Water: More or Less–an interview with Stephanie Taylor

FINAL_frontcover_web_2-1-16This spring, artist + writer Stephanie ‘Stevie’ Taylor (who many of you know as a member of my Creative Nonfiction workshop in Sacramento ever since we met in 2010) released a magnificent project—her first book of art-and-writing, Water: More or Less, with co-author (and Water Education Foundation former executive director) Rita Schmidt Sudman. Twenty top water policy leaders (including the Foundation’s current executive director, Jennifer Bowles, and California State Librarian Emeritus Kevin Starr) contribute to the book, which is grounded throughout its 240 pages by Stevie’s original visual art and stirring investigative essays on California water.

Those of us who know Stevie from workshop have had the pleasure of seeing early drafts of many of the essays that anchor this book—so I know I speak for all of us when I offer her the heartiest congratulations for pushing this important book out into the world! Knowing that her story would be of interest to a huge number of essayists in our community, I asked her a few questions about the process by which this unusual project took shape.

You can also tune in tomorrow (Thursday, May 12th) at 9 AM Pacific to hear the authors talk about their work on the Jefferson Exchange, hosted by Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland Oregon.

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Stevie, I think that anyone would be inspired to hear the story of how Water: More or Less came to be, and especially how your periodic writing project (your ‘California Sketches’ column for the Sacramento Bee) developed. Can you talk about how your interest in water was first born, and how you started writing about it?

ST_headshot_dropsST: As a kid I spent a lot of time in or on water: pools, lakes, the American River. Later in LA, I lived four blocks from the beach. When the drought hit in the mid-70s—bricks in toilets, etc—I became aware that water wasn’t endless, that demands were too high. Once it started raining again everyone forgot about that drought. I didn’t forget.

We moved back to Sacramento in 1984, four blocks from the American River. That wild strip of precious land right through urban density gave me great solace.

In late 1996, I started a huge project for the San Francisco Hilton that included many murals and paintings. I had realized that the region is defined by the water that flows into the Bay, that I was seriously ignorant about where it comes from and where it goes. I decided I would paint Northern California watersheds, so I could learn.

About two years into writing essays for the Bee, I began to realize that many of the stories, in fact most of the stories, touched on water in some way. For example, the story about the Bok Kai Temple in Marysville: they say it was the god of the temple that saved Marysville from flooding in the 1950s. Though I was learning a lot, I realized so much more that I needed to understand. So I pitched my editor about doing a series on water in California—where it comes from and where it’s going. I said I could do the series in about 20 essays; he said I could do it in four.

So began an odyssey.

At what point did you pitch your work to the Bee, and what was the concept that you pitched to them? 

ST: I met an editor at a writer’s meetup. He said he was looking for creatives to write about California. I’d had this dream of combining my paintings with essay. I raised my hand and he looked at me like I was crazy—artists don’t write! So I ignored him, and on a trip to Tomales Bay, wrote a poem (I’m not a poet…), made a sketch and sent them to him anyway.

He said he’d get back to me, and of course he didn’t. So I pitched him again, this time on a concept about an orchard that I’d seen from the back of a Harley that had drilled a question into my head: why would someone destroy an orchard? And why didn’t I, a Sacramento-Valley-born fourth generation Californian, know the answer?

This time he said yes, and I was off on one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given me—an opportunity to satisfy my endless curiosity about almost everything.

In-depth research has always been part of my methodology as a painter, as a lay historian, as someone inspired by location and how people relate to land and history—I spent six months researching my Amelia Earhart mural, up and down the state, and even interviewed her last official photographer, and several of her biographers!

The concept was that I would explore a place through photography and paintings, and write about what I saw. Creative exploration slows down time; things are revealed. I hope to bring the reader along with me perceptually. Combining visual and words enlivens and engages the reader—which is helpful when the issues are so complex and overwhelming. I figure that if I’m discovering something new, perhaps the reader is, too.

Can you say a little more about the kind of research that you did for your essays, and the kinds of relationships that developed out of the interviews you did? Many of those you consulted ended up contributing work to what ultimately became a collaborative manuscript, yes?

HooverDamST: I do too much research, my editor says! This whole process is just an excuse to meet the most amazing people. People who are passionate about their work—from oyster farmers to almond processing managers to water lawyers who’ve defined water rights law. I believe in shutting up and practicing the art of listening. People will talk and talk and tell me very wonderful, juicy things—their stories.

Everyone loves stories, first-hand accounts. Sometimes the individuals I interview are so frank that I can’t repeat what they say. I interviewed the fellow who was in charge of Shasta Lake and Dam for the Bureau of Reclamation, who made a fascinating comment about the level of Federal involvement in managing California that helped me begin to understand the extent and interdependency of the various water stake holders, that there is hardly any body of water that isn’t managed by some agency in some way—even the rivers we hope are still wild.

At Hetch Hetchy reservoir near Yosemite, I met a water manager who wouldn’t and couldn’t talk to me because of my role as a freelance Op-Ed contributor to the Bee. Because that reservoir supplies all of the Bay Area with water, he was afraid of speaking without permission.

One of the closest relationships I formed during my research was with the family from Drakes Bay Oysters—an outstanding example of aquaculture. I’d been visiting that magical place since 1974! The Federal Park Service wouldn’t talk to me, so I couldn’t present their direct point of view. I’ve stayed in contact with the family after they were forced to shut down the farm.

The concept of asking for contributions to the book was mine, because I needed expert voices that represented diverse opinions. This is where Rita became the key. We crafted an email asking people she knew to write 500-word personal essays about their experiences in and passion for water. Only two respondents responded in ‘policy voice.’

You started working on a proposal for the book a couple of years ago, aiming to find a publishing house that would acquire the manuscript, but you ultimately decided to start your own imprint, Pentimento Press. What have been the rewards of that decision? Were there any books out there like it that inspired its design?

ST: I pursued one publisher only because the book is California-centric. I started with my ‘California Sketches’ concept, but I refined the emphasis, the focus evolved into water more specifically. Then a journalist friend suggested I connect with a woman who she said knew more about water than anyone, who’d covered water for 34 years—Rita Schmidt Sudman, executive director of the Water Education Foundation. In a twist of fate, I already knew Rita—I had actually done a big water painting for her in 1997!

So we met again. As it turned out, she was about to retire. I told her she couldn’t possibly, that she had too much to offer, and that I really believed in this collaborative book concept. In the beginning, I needed her as an editor—but soon, she realized that this was an opportunity for her to synthesize her knowledge as a water journalist with her own essays, and that she had contacts that would help the contributor concept soar.

Last summer, we pitched the final concept. The publisher we singled out to approach rejected us outright, which hurt a lot because both my co-author and I had known this fellow for years. He just couldn’t see how it would come together, or fit his catalog.

pentimento_logo_12-30-15            Rita and I decided that a publisher would only slow us down, and that the smartest thing would be to compile the material and get it done ourselves, as quickly as possible (the California water situation being as pressing and time-sensitive an issue as it is!). Our plan was only feasible because I’ve been in print media for my entire career, and so has she. We had a clear vision of what we wanted to accomplish. We didn’t need—and we didn’t want—someone telling us what to do. It turned out to be a wonderful experience for both of us.

Now that the book is out, we’ve gone back to that publisher, to see if they’ll add it to their distribution network. We can’t succeed if we aren’t thick skinned and persistent as hell!

There’s still a bit of resistance to ‘self-published’ books, and for good reason. Any book needs expert editing, to which we had access. We joined the Independent Book Publishers Association and launched the imprint for Pentimento Press, “a small, independent art and architecture press”—and I hope to publish other authors under that imprint.

As for the design of the book: while I am a designer, I’m not a book designer. I looked at book designers, particularly the work of Peter Mendelsund. I knew I wanted a clean, consistent look that was also artistic, in support of the original art throughout the book. In designing the cover, we ended up running a Facebook poll with a series of idea sketches and soliciting community feedback. I’m thrilled we did that.

Who do you most want to find the book? What’s been the most exciting piece of feedback you’ve gotten about the book since its publication?

ST: Neither Rita or I are interested in a vanity project. I’ve never been the kind of artist who sits around waiting for someone to buy my art. I’m proactive—I think of ideas, and then go get a client. This book will speak to a huge existing market that includes the thousands of people who work in water directly (including water districts, lobbyists, policy experts, legislators, lawyers, engineers, biologists, Federal and state water managers, etc) and those who will engage water from other angles, like students.

We’ve only just started marketing the book. The book has gotten covered by twelve NPR stations in Sacramento and in Oregon—we are very excited at the response we’ve received so far from our readers and the public media. They say the book is beautiful—which seems meaningful since it’s on such a complicated subject. One of the most gratifying things we’ve heard so far came from a water engineer at a presentation that we gave, who said that he was thrilled to give a book to his family that would help them finally understand what it is that he actually does.

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Want a copy of your own? Water: More or Less is (of course) available on Amazon, but a portion of your purchase price will go to the Water Education Foundation or the Sacramento Bee’s News in Education program if you purchase directly through either of the books’ official partners.

Interested in upcoming readings from Water: More or Less? Follow the authors on Facebook or contact Stevie to schedule a presentation and booksigning: staylorstudio@gmail.com.

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