In On Heights & Hunger, Josh MacIvor-Andersen writes passionately about working with his brother caretaking trees, his family’s rural Christian childhood, and his struggle to witness distressed lives around the world -- all of which brought him both comfort and pain. We asked Josh talk about his influences, his process and his core beliefs.
Trees are at the heart of On Heights & Hunger. Do you still work with trees? Which do you prefer: trees or books?
When I veered away from full-time climbing over a decade ago, I took with me a ground saw, my top-handled climbing saw, all my ropes and harnesses and some rigging gear. Basically, I’ve made every move since with a small, streamlined tree care set up that I’ve used to help friends and colleagues, bring in a little beer money, hang swings, rescue cats. There’s something comforting knowing that within a few minutes I can safely ascend to the tippy tops of our sprawling back-yard elm. Just in case. And in regards to the preference between books and trees, I’ve spent my adult life moving pretty seamlessly between the literary arts and hard work with my hands. I’ve found a fantastic symbiosis there, in a life where stories are sacred (from the stacks of picture books on my childrens’ shelves to the Russian novels on ours) and physical labor is honored.
I remember itching to get done with a day of tree work in order to shower, bandage my wounds, and find a cafe to go write. Now, a day of tree climbing instead of grading or editing is like a reset button.
My plan is to continue to cultivate both until my elbows give out, perhaps my eyesight, too. Then: audio books and slow walks on level ground.
How do you think about your spirituality and your writing? Do you feel an evangelical responsibility when writing? Do you feel a political responsibility when writing?
It’s hard for me to not write about spirituality and the metaphysical and meaning beyond what we can see or touch or know. I’ve said this before, but I can start trying to essay about something seemingly concrete and find myself reliably arcing back to God-stuff. It’s like a sickness.
The impulse to write, I suppose, is somewhat missional (in as much as we write for an audience, a readership), but I’m not interested in morals or gospel truths. I think the baseline for all of my writing has been the desire to make someone else feel stuff. At first, it was the excitement of travel, of seeing the world through freshly-opened eyes. I wanted readers (mainly my mom and dad) to feel what it was like to arrive in Vilnius on the night train. The book, On Heights & Hunger, toggles between inviting readers into the visceral experience of climbing and the interior experience of faith and its lack.
These days, I’m mainly interested in conveying the absolute terror and elation of parenthood. That’s where I’m at. That’s where I want to bring readers. That’s my mission—not to save anyone’s soul, but connect through words over a shared human experience.
Why do you write nonfiction instead of fiction?
In my twenties I was searching for some kind of literary outlet and nonfiction was a natural extension of journaling, something that came easily to me. The more I tested different genres, from poetry to fiction to non, I realized my work benefitted from a scaffolding of facts, some kind of skeleton of verifiable events and characters. It was much more intuitive to put flesh on those skeletons through creative nonfiction than to start from scratch.
Fiction seemed preoccupied with total invention. I was mostly interested in translation, which is where nonfiction shines. As with any genre, the more I practiced, the more fluid the process became until it seemed organic. When I have time to write, I now simply start with something that happened, even a hazy memory, and go from there.
Who are the major influences on your writing? What writers do you like the most?
As a high school dropout, I took it upon myself in my late teens to retrace the literary canon I assumed I had missed out on. I started with Steinbeck, who seemed like required reading, and lost myself in his California and Oklahoma and rail cars and class struggles. He made me feel stuff I never knew I was capable of feeling. I tore through all of his books and had what I guess you might describe as a literary awakening.
When I started to travel and write in my early twenties, I discovered Ryszard Kapuściński who began his reportage with hard fact (“Here I am in Africa during a coup…”) but then wove into those facts rich imagery and magical realism and pure wonder. Kapuściński gave me a model for how I, too, wanted to approach writing about real life. And the deeper I got into nonfiction the more important Annie Dillard and Joan Didion and then Dave Eggers became, and these days I’m gobbling up Angela Pelster-Webe’s Limber and Lia Purpura’s essays and immersion writers like Rebecca Skloot and John Jeremiah Sullivan and Mathew Gavin Frank and Katherine Boo.
But really, questions like this are totally unfair unless I were given more Q & A real estate! This is an embarrassingly truncated list.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
1. Editing an anthology of nonfiction tethered to the theme of trees, forthcoming from Outpost19.
2. A book of narrative nonfiction focused on different facets of arrival, including ships and ship wrecks and what it means to dock or land or otherwise complete the leg of a journey, which of course merely leads to another departure. Some see the universe as a great and volatile recycler of all things. And here the iconic arrow bending into the next into the next comes to mind. Yet a competing view suggests that all existence is on some kind trajectory, bound for something closer to completion, be it entropy or a kingdom come.
In the same way I tried to use the visceral experience of ascending trees with a chainsaw to flesh out my thoughts on hunger, I’ve been using the techniques of immersion nonfiction to explore arrivals, including recently boarding the S.S. Arthur M. Anderson, the ore boat that sought to rescue any survivors of the Edmund Fitzgerald when it plunged to the bottom of Lake Superior in 1975.
I hope to board more ore boats as they criss cross the lakes, filling their bellies with coal or taconite. I hope to immerse myself in the mechanics of flight, particularly in what it takes for a plane to descend, land, and come to rest at the precise place a hydraulic, accordion-like gate is waiting. I hope to explore the migrations of butterflies, Lindbergh’s famous trans-Atlantic flight to Paris, and to deepen my knowledge of the life of Bernard Moitessier who failed to complete his bid for the Golden Globe sailing prize in order to simply not stop, to never arrive, which he said would “save his soul.”
3. Co-editing a collection of essays from the children of Jesus Movement with sociologist Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick.