Our nonfiction editor, E.T. Perry, recently spoke with Cardy Raper, author of the essay, “Mother Nature’s Kama Sutra,” which appears in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016. Here’s what Cardy had to say about the themes of nature, science, curiosity, and independence that run through her life and work, including her latest book, An American Harvest: How One Family Moved from Dirt-Poor Farming to a Better Life in the Early 1900s.
Where did you grow up and can you describe your experience? How do you feel your upbringing has affected you?
Born and bred in Plattsburgh, New York, I was the youngest and only girl in a family of six siblings. My five brothers offered tough love. Whenever I accomplished something of note, the greatest praise I remember receiving was, “That’s pretty good—for a girl!” I was called a tomboy, trying to do most of the things they did: skiing, skating, boating, hiking, camping, working on the family farm in Peru. My dad, brought up on that farm, made a living as [a] small town lawyer—he brought home the bacon; mom stayed home, keeping the household going, loving and disciplining us kids.
You’ve had an impressive career as a scientist, researcher, and professor—having earned degrees from the University of Chicago and Harvard and publishing widely—and in 2012 you were elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Can you talk a bit about the trajectory of your career?
I became enamored of science in third grade at the practice school of the Plattsburgh Normal and Training School, which later became SUNY Plattsburgh. We had a science teacher who inspired us with hands-on projects, like building a simulated volcano or a toy sailboat. One spring evening he took us on a hike up a small Adirondack mountain overlooking Lake Champlain, and talked about the sun, the planets, the stars—what we knew and didn’t know then.
My youngest brother and I got so excited I announced, next evening at suppertime, “When Jonnie and I grow up, we want to be scientists!”
My mother responded, “That’s nice, dear, Jonnie can be a doctor, and you can be a nurse.”
“But Mom, I don’t want to be a nurse. I want to be a scientist and discover things!”
The desire persisted, but I was never encouraged to become a scientist until I became a graduate student at the University of Chicago and met my mentor, John Raper—better known as Red. We worked together. He respected my abilities and potential. We fell in love, got married, and worked together.
Your research as well as your essay in this year’s Best Of, “Mother Nature’s Kama Sutra,” deal largely with various modes of sexual reproduction. Within the many fields of science and biology, what drew you to studying and working on genetics and sexual reproduction specifically?
The teachings of two professors at the University of Chicago: Red Raper, plant biologist and mycologist, a leading expert on reproductive processes in fungi, and Sewall Wright, a famous geneticist who was the first to work out a unified picture of evolution based on Mendel’s laws of inheritance.
What drew you to writing—be that science writing or creative writing? What relationship, if any, do you see between the two?
I was interested in writing from an early age, but chose science as a main objective, thinking, I guess, that I needed to experience something worthwhile to write about. Science writing evolved over time to become more factual and less narrative. Having retired from my career in science, I’ve felt the urge to convey the way and meaning of science to non-scientists. Writing for a different reading public has required a great deal of learning through trial and error and the advice of other writers and editors.
Are there certain authors you find particularly inspiring, and why?
My views change according to time of life, mood, etc. I’ve always loved reading Mark Twain’s works. I like Hemingway’s style but not necessarily his subjects or characters. Now I’m more interested in the development of characters in whatever I read. The subject has to keep my interest, and I like to learn new things, such as what it was like to live in the Victorian age, or be part of a string quartet, as in Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music. I’m currently a fan of good memoirs, biographies, and historical fiction.
How would you describe your writing style? How do you think it has evolved over time?
I strive to be fairly focused and concise while sparing in the use of adjectives and the passive voice. I like to make a story of nonfiction with a narrative approach while avoiding heavy reliance on litany and strict chronology. My writing of memoir [and] creative nonfiction is very different from my previous writing of scientific papers and grant proposals.
I love how “Mother Nature’s Kama Sutra” weaves together biological understandings of gender with ideological ones, meanwhile a studied wonder and appreciation of Mother Nature as the ultimate innovator pervades. How do you feel scientific information and personal anecdote work together in your writing?
I think the personal touch can convey the message in a more compelling way—allows for the opportunity of introducing passion, pathos, and humor.
Can you describe your writing routine? What would be your ideal conditions for writing?
I need to be in the mood for it. Then [I] work in a quiet place, like my study at home, without interruptions. I prefer the midday hours. When the mood fades, I quit and do something else.
You are currently a Burlington resident. How would you characterize your relationship to Burlington and to Vermont?
Burlington is the ideal place for me to live out my remaining years. I love the availability of attractive amenities within manageable confines, the beauty of the landscape, and the proximity of treasured relatives, friends, and colleagues.
Your memoir, A Woman of Science: An Extraordinary Journey of Love, Discovery, and the Sex Life of Mushrooms, as well as “Mother Nature’s Kama Sutra,” seem to deal significantly with themes of independence—independence as a woman, as a scientist, and perhaps also as a mother, wife, and author. Can you talk a bit about these themes and how they might take shape in your life and your work?
Having been brought up as the youngest and only girl amidst a bunch of dominating older brothers, I had to develop a sense of independence and self-worth just to survive. Importantly, family love was always there for me. I thereby gained respect for worthy accomplishments.
What do you expect the impact of your writing is on your readers? What do you hope they come away with?
I hope to help readers gain a better understanding of how one can succeed with passion, persistence, and a great deal of hard work.
It sounds like you have a new book coming out soon—can you tell us a bit about that?
My new book, An American Harvest: How One Family Moved from Dirt-Poor Farming to a Better Life in the Early 1900s, is just off the press and available for order.
Details can be found at www.cardyraper.com. This family memoir is written in the tradition of the Foxfire series. A review from Vermont author, Howard Mosher, describes it as “a wonderfully authentic swatch of Americana ranging from tobacco raising to hog butchering, old-time revivals to community corn-shucking, clannish feuds to mutual help in times of need…a loving avocation of a hard way to live.”
To hear Cardy and others read their work from this year’s anthology, join us for the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 print launch party: Friday, April 29, 2016 6-9 pm at Burlington City Arts (BCA), 135 Church Street, Burlington, VT. RSVP now >
More about The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016
This book is the fourth installment in the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop series. Founded in 2013, the annual anthology features work that is written, selected, and edited by BWW members. The mission of the anthology is to showcase the work of new, emerging, and established Vermont writers while offering Vermonters the opportunity to learn first-hand about the editing, publishing, and book marketing process. The 2016 edition will be available for purchase soon. Learn more or purchase a copy of past anthologies in the series >