Kathryn Miles grew up on the Midwestern prairie, where she cultivated a strong desire to be the next Laura Ingalls Wilder. When that role continued to elude her, she turned her attention elsewhere and became a cub reporter covering local oddities like Zamboni drivers, pumpkin chunkers, and barge captains. She took a B.A. in philosophy from Saint Louis University in 1996 and received her Ph.D. from the University of Delaware in 2001.
Now residing in coastal Maine, Miles still dedicates her writerly life to the uncovering of previously ignored narratives and characters. She is the author of All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship, which details the miraculous journeys of the famine ship, and Adventures with Ari: A Puppy, a Leash & Our Year Outdoors, a memoir recounting four seasons as a canine naturalist. An excerpt of the book was included in Best American Essays 2009, published by Houghton Mifflin; two years later, her “Killing Laughter” was named a notable essay by the same publication. Since that time, Miles has written about subjects that include Puerto Rican street food, eel poachers, homing pigeons, and lifesavers. Her writing has appeared in publications like Alimentum, Between Song and Story, Ecotone, Flyway, Meatpaper, and Terrain.org, where she is also an editorial board member and regular columnist.
I first met Kathryn Miles in January of 2008 when the leadership of Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment gathered in Boise, Idaho for a retreat. We had just 48 hours to do a whole lot of planning, so this was a working meeting that began just after sunrise each morning and ended with bottles of wine late each night. Kate’s contributions were smart and perceptive, but it was during our meal breaks and after-hours socializing that I especially appreciated her lively personality. She’s charming and self-deprecating, and most important of all, she can really tell a funny story. I got the impression that she’s always writing a narrative in her head. I knew after that first meeting that I wanted to read anything she writes.
Janine DeBaise: Sometimes environmental writing has the reputation of being rather grim and full of doomsday predictions. Yet, looking at the journal Hawk & Handsaw: the Journal of Creative Sustainability, which you founded and currently edit, I think that the title—and certainly much of the content—indicates that you value creativity, playfulness, and a sense of humor as tools in raising awareness and coming up with solutions to environmental problems. How did you come to the decision to take that approach?
Kathryn Miles: From the start, Hawk & Handsaw has had an unofficial motto of “No Sanctimony.” We adore lovely, lyrical essays, but we also recognize the importance of humor and perspective. Tackling issues like climate change or megaextinction can feel like a grim enterprise, and that, in turn, can make it easy to lose sight of what is beautiful and what is absurd. There’s a danger to doing either, especially if it means that we lose our joie de vivre. Too often, conversations about sustainability become, at best, discussions of how to get by and, at worst, a resigned acceptance of an impending apocalypse. That’s not very inspiring, and it misses what I think is at the heart of sustainability, which is finding a way for all of us to flourish. At Hawk & Handsaw, we try to make sure that that kind of vibrancy is a part of everything we do, both inside the office and out.
Janine DeBaise: You said once that you went to college intending to enter the field of law, to be an environmental attorney, but then at some point your career path swerved. Tell us how that happened and what choices you’ve made along the way.
Kathryn Miles: Well, for starters, it turned out that I was abysmally bad at citing precedent. There was a pivotal moment in my undergraduate career when I walked into my constitutional law professor’s office to talk about a less-than-stellar grade I had received on our midterm exam. I sat down while he finished up his phone conversation, which ended up being a huge debate with Antonin Scalia about the finer points of an old constitutional law case. They were both so impassioned, and as impressed as I was by the nature of the conversation, I knew it wasn’t for me. I swapped my political science degree for one in philosophy, where I felt like I had the freedom I needed to explore theories and ideologies. From there, I did a traditional Ph.D. in English, but criticism didn’t quite fit right either. Now, it seems, I’m mostly back where I started, which is telling stories. The training in law and scholarship has been invaluable, particularly when it comes to conducting research and determining what questions I need to be asking. Working as a writer lets me pay homage to those ideas, but it also lets me move beyond them when I feel like I need to.
Janine DeBaise: Your writing often combines a narrative with scientific facts and information. How do you figure out how to balance telling a good story—and entertaining your reader—with educating your reader?
Kathryn Miles: I think our species is defined by its love for good narrative, and in my experience, the very same literary constructs that comprise fiction propel good nonfiction as well: character development, conflict, narrative arc, that sort of thing. When it comes to braiding that narrative with some of the tougher theory, I always tell my students to follow the TV drama model: have you pushed your story to a place—a kind of cliffhanger, if you will—where the viewer will stay with you, even if you take a commercial break? A good work of nonfiction will do that again and again, and these spaces buy the writer time to tackle theory and science without losing the reader. A great essay will make those moments seem like the very heart of the piece. At Unity College, I’m fortunate to have a group of fantastic scientists in my life who see what is captivating about their work, and who are willing to help me how figure out how to make other people fascinated by it, too.
Janine DeBaise: One of the things I loved about Adventures with Ari is that it’s the kind of book that would appeal to folks who wouldn’t normally wander past the “Nature” shelf in the bookstore. The narrative about your relationship with Ari drew readers who might not normally be interested in the topic of the environment—and yet, the book has environmental messages. Do you self-identify as a nature writer? What are some of the problems and limitations with nature writing as a genre?
Kathryn Miles: That’s a great question, and it’s one that I grapple with a lot. I think, if anything, I would consider myself an environmental writer. That probably sounds like genre equivocation, but to my mind it represents an increasingly significant distinction. We are an urban planet, and for over half a decade now, more people have been residing in urban, rather than rural, environments. This trend will only deepen during our lifetime. For many people, nature denotes a wilderness experience, and while I agree that such an experience is an important and awe-inspiring thing, it is also becoming one of entitlement. I think it’s important to acknowledge that. I also feel strongly that writers have a responsibility to meet readers where they are: it’s the only we way we can forge the kind of connection needed to show them another perspective or worldview. That, in turn, means widening the scope of subject and genre, of acknowledging that a tenement is as formative and defining as a forest or mountain top.
Janine DeBaise: Nature writer Bill McKibben, through his Twitter account and the website 350.org, has done a great job harnessing the power of the Internet, using social media to raise awareness, rally people, and organize to fight environmental battles. What do you see as the potential and drawbacks of the internet when it comes to environmental issues? Do you think the print media will continue to have a role in grassroots organizing?
Kathryn Miles: Let me start by saying that, when it comes to thinking about how writers can effectively use the internet, I always turn to you as a great example. What strikes me about new media in general, and your digital platform in particular, is the way that it builds community. At long last, we’re moving beyond a hierarchical broadcast model—one person, disseminating a message to many—and instead embracing a system based on holism and social ecology. I liken it to the traditional Paris salon, where, literature became the catalyst for group interaction and pursuant action. And I’m heartened when I go somewhere like Orion’s website and see that the string of reader comments is longer than an original article. But, since this is the web and we can get all postmodern here, let me turn it back to you. How would you answer your question?
Janine DeBaise: Well, it’s probably telling that I used Bill McKibben as my example. He’s written more than a dozen books, some of which have influenced me deeply, but in addition, he’s successfully used social media and the website 350.org for grassroots organizing on a global scale. I’m always going to read whole books to grasp the complexity and nuance of environmental problems. But I love the immediacy of the internet and the way we can use it to build community across vast geographic distances. Just last year, I watched livestreams of the Occupy Wall Street movement (Tim Pool, in particular) as it unfolded—and read smart, thoughtful blog posts about the movement written simultaneously. So there were activists out in the streets protesting, but also people at home writing smart, perceptive things on the internet, and I could access both at the same time. The danger with the internet, of course, is that there’s so much information and entertainment out there. If we don’t learn how to filter information and how to use the internet carefully, we could spend our days LOLing at cute pictures of cats while our species goes extinct.
But let’s talk about books. What does the bookshelf by your bed look like? What are you currently reading? What old favorites do you return to? Which authors should be on every reader’s list?
Kathryn Miles: I think the authors on everyone’s reading lists should be the ones that really speak to those people making the lists. To that end, the stack of books by my bed is a sprawling mess of old favorites and new interests. Right now, as I start work on my new book project, the latter category is populated almost entirely by histories of shipwrecks and rescues. As for the perennial favorites, I always have a few cookbooks, which I read like most people read tawdry romance novels, some Buddhist standbys like Pema Chodron, and a few poets, including Gary Snyder. Somehow, I always feel better knowing he’s in arm’s reach.
Janine DeBaise: You’ve got a busy life. What keeps you sane and grounded?
Kathryn Miles: If you asked the people closest to me, they might tell you that I’m not all that sane or grounded. I have a pretty assertive monkey mind, which requires some serious subterfuge to get it quieted down. Historically, those go-to moments of trickery have been high-energy activities that require a lot of concentration: downhill skiing and surfing, sailboat racing or a long trail run. I still really love all of those things. In the last year or so, though, I’ve made a big commitment to tamping down their focus. I spend a lot more time doing yoga or in mindfulness-based meditation than I ever have before. It’s made a big difference.
Janine DeBaise: Tell us about your newest book, All Standing. What drew your interest to the story of this ship? Tell us about the research you did to write this book.
Kathryn Miles: The story of the Jeanie Johnston is really remarkable. She was built as an act of charity by an enigmatic ship owner during the height of the Irish Famine. This was a time of mass emigration—both coerced and voluntary—and the ships that ferried the starving Irish had mortality rates that easily exceeded those of the previous generation’s slave ships. There were over 5,000 of these coffin ships in existence, and of them, the Jeanie Johnston was the only one never to lose a passenger. I first learned about the ship when I was in Ireland nearly ten years ago, and I was instantly captivated. Hers is a story of courage, and the willingness to stake everything on a chance at the American Dream. I’m humbled by the experiences of those people who sailed on her, and it’s a real honor to tell their tales. This book took a long time to write, because I felt like I really needed to know these people in as much detail as I could, and the reality (which is to say the scarcity) of 19th century Irish archival material made that a challenge. I spent a lot of time reading blurry microfilm in cold libraries—pretty monotonous work, really. But there were also moments of incredible excitement, like making contact with the descendants of the main figure in the book, or sailing as crew aboard the re-creation of the ship. Those are the sorts of experiences that make a book indelibly real.
Kathryn Miles: You have a good memory. An ethic of care is based on ideas of interdependence, and the belief that the most vulnerable among us deserve the most consideration. Writers are uniquely suited to raise awareness about both: we can show what unites us, and we can remind people about narratives that have been forgotten or might otherwise become overlooked. There’s that poignant moment in Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” where she says, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” That’s what writing from an ethic of care looks like. And it broadens this behest even further: tell me about what you love and what you hate; tell me what frightens you and what you’re willing to fight for. Then, if you’re willing to listen, I’ll tell you about those things in my life. And maybe then we both will understand.
Janine DeBaise: What’s next for Kate Miles?
Kathryn Miles: My new book is about the formation of the Coast Guard and the WWI rescue that defined their organization, and I’m completely obsessed. I’m about to become an aunt again, and I find that I really like that vocation, too. There’s nothing like a little person to remind you how to really live. I plan on doing a lot of that. The rest is kind of detail, really.
Janine DeBaise’s poetry has been widely published, including the chapbook Of a Feather from Finishing Line Press. Her creative nonfiction has been published most recently in the 2012 anthology Companions in Wonder from the MIT Press. For eight years, she’s been blogging about life in upstate New York at writingasjoe.blogspot.com.
Header photo of Maine lighthouse by Simmons B. Buntin.