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interview

Author Wallace Kaufman Shares some of his Story

It seems almost impossible to pigeonhole Wallace Kaufman, except to say that he seems to have followed his nose down many interesting avenues in life. From an expedition to the arctic, and time spent living in Kazakhstan just after the fall of the USSR, to learning Spanish in order to raise his daughter in a bilingual home, and living alone in the woods. To hear him speak about it, it seems as if somehow, it all just happened. We are honored for him to have answered our questions.

Q. You’re a bit difficult to research. Goodreads has you listed as authoring 11 titles, covering topics from naturalism and the environment to a mystery novel and even a book called The Writer’s Mind, but it seems you have been involved in many worlds, not just as a writer.Could you give us a short history of your life, maybe in 100 words? (Feel free to disregard the limitation, just thought it might be fun. We do want to hear more about who you are though, if it’s alright.)

I’ll try the writer’s greatest challenge—a large story in a few words. I believe in a large component of biological determinism, and I see striking if not provable trait inheritance. I’m 48% Ashkenazi, but it’s the Scots-English traits that repeat. My great grandfather was a school teacher who later turned co-op manager in the days when English co-ops were radical challenges to company stores. He was known in the Midlands as “Poet of the Village” though I’ve not found a line of his poetry. So—activist, teacher, writer. His son, my grandfather, came to America as a stable hand but bought a box camera and began to sell postcards, opened a candy-tobacco-newspaper store and became a community activist. He was a good writer, too, and scholar of history. I entered politics early, losing my first presidential bid in 4th grade to my friend: the taller, wilder, Richard Loftus, who won class president by a landslide. 6th grade: I decided to be a poet. 10th grade: worked as a digger in a Univ. of South Dakota Mandan village site and wanted to be an anthropologist who wrote poetry. My high school biology teacher took four of us boys to his hometown, Milltown, Alabama where I fell in love with the president of their biology club. That led me to narrowing college to between NY and Alabama, scholarships, soccer team, and that meant Duke. She disappeared but I fell in love with the South, despite all its faults. Reynolds Price, a southern novelist and young professor, helped me believe I could write and should apply for a Marshall Scholarship. Got it. Then I got my M. Lit. from Oxford and also worked in the hops fields and as a stage hand. I wanted to be a poet-farmer like Frost and bought 100 scrubby acres in upstate New York. No money, so I took a job on Long Island as assistant curator for natural history at the new Nassau County Museum of Natural History, writing pamphlets, designing a new preserve. I substituted in public schools as a wrestling coach, biology teacher, English teacher until UNC-Chapel Hill hired me. They fired me in 1974 for being a generalist, but I was already organizing a corporation to create homestead communities with environmental covenants. (Now covering some 2,000 plus acres in NC.) That led to being a property appraiser and expert witness while writing my first book on the natural and social history of American beaches and building my own home in the woods. The variety of work and my knowledge of radio electronics led me to an expedition in the Soviet Arctic, which led indirectly to World Bank economic survey work in central Europe. And that and real estate experience led International City/County Management and USAID to hiring me to be resident advisor for housing and land reform in the new country of Kazakhstan. All the while I continued writing for magazines– poetry, fiction, journalism. The gentrification of my area of NC led me to move to the West Coast where I now live on the bank of a deep-water slough, still writing and also mediating conflicts.

Q. It’s funny because I woke up this morning wondering what I should do with 6 weeks free this summer, sort of stranded in South Korea because of the COVID situation, and I thought, maybe I should go live in the woods for a while, ala Thoreau, and now I see you’ve authored a book called Coming Out of the Woods: The Solitary Life of the Maverick Nationalist. Can you tell us more about this project, perhaps what inspired it and what came from it? 

In the late 90s I proposed to my agent a book that would be something like a debate with Thoreau about his view of humans and nature. She said, no one is interested in Thoreau. Write about your own life in the woods and building your house. Me, interesting? Who was I to argue with a seasoned and successful agent? Asking myself the kind of big questions about purpose, success, failure, and discovery, I found the story interesting. I changed and sharpened some of my views about the nature of nature. My daughter who spent a lot of time with me in the woods beginning at age 2, is a big part of the story. She’s now a Ph.D. ecologist specializing in invasive plants and my co-author of Invasive Plants (Stackpole, 2012).

Q. Can you tell us more about your history as a writer? What have been your literary interests / inspirations / favorites over the years?

In 6th grade I wanted to be a poet and began to write, not very well. I believe my interest in poetry began when I was 2, sitting in my English grandmother’s lap as she recited nursery rhymes that I’ve found in books from the 17th century. Poetry that survives time makes stories and truths about life memorable. Before I left for college, I was imitating Robert Frost. I was also reading or trying to read philosophy, thinking if anyone should know the meaning of life, that would be philosophers. The great game changer was Will Durant’s fictional autobiography, Transition. It is his story of growing up as a blue collar, French Canadian Catholic immigrant and discovering in books the story of humanity, its success and failure. I copied the name of every thinker he mentioned and began reading. I have what might be called reading attention deficit disorder—I am continually distracted by the mention of a writer I don’t know, a subject that promises revelation. No one has written natural history as clearly or accurately as entomologist Vincent Dethier.  I’d love to be as versatile as Mark Helprin. He can write a serious and moving story of an Italian veteran of World War I or the hilarious satire on Prince Charles and Diana in Freddy and Frederika  or a romance thriller of a Manhattan love story, In Sunshine and Shadow. Poetry I read over and over, a lot of women—May Sarton, Emily Dickinson, Sara Teasdale, Phyllis McGinley, Dorothy Parker, Catherine Chandler—and of course, the Elizabethans (all men).

Q. It sounds like you’ve had some wonderful experiences living abroad. The poetry you sent us for an earlier issue, and this issue’s story of Baba Shura, are mostly about connecting with the locals. Can you tell us more about your experiences abroad (where? How long?), and how they have stayed with you or influenced you afterwards?

After my grandparents emigrated from Europe no one in my family left America. I first left for Oxford as a Marshall Scholar. Being from a blue collar American family and a small town where rich and poor went to school together, the British class system gave me some taste of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of discrimination. When my daughter was born, I wanted her to be bilingual like so many immigrant kids I grew up with. I decided to learn and to speak only Spanish with her. When she was 6 a kind friend insisted on giving me a ticket to Mexico and my daughter and I went. That led by pure accident to meeting Mayan school teacher Victor Montejo and bringing him to America and publishing his first book as a subscription only limited edition. I translated that book and one more for him. That saved him from the death squads. He later earned a Ph.D. and went back to Guatemala and became Minister for Peace.

Because I had learned Morse Code and radio fundamentals in Boy Scouts, at age 49 I decided to get an amateur operator’s license and almost immediately answered an ad recruiting Americans to join Russians on an expedition to the Russian arctic. I liked the Russians, their can-make-anything forbidden confidence, their generosity, and I found Russia a big relief from my work as a journalist in Central and South America. I decided to learn Russian. As I’ve said earlier, I then began doing economic survey work for the World Bank in Central Europe, recently liberated from communism. Interviewing hundreds of people about their past stunned me with the tragedy of communism and the courage of the human heart. When I spent two years (’93-5) as resident adviser to the Kazakhstani government on housing and land reform, I decided to live in a typical small neighborhood rather than the luxury offered to people with my status. I played badminton in the streets with kids using power lines as our net, dug potatoes on weekends with pensioners, and came to know sheep herders, mechanics, housewives, artists, and truck drivers. I heard innumerable stories of families destroyed by the KGB, political executions, and gulag exile. Police brutality there was a club to the ribs and skull for being insolent or a bullet in the back of the head for even being suspected of political intrigue.

Q. What is your advice for dealing with isolation and loneliness, whether living in a remote country where the people are bashful and there is a language barrier, or living in the middle of the woods?  

Humans are social animals. We want to be with each other, but crossing cultural and tribal barriers requires patience, the willingness to learn, and above all a will to live as others live. If you are genuinely interested in other people, acceptance is easy.

Living alone is not easy for us social animals. The Internet and social media make physical isolation much easier now. I can chat live with my friend in Iran and even help him teach live classes in Tehran as I sit here surrounded by a thousand acres of forest and marsh. Writers, however, may have an advantage to survive loneliness since writing is almost always a solitary occupation. For me, the solution has been almost the same as fitting into Soviet or Kazakhstani society—get to know and appreciate the beings around you. I could spend two lifetimes or more learning about the lives of animals and plants and exploring the local geology. I could use 48 hours in every day to read and write about all this. Wordsworth wrote the romantic creed—“Trailing clouds of glory do we come . . . “– the child as the mind for whom the entire world is new and interesting. I say “trailing clouds of glory should we go. The more I learn, the more glorious the world is, which is why my new book, an illustrated memoir about this solitary life, a mix of science and sensibility, is Grow Old And Die Young.

Wallace Kaufman with Baba Shura, whose story you can read here.

A poem of the author’s can be found here.

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