5 Quick Questions with Rebecca Priestley

Rebecca Priestley’s nonfiction writing – books, essays and articles – deals with gnarly global issues such as climate change, sea-level rise, and the Covid-19 pandemic. She was science columnist for The Listener for six years, launched (with Ashleigh Young) a creative science writing course at the IIML, and is an associate professor at the Centre for Science in Society at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington. Rebecca has degrees in earth sciences and history of science, and an MA from the IIML. Her most recent book is a memoir, Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica, published by VUP in 2019.

What attracted you to writing?

Like a lot of writers (I expect!) I think I find it easier to express myself in written words than spoken words. Maybe because it gives me more time to edit, to craft, to think about the words I choose. Writing helps me to figure things out, make (some) sense of things. And I find huge satisfaction in taming the chaos of my personal life and the world around me into some sort of narrative form, into stories. 

What’s the best thing you’ve read this year about the present moment?

Jenny Offill’s Weather. As soon as I’d finished it I was ready to read it again.

What can a writer see in the present moment that gets lost in hindsight? 

I think there are so many small details that you can lose with hindsight. We are living through extraordinary times and everyone’s experience is different. It’s important to document what’s going on. Small details like the conversations you have about the state of the world; what you’re reading or listening to on news and social media; how the non-human world around you is responding to environmental change. 

What do you think is the greatest challenge to writing about nature while the world is burning?

Maintaining a sense of hope is the greatest challenge. Sometimes it’s too painful to look at what’s happening to the natural world – it’s easier to look away. But if you’re brave enough to look, there are good things happening too, and we need to hold onto them, and write about them, share stories about them, and hope we can inspire others (and by others I include politicians) to take action. 

Tell us about your workshops, what should people expect?

We’ll start, on Saturday, by reading some writers who are writing about nature – focusing on the small and specific – while also acknowledging the big things going on, climate change, sea level rise, biodiversity loss, ecological devastation. Then we’re going to take an excursion along the Ōtaki River (we’ll make sure it’s accessible to everyone) where we will immerse ourselves in the local environment – the awa, the manu, the ngahere – and discuss both environmental threats and reasons for hope. On Sunday we will workshop students’ pieces – which can be something inspired by the Ōtaki River excursion, or anything else on the workshop theme. 

Keen to join Rebecca? Register now for the 2022 Kāpiti Writers’ Retreat