Interview with Bob Reiss
Bestselling author Bob Reiss will be back in Alaska for a month as a writer in residence at the Anchorage Museum. Reiss is both a widely-published journalist and a bestselling novelist. His writing has appeared in Outside, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, and Washington Post Magazine, among other national publications. His nonfiction books include “The Eskimo and The Oil Man”, about the battle over offshore oil in the opening Arctic. Writing as James Abel, Reiss has also published a popular series of science-based thrillers, two of them set in Alaska.
Bob taught fiction writing at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Vermont's Middlebury College for seven years. He has also been a writer in residence at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington five times and was a visiting writer at Montclair State University in New Jersey in 2016, 2015 and 2013. He received a Coast Guard Arctic Service Medal for teaching writing on a US icebreaker in the Arctic.
On June 6th, Reiss will lead a sold-out two-hour writing class exploring the line between fiction and nonfiction writing. "For years, people have asked me how I can do both fiction and nonfiction, but I think the similarities outstrip the differences," says Reiss. "The research is very different, but the storytelling is often the same." In the workshop, Reiss will discuss his two recently published versions of Barrow, Alaska—one in “The Eskimo and the Oil Man”, and one in his novel “Protocol Zero”.
JP: You’re a successful journalist and fiction writer who seems quite limber, genre and style-wise. This scope has even warranted a pseudonym for some of your genre work to differentiate it from your other work. Can you comment on your experience changing literary lanes—whether from your own experience, or from the ways other writers regard you?
BR: I’ve always thought of myself as a storyteller. I don’t think about genres or changing literary lanes. In many ways, the two kinds of writing are more similar than different. You need strong characters in both. You need a driving narrative, and a human being faced with tough choices. You need conflict and resolution against a background that is important. In “nonfiction”, you find the story but keep to facts. You show the world exactly as it is. You wait for the facts to line up and reveal a story. In “fiction” you make up the facts, but the world still reflects reality. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” ignited the country before the civil war. Was it nonfiction, factual, checked journalistically? No. Was it true anyway, as in, did it reflect a real situation? Yes. Many kinds of stories are true.
JP: How’d your upcoming residency at the Anchorage Museum come about, and what is your residency plan?
BR: I’m very grateful to have been invited to be the Anchorage Museum’s writer in residence this coming June. My hope is to learn about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge so that I can better write about it. I’m here to listen.
JP: You’ve spent time in Alaska before. What has you excited or anxious this time around?
BR: Anxious? I’m anxious about getting it right, being open to ideas and cultures and ways of thinking. These issues are crucial to many people. I need to honor them and honor the trust they give me when they talk to me.
JP: Much of your work might qualify as “ecofiction”, conversant as it is with Arctic issues and written from an admitted drive to “leave the world better than you found it.” Is writing a form of activism for you? How do you experience the warp and weft of politics and art as a writer?
BR: Politics is the art of fighting for something you believe in. Senators do it by introducing bills. Lawyers do it by filing suits. Protesters do it by holding up signs. And writers do it by telling stories. So, sure, writing is a form of activism for me, a way of trying to leave the world a little better than I found it. But it’s also important that I understand what I’m writing about before I put pen to paper. I don’t decide how I feel until after the research is over. I’m willing to be surprised. I go into a project thinking, whatever I learn will be important. And I think for me, a subject that is most important is the polarization occurring in our country. I hate it. I’ve been in other places; Somalia, Sudan, Northern Ireland, where I’ve seen what happens if you don’t stop polarization.
Also, although you are right and much of my work involves the natural world; the Arctic, the Amazon, drugs from nature, climate… I’d shy away from calling my fiction “ecofiction” because that label implies a left-wing attitude. And I distrust the extreme left and right. One gave the world Stalin. The other gave us Hitler. But the United States gave the world a passionate middle ground where opponents live together and work things out most of the time, without war. Flaws? Plenty. Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. That can only help in a polarized world.
JP: One of your most important books, “The Eskimo and the Oilmen”, was published five years ago. What changes in the Arctic since then have already surprised you, and has there been any unforeseen reactions from readers?
BR: A couple of weeks ago I was in Svalbard, Norway, site of the global seed vault, an underground cave where thousands of seed samples are stored from around the world. The purpose is to preserve them in case crops are destroyed. When I got there the vault was being repaired, closed to visitors because water was getting in. The permafrost was melting, even in that high latitude. The surprise is that the melt rate has accelerated beyond even what scientists predicted. Many US readers are still fighting over why warming is occurring, instead of accepting the fact and preparing for consequences. If you want to blame natural climate variation, okay, but we need to deal with security and environmental changes. If you want to blame human activity, we still need to deal with security and environment. But all we do is argue while it gets worse. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of earth.
JP: What should writers alive now in Alaska’s arctic and subarctic think about or heed?
BR: The same thing that writers everywhere heed. Follow your passion. Hey, I’m a guy from New York writing about the Arctic. Maybe a writer in Fairbanks or Point Hope wants to write about Brazil, model airplanes, outer space. If you’re in love with it, that’s the thing to do. Never mind what anyone else says.
JP: What will your workshop entail?
BR: Well, this is exciting for me, because we’re going to hold a class on writing fiction and also nonfiction… the similarities and the differences, and the way that writers in one area can learn from the other. Research? Very different for the different styles. Narrative? Much the same. How to deal with family members who don’t understand your needs as a writer. How to do research on a phone versus in person. How to figure out what it is that you really want to say. How to make sure you know your own characters as well as you think you do. How to take control of your writing so the characters or the facts don’t rebel and take over your manuscript. I’ve written about Barrow in fiction and nonfiction. When did I choose one way? When the other, for the same place? Or perhaps the class will hijack things and want to talk about other things. Fine. I can’t wait to meet them.