Exclusive Interview: The Deer Camp Writer Dean Kuipers
Some men never change, and some bad fathers remain bad fathers until their dying days. But there are some who do turn it around before it’s too late. Take the dad in Dean Kuipers’ new memoir, The Deer Camp: A Memoir Of A Father, A Family, And The Land That Healed Them (hardcover, Kindle), who managed to mend his relationship with Dean and his other sons by bonding over the natural world. In the following email interview, Kuipers — who, it should be noted, is a pal and former coworker — discusses this emotional and environmental recollection. In addition, we also talk about him editing Ray Gun: The Bible Of Music And Style (hardcover), an art book about the music magazine published by the company where he and I met.
Photo Credit: Milo Gladstein
First off, what is The Deer Camp about?
The Deer Camp is the true story of my shattered family in Michigan and how a very fraught project on my dad’s hunting camp showed us how to love one another. It’s a story that reveals the depth of our connection to the nonhuman world and how much it’s a part of our human psyche. My two younger brothers and I grew up fearing our father Bruce and not knowing him very well. The only place we could really have fun with him was out in the woods: he had five brothers and the extended Kuipers family has always relied heavily on animals and wild landscape as the place we feel safe to talk, to relate to one another, to be human outside of all the false conflicts built into social strata, religion, jobs, and politics. In 1989, after our mom, Nancy, divorced him, Bruce got this 95-acre camp and put a nice cabin on it, and because of our history hunting and fishing with him we were inclined to love it. But our conflicts with him were so great we couldn’t get past them. This went on for about fifteen years and then my brother Brett pushed hard to start a habitat restoration project to improve the place. And in the spring of 2004, a new forest came out of the sand and our father completely changed, becoming the loving, listening, respectful dad we’d always hoped for. That change revealed that the roots of our connection to one another were deeper than blood; the land itself was involved.
Like most memoirs, The Deer Camp is a very personal story. Why did you decide to write it and, more to point, why did you decide to let other people read it?
The change in my father, and subsequent rebuilding of our family, was so remarkable that I knew I had to write about it. I started thinking about it as far back as 2009. What was in the actual soil beneath our feet that had such a profound effect on us? It seemed to me that us five stubborn, flawed, conflicted people — my dad, me, my brothers Brett and Joe and Brett’s girlfriend Ayron — had dug and planted our way to some kind of revelation that could help other people. I know that sounds high falutin’, but as a culture we are discovering every day new and profound ways that we are utterly dependent upon the natural world that created us. Our discovery was like looking down a deep well: our minds and our relationships are made in some part by the functioning of the material world — not just the stuff inside our own skulls — and none of us understand that very well. We are compelled to love one another by more than blood.
That said, my mother Nancy is not thrilled that this story is coming out; she worked with me on the book to get the facts right about my dad, but she’d rather remember him as a conflicted guy who was a good provider. In order to talk about how he changed, I had to lay out how it felt to grow up with a guy who chased women and was either absent or just plain pissed off at us a lot of the time. Some folks won’t want to see that in print. My pal Michael Wiegers reminded me of what Czeslaw Milosz wrote: “When a writer is born into a family, that family is doomed.” I don’t make light of it, reputations matter. But this is a redemption story for Bruce. And it explains so much of our yearning for a functioning wild world.
As you said, nature and the outdoors play a big part in what happened to you and your family in The Deer Camp. You’ve written a lot about environmental issues, most notably in your books Burning Rainbow Farm: How A Stoner Utopia Went Up In Smoke and Operation Bite Back: Rod Coronado’s War To Save American Wilderness. Did that factor into your decision to write The Deer Camp, or do you think you would’ve written it if your dad had tried to reconnect with you and your brothers through, say, a mutual love of boxing?
Boxing would have been so much easier: we could have punched one another silly! No, seriously, I was driven to write this story because it revealed something about how nature works. In my family, we grew up pretty much only talking about wildlife and assessing habitat — every day it was: “Hey, I saw a turkey run across the road,” or “The juneberries are really heavy, which will be good for the grouse.” It was an obsession, and led directly to my career writing about environmental subjects for the last thirty-plus years. But the fact was, that obsession with critters wasn’t enough to save us as a family. We had to peel open our own family dynamics and get into our dad’s head: he always made it very clear his love for both us and our mother was conditional, and we didn’t measure up. What had we done wrong? Why couldn’t he just accept us as his family? What would help him trust us? I never imagined that answer was in the ground.
Like a lot of the northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula, the soil on our deer camp is sand hundreds of feet deep, and when the place was cleared for a farm in the 1860s, it was quickly exhausted and became blow sand. When we started talking about changing the habitat there, Bruce was afraid the sand was “poisoned” or “salted,” and that nothing would grow. Like a lot of people, he had lost faith in Mother Nature and thought that the earth was failing; he was even getting apocalyptic in his thinking, like these were the End Times. But when trees came boiling up out of the ground, it was like he snapped back to reality: “Oh, nature still works!” Somehow, that relief spread to us: we, his kids, still worked, too. This is fascinating. I could write ten books about this. If it had been about something else Bruce was into, like designing buildings or Native American Art of the Southwest, I may have been able to find my way to these connections, but it would have been harder.
After you decided to write The Deer Camp, and have it published, did you look to anyone else’s memoirs to see what to do, and what not to do?
When I finally realized this was a memoir, and that the family story was the key to understanding the ecopsychology involved in my dad’s transformation, I dove into this form. I had only read a few. For instance, I always loved Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, which is called a novella but is memoiristic in its content. But then I read and loved Helen Macdonald’s H Is For Hawk, which is similar in a way to my own story, in that she and I both turned to nature to understand our family dynamics and loss — in my case, a loss I was able to actually remedy for a few years. And of course I read the cynosure of all contemporary memoirs, The Liars Club by Mary Karr, which is just devastating and so very, very American. For a few months, I breathed that book with every breath: it so perfectly captured, like maybe only Rick Moody’s novel, The Ice Storm had done before, the freedom (and neglect) of children in the American 1960s and ’70s. My parents didn’t drink or party, but my father was clearly taking advantage of what other people called “liberation” to run around with lots of ladies. Karr’s book taught me to follow my own instincts about our story as kids: we were just along for the ride, but our experience showed how lost and ridiculous adult society was. If you grew up in the 1970s, you were probably mostly unparented. My mom was a saint and tried her best to deal with it, but my brothers and I were mostly left to fend for ourselves. How are you supposed to feel? Karr still managed to make her dad into a hero and I wanted to do that, too, but Dad just never looked out for us that way.
As far as memoirs about dads were concerned, I loved Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke Of Deception. The incredible depth of the father’s fake resumes and credentials really prompted me to do a lot of research into my own dad’s doings, but my pop had so few friends and even fewer still living that this was mostly fruitless. One thing that stuck with me was that Wolff himself became more and more like his dad, and I became like mine, too, and I wrestled with how much I should go into that. I go into it some. I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to write shitty things about myself, but that felt weirdly self-indulgent. My editor later asked me to put some of it back in. But I didn’t want to take away from the big change that hit our family later, in the 2000s.
And are there any other non-fiction books that had an influence on The Deer Camp, either in what you wrote or how you wrote it?
I started writing this book in the fall of 2013 and for the first four years I was on the wrong track because I love science. I drove my former agent crazy. I saw the story of the deer camp as not just an “ecopsychological” tale, but requiring a full explanation of this burgeoning new field of psychological enquiry and treatment. Ecopsychology treats the human psyche as being part and parcel of nature. Healing the mind requires healing the earth. I came across this idea when I was in college in a book of essays titled Environ/Mental, which was edited by the great ecologists Paul Shepard and Daniel McKinley. I didn’t read them until much later, but Shepard’s books The Tender Carnivore And The Sacred Game, and especially Nature And Madness were absolutely critical to my thinking about the The Deer Camp. When I was in school, I was also devouring everything I could find by ecologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson, who was exploring the mind as a function of nature. He was way over my head, but I could not stop reading it. I should have stopped studying English and studied Ecology instead. By the 1990s, when I was writing news story after news story about the environment, Theodore Roszak put out a sort of compilation primer called Ecopsychology: Restoring The Earth, Healing The Mind, and after that I couldn’t think about anything else but this mind-nature connection. A couple years ago, I organized a one-on-one Skype course with Andy Fisher, author of this massive and inspiring tome called Radical Ecopsychology. He affirmed for me most of the things I was thinking about Ecopsychology, but also opened up for me the idea that culture will have to be reshaped in order to save the planet, and that the reshaping has to recognize that the living biosphere itself has some kind of soul or mentation, or at least deep importance to our own mental health. Its ideas or soul or psyche is also ours.
Anyway, for the first several years I kept writing looooonnng drafts that would go off on terrible digressions into James Hillman’s neoplatonic ideas about the ensoulation of matter, and Freya Matthews incredible, impossible-to-put-down book on panpsychism, For Love Of Matter, and long excerpts from Bateson and Shepard and Fisher and all the people in Roszak’s book. About 1/100th of that material survived into the final book, compared to what I originally was trying to cram in there. My agent Bonnie Nadell gave me a throughline for the book and brutally cut all that stuff. She probably saved my life. I’d still be writing that same draft over and over.
In writing The Deer Camp, did you ever debate whether or not to include a rather revealing or emotional or just embarrassing anecdote or bit of info?
Well, in the book I do describe having occasional sex with the babysitter who was looking after my younger brothers. It will probably set off a tsunami of speculation in the rural neighborhood in which we lived and wasn’t very chivalrous on my part to mention it, but I needed it. I was very much pretending to be a fully functioning adult when I was thirteen, as I could drive, had wheels, had guns, had a full-time job in the summers, and this was part of it. Of course I was still a kid, but this was part of the weird and horrifying freedom of being a kid in the 1970s. Later, as a young adult, I had a lot of girlfriends and messed up a lot of my relationships, but I found it impossible to go into all that and keep the throughline about our family.
Memoirs can take different tones. What tone did you take with The Deer Camp — is it deadly serious, are there bits of humor mixed in — and why did you feel this was the best one to take?
My brothers Brett and Joe and I found our lives to be utterly uproarious, even when they were life-threatening and horrible, so I had to position the tone of the book as being pretty funny. I was shocked when the reviewer for Kirkus said it was “grim but ultimately uplifting.” I was dying of laughter as I wrote some of it! I was so very pleased when poet Chris Dombrowski, whom I have still never met in person, read it for a blurb and wrote that it was “luminous, vital, at times even hilarious.” He got the funny bits! As kids, we worked so very, very hard to make our parents laugh. Dad got us started on wordplay by always quoting to us the Dr. Seuss books like The Cat In The Hat, and singing novelty songs by Tom T. Hall or Dr. Hook’s “Cover Of The Rolling Stone.” We just expanded the repertoire from there. By the time we were teenagers, Bruce was so controlling and weird, he would eat without saying a word, but we’d regale him with retellings of hillbilly exploits like the neighbor who drove his snowmobile up onto the roof of the house when he was drunk and hung it by the skis from the evestroughs, and if Bruce started to laugh, we were victorious! I still can’t read the story in the book about him starting the woods on fire without laughing out loud. Our family had problems but we were always singing and laughing and reciting lyrics and lines from books.
Your mom and your brothers are still around, but your dad is not. You touched on this a bit earlier, but how did your mom and brothers impact The Deer Camp, both in terms of what you wrote and how you wrote it?
My brothers and my mom fact-checked me. I am the oldest, so I had a lot of stories that they didn’t know, but Brett and Joe both had stories that I could only recount from their memories, as I either wasn’t there or didn’t know their version. Getting into the early years of the relationship was very difficult for my mom. She didn’t really want to talk about all Bruce’s running around when I was little, but if nothing else it did validate her feelings. Everyone was always trying to convince her to give him another chance, let him back in, put aside her own anger, and at least now part of the story is out there so it’s clear why she finally had to leave him. The more Mom talked, the more I understood my own father and his behavior, and the more I wrote about it. This kind of trust with my mom is one of the greatest things to come out of writing this book.
And how, if at all, do you think The Deer Camp would’ve been different if your dad was still around? Because even if you didn’t talk to him while you were writing it or show it to him before it was published, it would still be in the back of your mind that he could read it.
I have been asked about this quite a bit, and I will say that I definitely would have written this book even if he were still alive. After 2004, when the changes on the deer camp became changes in our family, we really had a wonderful time. It was a kind of miracle. I had to write about it. I was able to have long talks with him about raising my own son and my relationship and my work, for the first time in my life. I would have loved to sit down and talk to my dad about his early life and I definitely would have. I am not afraid to have those conversations: as a journalist, I make calls to folks all the time who would certainly rather not talk to me. He once told me, “Not everything can be a media event,” so maybe he would have shut me down. If he did talk, it would have been a completely different book, because he probably would have talked about how it was his faith in Jesus that changed his life, that rescued him from a life of philandering and so on, and that my mom was obviously a lunatic or vindictive or wrong because she left him right when he was finally straightened out and keeping his promises.
Maybe it would have devolved into a he-said / she-said between Dad’s account and Mom’s, and maybe that would have killed the book. Not sure. But I keep coming back to the realization that my experience, and that of Brett and Joe, was not theirs. We were the kids, and we had a different ride. Our life was confusing and hard and in some cases full of thoughts of suicide, and when that burden was largely lifted, even relatively late in my life, that was worth writing about. So there would have been some kind of book. Maybe all about restoring the psyche to nature. Maybe all about science!
Now, along with The Deer Camp, you also recently edited Ray Gun: The Bible Of Music And Style. For those who don’t know what Ray Gun was, what is this book about, and how is it different from the previous book about Ray Gun, Out Of Control?
Ray Gun: The Bible Of Music And Style reprints hundreds of the most beautiful pages and covers from the first sixty issues of Ray Gun magazine. Ray Gun was a rock and roll magazine published by Marvin Scott Jarrett and Jaclynn Jarrett from 1992 to 1998, which featured not just articles and photography about pop music, but also the earth-shattering work of its founding graphic designer, David Carson. The magazine pages weren’t just cool, they were works of art. The magazine developed a reputation as being not very respectful of the written word and even of the photographs, but those of us who worked there took this in stride. The big question every month was: what would Carson do with this material? What kind of art would he make with it? That torch was passed on to other great designers like Robert Hales and Chris Ashworth and Amanda Sissons. Every issue had something jaw-dropping in it. This work has not lost its impact over time. After having gone through every page of every issue dozens and dozens of times, I am still blown away by it. It feels fresh.
This new book simply features the actual pages and covers from the magazine, unadorned and unchanged. The 1997 book, Ray Gun Out Of Control, was like Ray Gun getting re-Ray Gunned — every essay, magazine spread or cover, and additional piece of new artwork was run through the graphic filter of designers Ashworth and Sissons and their partner Neil Fletcher, who were known as Substance. The overall effect was heavily influenced by fax errors, industrial decay, and a sort of graphic static that rendered it all into a beautiful, glorious artwork. But when Marvin Scott Jarrett contacted me about doing a new book, he said he wanted it to just be clean, a presentation of the original pages so that designers, rock fans, historians, and pop culture junkies could see the magazine and its ground-breaking design for what it was and is. The new book also has a couple great new essays in it by rockers Liz Phair and Wayne Coyne, design teacher and critic Steven Heller, and a half-good one by yours truly. I think it’s going to have a big impact on those who love design today.
Finally, going back to The Deer Camp, if someone enjoys it, what memoir of someone else’s would you suggest they check out next?
I’d refer readers back to the books I mentioned before, A River Runs Through It and H Is For Hawk. Sticking just to the greats about nature, there are so many more. I’m not sure if we consider it a memoir, since it gives hardly a single detail about her actual life, but Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek is absolutely luminous. I read it again almost every year just to revisit her amazing choice of subjects — giant carnivorous waterbugs, muskrats, horsehair worms — and how she makes them cosmic: there is no life without death. In a later edition, she wrote that she’d been a bit carried away with the poetic language in that book, the effusiveness of a young person, but that’s exactly what makes it great. It’s like a Psalm. Aldo Leopold’s daughter Estella Leopold wrote a memoir titled Stories From The Shack that I treasure for the insights into life at their deer camp, which was so much like my own. I devoured Chris Dombrowski’s book, Body Of Water, which is about being a fishing guide in the Bahamas and his encounters with a legendary guide named David Pinder, who is black and whose several kids are also guides and preachers. A great dive into fishing but also racial dynamics in the islands and the deep, deep impact of ocean life. And because I love rock and roll and art, I adored Just Kids by Patti Smith. She captured perfectly the possibility of reinvention and the artist’s life that drove so many of us to New York City, and, having lived in Manhattan when it was still shot through with squats and poetry, it’s a celebration of a dream of self-expression that gripped everyone I knew there. A different kind of wilderness.