by Marie-Hélène Westgate
February 6, 2013
Michael Sims is an author of nonfiction whose work has been critically acclaimed in countless English-speaking countries, as well as translated throughout Europe and Asia. Sims grew up in rural Tennessee, in a household without a telephone or an automobile, and spent his teen years in a wheelchair because of a bout of rheumatic fever. Critics have insisted that Sims’ work reflects a privileged liberal-arts education when, in fact, he never attended university.
Sims’ books include The Story of Charlotte’s Web, as well as Darwin’s Orchestra: An Almanac of Nature in History and the Arts, Adam’s Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form, Apollo’s Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination, and In the Womb: Animals. He has also edited a half-dozen collections including The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime: Forgotten Cops and Private Eyes from the Time of Sherlock Holmes, and Dracula’s Guest: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories.
He has been published widely in magazines and academic journals, and made appearances in PBS documentaries and other television and radio programs. Sims continues to write on literature, art, and nature, while working on his first memoir.
Marie-Hélène Westgate: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Michael Sims: A glamorous international jewel thief. Or a forest ranger, illustrator, or writer. Consistency is not among my many hobgoblins.
In the late 1960s, when I was about nine or ten, I loved the TV series It Takes a Thief with Robert Wagner and decided that I wanted to be a con artist or a burglar. Then I read Jim Kjelgaard’s animal stories such as Big Red and decided that I wanted to be a forest ranger, preferably one who ran a fire tower and could spend months alone in the woods. Then, at the age of twelve, I began a mail-order cartooning course, because I’ve always loved drawing and painting, and decided that I wanted to be an illustrator or painter. Then as a teenager I started writing.
But there’s still time to take up burglary.
MW: When you were starting out as a writer, did you ever lose faith or feel you wanted to give up writing?
MS: Every other week I lost faith. Actually I can’t say that I ever had faith. I think I had less faith in myself as a writer than many friends and editors had in me. Shortly after I moved to Nashville and began working at a bookstore in 1986, I was asked to join a writer’s group that was helpful and encouraging. I’m still friends with most of those people. I began to write a few book reviews, then some interviews with writers.
Early on I had to establish my own personal self-help metaphor: momentum. I just have to keep trying something a little harder, a little different; a new venue, a new project size, a new voice—something that keeps me moving forward, at least a little. My most useful self-delusion: if your bicycle has momentum, you can coast for a minute and still feel the wind in your face.
MW: What changed after the publication of your first book?
MS: Not much, except that Darwin’s Orchestra was an oversize book of days more than 200,000 words long, and I held the manuscript (it took both hands) and thought, “Okay, surely this is the largest book you will ever write. You now know you have stamina. Now try to learn to write a real book.”
A lot changed after my second book. Here is my cautionary fable about rejection letters: My proposal for Adam’s Navel was rejected by every publisher in New York City, it seemed to me at the time. But there were two common threads among their comments: they thought the book as proposed was not well organized and not strong enough yet, but they spoke highly of my writing skill and ideas. I listened to both. I took their praise as fuel and their critical consensus as a map. Then, when the head of Penguin UK wrote to say he liked my first book and would I write something for him, my agent had a proposal to send. He bought it, which stirred new interest in NYC, and a book that had been rejected by Viking was then bought by Penguin for fives times the advance on my first book. That and the book’s subsequent reviews and several translations and a couple of minor honors changed my outlook. I began to think I had potential.
MW: How would you describe your writing process?
MS: It differs on each book. When National Geographic Books asked me to adapt one of their TV shows into a book, I worked on a tight schedule as part of a team, with a lot of fun input about illustrations, which included one of my own photos. Mostly I’m off on my own, wandering around in the forest. I imagine that from the outside the process looks chaotic. From the inside it also looks chaotic. I incubate ideas for a long time; I keep several projects moving forward in different stages. I don’t like down time.
The most important aspect of the process for me is excitement. If I’m not thrilled on most days, why do I bother?
Here’s an example of a carefully worked out method designed to nurture the thrill of creation:
For my current book, The Adventures of Henry Thoreau, I slowly cobbled together an outline that comprised a vast number of document files, one for the notes on each particular scene I had in mind, which in turn evolved into the text file for that scene. I didn’t do all these up front; they were added along the way, as I discovered new gems of information or got new ideas. I gave each scene or topic file a name that was the date of the event, which would enable my computer to automatically sort them in chronological order. For example, the scene that inspired the book, in which Thoreau goes skating with Hawthorne and Emerson, took place on the next to last day of 1842, and is thus entitled “1842.1230 skating party.” The accumulating files became a basic outline.
Thus the material would organize itself as I wrote. That meant that I could stop worrying about getting lost. I’m often lost in life and work. To stay excited, I then scrolled down the list of files every morning, which incidentally gave me a reconnaissance flight of the material every time I looked at it. Then I trusted my radar, which begins to beep in the presence of potential thrills. “Oh, the Staten Island trip! That would be fun!” So I would click on that one and race into it with great excitement.
To continue the detailed shop-talk part of our program, I color-code the documents: purple for in progress, green for completed draft, and yellow for final and ready to fit into the combination file that will unify the complete text. As I decide I don’t need a scene or its information, I delete its date and keep its name, so it sorts itself elsewhere by topic. When everything is yellow, I quit worrying about the new draft and can turn to the really fun stuff: revision. I’m a professional re-writer.
Writing all over the book this way is not organized; it’s not efficient; but I find it very exciting. I don’t have a linear brain, alas; I get bored. I have to jump around. On Thoreau, one morning I might want to explain crystallography and the next describe a forest fire. Okay. As long as it all gets done, no one cares what silly ways the writer bribes the muse and slaps the demons.
Then discipline is required to pull it all together, hide the seams, and connect the dots. But that is also a different kind of fun.
MW: How does your life change when you’re being highly productive as compared to when you’re in a creative lull?
MS: Well, when the writing is going well, I am less likely to communicate in sign language with fellow drivers on the road. I am less likely to post bleak quotations and depressing statistics on Facebook.
Discipline is always a problem, but for me nothing else is quite as much fun, in the largest possible sense of that word, as writing.
I think creative lulls make me nervous that I’ll lose momentum. My ideal day would be four hours of work and the rest prowling a warm seacoast with my very entertaining wife, seven days a week.
MW: What’s your greatest struggle as a writer?
MS: Working at home without eating every dark chocolate pretzel on the day I buy them. Procrastination. Distraction.
Discipline is an issue every day. I thought I would have it conquered by now. I was wrong.
Oh, and then, once you get your ass in the chair, there’s that other little part: Do you have any talent? Have you been honing your skills? Can you find a way to say anything meaningful, anything that you will later read with pride? Can you wrestle recalcitrant material into something approaching unity and form?
There are so many struggles I can’t choose a favorite.
MW: What do you envision for yourself in the next five years?
MS: Well, on the personal side, some time in upcoming weeks: as I write this, I will become a father for the first time at almost 55. I feel as if I have always acted in TV comedies and have now been given a real movie. I suspect that the next five years will be lively.
I like lively.
Professionally, I’m almost finished with my second biographical narrative – a new playground for me – and my editor at Bloomsbury loves my ideas for two more. He has approved another couple of anthologies in my Connoisseur’s Collection series. I have about 25,000 words on a memoir about discovering books and nature. An editor at National Geographic and I keep bouncing around a great idea for a quirky field guide.
I hope in five years I can still support myself by writing.
I also hope to get better at it.
MW: What do emerging writers need to know?
MS: Here’s a quiz:
Do you love office supplies with unseemly abandon?
Do you fantasize about how modest you will be when you become famous?
Hold on to those. They’re signs from God that you are fated to write.
I don’t mean to trivialize your question, but it’s too big a topic and my experience is too narrow for me to really answer it. There are so many kinds of writers in so many fields. What could I say that would apply to poets, scholars, and novelists? What generalizations apply? I’ll try a couple, and probably they’ll sound either pompous or obvious, because most advice from writers sounds pompous or obvious, but I tend to read it anyway, unless it’s by Harlan Ellison.
But keep working at something. Keep adding to the resume. Every better thing you add means something you can take off that no longer ranks as highly: a tangible reminder to yourself that you’re moving forward.
Think of actors: all those auditions and calls, begging for a role as the guy in the elevator, the woman at the bank window. Then a speaking role: “Here’s your hotdog.” Then you play the babysitter, the first wife, perhaps some day the co-star, the action heroine. Replace that montage with an unpaid poem, a newspaper story about the runaway cows, an essay about your mom that you killed yourself writing while no one noticed, a brilliant book proposal that comes back again and again like a nibbled fishing lure. Onward.
I state this, my only real rule, with the qualifiers that I think make it realistic and doable: Try most days to move toward something instead of just away from something.
I don’t mean to be harsh about this, but if you want to write, you’re already writing. If you’re thinking about it but never getting around to it, apparently you actually want to be doing whatever it is you’re choosing to do instead of writing. It’s a choice every day. I want to “be” an illustrator. But I’m not drawing much.
I never wanted to “be” a writer. I wanted to write. I still do. My daydreams involve typing in ever more exotic locations.
Marie-Hélène Westgate is a writer and editor of nonfiction, fiction, and romance. She started out as Freerange Nonfiction’s senior editor, then discovered her passion for asking nosy questions, and became the interviews editor. She is at work on a novel, as well as a collection of essays, and writes a secret column for The Huffington Post. Besides Freerange, Marie-Hélène’s work has appeared in Tin House, The Rumpus, Lumina, and One Cool Word. There’s more to come in Guernica, and Shameless Magazine.