The Hobart Festival of Women Writers is very pleased to herald the return of springtime in The Catskills and to welcome the return of lifelong environmentalist and longtime community activist, Leslie T. Sharpe as a Participating Writer for Festival 2018. Sharpe’s book, The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills has recently won the IPPY Independent Publisher Book Awards Gold Medal IPPY Awards. A collection of essays chronicling the private lives of wild critters, The Quarry Fox is the first book since John Burroughs’ to look in-depth at the wildlife of the Catskills. Sharpe began her interests early. In second grade, she was president of Junior Audubon. Currently, in New York City, she is editor of the Bedford Barrow Commerce Block Association newsletter, an association which has raised over $300,000 to benefit its community. A well-known figure in the Catskills literary community, Leslie T. Sharpe is a writer, editor, and teacher. A member of PEN American Center, she is the author of the “modern editing classic” Editing Fact and Fiction: A Concise Guide to Book Editing and “On Writing Smart: Tips and Tidbits,” included in The Business of Writing. Sharpe regularly contributed to Newsday’s “Urban ‘I’” column and has also written for such publications as the Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Village Voice.
Leslie T. Sharpe speaks with Stephanie Nikolopoulos about the literary landscape and the natural.
SN: You come from a book publishing background, having first worked as an editor for Farrar, Straus, and Giroux and then gone on to work as an editorial consultant, senior editor, and managing editor for various other houses. When I was working toward my MFA in creative writing at The New School, the sentiment there seemed to be that writers shouldn’t work in book publishing because it would take time away from their writing. I had actually been working in book publishing for close to a decade before I earned my MFA and love working in the industry. I find that it actually spurs me on to be a better writer as well. How has working in book publishing informed your writing? What are the challenges with being a writer who is also an editor?
LS: What I always told my grad students, in Columbia University’s MFA program, was that they had to be writing entrepreneurs, as well as writers. Now, granted, I was teaching in the Nonfiction concentration, and I was teaching, specifically, creative nonfiction, which is, narrative nonfiction, personal essay, and memoir, especially. All of those disciplines need 1) a proposal to submit to an agent, or to a publisher (small presses, university presses, which don’t pro forma require an agent); and 2) they need, to sell to a publisher, a target audience that will buy the book. Poetry, literary nonfiction, ideally should have such demonstrable audiences too. But, certainly, if you want to sell your book, and get an advance, you do need that proposal. (And more and more these days, agents/editors are looking for that in fiction too.) What my working as an editor in book publishing, from the most literary publisher, such as Farrar, Straus, to book producers, which are utterly commercial, taught me, as a writer, is that selling is the key, especially now, to this business. And I am a literary writer, and that fact doesn’t detract from my writing, which I never do to please a market, but only to please myself. Sometimes, happenstance has it, that these converge, as they did with my recent book, THE QUARRY FOX. And what working in publishing also teaches you, as a writer, is that you have to be the one to push your book, even after you have sold your book. YOU have to be the one to push it, in the area of publicity/marketing. Yes, your publisher will send out those bound galleys to reviewers, if you are lucky. But, and this is where your marketing plan comes in, any bookstores or other such venues, where you could read, TELL your publicist. And don’t be afraid to stroll into bookstores, copy of your book in hand, and ask them to order it. MFA programs are great, I taught in Columbia’s writing program, grads, and undergrads, for twenty years, and I loved it, and I loved my young writers, and still do, many of whom have gone on to be successful. BUT, MFA programs can make an artificial division between the academy and the marketplace. And pooh-pooh the marketplace. But I don’t know ANY writer who doesn’t want to sell their book, make some money. Which gives them the leverage to continue writing. So, remember this: your book is YOUR baby. Your agent, if you choose to have one, or your editor, for that matter, as much as they may love your baby, they have other babies, as in clients and books. You have to be not just a writer or even a writing entrepreneur, but your book’s never-ending advocate.
SN: Similar to weaving between writing and editing, you weave effortlessly between the hustle of the city and the wild of the mountains. You’ve taught at Columbia University, New York University, and the City College of New York. Even in the city, though you pursued nature: you were the vice president of the New York City Audubon Society and an editor of The Urban Audubon. You’ve also taught at Writers In The Mountains and your latest book is nature writing, The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills. What do you get from these disparate settings? Is there something in the weaving between the two that ignites your writing?
LS: What people don’t appreciate, is how much nature there is in urban settings. And how crucial those urban settings are. For instance, NYC in on what we call the Eastern Flyway (there are several of these, east to west, which are migratory routes for birds in spring and fall). In spring, birds in their bright, colorful breeding plumage drop into Central Park, among other places in the NYC area, and draw birders from around the world, including as far away from Russia. There is a book in the Central Park Boathouse, where people record their sightings–over 280 species of birds have been spotted there. I myself had first sightings of indigo buntings, cedar waxwings, wood ducks, all in migration. And also, urban areas are replete with wildlife. The Hudson River and the East River have uninhabited islands that are crucial nesting areas for various kinds of herons, egrets, cormorants. These are under the stewardship of NYC Audubon’s Harbor Herons Program. (And why I got involved, with NYC Audubon, in the early nineties, was because of an oil spill in the Arthur Kill that threatened these nesting sites. It was time to not just give money to these organizations but to act!). Also there are areas such as Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, in NYC, which has, I believe, about 10 percent of NYS’s wetlands, and which is an extraordinary resource, not only for wildlife but for acting, as wetlands do, as a buffer zone, They absorb water, and hence help save mainland areas from flooding, which is a reason we are desperately trying, in some areas, everywhere, to restore wetlands. Unfortunately, they have been filled, and paved over–and too late, do we realize their ecological significance. I wrote about these places and issues, for NY Newsday’s “Urban ‘I'” column, and also as the editor of The Urban Audubon. In short, nature is nature for me. Now, my dear dad once said to me, when I was in NYC, I never understood what a nature girl like you was doing in NYC. And the answer was that I was interested in human nature, and exploring relationships. And also, I had a graduate degree to get and a career in publishing to pursue. But, I never felt estranged from nature in the city. Just a walk on the Lower West Side waterfront, in spring, would offer the sight of Bufflehead ducks and American mergansers in migration, along with the usual mallards and Canada geese, and occasionally, a black-crowned night heron sitting on a pile. I think the notion that these settings, the country, say, and the city, are so disparate–which they are superficially–is what accounts for the alienation that city folks can feel from nature. If they bothered to open their eyes and ears and look up even, they would see so much more. Nature itself, in the city or country, is all that I need to ignite my writing.
SN: The current administration has done away with many environmental protections yet America has a long and rich history of nature writing. Can you tell us a little about how nature writing may be a form not just of appreciation and perhaps education but also of record/history keeping and even of activism?
LS: This last question can’t be answered in a few words, really. It is a Ph.D. dissertation. Nature writing, historically, in this country, has been about appreciation and education, yes. And YES, activism. Henry David Thoreau, “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” the first preservationist; John Muir, writing in the latter part of the 19th century, who founded the Sierra Club, the West’s and especially Yosemite’s champion; John Burroughs, the great Catskill nature writer, friend of Teddy Roosevelt, who influenced the “environmental President” to found some 61 nature preserves and our national park system! And who, through his many powerful friends, men like Henry Ford, was able to help get so many pieces of key legislation passed, such as the Migratory Bird Treaty. And let’s jump to the greatest example of nature writing, perfect, beautiful, compelling prose, that also changed the world, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, in 1962. She uncovered and was reviled for this, how DDT was not just killing birds (like us at the top of the food chain, especially the raptors, the bald eagle, ospreys, peregrines, etc.) but how it was poisoning the water, the earth, you name it. DDT was banned, in this country, as a result, and the EPA was founded by President Nixon in 1972, who suddenly looks pretty damned good! There are tons more so-called crucial and pivotal nature writing books, which go to animal intelligence–The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, which shows us that yes, octopi are sentient–those that go to the interplay of humans and nature, and the fragility of ecosystems, and the need to protect them–Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay (Pulitzer Prize) by William Warner–and simple evocation of the wonders and beauty of nature, and the need we have as humans, to be part of that, my all-time favorite nature memoir, Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey. It just goes on and on . . .
Leslie T. Sharpe will offer the workshop, SEEING NATURE IN WORDS: A Nature Writing Workshop at Hobart Festival of Women Writers 2018.
The goal of the workshop is to encourage writers to explore their own special relationship with the natural world—whether that relationship is to the Catskills or a backyard garden, expressed as a description of a single flower or as an essay probing an environmental issue—in their own true voice. – Leslie T. Sharpe
For a complete description of this workshop and all of the workshops offered at Festival of Women Writers 2018 www.hobartfestivalofwomenwriters.com
REGISTRATION OPENS ON MAY 15TH!!!
For more information: The Quarry Fox and Other Wild Critters of The Catskills