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Powell's Q&A

Hannah Holmes

Describe your latest project.
When biologists discover a new animal, they follow a formula to produce a description of it. What color is it? How many legs? What does it eat? How does it mate? Does it dwell in trees, or under rocks? The Well-Dressed Ape applies the formula to Homo sapiens. The results are pretty funny. And fascinating. And sobering.

  1. The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself
    $8.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "[An] engaging look at Homo sapiens....Holmes brings fresh eyes to her look at our old species." Booklist

    "Holmes makes the scientific personal in prose that is juicy and humorous..." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  2. Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn
    $4.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Witty, imaginative, and powerful....Holmes is a Rachel Carson for 21st-century suburbia. (Grade: A)" Entertainment Weekly

    "The writing is punchy and chock-full of strange and wonderful facts....Holmes makes it seem utterly commonplace to invite a chipmunk into one's home or spend the afternoon observing slugs." The Oregonian

  3. The Secret Life of Dust: From the Cosmos to the Kitchen Counter, the Big Consequences of Little Things
    $5.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Witty, interesting, and absolutely terrifying." Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    "An excellent work. Dust is small, but The Secret Life of Dust is a big, and fun, accomplishment." Austin American-Statesman

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I once had a job guarding a construction site, which I could perform while sleeping in the VW van I was driving cross-country. (That sentence is so perfectly deranged I'm going to let it be.) One night I was awakened by a foreman who was offering me 20 dollars to open the door. Another night I came "home" late to discover that hooligans had toppled the port-a-john, spilling imitation-grape-scented sewage I could smell from two blocks away. I made 175 dollars a week for sleeping. Also, I once had a job driving human hearts from the airport to the hospital.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.

I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words.
—William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

How do you relax?
I'm not one of those people who can spend a day at the beach. My brain is like a border collie. If it doesn't have a job to do, it's going to whirl in circles and eat the doormat. To unwind from work, I have to aim my brain at something that's both absorbing and produces immediate results. Carpentry is good. Cooking, too. I've never tried driving a bunch of sheep into a pen, but I imagine it's pretty satisfying.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I once found Shakespeare's grave by mistake — does that count? I think it was his. It was so unheralded and covered with cedar needles that I still wonder if it was really his. Might have been a brother or a cousin Shakespeare. It was in Stratford on Avon, where he lived. I was hitchhiking across the British Isles, and lo! Out here, behind a church, it's Shakespeare's grave! I probably only went there to pee — I don't remember. There wasn't a soul around. It was just an old cemetery. (OK, I just looked it up online, and the Real Deal is entombed inside the church. So I haven't even been on an accidental literary pilgrimage. But I possibly peed near the grave of one of Shakespeare's relatives.)

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
Bacon, black coffee, bottle of Tums.

Fahrenheit, Celsius, or Kelvin?
I think that any one of them would be a good buy right now. All are on the rise, and the forecast is for further gains in the next reporting period.

Who are your favorite characters in history? Have any of them influenced your writing?
My great grandmother, Elizabeth Woodbridge Morris, was an essayist for The Atlantic Monthly, back in the day. I wouldn't say she influenced my writing style, since hers had that tinkety-tunkety tidiness of the era. But I think her concern for nature's vulnerability — to the plow, to the motor car, to being overlooked — has influenced the values of her descendants ever since. Not that we're a clan of, you know, neon-green environmentalists, 'cause this great grandmother also got a big thrill from shooting ducks.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five Books I Open Most Often, in All Honesty:

World Atlas. Oversized one, with many rumpled Post-its.

Gray's Anatomy. With the cover featuring a nice upward view into the neck region.

Roger Tory Peterson's Eastern Birds. The birds I spot are never in there, but I open it again and again.

Unleashed: Poems by Writers' Dogs, edited by Amy Hempel and Jim Shephard. You can't read just one.

Susan Purdy's A Piece of Cake. Her carrot cake could change the course of your life.

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Hannah Holmes is the author of Suburban Safari and The Secret Life of Dust. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times magazine, Los Angeles Times magazine, Discover, Outside, and many other publications. She was a frequent contributor on science and nature subjects for the Discovery Channel Online. She lives with her husband and dog in Portland, Maine.


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