That’s the book where you hit upon your distinctive style of writing. I was finding a way to bring together the pieces that you need to describe something as complex as those subjects and to describe the act of discovery so you don’t set it up as “I know and you don’t.” It instead becomes, “This is how I found out about this struggle, about this place, about this crisis, about this bizarre history,” and so you foreground yourself not as particularly important or enlightened, but like Virgil to the reader’s Dante. And maybe this comes out of postmodernism, to establish that you’re not even pretending to be objective, that you have a point of view, and that the most honest thing you can do is make that point of view clear.
You’re often compared to Susan Sontag. It’s interesting because she was Jewish; she came from the West Coast; she was a woman; she dealt with photography. But one of the ways that I answer for myself, “Am I like Susan Sontag?” is to say, “Not that much, because I’m also like Gary Snyder” [an American poet and environmentalist]. Someday I want to write an essay comparing the two of them. I think they were born almost the same year. She grew up in Arizona, he grew up in Washington, and they did radically different things from starting points that weren’t so deeply dissimilar. Snyder chose to remain on the West Coast and to face Asia and indigenous America, to be rural and deeply anti-Eurocentric, in the same way that Sontag chose to be deeply enamored of nineteenth-century European models of the intellectual and the writer in society, to move to New York and for a long time to Paris, and to write mostly about European artists and filmmakers and books. I think being born who and when she was it was actually quite radical to try to inherit and wear the mantle of the European tradition. And that was something that it was really important to me to not do.
Are there other writers working today who have inspired you? John Berger has been an influence and a model. His work is essayistic, beautifully written, deeply politically engaged, and the fact that he corresponds with and writes about Subcomandante Marcos doesn’t seem to give him the sense that he has to stop thinking about Picasso. Lawrence Weschler’s longtime example that you can be a really good human rights journalist and also write about some really idiosyncratic artists is also very helpful.
In Storming the Gates of Paradise —and in many of your earlier books, such as Wanderlust—there are a few writers whom you keep returning to: Thoreau, for example, and Walter Benjamin. Are these writers that you grew up reading? I knew in my teens that I wanted to be an essayist, and there were models pretty early on. I read a lot of Pauline Kael. She was the first essayist I really latched onto. I think Thoreau was always present, but I didn’t really pay attention until later. When I was fifteen, my father took me to England, and in those days Penguin books were just beautiful and insanely cheap. They cost fifty pence to a pound a piece, and even for a fifteen-year-old without an allowance, that was pretty manageable. And I bought Borges’s Labyrinths, and that was a huge landmark: How creative nonfiction could be, how blurry the lines could be, the ways that you could think about these scholarly and obscure things. Borges isn’t as evident as Benjamin in my work, but he’s very, very present.
What writers came later? It’s like some sort of party where they slip in at different moments. Orwell was actually there pretty early, and Virginia Woolf in bits. Benjamin was being stuffed under everyone’s nose in the eighties and he got under my nose, too, though I think I read him differently than most academics do. And then there are other people, like Isak Dinesen, for the fable-like, lapidary quality of her short stories, which are very different than nonfiction, but she’s actually been somebody that’s been important in funny ways.
Can you see where your writing is headed next? You know, I’m not sure where I’m going. I’m doing a book now that’s much more directly about social issues and civil society than any full-length thing I’ve done before—although I can see the seeds in Hope in the Dark and Wanderlust and maybe in some ways in Hollow City. I’ll keep coming back to Thoreau and I’ll keep coming back to landscape and I’ll keep coming back to photography. I feel like I have a fixed terrain and that I don’t really leave it but move around in different parts of it; but it’s a big territory.
More in Q and ARead More »