This time of year, when the farm is lit up with flowers, I crave more and more of nature’s splendor. So it’s very fitting that today’s interviewee is photographer and author, Elizabeth Kenneday. Mono Lake, the subject of her new book, is one of those places that I’d like to spend some time, preferably in a tent with a lot of books. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.
This eerie, yet exquisitely beautiful lake has inspired writers, movie producers, artists and photographers, and musicians … the lake and its basin have been the site of Native American activity, a gold rush, agricultural and ranching endeavors, an oil boom, other commercial activities, and tourism. I became ever more intrigued with the ways the area had been perceived, interpreted, utilized, exploited and cherished by others who have encountered it. Mono Lake of the twenty first century bears the imprint of all these human activities – some visible, some less so.
This book came about from a decades-long relationship with Mono Lake and its plight. Although aware of it as a child, I became a volunteer for the fledging Mono Lake Committee after learning it was slowly drying up due to stream diversions by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. I had photographed the area extensively when possible, and when my husband, a Wildland Firefighter, was based nearby, I became serious about creating a book of photographs. Along the way, I had learned so much about the lake and had many stories of my own to tell that when a publisher’s consultant suggested a collaborative writer to augment the project, I became quite interested. As I was pondering whom among my writer friends to consider for the project, I kept thinking of things to tell them to write about, which, of course, didn’t seem like much of collaboration. One of my writer friends simply told me I should write it myself because it was my experience.
My previous experience with serious writing had been academic in nature, from my dissertation to grant proposals and the like, but I decided to give it a try. The stories interweave with the photographs, although neither is in direct service to the other. But the positive feedback I have received from those who have read it has inspired me to continue writing.
2. What stories, themes, motivations do you find yourself drawn to in your work and in the works you read?
The book has emboldened me to move beyond creative nonfiction to pursue writing in the areas of historical and speculative fiction, genres I particularly enjoy and have had ideas rolling around in my head about for quite some time. I have three short stories in the works: one rewrites a story from ancient Greek mythology; a second is a humorous contemporary fairy tale; and the third involves speculative fiction. I approach them from environmentalist and feminist perspectives and particularly enjoy reading works that use similar themes.
3. What do you do when you’re not writing?
I am usually making art when not writing. It seems I always have some sort of project going. Or I’m traveling – love to travel – and it feeds my creative thinking and often inspires stories or imagery.
4. What made you believe you could write a book? How did you dispel doubt as you wrote?
Although I come from the visual arts, I have several friends who are writers, and when they learned of my desire to create a book about Mono Lake, they were very encouraging that I would be able to write as compellingly about it as my photographs were.
As I progressed, I was constantly filled with doubt, but they assured me the stories I had to tell were important and needed to be “out there.” Most of the books about Mono Lake had been either historical or environmental volumes or monographs of photography. I was weaving stories of popular culture and aesthetic problems into historical and environmental issues for a different perspective of the place.
5. Describe the first 2-3 steps of your process in writing your book.
For this book, I would start writing about a personal experience, such as trying to become an extra in the film Tree of Life which was scheduled to film at Mono Lake (but never did), so I could hopefully photograph contemporary moviemaking there. Starting from my own experience would help segue into stories about other films made there and the after-effects on the lake environment. Although I usually had researched the topic in advance, I would often have to stop to do some fact-checking, which often led to more material than I would’ve imagined. In some cases, I would read an entire book about a topic that would result in one sentence in the book or, if I was lucky, an entire paragraph.
6. How do you balance what will sell with what you want to say?
This book was more a about a place I had loved most of my life and seemed like something I was compelled to do. I wanted it to remain my voice and my story, and, while I hope those who read it enjoy it (the feedback I’ve gotten so far has been very positive), I have tried not to worry about sales. It is a Limited Edition, and I have avoided going the Amazon.com route with it, keeping it in local indie and museum bookstores and giving book talks where I am invited – an activity I enjoy that usually results in good sales.
7. Which is more difficult – drafting or revising? Why?
Drafting seems much easier to me as ideas flow as I write. Revising can become tedious as I am somewhat of a perfectionist and can go on endlessly if I’m not careful. But revising does lead to the kind of polish that makes the prose shine, which is essential to the process.
8. What is your favorite part about being a writer?
When I find inspiration for a story, I really enjoy the process of the growth of the story. Once an idea catches hold and more ideas begin to flow, the feeling is such a delight.
9. What is your least favorite part about being a writer?
Trying to shape the writing into something “perfect” is often excruciating to me.
10. What are a few of your favorite books of all time?
I loved Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and essentially all her works). That book opened me up to what wonderful storytelling could be. Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse was another book that was stunning and inspiring to encounter. And The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault had a huge impact on me, but then, I’m a bit of a Grecophile.
11. What’s the best writing advice you ever received?
Elizabeth Kenneday, an Emeritá Professor of Art at the California State University in Long Beach, is an artist and author. She has been the recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Fellowship at the University of Iceland, and her activities in environmental education through art have led to numerous lectures at international conferences in Europe and North America, and her writings on the subject have appeared in various publications while her artworks have been exhibited internationally and widely collected. Her book Regarding Mono Lake: Novelty and Delight at an Inland Sea was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award in Art.