Writer-in-Residence Russ Rymer Gives Talk about Latest Book

Anya Gruber ’16
Contributing Writer

On Monday, March 4 in the Neilson Browsing Room, Smith’s current Joan Leiman Jacobson Nonfiction Writer-in-Residence Russ Rymer gave a talk about his latest book, Out of Pernambuco: A Story of Murder, Slavery, Extinction, and the Modern Violin Bow, which explores the relationship between rare Brazilian wood and modern classical music. The talk was part of the Jacobson Center’s Working Writers series.

Out of Pernambuco is Rymer’s fourth book; his previous nonfiction works include American Beach – A Saga of Race, Wealth, and Memory; Genie – A Scientific Tragedy; and an upcoming novel, Paris Twilight. He has also written numerous articles for magazines such as National Geographic and The New Yorker.

After two introductions by Julio Alves, director of the Jacobson Center, and English professor Michael Thurston, the majority of the talk centered on the research Rymer conducted for his book and the insights this experience provided.

“You can’t possibly talk about music without talking about everything else in the world,” he stated, addressing the seemingly wide distance between discussing a violin bow and assessing modern forest conservation.

“Pernambuco is essential to the modern bow – without it, [music] will sound different,” said Rymer. This preference, however, poses a great problem because pernambuco wood grows in only Brazil under very specific conditions; thus, it is extremely rare and in danger of disappearing.

Rymer first became interested in the art of bow-making when he started taking cello lessons at an “advanced age” and started reading about the bows. “[In] journalism, you can latch onto something just because it fascinates you,” Rymer said. “I got deeper into the story … I started hanging out with bow-makers.”

“I went to ‘bow camp,’ as they call it,” he said, referring to a meeting of renowned bowmakers from all over the world. He found that the bow-making industry is very traditional and focused on workmanship. “[The industry] is traditionally very insular … they were not glad to have a reporter there.”

Rymer also traveled to Brazil several times to learn more about the conservation of pernambuco. Since the wood is in such high demand, it is difficult to keep them protected, and “to have an inventory [of the trees] without destroying the inventory.”

“[I was] reporting with botanists, museum directors and collectors, and with performers,” Rymer said.

“I so admire (and envy) the ability to look very closely at an object in the way [Rymer] does with the violin bow in the talk, to break it down and trace the histories of its parts,” said Thurston, a colleague of Rymer’s. “It’s amazing what can be discovered, and what unexpected connections can be found that way.”

“Above all I admired Rymer’s ability to make connections,” said English Professor Richard Millington of Rymer’s talk, “to glimpse through the story of the making of a violin or cello bow a history of colonization, a narrative of environmental crisis and repair and, most movingly, an exploration of the meaning of different kinds of endangered human making.”

Alves also admires the depth of Rymer’s research.

“I’ve admired Russ Rymer’s work since the early 1990s, when I read his first book, Genie, a tragic story of abuse and neglect. I’d been working on the data linguists and psychologists were collecting from Genie and reading Russ’ work brought the whole person and her circumstances into perspective,” said Alves.

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