For his 22nd book, renowned naturalist and essayist Robert Michael Pyle has embarked on one of the most treacherous adventures of his 71 years: crafting his first novel.
“Magdalena Mountain,” published by Counterpoint Press, is a sprawling meditation on nature, spirituality and identity wrapped in a gripping, fast-moving narrative with a rich command of literary language that might raise a smile on the face of his idol, legendary novelist (and fellow lepidopterist) Vladimir Nabokov.
Fresh off a book tour through his birth state of Colorado, where much of the novel’s action takes place, Pyle shared with Coast Weekend a taste of the long, rewarding gestation of what may be his most ambitious work to date.
This interview has been edited and compressed for length and clarity.
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Coast Weekend: Give us a thumbnail description of your book, for those of us who haven’t read it yet.
Robert Michael Pyle: “Magdalena Mountain” is a novel, a work of fiction, but it contains a good deal of nonfiction, in the sense of the traditional nature writing that people know from my books in the past. That is, one of the main characters is a butterfly, a real butterfly, called the Magdalena alpine. It’s not anthropomorphized, but I do personify one particular member of that species on the high Colorado rock sides where it lives. And short chapters go through the life history of that butterfly in this dramatic setting.
At the same time, the human story, which is the dominant part of the book, gathers speed through four different characters, each of whom come to Colorado from different places, because of different attachments, interests or even obsessions with this butterfly. As that occurs, this butterfly serves as sort of a fulcrum to bring them all together, where their stories intertwine. And, as I like to say, stuff happens. So the butterfly’s story and the story of the people begin independently and become intertwined through the center of the book, and then, after the, I hope, pretty dramatic climax, they independently resolve.
So it’s a book in which I have tried to bring together the kind of writing I’ve always done — the close attention to the natural world — with a fully engaging, rip-roaring story. So I’m very much hoping I will catch the attention of both readers of nonfiction about the real world and also those who like a thumping good story, but might not necessarily read what they perceive as nature writing.
As in all my writing, I’m trying to blur the differences between literature and what’s known as nature writing — I don’t believe there’s really any difference; it’s just that some writing pays attention to species other than ourselves, and I believe that this one does both.
CW: This is your first extended work of fiction, correct?
RMP: That’s right. I have, in fact, written short stories for a long time, and I’m working on completing a collection of them. But, although this is my latest book, it’s not a new book, insofar as I’ve been working on it for 44 years, believe it or not. It takes place right where I began writing it, in 1974 Colorado, and I decided to keep it there rather than try and make it more contemporary as each draft went by. I’ve written it 10 times, and I guess the 10th time was the charm.
CW: You’re a prolific writer, why did this one take so long to complete? What was the challenge?
RMP: The challenge was becoming a fiction writer. As a practiced writer of nonfiction, I’m familiar with relating the world through its actual physical facts. I’m a conservative in that regard. I think it’s kind of a contract with the reader in that I research them carefully, and, if I call something nonfiction I want people to believe that that’s the way, at least through my lens, it really occurred. With fiction, you get to make up parts of the world — obviously, you need to be just as attentive to fact as the best journalist or essayist, because the reader will know if you don’t, but you also get to make up circumstances, you get to be a little god and make things happen. That’s the great joy of it.
I’ve written about animals and plants for a very long time, and a lot of my writing about the butterfly and the landscape in that book hasn’t changed a great deal from the early drafts, but the people have changed a lot, the way they express themselves and the way they interact. The story you hear from fiction writers is that the characters kind of take over and tell you what they want and how it should be, and there’s something to that. We take dictation from our subconscious and our muse and we have to listen to the characters or else we might force them into unnatural circumstances. The challenge for me was learning to do that well. … Early drafts were pretty wooden, characters were pretty flat, dialogue was pretty forced. Some may think that it’s still true, but I hope not! I consider it an apprenticeship in fiction. I hope by now I’m able to do it and be convincing.
CW: Are there autobiographical aspects to “Magdalena Mountain”? The James Mead character — a Yale-educated naturalist — seems to share some traits with his creator.
RMP: James Mead certainly derives some of his experiences from me, but he’s a very different person in many ways. In fact, I would say that of all four of the major human protagonists, including Mary Glanville. But none of them “are” me: In fact, I make a little cameo in the story as myself, as if to say as much. But they’re all based in my experience in some way.
I’m not sure I would say that you can’t put yourself in someone else’s shoes on some level. We have to imagine acts and experiences that we haven’t had ourselves, because we’re not all-knowing and we haven’t experienced everything, but at the fundamental level, I think they have to draw their humanity from our own experience. In fact, I’m surprised sometimes when very young novelists get it right, because they haven’t lived that much, and yet they must be very perceptive and very open.
Of course, imagination is a variable quantity, a slippery substance, and we vary it a lot among ourselves to the degree that we’re able to employ imagination and how fluidly we can do so. I like to think that my imagination, while not necessarily a great one, is adequate to the purpose where I can slip into character and give it some experiences I haven’t had. But even there, they’re going to derive from our dreams, or movies we’ve seen or books we’ve read. There’s very little actually original in the world. We’re all big pots in which we stir those things together, and I guess the novelist’s job, as I’m learning, is to try and pull out the chunky bits.