Reporting the Oyster War
Bennington alumna Summer Brennan, class of ’01, studied painting, drama, and poetry (with Mary Oliver, no less), but was “less interested in how to write” than in taking “all those odd/wonderful courses Bennington offered.” She cites reading Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens at 11 or 12 as a major influence on her decision to become a writer.
Needing a break from New York City and her job as a United Nations communications consultant, Brennan returned to her native California to work as a reporter for the Point Reyes Light. There, she was assigned to cover the story of the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company and its battle against the U.S. government to stay in business. Her reporting on the story expanded and has now culminated in her first book-length work of non-fiction, The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America (Counterpoint Press, 2015).
The Oyster War, an eloquent and rich reading experience, captures the ‘oyster conflict’ up close and breathes life into the story of this unassuming invertebrate. Brennan is especially skilled at encapsulating the lives of the different people pulled into the controversy, from the scientists and activists to a local casino-owner. Her responses to our questions over email showed the same insight and generosity.
Literary Bennington: When scientists (and other experts) write about their fields of expertise, their credibility is rarely in question. Journalists, on the other hand, have to earn theirs. How did you acquire and convey your sense of authority in The Oyster War?
Summer Brennan: As a journalist writing nonfiction about a given topic, you are not so much an expert as you are a connoisseur of experts. Your function is to distill knowledge. You research, you dig, you cite your sources. In a way, a literary journalist, or a journalist writing in a creative way, is almost like a cinematographer. You create the point of view for the reader, but you don’t invent the landscape. The diligent gathering of the right information and the painting of that picture is where your expertise should lie.
The kind of long form journalism that interests me usually does a good job of placing the reader inside a scene the same way that fiction does. Reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, the reader doesn’t just hear about evolution and extinction, we get to “see” the corals of the Great Barrier Reef; “see” the Central American jungle after dark, or the bears roaming the mountains of Peru. Often, it is the novelty of a subject to a particular journalist that can be what helps bring a sense of freshness to the telling.
LB: How did you find on-site field reporting different from the work you do as a writer at the United Nations?
SB: It’s quite different, but I’d say the biggest difference is that I do not, for the most part, conduct interviews for my regular work at the UN. I write from documents and from being an observer. I ask clarifying questions, but I’m not driving the discussion.
LB: The Oyster War’s prologue sketches the story of how you came to be involved with oysters, from reporting for local paper the Point Reyes Light to deciding “Ah, I’m going to write a book about this.” What was the process?
SB: I actually had the idea to write the book as soon as I heard about the oyster farm conflict. I hadn’t even flown out to California for the newspaper job yet. I was house-sitting at a friend’s apartment in Harlem in the early spring of 2012 and I started to research the story because I knew it would be a big part of my reporting. It just seemed like a movie, with heroes and villains, and wild animals, and an environmental debate, and a possible government conspiracy. And it all took place in this gorgeous, foggy, rural setting. So I made some notes then, on how the story might be fleshed out into a book, and then just kept accumulating more notes until the summer of 2013 when I decided definitively that I would write it.
LB: Do you think, in controversial issues, the writer should represent both sides’ argument equally? How do you go about executing this in the book?
SB: When it comes to controversial issues, I think it is the writer’s responsibility to be representative of the arguments, which is fair, if not necessarily entirely “equal.” For example, if 99 percent of scientists think X and only 1 percent of scientists think Y, you don’t have to devote 50 percent of the story to each “side.” You may feel the need to mention the Y argument and you may not, but if your story is on the controversy end of it, then you do need to mention this fact and to do so fairly. You can even devote the whole book or article to the Y argument if that is your focus, but you can’t ignore that X exists, and that 99 percent of scientists believe it.
Storytelling is, by its very nature, selective. You have to decide what is and isn’t important to your story. Just don’t shoehorn selective information into your own preconceived idea of what the story should mean or how it should go. That’s called bias. Being opinionated is not the same thing as being biased. When I came to my conclusion at the end of The Oyster War, I did so because it seemed obvious to me. I am a great fan of nuance, but sometimes certain things can be answered with a simple yes or no.
LB: How was the experience of meeting and interviewing the characters in the book, who come from different walks of life? What was the best and worst/hardest thing about the personal reporting?
SB: It was sometimes great and sometimes challenging doing interviews for this book. Not everyone wanted to be interviewed, and some that did wanted to control what I wrote about. They wanted to direct the spin, and I had to subject myself to a fair amount of lobbying.
I don’t ever look for anything in particular when I interview people. I try to make sure I understand them clearly. I try to get details that will paint a vivid scene. I saw another journalist once tweet that she was always listening for some particular quote that she needed while she conducted interviews, and that when the interviewee said it, the thing, whatever the thing was, that she’d feel both glad that she’d “got it,” but also sad to be thinking in that almost predatory way.
I never feel that. I try to put myself in someone else’s shoes while they are talking. At least during the interview, I decided to believe them. I want to be on their side. I try to be present and to listen, and then afterwards I look at my notes and/or listen to my recording to see what I have. The moment I start to feel in any way mercenary when interviewing people is the moment I should stop doing this kind of work.
LB: Peppered throughout the book are quick yet sharp descriptions of the Californian landscape and natural world. Were you inspired by it? Do you write about nature a lot?
SB: I grew up in that part of Northern California and I love it very much, and much of the passion I felt while writing this book came out of my passion for this particular place. I like to write about my surroundings and experiences, about the visceral business of living and witnessing, but I don’t write about nature very often mostly because I’m not often in it these days. I live in New York City, and during the last few years I haven’t been able to take much vacation time due to the book. I was able to do my research for The Oyster War, which did mean wandering along beaches and sitting in forests to a degree. But once I was back in my apartment in Brooklyn to write the thing I didn’t get out in nature much.
Part of why I chose to go to Bennington was the rural setting. At eighteen, I don’t think I could have survived anywhere that didn’t have trails with wildflowers to be picked.
LB: What were the difficulties you faced while researching the book, i.e. ungranted interviews, biased sources, etc.? Any moments that stood out to you in particular?
SB: Yes. There were a few people in the book who dropped out of contact halfway through the process, and nothing I could do would get them to engage with me again. Maybe I should have just ambushed them, but I’m far too shy to be that kind of journalist and I didn’t want to be disrespectful. My guess is that lawyers were involved, and that certain people were told not to speak to me out of fear of what they might reveal, but I don’t know for sure. I did my best to work around it, and feel satisfied with the result.
LB: The Drake’s Bay Oyster Company closed down at the end of 2014, after, I imagine, you had finished the book. How did it feel seeing the story come to a conclusion?
SB: I was actually still writing the book in early February 2015. I found I couldn’t write the end until the end had actually happened, even though I knew what was coming to a degree. I was totally exhausted by that point, having written an intensely research-heavy book in just about ten months. Having done my research, the end did not surprise me, but I wasn’t emotionally attached to either potential outcome.
LB: Do you feel that Bennington helped prepare you to write this book? How did studying drama, poetry, and biology help you in covering this story?
SB: It did, actually, and here’s why: The point of Bennington is kind of to teach you to think across fields and genres. To cross-pollinate, integrate, and draw inspiration from seemingly disparate sources. I think that the most exciting nonfiction writing does this, weaving literature and science, culture and politics. I appreciate that Bennington gives its students the room to lay the groundwork for intellectual sprawl.