TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe.
Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?
Ships in the Desert is a series of linked essays based on my four years of living along the Great Silk Road in Central Asia. Centered around a personal trip I took to the dying Aral Sea as well as my time as an educator in Kazakhstan, the book explores issues of environmental degradation and religious intolerance, presents some of the fabulous history of the region and its people, and reflects on personal and social change once I return to the States.
Which essay did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which essay gave you the most trouble, and why?
My favorite to write was the title essay, “Ships in the Desert.” It started as a travel narrative of the trip I took to see the dying Aral Sea in person, but as it progressed, I began seeing connections to water issues around the globe, particularly in the U.S. The more research I did, the more I was pulled into the story of corruption, greed, and environmental mismanagement behind the Aral’s demise. It’s utterly tragic and also fascinating in the way tragedies can be, for they not only show us the darker side of ourselves, they allow opportunities for us to respond with the better parts of ourselves. I didn’t enjoy writing the essay so much as I felt compelled to write it because while, yes, it can paint a bleak picture of the climate predicament we’re in right now, it also makes it clear there are options we can choose to help make things better.
This was also the essay that gave me the most trouble! It’s a very long essay—more than 15,000 words long—and intricate, with a lot of moving parts. Piecing it all together was fun, and yet it was also a huge challenge. Not surprisingly, it took the longest for me to write of all the essays in the book. I was updating it right up until before it went to press because I wanted it to include the very latest information I could find.
Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.
I can’t say this was a low really, but it was a challenge I think a lot of writers face: I had a book I felt was topical and really believed in, but it took time to find a publisher—it was four years exactly to the day from when I first sent it out to when I sent it to the publisher who accepted it, the Santa Fe Writers Project. In between, it received a lot of positive comments from editors at some really good presses, which kept me going and kept me aiming high. But everything comes in its own time, and as it turns out, it was a blessing it was picked up when it was. Had it been accepted earlier, it might have been released during the first two years of the pandemic when pretty much everything was shut down. Coming out in 2022 proved perfect, because I’ve been able to do a lot more events of the kind that just weren’t being done a year or two ago.
As to a high, that’s easy: I’m thrilled my book was picked up by the SFWP, whom I love working with! I’ve learned so much about the publishing biz from them, it’s been like taking a master class. Not only that, there’s such a sense of energy and positivity that emanates from them. They think big, too, and I like that. And they’ve got your back. You know that if they publish your book, it’s because they believe in it as much as you do.
What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
This isn’t something I’ve read or heard a single person say but rather is a combination of several different pieces of advice I see as acting together: Don’t overthink when you write. Try as much as possible to write from a deep inner place of spontaneous imagination. Don’t edit yourself, not at this stage. Just keep digging and try to get at the hot, honest emotional core of whatever you’re writing about. You can iron out the rough edges and make changes later. That’s what the editing stage is for. But a writer’s initial job is to dive below the surface of things, and that means quieting the mental chatter and writing from the center—from the heart, yes, but also from the gut.
My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?
As much as I knew about the Aral Sea disaster before beginning the book, it was still a surprise for me to learn just how extensive the disaster was, and to learn exactly the reasons for it. I could have just tried to encapsulate all that into a manageable bit of background and kept on with the travel narrative I had begun. But instead, I took that surprise and expanded on it. There was a ton of scientific research on the Aral, and many short articles on the subject, but surprisingly little of length written in a more accessible format. I decided to take time to gather many disparate pieces of information together and stitch them into a cohesive whole that would not only tell a story but also relate the science behind it and ultimately show why it matters.
How do you approach revision?
While, for me, producing a lively, spontaneous first draft is the heart of the writing process, revision is the blood that feeds the heart. If all goes well, you’ll have a wildly beating organ clamoring for life, and revision is how you keep that life going while also shaping it into something viable. It’s not a process to be rushed. I spend significantly more time revising than anything else in the writing process. I’m very methodical about it, in stark contrast to how I draft. Perhaps this strikes a yin and yang kind of balance and that’s why it works, at least for me. After typing a first draft on the computer, I print it for revision—I have to see it on the physical page. I’ll go through it page by page, marking it up as I go. When I’m in this stage, I usually think about it all the time, and so I’ll keep revisiting the manuscript, adding new edits that occur to me throughout the day—long walks and hot showers seem to be especially conducive to producing good ideas. When the entire manuscript is marked up to the point where it’s beginning to get a little messy, I type my changes into the computer, making sure to number that version as the latest draft. Then I print it and go through the process again. And again. As many times as is necessary to get it right.
Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? Any recipes I might share?
Food culture is an inextricable part of life in Central Asia! So even though my book is about very different topics, food inevitably makes a few appearances. While I don’t specifically mention this, one of my favorite dishes is selyodka pod shuboy, which translates as “herring under a fur coat.” My wife learned how to make it from her grandmother in Kazakhstan, though it’s popular all throughout the countries of the former Soviet Union. I’ll provide a link to a recipe in a minute, but first I want to make a comment on the fish portion of this dish: In Kazakhstan, the pickled herring used is salty. I never heard of anyone pickling fish with sugar, as is common here in the States. So if you want an authentic taste, try to find the salty kind if you can. It might be hard if you don’t live in a big city with a good European or Asian market. Don’t use the herring in jars that you see in grocery stores, especially the herring in cream sauce—those are loaded with sugar! In a pinch, we’ve used herring filets in oil in a tin. I often smoke my own fish, too, usually salmon, which makes a wonderful substitute.
With that said, the recipe I want to pass along comes from a favorite restaurant near us, Kachka in Portland, Oregon. They use a ring mold to shape it, but my wife and I like this dish so much, we triple the portions and make it in a large glass baking dish! Anything to help build up the layers and keep everything together will work.
Here’s the link: https://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/herring-under-fur-coat
READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: https://www.jeff-fearnside.com/
ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK: https://www.amazon.com/Ships-Desert-SFWP-Literary-Awards/dp/1951631153/
READ AN ESSAY, “After Us, Even Flood”: https://www.terrain.org/2022/nonfiction/after-us-even-flood/