Passionate Mimicry: PW Talks with Melissa Milgrom

by Parul Sehgal — Publishers Weekly, 1/4/2010

Milgrom investigates the weird and wonderful world of professional and amateur taxidermists in Still Life (Reviews, Nov. 9).

What sparked your interest in taxidermy?

I was on a safari in Africa when I wandered into a hunting camp and saw freshly skinned animal pelts. I was horrified. What’s the point in taking an animal and turning it into a replica of itself? I grew up in New Jersey, a mile from David Schwendeman, the last chief taxidermist for the American Museum of Natural History, and when I came home, I visited the Schwendeman family studio, expecting them to be creepy animal killers like Norman Bates. But instead I felt as if I had fallen into Darwin’s study with all the skeletons and birds, the beauty and the strange tools—

With their terrifying names like eye hooks—

And brain spoons. But the Schwendemans are gentle naturalists and the contradiction pulled me in. David Schwendeman is in his mid-80s and like a boy; his eyes are always wandering, following the birds and the squirrels. He doesn’t even like the term bird watcher because it’s too specific; he’s a pure field naturalist from the Victorian age. That’s something I’m becoming obsessed with, how we’re all Victorians now.

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Not In My Backyard: PW talks John D’Agata

by Parul Sehgal — Publishers Weekly, 12/21/2009

D’Agata uses Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, once a proposed site for storing the U.S.’s nuclear waste, to meditate on a variety of ecological, political, and personal topics, including the suicide of Levi, a Las Vegan teenager, in About a Mountain (Reviews, Dec. 21).

Why did Yucca resonate so powerfully with you?

A friend of mine, a technical writer for a subcontractor at Yucca, knew that I’d find something peculiar in what was going on there. I toured the mountain and immediately found the project interesting. An attempt to hide nuclear waste for 10,000 years? That’s kind of fascinating. At a Q&A afterward, someone in the audience asked a spokesman from Yucca, “How are you going to ensure the mountain is secure?” And the spokesman matter-of-factly responded, “We’re going to build a sign, and we’re going to make sure the sign remains physically intact and coherent for 10,000 years.” And I thought: that’s preposterous. Written language isn’t even 10,000 years old! I was hooked and spent the next few years researching the goofy government-sponsored studies that had been conducted in preparation for the project. But then out of the blue, my mom moved to Vegas, and my relationship to Yucca changed. I wouldn’t have written the same book if my mom weren’t going to be living in the path of high-level nuclear waste. I would have written an excessively ironic book about nuclear waste being sent to a mountain outside of Vegas, America’s preeminent “throw-away” culture. Hardy-har-har. Thankfully, I didn’t write that book. This project made me take Yucca and Vegas more seriously. And it made me try something as a writer that I hadn’t attempted before.

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An Interview with Rebecca Solnit

Paradise Found: PW talks with Rebecca Solnit

by Parul Sehgal — Publishers Weekly, 6/29/2009

In A Paradise in Hell, Solnit surveys responses to disasters and discovers that people finding meaning—even exhilaration—in healing and rebuilding their communities.

What constitutes a disaster? Does the current economic crisis qualify?

It’s a question of scale. Disaster scholars distinguish an emergency—an incident such as a building burning down—from a disaster, which is a regional disruption like Hurricane Katrina. Of course, there are always complications—9/11 directly affected a small part of lower Manhattan, but disrupted the global economy and was used to make major foreign policy shifts. Economic crises can resemble sudden physical disasters—notably in the questioning of the status quo: the Argentinean economic crash of 2001 functioned like a disaster in catalyzing positive change, including a rebirth of civil society. Iceland has had a similar rebirth since its October 2008 economic crash, and in this country, we are seeing interesting improvisation and radicalization around the depression, and I expect we’ll see a lot more.

Why do you think survivors of disasters are depicted as victims even when (as you point out) their testimonies argue so vigorously to the contrary?

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An Interview with Eduardo Galeano

Through the Looking Glass: Q & A with Eduardo Galeano

by Parul Sehgal, trans. from the Spanish by Mark Fried — Publishers Weekly, 4/27/2009

In Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone, Uruguayan writer Galeano presents miniature narratives of creation myths and current events from all over the world.

What inspired this particular project?

For years it was growing inside me. Little by little, I came to accept the challenge of recounting the history of the world in 600 short stories. An old Pedro Infante tune helped me out, the one that says the world can’t be that big if it fits into five letters. I am not motivated by pedagogical desires. I simply wanted to celebrate the glow of the terrestrial rainbow, which is much more colorful than the celestial one.

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