10 Questions for Adam Sweeting
- By Abby MacGregor
“A few years back, I took my daughter and her best friend apple picking in central Massachusetts, where we enjoyed a picture-perfect early fall afternoon. It was the kind of day that shouts NEW ENGLAND—slightly cool temperatures, glorious foliage, and apples waiting to be picked. Our timing could not have been more perfect. The year’s weather had proved ideal for apples, with no late frosts, sufficient early summer rains, and a storm-free August. A bumper crop followed, one of the best in decades, and we returned home rich in fruit.”
—from “Lost Flavors: Climate Change, Poetry, and New England’s Apples”, Spring 2019 (Vol. 60, Issue 1)
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I am fascinated by Thoreau’s journals from the early 1850s, where his deepening interest in the natural sciences began to shape his daily entries. I first encountered Emily Dickinson in college, and her work continues to startle me. Indeed, the most rewarding writing I ever did was the chapter on Dickinson’s autumnal verse in my book Beneath the Second Sun: A Cultural History of Indian Summer.
What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve been teaching at Boston University for over 20 years, but I had a number of jobs along the way, including working as a line cook in a restaurant and as a researcher in the New York City Park Historian’s Office. I briefly worked as a paralegal at a Boston law firm representing asbestosis victims. I quickly learned that I did not want to be a lawyer, but I did meet my wife during my short tenure in the office.
What did you want to be when you were young?
When I was very young I wanted to play center field for the New York Mets. Slightly later, I hoped to become a musician. Of course, neither baseball nor music were ever really in the cards. Once in college, where I studied philosophy, I knew I wanted to find a way to combine my interests in writing and teaching.
What inspired you to write this piece?
For the last several years I have been exploring the effects that climate change will have on the ways we read poetry linked to the New England landscape. For this piece I focused on Robert Frost and the region’s historic apple industry. Its origins can be traced to a trip to an apple farm I took with my daughter and her friend at a time that I happened to be teaching Frost.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I grew up in the Hudson River Valley and to this day I orient myself directionally by mentally calling up the north-south course of the river. This region was the focus of my first book, a study of the landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, whose work helped shape nineteenth-century Hudson Valley aesthetics. The place remains etched in my mind, even as the focus of my writing and teaching shifted to New England.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I often listen to jazz before I begin a new piece or return to something I’ve been working on. For reasons I don’t fully understand, Dexter Gordon’s saxophone solo in Herbie Hancock’s classic “Watermelon Man” helps to organize my thoughts and get me going. But once I start writing the music gets turned off. If I find myself stuck in the middle of a paragraph, I will pause and return to music, usually jazz. Otherwise, my writing and editing happen in silent rooms.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I write at home in the morning. I always make sure the family’s breakfast dishes are cleaned up and the kitchen space is tidy before I begin writing. Seems odd, perhaps, but I like to re-enter the kitchen at lunch knowing the space is clean. I get more work done that way.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
When I think I’ve gotten a piece into good shape I show it to my wife, Erica, who is a wonderful close reader.
What are you working on currently?
I am working to synthesize my thoughts on the how climate change will call for new ways to re-read literary classics.
What are you reading right now?
I’m in the process of re-reading books I first read several decades ago, some, though not all, of which relate to my teaching and writing. It’s an on-again/off-again project I began about two years ago. I just finished George Eliot’s Middlemarch and am currently working my way through Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.
ADAM W. SWEETING is the author of Beneath the Second Sun: A Cultural History of Indian Summer and Reading Houses and Building Books: Andrew Jackson Downing and Popular Antebellum Literature. He is an associate professor and chair of the division of humanities at Boston University, College of General Studies.