Author David Gessner’s All the Wild That Remains
explores the legacy of writers Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey on the way we think about the environment of the American West, as well as the author’s own experience re-tracing their footsteps and meeting with some of the key people from their lives and work. He spoke with City Weekly
ahead of his promotional tour stop in Salt Lake City on May 1 at Ken Sanders Rare Books
: When and how you first became familiar with Stegner & Abbey?
: I was lucky in a way, in that I didn’t discover Abbey when I was 18, though I did unfortunately discover Hunter Thompson. When I started, almost against my will, to be called a nature writer, there were comparisons to Abbey, mainly because I had a lot of humor in my writing. When I discovered Abbey, it was like, “Oh, this is a way to do Thoreauvian sort of writing in the modern world.”
I had traveled a little in the west in my late 20s, and a friend recommended [Abbey’s] Desert Solitaire
. I got to “Against Industrial Tourism,” and went from car-camping to back-country, directly attributable to Abbey. … Abbey proved a gateway drug to Stegner. Then I was reading Stegner and thinking about the West in big ways, and it helped me see my home region [in the Northeast] from afar in new ways—how regional the country remains, in an exciting way.
: After all that time, what inspired you at this particular time to write a book about them?
: It’s one of those things where a lot of writers—I’m certainly one—have a lot of ideas kicking around for a while. The main thing was, I’ve changed in my writing. I began as kind of in the lyric nature-writing tradition, and starting with my book about the B.P. oil spill, I started to think more about resources and energy, kind of hard-nosed stuff. This writer named John Jeremiah Sullivan suggested I go down to the gulf and write about it, and I said, “That’s not the kind of nature writing I do.” But I went home and thought, that’s the kind of nature writing I should
do—these kind of hard-ass connections of energy and responsibility. … And I realized I owed a lot of my thinking to Stegner. It’s not shocking that that change occurred as I moved north of my 50th birthday. It is fair to say that Abbey is the younger man’s writer to Stegner’s older-man’s writer.
: This could have just been a straightforward biography about Abbey and Stegner. Why choose to make so much of it a first-person story?
: There’s always been a lot of me in my books. … You don’t want it to be me me me when it’s Abbey and Stegner. But weaving that personal aspect in keeps it away from being dry and academic.
: You refer on multiple occasions to the way both Stegner and Abbey used autobiographical elements in their writing, perhaps tweaking things to make for a better story. How did that idea affect the way you wrote about your own adventures in making this book?
Like everyone, I’m fascinated with myself, but hopefully there’s something bigger going on to. [This book has] been called a biography, but … no biographer typically leans on other biographers. I’m doing more than leaning on the facts of their lives: How can we put their lives to use now
. But also I’m inspired by the two of them. They seem a way to make my life bigger
. Hero-worship gets a really bad name. I understand that, but there’s something to be said for using people who’ve achieved something great as role-models.
All along I knew I was going to be part of the book. As far as how much, in past books I’ve used my own personality as an entry point into topics that might be boring if you didn’t have a human door into them. But a large part of my human door is also the biographical moments with Abbey and Stegner.
What preconception that you had about each of these two men before you really dug into your research changed the most?
I think as a reader, some of our basic insights probably hold true because they are both such autobiographical writers. A lot of what I learned, I kind of knew. But I guess what I didn’t know about Stegner was that, personally, he could be a little bit of a grudge-holder at times. Because he held himself to such high standards, it’s not surprising that he held others to such high standards. He was a tough guy, and kind of a bad-ass.
I could say that Abbey’s shyness was something I didn’t expect, but I’d heard that before. But mostly, how damn smart
he was. I mean, I knew he was smart, but reading the journals and kind of immersing myself in him, the literary allusions, the deep reading, the sophistication, which isn’t the word that always comes to mind when you bring up Abbey. He gets lumped in the kind of Hunter Thompson cult-following camp, but he was kind of consciously doing all this stuff—part Thoreau and part Montaigne.
At the risk of oversimplifying, you set up your contrast between Stegner and Abbey partly as a juxtaposition of the mythology of the west and the reality of the west. How do you see that mythology impacting policy decisions and the way we generally think about the west?
We couldn’t ask for a better example than drought and what’s going on in California. I have a friend who went into the back country with a snow surveyor. The lowest he’d ever seen was 1977, and this was 60 percent of that
. We imported wet-land habits into a near-desert place. … And that’s the great symbol of the kind of fake vision of the west. [Stegner was] the master of the children’s game connecting the dots. He’s always going big, in a matter that, really, it behooves us now. But I would say one thing Abbey does well is use the myth. Because environmentalism has such a dorky reputation. A lot of time when we’re watching CNBC or any media portrayal of environmentalism, it’s like you’re some monk going over obscure texts in a monastery. Some of it is being out in the world, drinking. … [Abbey’s] angry that it’s being despoiled, but he takes a lot of joy in things.
You visited a lot of key locations in the lives of Stegner and Abbey, and with a lot of the key people in their lives. For each of them, which particular encounter, whether with a place or a person, left you feeling most connected to them?
[For Stegner], the single moment was kind of Harper’s Corner, looking down on where the Dinosaur Dam might have been. But the trip on the San Juan was daily doses of great moments. And the moment at the very end of that, where I see the water filling the dry rock. In terms of pure fun, seeing Doug Peacock and spending time with him. Also fun that by that point, I was traveling with my daughter, who hopefully will remember.
If you were forced to choose, who is more a kindred spirit to your own sensibility, Stegner or Abbey?
I would answer by saying that the people who were drinking beer with me at that conference would think I’m more in that Abbey camp, but in my own mind, I’m heading toward Stegnerville. The [alternate] title of the book was Properly Wild
: Can you be proper and can you be wild at the same time? … I will say this about both men. As I say in the book, their common ground was the west, but also their willingness to fight. This is no small thing for literary writers, when we’re told that political taints our work. … One of my big takeaways from the book is to feel guilty, like kind of a slouch on the fighting end. It’s time for me to put up or shut up in that aspect.