Thursday, June 3, 2010

7 Questions For: Author Melissa Walker

Dr. Melissa Walker has been a Professor of English at the University of New Orleans and Mercer University and a Fellow in Womer's Studies at Emroy University. She's a vocal advocate for civil rights and the wilderness. She is the author of Reading the Environment, Living on Wilderness Time: 200 Days Alone in America's Wild Places, and her newest book is the middle grade novel A Place for Delta. Click here to read my review. She lives with her husband Jerome in Atlanta and spends much of the summer in Alaska. 

And now Melissa Walker faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

My three favorite books? Honestly, I could come up with three favorite writers of a given century, and perhaps a favorite work by each. But I’d have to pull titles out of the air or off my bookshelves to come up with the three I most prefer of all I’ve read and reread through the decades. And then there’s the problem of what kind of book to include in the possibilities.

A single volume of the complete works of a poet? W. H. Auden? T.S. Eliot? Robert Frost? I’d have to go with Auden.

My favorite three novelists of the nineteenth century? Probably Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot. And my favorite novel of each of these literary giants would be Emma, Dombey and Son, and Middlemarch.

My favorite novelist of the last twenty-five years? I’ll go for Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, and Alexander McCall Smith. And my favorite of each? Today it’s Prodigal Summer, Saturday, and Friends, Lovers, Chocolate.

My favorite science writers? How about E. O. Wilson, Michael Pollan, and David Quammen? The books would be Naturalist, The Botony of Desire, and Song of the Dodo.

Children’s writers? I’ll go with the oldies: E. B. White, Dr. Seuss, and Jean Craighead George. And they lead to Charlotte’s Web, Bartholomew and the Oobleck, and My Side of the Mountain.

I could go on like this in different categories like the great epics, 18th century satire, or romantic poetry. I could list writers who have shaped my own thought and writing: Chaucer, Melville, Tennessee Williams, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, and William Faulkner.

But if I knew I could only have three books, I would choose The Yale Shakespeare: Complete Works, The Sibley Guide to Birds, and Armitage’s Herbaceous Perennial Plants. These three I would choose, not because they are my very favorites, but because I could never learn all they contain.

A fair warning: Don’t hold me to this. In a month or so, I could easily read other books that would change my answers, and I might read McEwan’s new book Solar or some other contemporary book that would blow me out of the water. Or I might remember how much I love Crime and Punishment, Huckleberry Finn, or Mrs. Dallaway.

Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

 The time I spend reading and writing varies enormously. During the time I’m holed up in my rented cabin in Homer, Alaska, I wake up, make toast and coffee, and write until hunger takes over. Then I wander down the mountain, eat my only complete meal of the day, have a good long walk, and chat with friends I encounter along the way. Night is for reading—J. M. Coetzee, Alexander McCall Smith, Mark Helprin, or some other master of English prose.

This schedule is ideal for getting a lot of work done, but my life is rich, and I have much more to attend to than writing and reading. Much of my research for A Place for Delta required travel to the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic, interviewing wildlife biologists, veterinarians, polar bear specialists, and even a search and rescue dog trainer. Airplanes are always good for reading, and when I’m eating alone in a restaurant I often read, or if I’m eavesdropping, I pretend to read.

Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?

 As a college English professor, I published articles in journals, encyclopedias, and even newspapers. But my first book came to me. I met a W. W. Norton editor at a professional meeting, and we talked about my doing a textbook on research and writing research papers. Less than two years later, my first book was in print and came out in three more editions. Way led on to way, and Yale Press published my only scholarly book, Down from the Mountaintop. After that, I became interested in the environment, and Norton asked me to do an anthology of environmental writing. In another year I had finished Reading the Environment. Then came wilderness. I spent two hundred days over a fifteen-month period traveling alone to hike, explore, and camp in designated wildernesses, mostly in the west and Alaska. Living on Wilderness Time was the result. The many paths I took through wild places led me to the Arctic, to Barrow, and finally to the story of an orphaned polar bear named Delta.

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

Writers, I believe, evolve from a strong desire to learn and to communicate with others. Writing is the best way to do that. If we give a talk that is heard by twenty people, we may just be filling the air with words that are not necessarily heard or remembered by anyone. Once we put words on paper, we have created something that has the possibility of lasting days, weeks, years, centuries, or even millennia. Then the learning to write begins, as we revise, edit, or ask someone else to read and respond. My best writing teacher was Barry Wade, my editor at Norton. He was rigorous, honest, relentless, determined and always gentle. All my editors have taught me how to improve my writing, as have my husband, my daughter, and my son Richard. My close girl friends are no good as teachers. They so want me to succeed that anything I show them seems great. Or so they say.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

What do I like most about the actual process of writing? Putting on a Frank Sinatra CD, sitting down to the computer, and feeling the words flow while believing what I’m saying is worthwhile. My least favorite experience is reading something I had “loved” a few days before only to realize that I would be embarrassed to show it to anyone.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Wise words for aspiring writers? If you have something to say, choose the form that’s best suited for the subject—an essay, a letter, a journal entry, a story, or a poem. Do the necessary research to enrich your writing. Don’t take short cuts. Read only good high quality prose and poetry--an Auden poem, a New Yorker essay, a Grace Paley short story, a play, the best of Hemingway or Fitzgerald. If after reading a few pages of a book you find that it is not well written, put it down and pick up something you know is good.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

If I could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, I’d choose Mark Twain because I know we’d have a good time and we’d laugh a lot. I like to laugh more than I like to do lunch.


  1. An interesting interview - what a rich life of experiences to draw from in writing.

  2. Very nice interview! Except for the question about three favorite books - almost unfair, isn't it?

    I, also, swear by my Sibley Guide to Birds ;-)

  3. Hahaha I agree with her answer for the worst part about writing: looking back on something you "loved" only to discover it's actually really horrible! I can definitely relate :)


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