Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Q&A with Jeff Fearnside



Jeff Fearnside is the author of the new book Ships in the Desert, which focuses on his experiences in Central Asia. His other books include A Husband and Wife are One Satan, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Paris Review and The Los Angeles Review. He teaches at Oregon State University.


Q: What inspired you to write this book?


A: The awe I felt at actually seeing the Aral Sea was what kicked off the entire project. I didn’t begin writing it then—it would take several more years—but the seeds were planted during that visit.


This was once the world’s fourth largest inland body of water, and due to mismanagement, greed, and corruption, it shrank to a tiny fraction of its former size. What was left was so beautiful, and yet what was already lost was so tragic.


The more research I did on the story behind its demise, the more I was pulled into it. In fact, I became quite passionate about water issues. We’ve had a good understanding of climate change for quite some time now, but I hadn’t thought about water issues as much because they hadn’t affected me personally.


Seeing the Aral Sea and learning more about it made me realize how important they are, not just there but everywhere. When I returned to the States after four years of living overseas, I saw issues analogous to the Aral Sea right here: in the falling Ogallala Aquifer, Owens Lake, and the Salton Sea. All of this is being exacerbated by climate change. I had to write about this.


There’s more in the book, of course. I relate some of the rich history of the Central Asia region, explore issues of cultural intolerance, and show scenes of my life there as well as compare that to my new life here in the States after returning. It all reflects my passion for the places and people in my life and the importance of bridging cultures.


Q: The writer Taylor Brorby said of the book, “In expository essays that combined the traditions of great writers such as Montaigne, Wendell Berry, and Annie Dillard, Jeff Fearnside takes us on a journey to a place many of us think of as ‘over there.’ By the end, readers will come to see that over there is never really far away.” What do you think of this assessment, both in terms of the comparisons and also the idea of “over there”?


A: I can’t speak for Taylor’s intentions, of course, but I think he understood that a large part of what I was trying to do with my book is show that not only is “over there” not far away, it doesn’t really even exist.


There’s only here, the place where we are—all of us, who each trace back to the same common ancestors only a few millennia ago, what’s called the genetic isopoint—and that’s planet Earth. So Taylor was correct to put the phrase “over there” in quotes, to emphasize its unreality.


As to his comparisons of me to those other writers, I’m beyond honored. I read Montaigne in graduate school, and I’m a huge admirer of Berry’s and Dillard’s work. I wouldn’t place myself at their level. How many writers could? Precious few.


I do note that Taylor stated my essays “combined the traditions” of those great writers, so I think he was really aiming to articulate my book’s style. The writers he mentioned incorporate a broader view with the personal and the philosophical, which is something I do, too.


I didn’t consciously emulate them. I did intentionally write in a hybrid style that fused elements of memoir, travel writing, literary journalism, and environmental advocacy. I felt this best served the book’s hybrid purpose, which was to tell some interesting stories, present some important historical and scientific facts, and offer some relevant questions to consider.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I chose that title so early in the drafting of the book that I don’t remember the exact reasons why I chose it! I think it was simply the most straightforward way to describe the startling image I witnessed when I visited the Aral Sea, of the abandoned fishing vessels left behind, sitting bolt upright in the sand, after the Aral had retreated so many scores of kilometers away.


As I write in the book at the very end of the titular essay, this image represents to me one of the two futures we face on this planet: We can either cooperate with each other and work together to solve the environmental crises we now face or we can continue our clannish ways and squabble with each other and through our inaction watch the world turn into a desert around us. I really do think the choice is that stark.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: One, I hope they come to realize just how small and interconnected the world really is, or if they understood that already, to feel it even more deeply. Two, that we face some serious issues that we can no longer ignore. Three, that we still have time to deal with these issues—if we begin working together now with the shared goal of ensuring the world remains livable for ourselves and the generations that follow.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I always have more than one project in the hopper! After I finished Ships in the Desert, I began writing a lot of new poetry in addition to collecting and polishing my older poems. So I currently have three full-length poetry manuscripts making the submission rounds, which I’m constantly refining.


As to new work, I have an exciting collaboration in progress with writer/director Brian Padian of Northern Flicker Films. Brian has written a screenplay based on my story “The River” in my recent collection from Orison Books and will be producing a short film with the same title. Right now, we’re in the stage of securing funding. If all goes well, we plan to shoot in spring 2023.


And I’ve picked up my novel set in Kazakhstan again. I’ve completed what I feel is a strong draft, and I’m ready to bring it up to another level.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I certainly appreciate your interest in my book! It takes a village, as they say—what applies to raising children in this case also applies to getting books out into the world. So I’m grateful for everyone who has helped mine on its journey. Thank you very much for taking time to ask me these good questions.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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