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Interview with Scott Russell Sanders Robert L. Root Jr. Over the past dozen years Scott Russell Sanders has created an impressive body of nonfiction. His essays have appeared in The North American Review, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Sewannee Review, Harper's, Orion, The Gettysburg Review, and The Ohio Review, among others. The Paradise of Bombs (1987), his first essay collection, won the Associated Writing Programs' Award for Creative Nonfiction, and was followed by Secrets of the Universe: Scenes from the Journey Home (1991), Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World (1993), and Writing from the Center (1995). His other nonfiction books include In Limestone Country (originally published with photographs by Jeffrey Wolin as Stone Country and reissued in 1991), Audubon Reader: The Best Writing ofJohn James Audubon (1986), which he edited, and a revision of his doctoral dissertation , D. H. Lawrence: The World of The Major Novels (1974). He is abo the author ofa book ofshort stories, six works ofhistoricalfiction or sciencefiction, and six children's books. Hepublished his most recent book, Hunting for Hope: A Father's Journey, in thefall of 1998. Born in Tennessee in 1945, Sanders moved with his family to Ohio before he entered grade school and livedfirst at the Ravenna Arsenal miliScott Russell Sanders Photo courtesy ofEva Sanders Robert L. Root Jr. Photo courtesy of Caroline Root 119 120Fourth Genre tary reservation and then on afarm. He entered Brown University intending to study physics but switched to English in his junior year. His doctorate is from Cambridge University in England. He teaches at Indiana University in Bloomington. In regard to his nonfiction Sanders is most comfortable describing himselfas an essayist . In "The Singular First Person" he writes, "In the essay, you had better speakfrom a region pretty close to the heart or the reader will detect the wind ofphoniness whistling through your hollow phrases. " His own essays drawfrom his personal life, his sense of location in theAmerican Midwest, and his concerns with reconciling himselfto the past and improving the nick of time in the present. He identifies strongly with the tradition ofpersonal voice in the essay, citing Montaigne, Thoreau, and E. B. White as exemplars oftheform. In these predecessors hefinds kindred spirits, whose concerns with theirprivate thoughts, theirpersonal lives, their observation ofthe world around them, and their struggle to understand theirplace in such a world all reverberate in his own writing. Like them, he claims, "I choose to write about my experience not because it is mine, but because it seems to me a door through which others might pass. " His essays have dealt with subjects as personal asfamily death and the impact of hisfather's alcoholism, as public as the shadow of nuclear destruction and despoliation of the environment, as abstract as the nature ofhope and the reasons to resist despair. With the assumption that the essayist's concerns reflect the concerns ofother citizens ofhis time andplace, he maintains a beliefthat the essay is "a havenfor theprivate, idiosyncratic voice" and "the closest thing we have, on paper, to a record of the individual mind at work and play. " Generous, compassionate, thoughtful, and candid, his persona is reinforced by a prose style ofremarkable precision and durability. Scott Russell Sanders was interviewedfor Fourth Genre in September 1998. Root: Let's start off with a discussion of the fourth genre itself, particularly the form ofnonfiction that you've often written, the essay. Annie Dillard has written ofthe essay: "The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything that a short story can do." Do you agree with that? Sanders: The essayist certainly can use most of the strategies open to the writer of poetry or fiction—narrative, dialogue, exposition, and so on—but not all of them. Nothing in the essay corresponds to the force of the line in poetry, for example. Nothing in the essay, as I conceive of it, corresponds to the unreliable narrator in fiction. I don't think any one genre is a substitute for the others. We need poems and stories and novels and plays, as well as essays. Each genre offers us paths through the dark woods of this life, and we need all the...


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