The Longest War
In A New Book, Jonathan Waldman Tracks the History of Rust
Jonathan Waldman: Here we go, with my embarrassing past. Thanks for bringing that up right away. Actually, maybe it’s not so embarrassing. After so many serious writing gigs (political, environmental), ZPG was really an excuse to write playfully (sans editorial oversight), and after a few years of that, I sort of got over myself. I mean, blogging is so forcefully opinionated, and I probably was just desperate to do some self-expression—but by 2009 that need just vanished. Which left me ready to do the kind of writing I’ve always wanted to do. I started by writing about the experience of refitting a 40-foot sailboat (for Outside magazine), and though much of it was first-person, it was way more journalistic than what I’d done. I wrote about life at the marina and the world of sailing—it was like I had this strange new beat. I’d already moved onto the boat, so I handed ZPG off to a friend, sold my road bike (!) and got ready to sail around the world. Yes, I was full of big insane dreams.
As it turned out, some very strained relationships kept this landlubber from sailing across any ocean—and I made the best of it by examining what seemed to be a book idea. A boat is basically an enormous maintenance headache, because every part of a boat is always undergoing some form of decay—rust, rot, mildew, etc.—and I was astonished by the conflicting information I kept hearing about keeping rust at bay. Also, I’d been to a Navy conference called Mega Rust, where I met the nation’s highest-ranked corrosion official, a very quirky and fun man. So: as one of my buddies and his wife sailed off into the Pacific, I drove east, and from D.C., applied to an environmental journalism fellowship in Colorado. It is probably not a coincidence that I spent the summer in Wyoming, far from any ocean. Then I moved to Boulder, where during that fellowship I wrote a book proposal. An awesome agent liked it, and sold it to a great publisher—and then, thanks to an advance and a grant from the Sloan Foundation, I got to run around the country and watch people fight rust in various ways. In between, I did all the outdoorsy stuff that people in Colorado do—which is KEY to writing. I even rebuilt my bike quiver. I’ve been in Boulder for five years now, and have the tan to prove it.
Schneider: The interview you did for us at Boneshaker: A Bicycling Almanac remains one of the most entertaining Q&As I’ve ever been involved in, and that’s counting the phone interview I once did with Christopher Hitchens in which I caught him fresh out of the shower, and for the duration of which in response to my questions he basically just insulted my intelligence (and rightly so; he probably handled the entire call without ever getting dressed). Go with me here because this is a long way of asking about what you’ve been reading since the last time we talked on the record. Mary Roach regards Rust as remarkable and fascinating, and goes on to put you in a class with John McPhee and Susan Orlean, a group any writer would be proud to be a part of. Once you found yourself free of the obligations of ZPG and were aboard your boat thinking about book ideas, were there any authors you looked to as guides? Did you model Rust after any book in particular? In other words, did you have a map or plan for the voyage you were undertaking, or did you just pull up anchor, set out, and figure it out as you went?
Waldman: Funny you mention the Hitchens shower episode, because I’m not wearing any pants either. Spot a trend? Here’s to self-employment! I love the way you softened me up with praise, too. Here’s some for you: indeed, that Boneshaker interview was very fun, as was the book you wrote, A Simple Machine, Like the Lever. Believe it or not, that book helped me start appreciating bike culture from afar, or at least from a more-removed vantage point than my own saddle and my own blog. Sure, it’s fiction, but it gets at what it’s like to be an ambitious 30-year-old, without saying, all news-style, “Hey, here are some issues that underscore/ highlight the meaning of life as a 30-year-old American.” And this I gotta make clear, before giving you half a half-list: I LOVE good fiction, and try to gobble up as much as I can between non-fiction. But I’m also really picky, and if a book doesn’t click after 30 pages, I put it down and pick another.
So after your book I read a lot of George Saunders and Jim Shepard and wacky stuff on McSweeney’s (Mike Sacks and the column “Norse History for Bostonians” always crack me up) and the superfunny autobiography of Bigfoot called Me Write Book, and Adam Levin’s brilliant The Instructions and Reif Larsen’s T.S. Spivet and Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes and My Life in Heavy Metal by Steve Almond, and Matterhorn (nothing like a good long Vietnam novel to ease into) and The Meadow for the fifth time, and The Sisters Brothers, and Nathan Englander and Shalom Auslander and Dave Eggers and Philip Roth (I finally got around to reading Portnoy’s Complaint—and wow!), and most recently Miranda July’s new book and Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars (holy crap, I still can’t get that book out of my head), and the amazing The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adelle Waldman (no relation.) And I also have a decade’s worth of those O’Henry Prize story collections, with one always beside my bed. Good fiction rejuvenates, I think.
Nonfiction wise, here goes: Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s astoundingly-reported Random Family, Rawhide Down (about the near assassination of Reagan), Private Empire (about Exxon-Mobil), histories by Ambrose and McCullough, and everything by Ian Frazier and Tracy Kidder and Richard Preston and John McPhee. I read some pieces by DFW and Kapuscinski and Joe Mitchell for the second or third times just because I couldn’t resist, and I read trendy stuff, too—under the pretense that I should study so-and-so’s method—but it usually confounded me and left me disappointed. A few more I gotta mention, because they floored me: Command and Control, by Eric Schlosser, and The Passage of Power, by Robert Caro. You finish reading these books and the world has a little bit less color in it. That’s how saturated they are. Fucking impressive.
That’s my book list, more or less. I also gobble up The New Yorker and Harper’s and grab other mags when possible. I recognize that my nonfiction tastes run in a very narrow window of style, but I’ve made peace with that because my interests are so wide. If it’s well reported, astutely reasoned, and deftly written—I’ll read it. Subject doesn’t matter. Also: if it’s funny/witty. That’s why Jill Lepore and Patricia Marx are so good.
One small point before going on: I was never pondering book ideas in the plural. I wasn’t even sure if I had one book idea. In fact, I’d always sort of assumed that a book was well beyond me, so intimidating did one seem. But rust appealed to me not as a microhistory like Salt or Cod or plastic or potato chips or whatever, but because I’ve always revered McPhee’s book The Control of Nature. (I once saw him talk, and he said that he could have written chapters for that book, on the theme of man-vs-nature, forever—and it’s hard to explain just how happy that made me. It was like I had his approval—almost.) That was the theme—but the books I looked to most, for their handling of engineering, were Preston’s American Steel, Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine, and McPhee’s The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed. Looking to is a long way from mapping, though; I think I just kinda went for it. I’m pretty cocky like that. But I’m also pretty nerdy, and I think I studied well.
I’ll put it this way: did you make a map for A Simple Machine, Like the Lever? Please share your cartographic insights!
Schneider: Sorry for the lag in response. I was just reading and re-reading, and then re-reading again between spurts of laughter, your piece on McSweeney’s called “Hey Ladies: Check Out My Faculty ID.” That’s some strong work there, for sure.
Anyhow, I think I know what you mean when you say that you’d always sort of assumed that a book was well beyond you, and that the idea of a book-length project loomed large and intimidating on the far-off distant horizon, certainly not anything we’d write in our 30s. As for ASMLTL, no, I didn’t have a map either. I guess because I didn’t have a grand plan, I always stupidly assumed I was the only one to ever go blindly into the process of writing a book. But since you mentioned Nicholson Baker, I have to pause for a minute here and clarify that there wasn’t a title in specific that made you think, “Damn, I want to write a book like that!” Because, in a very real way, that’s the experience I had with Baker and was what I was trying to do with ASMLTL. I started out wanting to write a book like The Mezzanine, or a mix between that and his later short novel A Box of Matches, but one about bicycling. I’ve never been shy about admitting my devotion to Baker’s miniaturist style, and so I’m going to press you to name a frontrunner in your list of influences because, I must admit, that after reading Rust, I haven’t been able to walk around the city (or anywhere else, to be honest) without looking everywhere for signs of oxidation. Has there been a particular book or author that fundamentally forced you to look at things differently?
Waldman: Thanks, but if there’s one thing that’s an easy target, it’s jargon—especially academic jargon. I wrote that McSweeney’s piece while on that University of Colorado fellowship, because I struggled a bit to separate what I was doing from the academese around me. It gets under your skin, which is icky—so that’s how I resisted. The funniest part was getting an email from someone who read the piece and wanted to ask for permission to make a t-shirt that said, “I do multimedia partnerships. Big time.” Permission granted! Anyway, I had no idea you were such a Nicholson Baker fan. I haven’t read the two works of his that you mentioned, but I loved his essay on e-readers and his super-filthy H.O.H. That’s one way-imaginative book, and potent. (I could only take a few pages at a time!) I don’t think many guys can work well in such disparate genres, but don’t quote me on that. Fiction, as I said, so damn impresses me that I’ve never had the guts to try. My brain’s just not wired like that. Hats off to you for making that leap, and for pulling it off. You chose a poignant word to describe your commitment to Baker’s writing style: devotion. It really feels like that, doesn’t it? I mean, have you ever met the guy, or talked craft with him? It’s nuts how reverential we are toward just-the-right-kind-of-literary. We’re like adoring tweens! OMG! He just pressed the spacebar! I wonder what life would be like if we responded to all art with as much enthusiasm...
That said, naming my front-running influence is easy. McPhee. Hands down. He sculpts with words, and always uses fresh metaphors. I’ve only heard him talk once, and among other things he said that while he often suffers from writer’s block, he never suffers from reporter’s block—and that nearly made me jump out of my chair. YES! EXACTLY! I’ve also read that he asks so many questions that his interviewees are left wondering if their interviewer actually understood what they were saying. I ask a lot of questions, too, and find that observation very reassuring, because often while working I can kind of also see myself working, and then I get a hint of how I must appear to the world, which is: man, that guy is totally lost, but doesn’t appear to give a shit. All in service to the reader, I hope. Okay, and my own brain, which wants desperately to a) make sense of things and/or b) laugh at them. I love that the whole world seems rusty to you now; that happened to me a while ago, and I’ve grown so accustomed to such observations that the sensation doesn’t stop me in my tracks anymore. I did, though, recently attend the world’s fastest bricklayer championships (held in a Las Vegas parking lot), and for the following weeks every brick wall spoke to me. I felt like some brick and mortar wizard. Now I’m back to normal. Maybe that’s the thing about us writers: we’re especially absorbent. Also (all too often): short attention-spanned. Which begs a question: you said who you aspire to imitate, but are you equally compelled by a desire to avoid any style?
Schneider: I have so many questions about the world’s fastest bricklayer championship (I’m picturing something between a barista tournament and a lumberjack competition out behind the Bellagio), but perhaps those are better saved for a different interview.
To your question, I wouldn’t say there’s any writing style that I have a conscious desire to avoid, but there are certainly things I’ve found myself trying to move away from. I’m a pretty excited person in general (I just really like how complex and fascinating the world is, from woodworking to apologies to deep sea creatures) and tend to romanticize situations in my head and on paper, and so I’ve made a deliberate effort in the past few years to strip my writing down and remove overly flowery descriptions that I’m naturally prone to.
There’s one thing about having two degrees in literature that really irks me and that’s when someone says, “You have a Master’s in English and you’ve never read Xxxxxxxxxxx?!” No, I’m sorry. I haven’t read that book yet. Oh. Why? Because there are like 40 billion books to read, and I’ve only lived three and a half decades, during the first of which I only read two books total (Hank the Cowdog and Jurassic Park), so I guess I’m still playing catch-up. I’ll put it on my list, though, I promise.
I bring it up because there are two John McPhee books on my shelf, but have only yet read one of them, The Survival of the Bark Canoe, and that book is amazing. There is a section about two thirds of the way through where he basically takes a short break from the story he’s telling about Henri Vaillancourt—one of the last remaining people on the planet who at the time (in the mid 1970s) could make a bark canoe entirely by hand—and summarizes how early white explorers undertook treacherous fur trading expeditions via canoe from the Hudson Bay across the North American continent. As much as I loved the story McPhee was telling about Vaillancourt—the guy is an American icon of dedication, craft, and forgotten skill—the brief detours he takes throughout are as beautifully written as they are stunning to imagine.
The other McPhee book I own is Rising from the Plains, which I’d like to read soon since I’m from north of where you live now in Colorado and spent most of my formidable years out on the dusty expanses just south of Cheyenne. I don’t know anything about McPhee’s relationship with his editors, but I am wondering about yours. You weave so many compelling tales of corrosion into Rust, I’m curious if it was at all difficult to decide on how the book would be put together, or if you experienced any obstacles in featuring the subjects you did. Besides, as you note, “rust is glossed over more than it’s taught because…it’s just not sexy.” I guess I’m wondering if rust’s relative reticence made it easier to write about or more difficult?
Waldman: Hey, when you wanna talk bricks, lemme know. It was wild.
I’m glad you said that about moving on, because that’s exactly what happened after I let my cycling proselytizing go. It was like I was just free, freshly relieved of a bad habit. (I don’t mean biking, of course.) There are tons of classics I haven’t read—in fact, the older I get, the less I’m interested in the classics anyway—including Hank the Cowdog. I’ll be sure to pick that up. But here’s the thing: McPhee isn’t just good, he’s friggin’ incredible! He’s versatile (he won a Pulitzer for an enormous tome on geology!), and prolific, and always so spirited. I don’t mean he writes like Tom Wolfe, all exclamation points and such, but you can just tell he’s there because he’s so into it he can’t resist. That’s a pretty damn attractive way for anyone to be, so it works if he’s the one guiding you through a story. And it’s just how you self-identified: “a pretty excited person in general.” So read some more McPhee, man! Like I said, his 70’s stuff is my favorite—and really, that was such a crazy time in America that it’s a blast to rediscover. I mean, I bet all you remember from that decade is Hank the Cowdog, right?
A funny thing about that particular book you mentioned, The Survival of the Bark Canoe—which I enjoyed. I have no evidence to back this up, but I have a feeling that reporting and writing that book served some greater near-psychological purpose for the author—insofar as so much non-fiction writing is looking at Great Big Issues or Great Big Stories out in the Great Big World, and trying to wrest them into some sensical shape, and Survival of the B.C. was just a delightful story of an old-fashioned Mainer doing his thing in relative isolation. I get the appeal in that. Very much. And as a woodworker, I often dream of months away from a screen, wallowing up to my knees in sawdust and shavings. Just yesterday I was admiring “the last shovel maker,” an old guy who used to hew one-piece shovels from logs, with just an axe. You have no idea how much I wanna go try my hand at that. I guess that’s the great thing about this job: you can, just like McPhee, go run off and dive into it, with little more than excitement and a notepad. Excitement is it, man! Regarding the way I shaped Rust, indeed, it was tricky, and I went forth and back on the structure a few times. My editor helped so much with the effort, because he was at a remove from the nitty gritty details, which I get caught up in. And that was cool—because as a self-employed artist, I’m not in the habit of working with others. I’ll admit that freely. But he’s good, and had a vision much like mine.
Lastly, the embarrassment we feel about rust—we treat it much like cholesterol or hemorrhoids—made me want to bang a wooden shovel against my head. So many people were so reluctant to talk about the subject, or let me in to see the world in which they operate. Often there were business forces to consider (the perfect justification), and often it was just the absurd difficulty of finding humanlike (or even reflective) engineers to talk to—but you learn to examine every emotion, even frustration, when writing, because each is trying to tell you something. So, yes: it seemed difficult at times (like when I nearly got kicked out of Can School, or when so many corrosion labs shut their doors to me, or when a very mighty pipeline operator stopped fielding my questions), and then I dissected that difficulty, and I kept on reporting, and then it only got easier. But I tell you what: I sure would be happy if my next book had nothing to do with engineering. Pure fantasy, I know.
Schneider: With all this excitement we seem to be feeling about the world around us, how will you ultimately decide what it is you’ll write about next? Just like your “last shovel maker” idea, I’ve got the better part of a little Moleskin littered with ideas for stories and scenarios and random lines of dialogue that don’t belong to any character yet but that I want to incorporate into something someday. As a living, breathing, eating, working artist who’s making a living as a writer, do you feel pressure to already have your next project lined up? That’s a leading question, I know, and self-serving to boot, because if you don’t feel any pressure, I want to know your trick. Are you able to let the muse play coy, or do you ignore inspiration all together and just write like your life depended on it (which, in a way, it kind of does)?
Waldman: I’m gonna answer this one all backwards. I never understood the idea of (or believed in) a muse until halfway through writing Rust. Then I became familiar with the notion that some days, for whatever reason, the words come out with inspiration, and on other days, they just don’t. I figured, like most non-writers, that on the latter days you could sort of force those words out with effort. At the same time, by my self-employed nature, I also figured those days made great occasions to play outside. Suspecting I was overdoing it, an East Coast writer friend who had just finished her own book encouraged me to, in the words (she claimed) of Danielle Steele, “get my ass in the chair.” On an index card in red ink, she wrote “A in the C”—and stuck this on a mirror in my studio. That’s when I realized which side of the line I come down on. I do not believe in the notion of keeping my A in the C, and figure either fiction is totally different or Danielle Steele is also smoking something. About half the time I really really really like writing, things come to me, I make connections, I can see which way to go, and all of sudden it’s 8pm and I haven’t eaten a thing, but I’ve spat out five thousand words. About half the time, though, my muse has his thumb up his proverbial butt or something, and no matter how warm I get my chair, nothing happens. Actually, what happens is I get sick of slouching and looking at a screen while the world goes on by without me. A daily word quota doesn’t just elude me, it baffles me. So now I’m a muse believer, and I can almost tell when it’s time to sit down and when it’s not worth bothering. Point is, writer-to-writer here, of course I feel the pressure, but I try to give it the finger like the son of New Yorkers that I am and keep doing my thing.
That said, I’d also like to start on my next book, as reporting this one wasn’t just fun, but (I hate to write this) eye-opening. I saw some cool shit. And I didn’t just learn a lot; I nearly re-learned how to learn. I mean, I’m a science guy who likes numbers and history, but immersing myself in foreign situations is not what most of my education entailed. I’d like to set off on an adventure like that again! So there’s pressure, yeah, (and there’s even an editor eager to pay me to get on with it already), but there’s also a real yearning on my part to find a thing that I can’t resist diving into. (Like I said before, I’m hoping it’s not so engineering-intensive.) I know now to listen to my muse. In the meantime, it’s nordic ski season, and my muse must be Norwegian or something, because it makes me happy. That’s my trick: ski very long distances. When it warms up, ride up big hills, and climb tall mountains. (And obviously barge into lots of conversations and ask lots of dumb questions.) What’s your trick to staving off the pressure? And do you plant your A in the C for x many hours a day?
Schneider: During my most successful creative writing stints (and I think I can only really name two or three that lasted more than about two years straight), I’d have to admit that yes, it’s mainly been just planting the A in the C. Somewhere along the line I think I heard another writer—perhaps it was Jonathan Franzen channeling his inner Danielle Steele, but it could have also been Elizabeth Strout—say that you don’t sit in the chair for a few hours a day because it forces you to churn out thousands of words and that’s what makes you successful. You sit in the chair for a few hours a day so that you’re there and ready for when the muse happens to swing by. At my best (which is an elusive state, I assure you), I’ve found that mornings are by far my finest thinking hours, so I try to get in the chair by 5:00 and go at it until about 7:30 or 8:00, before the business day gets going around me and my time gets swallowed up by so many other things. But the x’s and o’s of this whole thing can be debated for a lifetime. It really just boils down to doing what we each need to do to do our thing. Whatever the combination—skiing, coffee, whiskey, standing, dreaming, swimming, middle of the night, early in the morning—it’s finding it that’s key, in my opinion.
That said, it does seem that having a strong and deeply seeded dedication to that combination is a pretty common denominator that I see in or read about other writers that I admire.
But here we are, after all those many, many, many hours of research and learning and relearning and writing and revising and rewriting are over and your first book—and a truly fantastic one at that—is about to come out. You came to a reading I gave from my first novel when I was on tour a few years ago and you asked me something that I’d like to ask you now. How, Mr. Waldman, does it feel—and what does it mean to you that you’ve just published a book?
Waldman: Crap! Did I really throw such a softball your way? You should have called me out! DQ for DisQualified or Dumb Question!
Before I indulge you, I gotta add one snippet of defense, which is that I take a notepad and pen with me everywhere—even in my jersey pocket when biking up Flagstaff. That way, if the muse yells, at least you can get the notes down. (And I don’t have a day job, so I don’t cajole muse-meeting occasions as much, perhaps, as others.) I, too, think mornings—particularly before eating—are my jam. A good morning can build a writing wave that propels me for 20 hours—but if I miss that wave, that’s it. It’s doldrums all afternoon—hence outdoor playtime. I like the way you make sense of the x’s and o’s, though. It’s so easy, reading interviews or books like Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism, to get caught up in thinking that this kind of pen or that kind of notepad or some particular lighting scheme or lucky pair of pants or chair in which to place your naked A matters. As you said, the key is finding the combo that works for you. You’ve got to know thyself, right? I guess I’m pretty happy with the calculus of my combo, and like that by your logic it’s just as important that I be dedicated to it. That rings true. (Feel free to replace “dedicated to” with “obsessed by,” or “neurotic about.”)
With that out of the way, it seems a fine time to paraphrase the third place winner at that Las Vegas bricklaying competition. Up on the stage, once he’d been handed an oversize $3000 check for placing 666 bricks in one hour, the emcee asked him how he felt. All he could say, in a healthy Southern drawl, was that he felt gooooooooood. I feel a lot like that bricklayer must have. Using skill developed over years, I built something pretty good looking and durable. Sweat was involved, and time—and I’m stronger for having put in the effort. I’m proud for sure—I daresay I even feel a bit more legitimately employed, or at least part of society. I’m glad you enjoyed it. But my next wall will be even better.
A recent Ted Scripps Fellow in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado, Jonathan Waldman grew up in Washington, DC, studied environmental science and writing at Dartmouth, and earned a master’s degree from Boston University’s Knight Center for Science Journalism in 2003. He has spent the last decade writing creatively about science, culture, and politics for Outside, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, and others. He lives in Colorado.
Evan P. Schneider is the author of the novel A Simple Machine, Like the Lever and the founding editor of Boneshaker: A Bicycling Almanac. He lives in Portland, Oregon.