Author Interview: Betsy Gaines Quammen
Today I’m thrilled to bring you an interview with my dear friend Betsy Gaines Quammen. Her first book, American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God, & American Lands in the West, was published in March of this year.
Betsy is an environmental historian and writer. She received a PhD from Montana State University where she studied religion, history and the philosophy of science. Her dissertation focused on Mormon history and the roots of armed public land conflicts occurring in the Unites States. She is fascinated at how religious views shape relationships to landscape.
Wildlife protection is her passion, having over the years helped establish conservation projects in Mongolia, Bhutan and throughout the American West. Betsy worked for the East African Wildlife Society in Kenya; in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming on grizzly bear conservation, ecosystem protection and grazing issues and served as a board member of the national Sierra Club concentrating on threats to wildlife and public land.
Betsy lives in Bozeman, Montana with her husband, writer David Quammen, three huge dogs, an overweight cat and a pretty big rescue python named Boots.
Author Interview: Betsy Gaines Quammen
Ramona Mead: This book obviously required a ton of research. How many hours do think you invested in pouring over documents and interviewing people?
Betsy Gaines Quammen: Seven years of work—my dissertation actually became American Zion. The hardest work I did was crafting an academic tome into a readable and hopefully entertaining manuscript for a broader audience.
RM: How did you become so interested in this particular person/family?
BGQ: I was researching the roots of public land feuds in southern Utah and Nevada and the history of Mormon settlement. There is a reason that land wars are more fierce in this region. Latter-day Saints have a notion that these lands are theirs given by God. That’s what Mormon prophet Joseph Smith promised and Brigham Young delivered. They built Zion, sacred land, over Indigenous lands. What we consider public lands—parks, wilderness areas, national forest and BLM land—some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints see as their own. Cliven Bundy, the patriarch of the family I write about, is a Mormon who told me his ancestors claimed land and therefore it’s still his today—mind you, it’s actually public. He also tells other federal land ranchers that our public lands are their personal ranches. I chose this family to highlight their broadening influence, their dangerous myth-making and their contagious lawlessness. I visited them after they staged an armed standoff with law enforcement over illegal grazing and a million dollars in unpaid fees. Cliven Bundy’s notion of ownership goes back to Mormon settlement and it starts the day the first Latter-day Saint came into the region. He doesn’t acknowledge the day before, when the land was Southern Paiute, Ute and Navajo.
RM: What kind of response has the book gotten in different circles? I suspect the pro-public lands crowd responds differently than Cliven Bundy’s supporters.
BGQ: I have not heard from Bundy supporters. I’m happy to report that my friends who grew up in the Church liked it and those who are public lands advocates have liked it. It’s getting good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. So far, no death threats!
RM: How long did it take you to write the book?
BGQ: The dissertation took five years and the book took three from signing the contract to publication.
RM: What was it like going to the Bundy compound and sitting down with other individuals whose views so strongly oppose your own? Was is difficult or easy to set your opinions aside and hear what they had to say?
BGQ: They were really nice to me. We talked about their faith, their ancestors, and their sense of entitlement. It wasn’t until I left that it sunk in I’d just spent three hours with people who have really dangerous ideas. It was deeply unsettling upon reflection.
RM: Does writing energize or drain you?
RM: How do you get your creativity flowing?
BGQ: Take a walk with the dogs—it always helps.
RM: Do you have a set schedule for writing, or do you write only when you feel inspired?
BGQ: I write everyday. I have to. There is no such thing as writer’s block, but some days writing is easier than others. Some days just suck.
RM: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
BGQ: Writing an article for my college newspaper on stories of animal abuse at the city’s zoo. The college attorney had to get involved so that I wasn’t sued. I had sources, I swear!
RM: Do you read much and if so who are your favorite writers?
BGQ: I constantly read mainly non-fiction about any current project. That said, I also love fiction. My favorite writers, fiction and non-fiction, are Arundhati Roy, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, Jon Krakauer, Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, Laurence Wright, Isabel Allende, Louis de Bernières, Flannery O’Connor, and Willa Cather. I also love Lynda Sexson, Doug Peacock, Tim Cahill, Terry Tempest Williams, and my husband David Quammen’s work. In terms of blogs, Anne Helen Peterson and Heather Richardson Cox are amazing. The best piece I read on Ammon and Ryan Bundy’s armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon was by Hal Herring in High Country News—so good!
I can’t thank Betsy enough for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions!
Since the COVID pandemic hit, she and her husband, science writer David Quammen, have been giving tons of interviews on the connection between the pandemic and anti-government movements in the U.S. They share a Facebook page where you can find info about them and their latest appearances. Betsy’s latest piece on the COVID militia protests can be found here.
Below you’ll find Betsy’s talk at TEDxBend from 2019.