06/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

EO Wilson: Our Greatest Biologist Writes A Novel, 'Anthill' (INTERVIEW, EXCERPT)

A Novel with a Mission--and a Novella--from our Premiere Biologist

Huffington Post: Let me begin with the obvious first question: after writing over twenty acclaimed works of nonfiction, what inspired you to try your hand at fiction?

EO Wilson: Multiple factors. I had reached a point in my career in which I was ready to try something new in my writing, and the idea of a novel has always been in the back of my mind. So with the encouragement of my editor, Bob Weil of Norton, I proceeded with this one. I had in mind a message, although I hope it doesn't intrude too badly, persuading Americans, and especially Southerners, of the critical importance of land and our vanishing natural environment and wildlife. Of course that's a theme I've developed over many years in nonfiction, but the desire grew to develop it in fiction because I had come to realize that people respect nonfiction, but they read novels. But there were other equally strong reasons, one of them being that novelists may factor nature into their work, but very seldom dedicate time or effort into really including nature, so in this book I not only include nature, but develop it as a character, with its own history and characteristics, and playing a major role throughout the unfolding scenario.

In addition I wanted to write a Southern novel, because I'm a Southerner. When I left the South, the deep South--Mobile, Alabama, you can't get any deeper without sailing into the Gulf of Mexico--when I left to go to Harvard at 22, I left behind what I felt was unfinished business: not just the nature of my own roots and upbringing there, but more, Southern culture was in the beginning of a revolution, the civil rights revolution. I never got settled in my mind about it all so I decided to grapple with it by writing a southern novel. This is a character-driven novel, even if most of the attention so far--and probably upcoming--is focused on the description of ants. But finally, with "The Anthill Chronicles"--the novella within the novel--I had the opportunity to show this most complex of all social animals, the ants, how they really are, not how they might be depicted as caricatures or as characters in a funny Hollywood movie, but for the first time, how they live exactly, how they see themselves--I portray these in the cycling of the ant colonies, in their wars, their organization, the way they communicate, I describe them as closely as possible from their own point of view.

Huffington Post: What percent of your pleasure reading is fiction?

EOW: Almost none, because I've been so consumed with nonfiction for quite a few years. I have bedtime reading, I read a lot of mysteries, and I have favorite authors--I've read just about everything that John D. MacDonald has written--a mystery writer, and a very good one--and I've read all of Patrick O'Brien's Captain Aubrey novels. It's high quality writing, but it mainly has to do with adventure, and mystery, and I find it quite relaxing.

Huffington Post: What did you find to be your greatest challenge in turning your hand to fiction?

Dialogue. That's where I got a lot of help from Bob, my editor, who told me right at the beginning that my most challenging obstacle would be dialogue, because scientists seldom use dialogue in their books. So I had to train myself for that whole new discipline of writing dialogue. I've found that good dialogue tells you not only what people are saying or how they're communicating but it tells you a great deal--by dialect and tone, content and circumstance--about the quality of the character. It's also one of the most effective ways of conveying action, which is not easy with nonfiction and particularly for a science writer to accomplish. So that was the main obstacle for me.

Huffington Post: Raffael--Raff--Cody, your novel's protagonist, has a biography that parallels yours in many ways. How much of Raff is a reflection of your own youth and upbringing?

EOW: Maybe a quarter of it has strong autobiographical elements, and that has to do with an only child exploring the woods freely in the setting of a troubled family. I made Raff's family problems much less significant than my own--in my case it resulted in my parents' divorce when I was seven--but basically what took Raff into the nearby forest and allowed him to bond with the natural world is very similar to my own experience. I did not have a mentor, as Raff did with Fred Norville, the ecologist. Norville was able to transmit a lot of thinking and biology to young Raff. I didn't have that advantage, but I did get it from the Boy Scouts of America, in which I immediately flourished when I joined at the age of 12, an experience I gave to Raff but made less important to him.

Huffington Post: "The Anthill Chronicles", Raff's undergraduate thesis and the book within your book, is perhaps the most concise and compelling portraits of evolution in action I've read. Can you share your thoughts on the traction that anti-evolution forces have gained recently--for example in textbooks and education, politics and society at large?

EOW: I could go on a long time, but I'll use one phrase: ignorant and dangerous barbarity. It seems there's a desire to turn back to the Dark Ages, and a primitive way of explaining the world and conducting one's life that simply are not adequate in the modern world.

Huffington Post: Ecological and environmental conservation are thematically important in your novel. Can you elaborate on your own efforts and thoughts about environmental activism?

Yes, but I should emphasize that I wrote the novel recognizing that the South in particular is at the cusp of a new era, just as it had been around 1960 when Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. She caught a moment and helped move it in the right direction with her novel, and now I see fifty years later that the South faces a momentous decision about how it's going to treat the land. This is especially important for the South, from the Carolinas to Texas, because that area has the richest and most ancient fauna and flora of North America, with many kinds of plants and animals, and habitats and ecosystems that have grown very complex and rich and productive. But this is something that is not widely appreciated in the South, and it certainly has not been a factor in most of the use of the land, which has resulted in the cutting over of almost all of the original longleaf pine forest. So I thought maybe this would be the opportunity to call this historic moment to the attention of enough people to have an impact. Of course I don't mean to lessen the importance of the existing environmental movement in the South, which is growing very rapidly.

I should add, I don't just sit up here and write. I take frequent trips and I'm involved in conservation movements in that area, particularly in the panhandle of Florida and South Alabama. I'm active in helping promote the conservation of specific areas, including one I'm particularly interested in saving, and that's the great delta swampland between the Mobile and Kennesaw rivers, 400 square miles of wilderness that's relatively impenetrable, it's floodplain forest--most people would call it swamp--and it's priceless, and there's a good chance that it can be set aside as a reserve because a lot of the land is under public ownership.

Huffington Post: "The Anthill Chronicles" is such a distinct and compelling, even stand-alone component embedded within your novel, I wondered if it was written independent of Anthill, and if so, which came first.

EOW: Originally I thought I'd experiment with a novella, and I did compose most of The Anthill Chronicles that way, and then I saw, and my editor urged me, too, that I ought to have a reason for its existence, and so I had to write a full-scale southern novel.

Huffington Post: Lastly, I did want to say to you Dr. Wilson, Roll Tide!

EOW: [laughter] As an alumnus of University of Alabama, where I told my publisher I wanted to start my book tour, I want to bless you for being so knowledgeable!

From "Anthill," by E.O. Wilson:

Dead Owl Cove--too late to call it anything else now--was at the end of a dirt road that led out of cornfields into one of the last remaining tracts of old-growth longleaf pine.

One of the most prominent forms of wildlife at the cove, if I may stretch that loose zoological term a bit, was a kind of ant species whose colonies built conspicuous mound nests along the banks of the lake. The species was and remains widespread but very locally distributed across the Gulf Coastal Plain. It could be found associated with longleaf pine in sites all around Lake Nokobee, with the highest concentration at Dead Owl Cove. The lakeside soil, a well-aerated mix of sand, clay, and humus, was ideal for native plant and insect life. The exposure of the nests to the sun's warmth in its open spaces gave the ants an early start in the season and each morning on warm, dry days.

These anthills are special to the history I have chosen to record. They were to play a principal role in the life of Raphael Semmes Cody, and, even more remarkably, in the ultimate survival or destruction of the Nokobee environment itself.

The relative openness of the Dead Owl Cove shore was not due to frequent human activity. It was both ancient and natural. The tract around the cove was a tongue of the much larger stretch of longleaf pine habitat that stretched west from the lake all the way into the William Ziebach National Forest. The grassy high pine woodland was more savanna than forest, with scattered pines of varying girth, the older ones with flat tops and the youngest forming clusters on the landscape. The space between the pines was filled with bunches of wire grass and a veritable garden of ground plants--croton, bluestem, dogfennel, threeawn, beargrass, Florida dogwood, and many more, all bestowed delightful names by English-speaking settlers. Pond pine, myrtle-leaved holly, titi, tall gallberry, and pond cypress clumped together to form occasional low-bottomed, seasonally flooded hardwood islands called domes. Sparse it may seem on casual examination, the longleaf pine savanna is nevertheless biologically one of the richest botanical environments of North America. As many as 150 kinds of plants, almost all located in the ground-level cover, can be found in a single hectare. Many of these species are endemic to this habitat. That is, they are found in no other place on earth.

Reprinted with permission of W. W. Norton & Company.