A talk with Hannah Holmes
By Scott Douglas
Hannah Holmes is the author of The Secret Life of Dust and Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn. The South Portland resident is a graduate of Boothbay Region High School and the University of Southern Maine. She has been published in the New York Times Magazine and Outside magazine, among many others. On the day before our interview, Holmes was interviewed on CNN about the NASA space probe that collected comet dust and recently returned to Earth.
The Bollard: When we were trying to set this interview up, you said your schedule is flexible, except that you’re working 23 hours a day. What are you working on?
Hannah Holmes: It’s a book project that’s much bigger than anything I’ve done before. I gave myself two years, and I’m just not sure that’s enough.
Two years being up when?
Not this August, but the one after.
What’s the subject?
The working title is “A Field Guide to the Human Animal.” It’s a description of me and my fellow Earthmates as though we were squirrels or any other animal. Biologists go through a very formulaic process of describing any animal, which starts with a physical description, diet, where this animal lives, how it breeds, how it communicates. I’m cranking a human through that same Playdough factory and seeing what comes out.
What stage are you at?
Chapter 3 out of 10.
Do you work straight through — one chapter, then the next?
Well, this book was a tough sell, so I ended up writing a sample chapter, and I did one right from the middle, because it seemed like the sexiest chapter at the time. So I did diet, Chapter 5. I have a chapter done in the middle and two chapters done at the beginning, but I know that by the time I get to Chapter 5 again, I’m going to have to rewrite the whole thing, so it’s not like it’s really done.
Was it a tough sell in terms of getting a publisher to bite?
Yes. The publisher of Suburban Safari just rejected it out of hand with no real explanation. My agent and I were very discouraged by that, because they loveSuburban Safari. But they just kept saying, ‘We don’t see this as her next book. We want to keep working with her, but can she come up with something else?’
So I wrote the sample chapter and we sent it out to 10 other publishers, and only three of them were interested in it. My self-image was shrinking daily. My last book, Suburban Safari, there were six publishers interested, and it went to auction, which was all very dramatic and flattering. So to go through a rejection and then only three publishers interested…
But eventually Random House made a preemptive offer. They totally love it. They’re going to publish it worldwide, and they paid me a huge amount of money for it. So it’s a rollercoaster.
Why this topic?
Many reasons. My lifelong interest is in figuring out how humans fit into the global picture of nature. We are obviously so different from every other species on the planet. But we have to share it with them. I have a moral belief that we owe them all, from the bugs to mold spores, a certain amount of consideration as we go about changing the planet.
Having thought a lot about that, it felt like time to think about, ‘What are my rights and responsibilities as an animal?’ As opposed to a moral thing, let’s just look at my role on this planet as a biological organism like any other. Free from moral pressures, what does this animal do? What does it eat? Where does it seem to want to live? How does it want to live? What seem to be the pressures that drive it? How does it reproduce? [It’s an effort] to try to understand the biological drive that brings us into conflict with everything else.
At this point, then, you’re able to focus completely on the book? No magazine work?
Right. It’s so nice. I was doing magazine work and Discovery.com work for years and years, and turned in The Secret Life of Dust and thought I’d go back to magazine work for a year or so, to sort of get the dust out of my system, travel more, see the world again, get out of my little office.
The magazine market had completely kakked in my absence. I spent six months sending out four proposals a day, and I got zero assignments. I decided to write another book proposal, and never looked back.
That sounds like a pretty strong work ethic — making yourself work that much now for something that’s due in a year-and-a-half.
I think that for nonfiction writers, the key to success is not that you have to be a genius or have any particular talent, but that you have to have discipline.
See, my hero in this regard is Edmund Morris, the guy who wrote the biography of Reagan. He was seven years late with it — he got a seven-year extension on his deadline. He was really proud if in a day he wrote 300 words. Do you feel like it’s important to write pretty much every day?
I work at least eight hours a day. Research or writing, it doesn’t matter, I mix it up. Generally, I’ll do a couple weeks of solid research at the beginning of a chapter, and then start writing as soon as I’ve got the general picture. With this book, it’s so research-intensive, I’ve found it’s been two hours of research, write a sentence; two days of research, write a paragraph; eight hours of research, write two sentences. It’s been really slow, which is why I’m behind right now.
I still think that’s amazing, that you consider yourself behind with a year-and-a-half to go.
The way I figure it, it’s 10 chapters, and I have 24 months, so that’s a chapter every two months, plus a couple of months to revise at the end, so I can’t really screw around.
So you don’t necessarily wait for the muse to strike?
Oh, hell no. Fortunately, my first job was as a reporter for the Press Herald when I was in college, and I just got in the habit of sitting down and writing when things needed to be written. It was never a question of whether I felt like it, and that’s stuck with me — I don’t need to be inspired. There are times when I’m flat, not all that sparky.
And what happens then?
Sometimes coffee can cure that. Other times, I’ll just force myself to work through it and come back and fix it later. With this book, I know I’m going to do a huge amount of revision, because it’s so facty. I’m going to have to shove in a whole lot of plot at some point, so right now I’m not being particularly precious. It’s more like, ‘OK, let’s get the information down at this time.’
Do you read your old stuff?
Sometimes. I have to do readings, so there’s a piece of Suburban Safari that I read a lot. I picked up Dust yesterday before doing the CNN interview, and it wasn’t bad. [Laughs] I hadn’t read it in five years.
So yesterday, when you got these calls for interviews because of the space probe, did you get bothered that people think of you as ‘The Dust Lady’?
Well, fortunately they do — it keeps the book alive a little longer. But they also think of me as the ‘Suburban Safari Lady’ — there are garden clubs always clamoring for me to come and talk to them. And I’m sure with this next book, it will be even more of the same, because it’s basically looking at the evolution of the human animal, which, for some incredibly lunatic reason, is now controversial.
Describe how the process of working with an agent works. Is she providing you direction? Are you bouncing ideas off of her?
We talk about book ideas at the beginning, and she gives me an idea of what’s going to be easier and harder to sell. With that in mind, but not necessarily letting that guide my decision, I decide on my next project. I write full chapter outlines and a full book proposal — about a 40-page thing — and she reads it, and may make quite a few suggestions, because her expertise is in communicating with editors.
Another thing that she does that’s important is that she knows who is buying what in New York; she knows whose desk to put it on.
The final thing she does that makes me feel so much better about giving her 15 percent is that she does things like doubling my advance, which I could never do.
You’re here in South Portland, Maine, and all that’s happening in New York. Has that been a drawback?
No. I go to New York a few times a year, but it’s not because I have to, but because I enjoy it. I think it’s important when you’re selling a book to meet with the editors, but in terms of day-to-day work, so much of it is solitary. My editor won’t even see this for another 18 months, so I could be living in Peru and it wouldn’t make a difference. Once we get into editing, she’ll just take it to her summer place and disappear for a month, so it doesn’t matter where she is.
What about in terms of media appearances?
The old-fashioned book tour isn’t very much in play so much anymore. Publishers are finding them a colossal waste of money. Generally, media appearances are generated by the fact that the author is in town. The publicist will call all the local media outlets and say, ‘The author’s in town; do you want her?’ So now that book tours aren’t happening as much, that’s not happening as much.
The whole game is changing in terms of publicity. In the event that a New York news show wanted an author for their morning show, the publisher would gauge whether that’s likely to sell enough books to be worth flying the author there. My last publisher paid my expenses to go to New York to speak to the Audubon Society. Whether that was worth the money, I don’t know; I rather doubt it.
A lot of authors are starting to feel like we would prefer if they’re going to spend $30,000 that they not spend it on non-refundable, top-cost airplane tickets, and a limousine to pick you up and take you to a fancy hotel, and then sell six books. We would prefer that they buy advertising in appropriate magazines and other things that work.
With media appearances, have you had to, not adopt a persona, but work at it? Writers tend to be solitary, introverted people.
I had to work really hard at it, because I’m really shy and hated speaking in public, which now I’m really good at, and I enjoy the hell out of it. It’s been a really fun evolution. It’s not like a persona I have to put on, but an uncovered aspect of my personality that I always kind of wished was there, that I had to sort of dig up. It’s been very gratifying.