In 2007, Houghton Mifflin published Good Birders Don’t Wear White, a lively collection of 50 essays by noted birders and authors about their lifelong love of birds. Priced low and in small paperback format, the book was a big hit among birders and was reprinted several times. This year Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is publishing a sequel called, appropriately enough, Good Birders Still Don’t Wear White. It features 37 new essays from acclaimed birders such as Richard Crossley, David Lindo, and Noah Strycker, as well as BirdWatching’s own Kenn Kaufman, Pete Dunne, and Chuck Hagner. Actress and nature advocate Lili Taylor writes about marauding House Sparrows. Sharon Stiteler (aka Birdchick) explains why technology has made birding more accessible. Recently, the book’s co-editor, Lisa White, talked with our publisher, Lee Mergner, about the origin of the series as well as the raison d’être for the two books.
What was the idea behind the original book Good Birders Don’t Wear White?
Lisa White: The real origin of it came from an essay that Sheri Williamson wrote as one of the sidebars in another book that Pete Dunne did called Pete Dunne on Bird Watching. He had sidebars with contributions from other writers/birders and hers was called “Good Birders Don’t Wear White.” I just thought that was really cute and would make a great title for a book. We were in Cape May at the Autumn Birding Festival in 2005 and Katrina [Kruse] and Taryn [Roeder] from our staff were there with me, and we started talking about what a book called Good Birders Don’t Wear White would be. We started talking about getting different writers to write little essays. On the plane home I was thinking about it and started making a list of possible contributors and by the time I got home I had more than 50 writers whom I could approach and get an essay out of. Also, the idea was to make it small and more of an impulse and inexpensive buy and to benefit the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, with some of the proceeds from that book going to the Institute. The thinking there was to benefit the Institute, and that if [readers] felt that part of it [the purchase price] was a contribution to a good nonprofit that they would like to support, then that would help sell the book a little more.
One of my questions was going to be the origin of the title, but you answered that. Was there any problem with appropriating it for the book?
What we did was use Sheri’s piece in the first book, so it became the title essay. She was fine with it.
Was it difficult to get writers to contribute?
These contributors did this as work-for-hire and we paid them a one-time fee. They’re not necessarily invested in selling more copies than fewer. Some are just doing it for the visibility and are happy to be included and part of it. Others are doing it maybe even as a favor to me. Not many people said no. Some people said no because they were just too busy and couldn’t fit the writing into their schedule.
Did the authors come up with their own topics, and if so did you have to go back to them and ask them to adjust them based on duplication or other issues?
Actually, we suggested topics. Sometimes people did what we suggested and sometimes they’d say, “I’d rather write about this, is that okay?” It was a combination. For some people it’s really obvious. Like with Marie Read [in the second book], she’s going to write about photography, most likely. Nathan Pieplow was going to write about bird vocalizations.
I found Pieplow’s essay to be surprisingly poignant because he goes from talking about the technical side of spectrograms to explaining that he was losing his hearing and that this physical representation of bird songs might end up being his only connection to that world. I think that’s what really makes a story or essay or column resonate — when there’s something specific that’s both personal and dramatic in the story. That detail stays with you. I also love that you included a piece by a hunter — a turkey hunter.
It’s a little counter-intuitive. Pete Dunne wrote about hunting in his book Bayshore Summer, but we didn’t have anything in the first book about hunting. It was an interesting juxtaposition, too, because Drew Lanham’s essay [about hunting turkeys] follows a piece by Dorian Anderson who wrote about his utter disdain for hunters and staying in the house of a hunter during his Big Year.
But that’s what makes an anthology great — the diversity of voices. I also connected with the book so readily because the pieces are very much like magazine columns. And a good column has a thesis or point of view. And in this book they’re all so different.
We gave the writers a lot of guidelines.
Like a word count?
Definitely a word count. But even in terms of their writing. What we really wanted to achieve was to have active avid birders express or get at the heart of what it is they love about birds — why they devote so much of their time and energy to this hobby, with the aim of helping others to understand the lure of it for them…and maybe recruiting some of them too. We gave them a lot of guidance around that: Look at why you love recording birds or why you love pelagic trips or whatever. That might have a little to do with why most seem to have a thesis, because we tried really hard to get them to do that.
The essays are also written in a very accessible style as well. There are some inside birding terms used, but generally it can be read and enjoyed by non-birders as well. Was that purposeful on your part?
Absolutely. It’s meant to be a gateway drug, in a way. With this one, a portion of the proceeds is going to the American Birding Association [ABA]. Part of [ABA President] Jeff Gordon’s interest in working with us on this book was his thinking that it could be used as a membership premium. I think he used the term “calling card” for the ABA to describe it. It’s like a proselytizing tool. [People who join, renew, or gift an ABA membership in March, will be entered into a drawing in which 20 copies of the book will be given away.]
What was the reaction to the first book, whether from contributors or readers? I know from my own experience in the world of publishing that you don’t necessarily get much feedback.
It was generally really good. When we did the first book, we did panels and signings at various festivals and people were excited about it.
It seems to me that this is a book that a birder might buy for someone else to introduce them to birding.
The core audience is definitely birders, at whatever level.
What lead you to do another volume? Was it because of all the stories that you weren’t able to include in the first one? You could have just kept reprinting the original edition.
We did reprint the first one. It’s been 10 years now and we’ve done over seven printings. The main reason is that people kept asking me “When are you going to do a sequel?” I thought, “Well, after 10 years, maybe we could do another one.” What I didn’t want was just to do more of the same. It’s not all the same writers. There is a little overlap because there are some that you just want to have in there.
Pete Dunne seems like he was built to contribute to a book like this. He’s all about making birding accessible.
We tried really hard to go with some different writers and get some new voices in there. It just seemed like it was time and people had been asking.
Were there any pieces that surprised you?
I can point out one that I thought was pretty unusual, which was Jen Brumfield’s piece about doing a pelagic on the Great Lakes. [Editor’s note: Brumfield’s piece will be excerpted in the May/June issue of BirdWatching.] Her writing style is a little unusual. She had this dialogue and it was ALL CAPS for this boat captain who was yelling. And her style is very clipped, in a way.
It sounded almost like a script.
Exactly, and there’s a voice that’s a little bit different from a straight-on essay.
The illustrations set the tone for the book. The word I would use to describe them is cartoonish, though I don’t mean that in a derogatory way.
They are cartoonish. Part of the original concept of the first book was that we were going for humor, but then we realized that most people can’t do humor well.
It’s a lot harder than people might think.
Yes, so we switched the theme to light, not laugh-out-loud funny. So that’s why the illustrations worked. And that’s why we got to that artist, Robert Braunfield, because we were specifically looking for more of a cartoon style to go with the light and fun tone of the book. I think he did an amazing job this time. In the first book, only some of the essays were illustrated. For this book, when I presented during our initial launch meeting, it was someone from the sales department who asked, “Could we have an illustration with every essay?” I had to go back to Rob and amend his contract and say, “Actually, we want you to do more illustrations,” which is great. I didn’t really give him any direction. He read the essays and came up with these illustrations on his own. I just love how he captured the essence of each essay.
I enjoyed Jeff Gordon’s introduction in which he talked about how birders comprise a true community. I also liked the way he illustrated that by comparing birders to fishermen, who in contrast are notorious for not sharing what they’ve discovered or seen. Anyone who has been out on a river with them knows what he’s talking about. I thought it was a nice way to set the tone for the book, because people can perceive serious birders as eccentric loners.
Yes, that’s true. There was a piece on NPR recently about that animated short film from Pixar that won an Oscar — Piper. There was a guy on NPR who at least had a sense of humor about it, but he was complaining that any birder worth his salt would know that that was not a Piping Plover, it’s a Sanderling. And that they always use the Red-tailed Hawk vocalization for the Bald Eagle in movies. I think the title was something like “Trying to Make Hollywood Accurate Is a Lonely Business.” [Editor’s note: it was actually “Plea to Hollywood: Get Your Bird Sounds Straight.”] I appreciate that he was funny about it.
Of course, even the title of the book is about that sort of ethos: the “do’s and don’ts” of birding.
Probably the most controversial thing about both of these books is the title. First of all, there are the “should and shouldn’t” issues. One of the things that Kenn Kaufman says in his essay is not to let an experienced birder tell you how you should go birding and that there is no right or wrong way to go birding. His essay in the first book was “Good Birders Do Wear White.” The idea was: Question authority. Anyway, it’s very controversial, this whole concept of wearing white and whether it scares away birds. Of course, you get the people who say that you can go birding on the beach and it doesn’t scare the gulls away. Even in the forest or in the woods, some people say that, “I wear a white t-shirt and it’s fine.” You really have to read Sheri Williamson’s original essay to see what she’s getting at. I look at it [the title] not as a joke exactly, but as cute and provocative.
Meet the co-editors
White and Gordon will moderate a panel on May 7 at the Biggest Week in American Birding in northeast Ohio. Several of the contributors will talk about the book and will sign copies afterward.