The Pulitzer Prizes: Q&A with 2018 History Winner Jack E. Davis

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Photo by Bernard Brezinski

When Jack E. Davis set out to write his now-Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea,” he hoped, in part, to rewrite the history of the Gulf he grew up on. His expansive nonfiction work brings new life to the Gulf of Mexico, one of the planet’s most diverse and productive marine ecosystems, through its environmental, political and economic past and present.

Davis is also the author of the award-winning book, “An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century,” and a professor of environmental history at the University of Florida. He lives in Florida and New Hampshire.

What drew you to the material?

Having grown up on the Gulf, I had this long, intimate relationship with the sea. Nobody had written anything about the Gulf of Mexico and it seemed like an ideal fit for me. I went for it, and have not looked back. It was a true labor of love to write this book. It helped me to get back in touch with moments in my childhood. I live landlocked in Gainesville, Florida, but as I was writing I could see myself back there. I really believed that those memories and sense of place I’ve carried with me for all of my life found its way to my fingertips.

What was the writing process like for this book?

There was a lot I simply didn’t know about the history [of the Gulf of Mexico]. I went back to the geological origins of the Gulf. This is one thing that made writing this book so fun is I do know the Gulf, I know the contemporary Gulf and the Gulf I grew up with, but I was learning so much more about this place that was so central to my life. Every day I’d sit down and write and virtually every day there’d be new surprises that would pop up, an event, a natural characteristic I wasn’t aware of.

As a nonfiction writer, how do you make a heavily researched work like this accessible to a broad audience?

I think one of the keys is you always have to have your audience in mind. I always envision my audience as the American people, never academics because if I’m writing for academics it’s just going to end up collecting dust on a shelf. I want my readers to understand that Americans have a historical and ecological connection to the Gulf. I’d like to think of myself as sitting there and talking to them as I’m writing. I wanted it to be a history of the human relationship with Gulf nature. As an environmentalist historian, I don’t see nature as a backdrop, but as a historical agent that shapes human history. I needed nature in the forefront.

As you were writing this book, were there messages or ideas you hoped readers would take away from it?

One has to do with the driving motivations of the book, to present the audience the history of the sea that had never been written about, and also to restore the Gulf’s true identity after the BP oil spill. I believe that 87-day nightmare in 2010 took a lot from the Gulf, but it robbed the Gulf of its true identity. I wanted readers to know that the Gulf is more than just this oil sump or vacation spot, but has this integral place in our nation’s history and has been ignored by history textbooks almost completely. I wanted to also leave them with a message of hope. I didn’t want this to be a doom and gloom book. I am relatively optimistic about the Gulf, but I wanted readers to know we have this wonderful living, giving sea and we’ve taken a lot from that sea. But to continue to doing so we have to give back. And it’s not much. It’s our respect for what makes the Gulf this vital place. Respect its rivers, its estuarine environment, its wildlife, its biodiversity and that includes us. You give nature a chance to thrive, you step back and it will thrive.

What was your favorite part of writing this book?

Chapter 12 was the first chapter I wrote in the book. It’s on Barrier Islands. I learned so much on barrier islands and their geological importance, but the human character was Walter Anderson, the late Mississippi artist who lived on the coast and much of his life on the Barrier Islands. That was absolutely my favorite chapter to write because Walter Anderson was a major inspiration for me and for writing this book. Once I got that chapter written, it gave me the direction I needed for writing the rest of the book, the formula. There’s not a word in this book that I did not enjoy. I can’t overemphasize how much it really was a labor of love to write this book.

Where were you when you learned you had won?

I was in a meeting with a graduate student on campus and talking about sloppy writing of all things. I was really reading him the Riot Act, which I don’t normally do, and then my phones started ringing and ringing. I had gotten a text from my editor saying I had won a Pulitzer Prize. I mumbled something along the lines of ‘holy shit’ and then I literally went speechless and had to slide the phone across the desk for him to read because I couldn’t talk.

What does the prize mean to you?

I’m still trying to process that. I see the Pulitzer medallion on the front of my book and I’m trying to associate that with me or one of my own works. The award is not made for the author… it’s made of the work itself, and in this case it’s not just the work, it’s an award for the Gulf of Mexico. It’s an indication of how much the American people appreciate the Gulf of Mexico beyond being a supplier of oil. All of that recognition to me is recognition of the importance of the sea because I think it’s been brutalized not by just by this one oil spill, no single event can define a place. This recognition has pushed back, redefining it as a national endowment, a natural place.

Are there any past prizewinners whose work you admire?

Frances Fitzgerald is one. Heather Thompson who won last year. I admire Dan Fagin’s work tremendously. John McPhee, how can you not admire John McPhee? I don’t want to be so absolute and say he’s every nonfiction writer’s hero, but I’ll say that, hell yea.

Read the interview on pulitzer.org.

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