Grand Vision: An Interview with Diane Ackerman, by Ashlie Kauffman

Poet, essayist, and naturalist, Diane Ackerman is the author of two dozen highly acclaimed works of nonfiction and poetry, including Pulitzer Prize Finalist One Hundred Names for Love, The Zookeeper’s Wife, and A Natural History of the Senses, books beloved by millions of readers all over the world. She received an MA, MFA, and PhD from Cornell University and has received many prizes and awards, among them a D. Litt. from Kenyon College, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the John Burroughs Nature Award, the Lavan Poetry Prize, and the 2015 PEN New England Henry David Thoreau Prize for literary excellence in nature writing for her most recent book, The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us (Norton, 2014). She was honored as a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library and has taught at a variety of universities, including Columbia and Cornell. Her book The Zookeeper’s Wife was adapted as a feature film and recently released in March 2017.

JMWW Senior Poetry Editor Ashlie Kauffman asked questions of Diane in recognition of her being honored Saturday at the American Visionary Art Museum’s Celestial Gala.

Ashlie Kauffman: The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore will be honoring you on November 18th at their Celestial Gala with their Grand Visionary honor, along with Richard Garriott. It seems clear how, as honorees, you are both types of explorers. In your career, you’ve produced a large body of work that includes essays, memoir, and other types of nonfiction, as well as poetry and children’s books, spanning wide-ranging topics. What draws you to explore in your writing, and what draws you to write in multiple genres?

Diane Ackerman: I’ve never felt that the world was knowable from just one perspective, so I’ve always been fascinated by both the humanities and the sciences (and everything else!). I began as a poet, and poetry continues to be the source of my creativity, but I found that I needed more elbow room, and began writing creative nonfiction. At the moment, I’m having a go at my first novel.

AK: The Zookeeper’s Wife, a nonfiction account of the Warsaw Zoo during World War II and Jan and Antonina Zabinskis’ efforts to hide Jews there, encompasses Antonina’s perspective so immediately. I’m fascinated by what seems like a fluidity of genre reading this book: it’s a nonfiction work about a place and historical events, but is very much biography, and also reads like a novel because of the immersion in Antonina as a character. How do you negotiate the use of different genre techniques in your work?

DA: I had to learn how to write “narrative nonfiction” for The Zookeeper’s Wife, and it wasn’t easy at first. How do you write a book that reads like a novel, but in which you make nothing up? Especially if the events took place in a distant era and country? I discovered that that was possible, but required some creative tricks. So, for example, I didn’t make up any scenes, and every time someone speaks, I’m quoting directly from interviews, memoirs, testamonies, or books by the Zabinskis.

AK: The book is also rich in description of place. It was notable to me as well when reading your memoir, One Hundred Names for Love, about your late husband Paul West’s stroke, that the hospital is depicted so fully as a world to learn and navigate. What are your thoughts about setting in your writing?

DA: Setting is vitally important, because I want my readers to be able to look through the lens of my sensibility and see exactly what I see, have some of the experiences I’m having (but from a safe distance), travel with me. That means depicting everything in sensory detail — which, fortunately, I happen to love both experiencing and writing.

AK: Paul’s stroke resulted in a period of aphasia. In the memoir, you show an effort in the writing to plumb the internal world of someone when it’s inaccessible to you. There’s imagining, questioning, empathizing, and making connections to your past knowledge and experience of Paul as well as jumping ahead in time to after he was able to communicate again and shed light on that time period, all of which considers what that internal world was like. Can you talk about the need to write about this time period and also the need to explore and understand what might be unknown about a person’s experience?

DA: It took me about 5 years to be able to write the book, and I’m so glad I did, because I would have forgotten many of the details over time. And it was an important chapter in our lifelong romance (we met when I was 19), full of eye-opening and fulfilling times as well as traumatic ones. Paul was alive when I wrote the book, I was nursing him at home, and each day he would come and ask me to read to him what I’d written that day. We shared the good and bad memories, and it brought us closer.

AK: As you mention at the start of the memoir, you were on a book tour just prior to Paul’s hospitalization and stroke, for your book An Alchemy of Mind. You write, “the magic and glory of the brain was still very much on my mind.” This seamlessness between research and writing and life made me want to know more about how writing and research has informed your life in general. Could you discuss that?

DA: I love learning, so I usually choose to write about something I don’t know much about, although I may have experieced it first-hand in dramatic circumstances (swimming with whales, for instance, or working at a crisis center, or Paul’s illness, or our amazing senses). But I become royally obsessed with whatever book I’m writing, and I begin to see the world through the prism of its subject and people. The reseach helps me understand and better imagine their world, and try to understand what it can teach me about being human.

AK: I’d love to hear you talk about how you use poetry to approach topics differently from how you do in other writing. When reading your poems that have a lot of lyric repetition, for instance, I’m experiencing the compression of emotion in them in a way that makes it feel to me like you’re a different writer, though the viewpoint may be similar, such as in the title poem to your collection I Praise My Destroyer. How do you come to write a poem versus other work, and how do you experience your poems differently as a writer than your other work?

DA: I prefer the epigrammatic, metaphorical power of poetry, even though I write much more prose these days. So much of our experience falls between the seams of language, simply because language is human-made, but our emotions aren’t. It’s possible in poetry, or in poetic prose, to weave words together in such a way that I can explore those spaces, the ones normal language can’t reach. Sometimes, though, I write both poetry and prose about the same thing. For instance, I wrote essays about going to the Antarctic and Amazon, but I also wrote more personal, more emotional poems about those trips.

AK: Back to The Zookeeper’s Wife: What has the experience been like to have a book you published in 2007 come into increased public awareness through a film adaptation?

DA: It’s been a thrill. A movie is always different from a book, but I think they did a powerful and beautiful job of translating the book into film. It’s also brought a new audience to Antonina’s important story. And I loved visiting the set for a few days and discovering how films are made.

AK: Could you say some words about any projects you are currently at work on?

DA: I’m working on a historical novel, but I’m afraid I can’t say more about it quite yet. I’ve only just begun. Wish me luck!

Planning to go to the Celestial Gala?

When: Saturday, November 18th, 2017, 5-11 pm

Where: American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway, Baltimore, MD 21230




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