The Haunting Possibility of Alternative Lives

By Lola Fadulu

The writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s grandfather, a refugee from Nazi Germany, was a huge fan of Westerns written by Karl May. They captivated Kolbert’s grandfather so much that when he immigrated to the United States, he took his kids out West for vacations. Later, Kolbert’s mother did the same.

As a child living in Westchester, New York, Kolbert dreamed of moving out West and having adventures of her own. She ended up mostly staying put in and around New England, but her job as a journalist helped fulfill her love of adventure, allowing her to spend much of her time following field scientists around remote locations.

I recently spoke with Kolbert about her dreams of going out West and her tendency to imagine alternative lives for herself. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.


Lola Fadulu: When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Elizabeth Kolbert: I didn’t have a clear plan. I’m going to be quite frank: I wanted to move out West. That’s what I wanted to do when I was a kid. I was going to go out West and do something, but I never got west of Albany.

Fadulu: Why did you want to go out West?

Kolbert: My parents took us out West in the summer a bunch of times, and I thought it was great. We used to go to Rocky Mountain National Park.

My grandfather was a refugee from Nazi Germany, but he had, as a kid, read these Westerns by a guy named Karl May. They’re very, very famous in Germany, and they are adventure stories set in the American West. When he immigrated to the U.S., he took his kids—my mother and her sister—out West to sort of live out these adventures he’d read as a kid. And then it obviously made a big impression on my mom, and then she took us. And so that was the background to these trips. And as I say, they did make a big impression on me and I thought I, too, should go have adventures out West.

Fadulu: What did your parents do?

Kolbert: My dad was a doctor, an eye doctor. And my mom, throughout much of my childhood, was a stay-at-home mom, very active in local politics, on the school board, things like that.

Fadulu: Did they have a career path in mind for you?

Kolbert: They were not at all prescriptive in that way. I think my dad would’ve been happy if I had been interested in medicine. One summer when I was in high school he did arrange for me to have an internship, I guess you’d call it, at the hospital where he worked, and I proceeded to contaminate a lot of the equipment. I think it became clear pretty early on that [medicine] was not going to pan out.

Fadulu: How would you describe your younger self?

Kolbert: I grew up in the ’60s …read more

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