Diane Ackerman, author of such books as The Zookeeper’s Wife, A Natural History of the Senses, and One Hundred Names for Love, writes stunning, paragraph-long sentences about our natural world. She might have been going for a record last week at “The Gathering” at Keystone College when she recited prose for many minutes—I wish I’d timed it—and then told her audience she’d read just one sentence. She’d wanted to test her mastery of language. And mastery it is. But I’d never get away with such sentences in children’s books.
When Suzanne Fisher Staples asked me to speak at The Gathering, I was honored to present alongside Ackerman, Ilya Kaminsky, Trebbe Johnson, the Drepung Loseling monks, and others. Suzanne also asked me to have an on-stage conversation with Ackerman, and I worried about how to find a way into Diane’s poetic, adult language through with my children’s-book-writer’s mind. But then Diane told her audience that she’s actually eleven years old at heart, and that play—imaginary and linguistic— is important to her and to her novelist husband, Paul West. Okay, then, I thought. I could do this, if Diane played along.
Our on-stage conversation, however, wasn’t exactly light hearted. How could it be when I chose to talk about World War Two Poland? We’d both spent hours researching that sorrowful landscape, and I had to know if it affected Diane the way it affected me. In An Alchemy of Mind, Diane wrote, “I tend to see life through the lens of the book I’m writing,” so I asked her if she’d despaired when writing The Zookeeper’s Wife. She admitted to having been challenged to describe the Nazi bombing of the Warsaw Zoo—and who wouldn’t sob over the destruction of such beautiful creatures that died senselessly like the Polish people? But, Diane had chosen a positive story about Antonina Zabinski who, with her husband Jan, saved over 300 Jews and Polish resistance fighters from the Nazis. I, on the other hand, am writing about “the enemy,” a young German soldier who didn’t want to fight for Hitler but who killed Russians on the eastern front and stole food from Polish farmers nonetheless. My story doesn’t have a feel-good ending like Diane’s, as much as I wish it did.
Diane and I discussed her other book subjects too. After reading A Natural History of the Senses, I can’t stop thinking about how to increase my sense awareness. Diane amazes me by what she notices in the natural world while I clomp my hiking boots over rocks and twigs and worry about the life I might be squashing. I asked Diane which sense she would keep if she had to give up all but one, and she squealed aloud, making the audience chuckle. She didn’t want to give up any, but we agreed to keep our sight because neither of us could bear to live without visual clues of each day’s drama.
I told Diane I would feel fractured by living with as many people as she does since her husband’s stroke. She has no choice, of course, but how does she maintain her writer’s mind in such a busy household? How had she written One Hundred Names for Love? “Who said I didn’t feel fractured!?” she barked at me from her armchair. So she’s human, I learned. And she struggles with living and writing the way most writers do. She does so with grace, though, and her stories are infused with what she calls “radical acts of compassion,” and with gratitude.
Finally, to lighten our last moment together, I asked her to repeat the owl’s call she’d made on stage the night before. So, Dianne warbly hooted, and the audience joined in until the hooting turned into laughter—a respite for us all after such heady conversation.
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