NPR Features Writing Professor For Nonfiction

UCA writing professor Mark Spitzer will appear on a rebroadcasting of “Return of the Gar” to talk about his recent book of the same title during NPR’s Arts and Letters on Sept. 17.

The special, Arts and Letters is a semi-monthly program on KUAR, Little Rock’s NPR station, which showcases local authors, musicians and professors who are active in Arkansas.

“One thing that this show is trying to do is show some of the best intellectual aspects of Arkansas,” said J. Bradley Minnick, program host and University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor. “I am stunned by the talent, the intellectual talent, the musical talent and the artistic community that is here in Arkansas.”

“Return of the Gar” is a hybrid between a personal narrative and an educational program. In the broadcast, Spitzer and two gar researchers, Lindsey Lewis of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and UCA biology professor Reid Adams, introduce the alligator gar and its cultural and ecological ties to the state.

The program details the ecological impact of the vanishing gar and tells Spitzer’s personal story about his love of gar.

Spitzer said he has been fascinated by the gar since he first saw one in a book at 6 years old.

“It blew my mind… I couldn’t get over the fact that we had such a massive, monster-headed fish in our midst that could weigh well over 200 pounds,” Spitzer said. “As a graduate student in Louisiana, I just had to catch me one. That’s when the research really began.”

Spitzer has written two creative nonfiction books about the gar, the most recent being the subject of the NPR program. Although he is not academically trained in science, his passion about gar and local ecosystems inspired him to approach science through creative writing.

“With this platform, I have the privilege of entertaining, and subsequently educating, thousands of readers about the environmental problems we are currently facing,” Spitzer said.

The program, based on Spitzer’s book, discusses topics such as gar overfishing, ecological impacts of the gar, and gar farming in Mexico. Interspersed with music by blues artist Ralph Stanley and local band Know Who’s a Robot (whose members include co- host of the program Christopher Hickey), the program is designed to make the information accessible to average listeners.

“Mark was able – in his book – to tell a personal story and a factual story at the same time, and that’s not easy to do,” Minnick said. “We try to do that. We try to tell a personal story and, at the same time, we wanted to tell a larger story which is about all of us.”

The program’s main message, beyond the touching personal anecdotes and fun facts, is that the gar population in Arkansas is in trouble.

Spitzer said this isn’t just bad news for the gar; it affects the entire ecosystem surrounding them. Without the gar, bass and catfish populations suffer.

“Basically, gar control the rough fish that destroy nests of other fish, and they also police the systems for unwanted invaders from foreign waters,” he said.

Hickey said the problem should be on everyone’s mind.

“Arkansans should probably care if they appreciate the state’s waterways and the ecological diversity within,” Hickey said.

Perhaps the most dominant feature of the program, however, was the obvious passion with which Spitzer spoke about gar. At one point, Spitzer jokes that he wants to change his name to Gar, because it is now so close to his identity. His passion is evidently infectious, Minnick said.

“When you immerse yourself in something like this, it becomes so much a part of your existence,” he said.

Minnick hopes that this special, like others in the Arts and Letters program, will make people look at things in a different light.

“You wouldn’t expect to kind of sympathize with a fish, but you do, or I hope you do,” Minnick said.

Arts and Letters airs monthly at 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays.

“Return of the Gar” will re- air at 8:30 p.m. Sept. 17.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 16, 2015 print edition of The Echo.

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