The Writing Process: Ana Maria Spagna

reclaimers coverAna Maria Spagna is busy at work on her forthcoming book, Reclaimers, which the University of Washington Press will publish in Fall 2015. Spagna recently participated in a Writing Process Blog Tour and shared insights about her current project, work habits, writing influences, and more. We hope Spagna’s responses provide an opportunity to reflect on your own creative process and get you as excited about her forthcoming book as we are!

What are you working on?

AMS: I am working on a big sprawling book called Reclaimers that tells stories of people reclaiming things that have, in some way, been lost or stolen or damaged. Like sacred lands, wild rivers, and endangered species. Like culture and identity. The project dips into environmental history and cultural history, and includes a series of profiles: of three elders, two of them California Indians, of bureaucrats, activists, and fish biologists.

In this book, I’m trying to make sense of this instinct we have to make things better. So often when we try, especially in nature, we make things worse. So what to do? I kept coming back to this word “reclaim,” which has at least three definitions: to take back, to make right, and to make useful. I thought, well, aren’t at least two of those definitions (to make right and to make useful) at odds? Maybe they’re not. That’s where I started.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

AMS: My work is about nature, but about people, too. It’s not about me, but it has a strong “I” presence. Me as voice, me as a character, me as researcher and, in this book especially, as traveler. I spent a lot of time driving long miles, camping alone. It’s not memoir or travel writing, but has a lot of that in it. Not that any of this is new in nonfiction, of course. I take cues from Joan Didion and Anne Fadiman, from Rebecca Skloot and Rebecca Solnit, and then I try to make the style my own.

Why do you write what you do?

AMS: Because the question seems so crucial: How do we live in the natural world, which is, after all, the entire world, without screwing it up? And when we do screw it up, how do we fix it? Where are the role models for this? Turns out they’re everywhere, but we don’t hear about them. I want people to hear about them.

What’s your writing process?

AMS: In a book like this, half the battle is the research, and usually I try to go into that without expectations. But I had an interesting experience when I was just starting this project. I had planned to take a long research trip to visit the Maidu and Timbisha tribes in California, then settle in at a writing retreat to write down all I’d seen and heard. But timing changed, and I ended up at the retreat before I did a single interview. What was I supposed to do for two weeks? Well, I read and read and read. By the time I talked to the elders, I knew their stories backwards and forwards. They could see this, and they took it, I think, as respect. At the very least, it made our conversations more productive. I knew where and when to delve for more. I plan to do it that way, no matter what, from now on.

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