Category Archives: Q&A

University Press Week | #NextUP: Phinney Books

On this final day of University Press Week, we are delighted to showcase Phinney Books, a Seattle neighborhood bookstore known for its careful selection of titles and expertly curated subscription program. Phinney Books serves a community of wide-ranging readers and is a valued promoter of UW Press books and university presses in general. Read our Q&A with owner Tom Nissley to learn more about Phinney Books and its customers and what’s next up for the bookstore.

How do you see university presses fit into the larger publishing world?

Through the bookstore, I see the trade side of university publishing, and I love to see their qualities of authority and care for scholarship and (relative) indifference to the market turned toward publishing for general readers. In the case of UW Press (and Washington State and Oregon State), that’s often done through publishing about the Northwest, a subject of great appeal to our customers. I’m always delighted to see the new catalogs from the “national” university presses as well (and to talk about them with our wonderful sales reps) and to find out what they are publishing next with their usual rigor and imagination. Every season there are books that we know will have a significant audience but that would not otherwise find a publishing home outside a university press.

What are Phinney Books customers reading these days?

Our customers always impress me with their appetite for translated literature and meaty books on history, politics, and nature. They are trying all the books by new Nobel laureate (and store favorite) Annie Ernaux, and reading about mushrooms and Greek myths and Vikings. From UW Press, our perennial favorite is David B. Williams, our best Northwest historian, whose last three books, Too High and Too Steep, Seattle Walks, and Homewaters, have each been bestsellers for us. This season we’ve had many readers coming in asking for Megan Asaka’s new history of migrant workers in our city’s early years, Seattle from the Margins. And every once in a while, a happy customer walks out the door with one of the most beautiful books in the store, the exquisite three-volume Fishes of the Salish Sea set.

Dark-haired woman reading on a bench in front of a bookstore. Signs on the bookstore read "Phinney Books" and "BOOKS" in neon lights.

Can you recall a memorable event with a university press author?

We do very few events, almost always for neighborhood authors—many of whom are customers as well—but one of my favorites was when a sister and brother, food writer and memoirist Jess Thomson and Reed professor of history and environmental studies Joshua Howe, both had new books out from UW Press: Jess’s memoir A Year Right Here and Joshua’s documentary collection, Making Climate Change History. I loved their mutual respect for each other’s very different work, and the affection and intuitive, slightly rivalrous connection that only siblings could share. It was a special night.

Beyond events, are there other ways that you have found success when collaborating with publishers?

One of my favorite collaborations with a publisher took place behind the scenes: over the years, I got to know—almost entirely through his outreach—Andrew Berzanskis [former senior acquisitions editor at UW Press], who just moved on to become the editorial director at the University of Oklahoma Press. He was always curious to hear our frontline perspective on readers and bookselling, and I got to get a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse of the long-term process by which books are made.

When it comes to reaching readers, Phinney Books has been particularly forward thinking—from one of the best bookstore newsletters around to your subscription program, Phinney by Post. What’s on the horizon? Any new or upcoming programs you are particularly excited about?

Thanks for the kind words! For the most part we are busy enough with what we have going on already that we don’t have much chance to look beyond it, but we are delighted that this month we’re bringing back one of our favorite traditions, the Holiday Bookfest at the nearby Phinney Neighborhood Association, with two dozen authors (including David B. Williams and Oregon State University Press author Jessica Gigot) signing books on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. And we always love to keep spreading the word about Phinney by Post, one of the few subscription programs we know of that focuses on backlist books (“lost classics” that we think our subscribers don’t know about but will love). After eight years of the program, we look forward to celebrating our 100th selection next year. Past selections have included such university press books as Janet Lewis’s The Wife of Martin Guerre (Ohio), Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur (Minnesota), Carolyn See’s Golden Days (California), Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah (Carnegie-Mellon), N. Scott Momaday’s The Names (Arizona), Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (Virginia), and Ella Maillart’s The Cruel Way (Chicago).


This post is part of the 2022 University Press Week blog tour hosted by the Association of University Presses. This year’s theme is #NextUP, reflecting the spirit of constant learning, adaptation, and evolution within scholarly publishing. Read more about UP Week and all of the featured books and blog posts here.

University Press Week | #NextUP: Jordan Biro Walters, author of Wide-Open Desert: A Queer History of New Mexico

In celebration of University Press Week, we are delighted to feature Jordan Biro Walters, associate professor of history at the College of Wooster and a first-time university press author. Her book, Wide-Open Desert: A Queer History of New Mexico, is forthcoming January 2023. Read our Q&A with Jordan to learn more about the book, her experience as a new author, and how working with a university press has benefitted her work.

Why publish with a university press?

Because Wide-Open Desert: A Queer History of New Mexico is the first comprehensive study of queer lives in the twentieth-century American Southwest, a virtually unexplored region in LGBTQ+ history, I only had a small research trail to follow when I started the project. Interest in sexuality, specifically the LGBTQ+ past in American West history, is recent. My collaboration with the University of Washington Press—well-known for works in American history, visual culture, critical ethnic studies, Native and Indigenous studies, and women, gender, and sexuality—allowed me to contextualize Wide-Open Desert for scholars in these disciplines. Additionally, I worked closely with UW Press to share the stories of Pueblo, Navajo, Nuevomexicanx, and white LGBTQ+ people with a general audience.

Covering more than seventy years of New Mexican history, the book brings together the narratives of queer mobility and cultural productions to think about their relevance to sexual politics and gay liberation activism. In anticipation of the book’s release, I’ve heard from scholars interested in purchasing the book to explore interrelated themes in their own research, such as women’s friendship and intimacy in 1940s modernist circles. Additionally, a documentarian contacted me wanting oral histories to make a film about Claude’s, a bohemian bar in Santa Fe, New Mexico known for its regular crowds of gay and lesbian artists in the early 1950s and through the 1960s. Publishing with a university press was important in giving my work visibility among these different audiences.

Tell us more about your experiences working with a university press.

It takes many hands to make a book. As a first-time author, I greatly benefited from the guidance of a team of people who assisted with developing, copy editing, designing, and marketing my book. In particular, [editorial director] Larin McLaughlin and editorial assistant Caroline Hall helped me manage copyright permissions. The queer history of New Mexico is scattered in various archives, unpublished personal narratives, private visual queer representations, and people’s memories. Part of this project was to create a composite portrait of queer lives, grounded in archival and oral research, that will serve as a starting point for others. UW Press helped me to navigate the copyright process. A few images I wanted to include in the book, especially the cover image, proved difficult to track down the necessary permissions. While securing copyright falls on the author’s shoulders, Larin and Caroline offered guidance on how to proceed when I hit a roadblock. It was important to me to start my book (the cover) with queer women who have long been overshadowed by works about men. This book begins with queer women’s voices and from there highlights people who possessed a wide range of desires, sexual subjectivities, and gender variance. A university press’s familiarity with the scholarly process enabled me to use all the materials I collected as fully as possible.

How do you see university press publishing as helpful to your work and career? What are your thoughts on the university press community as a whole?

Scholarly presses serve a public good by producing trustworthy sources of information by experts who aim to bring their intellectual expertise to expand people’s ways of thinking and solve modern injustices. They take risks in publishing cutting edge ideas. Academic theory, in conjunction with community activism, eventually seeps into mainstream culture and has a tremendous effect on the way people think and talk. As a short example, the term nonbinary, conceptualized by activists and queer theorists in the 1990s, is now used by many ordinary people to self-identify. Wide-Open Desert contributes to a body of scholarship that shows that queer, nonbinary, and trans identified folks have always been here, even though people used different terms to describe themselves. They embraced innovative ways to survive and thrive. My work argues that queer people contributed substantially to making Santa Fe the third largest art market in the United States. Creative centers, like large cities, inspired queer people to move, place-make, and unleash their creativity. Over several decades, both subtle and explicit queer cultural production opened sexual discourse, which served as a foundation for the later triumphs of the modern gay liberation movement.

Was there a particularly significant book that influenced your own?

I read Andrew J. Jolivétte’s (Atakapa-Ishak Nation of Louisiana) Indian Blood: HIV and Colonial Trauma in San Francisco’s Two-Spirit Community [published by UW Press in 2016]. The book explores the HIV epidemic among, gay, two-spirit, and transgender Native people who also identify as mixed race. Jolivette’s succinct chapters address structural risk factors, particularly the ongoing effects of settler colonialism, and the final chapter offers a solution—implementation of intergenerational healing and cultural leadership. Indian Blood influenced me to work with UW Press. It made me rethink university presses, which I conceived of as producing lengthy and dense academic works for specialists. I was impressed by the readability and short length. My own book also centers two-spirit history and interrogates colonialism. Similar to Jolivette, I show the harm of settler colonialism through the suppression of two-spirit roles. At the same time, queer Native artists pushed back through artistic and cultural survival tactics. Particularly for historically underrepresented communities who were often shut out of formalized political structures, creative expression served as an arena for activism. The geographical and cultural borderlands of the American Southwest afford scholars an opportunity to better understand both the exclusion and flourishing of racially diverse queer representations outside of gay meccas. New Mexico has a long queer history and remains a center of queer creativity.


This post is part of the 2022 University Press Week blog tour hosted by the Association of University Presses. This year’s theme is #NextUP, reflecting the spirit of constant learning, adaptation, and evolution within scholarly publishing. Read more about UP Week and all of the featured books and blog posts here.

Tips for the Home Gardener: An Interview with Linda Chalker-Scott, Co-Author of “Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest, Third Edition”

During the COVID-19 sheltering-at-home period, have you noticed an increased interest in home gardening?

Oh, wow, yes! Our Garden Professors Facebook group has been swamped with questions from new gardeners, and I’m glad I’ve got that group there to help provide science-based advice.

Is this interest mostly in growing edibles or ornamental plants?

It’s both, though I bet that vegetable gardens have the upper hand. But lots of people have been tackling long-term projects that they didn’t have time to do before, like removing lawns and putting in landscapes.

For beginning gardeners, what would be good projects to start with this summer?

I would really recommend building a raised bed system for growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers. We put one in last year and it was fantastic. We put up a fence to keep out the four-legged critters and used our native soil to fill the beds. It takes some time to do this correctly but once it’s done, it requires little upkeep other than laying down a protective mulch over the winter to keep weeds out.

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Courtesy of Linda Chalker-Scott

What mistakes should beginning gardeners try to avoid?

Don’t try to do it all the first year! Choose something you really want to focus on—a vegetable garden, a pollinator garden, or some other relatively small project. It is going to take time and patience to do this right. Don’t expect instant gratification. Plants are living organisms, not design elements—and they will require proper planting and care to thrive.

Now that nurseries are beginning to reopen, should people expect most of the usual plant inventory to be available?

From my personal experience, it varies! As I expected from our local nurseries, the inventory got pretty slim after the spring rush. However, I’ve found that some garden centers at hardware or big box stores still have excellent selections and the quality can be surprisingly good. And again, work with the nursery or garden center if you are looking for something they don’t have.

Which plants are good to order by mail? Do you recommend particular nurseries?

Only seeds and bare root plants are consistently reliable for ordering by mail. You can look online for other options, but be aware that mailing live plants is difficult on the plants and you may not like what you receive. It’s best to work with a local nursery to order plants.

How can people living in apartments grow edibles and ornamentals? Which plants grow well in pots on apartment balconies? What are successful indoor plants? What kinds of pots are best?

Tropical ornamentals are great choices for house plants, as are cacti and succulents; temperate perennials and woody plants are not good choices, as most of them do best with low winter temperatures. Whatever you choose, you’ll just need to make sure you have the right exposure for your desired choices. If you have a balcony that gets at least six hours of sunlight a day, you can grow some vegetables though yields can be low with reduced pot size. I think herb gardens are the easiest to create. You can also grow many smaller trees and shrubs. You will need to protect the pots from cold weather, not only so ceramic pots don’t crack but so that roots don’t freeze.

You really can use any type of pot you want, inside or out. You need to ensure that there are drain holes and protect surfaces, either with saucers or cachepots on top of some sort of impermeable material. I like to buy single-glazed floor tiles and then glue cork on the bottom.

Which are the best plants for edible landscaping?

First, you’ll want to know that you can safely eat plants in your landscape, and the best way to find out is to do a soil test to be sure you don’t have lead or some other heavy metal in your soil. Assuming you don’t have a problem, then choose perennials and woody plants you like to eat that are also ornamental. Consider perennial herbs, rhubarb (there are several cultivars with attractive leaves), berry bushes (we have lots of natives in this group), and dwarf cultivars of tree fruits that can be espaliered or otherwise formally trained. There are even ornamental groundcovers with edible fruit.

Which drought-resistant native plants do you recommend for home gardeners in the Pacific Northwest?

A lot of this is personal aesthetics, but you can tell which plants are going to be drought-tolerant by looking at their leaves. Plants with small, thick leaves, with a waxy covering that appears to be gray-green or gray-blue, use much less water than those with broad, thin leaves. But do understand that even drought-tolerant plants need to be watered through their first year of planting to get roots established.

For people who want to stroll (socially distanced) through a park or garden to see the mature sizes and shapes of plants they’re considering planting at home, can you recommend a few places in the Pacific Northwest?

Here are places I’ve visited where you can see many native (and nonnative) trees and shrubs in their full glory. Of course, state and national parks will also have many of our more ornamental natives, but the environmental conditions in large tracts of land may not reflect those in a small urban landscape. More managed gardens are probably the best bet. For more information, just look at their websites online.

Seattle area:

  • Bellevue Botanical Garden
  • Bloedel Reserve
  • Heronswood
  • Kruckeberg Botanical Gardens
  • Washington Park Arboretum/UW Botanical Gardens

Tacoma area:

  • Lakewold Gardens
  • Point Defiance Park
  • Rhododendron Species Garden
  • Wright Park

Spokane:

  • Manito Park

Portland:

  • Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden

Vancouver/Victoria BC areas:

  • Butchart Gardens
  • The Gardens at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific
  • UBC Botanical Garden
  • Van Dusen Botanical Gardens

For people who want to support their local bee and bird populations, what are good landscape plants that provide pollen and seeds?

There are so many choices! There are great pollinator plant lists at websites such as Xerces. Don’t worry about having to use native plants (but do avoid any known invasive species). Wildlife is highly adaptable to their habitat and they learn to use new food sources. For the most part, the types of plants you choose because of their flower color and fragrance will be good choices for pollinators. And birds will eat just about any type of fruit. If you want to provide seeds without getting weed problems, you can cook seeds in the oven at 300°F for thirty minutes. This prevents germination but does not affect the nutrient content.


Linda Chalker-Scott is associate professor of horticulture and extension specialist at Washington State University. She cohosts the Garden Professors blog, and her books include Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific NorthwestThe Informed Gardener, The Informed Gardener Blooms Again, and How Plants Work.

 

 

What You Need to Know About the Measles Outbreak

In light of the current measles outbreak in the United States, we asked Dr. Christopher Sanford, author of Staying Healthy Abroad, to break down the statistics on measles nationally and globally for travelers across the country. He also answers some commonly asked questions about immunity and vaccinations.

The purpose of this article is educational. For medical advice for any health condition, please consult your physician.


Over 700 people in 22 US states have been infected with measles this year—the biggest measles outbreak in the US since 1994. Sixty-six of these people have required hospitalization. Most of those with measles had not been vaccinated for measles.

Per the WHO (World Health Organization), global measles deaths have decreased significantly in recent years, from 550,000 deaths in 2000 to 90,000 deaths in 2016 (an 84% reduction), but measles remains common in many low-income nations, particularly in Africa and Asia. An estimated 7 million people were infected with measles in 2016.

People immunized before 1989 may have only received one dose of measles vaccine. This provides partial protection, but better protection is provided by receiving a booster dose, that is, two doses of MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) total.

International travelers should receive a total of two doses of MMR vaccine. If travelers are uncertain as to their vaccine status, they may request serology (a blood test) from their medical provider to look for immunity. Those born before 1957 in the US are assumed to be immune to measles, mumps, and rubella from prior natural infection; vaccination with MMR is not advised.

Almost all US and Canadian universities and colleges began to require evidence of two prior doses of MMR vaccine (or proof of immunity) in about 1994.

Background

Measles is a serious viral infection that is transmitted by coughing and sneezing. The virus can live for up to two hours in an airspace or on a surface. Usual symptoms are fever, cough, rash, runny nose, and conjunctivitis (pinkeye). Although most people fully recover, complications include encephalitis—swelling of the brain which can result in permanent brain damage or death—and pneumonia.

The usual case-fatality rate in measles is 1-2/1,000 (0.1-0.2%). However, in malnourished populations, the case-fatality rate can approach one in ten.

In order to prevent sustained transmission of measles, 95% of the population needs to be immune, either from vaccination or natural infection (“herd immunity”).

In the US, in the decade 1912-1922, measles caused an average of 6,000 deaths per year. Prior to 1963, when measles vaccination became available, measles caused 4,800 hospitalizations, 1,000 cases of encephalitis, and 400-500 deaths each year in the US.

Washington State

In the current measles outbreak in Washington State, there have been 71 cases in Clark County (in southwest Washington, adjacent to Portland, OR) and one case in King County. The majority of these cases were in unimmunized people.

United States

There are currently measles outbreaks in 22 US states.

There were 372 cases of measles in the US in 2018. Between January 1 and April 26 of this year, 704 cases have occurred.

Most US cases are in children. Per a April 9 article in the Wall Street Journal:

New York City officials declared a public-health emergency as authorities elsewhere in the state announced new measures to halt the spread of measles, stepping up their responses after a recent surge in cases. The city on Tuesday ordered mandatory measles-mumps-rubella vaccination and fines for noncompliance in certain ZIP Codes in Brooklyn.

The current US vaccine schedule for measles: two doses; first at 12-15 months, second at 4-6 years. Boosters after initial series of two are not advised.

Global Picture

The dramatic decline in global measles is primarily due to increased vaccine coverage in low-income nations. However, should vaccine efforts wane, measles cases and deaths would inevitably markedly increase.

Many countries in Europe have seen a large uptick in measles cases in recent years. There are currently outbreaks in Germany, Ireland, Italy, France, and other European countries. Countries outside of Europe with current outbreaks include Israel, Ukraine, and Australia.


What’s the difference between elimination and eradication?

Eradication is the complete and permanent worldwide reduction to zero new cases of a disease through deliberate efforts. Smallpox has been eradicated from the planet. Elimination is the reduction to zero, or a very low defined target rate, new cases of a disease in a specified geographical areas. Measles was declared to be eliminated from the US in 2000.

How effective is measles vaccine?

Very. The two-dose series provides 97% protection.

What is herd immunity?

If a certain threshold level of a community is immune to a disease, either through infection or immunization, that infection cannot be propagated within that community. The threshold for different infections varies. For example, the level of resistance for polio in a community necessary to prevent an epidemic is 80%. Measles is more infectious; about 95% of a community needs to be resistant to measles to prevent epidemics.

What is the current measles vaccine rate in the US?

Fairly high. Currently, per the CDC, 94.3% of kindergartners were current for measles vaccine in the 2017-18 school year. However, this rate is markedly lower in some communities, e.g., the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY, and Clark County, WA, in which measles epidemics are currently occurring.

How can I tell if I’m immune to measles?

If you’ve received the two-dose series of MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, it is reasonable to assume that you’re immune. If your vaccine history is uncertain, options include a blood test to check immunity, or receiving the two-dose series.


Christopher Sanford, MD, MPH is associate professor in the Departments of Family Medicine and Global Health at the University of Washington, and a family medicine physician who specializes in tropical medicine and travelers’ health. His research interests include medical education in low-resource settings and health risks of urban centers in low-income nations.

To hear more from Christopher Sanford, come to his book talk at the University Bookstore on Tuesday, June 11th. To learn more about how to keep yourself healthy while traveling, buy his book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Q&A with Poet David Biespiel

For National Poetry Month, we are pleased to share a conversation with poet David Biespiel, author of Republic Cafe.


It’s Monday, 10am. Would you tell us your motto for writing poems?

My motto would be, writing poems is impossible. That’s my motto. It’s impossible for me to do anything else, first of all, but to write poems. But, to write a poem? What is that? What is a poem? Every effort to write a poem is as much a soaring success as it is a terrible flub. It’s impossible to write in the direction I want to write, because as soon as I get close to that point on the horizon I’ve been aiming toward, what I’ve been trying to write appears different to me. Everything I’ve been doing, therefore, is wrong. A failure. In a catalogue essay from the 1960s of a MOMA exhibition of Alberto Giacometti’s work, there’s this opening paragraph in Peter Selz’s introduction:

‘To render what the eye sees is impossible,’ Giacometti repeated one evening while we were seated at dinner at the inn at Stampa. He explained that he could really not see me as I sat next to him—I was a conglomeration of vague and disconnected details—but that each member of the family sitting across the room was clearly visible, though diminutive, thin, surrounded by enormous slices of space. Everyone before him in the whole history of art, he continued, had always represented the figure as it is; his task now was to break down tradition and come to grips with the optical phenomenon of reality. What is the relationship of the figure to the enveloping space, of man to the void, even of being to nothingness?

That about covers it—for writing. It’s impossible. And, that’s exactly what makes it so freeing, so enticing.

What led you to become a writer? And, specifically a poet?

I recently published a book on this subject, The Education of a Young Poet. I think I became a writer because I liked messing around with words, with sentences. I liked the feel of moving a verb from the front of a sentence to the end. I liked feeling curious about whether I should end a sentence on a noun, or start with a noun. I liked seeing the figure of ideas and images form, from one word to the next, one phrase and one clause to the next, one sentence and one paragraph to the next. That’s what I liked and what I still like at the most tactile/DNA level of writing. Writing a poem is all of that on steroids. Now, with a poem, too, you have lines to enhance even more new relationships between adjective and noun, for instance. It’s mind-blowing.

As for why I became a poet? Writing poems, for me—because I write poems and nonfiction—I find that poetry offers greater velocity than prose and also poetry dwells more deeply in metaphor. Speed plus associative feeling. That’s two things that draw me to write poems. Underneath all that is an interest in asking questions that, perhaps, poetry can reflect upon. Writing Republic Cafe I was interested in the importance of forgetting, as opposed to the more traditional interest in the importance of remembering. So I was writing the poem—the long poem that’s the centerpiece of the book—to reflect upon that question. And yet, that’s the paradox. The close I got to dramatizing what I was forgotten, I began to see it, or remember  it, differently. So the book is trying to figure out what to make of that enigma.

Did you write the book in Portland?

Mostly, yes. In late 2012, during the production period for Charming Gardeners, which UW Press published in 2014, I began taking notes and studying the patterns of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour in Portland. Then, in the fall of 2014, I went to West Texas and wrote for a month without interruption. That’s where I drafted the book. I worked on it for several years after that, and then, in late 2017, I put the book through a big revision after Linda Bierds read it. I did that revision in my house here in Portland over several weeks.

Many writers begin their career with teachers and models. Republic Cafe is your sixth book of poems since 1996. Did you have a model when you first started to write? Do you now?

When I first started to write, I was mostly alone. Not alone in the world—well, not entirely alone in the world, I mean—but alone with my books, with paper and pen. No teachers. I had no guidance. Later I studied with several wonderful poets. At the University of Maryland I studied with Stanley Plumly, Michael Collier, and Phillis Levin. At Stanford, when I was a Stegner fellow, I studied with W.S. Di Piero and Ken Fields. Because Stan Plumly introduced my first book, I suppose I’m most identified with him, and I’m extremely grateful to have studied with him. Truth be told I still learn things from him. From him personally—we’ve remained close for thirty years. And especially through his poems, which are remarkable for their warmth and tenderness. Before those teachers came along, and ever since, I would say Walt Whitman has been a model for me. I don’t mean the man so much—not to dismiss the man, that is, but I mean the writing. His engagement as a poet with language and life. The nexus of self and society that is the hallmark of his poetry. I’ve learned from Whitman that while images never become out-of-fashion or obsolete, blow-hardedness does. Commentaries do. Explaining or psychoanalyzing kills invention. Kills metaphor. Kills freshness. What’s so great about Whitman is he still feels contemporary. It’s the 200th anniversary of his birth this year, and he still feels in touch with our own time. Whitman doesn’t try to explain his motivations. Instead he conveys a consciousness. That’s the thing I’ve most tried to learn from Whitman. To write a poem is to invent a consciousness. But, of course, it’s impossible.


Biespiel photo 2David Biespiel is a poet, critic, memoirist, and contributing to writer to American Poetry Review, New Republic, the New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate. He is poet-in-residence at Oregon State University, faculty member in the Rainier Writers Workshop, and president of the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters. He has received NEA and Lannan fellowships and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Balakian Award. He has previously published The Education of a Young Poet, Wild Civility, The Book of Men and Women, and Charming Gardeners. You can buy his most recent collection, Republic Cafe by clicking here.

Inside the Publishing Process: An Interview with Series Editor Paul Sutter

This year marks the 25th anniversary of our series Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books. It also marks Paul S. Sutter’s fifth year as series editor.

Here, Sutter talks with our Senior Acquisitions Editor Andrew Berzanskis about his goals for the series, how he sees environmental history changing, and offers some practical tips for authors.

Sutter is professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder. His five books include Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (University of Washington Press) and Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South (University of Georgia Press).

For those interested in the origins of the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series, here is an account by founding series editor William Cronon.


In 2002, you published your first book, Driven Wild, in the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books (WEB) series. William Cronon, the founding editor of the series, was editor then. How did Cronon help shape your book?  

Bill was a huge influence on my decision to choose the series. His famous wilderness essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” had just come out, and it was a piece that refined my argument in important ways. I sent an initial email inquiry to Bill—we had met once or twice, but I’m not sure he knew who I was—and he wrote a lengthy response that quickly convinced me that working with him would be the right thing to do. The series was quite new at that point, and Bill put a lot of energy into reading and commenting on my manuscript. Driven Wild mediated the wilderness debate in a ways that I think Bill appreciated, but he also pushed me in ways that made my argument better.

2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the series. As a discipline, environmental history has blossomed. More scholars, more students, and many more publishers. What keeps Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books—a series launched in 1994—unique in 2019?

During the early years of Bill’s editorship, environmental history was a much smaller field, and one that seemed overwhelmingly U.S.-focused. In that context, the series sat at the center of a series of nature/culture debates that largely defined the second generation of environmental historiography. In the last decade or so, the field has changed in dramatic ways. Environmental history is much more international, the number of programs training graduate students has grown geometrically, and the subfields within and around the edges of environmental history have multiplied. Environmental history is a large and crowded room with many conversations going on. The series has changed with the field.

We still publish books that critically assess the historical and cultural dimensions of our current environmental crises and commitments. But the qualities that keep the series unique have more to do with how we work with authors: our commitment to careful developmental editing, our desire for books that are clearly and accessibly written and intended for a crossover audience, our commitment to producing beautiful and well-illustrated books, the work we do with authors to help them to market their books, and our author community. Perhaps nothing better symbolizes that approach than the time we spend with authors and prospective authors at the annual American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) meeting.

Why is publishing with a series different than publishing as part of a press’s regular publishing program?

In the simplest sense, publishing a book in a series helps to define the book by the company it keeps. It also helps to get the book in front of the eyes of those who pay attention to that particular book series and the field it helps to define. But perhaps the biggest advantage to a book series is the chance to work with an academic series editor who can help to shepherd the book manuscript through the publication process. Not all editors put in the effort that Bill and I have at WEB, and so even among other series I think we are unique in the editorial energy we put into the books in our series. Having an engaged series editor can also be helpful in navigating peer review.

As a series editor, how do you like to work with authors?  

Because of the energy we put into developmental editing, we usually like to work with advance contracts, which confirm our partnership with the author. I then like to work with authors on matters of big argument and framing. It is a truism that most dissertations are written to a narrow audience of specialists, and so I push authors to figure out how their book can speak to thousands of interested readers rather than dozens. That often means working with authors on their introductions first, and then the overall organization and narrative arc of their manuscripts. When the author has a fully revised manuscript ready for peer review, I will read it along with the peer reviewers and provide a thorough report that both synthesizes the external reviews and offers comments of my own. We spend a lot of time with authors, on the phone and in person.

What do you get out of serving as a series editor? What makes it personally and/or professionally rewarding?

Being the series editor at WEB is a lot of work. But I love helping authors do what Bill did for me with my first book—transforming promising manuscripts into the books that their authors want them to be. I have seen quite a few authors transform their manuscripts through careful and thoughtful revision, and I take great pride in the role that I play in those transformations. (Mine is a small role. The authors do most of the work!) I take great pride when a beautiful series book arrives in my mailbox—and even more pride when the authors feel like the results are better as a result of working with us.

You write a foreword for each book. Why is that important?

Bill described the foreword as an extended blurb, and I have tried to follow that model. The foreword is a pitch to readers and reviewers to buy or review or assign the book.

You are entering your fifth year as editor and putting your own distinctive imprint on the series. What series books are you particularly proud of and why?

This feels like asking me which of my children is my favorite. I am proud of all of the books we have published for different reasons. But I will provide an example of why I am proud of one book. A year or so ago I received an email from a legal scholar who had just reviewed Jakobina Arch’s Bringing Whales Ashore: Oceans and the Environment of Early Modern Japan. This particular scholar is an expert on contemporary legal frameworks for managing international whaling, and he found Arch’s history of whaling in Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868) as critical to contextualizing Japan’s contemporary claims that its whaling practices are traditional. Bina had worked hard to transform a masterful but somewhat narrow study into one that mattered to today’s whaling policy, and this reviewer made it clear that she succeeded.

What are the most common mistakes you see when people put together a book proposal?

I think there are several. One is the proposal that suggests that the book in question is the most important and innovative thing to come along in ages. A good proposal is humble and realistic about what it will accomplish, and respectful of the field in which it will sit. I also often read proposals that are too topical and not sufficiently thesis-driven. More than that, though, I increasingly urge authors to define not just the argument but the research problem that their book will address. A well-defined and expansive research problem will get my attention. Defining the research problem is a way of explaining why we need your book, which is a different issue than what it is about or what it will argue. Finally, I often find prospective authors to be overly optimistic about the popular appeal of their books. To reach a crossover audience, I think authors need to think deeply about which specific non-academic audiences they might realistically reach.

You see many manuscripts go through peer review. What are the most common problems identified in peer review, and how can authors avoid those same mistakes?

The most common problem, particularly for first-time authors, is that they don’t have a clear enough sense of what their book is about. That might be a strange thing to say, but often authors want their books to be about too many things. What’s the big idea/argument? How do the chapters contribute to and build towards that big idea/argument? The big idea is what disciplines a manuscript and helps to create a hierarchy of arguments, and it is not something that emerges organically. Rather, it is usually a matter of authors making tough choices.

What advice do you have for scholars trying to reach a broader audience?

First, figure out specifically who that broader audience is. Know who else might be interested in the book and speak to them. Second, get comfortable imagining your reader as an intelligent non-expert and explaining why scholars argue over the things that they do. An accessible book elegantly explains significance, constantly circling back to it. Third, develop characters if you can, and tell good stories.

I constantly urge authors to tell me the biography of their project. This forces them to go back to the moment when they decided to pursue the topic, to explain what made them passionate about it, and what it was like to know little about the book they were embarking upon. It requires them to imagine the reader opening their book for the first time and deciding whether to buy or devote their time to reading it. If you can go back to that point of initial ignorance and then explain how you proceeded to a deeper and more satisfying understanding of a topic, you can better convince your reader to want to follow along. A book that can explain the process of coming to understand a topic—rather than merely presenting the results of a deep understanding—is a book that will be more accessible.

Tell me about the first time you went to an American Society for Environmental History conference. How was it different then?

I first attended ASEH in 1993 in Pittsburgh. That was only the sixth ASEH conference ever held, and back then the conferences were biennial and much smaller. I was still a graduate student at the University of Kansas and did not have enough travel funding to afford both the flight and the hotel room. So four of us pooled our funds, rented a white Cadillac Seville, and made the 13-hour drive in style. I think the conference was at a Days Inn, and I’m not even sure if there was a book exhibit. It was tiny. I have been to every ASEH meeting since.

Where do you see the field of environmental history developing in the next 20 years? 

I will answer this in two ways. The first is that our field must directly address the big environmental problems of our moment, and many scholars are busy doing that. Where the second generation of environmental history was largely engaged with a critical assessment of nature as our field’s category of analysis, I think the current generation of scholarship will be defined by its critical engagement with the Anthropocene concept and the material environmental challenges that it encompasses.

The second is that I wouldn’t be surprised if a singular field of environmental history no longer really exists in 2040. Rather, we may see a proliferation of subfields and sub-conversations in fields such as animal history, energy history, climate history, evolutionary history, environmental justice, etc. The field of environmental history that I matured with was fundamentally shaped by the national environmental movement of the 1960s-1980s; the current generation is being shaped by global concerns about climate change and the great acceleration of human impact on the natural world.


Andrew and Paul will both be attending the American Society for Environmental History annual meeting April 10-13 in Columbus, OH. Stop by the University of Washington Press booth (#21) to meet them and to learn more about this series!

What Prisoners Tell Us: The Making of Concrete Mama

Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla, by Ethan Hoffman and John McCoy, won the Washington State Book Award in 1981 for its stark, sympathetic portrayal of life inside the maximum-security prison. The University of Washington Press is publishing a new edition of the book, long out of print but as relevant as ever.

McCoy was recently interviewed by prison scholar Dan Berger, who wrote the book’s new introduction, in Berger’s class at the University of Washington Bothell. For University Press Week, here are some edited highlights from the interview about our neighbors behind bars.


DAN BERGER: Why did you decide to write about the prison?

JOHN MCCOY: My first glimpse of the penitentiary was as a cub newspaper reporter at the Walla Walla Union Bulletin. At that time—this was 1977—the State Penitentiary was ending a reform experiment in which prisoners were allowed a fair amount of autonomy inside the walls and allowed outside furloughs. The theory was that the more contact that prisoners have with the outside world, the better the chances are that they can be safely returned to society. But this reform project was failing. I wondered why.

So you and Ethan Hoffman, a photographer at the paper, quit your newspaper jobs to do a book on the penitentiary?

The guard in 9-tower, his rifle ready, watches as new prisoners arrive “on the chain,” a bus that carries them shackled from the state corrections reception center in Shelton.

Yes. Ethan and I spent four months in the fall and winter of 1978-79 inside the prison. We were allowed to come in as early as 5:00 in the morning and stay as late as 10:00 p.m. We were unescorted, which was absolutely crucial. If we walked around with a guard, we were not going to get any information from prisoners. Then, towards the end of our time there, we spent some time with guards, which was interesting, because some prisoners who had talked to us earlier ceased talking to us. It’s a very polarized world inside prison.

How did you approach doing the book?

As journalists. Ethan and I were not prison experts. We simply wanted to photograph and report on what we saw inside the walls. Here’s what prisoners tell us. Here’s what their day-to-day life is like depending on whether they’re tough or vulnerable, men or women, black, white, or brown. Here’s what the Parole Board members say. Here’s what the warden says. Here’s the guards.

Besides the warden, did you have to talk to others to get access?

Not to get access—but politically, I had to talk to the head of the guards’ union and the prisoners who served on the Resident Council, the elected representatives of the general population.

One thing that helped pave our way with prisoners was Ethan’s decision to give anyone who asked a nice 8-by-10-inch black-and-white portrait photo of themselves. So Ethan had guys posing with weights, stripped to the waist, displaying all their tattoos. He took pictures of whatever they wanted, but one picture only. And in return, they signed a release form that said we could use these pictures in the book. Ethan spent a lot of nights in the darkroom because prisoners wanted quick results. Nonetheless, the decision created a lot of goodwill and gave us great access.

Kim, right, spends time with Leomy, his “inside lady” and a member of Men Against Sexism, a club popular with prison gays and queens.

At this time, there were all kinds of areas that were off limits to guards. So, in order to enter these areas, we had to have either the president of the Lifers’ Club, or the Chicano Club, or the Meditation Group, or Men Against Sexism, or some other prison leader, either accompany or approve us. We had to tread cautiously. If we got crosswise with any particular group, we would be out of there, or we could have caused harm to ourselves. There were certainly some tense situations with both prisoners and guards.

Could you describe an average day in those four months you were there?

Prisoners were locked in their cells overnight. The day began with morning chow, about 7:00, for the general population—those not confined in the segregation unit or in protective custody.

Prisoners were released by tiers and walked to the chow hall—an ugly, cold brick building with a lot of cold metal tables and metal serving trays. Sometimes there were fights in the chow hall, or food was thrown, and guards intervened.

Some prisoners spend hours playing dominoes in the black prisoners’ club room.

After chow, most prisoners had nothing to do. There were certainly not enough jobs to employ even a minority of the 1,400 prisoners. So they were free to go back to their cells or wander the breezeways. There was recreation time in the gym, the weight room, and the Big Yard, where prisoners played baseball, card games, and smoked weed. On occasion, the bikers were permitted to race their motorcycles around the inside perimeter. There was also a limited education program—which soon ended when the Legislature withdrew funding—in which prisoners could complete their GED or get community college credits or university credits. Occasionally, there were movies or shows in the auditorium.

Some prisoners hung out at their private club rooms. Although you could get an infraction for smoking weed, it was basically tolerated. And there was heroin and other drugs smuggled in from outside.

You could work if you could find a job in the kitchen, chow hall, laundry, license plate shop, or elsewhere. Pay was pitiful—a few cents an hour. The primary advantage of a job was access to things you could steal and then exchange or sell.

Lockup in the evening came early, right after dinner, unless you had a permit to be out for work or prison business.

Because most of the population spent most of their time in four-man, 10-by-12-foot cells, your cellmates were very important. The Resident Council ostensibly helped prisoners find compatible cellmates. But there were powerful guys in the prison who really controlled the cells. Often, you had to buy a cell. Sometimes you’d get a cell equipped with a television, a nice mattress, and so on, but you paid for that. And you paid for that with money, drugs, sex, cigarettes, pruno—which is prison-brewed liquor—or other things.

What did you expect to find at the prison and did you find it?

First of all, we knew it was a good and unexpected story. Look, these guys are in motorcycle gangs, and they’re in prison, and they’re racing their Harleys? We knew Ethan could get fabulous pictures. I mean, a sweat lodge—I’d never been to a sweat lodge before, and certainly not one inside a prison. A casino night at the Chicano Club. There were transgender or cross-dressing dancers. There was sex, there was drugs. So, without making a judgment call, we had to ask: What’s happening here? And why?

“Nert,” left, and “Kickstand” are bikers, cellmates and tattoo enthusiasts.

Our hope was to do a fair, balanced, and accurate account of life inside a state penitentiary—a notorious state penitentiary, perhaps—at a time in which hard questions continued to be asked about the purpose of prison.

How do you know you got at the truth?

Ethan had it easier, because photos don’t lie. I had to pursue multiple sources. Sometimes I heard prisoners explain their crimes and protest their innocence in ways that were preposterous. Fortunately, a helpful prison trustee was willing to share confidential records with me. And a prison attorney was quietly willing to access court records for me. I was able to verify prison stories and eventually developed a pretty good BS detector.

How did the experience of those four months in the prison affect you?

I went away humbled by the experience. I left with the strong feeling that this is really a destructive place. It’s destructive for those who are there, both keepers and the kept. It’s dangerous. It does little to help people adjust to the real world. In fact, it destroys a lot of prisoners’ chances of having a successful transition.

And it picks on the poor, the less educated, and the mentally ill. Incarcerated people are disproportionally poor and minorities. They have unaddressed behavioral issues; learning issues; addiction issues. Their keepers, at Walla Walla and prisons elsewhere, tend to be disproportionally white, rural, with a high school education, often veterans, and with limited understanding of those they are charged with “correcting.”

Why is Concrete Mama relevant 40 years later?

Ed Mead, a founder of the radical George Jackson Brigade and a Marxist revolutionary serving time for armed assault on a bank, is confined to the “intensive segregation unit” commonly known as “the hole.”

For two reasons: First, prison life doesn’t change much. Prisoners spend most of their time caged. They have little to do. They band together for protection and personal gain. And they generally leave prison more alienated and damaged than when they came in. As a result, two-thirds of them return.

Secondly, starting in the early 1970s, Washington State had tried to reform its prisons by emphasizing rehabilitation rather than punishment. That meant giving prisoners a good deal of autonomy with the expectation that if they could make something of themselves inside, they could be successful on the outside. For a variety reasons, it was a failure. Ethan and I were there as the experiment finally fell apart. But you have to ask, what have we done since?


John A. McCoy is the author of A Still and Quiet Conscience, a biography of Seattle Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen. He was a reporter and editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and has taught writing courses at the University of Washington-Tacoma and Seattle University.

Dan Berger is associate professor at the University of Washington Bothell, and an interdisciplinary historian focusing on critical prison studies. He is the author of several books, including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, and coauthor most recently of Rethinking the American Prison Movement.

To learn more about Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla or to buy your copy of the book, click here.

LGBT Pride

GaySeattle-Atkins (2)Happy Pride Month! With the Seattle Pride Parade right around the corner, we’re bringing Gary L. Atkins’s award-winning Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging back into the spotlight.

In 1893, the Washington State legislature quietly began passing a set of laws that essentially made homosexuality, and eventually even the discussion of homosexuality, a crime. A century later Mike Lowry became the first governor of the state to address the annual lesbian and gay pride rally in Seattle. Gay Seattle traces the evolution of Seattle’s gay community during those one hundred turbulent years, telling through a century of stories how gays and lesbians have sought to achieve a sense of belonging in Seattle.

These stories of exile and belonging draw on numerous original interviews as well as case studies of individuals and organizations that played important roles in the history of Seattle’s gay and lesbian community. Collectively, they are a powerful testament to the endurance and fortitude of this minority community, revealing the ways a previously hidden sexual minority “comes out” as a people and establishes a public presence in the face of challenges from within and without.

Gary L. Atkins is professor of women and gender studies at Seattle University. His most recent book is Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok and Cyber-Singapore.

Today, we talk with Professor Atkins about the process of writing Gay Seattle and its contribution to the community.



What inspired you to get into your field?

GA: Ever since I was in third grade, I’ve been compelled by writing as well as by understanding the history of how different places, people and imaginations came to be. That gradually translated into an interest in journalism, especially in nonfiction creative writing.

Why did you want to write this book?

GA: I moved to Seattle in 1978 and, of course, I immediately wanted to know more about both the geography and the history of the Northwest. Over the years I kept reading—but the customary history books all left out any stories of lesbians and gay men. I didn’t find anything that reflected who I was . . . or who the generations of lesbians and gay men who had come before me were.

Describe the process of writing this book.

GA: Because I am very interested in geography and architecture and how both influence people’s imaginations, I actually began by just walking around. Even though I had already lived in Seattle for fifteen years by the time I began the book, I wanted to deliberately see what were both the existing spaces in which gay men and lesbians had settled and created their public gathering spots, as well as spaces I had heard about. Then came the usual journalistic research approaches: sweeping city and university libraries for any information; digging through microfilm of criminal cases to turn up who had been arrested for crimes like sodomy; visiting county, state and federal archives for reports on things like treatments at mental hospitals. Intermixed with that were interviews with any of the “old-timers” I could find. I conducted many of these, but I also involved students in my Seattle U classes.  After all the reporting came draft after draft after draft of the book. The whole process took about ten years from its start in 1993 until publication in 2003. Although, of course, I was still teaching fulltime.

What do you think is this book’s most important contribution?

GA: It reports and describes a saga that had been overlooked in other stories of the Northwest at the time of publication: the efforts of those who had been criminalized and treated as sick for their sexual desires and their loves to instead create their own community and to establish themselves publicly.  

What is the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book?

GA: Although the general histories of Seattle documented the old police payoff system that existed for decades until the 1970s, no one had really tracked how that affected the development of the lesbian and gay bars—and so the development of the gay community—in the city. As I worked through archives, grand jury reports, and newspaper stories, it gradually became apparent that the payoff system had fostered the community, but ironically, I also found out that it was a particular gay bar owner who had eventually helped bring the whole system down. By then, for all practical purposes, he had disappeared from the city. So one of the most fantastic experiences I had was simply seeing an old phone number on a document, and it was actually still his number. I was able to track him down on Camano Island and then conduct interviews with him.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing the book?

GA: One of the most surprising things was that students at my own university, Seattle U, helped launch the LGBTQ civil rights effort in Seattle back in the 1960s, although in a rather negative way. From the oral history interviews that one of my students conducted, we discovered that SU students had harassed gay men who were living next to the university and who sometimes dressed in drag. The students threw rocks at their home, which prompted the men to race after them in drag, causing the police to intervene and the drag queens to tell their stories to a radio station. Out of that came organizing efforts for the old Dorian Society, which was the first really long-lasting gay rights group in Seattle.  The gay men met with the SU president at the time and were apparently told they should move. Resolutely, they responded that he should instead tell his students to stop throwing rocks. I guess you could consider that one of many little “stonewalls” that started happening in Seattle well before the big one back in New York.


This year’s Pride Parade will take place on Sunday, June 24th in downtown Seattle. Learn more here.

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Check out more books like Gay Seattle in our Critical Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies catalog.

Q&A with ‘Risky Bodies and Techno-Intimacy’ author Geeta Patel

Risky Bodies & Techno-Intimacy traverses disparate and uncommon routes to explore how people grapple with the radical uncertainties of their lives. In this edgy, evocative journey through myriad interleaved engagements–including the political economies of cinema; the emergent shapes taken by insurance, debt, and mortgages; gender and sexuality; and domesticity and nationalism–author Geeta Patel demonstrates how science and technology ground our everyday intimacies. The result is a deeply poetic and philosophical exploration of the intricacies of techno-intimacy, revealing a complicated and absorbing narrative that challenges assumptions underlying our daily living.

Today we talk to the author about her book, publishing soon in our Feminist Technosciences series. 

What inspired you to get into your field?

Geeta Patel: I don’t have a field in any strict sense, although most of my friends now would think of me as a literary ‘type.’ I, however, don’t think of myself that way. I compose in visual metaphors, and the way I look at things askance, as though they were transparent and opaque at the same time, is as a scientist who loves poetry.

I grew up in a family full of women doctors, which along with the push toward science if you grew up in South Asia and had even a vestige of a brain, meant I ended up being saddled with science, specializing in the sciences from when I was eleven years old. But I loved all the sciences, particularly ‘the natural sciences’ with the kind of curiosity of many eighteenth-century scientists. In that period ‘scientific’ curiosity leaked out into more than what we would now call science. It embraced poetry, literary prose, questions of politics, the ways in which money and goods moved, finance, drawings, maps, and instruments. A sort of porous curiosity, rather than directed curiosity along blinkered pathways. Eighteenth-century journals, as well as the South Asian magazines of my childhood, had tidbits on science, poetry, politics, fiction, oddities from the ambit of the political, and off-kilter instruments of measurement. This is what I grew up reading and it is was as though they all belonged in the same place and together made sense.

So when I think of what my ‘field’ consists of, it lives at the cusp of all these things. Where more than one intellectual formation or terrain fades into each other, informs each other, pushes at each other, and inflects each other. And a field formation gets taken up in such a way that it makes an assumption in another field discomfiting. One such place I approach/broach that in Risky Bodies & Techno-Intimacy is the technology of time.

What would you have been if not an academic?

GP: Probably a health practitioner, a healer.

Why did you want to write this book?

GP: I wanted to sit with, ponder, think about, and ruminate on the places, moments, pauses, and sudden jolts where I stopped thinking. Where my capacity to envision something else failed me, felt as though it had faded from my grasp. Many intellectuals imagine this as the horizon towards which one ambles, gallops, or comes up against in some putative future. When I was writing my previous book on the Urdu poet Miraji, I came to see it as he had, and how the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had, as that which is inside what we think, visualize, do. The bedrock of belief lives where we come to a grinding halt, and we find ourselves in a double bind—facing what we must let go of, but can’t. How could we, following on Michel Foucault and Marcel Mauss, understand these as technologies that make us who we are, which are the armature of our very ordinary, everyday habits?

I also wanted to mess with what had come to be conventional ways of bringing intellectual fields together. I wanted to make that broaching or bridging awkward—and this is what I practice in Risky Bodies & Techno-Intimacy. What would chemistry do to transgender possibilities in South Asia? What would it mean to transmute the aesthetics of linear time to lay out the gatherings that took on the resistance to a film on sexuality? How would the historical congruencies between these events and the fights over insurance in the Indian parliament give us insights? Allow us to delve into the modes through which financing loss became the conduit to grapple with the political desires that undergird nationalism? In the process how would science emerge in writing about events that might, in some simple way, not be said to be scientific (in the ways we now see science)?

Who do you see as the audience for this book?

GP: Everyone, feminists, science studies aficionados, cultural studies scholars, media studies scholars, finance practitioners, political theorists, literary theorists. In India I have found the audience to include artists, film-makers, fiction writers, poets, and non-academics.

What is your next project?

GP: I have many ongoing projects. One is a book on Ismat Chughtai, in particular on two of her short stories. That book interrogates the lineages of historical realism in South Asia. It brings quantum and relativity as conduits through which I can grapple with the desires that readers ferry along with them as they read fiction and mine it for information. One is a book on 1950s and ‘60s billboards in Mumbai, and I look at what they reveal about advertising, fiscal fantasies, national sentiment, and nationalist aesthetics in post-colonial states. Another is about the long history of pensions and insurance in South Asia. One of the first of its chapters rethinks the eighteenth-century history of capitalism through colonial pensions.


Geeta Patel is associate professor of both Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and cultures and of women, gender, and sexuality at the University of Virginia. She is author of Lyrical Movements, Historical Hauntings: Gender, Colonialism, and Desire in Miraji’s Urdu Poetry.

Q&A with ‘Tracing Autism’ author Des Fitzgerald

In Tracing Autism, Des Fitzgerald offers an up-close account of the search for a neurological explanation of autism. As autism has gained cultural prominence with more diagnoses and more controversy, its biological causes remain elusive.

Through in-depth interviews with neuroscientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists, Fitzgerald examines what it means to do scientific research in the ambiguous terrain of autism research, a field marked by shifting horizons of uncertainty and ambivalence. He draws out how autism scientists talk and feel their way through their research, demonstrating its profoundly affective character, and expanding our understanding of what is at stake in the new brain sciences.

Today we speak with the author about his book, published this summer.

What inspired you to get into your field?

Des Fitzgerald: I’ve always been pretty comfortable describing myself as a sociologist. I actually entered university (in Cork, Ireland, where I’m from) to study literature, but fairly quickly realized that I had zero interest in spending my life as a literary scholar. I dropped out for a few years and came back to study sociology—and have been pretty happy ever since. It’s a cliché, but I like that we are empirical, and actually in-touch with things in the world and the issues of the day, but we’re also literary and philosophical too. I like that in sociology departments (in Britain at least) you’ll still find people who are basically continental philosophers, as well as people who are super-positivist big-data number crunchers. I think our field often suffers in policy and public debate for being neither one thing nor the other—not having the cultural weight of the humanities on the one hand, or the perceived instrumental value of the natural sciences on the other—but this neither-one-thing-nor-the-otherness is what I like most about sociology. Some days it’s the only thing I like about sociology. Within the discipline, I’ve always been interested in how sociology grapples with the material world: I wrote my undergrad thesis about architecture, and was actually barely an inch away from becoming a museums studies person as a master’s student. Thinking about how the body gets torqued in the contemporary life sciences, and especially in the neurosciences, has been really fruitful for me on this score. I can imagine myself working on other things, but I’m going to mine this seam for another couple of years yet, I think.

Describe the process of writing the book.

DF: Honestly, it might annoy some people, but my memories of writing this book are all highly pleasurable. I don’t at all mean to diminish anyone’s struggles, and I know lots of people find writing hard and painful in various ways, but I also feel that sometimes too much of the discourse around academic writing, and especially PhD writing, is about the alleviation of pain and anxiety. Maybe we don’t talk enough about the savoring of pleasure, and about how lovely it can be, actually, to spend time writing a thesis or a book (again, I acknowledge: that pleasure is of course entangled in the multiple kinds of privilege that I embody, but it’s pleasure all the same). The year or so in which I wrote the first draft of this book were probably the happiest twelve months of my life – if I could whistle (which I can’t), I would have whistled going into the office every morning. The rewrite, much of which took place over one winter at Cardiff Central Library, was also pretty good. In terms of process, I essentially collected data over a twelve-month period, and then really sat down and wrote the book, fairly methodically, chapter by chapter, over the course of another year. The actual core argument—centered on the image of tracing—emerged halfway through, and appeared only fitfully in the first version. It was only when I went back to rewrite the manuscript some years later, having done a lot of other things in-between that I was really able to articulate what I wanted to say about neuroscience, and how badly it had been construed in and by the social sciences. The gap between dissertation and book was important, I think—I needed a few years to make sense of what the dissertation had been trying to say.

Who do you see as the audience for this book?

DF: Anyone who’s interested in understanding what contemporary neurosciences are actually like, how they work, and want to  hear the voices of some of the people who make them up. I’m not shy about saying that there is a serious attempt to make a contribution to some strands of contemporary social and cultural theory—studies of affect, of course, but also wider attentions to materiality, especially as that materiality gets crystallized in the objects of the life sciences—but I’ve worked hard to write it in a fairly approachable and easygoing style, and to cleave pretty closely to what the people in the interviews are actually saying.

What would you have been if not an academic?

DF: I actually asked some colleagues this a couple of years ago, and it turns out that many academics nurture surprisingly well elaborated alternative-career fantasies. My own is artisanal café and bicycle-repair shop owner—which is a fantasy that I like to maintain despite not knowing very much about coffee, or anything at all about bicycle repair. More seriously, I would say that I have never been the kind of person who can only imagine a fulfilling intellectual life in and through the university, or while being acknowledged as that still fairly recent historical figure, “an academic.”  Not to be po-faced about it, but I think the question of how to craft intellectual and scholarly futures in the absence of the university is going to be a big question in the coming years: “what might you yet be” is probably a better way to put this question than “what would you have been?” And of course many people at the sharp end of the academic job market have already started to craft responses to this issue. I definitely don’t invest all of my intellectual hope in academia.

What are you reading right now?

DF: The truthful answer to this, of course, is “lots of Twitter with special attention to the quality and frequency of my own mentions.” But I do manage to read other stuff too.  I’m currently coauthoring a new book on urban neuroscience and am trying to think about the ways in which the study of the city and the study of the body might have gotten into one another historically—so I’ve been reading a lot of late-nineteenth-century urban studies literature. My favorites so far are W. E. B. Du Bois’s brilliant and pioneering study, The Philadelphia Negro (I’ve also enjoyed Aldon Morris’s excellent recent reclaiming of Du Bois’s legacy for sociology, The Scholar Denied, which all sociologists should read) and Seebohm Rowntrees’s surprisingly, and deeply, weird monograph from 1901, Poverty: A Study of Town Life. Charles Booth’s more famous Life and Labour volumes turn out to be more of a drag than I anticipated, and Booth himself not especially pleasant company as an author or editor (although obviously I still like the maps). For vaguely work-related pleasure-reading, I’ve been reading Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression and McKenzie Wark’s General Intellects. For other kinds of pleasure, someone recently recommended Octavia Butler to me at a conference and I am getting really into her Dawn series at the moment.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

DF: I think what I have been trying to say, with various coauthors in the last couple of years (in particular, with Felicity Callard in the book and papers we wrote together on collaboration, and with Nikolas Rose and Ilina Singh in the papers we wrote on urban sociology) is that we have not at all understood the life sciences in general, and the neurosciences in particular, in sociology, medical anthropology, and science and technology studies. Too many of my colleagues still think neuroscience is either a crudely reductive would-be science of everything, or, even worse, some kind of running-dog of neoliberalism working hard to individualize and cerebralize social life. But it seems to me, and Tracing Autism is where I think I make this case most forcefully, that actually, when you get outside the journals, and the press releases, and the media pronouncements, neuroscience is a much more modest, ambiguous, complex,  interesting, emotional, and (in the best sense of this word) weird practice than we have really understood. Recognizing the complex ways in which social, political, and neurological lives are caught up in one another, and how much of social life is lived in and through the body and brain, and vice versa, there are loads of ways in which social scientists, STS scholars, and life scientists, can work together to get some more compelling analytical and methodological grip on the present. I’ve said versions of that—with colleagues—elsewhere, but I think the central contribution of Tracing Autism is to show, in detail, and with lots of good data, just what kind of practice cognitive neuroscience is, and can be, when it encounters a human phenomenon as complex and fraught as the autism spectrum.

What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about your field and what you do?

DF: I think a lot of people, looking at the sociology (or anthropology) of science and medicine, or at science and technology studies, from the outside, still see them as working through some kind of 1990s-style social-constructionist culture war, or at least as practices for bringing the natural sciences down to size in some way. I will say that is not always a misconception—and frankly I despair a bit when I see colleagues, in sociology especially, rehashing fairly tired tropes about big bad biology. But by and large this is not where things are at: it’s true that some people are never going to leave the twentieth century, and good luck to them, but the most creative and interesting working happening in these fields, right now, is work that is trying to inhabit, make sense of, and create new paths through, the multiple intersections of these two domains. I’m not sure that’s always as visible to people on the outside as maybe it should be.


Des Fitzgerald is lecturer in sociology at Cardiff University. He is the coauthor of Rethinking Interdisciplinarity across the Social Sciences and Neurosciences.