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home : features : features May 28, 2017

7/15/2015 12:01:00 AM
Northern Michigan author ponders wonders of nature in his books; will speak here July 28
Author event to benefit Little Traverse Conservancy
Jerry Dennis and Glenn Wolff will be at Between the Covers on Tuesday July 28. Co-hosted by The Outfitter, this is one of a series of three events this summer, of which a portion of proceeds will be donated to Little Traverse Conservancy in memory of Packy Offield. The event itself is free, and reservations are kindly requested (231) 526-6658.

By Emily Meier, Harbor Light Newspaper LitChat editor

The first time I ever laid eyes on Jerry Dennis, he was standing in a field with a fly rod. I didn't introduce myself. Instead I stood a respectful distance away and watched as he practiced casting. His concentration was wholly in the moment with the rod working as an extension of his arm, his body. It was a quiet, practiced, dance. The line above him, and then out in front of him, whispered his tune.

In town to talk about a recent book, and offer tips on writing to a group of people attending a writer's conference, he'd slipped away between speaking engagements.

Slipping away has always been something I've done, especially when a beautiful landscape taunts from a window or open door. I knew better than to disturb him. Though, over the years, as we've become better acquainted, I've learned that he genuinely enjoys the company of others and graciously welcomes writers, enthusiasts, and friends into even his quietest moments.

Jerry Dennis is an accomplished writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. His essays and short fiction have appeared in more than 100 publications, including The New York Times, Smithsonian, Audubon, Orion, American Way, Gray's Sporting Journal, and Michigan Quarterly Review. His books, many of them illustrated by artist Glenn Wolff, are widely acclaimed, have won numerous awards, and have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, German, Portuguese, Czech, and Korean.

Over the years, in spite of all he has accomplished, he's remained the same soft spoken, humble, curious, funny, and genuine person. It was a pleasure to catch up with him on the cusp of his latest book launch.

EM: The new book, A Walk in the Animal Kingdom: Essays on Animals Wild and Tame is the third volume in The Wonders of Nature Series. The previous books, about the wonders of sky and water, are It's Raining Frogs and Fishes and The Bird in the Waterfall. These are informative, fun, and beautifully illustrated collaborative works that you and Glenn Wolff dreamed up decades ago. Can you speak to what brought about the idea for this series all those years ago?

JD: Glenn and I met for the first time at lunch in a restaurant in downtown Traverse City in 1987. By the end of that lunch we had sketched out the general ideas and even the cover designs for the first two books in the series. Traverse Magazine editor Jeff Smith says it was a case of "collaborative love at first sight." I had been thinking about syndicating a regular newspaper column about wonders of nature and was looking for an artist to be a partner in the project, and knew that Glenn would probably be ideal. Another decision we made by the end of that lunch was to do a series of books instead.

EM: Does Glenn help with the research for these books or does he stick to his illustrative expertise? What is the collaborative process like when you two are working together?

JD: Glenn does his own research looking for visual reference material. When he runs across information he thinks I'll find interesting or useful, he sends it along. Likewise, when I stumble on interesting images, I share it with him. Our process is essentially the same now as it was when we began all those years ago. I'll send him a rough draft-sometimes even just a single paragraph with sketchy details about the rest of the chapter. He then sketches in pencil a rough idea of how he'd like the illustration to look, scans it, and sends it to me as a jpg. I might have a suggestion or two for him, but usually he's spot-on the first try. We trust each other so much and are so in tune with each other's ideas that we only have to do a few back-and-forth passes.

EM: The first two books of this series (It's Raining Frogs and Fishes and The Bird in the Waterfall) were previously published by HarperCollins. But this is the first time A Walk in the Animal Kingdom has been published. And now all three have been released through Big Maple Press, the publishing company you formed with Glenn and your wife Gail. What was the impetus to forming your own publishing company? What has the process been like?

JD: We've always been interested in the entire publishing process and talked for many years about one day starting our own small press. Our editor at HarperCollins used to laugh because every time we visited him in New York we wanted to talk to everyone in the company, from the executives to the designers to the mail clerks. So when we had a chance last year to team up with Gail, who has 30 years experience designing books and magazines with publishers from Manhattan to Boyne City, we knew the time was perfect to make the leap.

But we knew that running a large operation would take up too much of our time and keep us from creating new work, so we decided to keep our company small. We decided the best way to do that would be to publish editions of our books (as well as prints of Glenn's art) that we sold only through independent bookstores and on our own website. Our agent handles other editions-including ebooks and print-on-demand books-that are published the traditional way and are available all over the world. But Big Maple Press editions are unique and available only at stores we personally select and approve.

The final impetus for us was that we wanted to reward independent, neighborhood stores for supporting us all through our careers. When we were starting out it was those stores that championed our books and got them onto bestseller lists. We've never forgotten that.

EM: Writing is known to be a solitary endeavor, but you have welcomed collaboration with friends over the years on various projects. What's your experience working with friends and family?

JD: Very satisfying and fun. Ninety percent of a writer's work is solitary, there's no way around it, and I'm fine with that. But when you join forces with talented people that you respect and love you can create things that would have been impossible alone. That's immensely rewarding.

EM: These books include fascinating facts about the natural world. How long do they take to research and write? Where do you even begin in your research for these books?

JD: I never think of it as "research," but simply as a quest to satisfy my curiosity. Every chapter of each of the three books began with the same premise: "I wonder why..." We set out with the first book, It's Raining Frogs and Fishes, to answer questions about the sky that our kids were asking us and that, to our surprise, we couldn't answer. Why is the sky blue? Why do some birds migrate south in the winter and others don't? After that it was an easy next step to seek answers to our own questions, as well. We go to the experts for the answers, reading books and articles by specialists and sometimes interviewing them. With the new book, A Walk in the Animal Kingdom, we had the added advantage of being granted access to biologists and zoologists with the Bronx Zoo and The Wildlife Conservation Society.

EM: You have always written about the natural world, do you consider yourself a nature writer?

JD: I never think in those terms, maybe because I started out as a writer of fiction and poetry and continue to write them. I think of myself as just a writer. But nature writing has such a long and revered tradition that I don't mind when others apply the label.

EM: What writers have inspired you? What books do you revisit/reread over the years?

JD: It's a long list. Many nature writers, from Thoreau to Annie Dillard, but also novelists and poets all across the spectrum. I most often reread Thoreau, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Saul Bellow, Hemingway's short stories, Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, James Agee, James Joyce. Books that expand with rereading and seem to answer a need in each of the stages in our lives.

EM: What are you reading now?

JD: I just started reading an interesting and unusual book about perception and cognition: What We See When We Read, by Peter Mendelsund. Also Wait 'Til You Have Real Problems, a wonderful collection of highly charged, intelligent, and impish poems by my friend Scott Beal. And Nathaniel's Nutmeg, by Giles Milton, a fascinating history of the spice trade in the 16th and 17th centuries.

EM: Do you gravitate towards certain authors or books when you are writing? Do you avoid reading certain things when working on a new book?

JD: It doesn't matter what I read during the long gestation and research portions of a book, but when I'm in composition mode, when all the cylinders are firing and even my dreams get involved, I find myself reading only books that are far removed in subject, style, and voice from what I'm writing. The more different, the better. So when I was writing about animals I wanted to read about technology and the information revolution. When I was writing about the Great Lakes, I went through a period where I read nothing but Latin American novelists.

EM: How has growing up and living in Northern Michigan influenced your writing? Do you think having a strong sense of place is important for writers?

JD: It's certainly been important for me. Not for every writer, clearly. The place shaped my sensibilities, fired my imagination, got me interested in history, botany, geology, biology-subjects that when you dig in deep enough always expand to include the entire world. I love to travel and find new places fascinating and inspiring, but I'm always glad to come home to northern Michigan. And so far my interest in the place has not waned. Just the opposite.

EM: What has been a highlight in regard to creating this series?

JD: One of the real delights for me was learning more about the mythologies, folklore, and legends that have always accrued to the skies, bodies of water, and animals. With Big Maple Press is has been working with Gail and Glenn and with my sons, Nick and Aaron, both of whom have become involved in various capacities.

EM: How do you navigate the work/life balance, especially now that the publishing company has become a family affair?

JD: That's always tricky, and even more so when you work at home and, as you rightly point out, with family. I tend to work until I'm exhausted, and then disappear on the water or in the woods until I'm recharged. Gail has been very good at reminding me of the wisdom of pacing oneself. She's even convinced me that it might not be a bad idea to now and then take a weekend off or even, gulp, take a vacation.

EM: Do you work on more than one project at a time?

JD: I usually keep two or three projects active until one of them pulls ahead and demands all my attention.

EM: What are you working on now?

JD: A book about the sense of place-what we mean by the term, how we recognize it when we see it, how it is revealed in art and literature, and how it manifests itself in northern Michigan. I'm also in the early stages of a book about water in America-its role in history and its current status. And I'm always working on essays, poems, and stories for future collections.

Related Stories:
• Two other events to benefit Conservancy planned

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