William Souder talks Rachel Carson biography and tips for writers

By Catherine Wheeler

William Souder. Photo courtesy of William Souder.

On Jan. 24, PBS aired the documentary “Rachel Carson.” The film explored the life and career of the noted writer and scientist who helped to launch the environmental movement in the United States.

It was familiar territory for author William Souder. In 2012, he published a biography of Carson on the 50th anniversary of her groundbreaking book, “Silent Spring.” His book discusses the lasting effects of Carson’s work on the effects of pesticides such as DDT.

Souder appears in the documentary, explaining more about Carson and her life.

The author of “On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson spoke to our class in March about his writings, Carson, and the craft in general.

His career

In addition to “On a Farther Shore,” Souder has published two other nonfiction books. “Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of Birds in America” is about the American ornithologist who artistically illustrated birds. It was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for biography in 2005. Souder also published “A Plague of Frogs: The Horrifying True Story,” about deformed frogs and the origins of their deformity in 2000.

Souder said he is currently working on a new book about another figure in American history.

On Rachel Carson

In choosing Rachel Carson, Souder said he was looking for a person who was more than just a character.

He chose Carson because her story intersected with his interests in science, the environment, mid-20th century history, natural history and writing. Souder also was fascinated with partisan arguments surrounding environmental issues that later grew out of Carson’s work.

To Souder, Carson is an imperfect hero, and an imperfect hero can make the story more real and the character more believable.

Because Carson has been profiled many times, Souder said he felt liberated by not having to produce the first large work about her. Instead, he was able to focus on the details of her life.

If a subject’s life has already been explored, he said, “you can strip away and bring in new things and think about the context that the person lived in.”

On writing as a craft

As a established author, Souder offered tips for new writers.

His biggest tip was to not let the story get lost in the facts. Souder said to imagine the story are a giant block of granite. The block of granite is the facts, and a writer must chip away to find the story inside. He said there must be a balance between telling the facts and telling a story.

Souder said his process is to write as much as he can without looking at his notes, and then check only when he needs to confirm something. In doing this, he can synthesize his research.

“The story is not what’s in the notes and documents; the story is what you’re going to make of it,” Souder said.

Additionally, Souder said that young writers should not be phased by rejection. Though it’s hard, it is a part of being a writer, he said. Rejection is something Souder has dealt with as nonfiction author searching for book deals and pitching to publishers.

He said though that the current media landscape has numerous opportunities, especially online, for writers.

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