BookThink's Author Profiles - An Interview with William <b>SOUDER: </b>Part II (Page 1 of 2)










An Interview with William Souder
Part II

by Catherine Petruccione

8 March 2010

A continuation of an interview with William Souder, journalist and author of Under A Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America and A Plague of Frogs: The Horrifying True Story. His newest project is a biography about marine biologist, nature writer and ecologist Rachel Carson. Click here for Part I of this interview.

BOOKTHINK: I understand you are working on a new project. What is the anticipated publication date of your book on Rachel Carson?

SOUDER: Silent Spring was Rachel Carson's last book, which came out in 1962. The fifty-year anniversary is 2012, so that's the timing hook for this new book about Carson that I'm working on. It's scheduled for publication in 2012, which means that I'll finish writing hopefully sometime in early or mid-2011.

BOOKTHINK: I'm sure that's a big research project as well.

SOUDER: It's a huge research project. It's similar in some ways to the Audubon project, but very different also. Carson is much closer in time as an historical figure. And whereas Audubon's life was kind of a two-fisted swashbuckling adventure / artistic endeavor, Carson lived a much different kind of life. She was much more of a homebody. She certainly had scientific training that Audubon didn't; she was a very well-educated woman and a professional working person who was embedded in the worlds of science in publishing. Whereas Audubon's life itself, where he went and what he did, is terrific story telling material, Carson's life may be more eventful, more important and significant in some ways, but less momentous on a day to day basis. She lived with her mother and her cat. She worked in the library, she wrote every day. She certainly spent time by the ocean.

BOOKTHINK: She never married, did she?

SOUDER: No. There is some speculation about Carson. She had a very close intimate relationship with a woman named Dorothy Freeman who was her neighbor in Maine. The exact nature of that relationship is always speculated on, and the truth is nobody knows exactly what the physical dimensions of that relationship were.

BOOKTHINK: That's a difficulty with biographies. It's hard to know the truth.

SOUDER: Here's the thing. They had a lengthy correspondence that's been preserved, so we know a lot about this relationship. If you read their correspondence and look at the historical record, what's clear is that they were devoted to one another and in love with one another on a level that is so much deeper than the average heterosexual couple, whatever their relationship is, it doesn't seem to matter. These are two very interesting and independent women who found each other late in life and were really devoted and loyal to one another. Beyond that, there isn't that much you can speculate on. People are always kind of poking around trying to find out if Rachel Carson was a lesbian. In this case, it's not really the point. In any event, the circumstances under which they met, Carson was seriously ill most of the time.

BOOKTHINK: She died fairly young. What did she die of?

SOUDER: She died at 57 of breast cancer. This is an interesting and sad part of the story. She had several bouts of recurring breast cancer. Initially, even though she was sort of properly diagnosed, she wasn't completely informed as to what was going on. Believe it or not, in the 1940's and 50's, if a woman was diagnosed with breast cancer, a doctor would typically discuss that with the woman's husband. I'm sure this varied from doctor to doctor, but in Carson's case, she didn't really get a straight answer. This was unfortunate, because she was a biologist, and she understood cancer on the level that it was understood back then. She probably would have made different choices about her treatment. She eventually had a double mastectomy, but that didn't come until after a recurrence of the cancer, and so she didn't get the kind of aggressive treatment that she might have gotten early on had she been better informed. In that sense, she was kind of a victim of the times.

This was one of the great ironies of Carson's life - that when she was working on Silent Spring, which has two chapters on cancer and links between the environment and cancer, that she would have been ill with cancer. But that's how her life worked out. It took her a long time to write that book, and I think she understood that she was working against time. She was really sick by the time the book was done. Even though she lived for a couple more years, I think she felt pressure to finish it while she was still alive.

BOOKTHINK: She was really the one who brought to light the dangers of DDT and pesticides in general.

SOUDER: Carson had sort of a two-part career. The world is not a perfect meritocracy; you also have to be lucky. Carson's first book called Under the Sea Wind was published in December of 1941 and the initial reviews were terrific. It's about the sea and the creatures of the sea, and the initial notices for that book were great. But it was published a couple of weeks before Pearl Harbor was attacked. As soon as the war broke out, people forgot all about books, and it just kind of disappeared. It only sold a few thousand copies.

She spent a number of years anguishing over that and trying to figure out what to do next. She eventually started working on what became The Sea Around Us. She acquired an agent, and her agent sent one of the sample chapters from The Sea Around Us all over New York looking for a magazine that would publish the chapter, as that's how it was done back then. The New Yorker took an interest in this and asked if they could see a few more chapters. They ended up publishing, not the entire book, but the bulk of it in three installments, prior to the book itself being published. And of course, this made Carson a tremendous success. The book was an immediate best seller and stayed on the best-seller list for many weeks. Her first book, Under the Sea Winds was re-issued, and that went onto the best-seller list, so she had two books on the New York Times best seller list for a number of weeks.

It was good fortune for a junior editor at The New Yorker to see this manuscript sort of coming in over the transom and reading it and thinking it was pretty interesting. The other thing that The New Yorker did that was brilliant is that they published these excerpts from The Sea Around Us as a profile. They called it a "Profile of the Sea." It was the first time a magazine had published a profile that wasn't about a person. And so the novelty of the subject, the way the magazine presented it, really came out of the blue. It struck a chord with readers. There are hundreds and hundred of fan letters in the record to the magazine and directly to Carson about these profiles.

She eventually subscribed to a clipping service that would track all these things for her. People don't realize this now, but in the mid-1950s Rachel Carson was certainly one of the most famous and beloved authors in America. Like Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose books were on the best seller list at the same time.

BOOKTHINK: I love Anne Morrow Lindbergh's books - she was also a very talented writer.

SOUDER: Here's the interesting thing. There's a huge generational gap here. Rachel Carson died when I was in junior high. I remember knowing that Rachel Carson was this wonderful author who wrote books about the sea, that she died of cancer; I remember all that. I was too young to have read her books, but I knew who Rachel Carson was. If you talk to someone now who is under 40, they have no idea who Rachel Carson is ... unless they are between 18 and 22 and they are taking Environmental Studies. There's a whole generation out there who doesn't know who she is. Once you start to explain it a little bit, it rings a bell for some people. Not only was she a famous and beloved author, but with Silent Spring, she became this very prominent person.

In some ways, she was the first environmental person to be seriously targeted by an industry attempting to discredit her in her work. The agrochemical industry, the insecticide makers took a very dim view of Carson and went after her. She is regarded by a lot of people these days as the Godmother of the environmental movement, and I think there is a lot of truth to that. I see her as more of the fault line of the conservation ethic that had developed and grown from the turn of 19th century into the 20th through Roosevelt and through the twenties and thirties, recognizing that natural resources were finite and deserved some protection and some monitoring and conservation. Carson is sort of the fault line between that and the environmental movement, which is different. Even though it shares a lot in common with the conservation movement, with environmentalism you have this growing feeling that humankind has been a poor steward to the planet, and not only that, has put itself and all the other species that share the planet at some risk. The idea behind conservation was sort of an optimistic idea that it's a wonderful, beautiful world; let's preserve it for our kids. Environmentalism is more pessimistic, more apocalyptic; I think Carson is sort of the dividing point between those two points of view. They are very similar in many ways, but there's a very important shift that goes on.

One of the things that I'll be exploring in the book that I think is relevant here is that in the same year that Silent Spring was published, in 1962 when Carson was documenting the unseen hidden exposures that human beings were having to insecticides and other environmental poisons, was also the peak year for atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. I can remember this: If you bought milk in 1962, it was equally likely to be contaminated with DDT or radioactive isotopes from atmospheric testing.

BOOKTHINK: Isn't that nice to think about. And who didn't buy milk?

SOUDER: When we think about a nuclear weapon being detonated now, it's the ultimate nightmare. But during the fifties and sixties, the United States alone tested hundreds of bombs. There is a parallel between this emerging idea that Carson was the first to explore in a very rigorous way that there are unseen toxic substances that might influence our health, that are being manufactured and put into our environment all the time in a very unregulated way. A parallel between that and exposure to radioactive fallout, which was poorly understood, but certainly known to be risky. She is the first person who, for the first time, marries these two concepts together. That has been a determining influence in the environmental movement that followed.

Carson was one of a number of people who were lobbying to have some kind of a federal agency created that would be charged directly with environmental protection. The Environmental Protection Agency, which comes into existence six years after her death, really is directly attributable to Carson's influence. And one of the first things that Agency did was to ban the use of DDT in the United States.