The Nonfiction Editors, Rappahannock Review: Your essay is both a personal narrative and a larger historical, geological piece. How do you reconcile the two without one overrunning the other?

Neil Mathison: Striking a balance is necessary – and can be a challenge. Before I begin writing a piece, I ask myself two questions. First, how can I make myself a character in the piece? The great essayists from Montesquieu to Sam Clemens (aka Mark Twain) to EB White to Paul Theroux to David Foster Wallace always put themselves in their essays. As the essayist you are the character with whom the reader identifies; your actions, reactions, impressions, internal dialogs make the piece come alive. The second thing I ask is what important questions emerge from the subject matter.  Scientific, social, historical, literary, philosophical, moral, whatever else. These open your writing up to the larger world. Some have no answers, some you may choose not to answer– but, when you’re done, your essay should address the important ones. Be careful, though. It’s easy to add too much, to stray too far from the narrative, especially if the subject – geology in my case – is of great interest to you. The questions you address must illuminate but not overwhelm the story.

RR: When did you start writing and what influenced you to pursue getting published?

NM: I was drawn to tale telling as far back as I can remember although for many years, first as a naval officer and later as a corporate executive, I had no time to write. In the mid-nineties, courtesy of my wife Susan who was employed and paying our bills, I became a stay-at-home dad. I studied with Jana Harris at the University of Washington Extension, with Francis McHugh at Richard Hugo House, and later with Priscilla Long, author of The Writer’s Portable Mentor, who became my go-to teacher/mentor/cheerleader. I have always submitted for publication. Not putting your work out into the world leaves it incomplete: to paraphrase a Zen koan, it’s like one hand clapping.

RR: What outdoors activities have you done since writing this essay?

NM: My wife Susan and I live an outdoor life. In the last twelve months, we spent five weeks in British Columbia aboard our forty-two-foot sailboat, eight weeks living in our sixteen-foot Airstream trailer traveling throughout the Pacific Northwest, down the West Coast, across the Mojave Desert, over to Tucson, up to Sedona, Monument Valley, and Zion. We spent January and February skiing in Sun Valley, including a glorious, blizzardy, snow-cat-and-Nordic-ski trip into Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Geyser Basin. And we’ve just returned from Hawaii where we snorkeled off Lanai, viewed the stars from Mauna Kea’s volcanic slopes, piloted a friend’s twenty-foot Grady-White boat off the Big Island’s Kohala Coast while he swam with humpback whales. In May, we’ll charter a boat for a week-long voyage up France’s Canal du Midi. Adventure is mainstream to our lives, although not always so dramatic as rafting the Grand Canyon.

RR: Which came first, the adventuring or the creative writing? When you’re out exploring, are you thinking of how it will affect your writing?

NM: I suppose adventuring came first. But as early as junior-high school I wrote essays about hiking in Mt. Rainier National Park. Sometimes I do think about an essay while I’m “adventuring,” or even choose a particular adventure because I want to write about it; more often the essay comes later. Regardless, it’s useful to record what you sense about a place as soon as you can – light, color, sounds, textures. These slip away quickly if you don’t capture them. Also photos and videos, especially videos with sound, help.

RR: If you didn’t have any budget constraints, where would you travel?

NM: Patagonia. Ever since I saw the movie Motorcycle Diaries, about Che Guevara traveling through South America on an old Indian motorcycle, I’ve wanted to visit Patagonia. Maybe on a road or mountain bike. Not a motorcycle.


Neil Mathison is an essayist and short-story writer who has been a naval officer, a nuclear engineer, an expatriate businessman living in Hong Kong, a corporate vice-president, and a stay-at-home-dad. His essays and short stories have appeared in The Ontario Review, Georgia Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Agni, Under the Sun, and elsewhere. Neil’s essay, “Volcano: an A to Z” was recognized as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2010. A second essay, “Wooden Boat,” was recognized as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2013. Neil’s author’s website link is

Neil Mathison’s work in Issue 1.3: 

“Rafting Off the Grid”