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Leila Philip on flash fiction and beavers

Leila Philip is an American writer, poet, and educator.

In “Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America,” Leila Philip weaves together memoir, reporting, and history to show us how wrong we are to take this mammal for granted, or worse, to revile it. This evolutionary miracle with its paddle-like tail, teeth that can make quick work of a tree, and a flair for architecture has left its paws all over our past and could save our future. Philip is also the author of “A Family Place: A Hudson Valley Farm, Three Centuries, Five Wars, One Family” and “The Road Through Miyama.” A Guggenheim fellow, she lives in Connecticut and teaches at the College of the Holy Cross.


BOOKS: What are you reading?

PHILIP: Annie Proulx’s “Fen, Bog and Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis.” It’s about how the mythology about swamps and bogs in Western culture has often been scary. Now we understand how important they are to the land and to hydrology. Therefore we understand how important they are to our survival.

BOOKS: Is that typical of what you would read?

PHILIP: I read a lot of poetry to refill my word bank. I love Octavio Paz, Neruda, Robert Hass, and Miłosz. I’m all over the place. Although, I have to say, after I finish a book like this I feel pretty exhausted. I just don’t read for a while, to be honest. I’m only now reaching for things that bring me language and joy.

BOOKS: What was the last novel you read?

PHILIP: I love John Banville. I just read his novel “The Sea.” I think he has so much poetry in his prose. I’m about to read another of his books, “Eclipse.” I also just read a gorgeous memoir, Hisham Matar’s “The Return,” which is about his search for what happened to his father in Libya. It’s one of the most beautiful books I have read. His writing is so simple and direct. That really recharged my love of language.


BOOKS: What other kinds of books do you read?

PHILIP: Increasingly I love science writing. I just finished Ed Yong’s wonderful book “An Immense World.” I think nonfiction books have become increasingly sophisticated in how they borrow storytelling techniques we associate with fiction. These categories of fiction and nonfiction that we take to be so defined, they are not so clear when you look beyond Western culture, such as in Japanese literature. I just read Yasunari Kawabata’s “Palm-of-the-Hand Stories.” Those are the precursor to flash fiction. It makes me laugh when people talk about flash fiction as being so contemporary. I feel like they should go back and read “Palm-of-the-Hand Stories.”

BOOKS: Are there genres you avoid?

PHILIP: Writers have to be very self-disciplined about how they use the “I” on the page. You need to remember that the personal is only there as a mirror. When you get the balance right it’s fantastic. Hisham Matar’s “The Return” is deeply personal, but somehow the personal story turns out so you feel it’s about something much bigger than the writer himself and the genre fulfills its potential.

BOOKS: What are your favorite books about beavers?

PHILIP: There was a really good one written in [2018], “Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter” by Ben Goldfarb, which introduced people to the environmental restoration projects that were happening using beavers. It was interesting to discover how many books there are about beavers. As far back as 1913, Enos A. Mills wrote “In Beaver World.” People have kept identifying that beavers are ecologically important and then forgetting it. There was like this ecological amnesia about beavers.


BOOKS: What else did you read for “Beaverland” that you would recommend?

PHILIP: I think everyone should read William Cronon’s “Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England.” It was written in 1983, but it’s a classic in environmental history. A lot of people are already reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass.” She’s so honest, and the way in which she weaves her training as a scientist, her background, and history together so matter-of-factly is so refreshing and informative. Also we need stories of hope and resiliency if we are going to face our collective future.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane” and she can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.