April 26, 2011
What was unusual about your first professional writing, which was published when you were only 23 years old?
My first published writing was the growing instructions on the back of flower seed packets. It was like writing tiny poems or haiku—every word mattered. It was instructions for life—the life of the seeds, and my own as well.
Can you make the sound of a wild snail eating?
I don’t think this sound can be made by a human. Some radio interviewers have asked me to try but how could I, with only 32 teeth, reproduce the sound of a snail’s 2,640 teeth? However, some scientist friends recorded the sound of a real snail eating and you can listen to the sound on my website.
How dangerous is the writing life?
I do most of my reading lying down, holding a book above my head. My arms get weak and sometimes the book falls on me. This is a serious concern. “Author dies of concussion from dropped book” is a headline best avoided.
Explain one of the rarely discussed complications of the writing life.
I edit hard copy with a pen and invariably I get ink everywhere. I get ink on my clothing, my sheets, and my skin. Before they invented the new kind of correction tape, I used to use liquid Wite-Out. If I wore black, Wite-Out always managed to jump on. Everything was black and white. I got black on white and white on black.
Were there any coincidences involving the writing and researching of your book?
There were many coincidences of which I will just tell you one. Nearly at the end of the writing process I learned about an interesting pathogen that may have been involved in my illness. I saw a new infectious disease doctor to discuss the possibility, as I wanted to include it in the epilogue. It turned out the doctor had a side interest: He was involved in a snail research study in the Galapagos.
What do you wish you could have included in The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating but didn’t?
As I worked on the book anything that didn’t fit in but that I couldn’t let go of got moved into the epilogue—like sweeping dust under a rug. The epilogue grew and grew until it was humongous. Finally, I had to cut out wonderful long Victorian quotes or the epilogue would have been wagging the book. A bit of that cut material just came out in my essay “A Green World Deep in Winter: The Bedside Terrarium,” which appeared in February 2011 in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.
Are you a morning writer or a night writer?
Please let me be a morning writer!!!!!!! Morning writers get their work done early and then enjoy the rest of the day guilt free! Not I, alas. It is 1:18 a.m. as I write this. I wish it were not so. I simply can not focus or concentrate until all has gone quiet and everyone in the houses around me is asleep. Then I write until I get stuck, at which point I go to bed. Just as I am about to fall asleep I start solving the creative challenges, scribbling things down by flashlight throughout the night. In the morning, I am a wreck from the insomnia but the nearly illegible notes are gold.
What is it like to tell someone that you are writing a book?
I wasn’t prepared for the extent to which the general public romanticizes the writing life. My earlier respectable professions never drew the level of instant interest that I get now when I say that I am a writer. It boggles my mind how anyone can romanticize the silent torturous routine of staring at a computer screen in creative paralysis. Writing—at least for me—is mostly a matter of continual rewriting. I rewrite every sentence dozens of times. Some sentences haunt me for months before I manage to perfect them. If you are a writer, people invariably ask what you write about. For some reason my subject matter—an individual snail—seems to leave people speechless.
Do people give you snails?
Yes, snail candles, snail soap, snail salt & pepper shakers. I immediately regift these snails to new homes. The only snail that mattered to me personally was the one in my book. Imagine if you wrote a book about a spouse or child or a cat or dog and then everyone wanted to give you more spouses and children and lots of cats and dogs? One needs to be careful what subject one chooses to write about. I think my next book will be about air or mountains or sleeping. Or maybe I’ll go back to writing about flower seeds.
Did you really find a way to tell a 6 minute and 40 second story of how you wrote The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating?
You ask very good questions! Do you know about Pecha Kucha? It’s a patented format in which you explain a life story or passion in 20 slides with 20 seconds of talking per slide. I created a Pecha Kucha for my book. It’s now up on my website so you can see it for yourself. It tells the story of why and how I wrote the book and has plot, pathos and humor, surprises, and a good ending, all packed into less than 7 minutes.
Did you really film a snail?
Yes! It was fun. Though I don’t know what the snail thought. We caught some wonderful snail behavior. A bit of the film footage is on my website.
If you get a film offer on your book, which character would you want to be?