Tucker Malarkey is the author of the critically acclaimed and national bestselling novels An Obvious Enchantment and Resurrection. With a career that began at the Washington Post, her love of human culture and wilderness have since taken her all over the world. Tucker grew up fly fishing, studied Sovietology, and has traveled to Russia numerous times.
Her most recent book, Stronghold, is her first major work of non-fiction. The book follows one of the world’s greatest fly fishermen and his crusade to protect the world’s wild salmon against massive geopolitical forces. It is eye-opening, thrilling, and incredibly informative.
We called Tucker up to talk about her writing process, whether salmon will still exist in 100 years, her personal mission, favorite authors, and more.
You traveled to the Russian Far East during your research for Stronghold. What is the most interesting food from that part of the world?
The food is pretty basic. That part of the world is more or less impoverished. It’s a massive region, which is mostly populated by people the Russian government sent to set up camp and manage resources, because there are a lot of resources out there. The cities all feel super planned and lacking in history.
Back in the day, the socialist system fed everybody. When that was operating, they had really healthy fisheries, and all kinds of farm and food circulating throughout that region. After the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90’s, it all shut down.
Now it is almost subsistence living. It’s root vegetables and potatoes and carrots and things that are easy to grow because the climate is really harsh. Of course there is salmon and salmon roe. Russians in that part of the world are really knowledgeable about what grows in the region and they are resourceful with herbs and things that grow in the forest. I had this mushroom soup at one point that just was like ambrosia. But most of the time a meal was just boiled meat and vegetables. Just fuel to keep you going.
After reading Stronghold, I left feeling very concerned about the state of wild salmon on this planet and whether they’re going to be around in a hundred years. Now that you’ve written the book and you have a little more distance and perspective, can you tell me how you think this is going to play out? Are we dooming ourselves to a future without salmon?
There is a horrifying website that lists species that are going extinct on our planet on a weekly, or maybe even daily basis. Earth has become a really hostile environment for life in a lot of areas. But salmon are different because they are so resilient, and they’ve adapted to catastrophic circumstances before.
[Editor’s note: Earlier this year, inspired by Tucker, we wrote about the resiliency of salmon: Are You a Salmon Person?]
In the book, one of the themes is the importance of diversity, which I love seeing played out on such a biological level. Wild Pacific salmon have split into six species. And I think this reflects the complexity of the topography and the geography of the Pacific Rim. They all inhabit different niches within the lakes and rivers, and they all have particular needs. They go to the ocean for different periods of time. They eat different food. They spawn in different parts in the river. So they don’t really compete because they have different micro needs.
Some years will favor one species, and some years another. Perhaps one year pink chum salmon will do better, and other years, those breeding grounds may be compromised and the Steelhead who tend to go far, far up river do better.
So, within that diversity, there’s a good chance that some healthy, wild salmon populations will survive.
Of course, there are massive threats like Pebble Mine, which are being fought. I actually don’t believe that Pebble Mine will be built because it is just so obviously a complete environmental disaster waiting to happen. Not just for the salmon, but for Alaska and the human race. It’s just so blatantly toxic and wrong.
It’s hard to write about the environment now in a positive way. One reason I wanted to write this book was because it had a positive, optimistic message. It shows what a single person can do if they have the will and the commitment and vision like Guido does, if they won’t take no for an answer – it’s remarkable.
The other key message is that these fish embody a powerful life force. How can I describe it? It’s like they are always on their way somewhere. I think that’s a really important thing to be in life. If you realize it or not, all life forms are on their way somewhere – they’re either growing and proliferating, or they’re dying.
Salmon have this incredible trajectory, swimming out into the middle of nowhere – it’s crazy and courageous. And then they make an epic return to their birth rivers. That spirit, and the fact that they adapted in the first place from freshwater fish to tolerate salt water, it makes me think they’re capable of just about anything.
So I choose to be optimistic. Maybe that’s just my own psychic need. We’re so saturated with bad news that I just have to be hopeful about some of these things. Salmon are certainly in the running to survive.
I like that perspective. I will choose to be optimistic as well.
Yeah, exactly. Because then you’re in the fight. And that matters.
One of the lines I highlighted in the book was when one of the characters, Peter Seligman, gives Guido advice and says: “Be crystal clear about your mission. Decide exactly what you need to get it done. And find the right person to back you.” I loved that framework. I’m curious: do you have a mission?
Wow, that’s a crazy good question and a hard question, but I’ve been actually thinking about it. My kid is going off to college next year and my mother is transitioning out of this world, so I’m at a point in my life where my main tethers to the earth are sort of fraying. Not in a bad way… in a natural way. But soon I’m going to be really freed up. At the same time, I am feeling a bit of post-publishing deflation.
In my writing, my mission has always been to tell stories that I think haven’t been told. I don’t think I’m a particularly fabulous writer, but I can recognize a good story and I can do my best to hunt it down, to channel it, and to present it. So right now I think my mission is really to keep my ears open for the stories that I’m in a unique position to tell and to remain present and keep learning and experiencing this place while I’m still here.
I don’t find that I’m aging out of my state of wonder about this. We are just discovering how profoundly interwoven we all are. We’re learning that trees talk, and not just through their roots, but through their leaves. They can even recognize people in some way – I was reading a study that shows that plants can have an awareness of human energy. It’s inspiring.
It seems like we’re in a dead heat race right now between high tech hubris and ignorance and this enlightened consciousness that is dawning for lots of people who are realizing that we’re all in this together and that if you pull one thread and the whole tapestry is affected.
I’m obviously rooting for the latter, so whatever I can do towards that end – like writing about it in some new way – I want to do.
Before I read Stronghold, I heard it was a bit of a page turner. But honestly, I was skeptical and was wondering: how thrilling could a story about a guy who works in salmon conservation really be? And then I read it and found out that it actually is a page turner and at the same time, I learned a ton.
You know, the whole trick is to weave valuable information into an energetic story. That’s really how people learn. They learn when they’re not trying so hard and when they’re emotionally engaged. I knew that with this book, even though it was heavy on the science, that I needed to write from my heart.
I had a lot to learn a lot going into this. The book is full of stuff I didn’t know anything about, and I had to learn it and not just spout it back, but really metabolize it. I had to become really familiar with this world so that I could write about it in an organic way, not a didactic, academic way.
Do you have a writing routine?
I work in the mornings and sometimes in the dead of night, when things are quiet and clear for me. I’ve meditated for decades and it’s in that kind of still place that I can make sense of things and make leaps and bounds in my process.
During the work day, I can get cluttered and clouded by events and people, which makes doing the deeper work hard.
The other instruction I have for myself is that I don’t allow my conscious mind to become too much a part of the process. I’ve learned that for me it’s not the most intelligent faculty or driver, and that my unconscious can grasp so much more and so much more deeply.
I’ll often do this kind of wacky thing if I have a problem. With Stronghold, there were lots of things I just didn’t know how to do, like how am I going to condense this material? How am I going to weave in this density?
And I ask my unconscious mind to figure it out and take my hands off the wheel. And then, magically, the messenger comes back with instructions about what to do. I discovered this process about a decade ago and I was really happy about it because it makes writing mystical and fun, and it keeps me totally humble about the process.
I love not attaching my ego to what I do because it’s really not about me. It’s about getting out of my own way and putting into words the material that’s already out there.
In addition to giving your unconscious some room to run, do you have other methods that you use to avoid ruts or stagnation or “writer’s block”?
Oh, God. Recently I’ve had pretty terrible writer’s block. Even though I’ve been writing, I haven’t felt inspired or energized or excited. Even though the material’s good, and I think I’m doing a pretty good job with it, I’m just not in my zone. It’s like I don’t have my mojo and that’s critical.
So I just decided to walk away from the project that I had been working on. I have started free writing, which I haven’t done in a long time. Just sitting down and kind of trying to locate myself at this point in time.
Stronghold took me way, way far away from myself. I was in the world of fish (and a lot of white men) for like five years and so I think I’m trying to find my way back to source.
I believe that whatever you’re feeling when you’re writing or creating is somehow translated or shows up in the material. It’s a weird mystical belief I have, but I think the word choices that I make when I am in my zone are perfect, or can be pretty close to perfect. But when I’m not in my zone, I am just grabbing at words that might work, and they often aren’t close to perfect.
If I can’t get to that zone, I will go to people who are. I’ll read writers that I love. I’ll read poetry, I’ll listen to music, I’ll look at tress. All of those things that feed me, they feed my core and they’re all creative in their own way.
I think that the idea of writing or becoming an author is really confusing to people.Like, you know, where do you start? Do you need to get an agent? What’s the first thing you’re supposed to do? Can you just talk briefly about starting for anyone who may have this inkling that they have an author or a writer inside of them, and they’re a little uncertain of what to do next.
Gosh, the most important thing to do is just to start and not to think about the market or what might happen or is this viable. It’s all viable!
Writing, first of all, it’s its own therapy, and whether or not you publish, it still has enormous value. The market is pretty depressing because it is flooded and competitive. And a lot of the stuff that’s out there is mediocre, if not worse. But I’ve learned that if you want to get published, one of the most important things to do is to have a good story, a good vehicle.
The rule tends to be: If you have a good story and so-so writing, you’re much more likely to get published than if you have a so-so story and great writing. So respecting plot is important. Plot is why people read. That’s why Stronghold worked. It was set up like a novel, with narrative tension – like, what’s going to happen next?
Thinking about plot is an interesting lens to look at the world through. Even if you’re just watching Netflix, it’s like, okay, why am I watching this, what’s actually pulling me through this story? You can cultivate an editorial eye.
Read, read, read, read, read. See how writers that you love are doing what they do. And imitate! Copy! I’m a big believer in that because it’s how most artists begin, and there’s absolutely no shame in it. Very little is truly original. The key is authenticity. I think there should be no fear in this idea that “this has been done.” Everything’s been done. But guess what? There’s always hunger for more good stories. More authentic voices.
Speaking of copying and stealing, what are some of your personal favorite writers that have inspired you throughout your career?
I anticipated this question and it’s like my least favorite question, so I was like, guess what? I’m going to think about it beforehand. That’s changed in the course of my life, so I’ll throw a few names out there.
There are lots of writers who taught me something really profound.
I learned from Hemingway – and he’s not very feminist writer – but he just blew me away with the spareness and precision of his language, and he did something that I hadn’t seen done before and I found it absolutely intoxicating.
Faulkner because he broke so many rules and was such a genius. Or James Joyce. They’d never be published now.
Peter Matthiessen was an actual mentor of mine. He did something really special – he wrote about nature and spirit and the human experience in such a powerful, brave way. In fact, when he died, I went into a bit of a depression thinking, who is going to write those books now? About nature and interweaving the natural and the human story in a really effective way. And I thought, well, I have to try.
Another influence is Beryl Markham. She grew up in Africa and wrote an amazing memoir called West with the Night. It’s absolutely beautiful. You just can open it to any page and dip into this pool of image and language and meaning.
Another is the Italian writer Elena Ferrante. She recreated an entire world, down to the last detail. I have great admiration for that.
Madeline Miller is another writer who’s done that with her book Circe. Miller is a classicist and recreates ancient Greece and contemporizes it in a really compelling way.
Are there any books specifically about writing or creating art that have influenced you?
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard.
A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver. It’s about how to read and write poetry, but it really applies to all writers.
You have lived and traveled in a lot of unique places. What are some underrated places that more people should visit, either domestic or abroad?
I am drawn to places where you can still see the story of the land, like Alaska and Africa. I’m not sure those places are underrated but I think they should be seen because sometimes amazing things can happen when the earth is uncovered, and you can see the planetary narrative.
If you had to articulate a mantra for your year ahead, what would it be?
Stay with it. Stay with the process.
It’s like what our country’s going through now. You want to jump ship but staying with the discomfort and the expansions as well as the retractions, just realizing it’s all part of the same movement forward, even if it doesn’t always feel that good.
What was one purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months?
One of my great weaknesses is really good olive oil, and I blame this Italian friend of mine who’s corrupted me. And so I buy this early season Sicilian olive oil that’s like 35 bucks a bottle and it’s incredible. The brand is Laudemio. They call it Tuscan Tabasco, because it’s got a real bite to it, and it’s almost bitter. Put it in a little bowl with some salt and get fresh bread and dip it in.
What is one musical artist or a specific album or song that you’ve been loving lately?
I’ve been in a little bit of a retro mood and listening to Stevie Wonder lately. He’s bringing me back to another time. He’s so vibey and his heart is so big and it just gives me a little bit of a lift in this dark time.
How can people keep up with you and support your work?
Buy Stronghold. Random House couldn’t figure out exactly how to market the book, so often I’ll find it in bookstores, but it will be squirreled away in natural history or something. It’s selling fairly well, but it hasn’t really broken through to the general public. So more people need to read it!