Krista Schlyer is an award-winning conservation photographer and writer. She is a senior fellow at the League of International Conservation Photographers, and her work has been published by the BBC, the Nature Conservancy, High Country News, the National Geographic Society, and the National Audubon Society. She resides in the Washington, DC, metro area. Visit her website.
Read Susan J. Tweit's review of Almost Anywhere for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 01/01/2016
You're well-known as a photographer and writer on conservation issues, including your stunning book, Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall, and the touring photography exhibit, Borderlands. Why venture into the crowded genre of memoir with Almost Anywhere?
I began writing Almost Anywhere long before my book Continental Divide and before all of my long-term work on the ecology of the US-Mexico borderlands, and before any of my work as a natural history journalist. Almost Anywhere tells the story of why I began working as a conservation photographer and writer, and why I am so driven to play a part in the conservation of the natural world. But that was not my intention when I started writing it. It began as a journal, just pages of thoughts and memories and everyday events that helped me sort out what was happening at that time in my life. After a year of traveling, I looked back at the journal and saw a story that I thought might hold meaning for other people, so I started a first draft, which led to a second and third, and eventually to a published memoir.
Almost Anywhere takes readers into an intensely dark time in your life, after your husband, Daniel, died of a terrible form of cancer when you were both in your upper 20s. About a year later, you and your best friend Bill, who was Daniel's best friend too, set out on the yearlong journey chronicled in the book, visiting America's wild places to find a way out of your grief. Was it hard to return to that time in order to write about it? Is that why it took you so long to write the memoir?
Yes, it was difficult, every time I approached an edit of the manuscript, every time I read a passage to myself or someone else. It still is. But it was also cathartic and necessary. It's easy to give in to the temptation to walk around pain or avoid it altogether, but in doing so you miss so much of the experience of life. By revisiting the hardest time in my life every few years for the past 15, I gave myself a gift, a painful immeasurable gift of allowing myself to experience and be transformed by pain and loss and beauty. As for the time it took to complete the memoir, I would still be writing it today if I hadn't signed on with my agent Shannon Hassan and signed a contract to publish with Skyhorse. I'm grateful for the time I spent writing it, and miss that process. I guess I'll have to start a new one. :)
You open the book with a direct statement: "Wisdom can be a sadistic, extortive prize. Sure, some people emerge from the womb dripping unearned wisdom from their newborn digits... Good for them. The rest of us have to earn wisdom through exacting measures throughout our lives. As for me, I was lucky. I managed to live much of my life without it." Was that conscious foreshadowing of the hard, harsh lessons ahead?
Yes, for sure. I must have had 20-30 opening lines for the book over the years. I really wanted something that told in very broad strokes what the book would be about, but I struggled with it until the very last edit. There are several big themes in the book, I finally gave up on combining them all and focused on this one: For most of us, life's lessons don't come easy, it's a cruel trick of the mind to think otherwise. Not very uplifting, but important, and I think the beauty and ridiculousness of some of the rest of the book (and life) helps balance that unavoidable fact out.
The first chapter moves from your "quasi-feral" childhood on a Kansas farm and your childhood concept of heaven, to Cornville, the tiny town in Arizona where you and Daniel moved for your first newspaper job, to the constellation Orion, as a metaphor for stability in a world where change can rip our lives apart. It's a beginning that can feel bewildering, the way grief is bewildering. Did that first chapter evolve as you wrote, or did it stay more or less constant through the process?
It evolved, wildly. The first draft was very straightforward, both in language and in organization. But life doesn't unfold in a straight uncomplicated way and I wanted the story to be a reflection of life's chaos and confusion, with bits of earned understanding here and there as reward for the struggle.
Throughout Almost Anywhere you use footnotes as a kind of wry aside, and sometimes a deeply personal reflection. There's a huge irony there, since footnotes are traditionally these dry elucidations of details in technical publications. Was your use of footnotes another way to skewer life sideways?
Haha, yes. I think some of the funniest things I've ever heard have been mumbled, or said outside of the sometimes-loud stream of conversation. Just asides that most people don't even hear, little surprises for those that are paying attention to the quieter voices. I think of footnotes that way. My footnotes are just odd things I think about that aren't really necessary to the story, but just crack me up. I have some friends who speak in footnotes and they are hilarious. I think to some readers this spirit comes across, to others its like "what the hell?"
I loved your ability to talk about science—whether the big bang or the biology of the Everglades—as ordinary knowledge, as stories for understanding our very human and often alienated-from-all-else lives. Do you find knowing the world through the lens of science steadying?
Yes, so much so. For me it puts a very confusing existence in context. I think existence, our life as a human creature in the universe, as viewed through our own eyes, it's like seeing a tiny piece of a great work of art, like a sliver of a fingernail of Adam from the Sistine Chapel, or a fleck of illuminated paint from "The Starry Night" or the word "beet" from Jitterbug Perfume—it's out of context, so it makes no sense. But science, especially natural history, astronomy, biology... they give another piece of story, each piece helps us make more sense of the larger story we are living within. For me that is indescribably satisfying and comforting.
Sitting beside your grandmother's bed in the hospital in Tucson in a pause in your year's journey, after realizing that she is dying, you write, "I have come to accept pain as the emotional shadow to love; without shadow, light would have no dimension." I felt and saw those words, and loved the metaphor. Thank you for that.
A: Thank you, that makes me smile. I'm grateful for what life has taught me, and grateful that you appreciate it too.
Later in that same chapter, you write, "Granny is ready to die and I am helping her. Daniel was not and I was desperately, desperately helpless." Don't you think that desperate helplessness is a pretty common response to death in our culture, especially death that comes when we have no reason to expect it, as with someone as young as Daniel?
Yes, desperation is natural when there is a situation you know you cannot control. We face this in many aspects of our lives and the hardest thing to accept is that we don't have control over some things, except to be our best self and do what we can, and try to accept outcomes that on their face seem to us unacceptable.
At the end of Almost Anywhere, after Maggie dies, you circle back around to Orion, with his faithful stellar dog, Canis Major, following. Sitting watching the stars with Bill beside you, you write, "Amidst all of this becoming and unraveling, I wonder, how can there be continuity? And yet I look at Bill and think... maybe. It is the glimmering figures of Sirius and Orion that make me both certain I will be disappointed and certain my faith is well placed." That's a gorgeous ending! As a reader, I have to ask, are you and Bill still together? And do you have another dog?
Thank you Susan. We are still together, but no we don't have another dog. And I miss Maggie every day. So does Bill, despite his earlier assertion that all dogs should be reintroduced into the wild. We may one day find another canine friend, but not yet. For a while I couldn't imagine getting another dog after Maggie died. Then, something practical intervened. Bill and I hatched a plan to sail around the world, we bought a sailboat, which we have named Maggie May, and will leave on our adventure in 2017. Maybe after we get back we will look for a new Canis Major.
Of all the wild places across North American you and Bill and Maggie experienced in that year, do you have a favorite or favorites?
A: Many! But a shortlist would be Big Bend National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Olympic National Park, Mojave National Preserve, pretty much any place in the Sonoran Desert, and Yellowstone. Really, though, almost every place we visited taught me something important and unforgettable.
What are you working on now?
I have several ongoing projects, including the Borderlands Project, the documentation project I have been working on for almost 10 years about the ecology of the US-Mexico borderlands region and the impact of a US border wall and militarization. I'm also working on a project on the Anacostia River in Washington DC, a river ecosystem and community that has suffered centuries of abuse and injustice, but remains quietly resilient. I'm going to be transitioning into an ocean-based existence soon, which I'm very excited and anxious about, and looking forward to exploring and documenting the underwater world, and the challenges of living for a couple of years on a small sailboat with Bill—I'll be stashing cans of Pringles in the stowage areas when he is not paying attention.