Author Kelly Enright visits the Bookworm of Edwards
Ryan Summerlin August 31, 2011
Kelly Enright is no stranger to adventure. While her numerous degrees and academic background have led her to spend many years in dusty libraries and dark research labs, she also has a love of the excitement of travel and exploration. “After a few years in sedentary publishing jobs, I quit to join an archaeological dig at the Mayan site of Copan. After a summer in Honduras, I felt the pull of home. Though I was impressed with my ability to live with lizards in my bedroom and at my calm when I found a tarantula hiding in the museum bathroom, I fell on the side of a less exotic lifestyle,” Enright said.
That back and forth between the stability and comfort of a home ground, and the thrill of a life on the road exploring the unknown was the life drive for Osa and Martin Johnson, the subjects of Kelly Enright’s new biography, “Osa and Martin: For Love of Adventure.”
In the early part of the last century the Johnsons were known for their fearless adventures chasing Cannibals in the South Seas, and exotic wildlife on the African Continent, all the while photographing and filming what they encountered. The Johnsons were responsible for what the general public knew of that part of the world during the 1900s and still today.
Enright will appear at The Bookworm tonight to discuss her writing, and the lives of Osa and Martin Johnson.
1. Vail Daily: How did you first discover the story of Osa and Martin Johnson?
Kelly Enright: I was a grad student in search of a research topic when my advisor, in an attempt to ground my ideas, told me about a zebra-striped book she had recently seen in the window of an antique book store in Manhattan. I went to the university library (antique books were not in my grad student budget) and found the black-and-white cover of “I Married Adventure” – Osa’s autobiography – standing out among its mostly neutral-colored companions. It was my bedside reading for a week.
2. VD: Was there a part of their story that you personally identified with?
KE: When I first read “I Married Adventure,” it was its strangeness that intrigued me: Osa growing watermelons in the wilds of Africa, her full-size Electrolux refrigerator on board her houseboat, the gibbon ape pet she brought back from Borneo to her Manhattan apartment and on African safaris, as well. But when I learned more about her and Martin’s lives, I realized they were real, complicated people. Osa’s wishes for home and for children made the images of her garden and pets more powerful representations of her hopes for her own life. Though she enjoyed adventure, she struggled with the constant traveling required by that life. And for me, that pull between adventure and “normalcy” are very real.
3. VD: If there is one lesson you take away from the way Osa and Martin lived, what would it be?
KE: Osa and Martin were true partners. Their entire lives were spent traveling together. That is not an easy feat. You learn a lot about a person when you travel with them. You need to be of like minds, or else appreciative of the other person’s mind. Divorce was not uncommon among the era’s explorer-scientist set. Yet Martin and Osa seemed to not merely tolerate, but to thrive on such a life. Their love and partnership are inspiring.
4. VD: What kinds of research did you conduct in order to write Osa and Martin?
KE: In addition to reading the Johnsons’ books and watching their films, I read correspondence between them and their sponsor, American Museum of Natural History at that museum’s archives in New York City, where I was living at the time. I took two trips to the small town of Chanute, Kansas where the archives of the Johnsons resides in an old train station converted into the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum. While it might seem research into two African explorers would take me somewhere more exciting, it didn’t. Being in Kansas, however, opened my eyes to the Johnsons in a different way. It showed me the roots of their appreciation for wide, open spaces. Looking out over the vast prairie in the August heat, it seemed to me they were well prepared for the African savannah.
5. VD: You have built a career as an historian and anthropologist. What has it been like to make the switch from academic writing to more mainstream non-fiction writing?
KE: I’m not sure I’ve ever been an academic writer. I like the challenge of academic analysis, but have no love for academic writing. In fact, my first job out of college was at an entertainment magazine. Though I didn’t like the fast pace of journalism, I learned a lot there about writing techniques that I never would have learned in a history course. However, being in academia gave me good research skills, a healthy skepticism for rumors, and an appreciation of evidence.