David Owen is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of fourteen books. He lives in northwest Connecticut with his wife, the writer Ann Hodgman. His book was a finalist in general nonfiction for the 2018 Colorado Book Awards.
What inspired you to write this book?
I’d written about environmental issues in two previous books and a number of magazine articles. I’d always wanted to write something about water, but the topic is so huge I needed to find a way to make it manageable. The Colorado River is an ideal subject: it’s long but not too long; it’s big but not huge; it’s an extremely important resource for millions of people, but most of them have no idea that they depend on it; and, most of all, we use it up. The water challenges we face in the United States are nowhere near as dire as the ones that people face in (for example) the Middle East and India, but they’re similar in kind. Thinking about the Colorado is a good way to think about problems the whole world is either dealing with right now or will eventually have to deal with.
Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?
My favorite writers of all time are probably Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. My favorite magazine writer is a New Yorker colleague of mine, Ian Frazier. Recently, I reread my way through all his books—and my favorite of those is one of his first, Great Plains. My favorite funny novel that isn’t by Twain is The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis. My favorite short-story writer is Alice Munro.
Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?
The excerpt explains why I wrote the book, and why I went about it the way I did. And it describes one of my favorite parts of my wandering, at the very beginning of my research. I keep thinking I’d like to go back and retrace the entire route, just for fun, without taking notes.
What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?
I got to educate myself about a subject I had known very little about, and I got to spend weeks traveling in or over one of my favorite parts of the country. When I was a teenager, I would have bet anything that I would end up living in a cabin in the mountains. That’s not the way things turned out, but I’ve always loved Colorado, and I was happy to have an excuse to return to places I still dream about. And western water has something in common with a number of my favorite research topics over the years: the more I learned about it, the less I felt I knew. All the big environmental issues we face are extraordinarily complex. If you think there are easy solutions to any of them, you haven’t thought about the problems hard enough.
What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?
The most difficult was the final chapter, in which I tried to pull together what I’d learned. I guess one of my goals was to say something constructive without making it sound as though I thought I had the whole thing figured out. We’ll be thinking our way through water issues for decades to come.
What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?
It’s too big to count as a single fact, but many of the most fascinating facts I learned had to do with western water law, which is utterly different from eastern water law. I entertained a couple of lawyer friends during a long car trip simply by describing the basics of prior appropriation. To them, it seemed like law from a different planet.
What project are you working on next?
I’m just finishing a book about hearing loss, which grew out of an article I wrote for the New Yorker last year. I’m also finishing a New Yorker article about artificial intelligence and facial recognition. And over the summer I took a brief break from both of those projects to write an article for the New Yorker’s website about a financial scam that my mother had just fallen for. Magazine writing is a good job for someone with a short attention span.
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