The Ecotone Interview with Jill Sisson Quinn

Jill Sisson Quinn’s essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Crab Orchard Review, Bellingham Review, Quarter After Eight, The Good Men Project, and American Nature Writing 2003. She won the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2003, and her winning essay was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Quinn’s first book, Deranged: Finding a Sense of Place in the Landscape and in the Lifespan, was published by Apprentice House in September 2010. Her essay, “Sign Here If You Exist”, which originally appeared in Ecotone Vol. 6, Issue 1, won the John Burroughs Award for Most Outstanding Natural History Essay. The essay was also reprinted in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011.

When did the worlds of nature and writing first converge for you?

When I was working on my graduate degree in environmental education, and I read Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, and I was learning about island biogeography and population dynamics and invasive species and habitat fragmentation and bottlenecks and genetic drift. As an English major, I had been away from science for a long time, and when I came back to it, it blew my mind.

Your education spans several disciplines; across the board, what are some common qualities of the best teachers you’ve had?

The best teachers I’ve had are people who are so hopelessly and unapologetically captivated by their subject matter and teach about it with such unfettered passion, that when you enter their classroom everything else falls by the wayside, and for that hour you are buoyed by their zeal. These teachers are few and far between, and when you are in the presence of one you know you are experiencing something rare and special.

Who have been your most influential teachers or mentors?

I was lucky enough to have several English teachers at Westminster High School in Carroll County, Maryland who read and commented on my poetry, took me to open readings in Baltimore, and taught me how to write cover letters and submit work for publication. This was far beyond the scope of their required duties. Because of their encouragement, I entered contests and went to a writer’s conference and was sort of introduced to this world that I otherwise would have had no idea existed. At the University of Maryland, I studied under the poet Michael Collier. And then in graduate school at Montclair, when I was studying environmental education and living as a teaching fellow in Stokes State Forest in northwestern New Jersey, I had this biology professor, Randall Fitzgerald, who was just brilliant. He knew where the flying squirrels were living and when there would be fifty northern red salamanders hanging out by the stream, and where the first hepatica would bloom each spring. He spoke about nature as if it were knowable, in addition to mysterious and awe-inspiring. And then, of course, all of my mentors in the MFA program at Goucher College, Leslie Rubinkowski, Suzannah Lessard, Diana Hume George, and Kevin Kerrane, continue to be great mentors.

You have been teaching high school English for the past six years—what trends (for better or worse) have you seen develop in your students’ reading tastes?

I don’t know if I can confidently note any trends, but I will say this: there are still young people out there who are reading everything, including the classics. Many high school students like fantasy–Tolkien, Christopher Paolini, Brian Jacques. A lot of the girls like Jodi Picoult. Everyone loves The Hunger Games series. Sadly, I have not found a single student who likes one of my favorite books from young adulthood—Catcher in the Rye. They are turned off by Holden’s out-of-date slang and his constant reflection. They want plot. They want page-turners.

Your work has been compared to Annie Dillard’s; has her work has been important to your progression as a writer?

A mentor gave me Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when I was nineteen. Three years later, when I wrote my first essay—about forest fragmentation and the end of a relationship, titled “This Game” in my book, Deranged—I looked up where Annie Dillard was teaching and sent her a copy along with a brief, formal letter asking for comments. I was teaching at the New Jersey School of Conservation. One day, I received a large manila envelope from Annie Dillard. It was raining, and I had to teach a lesson right after I’d picked up my mail. All of our lessons were taught outdoors. I put the envelope under my coat and taught the lesson. When I opened the envelope, back in my cabin, and pulled out the damp pages, I found that Annie Dillard had indeed made some comments on my essay. I remember she had drawn a big “X” on the first couple of paragraphs and written, “Don’t people already know this stuff?” Then she underlined the first line of the third paragraph, which was “I learned to slice from a lover.” She wrote: “Start here.” And I did, and now I know exactly how to begin an essay and I carry that lesson over to my students. I took all of Dillard’s advice and the essay was accepted for publication by the first place I sent it to: Fourth Genre.

Inside the package there was also a very small piece of stationery with a Key West address and Annie Dillard’s name printed on top. Beneath it was written, “Hi Jill—I can never do this again—good luck—with it—it’s good—cheers—Annie Dillard.” The word “never” was underlined several times. So it was bittersweet, but more than I could have hoped for.

I wrote Dillard again when Deranged was about to come out, asking for a blurb—as I’m sure thousands of others have, even though on her website she clearly states that she can do no such thing. She wrote me back again, this time on an even smaller piece of paper—not stationery, but scrap paper. This note simply said, “No. I’m sorry. See website.” It was signed, “Aging Annie Dillard.” I have the first letter framed and hanging in my office at home. I have a print of Dillard’s painting, “View From Cabin,” hanging in my living room.

I could go on about the ways Dillard’s writing has influenced me—how she has inspired me to write about the horrors of nature, and braid the scientific with the personal, and pay close attention to the rhyme and rhythm of my prose. Certainly, reading and rereading her books has influenced my writing on a subconscious level over time. But I feel Dillard has been with me in a real sense, as well. When I read Dillard aloud to my high school students I feel as if, for a moment, she enters the room. This must sound somewhat obsessive, like a young Justin Bieber fan or something!

I feel I need to mention two other books here that have influenced perhaps not my style, but my subject matter. One is Wilson and Daly’s Sex, Evolution, and Behavior. I borrowed this book when I saw it on a professor’s shelf. It’s really an evolutionary biology textbook, but I read it like a novel. It’s a page-turner. Like the best fiction, it hypothesizes as to why people act the way they do, why the world is the way it is. The second book is E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature.  Wilson’s proposition that the epic of evolution should be the guiding myth of our time is in the background of all of my writing.

Part of your undergraduate study was in poetry—do you still write poems? Are there subjects that you can only confront in one form or the other? 

I stopped writing poems rather abruptly, when I entered graduate school to study environmental education. That is also when I became more aware of, and began writing, creative nonfiction. When I first started to write essays, I would sometimes think, could I do this in a poem? Sometimes I would sit at the computer in a state of confusion, worrying that I would pick the wrong genre, as if I had only one chance to choose. Occasionally, I would allow myself to write a little poem that I would later expand into an essay. I work almost entirely in the lyrical essay form now, which is very close to poetry. But there are certain subjects that I cannot write about in essays. Usually these are highly emotional subjects. Essay ideas tend to begin for me not with an emotion, but when I am struck with an odd connection between two seemingly disparate things—something scientific I am reading about and a childhood memory, or something I find in nature and a question I have been pondering in my head.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’ve been doing a lot of short nature pieces for Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life series. I’ve been working on an essay about the Jerusalem cricket, a fairly common over-sized insect I encountered in Utah last summer that has a very human-looking head. The essay also explores dead metaphors, and why people often insist on taking their own religious stories literally while other people’s myths seem so obviously metaphorical. I’m working on a piece about an encounter my dog and I had with a badger that turned into a sort of religious experience. And lately I’ve become obsessed with sonnets.

Has the conversation between you and your mother (about God and the afterlife) that you write about in Sign Here if You Exist continued? Has she read the essay?

My mother has read the essay. I sent it to her on Mother’s Day, before it was published in Ecotone. That might seem cruel, but really it was meant as an intimate gift, and that’s how it was received, I think. In some ways, my mother and I are always involved in the conversation about God and the afterlife. She might call me and talk about a book she’s reading, or her faith is made evident, somehow, in an email. We’re not trying to convince each other of anything; rather, the subject comes up because we are close and we speak often about what’s important to us.

To continue a conversation fiction editor Mike Bull started in his interview with Kevin Wilson, do you have a writing routine, or does it change by the day?

From September to June, when I am teaching, I have no routine. I write when I can. But the day after school lets out, I begin my routine, and here it is: I rise around 6:30 and walk 6.7 miles with my dog. I walk 6.7 miles because this is the shortest loop I can walk on the roads by my house. Then I go upstairs to the computer and I write from nine until noon. I force myself, even if I am not writing, to sit at the computer for three hours. Sometimes I will work on just one paragraph, yet the time flies. Sometimes I will write several pages, but the time just crawls by. Other times I do research. But I force myself to stay there, and I think that’s why the walk is important; my legs are tired, so I don’t mind sitting. If the writing is going well, and I can’t stop, I will continue to write in the afternoon and evening. If the writing is going really, really poorly, I will leave the computer before my allotted three hours and go to the garden and pull weeds, which is just about the best medicine I have found for not being able to write. After lunch I lie on the porch swing in the shade and read. The rose-breasted grosbeaks at the feeder spit sunflower seed shells at me. When I get chilly, I move into the sun, and then when I get hot, I move back to the shade. My husband comes home from work and makes fun of me, moving back and forth with my book like a turtle or some other ectotherm. He notes that my car has not budged for yet another day. It is a pretty solitary time and I look forward to it all year.