Thursday, May 09, 2013

An Interview with an author: Susan Zakin

A while ago I reviewed Coyotes and Town Dogs by Susan Zakin.   I am pleased that Susan has graciously allowed me to interview her for my blog.   Enjoy the interview and keep your eye out for her upcoming novel.  You can also learn more about Susan and her work at her website and Facebook page.  
This is the first real interview I’ve done and I now join the ranks of a few blogger friends like Michael Manning, Charles Gramlich and Ron Scheer.  In the interest of honesty, I should point out that Nevada Jack has done a few faux-interviews such as the one with the guy who held Michael Jackson’s umbrella.
Sage:  Susan, As one who has lived a chunk of my adult life in the American West and a fan of Edward Abbey’s writings, I enjoyed reading your book, Coyotes and Town Dogs.  Thank you for taking me back into a time when I (and perhaps the nation) was more idealistic.  Your book brought back a lot of memories such as the time I helped organize a protest of James Watt, when he was speaking in North Carolina.  I was just a few years out of college at the time.  A lot has happened since then.
I was amazed at the organizers of the Earth First! movement.  They appear to have been libertarian in their political philosophy who valued freedom and at the same time were “good old boys” who enjoyed a good time.   You referred to Abbey’s writing as being “fun” and I agree.  It’s a treat to read him just as it would be fun to hang out with these guys.  I found myself envious of being there and wondered if, in your research, you get to spend time in their element, in a bar or around the campfire, swapping stories?   If so, are they as fun as they seemed?
Susan:  I didn’t hang out in the Zona Rosa whorehouses.  I’m a journalist,  so I kept some distance, particularly from the main characters.  But I did become friends with a few of the minor characters, including environmentalists and at least one of the guys who prosecuted them.  In the case of the prosecutor, though, he resigned from the U.S. Department of Justice after Dave Foreman’s trial in a crisis of conscience.  But not before he wrote a killer indictment.
Sage:  Earth First! had its beginning five years or so after the publication of Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang.  Although Abbey had based his characters on real people, the novel inspired a movement instead of a movement giving inspiration to a novel.  As an author, do you find this odd? 
Susan:  I don’t find it odd in the least.  In America, we tend not to value art or intellect.  This isn’t only a problem with right-wingers who want to stop funding subversives.  Environmentalists are rarely voracious consumers of culture, and, as a result, they’ve lost the initiative and are stuck in a reactive mode.
I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Oscar Wilde, who trumpeted the idea that art was more real than life, so bringing The Monkey Wrench Gang to life made perfect sense.  Major historical changes always have been accompanied by revolutions in art.  Artists and revolutionaries inspire each other.  It’s a call and response, like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
Sage:  I read Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tide after having read most of Abbey’s writings.  I found myself wondering if Luke Wingo in Conroy’s novel was inspired by Abbey’s “Hayduke” in The Monkey Wrench Gang.  Have you read Conroy’s novel and if so, what are your thoughts about these two characters?
Susan:  I haven’t read Pat Conroy. But I did read books by William Eastlake and Jim Harrison about monkey wrenchers.  Bill Eastlake was a friend of Abbey’s.  He lived near Bisbee, Arizona, and I was fortunate to meet him shortly before he died.  I had a young, strapping boyfriend.  Eastlake gave him the once over and cracked wise.  “Are you her bodyguard?” 
Yeah, my boyfriend said. 
“Do you have a gun?” Eastlake asked him. 
“I don’t need one,” my boyfriend said.
They just kind of smiled at each other. 
Sage:  The book was published just a few years the Prescott trial.  Do you know what has happened to the members of Earth First! since that time?
Susan:  Dave Foreman went on to co-found several environmental groups, all devoted to the principles that were at the core of Earth First!  What many people don’t realize is that the men and women who started the group were among the first non-scientists to pick up on conservation biology, a new branch of ecology made possible by computers that was just starting to gain traction in the early 80s.  Research by E.O. Wilson and others gave us the bad news that national parks were not large enough to ensure the continuation of natural processes.  So this was a big deal, and not many conservation organizations were paying attention. If they were, they weren’t quite sure how to incorporate this startling news into their way of doing business.
Sage:  There are many who considered Earth First! a terrorist group.  However, since their popularity in the 1980s, the United States have seen both domestic (Oklahoma City) and foreign terrorist attacks (911) that make Earth First! look as if they were kindergarteners.  In your book, you tell that Dave Foreman was upset when some people spiked trees without letting anyone know, making it dangerous for the loggers.   How would you respond to someone who refers to Earth First! as a terrorist group?
Susan:  I always say that the FBI took Earth First! more seriously than Earth First! took itself.  Earth First! had more in common with the guerrilla theater of Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies than any terrorist group. 
But I do think Earth First’s popularity surprised the hell out of the founders.  They had this idea and went for it, but they were what the organizational psychologists called “goalless planners.”  One thing led to another, and suddenly several thousand people were running around calling themselves Earth First!  There wasn’t much accountability because they were all supposedly anarchists.  It’s possible that one of those people would have been nutty enough to do something really bad.  That was the only risk, in my opinion. 
But nothing like that happened.  I think it would be more dangerous to promote some of Earth First’s ideas now.  But come on, guys.  These are environmentalists.  Nerds, basically.  Dave Foreman lasted about a month in the Marines.  
Sage:  Although I do not consider Earth First! to be in the same camp as Al Qaida, I found myself pondering on the idea that they both had a decentralized structure that allowed lots of activities to occur without top-down control.  It is also interesting how our government seems to have hard times engaging in such movements.  Any thoughts?  
Susan:  I completely agree.  When I covered Redwood Summer in 1990, it wasn’t just the FBI agents who were stymied.  The reporters were going nuts.  They couldn’t figure out where to go, and the protests were miles apart.  Marc Cooper, who teaches at USC now, was reporting on it for The Nation.  He kept shaking his head, and saying: “We didn’t do it this way in the SDS.” 
As I understand it, Occupy adopted that model, too.  It’s a good idea, when you look at the history o f the FBI destabilizing political movements.  When I was researching the book, I looked into COINTELPRO, the counterintelligence program started by the FBI to fight domestic Communism in the 1940s.  In the 1960s, there’s compelling evidence, based on a court case, that COINTELPRO agents provocateurs infiltrated the antiwar movement in the 60s, as well as the Black Panthers.     
Sage:  After twenty years, what new insights would you provide if you were to republish the book?   
Susan:  I think of Earth First! as a delightfully eccentric expression of America’s soul.  Every day we get more evidence that America has abandoned the values that really did make us exceptional.  Our landscape was the embodiment of freedom, democracy with a small d, a chance for the common man to stake a claim. 
I love the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, because it’s so much about the wild man of the West, as Bernard DeVoto described the Westerner, and the civilizing, emasculating influence of the East, but really about civilization and its discontents, the conflict within all of us.  John Ford knew it all in 1960.  The sense of loss...
So, history.  I would have a broader historical context.  I used to see the environment as the overarching issue and human concerns as relatively petty.  But globalization is a steamroller. 
Coyotes and Town Dogs had a second wind as a textbook, but it’s finally gone out of print.  I’m going to come out with a new edition, both as an ebook and a print-on-demand, with the book cover I always wanted. 
Sage:  Which one is that?
Susan:  It’s a photograph by a guy named Len Irish that was in Outside magazine.  The guys are standing on the Great Salt Lake, looking tough, but there’s a reflection at their feet that I want him to Photoshop so they’re wearing suits. It’s kind of literal, I guess.  But I’ve always wanted to do it.     
This goes back to your first question.  Earth First! was incredibly fun, even if you were just a reporter hanging around.  After Earth First!, the environmental movement turned into exactly what the group’s founders were reacting against: an army of careerists whose passions had been reduced to the art of the possible.  
Was that the right direction?  Maybe, maybe not.  I tend to think that you have to win people’s hearts, not just their minds.  That’s where art comes in.  Ed Abbey knew that.  If you look at the last thirty years of so-called pragmatism, the possible got very narrow indeed.
Sage:  Susan, Thank you for this opportunity to interview you for my blog.  I enjoyed how you brought in additional research from a variety of fields as you explored this story, such as providing an insight into anarchist and populist movements to the study on organizations and how they change as they mature.  Where did you receive the background to write this book?  Had you studied political and organizational theory?
Susan:  I had an old-fashioned liberal arts education.  At my girls’ school on the east coast, we studied Aristotle and Plato in ninth grade.  In eleventh grade, we read John Locke, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, the Enlightenment political philosophers who influenced the founding fathers. 
At Columbia University, I studied with the historian Eric McKittrick.  His specialty was the Federalist Era.   Everybody talks about Thomas Jefferson and the agrarian ideal - and most environmentalists still embrace that vision - but Hamilton’s financial policies laid the groundwork for the American empire.  So the Coyotes and Town Dogs debate started early.  I snagged the title from Mark Twain, by the way, from Roughing It.  
Sage:  Susan, you are primarily a journalist, right?  This was your first book and it certainly involved an extensive amount of investigative and journalistic work.  Recently, however, you’ve published a novel set in Africa and the United States.  Would you comment on the differences in writing a novel verses a historical study and on your new interests that seem a long ways from the American West?
Susan:  I’m just editing the novel now, actually.  It’s about a young West African army lieutenant who gets caught up in a coup d’etat, and a white Kenyan reporter.  They’re about the same age, and psychologically speaking, there are similarities in their backgrounds, so they feel an affinity.  But it gets complicated, because they’re not always on the same side. 
About halfway through writing it, I realized the story had some similarities to Coyotes and Town Dogs.  It’s about young men struggling to find their places in a world that’s changing very fast, and in ways they don’t necessarily like. 
The writing technique is very different in fiction.  But I used my journalism experience.  After working as a reporter in the U.S. and in Africa, I finally understood how power worked, how the trajectory of a life plays out in the context of historical change.  We’re not divorced from history.  That’s a peculiarly American delusion that’s fading along with our affluence.  We are history.
But I needed to get out of journalism for a while so I went back to school to write the book.  What a luxury!  I think MFA programs are a national treasure.  The only problem is that fewer writers are bumping their heads against the world.  Graham Greene was a reporter and a spy before he wrote novels.  It was a different kind of apprenticeship.  I’ve been lucky to have both kinds.


  1. america abandoned the values that make her special...ha. not at all eh? smiles..very cool on using experience as well...i think it is a vital part of writing...bumping up against the interview

    1. bumping up against the world... I like that line!

  2. Good interview.

    Just a few points. What the FBI was reacting to wasn't anything going on the the US but they were reading about the Environmental groups in Europe who were fully integrated with the CND folks at Greenham Common. Where once the Berlin Wall fell and that impression of fifth columnists under every rock vanished from the official narrative. It was then that "progress" for the sake of driving a 6 lane road to some village was seriously questioned. Quite frankly though official Europe was never fearful of the environmental movement in truth at least never in that OTT way the FBI went about things.
    But, I'd say the availability of the National Geographic where it published a more or less blow by blow history of the early National Park movement gave heart to those that were seeing Europe's high&wild places being given over to every bit of industrial development. Never mind the frankly criminal dirt smuggling drugs over the borders as most of out H&W are in such regions.

  3. Great interview. And I want to thank you, Sage; as I mentioned when you posted your review of Coyotes and Town Dogs, I had come to know Susan a little bit a few years ago, though my wife. After reading your review, I was able to track her down and we've managed to reconnect our friendship, such as it is. I'm happy about that. So . . . thanks!

    1. Chris, I'm glad to hear that you've been able to reconnect!

  4. Sage: Interviews always reveal interesting points of view. Nice to see someone using blog to bring this format to life.

    1. Michael, you've used the interview successfully in your blog, so I've learned from the best!

  5. Nice work, Sage. The interview is a form I've long admired, especially when it draws me into the subject, invites the same alert silence I always assume when learning.

    1. You know, I struggled with the questions more since it wasn't a "live" interview, but one done by email. I could go back and ask followup questions and now also have another author to check out (Eastlake)

  6. Good job, great questions, informative answers. Too bad the entire environmental movement now are those shadows in suits trying to be lobbyists in a place that only listen to them by the dollar per minute method.

    1. Mark, maybe there is still hope for us from those guys in suits... Foreman started out as a lobbyist for the Wilderness Society, wearing a suit in DC, but became fed up and headed west and helped organize Earth First!

  7. Good interview! Connecting the work to Abbey's the Monkey Wrench Gang sure has caught my interest. I'll check it out.

    1. The Monkey Wrench Gang is a great book. Charles, you might also like how she works in other disciplines into her journalistic approach to the subject.

  8. Great interview! I nominated you for a blog award. If you'd like to pick it up, please visit my blog, Mama Diaries.

    1. Thank you Sherry for the award (and the option to pick one of two). I'll take the "Shine On" one as it reminds me of a Pink Floyd song (Shine On Crazy Diamonds)

  9. It's always interesting to read a behind the scenes piece about a writer. I'll check out her writings.

    1. Yes it is, Lynn. It was also nice as the book was 20 years old when I read it to see where the author might have taken the story if writing it at a different time.

  10. Sage, you really out did your self with this engaging and delightful interview. Thanks for sharing this and bringing her book to us, I am right now going to get a copy today, it's something I know I'll enjoy and I have a couple of others in mind that I know will like it too!

  11. Interesting. I remember hearing about Earth First! in younger years with a mix of admiration and fear.

    Shine on, you crazy diamond. :-)


    p.s. Twins playing the White Sox, in response to your comment on my site. :-)

  12. Sage, you do a very good job at interviewing. Very interesting, I will check out her novel when available

  13. That was a great interview. Loved both the questions and answers. I'm going to find this book and read it.

    I remember when Earth First took much flack about tree spiking. Some supported it while others denounced it. If I remember correctly, even Earth First was split on the issue. Hard to tell though, because there were so many people who started calling them selves "Earth First" but really had no ties to the group.