In our latest issue, Melinda Copp gave us a glimpse into the wonderful world of alligators, focusing particularly on a lovable alligator named Norton, who resides at the Palmetto Bluff real estate development in Bluffton, South Carolina. In the post below, Copp reveals how she came to know Norton and the challenges of writing a piece centered around animal facts.
Her contribution to our Winter 2015 issue can be found here.
Not long after my first interview with Kimberly Andrews at Palmetto Bluff back in 2008, I bumped into her in the bar line at an Old Crow Medicine Show concert at a small venue on Hilton Head Island. After the initial awkwardness associated with seeing a professional contact in a social setting, we got our drinks and hung out together for the rest of the night. (As we have many nights since.) I knew about her tracking program and I’d expressed interest in going, so she told me about the tour she had planned for the next morning. I will admit that not all plans I’ve made over whiskey have been kept, but when a scientist asks if you’d like to go alligator tracking the next morning, it doesn’t matter how late you were out the night before, you show up. And so, as the essay describes, I rode around the Palmetto Bluff real estate development with her looking for an alligator named Norton.
The two biggest challenges of writing “Alligator Nature and Nurture” were, first, how to make alligators likable, and second, a natural history, by definition, contains a lot of background information. People tend not to like flesh-eating reptiles. And background information is about as dry as it sounds—it’s the part readers are most likely to skip. So how do you make it interesting to read, let alone something that the smart people at a journal like 1966 would want to publish?
I will mention here that my essay is also part of a longer work of creative nonfiction about alligator management. And, honestly, I tried to break all this background information up and spread it out among the entire book. In other words, I tried to not write “Alligator Nature and Nurture.” Instead, I tried unsuccessfully through several rewrites to sneak the facts in so people wouldn’t notice. It sounded like a good idea, but I could never get it to work. So what you read here is both a defeat and a victory. In any case, when it became clear that all my natural history background had to go together, I was back to that question of making it interesting.
When Kimberly found Norton that morning, and I saw him floating there in the fake pond surrounded by new roads and fresh infrastructure, I knew I had the answer. Palmetto Bluff had already made him likable—his name was Norton, after all. The juxtaposition of human development and alligators that moment we find him in the essay shows the crux of everything I wanted to say. It was a pretty awesome moment. Thinking about how he got there provided the context for a lot of alligator background information. My hope still is that I did it justice.
Melinda Copp has an MFA from Goucher College. “Alligator Nature and Nurture” is an excerpt from a larger work of narrative nonfiction about alligators in the human world. She lives in Bluffton, South Carolina and blogs at www.melindacopp.com.