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Visiting with Nancy Lord

by Claire Guyton

What inspired your essay “Fossiliferous”?

Dinosaur hunting in the Denali mountains.

In 2010, because I was then the Alaska Writer Laureate (like the poets laureate that other states have), the good people at Denali National Park invited me to participate in their Artist in Residence (AIR) program. I was only the second writer to participate in the AIR program, which had been limited to visual artists until the year before (when Fairbanks poet John Morgan was invited). John and I, and the next year, Carolyn Kremers, also from Fairbanks, must have behaved all right, because AIR has now been opened to writers by application. Read more about AIR, including how to apply, and see the gallery of art donated to the program (which includes some of my poems).

The residency includes a ten-day stay at a cabin in the park, use of your own vehicle in the park, and access to those who work there, including researchers. I was fortunate to be in residence during a time when paleontologist Tony Fiorillo and his assistants were documenting dinosaur fossils in the park, and fortunate that Tony invited me to join them for a day. A goal of the park is to educate visitors and the public about park values, including through the use of art, so I was very happy to have the opportunity to help with that. Although I’m not a scientist, I’ve always been totally intrigued with geology, paleontology, and the history of the world generally, and I think I do a fair job of translating science into writing that’s easily understood (and I hope enjoyed) by general readers. I’ve also written a lot recently about global warming and climate change—my latest book is Early Warming: Crisis and Response in the Climate-Changed North—and connections among the age of dinosaurs, change over time, and the current rate of climate change fit right into this essay. Now that this essay has been published, Denali National Park will share copies with visitors at its visitor centers.

Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of this essay.

My writing process generally involves a lot of research, and my favorite kind of nonfiction writing I call experiential; that is, I like to get out in places with other people to learn new things and then to wrap that into an essay or book. So “Fossiliferous” is an example of that.

Is there something you would love to write about but you can’t? Or something you did write about but you wish you hadn’t?

My hand over a fossilized hadrosaur track.

There are many things I would love to write about. I’m always puzzled when I hear people say they don’t know what to write about, don’t have any good ideas. I’m interested in all kinds of things but can only pursue a limited number. And because I largely like to write experientially, there are limits to what I can experience, some of which is cost-related. My last book, about climate change in the north, was originally conceived to be circumpolar, to include visits to places in Russia, Canada, Greenland, maybe Svalbard. The small advance I got for the book limited me to Alaska and Northwest Canada, pretty close to home. Travel in the north is enormously expensive, since it usually involves flying long distances to remote places. The next nonfiction book I hope to write also involves a fair amount of travel to spend time with animal researchers, again mostly in the north, and again the limiting factor is the cost of travel.

Do you have any guilty reading pleasures?

The “dance floor” I talk about in “Fossiliferous.”

Really, no. There’s so much great writing to read, I pretty much just try to keep up with some of that. The guilty part for me is probably some television viewing—ridiculous reality shows on the Discovery channel, like The Deadliest Catch and Bering Sea Gold, both filmed in Alaska. But let me mention a couple of guilt-free reading pleasures—two recent books from Alaska: Hank Lenter’s Faith of Cranes (a memoir) and Melinda Moustakis’s Bear Down, Bear North (linked short stories). The most recent recommendable novel I’ve read is Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, which is in part about baseball, a sport I love. I’ve also just started to re-read Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, because Lopez will be the keynote writer at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference (where I’m a regular faculty member) in June.


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