An Interview With Arizona’s First State Herper

Last year I had the honor of interviewing Cecil Schwalbe. Now retired from the U.S. Geological Survey, Schwalbe was Arizona’s first state herpetologist—the guy who launched a program that today works to conserve the desert tortoise, rare native frogs and all the state’s reptiles and amphibians.

I’d never met Cecil until the interview, but he was already famous in my mind; not for his many accomplishments over a long career, but because when I met my favorite author, Barbara Kingsolver, at a booksigning and told her I work for Arizona Wildlife Views magazine, she said, “I used to subscribe to that magazine! Do you know Cecil Schwalbe?”

For the interview, Cecil and I sat together on a bench in the shade on the UofA campus, students walking past, cars idling in the distance. My colleague at the time, Gary Schafer, a video producer, asked most of the questions. Gary already had the dirt on Cecil—the caiman he walked on a leash, the Gila monster that took a piece of his finger when he was giving a talk to 200 people. He had no trouble getting Cecil to talk.

Cecil’s an enthusiastic and able storyteller. I don’t know how long we sat together on that bench, but the time went quickly. Later, I transcribed a digital voice recording of the interview because I want to quote Cecil directly as much as possible in the story I’m writing about him. I was surprised when the transcript ran to more than 9,000 words. It didn’t seem like we talked that long.

This week, I took that huge transcript and whacked it back to around 2,000 words, which is about right for a first draft. It took most of a day to do it, removing big chunks of text at first, then successively smaller ones. I haven’t done much sentence-by-sentence work yet; I hope to find another one or two hundred “extra” words when I get to that level, but these things take time.

Fortunately, I have it: The piece isn’t slated to run until the July–August issue.

Its working title: “Anyone Who Gets Bitten by a Gila Monster Deserves It: Adventures of Arizona’s First Herper.”

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  1. Update: “Anyone Who Gets Bitten by a Gila Monster Deserves It” is now scheduled to run in the September–October 2013 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine.

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