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BookThink's Author Profiles

An Interview with William Souder
Part 1

by Catherine Petruccione

#142 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 it…I 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.

BOOKTHINK: It's interesting that Audubon needed to leave North America to get The Birds of America published.

SOUDER: When Audubon initially went to Philadelphia in 1824, he was advised by a number of people there that he would have an easier time doing this in Europe than he would in America simply because there were more engravers, more publishers, a much larger itinerary, artistic and scientific community in Europe - and more customers. It was going to be a very expensive book for anyone to own, and there were certainly people of means in Europe that could afford to own such a book. Later on he did have quite a bit of success selling subscriptions in America.

Everything fell into place when he got to England. As you read the book, you learn that when he got to Philadelphia people were suspicious of him ... they didn't trust his story about who he was and where he came from. They were already committed to Alexander Wilson's drawings, and they didn't really like Audubon's style; he was kind of a rough figure. All those things that worked against him here really made him this exotic, artistic, fascinating creature in England.

To succeed in life, you have to be lucky. And Audubon was tremendously lucky in getting to Liverpool and having a letter of introduction to the right people, who turned him into an overnight success. Within a few weeks of getting off the boat in England, he had a major exhibit going on. Once people saw his drawings in that context, properly displayed in an exhibition hall, with invitations to all the right people - important and influential citizens - then things just took off for him.

BOOKTHINK: It seems something of a miracle that the book actually came to be, but you are right; it was things falling into place and being in the right place at the right time.

SOUDER: You were talking about how it was interesting to picture America in the early 1800's, but it was a whole different thing when I followed Audubon's trail over to Great Britain. I went to London and then spent time at the Royal Society and the Linnean Society and then went up to Edinburgh for a week or so to follow his tracks there. The first day I arrived I went to the University of Edinburgh, which had a number of papers that I wanted to look at, and I found that they also had a superb map collection there. I asked if by any chance they would have a map of the city of Edinburgh from the year 1826, which was the year Audubon arrived there. And they did - it was actually a postal map, the map a mail carrier would have used to navigate around the city. They made a photocopy of it for me - a small map that I could stick in my pocket. Edinburgh really hadn't changed very much since 1826. So the whole time I was there I used that postal map from 1826 to find my way around the city, and I had no difficulty at all. I was able to find several of the apartments that Audubon stayed in, or at least the locations of those apartments - a few of them were newer buildings, but most of them weren't. So when I was in Edinburgh there were times when I was working on the book that it really felt pretty close; you could almost get a sense of him being around the corner. That was where it was the strongest because you had the cobblestone streets and stone buildings, the fogs at night ... it was just very much like how it must have been in 1826.

BOOKTHINK: That would not work here in the United States. To go to a city - let's say New York City, where he lived later on - that would not work.

SOUDER: If you travel on the Ohio River today, it's this sort of a rust belt, nasty river that winds its way to the heartland. But in Audubon's day it was reputed to be the most beautiful river in the world, with forest crowding right down to the river on both banks, the water clear and beautiful.

BOOKTHINK: Where are his original journals?

SOUDER: There were two original journals that survived. One was the 1820-1821 journal about his trip down the Mississippi River from Ohio to New Orleans. And then there's the 1826 journal which concerns his travel from New Orleans to Liverpool and then on to Edinborough. I think Harvard has the original 1820-21 journal, but I'm not positive. The 1826 journal is, I believe, at the Field Museum in Chicago. He was always having things transcribed in duplicate, so it's possible that there's more than one original copy. I don't think so, but it's possible. In any event, the 1820-21 journal was transcribed and published by a little publishing concern in Boston called The Club of Odd Volumes in 1930 (Journal of John James Audubon Made During His Trip to New Orleans in 1820 - 1821. [with:] Journal of John James Audubon ... 1840 - 1843, Club of Odd Volumes, Boston,1929). They also published about half of his letters, the originals of which are split between Harvard and Yale.

The 1826 journal was transcribed by Alice Ford, who was one of Audubon's biographers, and that was published in book form in the 1960's (The 1826 Journal of John James Audubon, University of Oklahoma Press, 1967). I heard when I was in Chicago a couple of years ago that the Field Museum was contemplating re-transcribing that journal because they think there are a number of errors and mis-interpretations in it. I don't know if that project has gone forward or not.

BOOKTHINK: I did find a terrific University of Pittsburgh website which has a complete set of The Birds of America and his Ornithological Biography- and it's all there, and can be read page by page, and you can view every plate. It's just gorgeous. As far as complete sets of The Birds of America, fewer than 200 of them are known to exist, is that correct?

SOUDER: The Audubons thought that they had made about 175 complete sets. Occasionally, Havell would run off an extra print or two and sell them; so there may have been more of some of the images made, but around 175 complete sets (roughly 80 of which were purchased in the United States). I've had a chance to look at a few of them. The University of Minnesota has a set. Remember the controversy about the Bird of Washington?

BOOKTHINK: That's the Bald Eagle, right? Or not?

SOUDER: Well, that's up for debate. Audubon had made images of the Bald Eagle and the Golden Eagle, and then this additional eagle, which he called The Bird of Washington, which he thought was a separate species.

BOOKTHINK: And it might have been a separate species, do you think?

SOUDER: I thought it was odd that Audubon would have made such a dumb mistake as to confuse the Golden Eagle or the Bald Eagle for some other bird. I just thought he would know. And he also had, in the Ornithological Biography, told a story of shooting this unusually large eagle that was accompanied by some other accounts that he heard. I thought there was a different way to look at this issue. First of all I talked to a bunch of ornithologists, and they said, "No, no way. He just made a mistake; if there was another species, we would have known about it." But I did something different; I went to the University of Minnesota, and they very graciously got out their original copy of The Birds of America for me. Those are not bound, so you can lay the prints out side by side. So I had them lay out the Golden Eagle and the Bald Eagle and The Bird of Washington side by side. I wanted to see if it looked bigger because remember, Audubon's technique was to reproduce everything life size, and he had a very meticulous technique for doing that. He made the drawing of The Bird of Washington ten years before he published The Birds of America, and I just couldn't fathom that he would somehow invent a larger than life bird at that point in his life. So I thought that if the bird on the page was really bigger, then he must have had a bigger bird. I looked at them, and The Bird of Washington was literally half again as big as either of the other eagles. We put down some vellum that we could see through, and we measured wing segments, toe lengths, beak lengths and toe-to-tail lengths. And The Bird of Washington is quite a bit larger than the Bald Eagle. So I think most likely, if this was a separate species, it may have been related to or a member of the species of large melanistic Sea Eagles that are found very rarely in Russia these days. And apparently there is, in a museum somewhere in Russia, a specimen of a very large dark eagle that might have been a counterpart to this. I think it's possible that some of these eagles sort of wandered around back then and were occasionally seen on this continent.

BOOKTHINK: If the entire Passenger Pigeon species can disappear, anything seems possible.

SOUDER: This may have been a species that was in the process of going extinct, and Audubon just happened to see one a handful of remaining individuals. I think that's possible.

I've looked at the set at the University of Minnesota and at a number of bound sets, including one at the Academy of National Sciences in Philadelphia, where they have it on display. They also have it at the Philosophical Society and the New York Public Library.

I was working for several weeks at the Houghton Library at Harvard, where about half of Audubon's letters and correspondence are kept along with some other materials. It's a very elegant library…quiet with big long oak desks with scholars working at them. And if you're there for an extended period of time, you get to know people visually, but nobody talks; you see the same people day after day and you kind of establish your little place in the library. Once they get to know you they start keeping your materials out for you and wheel it over when you get there in the morning. You fill out call slips for what you want to look at and they bring it up.

BOOKTHINK: Sounds like heaven.

SOUDER: It's really lovely. I'd been there for a couple of weeks and I went in to take my usual spot one Friday morning. There, sitting at my place at the table was - no kidding-a very formal looking invitation. It said, "Dear Mr. Souder, Please join the Library Staff and the other Houghton scholars for coffee in the upstairs drawing room at 10:00am this morning if it's convenient." (He laughs). This was great. So I went up there and it was a little coffee and pastries mixer, and all these people I had been seeing for the last couple of weeks were there. It turns out the guy working at the table across from me was there from London working on a Churchill biography. The head librarian was interested in my project and asked how it was going. I told her I was just finishing up, that today was my last day here in the library and I'd be done later in the afternoon. I said, "The one thing I was going to ask you though, before I left, was whether your set of The Birds of America is available - if it's something I could arrange to look at." And she said, "Oh yes, sure, no problem.

Now bear in mind, when I've done this before - like at the New York Public Library - you had security guards there, you have to fill out forms, and you're not allowed to touch things. Most places, it's very restricted access. I asked her what the procedure was and she said, "Let's start by filling out a call slip," (as for any other book in the library). I asked about Wilson's American Ornithology - "Could I also have a look at that?" She replied, "Just fill out a call slip."

So I filled out call slips for The Birds of America and sAmerican Ornithology and dropped them at the front desk, then I went out and had a hamburger and came back an hour later. There at my desk was a big foam cradle, and all five volumes of The Birds of America and all five volumes of American Ornithology just sitting on the table for me to look at. And Cathy, I'll tell you what - when I opened The Birds of America, everybody in the library came over to see them. I ended up giving a little talk on what we were looking at and what it meant. These books are just enormous, and to have them at your disposal for an entire afternoon was just unbelievable. It's a very secure library - there was nothing reckless about them doing it; but it was a very special day for me.

BOOKTHINK: I believe you said that there were as many as 50 colorists working on the printing of The Birds of America in Havell's engraving shop.

SOUDER: There were hurdles for reproducing these drawings, which were watercolors, and in some cases sort of collages, because Audubon would make a drawing of a bird and sometimes he'd cut it out and put it up against a landscape that one of his associates had worked on, or he'd put two different birds together that he'd worked on at different times. The original works are watercolors, but often watercolors assembled piecemeal. The only way you could translate that into a marketable finished color print back in the 19th century was to engrave the image - to make a black and white outline, if you will, and then to have the colors done to match the original, sort of like a paint by number system. So the way Audubon's drawings were reproduced, they used Intaglio, which is engraving the image onto big copper plates. You could also use lithography, which is engraving something into stone. But the state of the art was this sort of aqua-tinting process that involved etching outline and shadings of the image onto a copper plate. That plate was inked, paper was pressed against it, and you would get this black and white outline with all kinds of shadings and muted tones, but simply black and white. Once that was completed, then teams of colorists (and they were usually young women - art students did a lot of this work, although some was done by the engraving staff as well) - would sit in a studio at Havell Engraving Shop with the original close enough to inspect, and they would pass this black and white image among themselves. With each person working on a single color, they would fill it in to make it look like the original watercolor. It sounds as if every one of these would be radically different, but that's not the case; if you look at these images in the different original sets, they are surprisingly consistent. They did have their quality control problems at times. Occasionally some subscriber would complain that the color of the grouse didn't look right, and they would adjust it a little bit. But they were surprisingly consistent. Nonetheless, every single Audubon print, even though it's a print, is an original work of art, because no two are exactly alike. This was such a labor-intensive and time consuming process, which is why it took thirteen years to finish the project.

BOOKTHINK: It's fascinating that he didn't have much formal education for his art or his writing - he had problems writing, really.

SOUDER: He did, and I think that is something interesting about him. He was fortunate that he lived at a time that someone with first-hand experience of the natural world could still be embraced by the scientific community, who had a more sophisticated and educated view of things, as an expert. Even the people that Audubon dealt with in Edinburgh, Philadelphia and Charleston in many cases had much more elaborate and sophisticated educations and scientific or artistic background than Audubon had. He was recognized as an expert in his own right. And certainly he didn't take a back seat to anyone in terms of his artistic talent; he was a seriously talented artist. Not just for his technique, which was unique, but for his vision.

What really sets Audubon apart is that he was the first artist to make natural history studies that tried to put living things in their living context. It's a really important distinction with Audubon, because before Audubon, all these scientific illustrations of birds and fishes and plants and animals were relatively static. They were very draftsman-like, extremely accurate, many, many of them beautiful in their own right. But most of them were kind of dead on the page; they weren't really living functioning organisms in the way the Audubon birds are. That's the most important thing that sets him apart, that along with making everything life size.

BOOKTHINK: He painted them as he saw them in the natural world.

SOUDER: Right. And so it's that vision, which he stuck to doggedly, that sets him apart ... his insistence that the world appears a certain way, and this how you represent it.

BOOKTHINK: A lesser man might have been talked out of that.

SOUDER: A lot of people tried to talk him out of it. It's cheaper and quicker to do it on a smaller scale. He would have met with much less resistance in Philadelphia. I think his drawings would have looked much more like Alexander Wilson's. Wilson's drawings are beautiful, but there is such a quantum difference between the two artists and the way they depict birds - it's really quite dramatic.

BOOKTHINK: I see a little parallel here, where he could have given up because Wilson was already doing the work in the same way you could have given up your biography because someone was already doing one.

SOUDER: I guess I never really thought of that. In Audubon's case, he was clearly inspired by Wilson. They had this chance encounter in Louisville when Audubon was a shopkeeper there and Wilson happened to wander into his dry goods store selling subscriptions to American Ornithology, and it's clear that was one of several really important influences on Audubon and showed him what you could do with those kind of drawings. I don't think Audubon was keenly aware that he was walking into a competitive situation when he went to Philadelphia, although he clearly was. He probably couldn't have known or anticipated exactly how Alexander Wilson fit in to the whole hierarchy there at the Academy of Natural Sciences and in the publishing world in Philadelphia. He found out when he got there, of course. But it was a little bit different situation for him.

BOOKTHINK: It has always intrigued me that you can have six people looking at the same subject and each will see it in a unique and different way, whether they are writing about it, or painting it; each person's perception sheds new light on a subject.

SOUDER: There aren't a lot of new subjects in the world, but there's an endless number of ways to look at and paint and write about all the things we find there.

MEDIA EDITOR'S NOTE: The last time a complete bound set of the double elephant folio edition of The Birds of America was offered at auction, it sold for $8.8 million to Sheik Hamad bin-Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar, setting an auction world's record for the printed book.

Join us again soon for Part II of this interview, when we discuss William Souder's new project, a biography of Rachel Carson. We will also touch on his book, A Plague of Frogs, published in 2000 by Hyperion Press.

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