Author interview: Dan Chiras

In the world of environmental writers Dan Chiras is a superstar, the author of more than thirty (30!) books including best-sellers The Natural House and The Solar House.

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He is John Grisham, Stephen King, and Patricia Cornwell combined.

But now the nasty truth can be told. Dan Chiras is ... an ... aspiring ... novelist.

His new book, Here Stands Marshall, has been more than 25 years in the making. Finally, after much polishing and buffing, a phD, a day job churning out great books on green building and how to live your life in harmony with the planet, Dan Chiras puts his ego squarely on the line.

Here Stands Marshall, but more importantly, here stands Dan Chiras.

What's the coolest part of the human body?

I've always liked the parahippocampal gyrus. It's not that this area of the brain is particularly attractive, it's not. It's rather unremarkable. And, it is not that this part of the brain performs some miraculous function. It doesn't store memory or allow us to develop new ideas. I can't even remember what it does. I just like the name, which rolls off the tongue like a sweet kiss on a cool summer night...

What lesson did you learn too late?

Pretty much all of life's lessons have worked their way through my thick skull into my cerebral cortex belatedly. I guess you could say I am a bit of a late bloomer. I have had to learn and relearn -- most of life's lessons the hard way through trial and error. Maybe we all do! I think the lesson that took me the longest time to learn and internalize the lesson that is the most significant -- was the same lesson Marshall grapples with in my first novel, Here Stands Marshall, notably that love is indeed "the truest form of wisdom." It is a guiding principle upon which all of our interactions with others, even our "enemies," should be grounded.

What lesson did you learn most recently?

I've learned that I truly love this country and its people, even though at times I am totally frustrated with and angered by the direction we're taking and the choices we make Beneath the angst is a deep and abiding love for this magnificent country and a desire to make things better.

A book to recommend?

I have read so many fabulous books in my life that I'd have a hard time listing just one book to read.

Among my favorite novels are: The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler (one of my all-time favorite books), All Visitors Ashore by C.K. Stead (another delightful book by a New Zealand author), American Blood by John Nichols (a fabulous book about a man teetering on the brink of insanity); The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth (a novel set in verse; Shakespeare would be proud to have written this one); and Stripah Love by Stephen Hunter Morris (a delightful, witty, and compelling novel of a man at a crucial turning point in his life).

Of the classics, my favorites include: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis.

In the nonfiction real, my favorites include: Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff and Thieves in High Places by Jim Hightower.

Who is your favorite musician?

Just like favorite writers and books, there are so many excellent musicians in the world, so many that simply bowl me over with their genius, I'd have trouble selecting one to dub as my favorite. My list of favorites would include Michael Buble, a relative newcomer who sings a lot of the classic songs that Frank Sinatra and his contemporaries made popular; Grover Washington, Jr. as the best damn sax player in the Universe; Tim Weisberg and Herbie Mann as the best jazz flutists in the world; Eric Clapton as outstanding male rock singer and guitarist extraordinaire; David Wilcox for best male who-the-heck-knows-how-to-classify this-genius?; Carly Simon for the most exciting and intriguing female pop singer; James Taylor as one of the world's most amazing song writers and singers; The Eagles and The Beatles as some of the most imaginative and innovative song writers and purveyors of melody; Peter, Paul, and Mary for most amazing folk singers; and Chopin for classical composer who never fails to amaze me with his genius.

Oh, but I'm not done yet, I can't forget Carlos Santa for his ingenious writing and guitar work, Boots Randolph for his amazing sax playing, John Denver for his creative songs and lasting melodies, and Neil Diamond who can sing like no one I have ever known and has a genius for catchy melodies.

And now that you are sorry for asking me, I have to add Ray Charles and Tina Turner who are two of the world's greatest singers; Jim Croce, who wrote some of the most entertaining and heart-felt and humorous songs and sang with a power surpassed by few; and last, but surely not least, Simon and Garfunkle, whose vocals and harmony were unsurpassed.

The best cultural event of your life?

Hmmm...I can't think of one single event that tops all others. But I do very much like attending renewable energy and green living fairs and conferences throughout the country. What I like most these events is meeting like-minded people and sharing ideas and enthusiasm for building a sustainable future. I am energized by their love for people and the planet and their dedication to building a stronger, healthier, even more prosperous America. I always return to my home rejuvenated and brimming with hope.

What is an organization of which you are proud to be a member?

The WorldWatch Institute, a nonprofit that focuses its energy and resources on the many ways to build a sustainable future, employing sensible strategies that are good for people, the economy, and the environment.

What are the simple pleasures of your life?

Sitting on the tops of mountains gazing out at the landscape for hours on end. Cooking for my children and my partner Linda Peeling carrots and potatoes. Hanging laundry on the clothesline, breathing the fresh mountain air and gazing up at the blue sky. Planting seeds and watching them grown in my vegetable garden. Riding my bike. Hiking through lush eastern forests.

What are your predictions for the future?
It's going to be a rocky road...I'm sorry to say. And, it is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. That said, I strongly believe that we (in America) have the brainpower, the financial resources, technology, and knowledge to build a sustainable future. If only we could collectively realize that the strategies that got us to the present state won't work in the long term and muster the political will to make a change to a renewable energy, environmentally sustainable future!
What were you in a former life?
I don't believe in former lives...sorry. If I did, however, I would have been a grizzly bear or an old growth tree or a red fox.
When re-incarnated, what will you be?

I don't believe in such things...sorry. But if I did, I'd be an old growth tree, gazing out on the Pacific Ocean for 1000 years!

Where's your favorite place to read?

Any place that has ample light (for my aging presbyopic eyes) and on my couch in front of my woodstove! I also like airports and planes, which often provide me hours of uninterrupted reading time.

Who would you ask out on a date if you could?

My sweetheart, Linda. Oh wait, I can...

What items are high on your lifelong to-do list?

To become an accomplished novelist whose work stands the test of time; to have my best songs recorded; to move to buy a substantial piece of property in the country, create a sustainable home and an organic farm, and set the land aside forever for growing food sustainably and for wildlife.

What are your best human qualities?

Willingness to help others. My compassion for others. My ability to understand the motivations of others. My commitment to creating a better world for all.

What's your worst trait.

My lack of patience for those who mindlessly go through life satisfying their own wants and needs at the expense of others and this lovely planet, the only habitable piece of real estate that we know of in the Universe.

What accomplishment will be listed on your gravestone?

He worked harder than anyone you've ever known, or any 50 people combined, and sometimes nearly killed himself in his never-ending struggle to make a better world for all of us.

What question are you still looking for the answer to?

Why can't we all live in peace? Along that line, why can't we focus on our commonalities rather than our differences?

What frustrates you about America?

The stranglehold big business has on our government and how they're gaining control over policy and our lives and our future.

What's the best designed product you can think of?

I'm quite fond of wind generators...they're sleek, efficient, reliable, and an excellent example of using our brainpower to take a gift of the Earth (the wind) and turn it into a valuable resource (electricity).

What things have stayed the same during your lifetime?

Change. Change is the only constant in life. And my toes. They're still all there.

What beverage would you do a commercial for?

Water. Clean water. Naturally clean water. Not bottled in plastic bottles that release phthalates, but dipped right from a clean mountain stream.

What book is currently on the nightstand?

I'm "working" my way through two books: (1) A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, a riveting tale of a man seriously addicted to booze and drugs, and his battle to overcome his addictions, find love, and create a much more meaningful life; and (2) Start Making Sense: Turning the Lessons of Election 2004 into Winning Progressive Politics. When they're read, I'm on to Stephen Morris' Beyond Yonder.

The symbol for everything right about this country?

I'm not sure there is a symbol that captures everything that is right about this country. There are occurrences that illustrate what is best in us, for example, the way we unite after a disaster like 9-11 or Hurricane Katrina. I just wish we could continue in that spirit after disasters, day after day, year after year, united by our commonalities, our common dreams and aspirations, our kindness and love and compassion for one another.

The symbol for everything wrong about the country?

Again, there's not symbol that encapsulates what is wrong with our country, but there are times when the worst we have to offer blossoms. For example, every four years during the Presidential campaign America is torn in two by the political parties as they vie for power and control. During these horrid times, American is pitted against American in a bitter, unnecessary cultural war. I dread the election cycle, which seem to be getting worse with time.

What important question didn't we ask?
Why did you write Here Stands Marshall? Is Marshall you?

I wrote Marshall on a whim. I was alone over Thanksgiving vacation while in graduate school. I sat down on my couch with a spiral notebook and started to write...and out poured this novel. It was cathartic because the issues I deal with in the book crippling self-image, the importance of loving oneself, and the importance of loving others in seeking wholeness -- were very real to me. That is to say, I was struggling with these issues myself and Marshall seemed like a great character to develop. This was back in the early 1970s. What I was grappling with was the damage done to the inner child and how it can cripple one, closing off a world of compassion and love. So, from this you can see, the answer to the second part of the question. Marshall is partly based on my earlier life. However, there are parts of Marshall that are not me. Parts I made up to create a more interesting character. I'd learned in my fiction writing classes and my reading that a novelist should mistreat a character. Make life difficult. Otherwise a novel is no fun. I took this novel out of my file cabinet when I turned thirty and re-wrote it...and then I took it out again in my late 30s and gave it another try. This time, though, the novel underwent remarkable transformation. I revamped the story, added hope and more excitement to the plot line. The novel underwent a final polish when I was 54, a time when I was able to infuse it with more wisdom and considerably more hope. I won't say anymore, for fear of giving the story away. I hope you like it...and gain from it a deeper insight into the human mind, indeed your mind.

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cover: Here Stands Marshall by Dan Chiras
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"An exploration into the seldom visited world of self-paralysis. Sometime you admire Marshall; sometimes you just want to smack him; but you care about what happens to him."

Dave Wann
co-author, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic
author, The Zen of Gardening

"Here's a story that's equal parts Rocky Mountain High and Rocky Mountain Low. The Seventies are brought back to life with an exhilaratingly torturous tale of self-recrimination. Chiras establishes himself as a top-notch writer of fiction, too."

Stephen Hunter Morris
author, Stripah Love

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