Alumni Profile: Gwendolen Gross

Posted: October 17, 2013

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the SFS Centre for Rainforest Studies in Australia, we reached out to our alumni to ask about some of their fondest memories from the Wet Tropics. We heard back from many, including Gwendolen Gross Australia Spring ’88, an accomplished novelist, who wrote:

“A great adventure and much fodder for my first novel, Field Guide! I’ve published four more, but the world of Millaa Millaa will always be vivid in my memory.”

In Field Guide, the main character Annabel Mendelssohn travels to North Queensland, Australia to study spectacled flying foxes at a research station not unlike SFS. She soon settles in to life among scientists in the rainforest – listening to the dawn chorus, avoiding leeches, and hiking past stinging trees. But her newfound tranquility is interrupted by the mysterious disappearance of her professor and mentor, Dr. John Goode.

We recently interviewed Gwendolen to learn more about the intersections between her SFS experience and Field Guide.

Why did you decide to study abroad with SFS in Australia?
It was 1988, my junior year of college at Oberlin. I adored Oberlin, but was fascinated by the idea of field science. I’d always wanted to write about science—fancying, perhaps, a job as a National Geographic journalist—and I’d done quite a lot of backpacking and adventure —read: budget —travel. I picked up a brochure at a campus fair for programs abroad, and knew SFS was for me. It was later I learned I preferred an amalgam of invented and real world fiction to science journalism.

How did the idea first come to you to set your novel at a field station, and in North Queensland in particular?
I worked in textbook publishing after college—nursing and science textbooks—and did quite a bit of freelance writing for science supplements. Then I worked in children’s books, and found a tiny ad in the San Diego free paper for a lunchtime Brown Bag writing workshop—and began writing poetry. This led to a wild outpouring of creative writing, and a fellowship with PEN West, and the realization that even if it wasn’t exactly practical to get an MFA in writing, I had paid off the first round of student loans, and I had to give writing some serious attention. My very first novel, which lives in a drawer, was about a girl who would sing before she could speak. I could whistle before I could speak. But when I got to grad school, I was ready to write about the extraordinary place I had studied abroad. Millaa Millaa really was a character all its own.