Author-Profile Backgrounder:
Bill deBuys on his Early Years

FRANK GREGORSKY: Your birthyear is 1949. Where?

WILLIAM deBUYS: Baltimore.

GREGORSKY: What can you tell me about your mom and dad? Let’s start with your father’s line of work.

WdB: He was a young man from New Orleans at the time of the 1929 stock-market crash. He had just graduated from Yale College. The one place where he could get a job was in Baltimore, selling Dictaphones. One of his places to make sales was the morgue at Johns Hopkins University. From Dictaphone sales, he went into banking for a while, and eventually into real estate -- he was a real-estate broker for most of his mature life.

And my mother was a homemaker, and an avid reader.

GREGORSKY: What did she like to read?

WdB: Just about anything. A lot of fiction -- she was very well read in American and European literature.

GREGORSKY: Any brothers or sisters?

WdB: Three sisters. One works in New York for the Salvation Army. Another teaches at a private school in Boston, and is married to an internist. The third sister lives in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, and she commutes to New York and works right near the former site of the World Trade Center; she works in software, basically.

GREGORSKY: So, out of all the four kids, you wandered the most by far.

WdB: Yeah. Absolutely.

GREGORSKY: Can you cite some formative books from your junior-high or high-school era?

WdB: Oh, gosh [pause] -- there are so many. In junior high, I was reading things like Albert Payson Terhune; he wrote stories of wonderful dogs. Also in junior high, I read Moby Dick for the first time.

GREGORSKY: How did that impact you?

WdB: I thought this is a marvel. As a work of art. As the production of human intelligence. I had a terrible case of poison ivy -- in the summertime, it was. My arms and knees were coated in calamine lotion, which created a sense of almost being in casts. And I lay propped up on a sofa, and just read Moby Dick for hour after hour after hour. It was a great experience.

GREGORSKY: Other outstanding books from those days?

WdB: Walter Farley’s horse books. Dog books. Sea books. Jules Verne -- I read everything in Jules Verne’s oeuvre. Robert Louis Stevenson. The Hardy Boys. Tom Swift. James Bond. And lots of American biography.

GREGORSKY: Were you a dreamy type of kid? Were you studious? Were you an introvert?

WdB: One of my writing teachers from long ago had a theory that "writers" are formed in their early adolescence when children become very lonely and they turn to literature for company. That was [my situation]. I mean, I had friends, but I think at a very early age I became aware of the problem, the existential problem, of the singularity of the person. Literature helped me cope with that, and I fell in love with words [and] with story-telling.

GREGORSKY: Who was your best friend in high school?

WdB: For most of those years, it was a young man by the name of William Garlick. He’s now an emergency-room doc in North Carolina. We’re somewhat in touch; I keep track of him.

GREGORSKY: You came out of high school in ’67 or ’68?

WdB: Sixty-seven.

GREGORSKY: Did the family have "plans" for you?

WdB: Not particularly, no. They wanted me to go to college, get an education, and make a difference. I was brought up with a strong ethic of service and public commitment.

GREGORSKY: Same for your sisters?

WdB: Yeah.

GREGORSKY: Did your father have more of that, or your mother have more -- of that ethos?

WdB: I think both equally. They shared values pretty completely. And the high school I went to was very strong on that ethos.

GREGORSKY: It wasn’t a Catholic school, was it?

WdB: No, it was a private day school called Gilman.

GREGORSKY: All right. So where did you go to college?

WdB: University of North Carolina.

When today’s kids approach their twenties, they have "plans" and even schedules of a type that were alien to the majority of the generation Bill deBuys and I are part of. Some of us dragged out college for years, had three or four majors, and fell under the spell of politicos and profs. So, in 1967, Bill deBuys departs Baltimore for a North Carolina campus; discovers the "truly vile" Jesse Helms doing right-wing radio commentary; and protests the Vietnam War.

As for the literary side? "I was trying to be a fiction writer -- struggling with the elements of novels and writing short stories." Ironically, by choosing UNC, publishing one of those short stories, and doing an undergrad thesis on "the concept of fate in the writing of William Faulkner," deBuys comes to the attention of a brilliant sociologist: Robert Coles. The Ford Foundation -- they were financing his work -- insisted Coles find some students who could learn his research methods. The topic: How poor children achieve their identity growing up.

DeBuys begins working for Coles after graduating from college in 1972; allowing for shifting majors and a year of study in Lyons, France, his academic program has been "basically a combination of history and literature." But where’s the irony? Well, Coles is not teaching in North Carolina, but at Harvard. And where will the research take place? Northern New Mexico!

Another irony, or perhaps it’s just supply and demand: Bill’s desire to write fiction is being supplanted by "a desire to record/capture/document the natural world." With that, we’ve set the stage for Bill’s first two books. Neither one -- Enchantment and Exploitation, or River of Traps -- will come about quickly. To "live alertly" usually means being deliberate...

GREGORSKY: So the mission was sort of picked and chartered by Coles. It wasn’t that you decided to go to New Mexico [at age 23].

WdB: Absolutely. I would never have made it to New Mexico were it not for Bob Coles. I came out here because of him.

GREGORSKY: Same situation with Alex Harris, who took all of the pictures that allowed River of Traps to be what it would become.

WdB: Yes. Coles also took on [for the New Mexico research] Alex, who had graduated Yale the year before.

GREGORSKY: On page 13 of River of Traps, a book which covers over half-a-decade there, you say: "I was writing a book, but for a long time I was not sure about what, except that the mountains had to figure in it." So that sentiment was [prevalent] during the second and third year of being up there [in the Sangre de Cristos]?

WdB: What I’m talking about there is Enchantment and Exploitation, the first book. In New Mexico [during 1972-73] with Robert Coles, I was the world’s worst research assistant. I played too much pool and drank too many beers in the bars of Espanola. Coles should have fired me; instead, in the genteel manner of his class, he allowed the grant to run out. I moved to San Francisco for a couple years -- and then came back to New Mexico to write a book. At the beginning, I thought I would write a kind of expanded trail guide to the Pecos Wilderness. But, as I got into the material, one thing led to another, and pretty soon those trails were leading me down the mountains into the villages. I couldn’t write about the high country unless I wrote about the people -- it was all connected. And so the domain of the book kept getting larger.

And what Enchantment and Exploitation turned out to be was the "homework" I needed to have done to get to the point where I might have been able to be of some use to Robert Coles. That book is my atonement for being a bad research assistant [grinning].

GREGORSKY: You didn’t know any Spanish before moving up there?

WdB: I knew a little bit. But the Spanish I learned from textbooks wasn’t of much use. And I still cannot speak the Spanish of northern New Mexico -- it’s so idiomatic, and the pronunciation is so difficult. I struggle -- badly -- with it.

GREGORSKY: How and when did you meet Anne, who figures prominently in River of Traps?

WdB: I met her at the University of North Carolina, when we were both students there. We’re divorced now -- just divorced a few years ago. But we’re still friends -- she lives not far from here.