From the April edition of FOOTNOTES, the newsletter of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association:
Collecting Some Thoughts
Sitting Down with Jack Nisbet
Spokane teacher and naturalist, and winner of a 2010 Pacific Northwest Book Award, Jack Nisbet celebrated his honor with a visit to Leavenworth, Washington in February. He spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at an event hosted by A Book For All Seasons at the town’s library. While in Leavenworth, Nisbet found time to speak with Jacqueline Haskins, A Book For All Seasons staffer and a graduate student in the Whidbey Writers Workshop low-residency MFA.
JH: You’ve just won the PNBA Book Award, honoring your book The Collector as one of the top books of 2009 written by a Northwest author. Tell us what winning this award means to you.
Nisbet: I’m really appreciative of this award. Sometimes writing awards can be pretty random, but independent bookstores have always meant a lot to me. In the last 30 years, I’ve really worked with small bookstores all over the west and gotten to know a lot of the owners. As long as those bookstores keep going, I feel like I can too.
JH: The Collector describes the journeys of explorer and botanist David Douglas through the Pacific Northwest, just 20 years or so after Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific. How did you first become interested in David Douglas?
Nisbet: If you do natural history in the Northwest, you run into David Douglas immediately. There have been other books written about him, every couple of decades, but nobody had looked at Douglas from an inland Northwest perspective. I knew the country, I had worked extensively with the fur trade, and I had a lot of tribal contacts that I thought could inform Douglas’ story.
JH: Your admiration and respect for Douglas’ independence, enthusiasm and knowledge really come through in The Collector. Were there aspects of Douglas’ character that you did not admire?
Nisbet: Oh, yes, he’s famous for whining about his health. His energy drove a lot of people to distraction, and he could be a difficult personality to be around. After his first return trip to England in 1829, his great friend and mentor William Jackson Hooker wrote a line that goes something like: “Many of us, including Mr. Douglas, wish he were back in North America …” But at the same time, Douglas had a great capacity for close friendships. He became close friends with many of the fur traders, especially the Scots, and always seemed to get along well with kids.
JH: Is there anything you discovered after The Collector was published that you wish you could have included?
Nisbet: That’s always the case. Usually when a book comes out is when you really start learning about the subject. I recently saw a letter about Douglas’ death, from a friend of Douglas, that would have been wonderful to include in the book. But I don’t fixate on those things. Douglas is a huge subject, there will always more to find out about him and what he saw in the Northwest.
JH: Is there anything you discovered about Douglas that you deliberately chose to leave out of The Collector?
Nisbet: Any writer chooses what to put in a book. I made sure I included a lot of things that fit my particular slant. Of course I try to be balanced, but nobody’s really balanced, especially with a subject like Douglas who did so many contradictory things. For example, what others who have written about Douglas saw as troubled or manic, I often saw as humorous, because I think he had a great sense of humor.
JH: You say you had a particular slant; can you describe it?
Nisbet: Douglas was really excited by the natural and human communities that he saw here in the Northwest, and I am too. That’s what I try to emphasize and bring forward in my writing.
JH: Tell us a bit about your own travels to research The Collector. Any exciting adventures?
Nisbet: Many of Douglas’ routes are the same routes pioneered by David Thompson, the subject of my previous biography, so I’d been visiting these areas for years. The real adventure for me was going to these sites in the same week during the year that Douglas had visited them. I’d often be astonished by how much that he found was still there. It’s easy to find examples of where natural environments have been ruined, but as I re-visited these sites of Douglas’s, I found lots of places that looked really good, and that was a very positive experience.
JH: That’s wonderful to hear. I know that the natural world is very close to your heart. Which came first for you, being a naturalist or being a writer?
Nisbet: I was a naturalist from the time I was a kid. I’m still not much else. Going out and looking at things, at the natural and human world together, is what I do. Writing came later; much later.
JH: What is your favorite part, and what is your least favorite part, of writing a book?
Nisbet: Writing The Collector, the research was an exciting couple of years. And also, like most writers, I really enjoy the editing process, the shaping process. The first draft was really fun to write. But my first draft was 400 pages. I had to take it down to 300 pages. My wife Claire helped me with that, and she’s really good at what she does. I tend to be easily distracted by all these little stories about Douglas, but many of them had to come out. To make the story flow, to make it work, it’s all about what you leave out. That was hard for me. But my wife was wonderful at helping me with that. And the stories I had to cut–that’s what I share with people now when I give talks about the book.
JH: What would you say to a young person just starting out in writing?
Nisbet: Just starting out in writing? I’d say go figure out something else to do. Go do something else you’re really passionate about. If that leads back to writing, fine. The power of writing is using your brain as a filter for what you’re passionate about. So go live something, and live it hard. Then think about writing about it.
JH: What is next for you? Are you already at work on another book?
Nisbet: I do have a few ideas in mind, but I’m not sure which one I’m going to do next. I think it’s a common problem for writers, how to transition out of such an all-consuming project. It’s not necessarily a good idea to jump into the first thing that interests you. What might be next for me is a museum exhibit on Douglas. His story has so many visual aspects–the natural world, tribal artifacts, artwork of all kinds, plants and trees–it might be a great way to get people who aren’t readers excited about Douglas and about what he loved.I