Monday, June 7, 2010
Inquiry IX: Eric Pinder
Today we are joined by nature writer and fellow resident of the Granite State, Eric Pinder.
Eric’s lifelong interests in science and the outdoors led to jobs at the Appalachian Mountain Club and Mount Washington Observatory. For seven years he lived and worked as a weather observer atop the snowy, windswept, 6288-foot summit of Mount Washington, the “Home of the World’s Worst Weather.” His experiences there inspired several books, including his first book for children, Cat in the Clouds (published by The History Press). He is also an avid nature photographer.
His articles and stories have appeared in Weatherwise, Appalachian Trailway News, Newsday, Bostonia, and other publications. He teaches at Chester College of New England. His books include Tying Down the Wind, Life at the Top and North to Katahdin, which is about the appeal of mountains and wilderness. (Read a review.) His second book for children, If All of the Animals Came Inside, is forthcoming from Little Brown in Spring 2012, illustrated by Arthur creator Marc Brown. Eric is also working on a novel and several more children’s books. He is completing his MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is represented by the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.
EEM: Did you always want to be a writer? If no, what was your initial dream and what led you to writing later?
EP: I still want to be an astronaut when I grow up. But yes, I’ve always wanted to write books, too. Growing up in a house full of books made me want to see my own on the shelf someday. The first story I can remember writing was a science fiction adventure set on the moon.
EEM: When you began writing, was it instant success and riches or did you find you had to work other jobs in order to continue your dream of being a writer?
EP: Right after I graduated from college, an outdoor magazine bought one of my essays for $80, which sure felt like success and riches at the time. Naively, I thought writing for money was going to be easy. I soon learned that rejection slips always outnumber paychecks. That $80 check ended up being my total writing income for the year.
Later, there actually were two amazing years when I probably could have lived off my writing income alone. Not that I was rich, and I still kept my day job, but it was great to finally get promoted from “starving writer” to “moderately well fed writer who can occasionally splurge on Indian food.” The independence of being a writer and being your own boss is wonderful, but the downside is how unsteady and unpredictable the paychecks are. So I’ve almost always had to supplement writing with other jobs.
EEM: What jobs have you held, current or in the past, to help sustain your writing career?
EP: To help pay the bills, I’ve led guided hikes in the White Mountains, prepared teacher certification tests, worked at a mountaintop weather observatory, taught college courses, and even delivered pizzas part time. I think every job offers something a writer can use (besides money). For example, I now have a great idea for a murder mystery novel set in a restaurant, after seeing what goes on behind the scenes.
Barnes & Noble once asked me to design on online Meteorology 101 course for them, and I ended up teaching the class online for several years. Speaking at schools and libraries is another nice way to supplement writing income. One thing I’ve noticed, whether I’m teaching a weekend workshop for the Appalachian Mountain Club or a college writing class, is that teaching is a great way to learn new things. You have to learn, just to keep ahead of all the surprising and interesting questions you’ll get asked.
EEM: Which job was the most challenging or strange to you?
EP: For seven years, I lived and worked on top of Mount Washington, at a weather observatory famous for having “the world’s worst weather.” My very first day on the job, crewmates introduced me to the sport of deck sledding: You kneel on a plastic sled, hold out your arms like sails, and then the hurricane-force gusts whoosh you across the icy observation deck like a hockey puck. Very fun.
My workday started at 4 o’clock each morning, taking weather observations and reading the forecast over the radio. In the winter—by “winter” I mean September through May—the first thing I’d often have to do was climb to the top of the tower with a plastic sledgehammer to deice the instruments in 100 mph winds. In theory, my day ended at 4 pm, but the mountain always threw surprises at us. Rescuing a lost hiker with a broken leg sometimes had me working till after midnight, then catching a few hours sleep and starting the routine all over again. It was exhilarating but exhausting work. And it gave me a lot to write about.
EEM: Strange, indeed! How did you come across this job? Actively seeking or by chance?
EP: By chance, and it ended up changing my life. A few years out of college, I was working in a windowless office in Massachusetts while trying to be a nature writer like Thoreau or Barry Lopez. It’s hard to write about moose and mountains when all you can see is concrete and fluorescent lights.
A friend called me up and mentioned a summer job on Mount Washington. The deadline for applying was the very next day. Despite being really tired from my mind-numbing day job, I rushed in an application. I figured it would be nice to go there for a few months, experience some crazy weather, and maybe write an essay about it. I wasn’t planning to stay long. But while I was there, a fulltime job opened up, and I guess I liked it, because I stayed for seven more years. My experiences there inspired several books, including my first book for children, Cat in the Clouds. I often wonder how different my life and my writing career might have been if not for that serendipitous phone call. Who knows what I would have been writing about instead?
EEM: What was your favorite thing about this job?
EP: One quiet morning, a raven swooped up over the edge of the railing and almost landed on my shoulder. We were just inches apart, staring at each other for a long moment. Then the raven cawed and swerved away. Witnessing crazy weather and having close encounters with wildlife made this the ideal setting for someone like me, interested in writing about science and nature. I also got to know some great people and form lifelong friendships. When you’re stuck at a remote mountaintop outpost with just a few other people, sharing hardships and constantly witnessing natural wonders like the northern lights, your co-workers become family.
EEM: Least Favorite?
EP: My least favorite part of any non-writing job is the office politics. It gets in the way of what’s important.
EEM: Did your day job(s) allow you to write regularly? Or did you have to get creative to get those word counts in?
EP: On the mountain, usually I was too busy to write during the day and too exhausted to write once my shift ended. I’d jot down notes, ideas and memory prompts for later, but had to wait for a day off before mulling over those thoughts and getting any serious writing done. One thing my day job did do was make me eager to write when I finally got the chance, because there were so many great stories to tell.
Teaching writing at Chester College has been challenging and inspirational in different ways. I’ve been privileged to work with some amazingly talented students during the past five years, and they’ve motivated me to step up my game and get more writing done, just to try to keep up with them. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read student work and thought, “Wow! I wish I’d written that.”
EEM: What other effects did it have on your writing?
EP: I think we all tend to write the most about what we know the best. Living above the clouds and talking about weather all day pretty much guaranteed a lot of blizzards and ice storms in my writing. If Jacqueline Briggs Martin hadn’t already done such a great job with Snowflake Bentley, I’m sure that’s a topic I would’ve explored. It’s a common but frustrating experience to browse the bookstore shelves, discover a title and think, “Hey, wait a minute. I was going to write that book.”
EEM: Any fun stories from the job(s) that inspired your stories?
EP: One cold March day, a student showed up for my Nature Writing class in a scuba-diving wetsuit. We were going for a field trip that day, so we looked for a cold pond for him to jump into. “Get ready,” I told the class. “You’re going to hear some great quotes as soon as he hits the water.” In New England in March, believe me, ponds are ice cold. As he slowly submerged himself, yelping and hollering, it turned into a great classroom writing exercise. We had fun translating the noises into onomatopoeic words.
Teaching, especially teaching Nature Writing, has definitely inspired some stories. On field trips, we’ve stumbled across snapping turtles, snakes and wild turkeys, and once found a mysteriously flattened owl at the edge of a waterfall. Some great quotes and anecdotes have come out of those experiences. I bring a notebook along on each field trip, and someday a book will emerge from all of those experiences.
EEM: Have you ever based a loved protagonist or an evil villain on one of your co-workers? Wished you had?
EP: I’ve never directly based a character on a real person, though one time I did create a villain who was kind of a patchwork assembly of behavioral quirks and eccentricities from several different people in real life. It was kind of like putting together Frankenstein’s monster out of spare parts.
EEM: What are you working on now and is the process any easier than your first work?? If so, in what capacity (people noticing it, the writing itself, the confidence?)
EP: Writing is never easy for me. I’m a slow writer, and getting started on a new project and trying to find the right words is always painful. That’s why I have so much sympathy for Flaubert. He spent five years writing Madame Bovary, and was in agony the whole time. I know how that feels. The only thing that’s changed over the years is my confidence. I know now that if I keep working through the pain and don’t give up, eventually something decent will emerge. Last week I spent hours revising a picture book about dragons, and boy did those dragons put up a fight. I’m still covered in burns and bite marks. But the result was worth it.
I’m hard at work right now on several more picture books and my first young adult novel. Those are at the top of my to-do list. I’m also planning another creative nonfiction book with a nature theme, thanks to all of those field trips at Chester College.
EEM: Would you change anything if you could begin your writing journey over again?
EP: I’d travel more, sooner. Several former co-workers from Mount Washington went on to work in Antarctica, and now I really regret not going too. An amazing book could have come out of that experience. I suppose I could still go, but committing to a 13-month stint at South Pole would have been a lot easier ten years ago.
EEM: Eric, you are a joy to listen to! Best of luck and thanks so much for your insights.