Q. Starting with your 1992 short-story debut, Cowboys Are My Weakness, the outdoors has always played a big part in your writing. Has your relationship with nature evolved over time?
A. Oh, sure. I think when I first spent a lot of time running serious whitewater rivers and skiing really difficult slopes and getting myself into avalanches and that sort of thing with some frequency, there were good things going on. Like, I was blown away by the Western landscape in the United States. But I also think I was re-enacting some childhood danger scenario, wanting to put myself into danger and trying to control the environment. Since then, I’ve grown up some. I’m not that likely to run the most difficult river or to stay on the mountaintop when lightning starts. More and more for me it’s about being quiet, which I do a lot when I’m home at my ranch in Colorado. In my indoor life I do nothing but talk and make words all the time—I write, I teach, I speak. So the outdoors is this opportunity to be quiet and appreciative.
Q. How has your traveling affected your perspective as a writer?
A. It’s probably been the most important thing. There is nothing that makes me want to sit down and write more than a new landscape. Going to a place I’ve never been before and trying to capture its essence through the senses and then releasing any story it might contain—a story that resonates with any emotional ones that I have to tell—that’s the whole business of writing.
Q. Do you think having a community, whether through the classes you teach or the workshops you conduct, influences your creative process?
A. More and more, I feel very strongly about community and connection. I teach at UC Davis now and have wonderful colleagues and students, and I get so much out of that community. I also teach an extremely wonderful group of women that has been meeting for workshops twice a year for two years. It’s important for me to have all that. Having said this, I feel it might be slightly in opposition to the work. Writing needs to be not about pleasing a community. I am grateful and honored to be in my various communities. I need them every bit as much as I need to write books. But I think writing may have to be protected from the spirit of community, if it’s going to continue to be honest.
Q. It’s a little-known fact that you are an avid cook. What is it about cooking that appeals to you?
A. I like cooking for some of the same reasons I like writing. I like combining unlike things and having it turn out well. Cooking can be very similar to writing in that way. When I’m teaching I talk about writing like a metaphor stew. You put all the experiences that you’ve ever had into a big pot of stew and you pull out what you need as you need it. Getting flavors to combine and putting ingredients together and turning them into something else—that’s what making a story is. The result is more than the sum of its parts.
Q. Do you have a favorite thing you like to make?
A. I love to do leg of lamb. I make pretty great white truffle oil mashed potatoes. I make really good buffalo meatloaf. But it always changes; it cycles through.
Q. What’s the most valuable lesson life has taught you so far?
A. I think I’ve spent part of my life to a greater or lesser degree protecting myself from loss and therefore protecting myself from real love. Not necessarily a romantic love but the kind of closeness to other beings, where you think: I can’t give myself up to this; if I do I’ll die if I lose it. That fear drives so many people away from real relationships. If there is one lesson that this connection between love and loss can teach us, it’s that you can’t have one without the other. And that’s what we’re here to learn: that we can survive that and be enriched by it.