A few months ago, Colin Marshall of the excellent Notebook on Cities and Culture podcast strolled into my apartment, set down a recorder and began asking questions about some of my favorite topics. We had a great chat, and I’m honored to be featured on the resulting podcast, available on iTunes and via MP3.
And on a related note, I just listened to Colin’s latest show, Sonic Bibimbap with Bernie Cho, on Seoul and the rise of K-pop around the globe. Really great stuff.
Nearly 15 years ago, I asked my dad, a World War II vet, to travel to Western Europe with me to show me several of the places where he’d spent time during the war. He’d enlisted in the Army at the age of 17 and took part in some of the war’s bloodiest battles, including the Battle of the Bulge. He’d always been a quiet guy. I hoped the trip would inspire him to talk more about those times. Mostly, I hoped the experience would bring us closer.
I’d been wanting to write about the journey for years, and when Don George told me he was editing a new collection of travel stories for Lonely Planet, I had the excuse I needed to finally write it. I’m honored that Don included the piece, “War Story,” in this new book, An Innocent Abroad: Life-Changing Trips from 35 Great Writers. The anthology includes stories from Dave Eggers, Jane Smiley, Richard Ford, Pico Iyer and many other authors I admire. I’m looking forward to celebrating the book’s launch Dec. 12 at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California. If you’re around, please stop by.
The world that fiction comes from is fragile. It melts into insignificance against the universe of what is clear and visible and known. It persists because it is based on the power of cadence and rhythm in language and these are mysterious and hard to defeat and keep in their place. The difference between fact and fiction is like the difference between land and water.
One of the things that made me a music writer, and that’s always thrilled me, is when you listen to a piece of music and it just seems miraculous. It’s hard to believe that anybody could produce anything so wonderful, so perfect, just as a matter of knowledge and will. Then you think, “How must the person who is making this music have felt at that moment?” I was listening to Dave Mason’s one great solo album [Alone Together, 1970], and there’s a track, “Look at You Look at Me,” which has a very long guitar solo at the end: an unspeakably marvelous and elegant piece of music. Everyone at the time thought it was Eric Clapton playing it … supposedly it’s Mason, but if it’s really Mason it’s the greatest Clapton solo that Clapton never played. Listening to something like that and wondering what must it have felt like, in that moment, to be making that music … I always imagined that the person felt free and fulfilled and utterly taken out of himself. For some people, reacting that way, they would then decide, “I want to feel like that person so therefore I’m going to learn guitar and ultimately get to that point.” For me, the way of inhabiting that moment was to write. And it wasn’t until I read Pauline Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies that I had the same feeling about writing: “I want to feel as free as she must have felt when she wrote that.”
Jennifer Egan writes both. I love her take on the difference:
There is nothing the same about them. For nonfiction, the writing part is almost an afterthought. With nonfiction, it is basically the job of synthesizing a gigantic amount of information and experience into something crystalline and relatively short, although my pieces are relatively long. The Lorie Berenson piece took a really long time to write, I really struggled with the writing. But some of the ones before that I wrote in four or five days.
In fiction I am doing something entirely different— I am letting it rip in an almost unconscious state to see what I come up with, and then I decide what to do with it.
With nonfiction, I am dealing with the world. There is a kind of great feeling that happens with nonfiction, this sense of clarity about a subject and an excitement about sharing that in all of its nuances. Once I reach that point, the writing is easy. In fiction it is precisely the opposite because it is the act of writing that generates the material and then it is a process of years before I have really processed that and turned it into something interesting.
Apparently some copy editors have taken issue with Pico Iyer’s use of long sentences. In today’s Los Angeles Times, he makes an eloquent case for them (while employing them often), explaining that he uses them “as a small protest against — and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from — the bombardment of the moment.”
We live in a world of sound bites and bumper stickers, he writes.
Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or. With each clause, we’re taken further and further from trite conclusions — or that at least is the hope — and away from reductionism, as if the writer were a dentist, saying “Open wider” so that he can probe the tender, neglected spaces in the reader (though in this case it’s not the mouth that he’s attending to but the mind).