people are starting to call me an Ed Abbey expert, which always seems so mind-blowing, [because] all I am is a fan who has read lots and lots of stuff and can tell you some cool stories. But I want to try to know my subject really well before I get too deep into it, especially for a big project. For the “Finding Abbey” book I planned an itinerary. I didn’t have it all mapped out, but alright I’m going to start in Home, Pennsylvania, where Abbey was born and where his parents are buried, and I’m going to go searching for their graves as a way to explore Abbey and his hometown and his family. So, I kind of had a frame for that. And then after that okay then I’m going to go out west and I’m going to talk with David Peterson, Abbey’s editor and friend, and then I’d write it chapter by chapter based on these travels. And that for me was really doable because I didn’t have to think about building a book, I had to think about building an essay and then another essay next to it, and then another essay and then once I had all my essays lined I had to make sure they communicated with each other, that they flowed.
Once I had transitions then the overall arc was building slowly upward and tension hopefully … I was thinking about size of scenes. So that was how I built “Finding Abbey,” research, then travel, then writing an essay, then as I had all those essays turning it into chapters that were thematically connected. Plot connected. Narrative connected. And then just a whole lot of revision. This book went through 50 or 60 drafts. I had many people read it and offer feedback. At one point I took out 90 pages spread throughout the book [because] there were a couple strands that were just not useful. And then, I sent it to a publisher and they liked it. So, from there, it was just copyediting, grammar stuff.
What do you tell your students about writing?
I tell my students that revision is the key, and what that means is — we revise everything every day with what we do. If you’re in a band, you practice playing guitar or drums whatever hundreds, thousands of days. If you’re on a football team or a soccer team, how many times have you kicked that ball or thrown that ball. And that’s all writing is. That first draft is often going to stink. That’s all right. If there are some kernels there, then they can keep drawing them out, drawing them out. And what’s really exciting for me is seeing what they can create by the end of the semester or the end of their time at Norwich and seeing these writers leave knowing that they can create beautiful things. So, I tell them revision is the key. And, specificity. If we don’t see your world, then we can’t feel for your world. Maybe divine inspiration hits every once in a while, but it only hits because of the thousands of hours we’ve put into writing already.
There are all these stories out there and all we have to do is listen. They are always there but so many times we’re not thinking about stories, we’re thinking about groceries. We’re thinking about letting the dog out. I look out my window and I say _ “That’s a poem right there! Just the way the wind hits across the lake. And it doesn’t come across as one big sheet of wind; it does these little wind dances, and because my job is to look at stories, I see that and I think ‘poem.’ Or someone says something, and I think: ‘short story.’ And it’s only because I keep my ears open and then I see what I can have the time to turn into a story. I have a lot of stories.
What are you working on now?
The book closest to being done is a textbook on environmental nature writing, called “Nature and Environmental Writing: A Guide and Anthology.” The idea is that there is no great nature or environmental writing textbook, so in the classroom I teach this class, but I cannot find the book to teach with it. By next year, hopefully, there will be a book that you can use and it will have an anthology with it of all modern-day, all newer writers from across America, and it will deal with issues of environment and race; issues of climate change; issues of gender and environment. We are trying to go across the border with different types of pieces so students can find what they want – fiction, nonfiction, poetry. I am working on that with Joe Wilkins, a great environmental writer.
I have three books of poetry I’m working on, and when I say poetry, I only call them poetry because everyone understands what we mean when we say poetry. Otherwise, I might call them micro-essays because they’re all true. The first one is all about my years spent leading a trail crew in the Pacific Northwest and the Desert Southwest. That’s a memoir in poems. I have a book on Turtle Cove, where my wife, Sarah, and I live, and what I want to do is to write these poem/microessays that are really science-heavy about the world around us. The science of loons, of our bees, of bears who ate our bees. The third one I am calling, “Talking with the Ancients,” which will be responses to ancient Chinese poetry.
I am thinking about another anthology that deals with science and creative nonfiction – truth and how we perceive time and how that affects creative nonfiction. I am interested in this because we are told how to write but not why. We tell students to “show and not tell,” but we don’t have the information to back up why that makes for better storytelling. I was always the kind of student who needed to know why we were supposed to do something a certain way.