By Laura Hitt
Julian Hoffman recently gave a talk at Iowa State University on living and writing about the Prespa Lakes region of northwestern Greece. Flyway published his essay “The Memory of Land and Water” is 2010, and in 2012 his essay collection The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World won the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction. On a sunny morning at Reiman Gardens in Ames, he took some time to answer a few questions about his writing process and his upcoming project. Follow him at julianhoffman.wordpress.com.
Flyway: You talk about being at home wherever we find ourselves, seeking home wherever we are, and yet you yourself moved from London to the Prespa Lakes region to be closer to nature. How do we embrace where we live at the moment while also keeping an eye out for the places where we truly want to make a home?
JH: I think our sense of home is really about our quality of connection, quality of attention to the world around us. Historically of course we have always moved, all the way back to our earliest origins in the savannahs of Africa. People spread out across the world, so movement is very much at the heart of who we are as people and as a species. At the same time I think that within movement we can embrace a sort of of everyday awareness of what is there in the slanting light and near enough to taste.
The bird the kestrel has this extraordinary hover in mid flight. It’s this gorgeous floating anchor in the sky, an artful and elegant hover while it hunts for food. Film studies have shown that a kestrel’s eyes move less than 6 millimeters in any direction whilst it hovers. So for each shift of the wind the bird compensates by a forward stretch of its neck or tilt of its tail. What I find really astonishing about that is that, amidst that wild beating of its wings, the kestrel is essentially still. And I wonder if that’s how we might go about sort of connecting to places in these mobile lives of ours, by trying to be still and in motion at the same moment, by focusing intently on the smallest of things around us so we can attempt to be at home wherever we happen to be.
And I think Sigurd Olson said that, “Awareness is becoming acquainted with environment, no matter where one happens to be.” Despite the fact that we’re constantly on the move in our lives—and that movement isn’t only physical of course, it’s often emotional. At all times we’re moving, whether it’s through memory to the past or whether it’s through imagination into the future, we’re constantly on the move in one way or another. But there are ways to anchor ourselves within that movement and I think that’s the key to trying to be at home, by tapping in and solidifying our connections to whatever place we might be at any given movement. And that doesn’t have to be some large trek into the distance, but can be as simple as a daily journey into work each morning through those windows of our commuter bus. There’re always things out there worth looking at, and well worth recording and worth connecting to. And I think it’s all these small fine particulars of our experience that ultimately mean that we’re not only at home in a physical place, but we’re hopefully at home with ourselves.
Flyway: Your prose has a clarity and naturalness to it, as though it was written peacefully over tea in the early morning. What is the writing and editing process really like for you?
JH: Thank you, that’s very kind. Unfortunately, it’s anything other than over tea on a peaceful morning. The process for me varies. The Small Heart of Things was written over a number of years, for example. And some of the essays in that book emerged quite quickly out of episodic encounters. One of the essays called “Gifts,” which features a fire salamander at the heart of it, was written very quickly after that particular experience and encounter with the fire salamander. But other essays, including the one published by Flyway originally—“The Memory of Land and Water” which Brenna Dixon edited on behalf of the journal—that took me something like two to two-and-a-half years to write, because I struggled to find a form to try and bring these three countries that share the Prespa Lakes into a written text and convey enough of what I wanted to about this idea of the land and the water carrying the stories and history of its past in it that we can begin to observe through the tracks and signs and traces of the landscape itself. So that went through something like thirty drafts until it reached something approaching completion.
The process, I think, is dependent on any individual piece, and is less about the writer him or herself, than about what is necessary for the piece. And that can vary. It’s always important to be open to the needs of a piece, and try not to put too much pressure on yourself and your process, but rather try and have a sort of empathy for where that story needs to go, because I think each story has its own quite unique path, and that it’s important to try and follow that path. Of course, like any great path there are always side branches and tangents and crossroads, and sometimes you’ll be tempted down them and have to turn back, but ultimately a piece still has a kind of path that you need to kind of follow through and find your way back on to.
I tend to write in the mornings for the most part. But my work goes through an enormous amount of revision. And that, for me, is actually the most essential and the most joyful part of the process. I don’t find a great deal of joy in the initial putting down words. For me it’s actually the shaping and sculpting that comes afterwards that I find the real treasure chest of the whole process.
Flyway: Can you talk about how your work monitoring birds influences your writing?
JH: Birds are such an indelible and important part of my life. They continually astonish me with their aerial grace, and they move me with their remarkable migratory journeys. But I think the thing about birds is that they’re not just these other wild sentient creatures, but I also find them to be great teachers. There’s often something about birds that teach us a great deal about ourselves and our world.
When we first moved to the Prespa region, I began seeing many of Europe’s most common bird species wherever I went, birds like the greenfinch, great tit, chaffinch, and the blackbird. I was finding them in these great wild forests, and these vast open meadows. I was finding them in landscapes very, very different from those of London. But it was exactly there in the city that I first came to know these exact same species. Where there’re as content to nest and feed in city parks and suburban gardens and abandoned lots as they are in a much wilder part of the Greek mountain countryside. And over time the more I saw these birds in Prespa, I began to realize that these specific species were essentially at home in the world. They’d managed to acclimatize themselves to a variety of habitats and places, and they kind of sparked the book for me in many ways. I wanted to follow this idea and look at how we might go about becoming more at home in the world. In terms of the book, the birds that feature throughout it and the birds that surround me in my life, they’re the great teachers. They set me wandering down a path that essentially asks how me might go about being more at home in the world through our daily connections and interactions.
Flyway: How do you divide your time between being outdoors and writing about the outdoors?
JH: Ah, that’s the golden question. It’s really, really difficult. The written text isn’t going to get anywhere near completion unless you make a considerable amount of time to sit and put those words down on paper, and craft them and shape them. But at the same time it’s deeply important to feed the well in a way, and to get out. Experiences and encounters are the source of all we do in many respects, particularly if we’re writing about the natural world.
So, I tend to write in the mornings, and the afternoon there’s most always my usual walk up the back valley behind our house, and then on other days there are longer walks. Having said that, I’m not absolutely strict in saying that every morning has to be given over completely to writing. Because some mornings you wake up and woodlarks are singing from the hills or there’s a glorious slant of light that comes down through these thin clouds over the mountains and it’s just too good not to go out there.
So, when we talk about being open to what arises around us, I think it’s also important as writers to not be so hard on ourselves that we sit down each day at the exact same time, unless that’s a practice that specifically works for you. We also have to leave room for those glorious moments that we sometimes just discover by waking up, and also the inner need to get out there and get those legs walking. Some of the best writing in my career has come actually whilst walking itself. There have been many, many writers over the centuries who have described the act of walking itself as an act of writing. And some of my best story ideas have emerged out of taking a path somewhere. So, that’s also part of the process. It’s important to try and find a balance that both gets words on paper, but also brings words into our wider world, which we absorb.
Flyway: What project are you working on now?
JH: The book I’m currently working on is a nonfiction book, and it’s a book that’s for a long time now felt really important and necessary for me to write. It’s a book called “Irreplaceable.” It will essentially look at those places alongside those wild species that we’re increasingly loosing, primarily to development in one way or another. And these are often extremely sustaining places both for ourselves as humans but also for wild species. The book is set throughout the world, everywhere from England, to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, to Greece, and there will be a chapter devoted to the prairies of the United States, the Midwest. But what I want the book to do is tell the stories of these places. They vary in size from extraordinarily large marshy estuaries that are often protected under law, to small urban allotments and gardens which have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years and which are being sold off and have parking lots built over them.
It will look at ancient woodlands and it will look at sets of hills that are threatened with development. What I really want to do is tell the story of these remarkable places, often quite unsung places, through the voices of those who are out there trying to protect and preserve them each and every day. And these are the people who live in their midst and they come from a whole host of backgrounds. I’ve met teachers and soldiers and firemen and truckers. So the stories are going to be told through these voices. And I don’t want the book to be an elegy of loss, despite it being centered on loss in many ways. I really wish it to be a book of resistance, because those ultimately are the stories I’ve been uncovering. And it’s a book of love, because it’s about the deep and abiding connections between people and place that are so essential in our lives, and the connections between people and the wild denizens we share this world with. So it will bring all those things together, hopefully, in a book that celebrates place and our connections to it.
Flyway: Hemmingway had to sharpen twenty pencils before sitting down to write, and Virginia Woolf could only write while standing up. Do you have any writing rituals?
JH: No, there isn’t actually. I’ve never really found one specific ritual. I might go through phases with certain rituals. But the only thing—and it’s not really a ritual—but the only thing that I love to see each day at my desk at the moment, which kind of gets me going in a nice way, is that just beyond our house is an abandoned home across a little field, and for the last year or so, in the eaves beneath the roof, a European Little Owl has been roosting there during the day. The little owl is the symbol of the goddess Athena in ancient Greece. And the little owl in fact still appears on the one Euro coin we have in Greece. So it’s just one of those nice symbols. And what’s funny about it is that the little owl goes away sometimes for days and sometimes weeks, and I feel like I’ve lost it. But up until now it has always returned. It’ll come back for a few days and then go off. And I have no idea where its other roost or roosts are. But it’s always wonderful to look out my window of a morning and see it there. And it closes its eyes and sleeps during the sunlit days. As the sun passes over the hills just to the west of us the sunlight glows all over its feathers, and then come dusk its eyes begin to open and it begins to stir, and as I turn out the light in our room it will make its way into the world and begin its day.