Q&A: Sy Montgomery

Sy Montgomery (photo by Vicki Stiefel)

There are a lot of wonderful writers living in our state. As the Director of the NH Center for the Book  I get the opportunity to talk to many of them. This interview series of Q&As with New Hampshire authors here on Book Notes lets me share that experience a bit with my blog readers.   

If someone hasn't read your work yet, where should they start?
If the someone is a young person, I'd start with one of my children's books, depending on whether the readers likes snakes, tarantulas, bears, tree kangaroos, snow leopards, pink dolphins, tigers, tapirs, domestic animals (I wrote a biography of the autistic genius, Temple Grandin, who creates humane designs for food animals) or (coming this spring) cheetahs.
 If the someone is older, again, I'd pick the animal of their choice. My favorite book for adults is Journey of the Pink Dolphins: An Amazon Quest. But the best known of my books is the closest thing I will ever write to a memoir, The Good Good Pig, about my life with Christopher Hogwood, a great big Buddha master with a flexible nose disk and a curly tail.  

When did you first think of yourself as a writer?
In my second high school, we put out a weekly newspaper, and I was a regular contributor and later one of the feature editors. 

How did you end up living in NH?
I had worked for five years as a newspaper reporter in New Jersey when I quit my job and moved to a tent in the outback of Australia to study emus, flightless, ostrich-like birds who I would follow all day, recording their every movement. After six months of living in a tent, I realized I could never return to an office, even one as informal and exciting as a newsroom. To keep on writing about the animals and natural habitats of the world, I became a freelance writer, like my husband, Howard Mansfield. We could live anywhere on the planet.  We chose NH because it was 90 percent forested and retained about 90 percent of its natural wetlands. It's a decision we have never for a moment regretted. We love it here. After a childhood moving constantly with my military father, I have finally found a home.    

Where do you like to write?
In the field, I've written in tents dripping with water, under mosquito nets weighed down with the excrement of lizards and tarantulas, and in houseboats so overrun with cockroaches that some of them are squashed in my journal's pages.  But at home, here in Hancock, I love writing at my little desk in my ground-floor office, surrounded by pictures of animals and artifacts from my travels (an octopus beak; a life-size museum-quality model of Archeopteryx; a shed tarantula skin) and near enough to the kitchen to keep an eye on the soup. 
How important is place in your writing?
Extremely--as most animals are, like we, a product of their habitat. 

What do you do when you aren't writing?
I love to walk in the woods with our border collie, take care of our flock of laying hens "The Ladies," and anything involving animals, from practicing falconry to visiting the New England Aquarium in Boston.
What’s the best piece of advice (writing or otherwise) you were ever given?
It doesn't matter if you're happy. It just matters to get your work done. This from my best friend, bestselling author Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

What books do you love and what about them speaks to you?
What I love best about my favorite books is their authenticity--whether fiction or nonfiction. EB White really did understand spiders, and this is evident in Charlotte's Web. Liz Thomas lived among and loved and admired the Bushmen, and this is as clear in her fiction about paleolithic people as in her memoirs. And my husband's books about time and place are completely genuine--I know, because I have lived those pages, too.   

What are you working on now?
I am writing a book for adults Soul of the Octopus, to be published by Simon and Schuster in 2015, about my (many-armed) love affair with giant Pacific octopuses I have known at the New England Aquarium and the tropical octopuses I have met in the wild, since I learned SCUBA.  In the course of my research, those I've met at the aquarium have come to recognize me, and when we take the top off the tank, each octopus comes to greet me, feeling and tasting me with her strong. white suckers (and giving me hickies which I then have to explain to Howard!) 

What do you want to share that I neglected to ask about?
You neglected nothing! Thank you for the interview!

We published an interview with Howard Mansfield in 2013. You can learn more about Sy Montgomery and her work, including her newly published book Chasing Cheetas, at www.symontgomery.com. 

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