“I am sorry to say that ordinary scientific books are in nearly every case written by men who have no capacity to explain anything.” Anchorage author Bill Streever set out in part to defy this assertion by Thomas Edison, writing a book on ordinary topic that has proved to be anything but ordinary. In fact, since hitting the shelves a couple of months ago, Streever’s Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places has been something of a sensation. Not only did it garner a favorable review in the New York Times, but it also hit the top 30 on the NYT Bestseller List. Several reviews later, including one here at 49 Writers, we were still hearing from Alaskans wondering who Streever was and where he’d been hiding. As it turns out, he hasn’t been hiding at all. In this post from our archives, he talks about his previous books, his Alaskan experience, and how he deals with both critics and success.
You have an extensive background in technical writing. What compelled you to move into mainstream nonfiction? Did you plunge right into a book, or did smaller projects precede it? To what do you attribute the nicely balanced style and voice in your prose?
A better question might be “What compelled you to move into technical writing?” Almost thirty years ago, when I was living in Asia, I was writing travel articles and short fiction for regional magazines, and I was writing about my work as a commercial diver. When I realized that I did not want to grow old working as a commercial diver, I hung up my diving helmet and went to college, entering a creative writing program but pretty quickly switching to biology. All of this led to graduate training in applied ecology. A big part of science is technical writing, but throughout this time I worked on articles for nontechnical audiences too. I wrote about the crayfish in Florida’s flooded caves, for example, and I wrote about restoring mangroves and salt marshes in Australia.
I’ve written several books now, but Cold is the first to find a major publisher and a wide audience. All of the books were preceded by smaller projects of one sort or another—often technical articles or semi-technical articles—so I suppose that I did not plunge right into any of them. But really the broad topics that interest me are well suited to books, and in my own reading I prefer books to articles or collections of essays, so it makes sense that I would lean toward books rather than smaller projects.
To what do I attribute the nicely balanced style and voice in my prose? First, thanks! But really I am not sure of an answer. Maybe spending years and years reading other authors paid off. While reading, I spend a fair bit of time thinking about style and voice. Also, I am a chronic reviser, always looking for a new way to say something and never satisfied with what I have done, and of course I think that must pay off as well, both by improving the piece at hand and by improving my own writing skills—after correcting my own mistakes five or six times, I make them less often. Lastly, throughout the writing process, from outlining to the final revision, I spend time thinking about how to connect with readers. Connecting with readers is important for any nonfiction writer, but it is especially important for those of us with a science background. The stereotype of a myopic scientist mumbling to himself or herself is based to some degree on reality, and of course that does not work at all for a mainstream audience. Thomas Edison once wrote:
“I generally recommend only those books that are written by men who actually try to describe things plainly, simply and by analogy with things everybody knows. I am sorry to say that ordinary scientific books are in nearly every case written by men who have no capacity to explain anything.” It would be fair to say that I did not want to write what Edison thought of as an ordinary scientific book.
What brought you to Alaska? How long have you been here? What were some of your first impressions, and how have they changed?
The question I keep asking myself is not “What brought you to Alaska?”, but rather, “Why did it take you so long to get here?” The first time I came was for a scientific meeting, the second time I came was for about five weeks of field work, and the third time I came (and stayed) was for the lifestyle and the geography, facilitated by a job offer. I’ve been here nine years and have no intention of leaving any time soon. Let’s face it, Alaska is an amazing place. My first impressions focused on the mountains and the oceans, on the brutal beauty of the landscape. Later I thought more about the ethereal beauty added by things like raging winds and hoarfrost and sun filtered through low clouds. I was also impressed by the people, on the one hand the somewhat transient population of Anchorage and much of the state, and on the other hand the long-term Alaskans—native Alaskans and Alaskan natives. The science and the scientific community—what seems like a high number of biologists per capita—adds another dimension. And now, late in the game, I am just beginning to discover the writing community. I am in and out of the state frequently on business. Coming home, looking out the window of the airplane on the approach to the runway always brings a smile to my face. I mean this literally.
Your book has been wonderfully received, getting the kind of attention many writers only dream of. How have you handled this success right out of the chute, so to speak?
I would say I am handling this success with a mix of gratitude and wonder. More practically, I am handling it one day at a time. Of course I hoped that Cold would do well, but I never thought it would do as well as it has. For me, this has been great, but I have to admit the success also led to a few sleepless nights. There was this sudden realization that lots of people are reading my book, thinking about my words, finding all my mistakes. Also, going into this I had no realization of the time demands that would come with release of a book like Cold. For now, I have had to temporarily abandon work on my new book to divide my time between my day job, my family, and various activities associated with Cold.
Of course the interest in Cold is really gratifying, but I have been around long enough to know that the success of a book depends not only on the book itself but also on the circumstances around it, including timing of its release, especially in terms of competing events in the media. There is a certain amount of luck involved in books, just as there is in life.
One thing I have been doing—and I think this is important—is keeping a mental tally of what reviewers and readers like about the book and what they don’t like or don’t mention, both of which are helping me with my new book (or at least they will when I can get back to work on it).
I love how the book weaves history with biology, technology, and personal anecdote. How hard was it to balance the various approaches to your topic?
For me, this balance is what made Cold interesting to write. It is what makes life interesting in general, and really it is how I view the world on a day-to-day basis, so in that sense it was not hard at all to balance these different aspects of life. It does make the book a bit difficult to describe at times, which presented a challenge, especially when I was looking for an agent and a publisher. Understandably, agents and publishers want a quick summary that captures the essence of a book. Does it belong on the science shelf? The history shelf? The Alaska shelf? All of these, and none, but in the end mainly the science shelf, even though it is a long way from being a science book.
How long did you work on the book, and how did you bring it to market?
Lots of people ask how long it took me to write Cold. My last book, Green Seduction, came out in 2006, so it would be right to say that I have been working on Cold for about three years, but never on a fulltime basis. My day job (I am a biologist with a large energy company) is in many ways rewarding, but it is often overwhelming, so I worked on Cold when I could, often as a form of therapy. When I was not traveling I was very disciplined, working two hours very early each morning before the sane members of the community were awake. So, on a fulltime basis maybe the equivalent of 6 months? But I could not maintain the focus required to write Cold on a fulltime basis even if I could afford to do it financially, so I should probably just say three years and leave it at that.
I brought it to market by stumbling upon Elizabeth Wales. She is of course a well known literary agent based in Seattle, and she has been great. I knew I wanted to go through an agent and seek a mainstream publisher, something that I had tried unsuccessfully with my earlier books too. I took the normal route: a query letter, followed by a proposal and two chapters, followed by a more or less completed manuscript. The manuscript was almost finished before I wrote the proposal, and I think that was an important selling point. It would be tough for an unknown author to market a quirky book like Cold without the manuscript in hand, it seems to me.
Though the primary focus of the book is clearly not political, there’s no skirting the issue of global warming. How do your respond to critics who complain that the book fails to adequately address this political “hot button”?
Only a couple of critics have complained that the book fails to tackle climate change head on, and they are probably outweighed by critics who seem to be grateful that Cold was not a sermon about the evils of greenhouse gas emissions. Throughout Cold, climate change lurks around in the background, this specter of a warming world, and it emerges as a focal topic in the final chapter, but I think the world has enough books and articles that focus on the topic. I had very little to add that has not already been said, and said more than once, and at one point I decided that I would not have any full pages or even paragraphs dedicated to the topic. But in the end I built the last chapter around aspects of climate change, focused mainly on the history of the topic, a sort of reminder to skeptics and proponents alike that climate change is not a new topic dreamed up in the seventies but rather it is something that we have known about to one degree or another for more than a hundred years.
How would I respond to critics? In general, I do not think it makes sense to respond to critics. Critique is really a one-way flow in my experience. Instead of responding, I would take their comments on board and consider them as input for my future writing. Even the most vehement critic is really offering a favor, a bit of free advice about what to do or not do next, but as always with advice one has to turn within to sort the good from the bad. Listen closely to advisors, and listen very closely to critics, but in the end make your own decisions. In this case, I have not seen anything that convinces me to focus my next book on climate change or for that matter any other political hot button. My attention is held by the complexity and beauty of the world, not by the delivery of a political message. And the world is far too interesting to be limited by political hot buttons.
In the years since this post first ran, Alaska author Bill Streever has also published Heat: Adventures in the World’s Fiery Places. He lives with his son, Ishmael Streever, his partner and
wife, Dr. Lisanne Aerts, and the resident dog, Lucky (who was adopted from
Sakhalin, Russia) in Anchorage, Alaska. The four of them ski, hike, dive,
bike, and camp as often as time and their varying abilities allow.