Rebecca Lawton: The wilderness inside and out

JordanBusiness of Writing

The first time I heard Rebecca Lawton read, she held a packed room of people enthralled to a tale of a harrowing, heart-pumping river raft expedition so gripping it was hard to believe this was drawn from her own life, not a high-stakes novel; that was out of her book of essays, Reading Water. I knew in that moment I wanted to get to know this fantastic writer better, and soon I was lucky enough to get my wish when she helped me get hired at the non-profit environmental organization where she worked. There, she and I spent many a lunch break writing and learning how to attract more publishing success our way, which led to our co-authoring Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life, first published by BeijaFlor Books, and now re-published with a  revised second edition by Booktrope Editions. Since then, Becca continually amazes me with her writing, which is both literary and rich in plot, which invokes important topics and the natural world, as well as rich, fully fledged human characters, and an attention to detail that is unparalleled. Here, she answers a few important questions about the writing life with her signature insights:

Tell me about how (and why) the natural world infuses everything you write?

RL: That’s something that happens without my forcing it—it’s natural, I guess. The things we love just work their way into our hearts and art, don’t they? I was brought up with a lot of outdoor experiences—camping in the desert, backpacking, sailing, swimming. The space filled my heart and soul. My parents passed a lot of reverence for wild things to my siblings and me: birds, animals, water, forests, canyons. I get that many, many people love cities and beautiful objects. I love some aspects of those things, too. I try to understand how they could be more motivating than they are to me, and I do intellectually, because I want to respect the loves of others.

The things we love just work their way into our hearts and art, don’t they?

An adoration for the built world is not something I feel in my own gut, though, the way I thrill to seeing a fox hustling with a squirrel in its jaws to feed its family, say, or the sound and sight of wind whirling in the tops of trees.

We love what we love. And we write what we love. My characters also have wildness in them, some aspect of their nature they’re trying to understand or change. So nature—that wildness in us and around us—often embroiders or becomes the very foundation for my creations.

What’s your writing process like? Do you have different processes for writing fiction versus nonfiction?

RL: My writing process is always evolving, but these days my workdays are filled with fiction writing in the morning and nonfiction in the afternoon. Although I love to write short fiction, I’m not working on any at the moment. When I rise in the dark to write before breakfast, I’m working on long pieces. Novels, actually. In the afternoons, after some sort of break like a swim or walk or weight training, I approach my nonfiction one piece at a time. For either type of writing, I start with a quick mind map. Emptying my thoughts onto one page of paper, I then have a guide to what to integrate into the rise and fall of the narrative, whether it involves fictional characters and their made-up homes or people and places found in the real world.

So nature—that wildness in us and around us—often embroiders or becomes the very foundation for my creations.

I hear you’ve been working on a mystery novel. This is something of a departure from other styles you’ve written in. How is it different? What do you like about it?

RL: I started out to write a mystery—in the genre experiment that you and I began with our online writing group two or three years ago. As part of a lifelong endeavor to reach out to readers through engaging story, I drafted a mystery around California water wars, based on my decades of work in the northern part of the state as a stream scientist. Then I was awarded the Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in 2014-15 at the University of Alberta and put everything I was doing on hold while I lived in Edmonton and researched a second novel in the genre series. What’s developed, though, isn’t really genre at all; it’s literary fiction with mystery at the core. And, of course, the natural world and wild human nature figure prominently in it.

What’s different about the “mystery” work is that it starts with a death or accident—some inciting incident that puts the entire story in motion. Up until now, I’ve incorporated death later in the course of some stories. One of my first writing colleagues said, “People die all the time in your writing. If there are two characters, I can be sure that one of them will die.”

It’s true that at that time I’d lost some close friends from my river running life, and loss was on my mind. Later I began to have more control of who lived and died rather than just being driven by the need to understand their passing. And that’s something that’s been freeing about the genre-but-not-genre work.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten, that you still abide by?

RL: My friend Louise Teal, who wrote Breaking into the Current about Grand Canyon boatwomen, is someone I’ve traded manuscripts with over the years. One of the lessons she learned when pitching publishers for that book was that it helped to let her query letters rest at least twenty-four hours before mailing them. (Everything was sent by postal service then.) “That’s the least I can do,” she said, about how many moving parts there were to being a writer. Any of us, formally trained or not, can take this bit of advice—just let the work simmer at least overnight before sharing. It’s certainly prevented some (but not all) embarrassments for me.

Any of us, formally trained or not, can take this bit of advice—just let the work simmer at least overnight before sharing.

What are you working on next?

RL: I’m working on a couple of books in progress (I have a small stream of article work I’m doing now as well). I’m polishing my novel from Canada as I query agents to represent it because my former agent is retiring. Once that’s sent off, I’ll return to the Sonoma book in the same series. I’m also advancing work on a book of nonfiction—a collection of essays on desert palm oases and how they’re affected by falling groundwater levels. And I’m striving to be a better worker—one who can get things done and still take time off with my friends and family.


Rebecca Lawton has written seven books (including Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life with Jordan Rosenfeld). Rebecca’s articles have been published in Aeon, Hakai, More, Shenandoah, Sierra, THEMA, and many other journals. She’s earned a Fulbright Award, Ellen Meloy Desert Writer’s Award, Waterston Desert Writing Prize, WILLA Award, three Pushcart Prize nominations, residencies at Hedgebrook Retreat for Women Writers, The Island Institute, and Playa, and other honors. The tenth anniversary edition of her bestselling book on whitewater life, Reading Water, is now available.


JordanRebecca Lawton: The wilderness inside and out