William deBuys, author of The Trail to Kanjiroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss, is a conservationist and writer whose books focalize natural environments ranging from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico to the jungles of Laos.
Get to know William in this Q&A and then join us on Thursday, April 21 at 12 PM ET to hear him discuss his compelling work with moderator Bill McKibben. This virtual event is FREE to attend and open to the public. To attend, please register to take part on Zoom or simply make plans to watch the livestream on Facebook.com/VaBookFest.
Festival: Did anything surprise you in your research for The Trail to Kanjiroba? If so, what, and if not, how did it extend what you already knew?
deBuys: The biggest surprise was to realize that The Trail to Kanjiroba was the third volume of a trilogy. I didn’t plan to write three connected books, but that’s how things turned out. So I call the result an accidental trilogy. It includes previous books on climate change (A Great Aridness) and species loss (The Last Unicorn). Kanjiroba completes those works by addressing the question: How do we look squarely at the facts of our planetary predicament and not lose heart? How do we resist cynicism, apathy, and despair and stay committed to making things better?
I had gone to the Himalaya thinking myself a hard-boiled journalist who was simply out to see some country and pursue a few questions. I was by no means a pilgrim. The second big surprise was to realize that the act and awareness of pilgrimage were key to finding answers, not just to questions I consciously asked, but to other deeper ones I unconsciously carried.
What are some challenges that you encountered in your writing process?
The writing process is always fraught with challenges. They involve determining your narrative structure and style, the inclusion or exclusion of material, and on and on. The publishing process is similarly beset. Writing from fieldwork, especially from the back-of-beyond, raises still more challenges. One of the greatest is to take notes in real time as events unfold, in spite of bad weather, exhaustion, and other distractions. I can’t tell you how important it was for me to discover pens that write upside-down. They are absolutely vital to me because they let me write notes at the end of the day lying on my back in a sleeping bag. I use 3×5” waterproof flip notebooks that fit in a shirt pocket, so I can write at every pause in the day’s journey, and I try to complete the record with one final push before conking out at night.
How has your disposition toward the climatic and ecological future of our planet shifted in your career, and specifically with this book?
Years ago, like many people, I hoped that when things got bad enough, the denialists would come around. That’s not happening, or it is not happening enough. Things are now plenty bad but, especially in the U.S., legions of denialists still won’t accept the evidence in front of their eyes. This obviously makes addressing our problems more difficult. As a result we have have to reach deeper within ourselves to build the ethical and moral resolve that the work ahead requires. Meeting this challenge is a large part of what The Trail to Kanjiroba is about.
What are you working on next?
My grandfather was peripherally involved in the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bombs during World War II. Other family members—men serving in the armed forces and women facing acute struggles at home—also navigated extremely dramatic events. I am exploring these personalities and situations as grist for fiction.
What books are you currently reading or excited to read soon?
I am reading about the middle decades of the 20th century, including biographies of public figures—Nicola Tesla and F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example—who intersected with the family story. So far, the best of the books has been The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, which covers much more than its limited-sounding title suggests. When it came out in the 1980s, it won virtually every major award for non-fiction. The personalities, discoveries, events, and dilemmas it explores have shaped our present world.