Interview with John Elder


Interview with John Elder


John Elder


An interview with author John Elder at The New Nature Writing, Lake Forest College's Literary Festival 2012.


Catherine Masek




Lake Forest Literary Festival (Lake Forest College)








Catherine Masek


John Elder


Harmon Lounge, Carnegie Hall, Lake Forest College


Lit Fest Follow-up Thurs. March 1st,noon

Author Interview: John Elder

Pump Energy Through the System

CM:  The way these questions are set up:  I have a dozen questions, most of them are compound, and the first portion is general writing and philosophy questions and the last few (questions) will be more book specific—regarding your Reading the Mountains of Home, which we read for Environmental Writing.  They’re the same questions I’ve asked all the authors I’ve interviewed.  Okay, number one.  What brought you to writing in general?  And then, what brought you to environmental writing in particular?

JE:  I think what brought me to writing in general is reading.  I’ve always been a big reader, and I’ve always loved reading.  I felt my life has been much enriched by the ability to experience way outside the orbit of my own personal existence.  Also, I was enriched by being able to experience things I would not have wanted to experience directly, but nonetheless, not only fired my imagination, but expanded by sympathy with ways of being in the world.  And as for writing about environmental things, it was really moving to Vermont.  My wife and I both were from northern California and came east for graduate school and did not expect to stay east.  I ended up getting a job at Middlebury College, which I was very happy about. I wanted to teach at a liberal arts college in a lovely place.  That fit the bill.  Falling in love with Vermont, so that we decided we would not be going back to northern California after all.  Stayed here. Vermont was very different from my landscape of boyhood and youth, in that it had no wilderness to compare with the High Sierra.  On the other hand, whole villages like Bristol—where we live—long settled places were surrounded by woods that had been cut, grew back, got cut again, grew back again.  You could walk up out of the village, out of your backyard, never get into a car, and be up into the heights of where there were bear and moose and considerable wildlife.  Not pristine wilderness, but wild and interesting land.  The combination of natural beauty and cultural richness that I found in these little Vermont villages made me more interested in authors like Thoreau.  I’d always been interested in Thoreau, but it made me more interested in him and other people in that lineage, like Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez, who shared a way of writing that incorporated both the biological web and the cultural history.  So I began to spend more and more time hiking and camping and reading field guides and reading environmental essays—by some of the people I just mentioned—and from that grew my own writing in this field. 

CM:  That’s really interesting.  That takes us into our second question, which is, how would you classify your writing and your style as a writer?  Do you have a single or multifaceted voice, and how would you define your voice as a writer?

JE:  I think I’ve arrived to a way of writing that feels very natural to me in which I combine three things:  one is discussion of literature that I have found most meaningful—particularly poetry—the second is description of the Vermont landscape and its history, and the third is personal memoir.  So what that adds up to is a kind of non-fiction—personal non-fiction—that is narrative but that includes reading as one of the things that gets narrated.  Reading is one of the things that I do—one of the things that happens to me—so just as I’d describe a hike, and would describe things going on in my family, I’d describe things I’ve read things that were meaningful to me.  So that’s the natural form for me to write in.  Another thing you can say about it is it’s voiced.  It’s not impersonal.  It’s not objective.  It makes no claim to authority.  It aims for authenticity and narrative energy. 

CM:  Great, which flows smoothly into number three.  Do you differentiate between writing and environmental writing?  Do you view yourself as an environmental writer or a writer who happens to write on environmental topics?

JE:  I think that these distinctions are useful to some extent, but not to a very great extent.  And furthermore, the terminology is always difficult.  Most people who are called nature writers don’t like to be called nature writers, because it seems to be narrowing it down.  What they’re really trying to do is have a broader approach, that is to say, personal aesthetic issues and issues of scientific fact.  The writer Gary Nabhan once said—when he got tired of all this business about nature writing—he said “I think that they should call all those books on the nature writing shelf writing and call everything else urban dysfunctional literature.”  I don’t feel that strongly about it.  The central part of my writing at this point is memoir.  But it’s the memoir, you know memoir tends to incorporate people’s experience at work—some memoirs are set on the ranch, some are related to being a blues player—and my world, that I’ve spent my life working in, is the world of literature and teaching.  So naturally, I talk about poetry.  The main thing any of us have to offer as writers is our own stories, which we can share.  But again, those distinctions—environmental literature, nature writing—are not of any primary interest to me.

CM:  That actually touches on an answer to the fourth question, which is, what does environmental writing mean to you?  What in an environment?  The Environment, with capitals?  Is there a difference between environmental writing and nature writing?  And, what is your environment?

JE:  Well, it does relate to what I was just saying.  None of these terms is finding very satisfactory to me.  I mentioned a little bit about this in the panel.  Nature writing, to me, is a historical term.  It’s related to a way of thinking about writing that combines personal stories, science and spiritual aspirations in the mode of Thoreau.  It’s a term that’s been used since about the 40’s or so, maybe around 1940.  Perhaps somebody used it before then, but it really became current then.  It described that Thoreauvian lineage that a number of people wrote—like the one’s I just mentioned.  It was very useful—nature writing—as a term.  It really began to be taught often in college, and it promoted the interdisciplinary study of environmental studies.  But problems were most of the folks called nature writers were white males, and they often were more oriented towards wilderness than towards cities, which gave it blind spots.  There’s been a lot of critique about that, and I understand where it’s coming from. So environmental literature attempts to correct and broaden.  I don’t know if you know the group—an organization—called the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment?

CM:  Yes, I do.

JE:  So that’s the dominant scholarly group in this area.  Their choice of the word environment is very self-conscious.  They were trying to avoid the pitfalls of nature writing, of the term nature writing.  And I think that was a good decision.  I’ve been associated with that group—I was the president at one time—but the people who founded it were younger scholars.  They were really reacting to the interest of folks earlier in nature writing—like me for instance.  And I think that was a good decision on their part.  And it also has to do with the desire to focus more on environmental justice and issues of race.  So that’s good; those are good things to do with that.  On the other hand, as you move towards the language of environmentalism, there are certain problems.  Wendell Berry has written about this, basically saying, “environmental, environment, what ugly words.”  Built into them is this oblivion, again, the French word avant-garde means “what’s around us.”  It’s like, well, it’s all around us, but we’re different from it, in the middle.  So he (Berry) hates the word environmentalism.  I don’t feel that strongly about it, but it’s not as beautiful a term as nature, that’s for sure.  Then come the terms ecocriticism, ecopoetry—these things that were used yesterday—that are used quite often.  As I said to Brenda in the panel, I understand why they’re going there too.  In a way it’s saying, “let’s get more scientific.”  Ecology.  But it just sounds like theoretical language, you know, ecocriticism.  I’m often called an ecocritic, and I’ve never claimed that term because it just seems more theoretical and systematic than I am.  I’m not any of those things.  So, anyway—coming down to that—I would say that all of those terms can be born, but I don’t love any of them.  I’m just interested—and I think that’s what Gary Nabhan was getting at—I’m just interested in the ability to, and in authors that, combine things that often get separated in the two cultures of the academy:  science and poetry, spirituality and activism.  I like ways of writing and thinking and talking that bring them together.  As for what my environment is—again that’s probably not my chosen language—but I would say I am an immigrant to rural northern New England which is a formerly agricultural—there are some farms, but most are laid down now—formerly agricultural and far from wild terrain, with considerable natural beauty and diversity, and a traditional way of life that’s more closely aligned with natural patterns—including seasons—than is always the case in America today.  My environment, personally, would also include being in a little mountain town that’s right next to a little college town, so I’m surrounded by loggers and bears, but also by professors—old and young—and students.  I like that.  The word I would use to describe where I live—psychologically as well as physically—is at an edge.  I like the ecological language of ecotones, ecoclines—that border zone between environments that is uniquely rich in species and biodiversity.  So I would say my environment is the edge.

CM:  Edges are fascinating because you get a little bit of both, and different relations between everything. 

JE:  So true.  Absolutely true.

CM: Okay, so onto number five.  What is the purpose or goal of writing to/for you, and the purpose of environmental writing?

JE:  Well for me, writing is a way to understand the world, and part of understanding the world is understanding oneself.  So when I write, I tend to collect—like many of the writers in this tradition—to start with a journal.  It could be a journal in a book.  It could be a free-write, online, shared with friends, but informal, exploratory writing is my favorite kind.  Writing where you write along with a certain velocity, and then you’re fascinated by what you said.  You say “wow, where did that come from?”  I love writing like that.  It’s very, very helpful to me in terms of finding what the profile of my experiences is, understanding its shape.  Now, as for the purpose of environmental writing, writing that does the things I was talking about—combining narrative and science and spiritual aspiration—is very closely associated with the conservation movement or the sustainability movement.  Again, you start talking about conservation and you fall into a bunch of nomenclature where you have to make choices, and none of them are right.  But, making that connection, I would say one purpose of such writing is to offer testimony to the value of landscapes and species that might otherwise be overlooked.  We live is such a fast moving, centralized society that it’s quite possible for governments, and businesses, and individuals to make decisions with no awareness for what they mean.  Every time somebody takes a big lot and clears it off to build a house, many, many organisms are displaced.  That doesn’t mean we can’t ever do anything, but it means it’s good to have some awareness of what’s being taken away every time we choose to do something like that.  So part is testimonial—drawing our attention to what’s there and its value.  I think related to that is it promotes what is an already ongoing cultural shift.  We’re trying to move beyond the assumptions of human prerogatives, to a new way of looking at the world that sees ourselves as citizens of something bigger than we are.  And Aldo Leopold would represent one writer who’s been very important to this process, with his notion of the land ethic.  The tricky thing about this kind of literature is it can easily fall into didactic or ideological writing.  In other words, it can have the juice squeezed out of it.  So there’s a place for advocacy, and certain writers have had tremendous contributions to policy—people like John Muir and Rachel Carson.  John Muir took people a lot of the way towards a National Parks system and a national forest system.  Rachel Carson can be seen as having made a fantastic contribution to the EPA, and the Clean Water and Air Acts, and the Endangered Species Act, and so forth.  So there’s a great possibility for such influence, but in order to have writing be literature and have a longer half life than a political tract, that’s tricky; to find a way to engage in activism without becoming just propaganda.

CM:  Great, onto number six then.  Do you write with an articulated writing philosophy, either internally or externally?  If so, what is it?  Then, how do you approach the page in writing, is it with intention or more of an openness?

JE:  Openness.  Well, no, no, it changes.  It begins with openness and then the more you write, the more you become aware of what your real topic is, and you become more strategic and focused.  But it all comes out of that openness.  I’m not a very systematic person, and I have energy, but not plans, in that way.  I don’t have a writing philosophy.  One thing I could say—that I try to convey to my students—is that you’ve got to write it bad before you can write it good.  One of the things that makes writing so hard for students is they want to make something good, and it’s not going to be very good at the beginning.  On the other hand, if you keep working at it, things that aren’t very good get better and better, and there’s no limitation.  So that’s one thing I’d say; I start openly, then I find my topic and have to circle in more narrowly, and at the same time—even if I am focusing in—it will not begin very well.  But if I keep pumping energy into the system, it will get better.  That’s true for everybody.

CM:  You refer to the writing as pumping energy into the system.  Do you view writing as a holistic entity? 

JE:  I view meaning that way.  It is related to teaching too, which is in a continuum with writing for me.  A romantic assumption about the human mind is that the human mind is inherently creative and coherent, but that we are led to feel that it is incoherent and ragged.  If you think that the mind is inherently creative and organic, then you will look for ways to cultivate those capacities.  If you feel that the human mind is essentially empty and incoherent—which is a classical assumption about mind—then you basically want to clear the decks, get at all the misconceptions, and leave clear structures in place.  I am, in that regard, definitely a romantic.  I believe there is great potential for coherence and achievement and shapeliness in the mind, and that writing can be a way of discovering the inherent orderliness and shapeliness of the mind.  So, it goes along with what I was saying about the process of writing too.  It’s not that you have to get everything clear and then write.  I’m sure that might work for some people, but for me, what I want to do—in conversation or in writing—is pump energy through the system.  I think the mind and the world answer to each other.  When we bring that kind of energy to bear, a lot of clarity can emerge, a high level of clarity.

CM:  Okay, that feeds pretty well into question seven.  Do you agree or disagree with the following statements: writing is communication, writing is self-expression, writing is art, writing is a tool?  Why to you agree or disagree?  And are any of these statements mutually exclusive or mutually inclusive?

JE:  I agree with all the statements and feel they’re not mutually exclusive.  I believe they are potentially compatible depending on how you think of them.  Then probably one form—or one aspect or another—of the writing is dominant in certain moments.  For instance, writing begins for me as self-expression—that’s the journal side of it.  But in a way, self-expression is a way to communicate with yourself, to understand more clearly what the nature of your vision is, what’s important to you in the world, and then it becomes something you want to communicate with others.  One of the things that happens in the middle of the writing process is you move from a situation where you have no audience except yourself, to one where you do have an audience—for instance, maybe it’s an editor, and certainly it might be an audience who buys your book or hears your talk.  When you move to the point of being very self-conscious about your audience, that will change your writing, because then you start asking questions like, “is this clear?”  Well, when writing for yourself it isn’t a problem; it’s clear to you, so you don’t have to worry about it.  But with an audience outside yourself, you do have to worry about it.  As for the art, that certainly relates to communicating with an audience.  Also, the discipline of literature—for me, the essential part of it is—it’s the discipline of reading that takes the specific style of expression of the piece of literature itself as inseparable from the meaning of the piece.  This is the way in which your literary writing is different from say the scholarship of political science, where—I don’t know if you’ve done much political science—they want you to be able to begin with summarizing the whole argument in a sentence, and that’s a non-literary assumption.  The literary assumption is, you need the whole piece of writing to get the meaning of the piece of writing.  You can’t just summarize it.   So there is an artfulness to literary writing that comes from the sense that you want to be highly aware of your style and its implications.

CM:  All right.  Number eight.  Should an author write about what they know, or about their own environment?  How do you define knowledge for a writer?  Is it research and study or more experience?

JE:  Oh, I think there are lots of forms of writing:  including research and experience and imagination.  That’s a form of knowledge too.  So, obviously, it’s good advice to write about what you know, but I think that that means different things.  It can be a caution to people not to go off into the direction of fantasy and idealization that could make their writing false.  Begin with what is known.  But beyond that, it gets complicated.  I don’t think you have to write exclusively about your own experience.  It’s a good option.  But if you think about your experiences relating to not only where you were—where your body was, what you were doing physically at a certain point—but also to your imaginative life—so what you know has to do with music and breathing and all the other emotional and aesthetic things that come up—well, then you’re writing about what you know, if you go in that direction.  I think maybe another way to put the question you’re raising is you should write about what you care about.  I think sometimes the academic game makes people feel that everything is so artificial.  So it feels like a manipulative response, but that can lead to bitterness and detachments of a certain kind that are not energetic. So, I think it’s good as a writer to be dedicated and to be serious, but to know that sometimes we throw ourselves into topics and modes that we’re really not prepared for very well, and we have to imagine our way through them.

CM:  Would you consider—to touch on your talk even—the uncertain future regarding climate change as one of those unprepared areas we need to throw imagination at?

JE:  Well, yeah, I would.  There’s a lot we know about climate change.  I don’t think there’s a single bit of serious scientific disagreement here.  You might not know that reading the papers.  They try to have a balanced approach, so say, “here’s what a person who doesn’t believe in climate change said,”

CM:  But if it was proportionate—

JE:  If it was proportionate there’d be none of that at all.  Way way up in the ninety percentiles of scientists who write in peer reviewed papers are certain about anthropogenic climate change, and if they put someone on the other side, it tends to be an economist, or an engineer, or someone who has no theoretical knowledge of climate change at all.  So there’s no uncertainty about climate change, no serious scientific uncertainty.  The uncertainty is how can we feel about it?  How can we avoid being so downcast that we become paralyzed by dread and unhappiness?  So that’s what I was trying to get at.  How do we find the wellsprings of our energy and our imaginations and our sociability and our cheerful resolve?  Where does it come from?  That’s not a question of objective knowledge.  It’s a question of experimenting with postures toward aspects of the world that are challenging.  We have to put ourselves almost physically in relationship with those hard things.

CM:  Great.  One last question of writing in general.  If you had one piece of advice for aspiring environmental writers, a take-home-message, what would it be?

JE:  It would be to focus more on the writing itself, and don’t worry too much about the publication.  Let the publication come.  Often, I think that younger writers are asking, “where can I meet an editor” and “how do I get an agent” right from the start, and I don’t think those are very productive.  I think it’s better to just push your writing and see what it wants to turn into, and know that you don’t have to be published to be ratified as a writer.  Just do your work in a way that’s enjoyable and energetic.  For me, that means journal-based writing.  It’s joyful.  Then, when you begin to move towards publication, well, settle down and do the hard work—break the rocks—but think of the writing as its own case, its own thing.  It doesn’t need to be ratified by publication.   Then, when you’ve done a certain amount of it—you feel you’ve really said what you wanted to say—then look at the publication.  But don’t get premature about it.  Another piece of advice actually, for young writers might be:  find a reader.  Maybe another writer who has your same interests—perhaps your aunt who likes to read what your writing—and share it with them, who is going to give feedback.  I think it’s great.  A writer needs an audience, but they don’t have to be publishing to be getting one, especially in the era of the Internet. You can just send your reader what you’re working on and ask specifically for feedback on it.

CM:  Great.  The last few questions are book specific and regard Reading the Mountains of Home, which we read (in Environmental Writing).  So the first of those is, as the author are you writing to a particular audience?  Who is your intended or expected audience?  Do you view your work as accessible and is that a desirable trait in writing?

JE:  Well, again, when I wrote that book, I wrote it from a journal.  I was hiking around Vermont and reading guidebooks, and at first I thought of just writing about that.  Then I got the idea of writing about Frost’s poems, and walking from Ripton to Bristol, and bringing it all together there.  I began pulling stuff out of the journal and doing that.  Then I got contacted by a guy at Harvard Press named Lindsay Waters, who wondered if I had anything.  He knew a little something about what I was up to, and he wondered if I had anything for them that they might like to publish.  And so I thought, “hey yeah, this might be a good match,” because this is a book about the New England landscape and they’re a New England university so I wrote back to him, “yeah, I’ve got this Reading the Mountains of Home.”  And I sent it to him, but I was aware of the fact that they are—they’ve got a big distribution—but they’re a university press.  Probably all the personal stuff they won’t like as much.  But then he wrote back, and he wanted even more personal stuff.  He asked if I had more.  I said, “yeah, I’ve got journals of it.”  So by that time I was responding to a specific reader, an editor.  That was good.  Then, as it was about to come out, I began to think about all the other readers who might read it—including members of my family and neighbors—whose names I mentioned along the way.  So I went around to those various people in Bristol—whom I’d named in our village—and said, “so here’s what I say about you.  Here’s the quotation, what do you think?  Are you comfortable with that?”  I was prepared, if they weren’t comfortable with it, to drop anything.  This is the opposite of the way most journalists would feel.  They would say, “hey, that’s the story.  Let the story go where the story wants to go, and I’m sorry if somebody doesn’t like it.”  But I don’t feel that way.  I’m not a journalist, and if I write something that makes someone very unhappy, I’m going to change it.  And I was also aware—as one audience—of my family.  I wrote about one of my children a lot in particular, Matthew, and I didn’t know how he’d feel about it.  So I talked to him about that.  I became more and more specifically aware of an audience: first there’s an editor I’m working with, then there’s the people who might read books from this press, then there’re my neighbors.  When I get to that point of a process, I’m really just trying to say, “could I change something in ways to keep it from being problematic for somebody?”  And I’m very content to do that.  It’s not that writing trumps everything else for me, but I think actually people—peer relations—trump things for me.  Let’s see, was there a second part of that main question?

CM:  Do you view your work as accessible and is that a desirable trait in writing?

JE:  I do think it’s accessible.  I mean it’s just a story.  Now one thing is—I remember I was going around talking to people in town who I’d interviewed for various reasons for this—and one guy wrote me a note afterwards that said, “you know, I never thought I could read poetry before.”  Apparently, he liked that poetry.  So I think that one issue of accessibility is, does writing about poetry or writing about literature in that sense make it less accessible for people?  For some people probably yes, but to say it in another way, is that because they can’t understand it, or because they really feel like, “oh I’ve never done poetry”: a lack of confidence, or a lack of positive experience in that aspect of their academic world?  But I think, that basically, inaccessibility is a flaw in writing.  That’s true for academic writing, which is often inaccessible because it’s filled with jargon.  So, I think if you’re doing academic work, too, it’s important to have an authentic voice—an authentic and engaging voice.  There should be no problem with accessibility.

CM:  Great, that brings us to the second book question.  Reading the Mountains of Home is not your first or your most recent book, so how does it fit into your career as a writer, your writer’s arc or journey?  And does it reflect you as a writer today?

JE:  Yeah.  Well, my first book was called Imagining the Earth—and it was a discussion of several poets of nature—but it had a little feature that actually looks towards subsequent things I’ve done.  I had things in the book called excursions.  It was in several sections—thematic sections—and between each pair of sections there was an excursion, which was a personal essay.  One of them was about hitchhiking called “Hitchhiking with the Cumberland Beggar:  Hitchhiking in Wadsworth’s World Poverty,” and another was about a winter without snow in Vermont, relating it to Transcendentalist literature.  So that was the first book I ever published, and when I sent it off, the press sent it out to readers.  The first reader said, “you know, I really like this and you should publish it, but you’ve gotta leave out those excursions.  Those are not scholarly pieces, they don’t deserve to be in a book like this.”  And so I wrote back to the editor—when he shared that with me—and said, “you know, I like those excursions, and they’re important to my way of indicating that I’m reading in a certain place.  I’m not just reading about a certain place, but I’m reading in a certain place.”  So he sent it out to a second reader—apparently they didn’t usually have two readers at that press—and the second reader said, “well, I like the book, but I really like those excursions. That’s the best part.”  That was really affirming for me.  When I got to Reading the Mountains of Home, that’s when the memoir aspect became more and more central.  It became a bigger strand, in part because I was encouraged by the Harvard University Press to do that. I would say that that’s the book that was a breakthrough for me, and all my books since then have been in that mode—combining memoir, literary discussion and landscape description.  So I think with that book I finally arrived at what I want to be doing.

CM:  Great, then my final question for the interview is, would you comment briefly on the work and writing you’re doing and pursuing today?  I know you talked a lot about sugaring last night, but also about Bread Loaf?  It’s such a delightful name.  And, what your current writing endeavors are.

JE:  Well, I am retired from Middlebury College as of May 2010, so I have a little more time for writing now, but not as much as I might of thought, because I’m doing things like this, which are fun.  I have a couple of writing projects I’m working on, and I’m doing quite a lot of writing, but I haven’t arrived at a clear focus yet.  One project—and they both are focused on our local area we live in—there’s a ridge behind Bristol called the Hogback Ridge.

CM:  Mhm, it’s in the book (Reading the Mountains of Home) a little bit.

JE:  Yeah.  So I’m writing the Hogback Ridge, and one aspect of this is I’m writing about pastoral literature—pastoral literature that I taught for so many years.  And my central focus—sort of the equivalent of “Directive” in this book—is the first eclogue of Virgil. 

CM:  Oh, neat.

JE: Yeah, do you know the eclogues?

CM:  Yes, we looked at them a little bit in comparison to Ed Roberson’s City Eclogue, so we got a little introduction to the classic pastoral eclogue.

JE:  Well the first eclogue is very important to me, because it shows the way in which the pastoral impulse—the impulse to basically reenter the golden age—is complicated by history, because there’s an old goat herder—former slave—named Titerus who gets to have his own little piece of land.  But around him, all of his neighbors are being expelled from the land, because they’re giving the farms out to returning veterans from the Gaelic Wars—most of whom aren’t even Italian—and they wanted them settled far away from Rome where they’d be safe.  They won’t be a threat to the stability of the empire.  So for me, it’s a very valuable way to bring into focus the relationship between the pastoral impulse of withdrawal and refreshment with nature and the social context—the historical context—of our lives.  Issues of justice and race arise.  So I’ve been thinking about that.  I’ve been doing a lot of writing on that topic in relation to that eclogue.  Then I’m also— and it might be part of the same book—I’m writing about a controversy in northern Vermont where a wind farm has been put onto a remote rural ridge, and the local people hate it because it destroys a previously un-eroded piece of land.  On the other hand, unless we do more to mitigate climate change by serious investments into renewable energy, every maple tree and hemlock on that ridge will be dead within twenty years anyway.  So this is a conundrum.  I am writing about the conundrum; basically asking, how deep do we have to go before we find a basis for conversations that takes both of these concerns in?  And I think that those two topics—the eclogue and the wind—are going to both be part of my book.  I wouldn’t be surprised if I finished it in about a year.

CM:  How long does it take you to write a book?  Or how long does a project usually last?

JE:  You know, there’s a long lead up.  I’m always writing, and having conversations like this one, and understanding my topic a little more fully, and then something happens to bring it into high gear.  Maybe I show it to an editor and the editor says, “yeah, I like that.  I’d like to publish that.  When can you get it to me?”  “Well, how about ten months?”  Then I’m just like rrrrr—revving along finishing it.  Or it comes together on its own without that kind of outside stimulus.  But I’ve been working on this book—on aspects that will come into the book, on the thing I read last night, I have a project that includes all that stuff that’s been going on—for about five years.  Maybe it’ll be finished in another year or two, so there’s your answer, six or seven years.  I’ve written other books in like five months, so it just depends.

CM:  Depends on the project.

JE:  Mhm.  A little short one I wrote, called The Frog Run, I wrote in about five month.  This one, Reading the Mountains of Home, probably took several years.  I wanted to say that the older I get, the more and more digressive, and I’ve really been doing stuff on it for five years, already, and I’m not done.

CM:  Great, would you talk just very briefly about Bread Loaf?

JE:  Yeah, do you know about Bread Loaf?

CM:  I did a little bit of research on it and it looks like a network of four different colleges, or campuses?

JE: Network might not be the right word for it.

CM:  But there’s different campuses.

JE:   It has different campuses.  So Bread Loaf is a mountain, and it’s near Middlebury College.

CM:  So that’s the home campus.

JE:  That’s right, the Mother Loaf.  It was a resort that belonged to a guy who’d been a Middlebury student in the 19th century, named Joseph Battell, a wealthy man.  He was one of those guys—of whom there were a number of—that wanted to stand on a mountain and own everything, and that mountain was Bread Loaf Mountain.  So he bought hundreds of thousands of acres of forested land.  But really, what I said before about him wasn’t quite fair.  He was a conservationist, too, and this was a period when there’d been a lot of very harsh cutting—just sweeping through and cutting down everything.  He wanted to buy and conserve land so that it would stay in forest.  So he did that, and when he died, he left all of the land and his little resort—which was a number of different buildings up under the brow of Bread Loaf and the town of Ripton—he left them all to Middlebury College, since he’d gone to Middlebury College.  Subsequently, Middlebury, when it was in some financial difficulty in the 30s, sold almost all the forest land—which became the upper portion of the Green Mountain National Forest—and kept some hundreds of acres around the resort.  The college decided around 1920—they already had their foreign language schools in the summer—they decided they would have a school of English, to balance what had happened to the foreign language schools.  Pretty much the same time, they decided they’d have a writer’s conference on the site of Battell’s old resort.  And Robert Frost was very involved in both of them.  He began to summer in Ripton, very close to the Bread Loaf campus.  He bought a farm—he had a number of farms by the time he died, he sort of collected farms—and he lived on the farm and came over for many an interview and a reading and so forth at Middlebury.  He was one of the founders.  The main constituency for Bread Loaf has always been high-school English teachers cause you could get your masters.  In five summers you could get your masters, and therefore you could keep teaching.  You don’t have to give up your day job. The program’s always been successful and most of the faculty has been pulled from graduate programs across the country.  Very few of us come from Middlebury.  Over recent years, there was a decision to found branches in other places because as people were coming back for five summers, they liked the idea of being in a Bread Loaf framework, but being able to experience other lovely settings as well.  So the first secondary branch was Oxford, Lincoln College Oxford.  Then there were others that came along. The current ones are:  Vermont, Oxford, Santa Fe and Ashville.  Some very nice places.  And there have been a couple other campuses at different points that don’t exist now, and the nice thing is that students can mix and match.  They can go to Vermont for a year, then go off to Oxford, then go to Santa Fe, then come back to Vermont for two more years and then finish.  However they’d like, and each campus has it’s own emphasis.  The Santa Fe one’s great for studying Native American literature.  Asheville has been a great place to study southern literature—African American literature—go over the hill and see MiAngelo, that sort of thing.  So that’s Bread Loaf and it’s lovely, and then the Writer’s Conference is the first important writers conference in the country, and it still is a place that brings in lots of great writers.  The people come to the Bread Loaf School of English to get their degrees and get academic credits.  People go to the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference to hang out with established writers and have people workshop their manuscripts.  They don’t get academic credit, but they get valuable interactions.  So I love Bread Loaf.  I teach at the School of English most summers, and I often I do something with the Writer’s Conference as well.  I will this summer.  It’s I think the best—the School of English is the one I have most to do with—I think it’s just the best graduate experience in literature I could imagine. 

CM:  Well, that wraps us up very well.  Thank you for speaking with me and for coming to the festival.  You’ve been an asset, and I know the students have learned a lot.

Original Format

audio file


Catherine Masek, “Interview with John Elder,” Digital Collections - Lake Forest College, accessed December 10, 2018,

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