Halverson Wins A National Outdoor Book Award First Time Out…

I adpated this short interview with Anders Halverson from a longer interview we posted on the California Trout blog.

Award-winning author Anders Halverson

Author Anders Halverson

Halverson is the author of An Entirely Synthetic Fish — a National Outdoor Book Award Winner and a riveting read about fisheries management.

It’s a subject I thought would be as dry as dust, but Halverson — a biologist who has also worked as a journalist — crafted a series of riveting narratives about fisheries management in the USA using the rainbow trout.

In addition to winning the 2010 National Outdoor Book Award, An Entirely Synthetic Fish has generated uniformly positive reviews.

The writing-related portions presented here are regrettably short, but if you want to read the whole thing, go here.

The Anders Halverson Interview

Q: Your book was something of a surprise; I expected a dry-to-the-taste-buds science book, and instead found myself reading a series of riveting stories.

That was my goal. When I decided to write the book,I was finishing a PhD in aquatic ecology. But I’d been a reporter before becoming a biologist, and I wanted to write a popular book about the history of freshwater fisheries management in this country. Somehow I convinced the National Science Foundation to give me a grant to do it.

I decided to write about rainbow trout to provide narrative focus. But ultimately, the book turned is really about people and how we’ve related to the natural world over the last 150 years.

Take the title. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people about that.

Q: It threw me too.

I want to state for the record that the title is meant to say more about us than the fish. It’s a quote from the director of the federal fish hatchery program who was moved to declare in 1939 that his agency was now capable of creating “an entirely synthetic fish.”

Q: Got it. Besides the title, what parts of the book do people react to most strongly?

The thing I hear the most about is the Green River “rehabilitation.” In 1962 we poisoned all the fish in a 15,000 square mile watershed so that it would be safe to introduce rainbow trout. It was such a massive project and nobody has really heard about it. But it was also a turning point in how we relate to native species and wilderness. In fact the backlash was one of the things that led to the creation of the Endangered Species Act.

Q: You mentioned that facts about the Green River project were hard to come by; how did you write the Green River chapter?

I expected to find all sorts of stories on the front pages of the newspapers from the day. But when I started going through the microfiche, I couldn’t find a thing. Finally, I found some stories in the sports pages. That’s almost the only place the project was covered–in stories that talked about how great the fishing was going to be.

It’s hard to believe in this day and age, but there was simply no controversy about the project at the time. Imagine the US Fish and Wildlife Service killing all the fish in an area the size of Connecticut and Massachusetts combined so they could introduce a nonnative species.

Q: They were poisoning a whole watershed and nobody cared?

Not really. About the only people who opposed it were the ichthyologists Robert Miller and Carl Hubbs, and they couldn’t get any traction. I finally got in touch with Jerry Smith (he was Miller’s grad student at the time), and he sent me many of those letters I referenced in the book. It was a real gold mine of information. I got lucky like that a couple times while writing the book.

Q: You began your book with the story of the McCloud River’s exploration; how did you research something that happened so long ago?

I had some information about Livingston Stone the fish culturist, but not a lot about Livingston Stone the human being. I traveled to many of his old haunts, but I was a little stuck.

Then I got a phone call from a woman who was Livingston Stone’s granddaughter, and it turns out she had all these letters and documents and she only lived a few miles away from me.

It was another stroke of luck that helped shape the book.

Q: Tell me about getting your book published.

All in all, it was a gratifying experience. Trying at times, but gratifying. It’s really a team effort — agents, editors, publicists and so on. And I worked with some great people who really improved the book. The copy editor comes to mind in particular.

Once I completed the book, it was a long time before it made it to the bookstore. That was hard, wondering how people would react. Because Yale is an academic press, they had to send it out for peer review. That took a few months. Two of the reviews were good, one not so much. But that was enough for them to go forward.

And the response since it was published has been tremendous. I never expected to receive so much attention.

Q: What about the writing process. Was that hard?

I don’t know how anyone does this; I don’t know how anyone writes books. I had this luxury — a grant from the National Science Foundation — without that, it would have been impossible to survive, much less provide for a family.

With that grant, I was able to do all this research and gather all this information without a lot of pressure from a publisher to get something to them at the end of the year.

That epiphany — the decision to focus on the rainbow trout’s spread instead of fisheries management as a whole — didn’t come until I’d been working on the project for at least 9 months.

Q: Publishing seems to be in a state of chaos, and I hear stories about publishers who seem unwilling to take chances or spend any money on a new writer.

I was told over and over again: don’t expect anything in terms of publicity.

That wasn’t my experience. The publicist at Yale Press was great. She got me an interview on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR, she got reviews in some good papers. I was really pleasantly surprised.

There was no book tour. That would have been fun. But I don’t know of anyone besides the biggest names who can get one of those these days.

Q: You’ve done the rest yourself?

I created my own website, and I’ve actually gone out and approached groups and given talks — if they’re willing to cover my travel expenses and a small stipend. I’ve reached out to radio stations, bloggers, and others like that.

Q: So how has the book worked out for you?

It’s been incredibly rewarding. It’s been great to get such good reviews. But the best part is that it’s allowed me to meet so many interesting and committed people.

Q: You won the National Outdoor Book Award with your first book; do you also wear tights and cape to bed at night?

My wife insists.

Q: How did you handle the writing process itself (in terms of workflow, software, etc)? Any hard-earned tips and hints you’d like to part with?

For one thing, I did almost all my research before I did any writing. As you know the book covers everything from 19th century history to 21st century science. It might have made sense to research and write the chapters about the 19th century, first, and then move on to the next subject. But I didn’t do it that way, probably because I was procrastinating–I was putting off the writing. In retrospect, I think it worked out really well.

I had a sense of the overall arc of the narrative as I was writing each new chapter. I could link things together in my own mind if nothing else. I think the book would have been much more disjointed if I had followed the other route.

Of course, that raises a different issue: what to do with all that data. I really struggled with that. I couldn’t find any software that satisfied me. I wanted something that would allow me to store and organize tens of thousands of notes and their sources.

I ended up building my own database and code in Microsoft Access. Then I entered everything I found into the database in short segments. So I would manually type in quotes from old newspapers and what-not. It was a tremendous amount of work. But then when I sat down to write, I had everything at my fingertips. That was really helpful.

I don’t know if that’s the right way to do it. That’s just how I did it.

Q: You’re still promoting this book, but what’s next?

Aside from fishing and enjoying my family?

I’ve got a few irons on the fire at the moment. For one thing, I’m working for a company called Green Mountain Digital, helping to develop nature and fishing apps like the Audubon Guides and the Orvis Fly Fishing app. It’s been fascinating being part of that world. I’m also working on another book proposal. I don’t want to go into too much detail yet. But like the last one, it will be about the ways science influences society and vice-versa.

Q: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk. We appreciate it.

You’re welcome. I had fun.

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