BookThink's Author Profiles - An Interview with William Souder: Part 1 (Page 1 of 2)










An Interview with William Souder
Part 1

by Catherine Petruccione

1 March 2010

William Souder is a journalist and author who has written on a wide range of subjects, including politics, sports, film, and business. For the past decade he has focused on science, nature, and the environment. His work has appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including the Washington Post and Harpers.

His most recent book, Under A Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America, was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in biography.

He also wrote A Plague of Frogs (Hyperion, 2000) after he broke the story on the national level about an alarming number of deformed frogs which were being found in Minnesota. He is currently working on a book about marine biologist, ecologist and nature writer Rachel Carson. William Souder lives in Grant, Minnesota with his wife, Susan, and their four children.

Under A Wild Sky is a fantastic book, so well written it transports the reader into another time in America, when awesome endless forests covered the land, and oceans of birds darkened the sky. We are Audubon's shadow as he traverses the country by river or trail, all the while stalking the birds of America and their images for the generations to come. Now we can appreciate it, for here we experience life as Audubon experienced it, and share his dogged vision, his obstacles and his triumphs as he tenaciously pursues his goal. This book is a treasure for anyone who loves natural history, art, adventure, or just a really terrific story.

An Interview with William Souder - Part I

BOOKTHINK: Under A Wild Sky was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 - what a thrill that must have been!

SOUDER: It was a thrill. It was one of three finalists in the Biography category. The winner that year was de Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. The way it works in book categories, basically there are three finalists and one of those books win, so you wind up with one winner and two finalists. The other finalist was Will and the World, by Stephen Greenblatt, which was about Shakespeare.

But I didn't even know when the Pulitzers were going to be announced. I was aware that publishers submit most of their serious books for consideration ... it wouldn't have surprised me that the publisher (North Point Press/ Farrar Straus) had submitted the book, but I hadn't really thought about it, and there had been no discussion about it. Anyway, I was sitting at my desk in my home office and I got a call from Sally Williams, who was then the book editor at the Star Tribune and she said, "Congratulations on being a finalist." I said, "A finalist for what?" She literally gave me the news.

I suppose there are people who are at a point in their career where they have a really visible book that they expect to be a serious contender who might be waiting for the announcement, but I wasn't, so it really came out of the blue. And I'll tell you in all candor, it was really, really cool and really fun, and it takes about ten seconds before you think, "Gosh, I wish I would have won!"

BOOKTHINK: That's totally understandable. How much time and research went into the writing of Under A Wild Sky?

SOUDER: I had to write that book on a fairly short time line. There's kind of a funny story about this. Life is full of coincidences - and the story I'm about to tell you is the biggest one that's ever happened to me. I had been looking around for a book project after I finished A Plague of Frogs and I'd had a few ideas, but nothing was quite clicking. My agent suggested that there might be a book to be done about these naturalists who were based in Charleston, SC back in the early 1900's who were really involved in identifying and classifying all the flora and fauna of the new world. She kept saying this would be a good book, and I didn't really get it. Then one day she said, "You know, these guys were all contemporaries of Audubon."

I kind of perked up, because Audubon was a name that I knew, and I was interested in birds and bird hunting. I thought the idea was worth investigating, and decided the place to start was just to get a book about Audubon, and see what was going on. I found there were a number of them, but they were all out of print or obsolete - it was slim pickings, even though he'd been written about extensively.

As a writer, if you stumble across a major American figure who hasn't been done or hasn't been done recently, it grabs your interest. I did a little more research and got in touch with my agent. I said "I think we're missing a bet here. I don't think it's these guys in Charleston, I think it's Audubon himself I should be writing about." She immediately agreed. So I went to work. I hadn't done a biography before - I was basically a reporter, so I hadn't done that kind of research, but I thought it would be doable and interesting to figure out.

Meanwhile, there was a story from Wisconsin about a deer hunter who had shot a deer that had tested positive for Chronic Wasting Disease, which is a relative of Mad Cow Disease. I know a fair amount about deer hunting in Wisconsin, and at that time I was doing a fair amount of stringing work for the Washington Post. So I called my editor at the Post and said I thought I should do a story about this deer that turned up in Wisconsin that's causing some alarm. So I began writing the story about Chronic Wasting Disease in Wisconsin for the s at the very same time I had started work on the Audubon book.

Out of the blue, I remember reading a book a few years ago called Deadly Feast by Richard Rhodes. which was about Mad Cow Disease in England. I decided to call him up and find out what he thinks about Chronic Wasting Disease in Wisconsin. We had a nice chat, and he had ideas about Mad Cow Disease and it's relation to Chronic Wasting Disease - I did about a twenty-minute interview and made some notes. As I was signing off, I said "I really liked your books a lot. I think you're a terrific writer. What are you working on?" He said, "Actually, I'm working on a biography of John James Audubon." I was just floored, so flustered, that I didn't know what to say; I just said, "Good luck on that." The reason I said that is because I thought immediately, "Now I can't do the book on Audubon. I'm done. Richard Rhodes has won a Pulitzer Prize, he's published like twenty books, he's a famous writer, he's already on this project, he's already got a publisher...." I thought it was hopeless, and I was extremely disappointed.

I called my agent and said, "You're not going to believe this..." and told her the story. But she said, "Now wait a second, this might not sink us." Because what I had in mind was not a cradle-to-grave doorstop biography. I wanted to do something with a little more context, to focus on the part of Audubon's life that interested me the most, and so I had already been thinking about this in terms that made it a little bit different. My agent said, "I don't see why you shouldn't go ahead and do it. One thing you can't do though is be safe second - you can't finish your book after he's finished his."

Once I committed to doing the book, I realized I would have to contact Richard Rhodes. I couldn't let him think that I had somehow co-opted his idea. And obviously this was going to be a most awkward conversation: "You know, the other day when you told me you were working on a book about Audubon - what I meant to say was, "I am too!" It sounded preposterous. But I did itI called him and told him what happened, and he laughed. He could not have been more polite; he was very gentle about it, and good humored. He said, "You wouldn't believe it, but this happens all the time. There are only so many ideas out there. A couple of years ago, I was working away like crazy on a book I was going to do about Lewis & Clark, and then I learned Steve Ambrose was half-way through it; this problem comes up all the time."

I asked him what his timetable was, and he told me. We knew that his book was going to come out sometime in summer to late summer of 2004, and this was about the middle of 2002, so it was about a year and a half timeline to research, write, edit and manufacture the book and get it into bookstores.

BOOKTHINK: That's not a lot of time. It can be good to have a strict timeline though.

SOUDER: As it turned out, for me and for the book I wanted to do, it was good. It put boundaries around it. I had felt from the beginning that I wanted to write a book in which I was going to control the material and not the other way around, which is one of the big risks with biography.

Every fact at your disposal is kind of begging to be put into the story; and in some cases that is the way to do a biography. But I didn't really feel like there was new ground to break about what he did and where he went. I was interested in bringing back to life, if I could, those places and those times that he lived in.

BOOKTHINK: One of the things I like best about the book is that it evoked a vivid picture of what this country looked like in the early 1800's.

SOUDER: I'm glad to hear you say that, because I worked hard to do that, and it was one of the most interesting things for me. I don't think people have a conception now of what North America looked like before there were roads and cities.

BOOKTHINK: The difficulties of travel, and the passenger pigeons darkening the sky for days - that was the most fantastic story.

SOUDER: Once you moved west past that little strip of settled coastline which is where all the European settlers ended up in the first couple hundred years that they came over here, once you went inland just a few miles, you were in the middle of a forest that didn't stop until it got to the Mississippi River. It's very hard for people to imagine that now. There were just game trails and trails that had been established by Native Americans. The interior of the continent was populated ... there were Americans here before we arrived, but they hadn't cleared the forest or built roads and cities, it was a pristine landscape. And not that long ago; the 1800's sounds like a long time ago, but as I worked on this book it seemed closer and closer all the time. It's amazing how much has changed in two centuries; it's startling.

BOOKTHINK: It's remarkable how much people really did travel in those times, in spite of the difficulties. Audubon traveled a lot; he was poor, and yet he traveled a lot.

SOUDER: He did. He was back and forth back and forth across Kentucky and between Kentucky and Pennsylvania many times, and up and down the Mississippi River many times, and across the Atlantic Ocean at least a half a dozen times. He logged many miles. I don't know how typical that was, but it was certainly true that many people did travel quite a bit back then.

BOOKTHINK: A lot of us have a very small world we move in even now, and there were people that traveled quite extensively when travel was difficult.

SOUDER: And for Audubon, one of the effects of all the travel was that he was separated from Lucie for very long periods of time. That contributed to the difficulties of the life they had together. I think they were very devoted to one another, but it was difficult for him to be away for months, and in the case of his trip to England, for years at a time.

BOOKTHINK: I thought about two women in his life that were keystones to his success. His father's wife in France, who accepted him into the family as an illegitimate child - that was a little bit of a miracle; and then his wife Lucy. I'm sure she had her moments, but she stuck by him through all of his travels and his persistence in making The Birds of America come to fruition.

SOUDER: Yes, I think she had her frustrations and her doubts. Again, there was the long separation that they endured when he was first in England looking for an engraver, and then finding one and beginning work on The Birds of America. That was a very difficult time for them for a lot of reasons. But my sense is that they were really crazy about each other; they were deeply in love and committed to one another on a remarkable level, and their relationship survived all that.