Over the course of a highly unusual career, Lauren Redniss, a much-lauded author and visual artist, has followed her instincts, never really planning exactly where she’s going—but so far her approach has led to an astonishing amount of acclaim. Her new book, Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West (due in April from Random House) is the latest example of what she calls her “visual nonfiction,” a career path that has thus far included a 2016 MacArthur “genius grant,” a spot as a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction, and a Guggenheim fellowship, among other honors.
Not too bad for someone who started out not knowing what she wanted to do.
“I try and trust the feeling,” she says of her process for picking her subjects—which thus far have included an early-20th-century showgirl, Nobel laureate physicist Marie Curie, and the weather. “If I have a hunch about something, there’s a reason for it, and I try to dig for that reason. I trust that if I think about it and explore it, I will eventually be able to articulate that motivation, even if it starts out amorphous and impressionistic.”
The result of this process is books that meld prose, science, journalism, and illustration to tell stories with an evocative depth. She doesn’t consider herself a cartoonist, or her books graphic novels (though Oak Flat is listed on PW’s graphic novels announcements list). However, though they may not fit into any easy category, her books get much of their power from the same strength of visual storytelling found in graphic novels.
It’s a blend of storytelling processes that she’s taken further than ever in Oak Flat, the riveting story of a contested piece of Arizona land—a rocky mesa that’s been sacred to the San Carlos Apache tribe for hundreds of years. Oak Flat is home to a rich vein of copper, and, while mining had long been banned there, in 2014, President Obama signed a controversial and long-disputed piece of land exchange legislation allowing mining interests to acquire 2,400 acres of sacred land. However, the fate of the ecologically and religiously vital site is still being fought over, even as the Resolution Copper mining company is preparing to dig, inevitably destroying Oak Flat in the process. In November 2019, a coalition of 20 Arizona tribal, mining-reform, and religious organizations petitioned the U.S. Forest Service in a challenge to the environmental review of the copper mine site, claiming it was rushed and flawed.
Arrayed against the mining concerns is the Nosie family, led by Wendsler Nosie, former chairman and councilman of the San Carlos Apache tribe, and his teen activist granddaughter Naelyn Pike, who has spoken before Congress about the traditional importance of Oak Flat to the Apache people.
In precise, descriptive prose based on hours of interviews both with Apache leaders and white locals, and bolstered with pages of haunting colored-pencil drawings, Redniss paints a picture of two peoples locked in an inevitable conflict. She depicts both the oppression of indigenous people throughout American history, and the experiences of mining families who are willing to risk their lives and the well-being of their families to provide for them.
It’s a story that Redniss spent years researching, returning to Arizona many times, she says over coffee at a local café near her Brooklyn home, where she lives with her husband and two children. Redniss calls herself shy—and she is soft-spoken—but she is also passionate about the stories she tells, and grows increasingly animated as she talks of the people she writes about.
Redniss explains that she didn’t really start out intending to be an illustrator, a journalist, an author, or anything in particular. In fact, the more you talk to Redniss, the more it becomes clear that her creative process is as intuitive and undefinable as the finished works it produces.
Redniss loved to draw as a child, she says, but initially she’d pursued a postgraduate career in botany—until a lab job drawing seed specimens made her realize how much she missed making art. All the while, she also kept a journal, and worked to compile an oral history of her grandparents—and, somehow, all this led to the realization that “there was a way to bring these things together,” she says. “It just sort of evolved organically out of different interests.”
Redniss began to put it all together in 2001 when a friend of hers, an art director at the New York Times, saw her journals and thought she might be able to produce something like it for the Times’s op-ed page. The result was a series of profiles of centenarians, all based on interviews and accompanied by Redniss’s impressionistic but accurate drawings.
One of the subjects for the series was Doris Eaton, a 102-year-old former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl whose home was practically a museum of burlesque. Meeting Eaton led to 2006’s Century Girl: 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfeld Follies, a collage-heavy biography of Eaton and her times, marking the first time that Redniss was able to put all her interests together as a book.
Next came Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Fallout, an acclaimed 2010 biographical account of the relationship between the two pioneering scientists that used a similar collage approach. The book was a National Book Award finalist in 2011, and in 2019 a film adaptation of the book was released, directed by another noted visual storyteller, Marjane Satrapi, creator of the pioneering graphic novel Persepolis. “We just totally hit it off,” Redniss says about her first encounters with Satrapi.
Redniss followed the publication of Radioactive with Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future in 2015, a book that required her to travel from the Arctic to rainy Madagascar to explore how extremes of weather affect civilization and the biosphere. The book won the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, and soon after, in 2016, she was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant.”
All of these subjects were ideas that spoke to her, on an intuitive level, Redniss explains, and Oak Flat, perhaps her most dramatic book, is no exception. Her interest in the place started simply enough: by reading about the contested area in an article in the New York Times.
Inspired, she traveled to Arizona and started talking to the people involved. “I just felt compelled by the people and the stakes,” she says. “It was the history of the American West, the myths that are told about it.”
Redniss would spend the next three years traveling back to Oak Flat and the mining ghost towns of Arizona, meeting the Nosie family and the Gorhams of Superior, Ariz., whose history is intertwined with the history of mining. But as with her other books, various aspects of the tale grew organically. “The questions that arose were things I hadn’t thought about,” she says. “Such as where does copper come from—and how do we mine it?”
But the most significant part of this story is the people. While Oak Flat is immensely sympathetic to the indigenous experience—especially in its account of Naelyn’s “Sunrise Dance,” a traditional San Carlos Apache ceremony celebrating entry to womanhood held at Oak Flat—Redniss also examines the hardscrabble lives of white residents who support opening the copper mine.
Redniss tried to avoid the obvious traps and tropes in writing about indigenous people. “I tried to be as respectful as possible in talking to people,” she says. “I’m relating the stories and ideas that are important to them. And I definitely feel like there is a great responsibility as a non-Native person. There’s a great history of injustice even by well-meaning people.”
The visual elements of the book include full-page colored-pencil sketches of Oak Flat and the surrounding areas, as well as portraits of the main players. Redniss often uses a series of full-page illustrations to slow the tempo of the narrative for the reader and to force a more thoughtful approach to the subject, while her precise verbal descriptions give the work a sense of immediacy.
“I’m hoping to create a kind of visceral connection,” Redniss says. “Words can have that power, but images affect us in a way that we don’t have language for. It’s more of a feeling.”
As with most aspects of Redniss’s work, her approach to the balance of words and pictures is an intuitive one. “It’s not necessarily a struggle in a negative sense,” she says. “It’s a kind of dynamic push and pull, each exerting a force—and, hopefully, in the end I find the tension between those two dynamics.”
Redniss also teaches illustration at the Parsons School of Design. After Century Girl came out, famed cartoonist Ben Katchor, himself a MacArthur winner and an associate professor at Parsons, encouraged her to apply for a full-time position. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea, because I have no idea how I’m gonna pay the bills after this book,’ ” she says with a laugh.
After completing Oak Flat, Redniss says she’s expanding into three-dimensional art with some projects she can’t talk about right now. Once again, she’s found a new creative direction that interests her a great deal.
“To me, books are a perfect technology, and I hope to continue to make books, but I like the visual component of my work,” Redniss says. “I hope that from one project to the next, some new seed will be planted and that I can nurture that without knowing much about it in advance.”
Heidi MacDonald writes regularly for PW on comics and graphic books.