I caught up with journalist/author Olivia Gentile to talk about how she came to write Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds, and what it was like to track the story of one of the most exciting and extreme world birders of the 20th century -- a woman named Phoebe Snetsinger.
Forget what you've heard about all those knobby-kneed nerds with green sunglasses tromping through the backyards and neighborhood parks and wetlands. They're just the tip of the bird-watching iceberg. Turns out it's competitive, dangerous, expensive, and challenging as any extreme sport and as rich and vast in its recompense as any work of art. Bird watching, a global race for the chance to see what few have seen, to be alone with beauty, and to use your wit and physcial skill to get you there, is in truth a sport for the intrepid adventurer, and some of those adventurers are the last people you'd ever think of as ruthless and savvy take-no-prisoners globe-trotters.
Such was the case for bird-watching hero Phoebe Snetsinger, whose amazing life story is beautifully told by Gentile. We see plenty about the wild behavior of flora and fauna. But even the most tropical beauties of the avifauna can't hold a candle to ... crazy people. Wonderful. Smart. Crazy people. Not all of them. Some of them really are just nerds and preservationists and environmentalists and lovers of living things. But this book is about one woman who is all that and more -- devastatingly interesting and a tad awful. Here's Olivia, talking to me by phone on her book tour, from Chicago, about the amazing and rare and hitherto unsighted Phoebe Snetsinger::
Third Screen: Life List is no tea party for the gentle old ladies. It's an astonishing story about one woman's obsession with completing her "life list" of spotting and closely observing as many of the roughly 9,000 species of birds in the world as she can. And husband and family be damned. You spent a lot of time with people who knew Phoebe Snetsinger -- a fairly typical and unhappy "50s housewife" and daughter of the late ad great ad man Leo Burnett. How'd you come to write this story? Were you interested in birds and naturalists yourself?
Gentile: No. As I say in the introduction to the book, it started because of a man I was dating who suffered from serious depression and was more or less saved by his love of birds, but it became about Phoebe and universal human questions -- what does it mean to live a good life and what should you do if you only have a year to live? And what does it mean to die a good death?
Third Screen: Phoebe was told she had cancer and less than a year to live, but then went on to live for many many years, abandoning her suburban life, and family, to trek around the world, almost non-stop, and at great personal peril?
Gentile: Yes. One thing I learned is to live each year as if it may be your last. Each year. You can't live each day as if it may be your last. You'll never do the grocery shopping. But each year to fulfill your dreams. Phoebe never believed that she had kicked her cancer and kept living as if she had one year or less. There were some dark moments, dark years there, but by far the bird-watching years were the happiest time of her life. Phoebe was saved, just as my ex-boyfriend was, by her passion. Once she was diagnosed with cancer, birding elevated her to higher plane of existence. The years just after her diagnosis were such euphoric ones. She lived the life she wanted to live for so long. Later on, as she achieved greatness in her work, she lost sight of happiness a bit and became obsessed with breaking the record of listing roughly 8,000 species or more. She focused on that goal and was less joyful in the field. She was no longer birding just for the sake of birding but for achieving greatness. She is a lesson for all of us on choosing happiness wisely , because once you start thinking about achieving renown or greatness and you stop doing what you love for the intrinsic reasons, your life can take some very dire turns.
Third Screen: Do you see her story as a tragedy?
Gentile: Part human tragedy? Unavoidable? I think so.
Third Screen: She didn't attend her own daughter's wedding. She didn't attend her own mother's funeral. She was off birding. Not a very 50's image of women, to say the least.
Gentile: One interesting thing about Phoebe is she really went from one extreme to the other. The first 20 years of her married life, she was a devoted and rather typical housewife. The next, she was a wild adventuress. You can't really say that about a lot of people. Very few people remake themselves after 50. I actually think if she had been born when I was born, in the 70s, maybe she would have pursued a career as a scientist or a professor and also had a family and had some sort of balance. On the other hand, maybe because of who her father was -- the iconic and hard-driving Leo Burnett -- she was genetically programmed to go to extremes. Certainly that's how Leo was -- he was every bit as obsessed with advertising and Phoebe was with birds.
Third Screen: Her life sounds like a lot more fun than a balanced one. And she was more than willing to pay the costs -- broken limbs, broken marriage, broken motherhood. She was raped, robbed, and more than once took a trip even though she was ill or injured. She braved anything for the right to see what she wanted to see, to go where she wanted to go. She seemed obsessed, as if everyday life was a prison sentence.
Gentile: The costs were enormous. I don't know if she ever faced her demons. But I think what happened to Phoebe, in terms of outwitting the death sentence of cancer and fulfilling her own destiny, is wonderful. She made true friends later in life. She became so brave. I try not to judge Phoebe in the book. I try to just present what I found and people take what they will but my bias, if I have a bias, is for her happiness. As I did my research and writing, I was always kind of pulling for her. It was so sad when she died but she got the kind death she wanted. She died two years before I began my research for the book.
Third Screen: How did you investigate her story?
Gentile: There were three high points in my years of research: going to Kenya, going to Peru, and being granted access to people's personal papers about her. It allowed me to get inside her head in a way I couldn't have done otherwise. I really started to relate to her, almost as if I was interviewing her. Seven years in, I knew about her life, her turning points, what people said about her.
Third Screen: How did the work change you?
Gentile: I've become a naturalist. I love birds and all aspects of nature now. As a biographer, I'm going to move on to another topic, but Phoebe will always be with me. I now pay attention to things I once might have missed.
Third Screen: She is famous within her world of naturalists and birders and extreme travelers. Did she get addicted to that?
Gentile: People still say to birders with hopes of accomplishing a lot -- seeing thousands of species from all corners of the earth before they're gone or their habitat is destroyed -- 'maybe you'll be the next Phoebe Snetsinger.' She loved being recognized and respected for her talent and accomplishments, but it also became a trap. She began to see her success as numerical, to quantify rather than qualify. But she managed to live several years after attaining her goals and she regained that joy. You can see it in her journal notes -- she once again uses exclamation points and writes about the beautiful views, the side notes.
Third Screen: What is it like to have to put a project of such drama and breadth aside? You were involved in her story for years. What will you do next?
Gentile: I don't think my next book will be about a naturalist or a woman. My husband and I have bought a small place in the country, and we have a bird feeder and go hiking. That's all because of Phoebe. Learning about her, I was able to understand another way of life. I no longer just pay attention to what's urban.
Third Screen: Are you enjoying the response to the book? Is there anything you would change from your vantage point now, going on book tour and getting some distance from it?
Gentile: The response is great. At first I was a little nervous about whether birders would like the book --- I'm casual, an outsider, and I didn't know if they would feel like it was a foreigner writing about their country. They've been really excited about the book. My hope is that it's a book that non-birders will relate to, especially women. It's a universal story about women. And I've received a lot of responses from women who aren't birders saying they're riveted. That it hit a nerve.
Third Screen: It has a surprisingly powerful cinematic quality -- the jungles, the swamps, the mountains, people getting attacked by marauders and snakes, there are kidnappings and escapes, marriages fall apart, fortunes are spent, deals are made. Snetsinger regularly travels to places I've never heard of, despite my fairly good knowledge of the world. And your approach reminds me of the work of journalists such as Susan Orlean, whose Orchid Thief was made into a film starring Meryl Streep some years ago. Would you like Life List to be made into a film? Would you write the script?
Gentile: I would love it to be made into a film, but no, I would not write the script. Even if I wrote it, it would get changed. I wouldn't want to fool myself into thinking I would have control over any movie that got made.
Third Screen: What was Snetsinger's family like?
Gentile: The family is remarkable and extremely dignified and smart and eccentric and even though they're not public people at all they were enormously helpful to me. They have probably some mixed feelings about the book but are very supportive. Overall, the ones who have given me feedback say they like it. The one who I worked most closely with is Phoebe's son, Tom , who is an ornithologist in Oregon now. I interviewed him six times. I interviewed her husband, Dave, six times. Tom has such wonderful memories of birding with his mother, and he managed to remain close even after she pretty much abandoned her family. They shared the bond of birdwatching. Her two daughters have great things to say about their mother, too, but had more complicated relationships. Every member of a large family has a different experience of the same event. When I asked 'how did the kids respond to their mother's metamorphosis,' there was really no one answer.
Third Screen: So there is no one story to tell?
Gentile: As journalist, I don't think that you can do that with biography. I don't know scientific truth about Phoebe's life and experience. There simply isn't one truth. And each kid has a truth. The best I could do was get as complete a picture as possible about Phoebe and present it in the most compassionate light that I could and then people have to draw their own conclusions. I don't presume to have all the answers to the questions I raise. I want people to come up with their own answers. People have very different reactions to Phoebe. Some see her as a hero -- inspired, alienated, and everything in between. I feel kind of protective of her even though the book brings to life her flaws. They'll say 'Oh well, wasn't she selfish to miss her mother's funeral?' Well , you know she was with her mother two weeks before she died. And then she went to Australia.
Third Screen: I feel that secretly, we admire her and envy her and wish we had her ability to act on what she wanted. She was defiant in the face of convention.
Gentile: She wasn't perfect. None of us are. But I think the key is that I want people to see the whole person and not just to take one event. People will say 'oh, but she left her family.' She was a devoted mother for 20 years. Her kids were pretty much grown when she started traveling. Mixed feelings are fine but I want her to be given a fair shake. And anyway, what's so great about perfection? Isn't it always a mixed bag. I think a lot of it has to do with her being a woman. 19th century explorers took off without anyone asking where their children were. As much as I make Phoebe's family life an issue in the book, her relationship with family and birding and how the two collided, I feel I'm pretty fair about it.
Third Screen: So what are the big questions in the book, finally?
Gentile: What does it mean to be happy? What does it mean to live a good life? Happiness does not mean it's all simple and neat and easy to explain. People who do extraordinary things are not necessarily typical or 100% likable.
Third Screen: When did you know you had a subject for a book, a story you could spend years on?
Gentile: Here's how I pick what I write about. First, I just look for a great story. It's a bubbling feeling in my stomach. I don't know if there's an intellectual process. I've learned to trust my gut. Whether it's just a feature story or a full investigation, I gauge how I feel. And with Life List, it was this question: did I feel a sense of obsessive drive and excitement or a sense of punching the clock? If it's the former, then I know it's a good story and one that I want to tell.