In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Writing University has continued with our series of interviews - the "5Q Interviews" - with writers that participate in the various University of Iowa writing programs and communities. We sit down with authors to ask about their work, their process and their descriptions of home.
This year, we are celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the University of Iowa Press with a special editon of 5Q Interviews of UI Press authors throughout the years. Happy Birthday UI Press!
Today we are speaking with Robert Clark
Author Connie (Cornelia F.) Mutel, a lifelong student of our natural world, was educated in ecology and music – a mixture that she claims trained her to stick to scientific facts while writing with rhythmic flow. She recently retired from the University’s IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering institute, where she worked as a Senior Science Writer.
Connie and her husband, Robert, a UI emeritus astronomy professor, live in a 16-acre oak-hickory woodland north of Iowa City, where they raised their three sons. Connie has written or edited 15 books, including The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa (2008) and A Sugar Creek Chronicle: Observing Climate Change from a Midwestern Woodland (2016).
1. Do you have a specific project that you will be working on this year?
Yes and no. Writing a book on climate change redefined my life, and since its publication in 2016 I’ve felt compelled to focus on this looming crisis through teaching and speaking events. When I do write, I choose to focus on happier subjects, such as the integrity, mystery, complexity, and beauty of nature – subjects that flow through my mind constantly and occasionally inspire me to pour them onto paper. These snippets and short essays might someday become a unified publication, but at this point their purpose is to reenergize me and turn my mind in a positive, productive direction (and away from climate change). I also continue to write shorter pieces that pivot around my lifelong passion for natural ecosystems and their restoration, the subjects of most of my books.
2. What does your daily practice look like for your writing? Do you have a certain time when you write? Any specific routine?
Now that I have retired, my best days are those that start with writing and result in several paragraphs of word sequences that please me – typically descriptions of the natural world outside my window. I wake up, pad into the kitchen to fix tea and oatmeal, center my laptop on the kitchen table, sit down, and start typing. Often I am unaware of time passing until chilled feet pull me back to reality – at which point I push the “save” button, stand, address the problem at hand, get dressed, and sit back down to polish what I have written. Then, feeling that I have created something of worth, I am ready to enter the functional part of my day (to do errands and household chores, exercise, answer emails, etc.). I may return to more mundane writing efforts later in the day if the need presents.
3. What are you currently reading right now? Are you reading for research or pleasure?
I read a mixture of fiction and nonfiction, seeking books that entertain me and provide an escape even as I learn snippets of new information about natural systems. Recent enjoyable books of this type include Richard Powers’ The Overstory and Peter Wohllenben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. I also just finished Steve Burrows’ birder murder mystery series, the books educating me about British birding and simultaneously holding me spellbound.
4. Tell us about where you are from -- what are some favorite details you would like to share about your home?
I have lived in our rural woodland home for 40-plus years. This dwelling place is pivotal to who I am and what I write. A mature oak-hickory woodland surrounds and embraces our smallish, simple house. Each window frames moving branches and birds fluttering among treetops. Such closeness to nature is how (until recently) we humans have lived for tens of thousands of years and, I believe, how we are genetically primed to live. Intact, ecologically healthy natural lands such as our woodland have become my life’s passion; managing and writing about such ecosystems have been my life’s work.
5. The UI Press turned 50 this year! Share with us a bit about your experience and relationship with the press.
In the late 1980s, I sent an unsolicited manuscript (single-spaced, printed on both sides of the paper to conserve resources, of course) to the UI Press. Printed in this compressed format, the manuscript was immediately tossed onto the reject pile. But editor Holly Carver picked it up and found it interesting, thus redeeming my first Iowa book (Fragile Giants: A Natural History of the Loess Hills, 1989) and redirecting my career.
Since then, I have learned how to submit manuscripts, the UI press has published four more of my books, Holly and I have become true friends, and I have fallen in love with the press – not only because of the quality of its design and editing efforts and its attention to detail, but also because UI Press employees are some of the nicest people I know.
The bonus: Through working together closely for three decades, Holly and I have learned to be forthright yet trusting and kind with each other, partnering to build strong books and a strong friendship. (And I still love speaking with her even though she has cut thousands of precious words from my manuscripts.) Now, even though we are both formally retired, we continue to advise each other on publication projects, reviewing and critiquing their content, structure, and form. I believe that our mixture of writing-related professionalism and deep friendship is truly unusual, and I am forever grateful for the richness that Holly and the press have given my life.
Thank you Connie!
Established in 1969, the University of Iowa Press serves scholars, students, and readers throughout the world with works of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. As the only university press in the state, Iowa is also dedicated to preserving the literature, history, culture, wildlife, and natural areas of the Midwest. The UI Press is a place where first-class writing matters, whether the subject is Whitman or Shakespeare, prairie or poetry, memoirs or fandom. They are committed to the vital role played by small presses as publishers of scholarly and creative works that may not attract commercial attention. For more information, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.