Describe yourself to a complete stranger.
You’d recognize me immediately by a bushy hairdo previously known in the U.S. as an “Afro.” That, perched on top of a slender frame, makes me easily identifiable anywhere. My hair is now gray, and the hairstyle got replaced by shaved heads among professional basketball players, but take a look at modern games: the style is coming back!
As for personality, I’m an introvert—a good quality for a writer, since I spend most days staring at a computer screen. I have a bit of a wild streak too, going in for sports like radical skiing, mountain climbing, mountain biking.
Nature is important to me, and we live in a state that has 54 of America’s 60 highest mountains, all over 14,000 feet (4300 meters). I’ve climbed them all now, and am accompanying my wife on the last few on her list. I get nourishment from nature. I also love classical music, and play the piano now and then, and always have great music playing in the background as I write. And because my wife gets to travel with me, we place a priority on overseas trips, and take three or four a year.
You’ve written about God reaching people through nature. How does God reach you in Colorado, a state known for its beauty?
I begin each day in a window-filled room that looks out on a Colorado forest. In the stillness, with birds flitting about and squirrels, a red fox, racoon, and skunks occasionally wandering into the scene, I’m reminded of the joy of creation that God must have experienced. Two animals in my part of the world make me laugh out loud: the skunk and the porcupine. Most small mammals look over their shoulders in constant wariness; not these two. One smells bad and one leaves the predator with stinging regrets.
We moved here from downtown Chicago, where we lived just six blocks away from Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. There, I saw mostly pigeons and squirrels. Nature for me is a kind of therapy. For relaxation and recovery all I have to do is walk out my back door and hike over to a park, or to a mountain stream. Once I stood for fifteen minutes and watched a papa woodpecker trying to teach his offspring how to drill a hole in a branch. Every time the little one jabbed his beak at the wood, it slid off to the side—reminding me of learning to pound a nail with a hammer.
Beauty goes on all day long, and it’s up to us to notice it. The two greatest examples of that to me are the fields of wildflowers high up in the alpine meadows of Colorado’s mountains and the tropical fish on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef—there, creatures more beautiful than anything you can find in the world’s great art museums swim around all day eating each other.
Describe what you see from your office just now. Do you look out over mountains and tree tops?
More like tree trunks, not treetops. I have to walk outside my basement office and turn a corner to see a snow-capped mountain, but it’s there, all 14,240 feet of it, just fifteen miles down the canyon. Outside my window just now I see a hill shaped like an elephant (Elephant Butte), covered with Ponderosa pine trees, blue spruce, and Douglas firs. A three-compartment bird feeder hangs above my study, so every day I see Downy woodpeckers, nuthatches, grosbeaks, finches, and Pine siskins. Squirrels gather on the ground under the feeder to feast on the sunflower seeds that fall, and three or four times a day a red fox comes by to chase the squirrels. With all this going on, it’s amazing I get any writing done.
Is it true that you only listen to classical music?
I’m afraid so. That, too, is one of the ways God speaks to me. In Chicago we had season tickets to one of the world’s great symphonies for more than a decade, and every great instrumental soloist came through town. In Colorado I rely mostly on recordings. A few years ago I underwent the herculean task of digitizing all my record albums and (now this dates me) reel-to-reel tapes. I have a complete 200 Gigabyte hard disk full of classical music, which I listen to all day long. I can dial up a genre like String Quartets or a particular piece, like Bruckner’s 6th Symphony, which just finished playing in the background.
To demonstrate my open-mindedness, however, I should mention that I have gone to the following popular music concerts in my life: Gordon Lightfoot; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Beatles Impersonators; and U2. I wore heavy-duty earplugs at that last one, but Bono and Edge are very cool, I must admit.
In 2007 you had a life-threatening accident in which you broke your neck. What happened and how are you now?
I was returning from a speaking engagement on a wintry road in the mountainous state of Colorado, where I live, and my automobile began sliding. It went off the road and tumbled over and over, at least five times. I had surface cuts and bruises, of course, and was mainly concerned about them. But when I went to the hospital, CT scans revealed I had also crushed a vertebrae high up in my neck. The danger was not so much paralysis; rather, the break happened right next to a major artery. For seven hours I lay strapped onto a back board waiting for news of whether the artery had been pierced. The hospital had a jet standing by to fly me to Denver if I needed emergency surgery, and the doctor actually recommended that I phone those I loved to tell them goodbye, just in case.
As it turned out, the artery had not been pierced, and after twelve weeks in a neck brace and several months of physical therapy, I was able to resume normal life. I finished climbing the last three of the tallest 54 mountains (14,000 feet, or 4300 meters) in Colorado that year and resumed such activities as bump skiing and mountain biking. Other than residual soreness and some restricted movement turning to the left, I’m fine.
How did that affect your way of living?
Looking back, I’m enormously grateful for the experience. All of us will die, of course. Many people die suddenly, without preparation, as in a fatal accident. Others die after a long, agonizing preparation. I faced the imminent possibility of death, and yet was able to walk away.
For several months I walked around in a kind of “daze of grace,” filled with gratitude for another chance at life. Problems in my marriage, for example, that had seemed huge the day before seemed very small after the accident. I marveled at the beautiful world around us, at the precious gift of life. I also decided I need to be more intentional in choosing my writing projects. None of us know how many days of life we have left. I had a stark reminder of that, and have tried to use the “second chance” accordingly.
What impact does your wife Janet have on your life and your ministry?
A natural extrovert, Janet has taught me how to handle social situations. We writers don’t get out much, you know, but when we do we’re surrounded by strangers who want to talk about the most intimate things, because books create a kind of false intimacy between the writer and reader.
More, Janet withdrew from her own career as a social worker and hospice chaplain mainly to travel with me and support my work. That was a genuine sacrifice (and a bit of loss for me, too, since I kept using the stories she would bring home). When I’m signing books or talking with someone and sense they need more time, and a more skillful listener, I steer them toward Janet, who is a superb listener and counselor.
Tell us a funny story about your writing career.
Sure. Once, some friends came to ski with us in Colorado. They happened to bring along a Polish nanny to take care of their kids, and she expressed interest in my occupation. “Have any of your books been translated into Polish?” she asked. I led her over to my shelf of foreign books and looked for one that had a lot of ‘c’, ‘z’, ‘w’, and ‘x’ letters in the title—a lot of consonants. “What about this one,” I said. “Is this one Polish?” “Yes, yes! she said, with great excitement. “Well what does it say?” I asked. “It says Disappointment with Mold.” I shot her a puzzled look: “Are you sure that’s what it says?” “Oh no, no,” she corrected herself. “You see, the words for mold and for God are quite similar in Polish. It actually says Disappointment with God.
After that I went back and retitled my books. Early on I wrote a book on the history of penicillin, called “Where is Mold When it Hurts.” Then bacteria developed resistance so I wrote a sequel called “Disappointment with Mold.” I teamed up with a doctor and wrote a book called “Fearfully and Wonderfully Mold.” Later I updated my research work with “The Mold I Never Knew” and “What’s So Amazing About Mold,” and not long ago wrote a guide to cleaning refrigerators called, “Finding Mold in Unexpected Places.” My latest is “Mold: Does It Make Any Difference?”
And now for some of your personal preferences. Let’s start with coffee: Filter coffee or caffe latte?
All of the above. The morning requires three half-cups of strong Starbucks-brand filter coffee, a mixed blend of half-caffeinated and half decaf so I don’t get the jitters. On particularly difficult writing days, intravenous drip works best. Since no one else makes coffee quite as strong, however, when I go out I order a latte. My wife, with more exacting tastes, orders a “skinny wet cappuccino, extra shot, extra hot.”
Dogs, hands down. (Or, paws down.) Their slobbery unconditional love saw me through a difficult childhood. I can hardly remember all my dogs’ names, there were so many. We couldn’t afford the shots, so they tended to die early. I had only one feline pet, a kitten that got eaten by the next door neighbor’s Boston terrier. Dogs rule. Except in Africa, of course. Or in my part of Colorado where mountain lions like to eat pet dogs.
You can’t be serious. Why would anyone slather a petroleum product on toast and vegetables when you can opt for a high-fat, high-cholesterol organic product that needs no artificial coloring? Eating butter is my way of helping the oil crisis.
Not a lot of people know that you…
…come from the South in the U.S., unless they’ve read it in my books. I’ve worked hard to eliminate the Southern accent and I don’t like to eat possum or squirrel. Now grits and sweet potato pie are a different matter altogether.
Most irritating habit—your own and in others?
I dislike drivers who think it necessary to blast their hiphop music so that the car shakes and the neighborhood windows rattle. As for me, I cringe when I ask a question that reveals I wasn’t really listening to what the person talking to me (usually my wife) just said.
Both go with my eyes: the irises are blue and the surrounding part is more pink than white, since I rarely get enough sleep.
The five most influential books in your life?
Who is an author you would like to meet and why?
Will Campbell, for reasons I mentioned above. I hear he’s quite the character. We had an appointment scheduled once, at his farm in Tennessee, but an illness in his family caused us to cancel it. I’ve met Buechner and Dillard, and hope to hook up with Chesterton and Lewis in the next life.
Which book would you give to a friend as a present?
Why Religion Matters by Huston Smith–especially if the friend is a religious skeptic.
Which classic have you always meant to read and never got round to it?
Is there a particular book or author that inspired you to be a writer?
Sorry, I became a journalist in grad school because I needed a job.
What is your favorite time of day to write?
Mornings between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m.
In the Colorado mountains, in solitude.
Which fictional character would you most like to have met?
Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot
Which book have you found yourself unable to finish?
Isaiah Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind
Cleave: it means the opposite of itself.
Other than writing, what other jobs or professions have you undertaken or considered?
Considered: firefighter, baseball player, news reader. Undertaken: none
What was the first piece you ever had in print?
A letter to the editor about hippies, in 1966 (I was in favor)
Favorite verse in the Bible?
I always resist choosing just one verse, because as a writer I don’t like the idea of taking phrases and sentences out of context. I would choose an entire chapter, Romans 8, because it presents the broad sweep of God’s plan like no other passage, ending in a note of remarkable triumph.