When the Sewanee Review caught up to Sam Pickering, he had just come in from playing with snakes in the woods behind his house in Connecticut. Between picking off ticks and going back out for a jog, the sixty-eight-year-old Nashville native managed to find time to chat with us about truth and caterpillars.
SR: You were a teacher at Montgomery Bell Academy, Dartmouth, and then at the University of Connecticut for thirty years. What made you start teaching?
I don’t really know. I don’t know anyone who teaches who knows why they do it. You just find you’ve been doing it and it’s too late to quit. When I graduated from Princeton I was offered a job at Dartmouth and took it. After a few years I just stuck with it. Things like that are just a matter of happenstance—you could try to explain them, but that would be glib.
SR: What guided your teaching then? What made you teach, for instance, children’s literature?
Because I can understand it (a Foghorn Leghornesque cackle). I always enjoyed reading old eighteenth-century literature and forgotten obscure books and I enjoyed reading children’s literature too. It just intrigued me. I didn’t know anything about it at first, but a friend helped me make a reading list and I liked that, so I taught the course. Teaching is something you can say a lot about, but there’s not much to be said.
SR: And writing? What has that meant to you?
Well, I started writing late in life. I was in my late thirties and I wrote an essay about how much I liked libraries.
SR: But what made you start so late in life?
Well, there was so much more to experience of life. It’s different for everyone of course; some people start late in life, some write from a young age. The world is various and so are those who scribble.
SR: What makes you decide to write an essay? Where does the material come from?
I just take notes and pay attention. You have to pay attention to everything around you. If you’re standing in front of a classroom trying to explain the meaning of life, and you don’t know the names of the trees in your backyard, you’re a fraud. Knowing the names of things makes you look carefully, and when you look carefully, you expand the world. So I take walks in the woods and in the neighborhood. I play with snakes—there are no poisonous snakes around here—and I take a hand lens with me often when I go out. And caterpillars—you’d be surprised how many caterpillars are far more beautiful than the butterflies they turn into.
SR: How much writing does that inspire?
I know some people say they write every day, but that doesn’t work for me. I take tremendous amounts of notes on something before I write anything. People want rules to help them produce wonderful pieces of prose. There are, I suppose, moments of inspiration. I’ve never had any.
SR: You’ve written on teaching, travel, and solitude. What’s the value of solitude to you?
After a while you get tired of being around people. I don’t mean I don’t care for company or like people, but you get tired of always being around them, and as a teacher you get tired of the sound of your own voice. I’ve begun to lose my hearing, which pleases me, because I can’t hear the cacophony of the world. I very much ascribe to William Hazlitt's opinion in his essay, "On Going a Journey." He said it was fine to enjoy company when sitting and talking, but you can’t really walk and talk about what you’re seeing. I think he's the best essayist in English literature.
SR: How about travel? What makes you want to go to Edinburgh or to Australia multiple times?
This is a little embarrassing. . . . I was at a party about to go on sabbatical when somebody asked me what I was going to do. “Well, stay here,” I said. But they insisted I go to Australia. I didn’t think anything about that until I got into another conversation with a different group of people and they said I should go to Australia.
SR: Was that all it took?
After a while, once you start telling people that’s where you’re going, they think you’re going, and then you have to go. But I had a wonderful time in Perth and loved it. I got to spend a great deal of time in the Bush and almost got famous.
I’m not interested in being famous. I’m too old. Old men don’t become famous. I can’t imagine anyone who would want to. I don’t want to travel around and make a fool of myself, I just want to stay here and bury the garbage in the backyard, see what it does. Why would you want people asking you all the time about the meaning of life? I get letters from people asking, “How can I be a writer?” They want to know how to have a life like mine.
SR: What do you tell them?
I can’t tell somebody else’s child how to live their life. I have to be honest and say I don’t know. If somebody asks me about “the creative process,” I want to jump out the window.
SR: Speaking of your process, you often play with the idea of truth in your nonfiction, using fictional personas like Josh alongside accounts of true events. What’s the difference between truth and nonfiction?
To give you an example, I just finished a memoir and it’s not true. No memoirs are true, you know. They can’t be. It’s just from your memory. When your parents are old and tottering that’s how you remember them—not the way they were when they were young, not how they may want to remember themselves. It’s not the whole person of course, but that’s the way it is. When I’m old and tottering, that’s how my children will remember me. It will be a relief to them when I finally die.
SR: They could read your essays.
Oh, they have no interest in reading them. None of my family reads what I write. I don’t think that many people read it period. Only about ten people read me and they’re the ten people who read everything!
SR: But where does Josh come from?
Josh is a way I can say something I want to say and still not look bad. A woman once came to me and said, “I think you’re wonderful, but Josh says such terrible things!” I told her that I can control the behavior of a real person, but only a mad man would think he can control the behavior of a fictional character! It’s mostly technique: story and characters carry a reader through a novel, but the essay has one character, and everything said is from that character’s perspective, so that you must be careful not to read more than, say, two essays a night, or it becomes soporific.
SR: What do you think is the value of writing?
Being able to write well is very common. Many people can do it and they get discouraged when they don't get published. Most people who take a writing class don't publish anything. But writing makes you a better reader. That's the real value of it. It's strange how we elevate writing so much. Maybe we should elevate really nice people.
SR: What are your favorite books to read? Who are your favorite writers?
When I was growing up I read mostly atlases and snake books—I wanted to be a herpetologist—but these days I don't buy many new books, unless they're written by my friends. But I like Robert Lynd, Charles Conrad Abbott, and Agnes Repplier.
SR: What's your favorite word to use.
SR: What's your least favorite word to hear?
(laughing) No. How's that? You know, if you had asked me that at a different time of day, or a different day, it would get a completely different answer. That's the difference day to day. Everyone wants to use the word philosophy when talking about how you teach or write. I try to say there's no philosophy; it's just coping. You cope with life, with whatever happens every day. I've never been in a place where I was unhappy. I had a wonderful childhood in the South and I have a wonderful life now in New England.
Returning then to his hand lens and notepad, Sam Pickering headed out to enjoy the rest of the daylight and see what he could find.