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Powell’s Q&A: Bill Streever

Describe your latest book.
My latest book — that is, my latest completed book — is Heat. Heat, simply put, is about all things hot. It is a natural sequel to my book Cold, really just a march up the thermometer from where Cold left off. But what a topic! It is warm bloodedness and fever, the first appearance of fire on earth, cooking, climate change, fuels like wood and peat and coal and oil, historical figures like Galileo Galilei and Mark Twain and Charles Dickens and Captain James Cook, volcanoes, the sun, and the beginning of the universe. And it is a topic that let me wander in places I would have otherwise missed — ambling ill-equipped into deserts, stepping across recently hardened lava just inches above the earth's inner red glow, and walking barefoot over burning coals. It bound me to scientists like Faraday and Lavoisier and Tyndall. It gave me an excuse to taste crude oil and a reason to hike 70 miles to a site once coveted by Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb. It got me into the heart of the supercollider at Brookhaven, where temperatures of 7 trillion degrees Fahrenheit have been achieved. In short, it let me tell the story of something that is with us all the time but taken so much for granted that it is all but ignored. If readers find it half as fun to read as I found it to research and write, I will be happy.

If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
An Obscure Man Who Did His Best to Make the Most out of Life: What Ever Happened to Our Friend Bill?

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I was a commercial diver for 10 years, in harbors and then in oil fields. It was a great job for a young person, and I was lucky enough to move on without any real damage. And yes, I still dive.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Yes — most recently to New Bedford, in search of Herman Melville's past. But any time I am within striking distance of something relevant to an author I admire, I go. There is something special about walking in the footsteps of great authors and thinkers.

What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
Well, my favorite shoes, in the broadest sense, are my metal-edged backcountry skies. Their ability to carry me over deep snow into the backcountry makes them better than any of my other shoes. However, they are cumbersome on the dance floor.

If skis don't count, then my next-favorite shoes are my Dive Rite diving fins. I've had them for years and have used them in the Arctic, in flooded limestone caves, on tropical reefs, and in kelp forests. I've used many pairs of fins in my life, but these are my favorite in terms of weight, simplicity, and shared memories. However, on the dance floor they are almost as cumbersome as skies, and when wearing them in my car, I find it hard to operate the clutch.

For my somewhat unrefined feet, all other shoes are just shoes. (I could wax poetic about my hiking boots, which are waterproof and very tough, and which did not melt when walking on recently hardened lava, but they are neither skis nor fins and so would suffer in comparison.)

Fahrenheit, Celsius, or Kelvin?
In both Heat and Cold, I relied on Fahrenheit, the scale most familiar to most American readers. But in my own life I am a Celsius man. It makes sense to me to have water thaw (and usually but not always freeze) at zero and boil at 100. A bit of trivia: Only the United States, Myanmar, and Liberia have not standardized on the metric system (according to David Blatner, my friend and author of the recently released Spectrums). In any case, for anyone losing sleep over the competition for the best scale: remember, it is fairly easy to convert from one to the other to the other. To go from Fahrenheit to Celsius, subtract 32 and divide by 2 (well, that will get you close and you can do it in your head). And from there to Kelvin, add 273.15.

On a clear and cold day, do you typically get outside into the sunshine or stay inside where it's warm?
Seriously? Are there people who would stay inside?

What would you want to have engraved on your gravestone?
If I have to have a gravestone, how about: "Resuscitate promptly upon exhumation." Yeah, I love life.

Five books on sailing and voyaging:
It is tough to pick a single topic because my interests range far and my attention span runs short. But I will offer five books on sailing and voyaging. Why? Because my companion (a.k.a. my wife) and I recently bought a 44-foot ketch, moving a little closer to satisfying my lifelong ambition to circumnavigate under sail.

  • Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum — the most amazingly upbeat account of what had to be a grueling journey, by a man who eventually disappeared at sea, which is not, when you think of it, such a bad way to go.
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville — I often wonder why I write at all, as Melville pretty much said or at least hinted at most things worthy of the pen.
  • Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban — a powerful narrative about a straightforward cruise.
  • The Bounty by Caroline Alexander — there is a great deal to be learned from failed leadership.
  • Chapman's Piloting, Seamanship, and Small Boat Handling by Elbert S. Maloney and Charles Frederic Chapman, now in its 66th edition, with untold contributors — while it is a different sort of book than the other four, it cannot be ignored as both a reference and a literary achievement.

(A note to anyone reading this: if you have other books on sailing and voyaging that you would like to recommend, please email me.)

÷ ÷ ÷

Bill Streever is the author of the national bestseller Cold and the new book Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places. He chairs the North Slope Science Initiative's Science Technical Advisory Panel in Alaska and serves on many related committees, including a climate change advisory panel. A biologist, he lives with his son in Anchorage, where he hikes, bikes, camps, scuba dives, and cross-country skies, as often as the weather allows.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Cold: Adventures in the World's... Used Trade Paper $5.50
  2. Heat: Adventures in the World's... Used Hardcover $8.95
  3. Spectrums: Our Mind-Boggling...
    New Hardcover $25.00
  4. Chapman Piloting and Seamanship 66TH... Used Hardcover $45.50
  5. The Bounty: The True Story of the... Used Trade Paper $3.50

  6. Moby Dick (Library of America... Used Trade Paper $8.00
  7. Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its...
    Used Trade Paper $7.50

Bill Streever is the author of Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places

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