Elizabeth Kolbert and Her Editor Talk About How to Find the Shape of a Nonfiction Book

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 5 2014 7:15 AM

Elizabeth Kolbert and Gillian Blake

The Slate Book Review author-editor conversation.

(Continued from Page 1)

Kolbert: I think people get little snippets of information all the time—the world is warming, coral reefs are dying, elephants are being slaughtered, and on and on. These bits of news are depressing. When you put it all together, though, it’s a bit like solving a puzzle. Things start to make sense, and there’s the satisfaction that comes from understanding the world in a new way. At least that’s what I’d like to believe. Also, I think people are very caught up in the here and now—the assignment that’s got to get finished, the kids who need to be picked up, the friend whose marriage is falling apart. I’ve tried to offer a longer perspective—a starting-with-the-Ordovician perspective—and I think there’s something curiously comforting about that. One of my favorite books is Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, and one of my favorite passages describes how civilizations rise and fall and “the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break.” I think about that passage often; there’s a perverse solace in it.

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Blake: You went to some pretty remote areas of this earth and had a few wild adventures while reporting this book. You seemed very brave!

Kolbert: I want to assure you that I am not at all brave, and during my reporting trips I never really felt in danger—and I don't think I was in any danger—except for once. That was the time I went out on the Great Barrier Reef in the middle of the night with a postdoc who didn't know how to use the GPS unit. When we found ourselves chest-deep in water with the tide coming in, I really did wonder if we'd make it back. But we did, and now when I recall that trip, I wish I were back out on the Great Barrier Reef in the middle of the night, with the turtles and the octopuses and the great, glittering sky.

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Blake: That postdoc is just one of many people you write about who are going to incredible lengths in attempts to, in effect, undo the harm we have done. Throughout this book we see scientists who have devoted their entire careers to monitoring a patch of reef or a fragment of forest, or to saving one species or another. Does one of them stand out to you as particularly extraordinary?

Kolbert: The book ends with a visit to one of the last Hawaiian crows, who’s named Kinohi. Kinohi lives in the veterinary hospital of the San Diego Zoo. Every spring, when it’s mating season back in his native Hawaii, a reproductive physiologist named Barbara Durrant takes Kinohi on her lap and, several times a week, strokes him in what a male crow is supposed to find a sexually very exciting fashion. Durrant is hoping to collect sperm from Kinohi that can be used to artificially inseminate a female Hawaiian crow at a breeding facility in Maui. When I first heard about this project, it struck me as incredible. When Durrant took me to see Kinohi, I was even more amazed. He’s a very charismatic, if sexually confused, bird. Crows can imitate human speech, and Kinohi says, in a demented-sounding squawk, “I know.” He almost seems to be offering a commentary on his own tragic situation.

Blake: I’m thinking about the very first book of yours that I signed up—which was a book you never actually wrote.

Kolbert: My lost book about lost things! That non-book came about in a very serendipitous way, which I imagine is how a lot of books come about.

Blake: It was supposed to be about the Amber Room, which was lost in World War II.

Kolbert: One summer, when I was just out of college, I worked in Bonn as a stringer for Newsweek. There was a German student who was also working there, and we became friends. He later went to work for Der Spiegel, and when he was in New York for some reason around 2002, we got together. He told me about this room that was covered in elaborately carved amber tiles, which had been given as a gift from the Prussian king to the Russian czar back in the early 18th century. The room was installed in a palace outside St. Petersburg, where it remained until the Nazis invaded the city in 1941. The Nazis disassembled the room, took it to East Prussia, and displayed it there during the war. Then, as the Soviets were about to invade East Prussia, the Nazis disassembled the room again and carefully packed it in crates. It was never seen again. Since the end of the war, people have looked for it everywhere—in caves and mines and bunkers and shipwrecks. My friend once got a tip from his housekeeper's boyfriend that it was in some ravine in Russia, and Der Spiegel sent him there to look for it! I thought this story had pretty much every element a journalist could hope for—beauty, war, deception, loss. Pretty soon afterwards, I set out for St. Petersburg to write the story for The New Yorker. You must have also thought it was a great tale, because as soon as the piece appeared, you called me and asked me if I wanted to turn it into a book.

Blake: I feel like there are ties between that book, which never got finished, and this one, which sometimes seemed like it was never going to get finished but did. And this book is also about loss, albeit on a much grander scale.

Kolbert: Yes, there are some interesting connections. The theme of loss is a big one. The good news, amidst all this talk of loss, is that many years later, you and I are still working together.

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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt.

Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer at The New Yorker. She is the author of Field Notes From a Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction.

Gillian Blake is editor-in-chief at Henry Holt, where she has worked with such authors as Bill O'Reilly, Rob Lowe, Billy Crystal, and Bob Mankoff.

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