Low-Residency MFA Alumna was a Finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize
Elizabeth Rush ’11MFA travels around the world, searching for stories to tell. In her latest book, “Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore,” she brings attention to the growing signs of climate change, zooming in on how the rising sea levels affect life on the U.S. coasts.
Praised by newspapers, magazines and authors for her poetic reporting, the book became a Pulitzer Prize finalist in General Nonfiction.
Rush shared what it felt like to be nominated for the award and her writing journey with Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), where she earned her MFA in Nonfiction from the Mountainview Low-Residency program.
How did it feel when you heard your book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize?
I was in my apartment in Bogotá, Colombia, when I got the call from my editor that “Rising” had just been named a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. My heart started pounding. I paced back and forth. To be honest, I was so completely over the moon, and, at the same time, I really couldn't believe it. But the best thing about it is that the news will never get old. I am still celebrating.
Have you always written?
Well, I haven’t always written. But I did start keeping a journal back when I was in middle school, and when I was in high school, I wrote a lot of bad poetry. In university, I enrolled in a number of poetry writing workshops, and, by the time my senior year rolled around, I wrote a petition to be granted permission to write a creative (as opposed to academic) thesis, and I won.
I can still remember my mentor handing me back the stack of poems I had spent the whole summer working on … She said, simply, “This isn’t poetry.” I was completely shocked and also a little pissed, like, “I’ll show you poetry.” I spent the entire rest of the year busting my butt, trying to get her approval of my work.
That’s when I developed my writing practice. I figured out that the morning hours were my best, so I would wake up and (start) writing right away at like 6 or 7 am, and I would work until lunch. Then I would spend the rest of the afternoon and evening taking care of the rest of my business. It is a habit I keep up to this day.
What’s your writing process?
When I decide I am going to write a certain story, I start the creation of a multi-modal archive. I snap photos and record interviews with whomever or whatever I am writing about. I take extensive in-situ notes, recording sights, sounds (and) smells that stick out in a particular place at a particular time.
And at the end of each reporting day, I write some reflective notes about what it felt like to be working on a particular project. I find if I don’t make keen observations while I am reporting ... my work quickly cascades into the land of cliché.
What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
The distracting force of the internet is a huge challenge. I have taken to unplugging my router for the first four hours of the day so I can concentrate and get to work.
What has the road to publication been like for you?
Long but not without its joys. Right out of undergrad, I published a few poems in literary journals, which made me incredibly stoked and, at the same time, served as a wakeup call. I think the most anyone ever paid me for a poem was $50.
I knew I couldn’t live on that, so I started publishing nonfiction for newspapers and magazines mostly. Sometimes they would even pay to send me on assignment. I ghost-wrote someone’s memoir, did ad copy for tech startups and even had a brief stint writing for the SNHU magazine. Anything to pay the bills, basically.
Eventually, I started writing more about the environment, and, by 2012, I knew that I wanted to do a book-length investigation about sea level rise and its impact on coastal communities in the United States. I set out to find an agent and eventually ended up with the fabulous Julia Lord. But that wasn’t before I received, I don’t know, 10 rejections. Julia and I sent proposals to lots of publishing houses, big and small.
There was some interest initially from a pretty big imprint, but they wanted me to write the “‘Cadillac Desert’ of sea level rise.” For those of you who haven’t read “Cadillac Desert,” it is a hefty tome, weighing in at well over five hundred pages. I thought about it for a while because it was tempting to have (the) interest, but eventually, I decided that wasn’t the book I wanted to write.
An old family friend put me in touch with an editor at Milkweed, and they purchased “Rising” after I submitted a partial manuscript. I can’t even begin to tell you how pleased I was (and still am). The whole team at Milkweed is just so smart and grounded and generous. They put the time and effort into “Rising” to make it what it became. I went with an indie publishing house, and I could not be happier about that choice.
How do you market your work?
Being a professional writer is two-parts discipline, one-part shameless hustle. Which is to say, when I meet someone – at a conference, a reading or on the subway – that I think could become part of the network of people that helps get my work out into the world, I ask for their contact information, and I follow up. Just a quick email to say how much I enjoyed meeting them.
I also maintain a newsletter and a Twitter account (@elizabetharush). But perhaps the most important thing I do to promote my work is to devote hours and hours a day to writing and polishing the pieces that I publish. I think sometimes in our digital world, quantity seems to trump quality. But I want to make something that I can stand behind and that will last. Something that I am deeply proud to promote in the first place.
What do you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I suppose I wish I knew to trust in the act of it, in the simple but regular gesture of just showing up. Commit yourself to sitting down and getting to work. That’s what I needed to know but didn’t for quite some time.
Persuade someone to read “Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore” in 50 words or less.
In “Rising,” those people living on climate changes’ front lines teach us how to fight for what will keep us whole through this period of tremendous planetary transformation and also how to let go of some of the places we love.
Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
I love the kick-ass crop of lyric essayists working in the United States right now. Folks like Maggie Nelson and Eula Biss and John D’Agata and Elena Passarello and Claudia Rankine.
They each taught me, in their own ways, how to weave together personal narrative with a larger discussion of something else seemingly entirely unrelated, be it historical, political, philosophical or environmental; and they taught me how to write poetically and with great precision in the nonfiction form.
My debt to each of these writers is great. I guess I am focusing here on authors that taught me how to think (and) also about the act of writing as a quest towards form. When you find the form, the content can manifest.
If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
One book stands out against the rest: “The Poems of Emily Dickinson” (edited by R.W. Franklin) because whenever I can’t find the word I am looking for, I open up this book, and there it is.
Rebecca LeBoeuf ’18 is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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