A talk with Philip Connors, fire lookout

 

Most of us who threaten to flee the city for a shack in the wilderness don’t get any further than making terrariums and insufferably holding forth in bars, but eight years ago Philip Connors actually quit his job at the Wall Street Journal for a fire lookout post in New Mexico. In the intervening years, he’s written some magnificent essays, and now he’s published the book I’ve been waiting for, Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout.

As his friend Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, recently told the Observer, “Phil only writes about things that are actually of interest, of urgent interest. He’s a very direct writer, and very honest, and free of vanity.” He’s also the kind of writer who forces himself, at every turn, to confront the possibility of failure, and as a result his writing is lean and clean and distinctive: unpretentiously learned, wildly evocative, and often very funny (though not all his jokes go over so well in these parts).

I talk with him today at The Paris Review Daily. Head over there for the main event — and then, if you’re curious, some outtakes from our conversation are below.
 

I wonder if writing Fire Season was as complicated and emotional for you in its own way as telling — in an also beautiful, but wrenching, n+1 essay — the story of your brother’s suicide.

This was easier, I think, although in both cases I was dealing with an experience very dear to my heart. For the n+1 essay, I went back over years of notebooks and compiled every single entry that dealt with my brother’s death and my feelings about it. I thought that would help clarify the arc of my grief, and maybe I could write an essay or even a book based on what I found. It turned out those journal entries were the story: the arc was there, the story had already been written, it had just sort of happened over the course of six or eight years without my realizing it. In writing about my lookout experience, my notebook entries turned out to be insufficient on their own. I had kept diaries of each fire season for years. There was interesting stuff in them. There was an arc to each season. But it was sort of the same arc year after year, with slight variations in the details, and so much of what I knew was not to be found there: stories about the history of the landscape, mainly. So while the essay about my brother’s suicide involved paring away material to get at what was essential, Fire Season was more about expanding on what was there in my notebooks, shaping and ordering the stories for pleasing effect. It was a much more joyful experience.

The joy you take in lookout work is never more apparent than when you’re facing a separation from the tower. One summer you leave a new relief lookout (who plainly regards you as “something of a bewhiskered old fogey”) alone for a few days, and the whippersnapper sets off a “Class C clusterfuck.” On your return, he clears out, probably for good. Do lookouts have a name for rookie quitters?

No, but we should, because it happens pretty often and we have slang for so many other things. There have been four or five such cases on my ranger district in the time I’ve been a lookout. It sounds so romantic, living on a mountaintop, watching for smoke all day—the old American dream of self-sufficiency, alone in the woods. But it requires a pretty funky soul to really take a shine to it. Some people try it and discover they can’t live without television, text messages, and the presence of a living human voice. It’s hard to blame them. There are some good shows on television. It’s nice to be instantly in touch with those you love.

On a camping trip, you and a friend hike nine miles up a mountain in a blizzard. “We couldn’t see fifty yards in front of us,” you write, “the snow was falling so hard, and almost every step was fraught with the possibility of disaster — a twisted knee, a sprained ankle.” To what extent is danger part of your attraction to to the wilderness?

I don’t think of the lookout work as particularly dangerous. I’ve got a nice snug cabin to keep me warm and dry, and were anything bad to happen I could call for a helicopter evacuation on my radio. Backpacking trips are a little different. When I backpack with my friend Black Larry, we don’t have any way of calling for help. We’re on our own, far from the nearest road, completely reliant on our own skills and instincts. Our senses are sharper, our awareness is heightened. Modern life coddles us in so many ways that I think it robs us of some of the thrill of being what we are, what we’ve always been: animals. Highly evolved, for sure, but we’re still just creatures of blood and bone. I find it stimulating to be reminded of that from time to time, and a wilderness camping trip is a pretty good way to do it.

You’ve written, in Fire Season and for The Nation, about your admiration for Norman Maclean, who also worked as a lookout.

Norman Maclean has meant a lot to me. The title novella in his book A River Runs Through It, which recounts his relationship with a doomed brother he loved but did not understand, offered me the most meaningful consolation I found in the wake of my own brother’s death. The final story in that book has some great passages about being a fire lookout in the early Forest Service. In his only other book, Young Men and Fire, about a group of smokejumpers who burned to death while fighting a fire in Montana, he wrote what amounts to the only literary masterpiece on the subject of American wildfire. I felt that since I was writing in a vein where others had gone before me, I at least had an obligation to nod to my masters, and he is certainly one of them.

You and your wife, Martha, met while you were both living in New York City, and later moved out west together. At times you worry that your attraction to the lookout life, to solitude and the wilderness, makes her life lonelier than it should be. How much do you think growing up on a farm contributed to your need for time alone?

I’m sure my rural upbringing plays a role in that. I spent many long days of my childhood walking aimlessly along rivers and playing alone in the woods around our farm. When you grow up that way, you not only develop a knack for entertaining yourself, you come to need time alone in order to feel comfortable in your own skin.

Peter Straub says writing is a profession that obliges its practitioners to enjoy solitary confinement.

How true! Writing is not a group activity, at least not the kind of writing that moves us. You could argue that working as a wilderness fire lookout is a kind of solitary confinement: you’re alone on a mountain, where you spend most of your days in a tiny room on stilts, up above the tree line. Except I honestly don’t find it confining at all—on the contrary, I love the expansiveness of the views, the long empty hours of no responsibility except keeping watch over beautiful mountains. Writing during the winter is another story. I rent an office above a bar in the little town where I live, and I sometimes wish I were downstairs where the fun is happening.

Do you usually get more writing done in the summer than in the off-season, when you’re tending bar?

For years the only writing I did happened in summertime. I’d write as much as I could and then spend the off-season revising. Tending bar left me pretty devoid of creative energy, but if I approached the process of revising more like a technician than an artist, I found I could take what I’d written at the lookout and spend the winter shaping it into something worthwhile. The loss of my bartending job is about the best thing that ever happened to me. When the owner closed the place and sold the building, I looked around town for any other job I might want and didn’t see one. The only thing I could think to do was write a book proposal. Here’s hoping I’m retired forever from the adult beverage industry.

Cheers to that! (Sorry.) One of the best things about your writing is that you’re so open about your own contradictions. You love the Gila, but you also love New York.

It’s a great walking city. The grid reminds you where you are at all times, so you never get lost, at least not in Manhattan. You can concentrate on the street life, the architecture, the faces of the people you’re passing. There’s a great essay by Vivian Gornick called “On the Street: Nobody Watches, Everyone Performs.” She writes: “The pavements of New York are filled with people escaping the prison sentence of personal history into the promise of an open destiny.” That seems to me spot-on. In the street you can be anybody, you’re free, you’re a flaneur and a wanderer, you can flirt for half a second in a glance and then move on and turn inward again. I spent whole weekend days on foot in the city when I lived there, on the move for hours at a time, not going anywhere in particular, just exploring the textures and moods of different neighborhoods, the emotional weather of street life. It’s the great consolation for being too often shut up in some little urban cave, estranged from your neighbors even as you can hear them cooking dinner or engaging in carnal pursuits. Living alone amid 8 million neighbors can be far more alienating than living alone in the wilderness. In the wilderness you have no expectation of human connection. When you fail at human connection in New York, the pain can be acute. For me, walking was the major form of consolation for that pain.

There’s a brilliant line toward the end of William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow: “New York City is a place where one can weep on the sidewalk in perfect privacy.”

Yes. That’s so right. I love that line and I love that book. You probably noticed I mention it in Fire Season; it’s the first book I lent to Martha, shortly after we met. I remember reading that sentence and nodding in agreement.

I’d forgotten that, but your shared love for the novel must have been what prompted me to pull it back off the bookshelf a couple months ago. While we’re on the subject of beloved books: you once spent three days in the New York Public Library’s Jack Kerouac archive, copying his fire lookout journal into a notebook with a No. 2 pencil. It delights me to imagine your copy of his notebook — and your own journals — being preserved alongside his.

Bless your heart for saying so! But I doubt that will come to pass. Maybe Western New Mexico University will be interested. I should ask.
 

More: Donovan Hohn’s admiring take in last weekend’s New York Times Book Review; Nina MacLaughlin’s praise at Bookslut; Connors’ talk with Lewis Lapham next Thursday at McNally Jackson, at 7 p.m.; his reflections on trauma, grief, and the great outdoors; his affection for cribbage; his techno-laggard confessions (and the last days of his beloved father-in-law); and, at the top of this post, a video from his mountaintop.