Kim Todd Joins Creative Writing Program Faculty
Her work has been called "spellbinding" (by The New Yorker) and "beautifully written" (by Outside magazine). In the fall of 2014, the Creative Writing Program welcomed creative nonfiction writer Kim Todd to the faculty roster. Todd has written one book about that vagabond Sparrow, another about a female naturalist who, in 1699, voyaged from Amsterdam to South America to study insect metamorphosis (Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis), and her self-explanatory first, Tinkering with Eden: A Natural History of Exotics in America. It's no surprise she holds masters in both environmental studies and creative writing (from the University of Montana).
You've published three books thus far on intersections of people and the environment. What kindled your interest in the natural world (including humans and their actions)—and in writing about it?
When I was working as a reporter, just after college, my editor sent me to cover a controversy over a place called Poverty Hill. Though it was just a muddy patch of patch of land with a few houses, the more I researched, the more interested I became. It turns out that the hill played a role in the Duwamish tribe's oral history about a battle between the North Wind and the South Wind. And University of Washington professors were studying 40-million-year-old marine fossils there. And mountain bikers used one side of it for stunts. Everyone was making competing claims about the hill's interpretation, using notions of "history" and "nature" and "wildness" in different ways. It made for a terrible newspaper article—there was no "story" there, my editor kindly explained. But these were fundamental stories of identity, played out on this patch of land, and I wanted to explore them in more depth and a more expansive format than the newspaper allowed. That's when I went to graduate school.
What is your favorite work to teach?
I love to teach the essay "Seeing," by Annie Dillard. The base of good writing is observation, and she addresses this directly, challenging herself and the reader to recognize their limitations as observers and to see more, and better. What are we missing with our narrow focus? The leavings of field mice. Insects flying through the air. Maybe the big picture. I also like teaching The Tempest, which I've used in a Literature of Exploration class. Though it's a fiction with magic at the center, written centuries before Dillard, the questions are similar: How much can we trust our senses? How do we interpret (or misinterpret) what we see? What are possible—and ethical—responses to the unfamiliar?
Where did you grow up? Is there anything—food, geography, feeling—you miss?
I grew up in Berkeley, California, and spent many years in western Montana as well. I'm not going to lie: I really miss the mountains.
What are you most excited about in joining the English and Creative Writing Program faculty at Minnesota?
At many MFA programs, literary nonfiction is often an afterthought. But here, at the Creative Writing kick-off party few weeks ago, many students and faculty mentioned that their focus was literary nonfiction. It's wonderful to be joining a community with such a great tradition of and enthusiasm for the genre.
What was the most intriguing thing you've read this year? What was it about?
Earlier this summer, I read Book of Ages, a biography of Benjamin Franklin's sister Jane, by Jill Lepore. It is a case study of Virginia Woolf's imagined Judith Shakespeare, a bright woman deprived of opportunities given to her brother. Though Jane Franklin's life was hard (no education, a husband drowning in debt, a son who was dangerously insane), there is something cheerful in her ability to express herself with wit and good humor in the scraps of writing Lepore includes. "I want to know a Thousand little Perticulars about your self," she tells her niece. "Dont let it mortifie you that such a Scraw came from your sister," she instructs Benjamin. Her personality—and the whole Revolutionary world she inhabited—comes through.
Almost even more than Book of Ages, I liked Lepore's New Yorker essay about the process of writing it: "The Prodigal Daughter, Writing, History, Mourning." It focuses on Lepore's mother, who urged Jane Franklin on her daughter. Lepore resisted the idea for years, in part because Jane Franklin had left so little material: "I thought she was joking. It would be like painting a phantom." The impossibility of the project, and her fear of engaging too much with her heroine—a woman who didn't live up to her potential—make a compelling study of how a writer claims or is claimed by her subject matter.