Interview with Priyanka Kumar: “Writing is a practice, like playing the piano.”

Priyanka Kumar is the author of Conversations with Birds, which has received wide acclaim. Her essays and criticism appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Orion, and High Country News. Her work has been featured on CBS News Radio, Psychology Today, and Oprah Daily

She is a recipient of a Playa Residency, an Aldo & Estella Leopold Writing Residency, an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Award, a New Mexico/New Visions Governor’s Award, a Canada Council for the Arts Grant, an Ontario Arts Council Literary Award, and an Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Fellowship.

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Hi Priyanka, great to have you here with us today! Congratulations on the success of Conversations with Birds. Can you tell us what inspired you to write this book?

I wanted to write a book that an ordinary person could enter and maybe begin to notice birds (and other wildlife) in the ways that I do. I take you through these sweeping excursions into the natural world, while also exploring the arc of how and why I developed an ecological consciousness. I believe that all of us can have a personal connection to nature; and this book is offered like a gift that illustrates this belief.

Your book has received wide acclaim, with your essays and criticism appearing in well-respected publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. How does it feel to receive such recognition for your work?

I am brimming over with gratitude. This book has resonated with so many people that it gives me hope that we can become thoughtful guardians of the planet we live on. Sometimes readers write to me with a line that “jumped out” at them—it makes me see the book in a fresh way, through their eyes.

In terms of the recognition, while I’m incredibly grateful, I should point out that I’ve been writing since I was nine or ten! And I never really stopped. So it’s been a long journey; and every book that I write is an all-consuming process involving several years of work.

In Conversations with Birds, you write about your experiences with various species of birds in different parts of the American West. What was your process for choosing the birds and locations that you wrote about?

I chose the birds that tugged at me for one reason or another—their beauty or biology or habitat needs. These are birds I keep wanting to see again and I’ve followed their stories over many years or even decades. The mango-colored western tanager is woven through my life. The northern goshawk is a magnificent bird whom I’ve long admired, and I was stirred to learn about its preference for old-growth forests. I dream about these birds. I have to wonder sometimes if the birds chose me rather than the other way around!

Growing up in northern India and immersing yourself in the natural world must have had a profound impact on you. Can you share more about your connection to the avian world and how it led you to writing this book?

 I grew up in the foothills of the Himalayas and spent every minute I could in nature. Even at the age of five, I had a personal relationship with the mountains I walked past every day. A little later, I began to collect snakeskins. Observing and thinking about wildlife is how I spent the formative years of my childhood. So when I encountered birds in the ways that I write about in this book, I was ready for those experiences. I kept on going deeper into the natural world until, at last, I felt compelled to write Conversations with Birds.

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You are not just an author, but also a filmmaker and teacher. How do these different roles inform and enhance your writing and perspective on the world?

I’m a visual thinker—I think in terms of images and scenes. And my training and work as a filmmaker honed that skill. I am a trained cinematographer and, while shooting films, I think in terms of color, for instance, warm and cool colors. I began with still photography; I’ve studied the work of Henri Cartier Bresson and Ansel Adams. So I might have had an innate aesthetic for the precise image, which became more finely developed with my work as a filmmaker. As for teaching, I see it as a way of being of service to the artistic community at large.

Can you tell us about your writing routine? What does a typical day look like for you?

I write for three or so hours every day except for weekends. Mostly in the daytime. Writing is a practice, like playing the piano. Another practice is hiking and observing birds, or simply being in the natural world for as long as I can. If I can fit both those practices into one day, then it’s been a good day.

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

I might have a conversation with Thoreau. It would be ideal if we were walking together; on the other hand, I believe he wasn’t terribly fond of walking companions, especially talkers. So things might not go as well as I imagine.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?

I’m reading The Hidden Universe: Adventures in Biodiversity by Alexandre Antonelli, which attunes us to the biodiversity losses we face today. The Sun Walks Down is new fiction by Fiona McFarlane and, so far, it reads so fluidly, it’s as though I were moving in a dream. I’m also eager to start Fen, Bog & Swamp by Annie Proulx.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

It has a Zen aesthetic. Simply a desk and a chair, and a cavernous bookshelf. A window is essential—for I see birds flying by, which is always a good reason to slow down.

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