Interview with Richard Carter and Carolyn Kenney-Carter |
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Interview with Richard Carter and Carolyn Kenney-Carter

Richard E. Carter is a geographer, aviator, naturalist, essayist, and poet whose life path has led from a career in city planning back into the natural world. His writing invites readers to share his vision and adventures. In Through the Cabin Door (Appleport Press, 2012), winner of the 2011 Ellis/Henderson Outdoor Writing Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers, Richard’s prose is accompanied by the lyrical pencil drawings of wife Carolyn Kenney-Carter. A UW–Madison graduate with a BS in Fine Art and a minor in Chemistry, Carolyn is a naturalist, volunteer, and teacher who also makes her way through watercolor design work as WonderCat Graphics.
The couple has collaborated on other books—Cabin Fever, an earlier volume of nature essays, and Inside and Out, a recent collection of poetry—where Richard writes and Carolyn provides the design and illustrations. John Lehman, literary editor for Wisconsin People & Ideas, recently caught up with the husband and wife team to discuss their unique collaborative process.

What led to your doing a book together?

Richard: Our personal story spans some twenty years, springing from an encounter at The Clearing, Jen Jensen’s retreat/folk school in Ellison Bay. By chance we were seated next to each other during dinner one night at The Clearing, and the waitress asked if we were together. I answered, “Yes!” As the week wore on we joked about doing a book together: “Richard, the writer and Carolyn, the artist.” The rest is history, the story of an ongoing love affair with nature and each other.
Carolyn: We will tell you that while the scientific particulars of nature may be interesting, they are only secondary. For us, it’s about connections, about being open and sensitive to the natural world: its creatures and encounters with them. Then it’s about our sharing these experiences in detail and inviting readers to join us.
How do your respective backgrounds help you share nature with readers?
Carolyn: Much of Richard’s inspiration for writing springs from a life-long love of nature, from boyhood explorations of Cook County Forest Preserves to climbing the wild, high bluffs over the Ohio River at his grandmother’s home in Indiana. His curiosity about the earth eventually led him to become a geographer.
Richard: One Sunday afternoon something told me to return to the woods of my youth. I walked through the prairie grasses under widely spaced trees toward the river. With each step, I felt lighter, as though returning home again. I felt I belonged there. That place was real. Seated on a fallen branch sloping toward the river, I waited in silence. Then, a muskrat rolled over in the current and stuck his face up to look at me. Across the river, a red fox explored the bank, ignoring my presence. I didn’t even hear the jets screaming overhead on their approach to O’Hare Airport. Every Sunday after, I returned with a pen and notebook, seeking to record everything. I had crossed a watershed, and my writing began.
Carolyn: From early childhood on, I spent my life in nature. My experiences working with natural landscapes as a teacher-naturalist at Milwaukee’s Riveredge Nature Center and as a student at The Clearing keep my creative life centered around the natural world.

What was the biggest challenge of collaborating, especially for husband and wife?

Carolyn: The easy part has been the intermingling of the text and artwork, even when I act as editor and Richard grum- blingly calls me “the Queen of Commas.” We always have been engaged by many of the same subjects and share a similar perspective on life. Our books come from a partnership of essay and art, a duet where each plays out its own part.
Richard: But we have very different personal and creative styles that need to be reconciled. That’s not a matter of ego, competition, or getting in each other’s way, but the manner in which we experience things and organize our thinking about them. Yet we have learned to trust the chemistry and blending of our work into a harmonious whole.
Carolyn: Richard is very intuitive, starts with a single image or sensory thought, and casts it like a lure into the unconscious to see what it may catch and where it will take him. It can attract a whole poem or seamlessly unroll a story he never imagined. I’m more of a concept artist, seeing things in compositional terms and more apt to visualize both images and text in global terms first. But at the same time I am aware of the specifics, I see the beauty in the details—and I’m more apt to talk about structure and add commas at the same time. In the end, our differences complement one another.

Tell one thing that was an unexpected outcome of the book collaboration.

Carolyn: The quality of our collaborative books exceeded our hopes and expectations. Cabin Fever, which began as a very simple project—more of a booklet, really— quickly became a full-length work. The design/production process of the books, especially Through the Cabin Door, has been a work of art in itself. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

How can reading a book or looking at a drawing help connect us with nature?

Richard: Through the Cabin Door is not a field guide or a science text. It is a book of love, written out of our love for one another and our shared love for the natural world, and created in a style that expresses our deep connection with it. We want our readers to see the enchanting possibilities for them to do the same, to explore and seek their own unique encounters by looking closer, listening, and sensing nature in their own highly personal ways. 
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John Lehman is the founder and original publisher of Rosebud, a national magazine of short stories, poetry and illustration for people who enjoy good writing.

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