Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Q & A with Esteemed Writer Elizabeth Royte

Time for another Writer Q & A. This time, I asked my friend Elizabeth Royte if she’d be game for my inquisition. She graciously agreed. I met Elizabeth back in 1995 sitting at a bar in Las Vegas of all places. She was on assignment and I was on a cross between a blind date and work duties—attending Comdex as party of my job duties for Prodigy Services. Back then Prodigy had hired me to send out, via email, weekly updates about my life. Or, as I like to put it—at the risk of sounding like Al “I invented the Internet” Gore, I was, in fact, one of the first bloggers. Only we didn’t call it blogging back then. But never mind that—getting back to Elizabeth. I am such a fan of her work. I will never forget when her stunning first book, The Tapir’s Morning Bath—which, as an aside, let me say is the best book title ever-- came out and the New York Times Book Review reviewer did something so uncharacteristic for NYT reviewers that I’d never seen before and perhaps have only seen one time since: flat out proclaimed, “This book is a charmer. I loved it.”

That’s because the book is so smart and such a compelling read that there’s nothing not to love about it. Elizabeth spent time on a research island off the coast of Panama studying the habits of researchers who study particular habits of rain forest critters. Super-meta, right? Right. Since then, Elizabeth has had two other books come out: Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash (in which she follows the path of trash from her kitchen to wherever it eventually goes) and Bottlemania (a look at this disposable bottle culture in which we live). She also writes for the New York Times Magazine, NYT Book Review, Outside, Rolling Stone, National Geographic and Harper's.

Seeing as we met right when the Internet was gaining purchase among everyday folk, I thought I’d ask her, among other things, what her overview-in-hindsight is about how the web has reshaped the way we write and are published. And so, sans further adieu, I present Elizabeth Royte. Oh, and here’s a link to her books on Amazon and her personal website and her blog


SG: You and I met in 1995 at Comdex Back then, it was kooky exciting with this whole Internet thing and we weren't sure where it was going. Now, to paint in broad strokes, I'm going to say that while the Internet has brought a lot of grooviness and some opportunities for writers, it has also in some ways made making a living as a writer more difficult. Do you remember having any particular thoughts in '95 about how "Oh this is going to change things for the better?" and/or have you looked back over the past 16 years and come up with some personal overview about how the Internet (especially blogs) has changed the way writing is produced/consumed?

ER : I had no idea, in 1995, that the Internet would look or feel the way it does. I used it only for e-mail and AltaVista searches; I’m not tech savvy; and I hate prognostication (because I’m always wrong). Certainly blogging has changed expectations of publishers (they like authors to have a platform from which to sell books), and it’s also turned anyone into a writer, which – as you know—broadens the field of competitors vying for ever less space in journals that still pay writers to report, think, and write. But I’ve also realized, from dropping in on some of these blogs, that there’s a lot of talent out there – some surprisingly good and/or quirky writers. Refreshingly, they’re not necessarily blogging to get noticed, craft a platform, or make money.

SG: Tell me about Bottlemania, which I am embarrassed to not have read yet, though reading the blurbs about it immediately called to mind an installation by Chris Jordan called Running the Numbers, and in particular this piece: Plastic Bottles. Since I saw that installation, I am not kidding-- I have reduced my consumption of all beverages in plastic bottles by about 90% and hope to get that down to about 99% reduction soon. 

ER: Brava for reducing consumption of single-serve, factory-made beverages in disposable bottles! It’s easy to make one’s own tea, lemonade, et cetera, and pour it into a reusable container when you want to take a beverage with you. Bottlemania started out as a book that questioned how we got to the point of purchasing (and discarding) 40 billion of those bottles a year (I was interested in the bottles’ environmental and social impact), but it took a serious turn when I started to look at what’s right— and wrong— with tap water. Ultimately, the book makes a case for increased support of municipal water supplies, so everyone has access to affordable, healthful, zero-waste water.

The book grew from the research I did writing Garbage Land, and I hope that it gets at what bottled-water consumption stands for (a form of heedlessness), and why we need to re-think our culture of convenience. It is not a screed against bottled water (imagine a screedy exclamation point here), which I don’t consider the worst thing in the world, although it does distract us from devising systemic solutions to water quality and quantity problems.

SG: In Garbage Land you followed your personal stream of trash. In Bottlemania you look at the wicked consumption of bottled water-- so how does this affect you personally? And do you think your work is having an impact on folks? Is that what drives you-- to effect change? Or is it more about observing and reporting? 

ER: I’ve always been a lackluster consumer, so I never dramatically cut my waste or made radical lifestyle changes (I’m not even sure I have a lifestyle) reporting these books. But yes, I write to find out what I think about things (I hadn’t thought much about tap water before writing Bottlemania, but that may be because I live in New York City, which has famously good water). And I also write to try to change people’s minds -- to persuade them to tread more lightly on the planet by informing them of the upstream and downstream impacts (environmental and social) of their consumer choices.

SG: What's your writing process like when you are preparing for and then writing a book? I mean, you are a massive research queen writing in what sometimes feels like a world full of airy memoirs (I feel okay saying that, even though I could be accused of the latter).

ER: When starting a book I read what’s already been written on the subject (in journals, books, newspapers), and I try to get up to speed on the latest thinking, familiarize myself with the jargon, et cetera. Then I pick up the phone and try to find interesting places from which I can report and set scenes, and to find my Virgils—my guides to and interpreters of these new-found lands. 

SG: Speaking of airy memoirs, any thoughts on the glut of me me me writing? There was that scathing put down of memoirs in a recent NYT Book Review. I personally was really put off by a memoir I read recently because I felt it perpetuated the whole bullshit (my opinion) Mommy Wars thing. So, to piggyback on my memoir question here-- you're a mom but you write hard-hitting stuff, and you write beautifully, and you research your stuff. Any thoughts on gender and writing-- do you feel like you are, as a woman writing about science and environment, mostly in the company of men writers when it comes to these topics?

ER: I don’t read enough memoirs to have an opinion of recent examples, though I’m fairly uninterested in the mommy genre. I hugely admired the excerpt of Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones and Butter in the New Yorker and have ordered the book from the library. I think it appealed to me mostly because of my fondness for this Seventies/Boho-Parents/Divorce genre.

As for my gender and my writing: I don’t really think about it. I do what I do, and I don’t think too many people (editors or sources) notice that I’m female. I haven’t thought much about why there are more men writing about the environment than there are women (there are more men than women freelancing on any subject for the magazines that publish my work). Interestingly, it seems that there are more women than men blogging about “green living,” sustainability, and so on. Is it because they’re home more, and they’re making the decisions about what (or if) to buy? I don’t like to think that green citizenship is a consumer issue, but that’s the impression one gets from these sites. Who’s writing about systemic solutions to environmental problems? Mostly men.

SG: Tell me more about your journalism-- who are you writing for these days and do you try to only take serious assignments or, as needed (financially) will you write lighter pieces?

ER: I’m writing a piece for the New York Times Magazine now (on a semi-environmental but mostly social issue) and a piece for National Geographic. And I continue to review nonfiction for the NYT Book Review. I recently did a couple profiles for a women’s magazine. Was it lighter fare? Not really: I profiled a biogeochemist and an anti-CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) activist. I’d love to do lighter pieces, maybe some essays, but I’m not so good at generating those ideas. Maybe I should take a class from you.

SG: What's next for you?

ER: I’d like to say I’ll be on to a new book project soon. But I’ve been saying that for twenty months and a solid (and marketable) idea eludes me.

SG: I teach writing workshops and naturally my students want to know about getting published. I don't want to paint a bleak picture for them but I do like to be realistic. I do point out that they can publish, in an instant, with blogging. Any thoughts on getting published in general (advice, the difficulty of it, etc) and blogs in particular?

ER: I think there’s still room out there for good writers with unique ideas, or spectacular access to an elusive source, or real investigative chops. Editors need novel, solid and intriguing ideas, not just mild curiosity about something a writer happens to be interested in. Having a good track record with editors helps, as does having a niche specialty. Get started with small journals, local newspapers – write for free if you have to, but develop a body of work and then start pitching larger journals (it’s worth researching how to write a winning query). 

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