Interview Picture

Ripening: A Conversation with Janet Lembke -

Interviewer: Jeremy L.C. Jones
Interviewee: Janet Lembke

Janet Lembke, often referred to as an “acclaimed Southern naturalist”, is the author of Dangerous Birds, River Time, Despicable Species, Skinny-Dipping, and The Quality of Living. Her essays and poetry have appeared in publications such as Audubon, Sierra, the Southern Review, and The New York Times Book Review. Ms. Lembke is also a translator of classical Greek and Latin texts and an avid gardener. In her writing and in her life, Ms. Lembke takes great joy in searching out the new, unearthing the old, and finding the lost.
Lembke was one of the orginal writers participating in the “Southern Nature” retreat on Ossabaw Island in 1999. This interview was conducted via e-mail in the spring and summer following the death of Ms. Lembke’s husband in 2002.

Janet Lembke: What I enjoy most about writing is posing a question about a plant or an animal in the natural world and writing my way to an answer, perhaps not THE answer but an answer of sorts. The questions are often these: What is it? How does it work? How does it fit into the scheme of things? I could go on and on and on with this kind of generality. So, let me be specific. Here's the story of the yellow poplar, also known as the tulip poplar or tulip tree.

Many people greatly admire the yellow poplar, but it never stirred that sort of response in me. It was just a particular species of tree. The question: Do other people know something that I don't? And the search was on. I rambled around in the woods, both literal and metaphoric, looking at living yellow poplars, including the largest one in the U.S., and reading reports from botanists and others, like John Lawson, who published descriptions of North Carolina's trees in 1709. Lawson reports a man who lived in the hollowed-out trunk of a yellow poplar with all his household goods. Interesting, but hardly provocative of admiration. Then, oh then, a friend put me in touch with a professor of biology with whom she conducts spring searches for morel mushrooms, one of the most sought-after and succulent wild mushrooms. The professor told me that morels and yellow poplars are symbiotic, with their particular symbiosis known as mutualism, in which each participant depends for dear life on the other. Willy-nilly, I felt a surge of admiration for both tree and fungus. But the story didn't end there. It ended with the realization that as I finally found beauty in the tree, the tree didn't give a damn about what I felt.

You know what Flannery O'Connor said about her writing: "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say."

Jones: I was going to stir up a few quotes in response to your last e-mail -- Fred Chappell saying writing is a search and Hal Crowther saying no serous literature is written by people who are too certain about anything -- but what strikes me more than anything is your child-like joy in seeking an answer. Likewise, there is a playfulness, humor and joy in your writing, paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentences, word to word. This keeps me reading, even when I am not interested in the ostensible topic. In other words, sandburs and yellow poplars don't particularly interest me -- until you invite me to join you in your joyful exploration of them. That seems to be at the heart of what you are doing: sharing your enthusiasm for discovery.

Janet Lembke: Joy in seeking an answer--you're absolutely right. And I have easy access to joy. It comes in the color of a cardinal, in a winter sunset over the river Neuse, in a huge orange hornworm caterpillar loping across the drive, in--well, everything. I'm also an optimist, believing firmly in silver linings. (One of my students once told me, though, that the difference between optimists and pessimists is that the latter are better informed.) There is nothing under the sun that isn't interesting in one way or another.

Jones: How do I know what to include?

Janet Lembke: I DON'T know. As the objective of a journey is not so much the destination as the journey itself, my objective is discovery, learning all that I can about whatever it is that has captured my fancy. Discovery is achieved through many means--books, talks with people who know something about the subject, and personal exploration. I most treasure sources of information from the past--from ghosts, if you will, like Homer, Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, the sixteenth-century English botanist John Gerard, North Carolina's John Lawson, Mark Catesby, John James Audubon, and Thomas Jefferson. They observed much the same natural world that I look at today, but they saw it with different eyes, different perceptions. I consult them and others and take copious notes. In the end, the material included is the material that has commanded my attention. That may be anything from scientific fact to gossip. And, oh, the journey of discovery is fun.

Jones: You emphasize the "journey" more than the "destination." But doesn't the fact that you will eventually write about something get in the way of discovery. Does it infuse artificiality? A distance between you and the experience? That is, does the fact that you are a writer and that you write about your journeys ever interfere with the experience? I ask this not skeptically, but with the twinge of guilt (and self-awareness) having found myself on a trip thinking, Man, this'll make a great essay, instead of being caught up in the joy of discovery...

Janet Lembke: Even when I know for sure that I'm going to write about something, that knowledge never gets in the way of discovery, of learning as much as I can about whatever it is, from eels and sowbugs to jimson weed and tomatoes. The process, the journey of discovery from beginning to end, can be compared to ripening. First comes the seed, then the sprout, the blossom, and finally the fruit. A story matures along the way. There is fruit, of course--the finished essay. But it's the maturation, the getting there, that counts. Once the essay's done--often before it's done, I'm off on another adventure. And I want to experience it as fully as possible so that I can take you with me when you read the story.

Today, my backyard in Virginia is being tilled for a tomato patch. Eventually the whole back yard will be given over to vegetables and pear trees. I leave the North Carolina gardens that I've tended for eighteen years and begin a new one from scratch.

Jones: So you, the writer, become as much a seeker as a guide for others. The communion is not only with you and the subject, but with you and the reader, the reader and the subject... I like the way you say that you go onto the next project, often, "before" the previous one is fully ripe. That way the overall journey never ends.

You mentioned your students earlier. What role do you feel you serve as a teacher?

Janet Lembke: I'm not really a teacher. I'm a writer who has occasionally--except for once--been schnookered into substitute-teaching English in a junior high school and running workshops in creative writing in community colleges. Teaching writing wrings me dry. But the exception is one of those workshops, which endured for six years of meeting every Friday. Back in the ''70s, conducting writing workshops in prisons was something that a lot of writers did. So, I found myself a literally captive audience in a medium-security prison for men. For two hours every Friday afternoon, year in and year out, the guys were free. It was one of them, not incidentally a first prize winner in poetry in one of PEN's prison writing contests, who told me the difference between an optimist and a pessimist. The guys called themselves the Creative Righters, and in that workshop we were all equal. I know I learned as much as they did, if not more. Working with them, doing all the exercises and assignments with them, writing handout after handout on matters from creative cussing and venereal terms to free verse and how to tame the wild apostrophe, I thought hard and long about writing, how it works, what it means to me. This, mind you, was back in the dark ages, 1978-1984, when I'd published only two books and a chapbook of verse. My first book of essays, River Time, appeared five years later in 1989. It wrote itself in something like six months. The reason for such speed was that the guys had taught me to be unafraid of the blank page: Put down whatever is going through your head. The writer needs raw material, just as the potter needs clay. Shaping will wait till later.