Welcome to the Book Marks Questionnaire, where we ask authors questions about the books that have shaped them.
This week, we spoke to acclaimed author and environmental activist, Terry Tempest Williams.
Book Marks: First book you remember loving?
Terry Tempest Williams: Scarface: The Story of a Grizzly by Dorr G. Yeager. It was published in 1935. It was a favorite book of our father’s who read it out loud to my brother and me before we went to bed. Part natural history, part adventure story, part eco-thriller, this is a beautifully written biography of a great and noble bear. We took the side of the bear. That book imprinted on my soul. I still side with the grizzlies. But the real impact of the novel is that the narrator is a rancher who over time came to respect this formidable animal, that in the beginning he was hell bent in killing.
BM: Favorite re-read?
TTW: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.
In 2018, my husband and I joined Woolf scholar Stephanie Paulsell on a pilgrimage to the Sussex Downs in England to walk the paths Virginia Woolf had walked near her home during the writing of this novel as we journeyed literally to the lighthouse—ending up on the Isle of Skye. It was transformative to reread this perfect novel of family dynamics around a dinner table, about the sovereignty of art, and the enduring legacy of Mrs. Ramsey.
“For nothing was simply one thing.”
BM: What book do you think your book is most in conversation with?
TTW: That’s such a good question. Perhaps Erosion is not in conversation with another book, but rather in conversation with a set of writers: Albert Camus, Audre Lorde, and Leslie Marmon Silko.
BM: A book that blew your mind?
TTW: Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee. It was the terrible realization that I am part of the Barbarians. And what was I going to do about that?
BM: Last book you read?
TTW: May I list two? I read books simultaneously.
BM: What book from the past year would you like to give a shout-out to?
TTW: When The Light Of The World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, edited by Joy Harjo. Such a beautiful and powerful gathering of 160 Indigenous poets representing 100 Native Nations.
BM: A book that actually made you laugh out loud?
TTW: Alexandra Fuller’s new book, Travel Light, Move Fast, when her mother who is drunk tries to get on the plane from Budapest back to Zambia after her husband has died, and charms everyone on the plane into accepting that this is not a problem.
BM: Favorite book to give as a gift?
TTW: Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
BM: Classic book you hate?
TTW: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens—We were forced to read it in high school. Painful read. Painful teacher. All I remember is Pip. In college, I must have liked him; I named my wonderfully mischievous cat after him.
BM: Classic book on your To Be Read pile?
TTW: The Plague by Camus.
BM: Favorite book you were assigned in high school?
TTW: Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.
BM: Book(s) you’re reading right now?
TTW: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler.
The Force of Non-Violence: An Ethico-Political Bind by Judith Butler.
Staying With the Troubles by Donna Haraway.
Just Us by Claudia Rankine.
BM: Favorite children’s book?
TTW: Amigo by Byrd Baylor, illustrated by Garth Williams. It’s a book about a lonely boy named Francisco befriending a prairie dog.
Terry Tempest Williams is the award-winning author of The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks; Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place; Finding Beauty in a Broken World; and When Women Were Birds, among other books. Her work is widely taught and anthologized around the world. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she is currently the Writer-in-Residence at the Harvard Divinity School. She and her husband Brooke Williams divide their time between Cambridge, Massachusetts and Castle Valley, Utah.
Terry Tempest Williams’ Erosion is out this week in paperback from Picador