Yes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still alive. And yes, he’s still writing, superbly. On the eve of his 100th birthday—it arrives Sunday, March 24—the poet laureate of San Francisco has produced a delightful little mongrel of a book called Little Boy. It opens by lulling the reader into believing it’s going to be a conventional memoir and then–blammo!–it veers into a scintillating free-form riff on…on…on what, exactly? Youth and philosophy and aging and death? Kerouac and Cervantes and Ginsberg and Henry Miller? Yes and no and I can’t say for sure. Here’s a sample that will give you a taste of this autobiographical novel’s delicious heedlessness:
Jack Kerouac and his merry band and not so merry as all that in fact quite the opposite in their imagined quest for you name it an America that no longer existed even as he embarked to find it with his crazy crew oh and it wasn’t just America they were looking for driven as they were by testosterone and the rage of living personified by one Neal Cassady the driven driver of their beat jalopy…
Maybe the best way to appreciate this bawdy, ebullient book’s nearly punctuation-free river of prose is to dip into it at random. Here’s Ferlinghetti on Henry Miller, another writer who lived a very long life:
AND it’s our last Hurrah and keep your pecker up for if you outlive your pecker where does that leave you like Henry from Brooklyn with the great gift of gab who all his life kept it up and wrote great books with it but then kept writing when his pecker couldn’t write anymore like an old fountain pen run dry oh daddy call me a cab…
Here’s a confession: “I was never much of a rebel back then or now.” And here’s a lament: “Oh the time lost and no other memory of it…”
For all its verbal sparks and wordplay, the book provides solid documentation that Ferlinghetti’s was a rich and eventful life. His father died before he was born. His first language was French. “I thought I was Tom Sawyer catching crayfish in the Bronx River and imagining the Mississippi,” he writes, “I delivered the Woman’s Home Companion at five in the afternoon and the Herald Trib at five in the morning…I saw Lindbergh land…I chopped trees for the Civilian Conservation Corps and sat on them, I landed in Normandy in a row boat that turned over…” He also witnessed the devastation of Nagasaki after the second atomic bomb was dropped, an experience that turned him into a lifelong pacifist.
After surviving the Second World War he made his way to California, where he was reborn as a poet and publisher, translator and social activist, promoter of Beat writers but, he insisted, not one of them. “I was never a Beat poet,” he declared in a documentary. But he was certainly a fellow traveler. He was arrested, and later acquitted, on an obscenity charge for publishing a 75-cent paperback copy of Allen Ginsberg’s monumental Howl.
Ferlinghetti, founder of San Francisco’s revered City Lights bookstore, has written more than 50 volumes of poetry, fiction, art criticism, and translation. His best-known book of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, has sold more than a million copies, a staggering number. Along the way, Ferlinghetti has become something much larger than a poet or a writer, a Beat or a Buddhist. He’s our longest-living ambassador of the written word, a relic from a time when a certain type of person treated books as sacred objects rather than as products that could be sold at a profit. I realized this way back in the early 1970s, when I was wandering up and down the coast of California, working odd jobs, traveling in a retrofitted pickup with my dog, trying to write an apprentice novel, living out my own Travels With Charley meets On the Road fantasy. Whenever I passed through San Francisco I went straight to City Lights, where I spent countless hours doing something that went way beyond any definition of browsing. I read entire books, in installments, but rarely spent any money because I was always broke. Yet I never once got a filthy look from a clerk when I exited the store empty-handed. It was that kind of place. Amazing to realize the store was already two decades old and that it’s still in business today, nearly half a century later. Only a true believer could create such a cathedral of the written word. Given the staff’s forbearance, it’s a miracle the place ever turned a profit.
That miracle is the doing of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for it. I’m also grateful for his wondrous new book Little Boy, a valediction, a summing up, a rosy exclamation point at the end of a life well lived.
Image credit: Flickr/Christopher Michel.
A Word on Weddings
Like many people whose marriage impends, I have been initiated into the strange, febrile world of weddings — a world whose population is varied and ever-changing, a time-lapse version of the actual world. The wedding world is headquartered at sites like The Knot or Weddingbee, where the affianced and the “waiting” (for someone to put a ring on it) alike convene to commune in questionable spelling and reverent platitudes of surpassing banality: “marrying my best friend,” and “it’s not the wedding, it’s the marriage,” uttered in the course of a discussion about five-dollar chair covers.
Making fun of The Knot or Weddingbee is like shooting fish in a barrel, and most of the womens’ interest blogs of the sort I favor have taken aim. But Jezebel cannot tell me anything about tipping the caterer, while Weddingbee bristles with opinions on the subject. Moreover, long after I harvested the helpful hints I needed from Weddingbee, I return frequently to view the forums, which I have found absorbing to an almost debilitating degree.
It began with the unkind voyeuristic impulse behind something like The Hairpin’s Today’s Top Ten Wedding Bee Discussion Board Thread Titles. The Internet, more than travel, more than almost any other thing, gives you a glimpse of how other people live and what they care about. And with weddings being a widespread but mostly un-ideological phenomenon, a wedding website attracts a real slice of life. On Weddingbee there are the expected Marxian differences, as well as significant regional and hemispheric variations.
In spite of this, these boards are a friendly place. Women are frequently reminded by the world at large that they are catty and shrewish, but I am often struck by the fierce generosity demonstrated by groups of women unknown to one another (also by the speed with which a group of female strangers will turn to topics of contraception under the right circumstances). As in any community, some members are just assholes. But someone asks if she is too fat to see daylight, and everyone tells her no, no, no. Someone loses her job a week before her wedding, and the hive gathers round her in an online embrace.
Disdain for these sites is often of a parcel with another phenomenon the wedding-haver encounters — a sort of race-to-the-bottom humblebrag about the minimal expense of the interlocutor’s wedding, sometimes phrased so that the implication is that the success of a marriage is inversely proportionate to the cost of the shindig. “Had it in the backyard,” they say, and the Lord rained down gratis BBQ and compostable cutlery to reward their lack of pretension. Then there is Caitlin Flanagan, who characteristically manages to be right about a lot of things while sucking the joy right out of the world, reminding us that weddings are a colossal, farcical, tasteless, and needless expense representing a hollowed-out institution — just another example of our sick culture.
Everyone has their own line for what constitutes folly. I am not without my own strain of Flanaganism. But one thing I really like about weddings is that though they are a folly, they are to the best of my knowledge a relatively universal folly (and one of the few driven by some ostensibly joyful and optimistic instinct). Even in less libertine cultures than my own, they often represent a union in which not a shred of virginity, financial health, or, sometimes, likelihood of enduring love remains. Even so, we are going to get spruced up, create a festive atmosphere of one sort or another, and take photographs. In a thousand languages, people spend money, fight about the guest list, and try not to get any unsightly hives on the big day. Then, they try to stay married. We are unlikely to make ourselves less stupid than we collectively are, so we should have parties.
My own experience of wedding planning has been a very traditional cocktail shared with my beloved, composed of anxiety, guilt, and joyful anticipation. Like many people, I made a lot of lists of things and fretted too much about some things and not enough about others. I did things that were called “wedding planning” which were actually just mindless Internet trawling, looking at pictures of things that have no bearing on my life, and patting myself on the back for at least not being as x as the people who say y on Weddingbee.
What the wedding sites made clear to me about weddings generally and ours in particular is that they are inevitably one iteration of a thousand other weddings — a melange of logistical and aesthetic decisions dictated by social forces largely imperceptible to you. You find that choices you believed you had arrived at quite on your own are some current staple of Pinterest, totally characteristic of your particular station in life. My demographic, evidently, is very fond of the “rustic” and the “vintage.” And while I have grown to shudder at these terms (one wedding theme I read about: “vintage books”), part of it is the pain of realizing that you are part of a vast, rushing current, and your tastes are not your own.
I eventually resigned myself to rusticity and sameness, but one place where I thought I could assert my personality (without leaving my fiance totally by the wayside, or course), was the wedding reading. I was confident that Weddingbee could tell me nothing that I did not already know about a pithy piece of writing.
How Literature Failed Me in my Hour of Need
It is now customary in many weddings to write one’s own vows, tailored to fit the bride and groom’s individual quirks. Faced with this prospect, some dour inner Protestant stirred and grumbled. I could not picture us telling the assembled that we enjoy fattening food, Breaking Bad, and architectural boat tours. That when I mop the floor, I like to get drunk and listen to Groove Armada. When you sneeze, you sneeze five times. That I promise to always like the Redskins even when they are dismal. No, I am partial to “death do us part.” And brevity, ironically.
Thus the reading became the one place in the ceremony for a little customization and flair. My beloved also likes books, but I am bossier, and I took the reigns on this project. And since I find literature sufficient for expressing most of what there is to express about human life, the bar for this particular passage was very high.
As a bookish person, it felt like cheating to be searching for beautiful passages from the Internet. I preferred for it to happen more organically (so precious, so mistaken). I read books all the time, I thought to myself; surely I should have some interior commonplace book chock-full of beauty and inspiration to consult. But the only two poems I can recite in their entirety — Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” and “This be the Verse” — are so far from wedding-worthy it’s hard to imagine anything worse: “When I see a couple of kids/ And guess he’s fucking her and she’s/ Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,/ I know this is paradise.” (Or “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” obviously.)
I love “The Whitsun Weddings,” which is technically a poem about weddings. But while, contra Christopher Hitchens, I think its last line is romantic, the romance is that of life, not of individual human relationships: “A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” “Broadcast” is love poem, but a more sneering and cringing love poem there never was: “…Then begins/ A snivel on the violins:/ I think of your face among all those faces,/ Beautiful and devout before/ Cascades of monumental slithering.” Most unsuitable for a wedding. And anyhow, Larkin — more on him later.
My favorite poem is probably T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes,” the last lines of which reveal the haunting ordered chaos of the universe, but hardly warm the cockles: “The worlds revolve like ancient women/ gathering fuel in vacant lots.” In a book shop pawing through the poetry, I sensed this was a theme, in poetry in general, and especially in the poetry I like. Tomas Tranströmer seemed promising for a minute in “The Couple,” if a touch erotic: “The movements of love have settled, and they sleep/but their most secret thoughts meet as when/ two colours meet and flow into each other/ on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting.” But that ending: “They stand packed and waiting very near,/ a mob of people with blank faces.” It leaves an impression of a lonely echo in a hallway, a little like “Preludes.”
Googling had seemed like cheating, but I started to Google, and found, predictably, that I was hardly the first person to have had this problem. Book snobs abound. I went to the library and took out several anthologies, including a book of readings specifically for weddings. There are things I have seen before — sonnets, for example — but I like free verse. There were many things I hadn’t seen. Margaret Atwood has a poem about marriage called “Habitation,” evidently used in some weddings. I liked it, stupidly, because it mentions eating popcorn, which happens to be something that my beloved and I do together on a shockingly regular basis. But it seemed a little fraught for a wedding. The last line, “We are learning to make fire,” hangs at the bottom of the page, lonely as early man: I pictured us shivering in our damp cave.
I liked an excerpt from Toni Morrison’s “Jazz” — “It’s nice when grown people whisper to each other under the covers” — but that’s so private, and then the poem invokes an off-stage “chippie” and “stud.” I checked out Love Letters of Great Men, but the problem, aside from the sort of ethical weirdness of reading someone’s mail, is that great men tended to write romantic letters to a number of different women, which is not really on-message for our marriage (this was not in the collection, but I remember Malcolm Lowry once wrote one of his wives that he wanted to use her toothbrush instead of his own). I looked to the eminently quotable Flaubert in the pages of Julian Barnes’ wonderful Flaubert’s Parrot. Here’s a good one: “You ask for love, you complain that I don’t send you flowers? Flowers, indeed! If that’s what you want, find yourself some wet-eared boy stuffed with fine manners and all the right ideas. I’m like the tiger, which has bristles of hair at the end of its cock, with which it lacerates the female.”
Rumi figures in anthologies of love poetry. I like Rumi, but for a wedding I feel that the Sufis are off-limits. As far as I know, which is not very much, the beloved of whom they speak is likely to be God, or the young man who brings you your wine. Context matters. Also, my favorite line from Rumi is fiercely individualistic: “I drip out of a spout drop by drop — But like the deluge I crush myriad palaces.” (Rappers have nothing on Rumi). I toyed with finding something in Turkish — but it seemed to me that this was a moment for my mother tongue. And my knowledge is limited, and my favorite Turkish poetry is in any case a line written by the twelfth century poet Yunus Emre, too defiant for a wedding unless it was one disapproved of by all relatives: “What should the ignorant know of us?/ Greetings to the ones who know.”
Context matters, and that’s really what takes Philip Larkin out of the question: he loved Monica Jones so much he helped Kingsley Amis turn her into one of literature’s great hysterics, a caricature of a pain-in-the-ass female (Lucky Jim‘s Margaret Peel). When I think about literature I don’t typically dwell on the private life of the author, because it’s a slippery slope. But I found when looking for a wedding reading that I became more interested in whether the writer him or herself had been married and gave at least the appearance of contentment.
On love, Emily Dickinson basically sums it up: “That Love is all there is/ Is all we know of Love;/ It is enough, the freight should be/ Proportioned to the groove.” But love and marriage are not the same thing. Most unkindly, I wondered what the virginal shut-in would know of the long intimacy, the vaunted tedium of marriage. Bizarrely, I veered into some exclusionary policy regarding Auden and Forster, whose circumscribed personal lives were in the broad sense casualties of a bigoted and ignorant society. Nabokov was promising; he is known to have loved Vera, and wrote her poems. But the 1974 poem “To Vera” is just that, a poem to Vera, and seemed to have nothing to do with us. “How I Love You” is Nabokovian in a way that confounds a ceremonial reading: “…gnats:/ hanging up in an evening sunbeam, / their swarmlet ceaselessly jiggles…”
There is the religious angle — a friends’ wedding featured Isaiah 43:1-7, which I believe is a particularly badass selection from the Old Testament: “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned.” But novels are my sacred texts, and we are in any case rather unclear in our feelings about the Lord. His brief invocation in Robert Louis Stevenson’s cheerful “Wedding Prayer” is enough: “Lord, behold our family here assembled” (which one could also read: “Oh Lord, they’re all here.”)
Poetry letting me down, I turned to the novels that I love. No passage suggested itself to me — unless you have a very certain kind of mind, you can’t survey the text of every book you’ve ever read all at the same time. And if it’s not cricket to go looking for a previously unencountered reading that somehow has meaning to you, it’s equally uncricket to read everything with an eye to appropriating some piece of it for your marriage ceremony. But I began to see that’s how I should have been reading for the entirety of the preceding year.
What had I read most recently? We Need to Talk About Kevin, for chrissakes, and a book about rabies. I reread Goodbye to All That, which Graves closes with “…marriage wore thin. New characters appeared on the stage. Nancy and I said unforgivable things to each other. We parted on May 6th, 1929. She, of course, insisted on keeping the children. And I went abroad, resolved never to make England my home again…” My fiance had most recently read Travels With Charley, and suggested I look there. But Travels With Charley is about a man and a poodle, and the poodle goes “ffft.”
I began to comb through my favorite novels, but from the outset it was clear that most would never do. There’s Burmese Days or Of Human Bondage, where goodish men are driven mad by worthless women, with differing outcomes. A Suitable Boy is a spectacularly romantic novel, weddings all over, but it portends falling in love with the man you can marry, in lieu of the one that you can’t. The Tin Drum, full of obscenity. Wodehouse, too facetious. The aforementioned Lucky Jim closes with a romance, but it is a revenge story, against all Welches and Margarets, rather than a love story about the well-formed Christine. Iris Murdoch’s novels are full of bizarre marriages and strange perversity. (The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, anyone?) Till We Have Faces, jealous sibling love and spinsters. I opened Possession, even Swann’s Way — they presented unyielding blocks of text. The closest I came was from A Dance to the Music of Time, and in fact explained why I was having so much trouble:
A future marriage, or a past one, may be investigated and explained in terms of writing by one of its parties, but it is doubtful whether an existing marriage can ever be described directly in the first person and convey a sense of reality. Even those writers who suggest some of the substance of married life best, stylise heavily, losing the subtlety of the relationship at the price of a few accurately recorded, but isolated, aspects…Its forms are at once so varied, yet so constant, providing a kaleidoscope, the colours of which are always changing, always the same. The moods of a love affair, the contradictions of friendship, the jealousy of business partners, the fellow feeling of opposed commanders in total war, these are all in their way to be charted. Marriage, partaking of such — and a thousand more — dual antagonisms and participations, finally defies definition.
It defies definition, and yet I wanted something romantic, weighty but not melancholy, in English, about marriage. It was finally Louis C. K. who drove it all home, how hard this is to do:
…Or you’ll meet the perfect person who you love infinitely and you even argue well and you grow together and you have children and then you get old together and then SHE’S GONNA DIE. That’s the BEST CASE SCENARIO, is that you’re gonna lose your best friend and then just walk home from D’Agostino’s with heavy bags every day and wait for your turn to be nothing also.
That is indeed the best case scenario, the lost best friend, that friend so abstract on the Weddingbee message boards, so real in practice. I listened to Donald Hall reading about the death of Jane Kenyon on This American Life and bawled my eyes out.
In the end, I stood again in a book shop, rifling through every poetry book they had. (In the course of the hunt I was descended upon by the proprietor, and because the last thing I wanted was someone’s advice on the matter, remained mute on the subject of the wedding and was thus compelled to read two suggested Bill Hickok poems while he stood watchfully at a remove.) Finally, I picked something, a poem by Billy Collins from his collection Nine Horses. I picked something, but what I thought was even better in that collection was something else, “Bermuda,” which is basically a poetic version of the Louis bit. A husband and wife lie together on a beach: “and the two of us so calm/ it seems that this is not our only life,/ just one in a series, charms on a bracelet,/ as if every day we were not running/ like the solitary runners on the beach/ toward a darkness without shape/ or waves, crosses or clouds,/as if one of us is not likely to get there first/ leaving the other behind,/ castaway on an island…”
It turns out that it was hard for me to find a good wedding reading because I’m a gloomy old bastard.
There, it would seem, is the rub. But I wasn’t going to put this foreboding stuff into the wedding ceremony. No, with several days remaining until the wedding I picked Collins’s “Litany” (“You are the bread and the knife,/ the crystal goblet and the wine”), which I thought was lovely and romantic and yet also conveyed the promised prosaic qualities of long relationships. It’s funny, but not too much. I find the long dashes of the last lines poignant: “You will always be the bread and the knife,/ not to mention the crystal goblet and — somehow —/ the wine.” There is an element of the sacramental which appeals to me, something that begins to approach the reverence I feel for my own beloved.
After all this, after the fretting and gnashing of teeth and weeping over sad poems and vases in empty rooms, I learned I could have found my reading on the Internet. It’s on a list of wedding readings compiled by Publisher’s Weekly, for one. I could even have found it on Weddingbee, where some fiercely unique soul, someone just like me, recommended it in a thread five years ago, lauded as a “a quirky expression of love, perfect for an English major who likes playing with metaphors.”
But I don’t care, I’ve got my love to keep me warm.
Image: Pexels/Caio Resende.
I had never heard of singer/songwriter Josh Ritter, but I was moved to find out about him because his debut novel, Bright’s Passage, received very positive notices. Additionally, I was curious because of the diverse backgrounds of the people (Thomas Ricks, Jesse Kornbluth, Dennis Lehane, and Robert Pinsky) who were singing his praises.
Bright’s Passage tells the story of WWI veteran and widower Henry Bright taking flight from both a raging forest fire and his malevolent in-laws. His passage takes place in the company of his infant son and an unusual guardian angel in the Appalachian foothills of West Virginia as Bright’s recollections range from his childhood to his traumatic experiences in the killing fields of France. It’s a tale told with great assurance and skill as might be expected from so skillful a songwriter.
Josh Ritter and I spoke in late June 2011, when Bright’s Passage first came out and the discussion ranged across writing fiction and songs, books he loves, making music, growing up in Moscow, Idaho with a love of reading, and more. Bright’s Passage is out in paperback today.
RB: What was growing up in Moscow, Idaho like?
JR: It was good. I don’t have much to compare it to. We grew up pretty far out of town — my brother who is four years younger than me and my folks and kind of parade of psychopathic dogs.
RB: What distinguishes a psychopathic dog?
JR: I haven’t figured that out.
RB: I haven’t checked a map — is Moscow near a river, and thus its name?
JR: No. No one quite knows. It’s the same with Idaho as a name. No one really knows where the name came from. There are a lot of theories.
RB: The Indian word for “potato” (laughs).
JR: Somebody said it was based on real estate, like a sub-division, like “Hardwood Acres.” No one really knows.
RB: Not an Indian word.
JR: No, no. And Moscow was the same sort of thing. Some people said it was from Russian immigrants. It was originally called Hog Heaven.
JR: And then they decided they wanted to get some girls there and so they called it Paradise Valley. And then Moscow finally.
RB: You’d think they might have changed the name during the Cold War because of John Birchers.
JR: Yeah, yeah. There’s a big file out there somewhere.
RB: When did you leave Idaho? How old?
JR: Eighteen. And then I moved back after I lived here in Boston for a while. And then to New York.
RB: Why back to Idaho?
JR: I was on the road all the time and there was a moment when I realized that I was going to freak out unless I had something familiar. And it was, in a way. Coming back gave me a sense of familiarity I really needed at the time.
RB: No big airport that was conveniently located?
JR: There’s Boise but that’s eight and a half hours south.
RB: So Moscow is up north. Is there much evidence of Native American culture?
JR: Definitely. All around — there is Nez Perce to the south and Coeur d’Alene to the north. All kinds, Blackfoot, all kinds around.
RB: So you came east when you were 18.
JR: First to Oberlin, to college. And then from there to Boston. (Actually I lived a block down the street from here.)
RB: Oberlin has a fine music department, though little known on the East Coast.
JR: Amazing music department. I took some [courses]. I still play with Zack who I met there. He’s an amazing bass player. And then Darius, who is my manager, who I met there as well, were roommates. So it was great for music — lots of music-minded people went there.
RB: Somewhere in Ohio—
JR: The old Northwest.
RB: Did Oberlin have a football team?
JR: It actually did and it lost the entire time I was there. They did not win a single game.
JR: It became a point of pride.
RB: I read that you began writing Bright’s Passage, this, your first novel, at Oberlin, which reportedly was written because you felt you couldn’t express certain things in a song.
JR: I always felt that the songs — my favorite songs are usually stories. A lot of times I feel like a song can be an instant. Like a love song, but there is always a setting. Always a sentiment expressed. Always, you know, a moment. And in other songs there can be a whole story. So I think songs are really great, kind of, delivery vehicles for a story. They allow you to make your own conclusions. Good songs never give you everything. So I really believe a song is like an envelope. A novel, you can unfold from a song. Say like “Tennessee Stud” or “Isis” or “The River.” Or “Famous Blue Raincoat.” You could unfold stories from them. So I was finishing my last record and I had a bunch of long narrative songs on there. I was pretty much done and I had this song and I thought it might be too long. It might make the record — there would just be one too many of these longer songs. But I had nowhere else to put it. So, I figured that I had been talking about it for a while — how songs and novels were closely related. So I thought I would just do it, you know. Or try it. I had come out of a long spell of not really feeling excited about some of the writing. And suddenly I was writing all these songs and then I didn’t really turn off the tap. So I just started writing this [Bright’s Passage] without thinking too much about it. It was exciting — it began as an experiment.
RB: So as you are writing this novel do you know how it’s going to end?
JR: No. No.
RB: That was a discovery made along the way.
RB: So why a novel and not a short story — it’s a big jump from songs.
JR: I have never been interested in short stories.
RB: You don’t read them?
JR: I mean, I read them. I read a lot of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver and Dashiell Hammett stuff. Mostly because I felt like I needed to relax in something.
RB: Reportedly people read short fiction less today — which I don’t understand given the demands on time that exist.
JR: Right, yeah.
RB: But many writers will say that short fiction is more difficult. Less forgiving.
JR: That’s true. I agree. I totally agree. The thing about good writing is concision and when it’s a song in which you tell a story, it has to be as tight as possible. You cannot have anything that’s going to obfuscate if you are telling a story in a song. You can do lots of missteps in a novel or go off on some tangents and still bring it back.
RB: I agree that songs are stories — what’s the difference in writing a song and writing fiction?
JR: Well, I guess there’s a time frame element. Which is that you can write a song — it may take an afternoon. It may take eight minutes or a week. But it’s a fairly short amount of time. And then when you are done you constantly play it for people and get that excitement of kind of pulling the sheet off of the statue and saying, “I did this.” That instant gratification — which is a great feeling. With a novel you sit and work on it, little bit by little bit, every day. People see you working with your headphones on and then you close the computer or you put down the pen and you have nothing that you are going to show for that day. That kind of thing was a big adjustment for me. I wrote the first draft in two months and then the subsequent 10 drafts over the next year.
RB: Ten drafts, wow.
JR: It was a big first experience for me.
RB: Ten drafts before it went to an editor at a publisher.
JR: I had several drafts before an editor came in and looked at it. And then that process — it was a lot like a song. You write a song first. The song is done in your mind. Then you work with a producer and they pose problems for you to solve. It was a great experience.
RB: Everyone needs an editor.
JR: Yeah, yeah. It’s like an extra set of ears. Yeah, yeah.
RB: How long have you been out touting Bright’s Passage?
JR: Basically since yesterday. (Laughs).
RB: So is the book tour integrated into the music tour?
JR: I’ll never read and do a show at the same time — luckily, I travel for the music and then I go and read at bookstores or something like that. Yeah, I love it. The experience of writing the novel was such a fantastic experience. I have read so much more since. And I have gotten a whole other appreciation for the books I love and reasons to understand books I might not like very much. And also to have a lot more sympathy for stuff I don’t like. Because I know how hard it was to do.
RB: Talking about books you love. What are some of those?
JR: The very first books I really remember loving was a series called The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. They’re the first books I ever read on my own. They are beautiful books — kind of Welsh mythology. And then all those fantasy books like J.R.R. Tolkien and then moving on to Carl Sagan and Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke—and 2001. Lots of those. Moving forward, all sorts of history books. You know one of the great things about growing up where we grew up is that we had a TV, but we only got two stations. We lived out in the woods and we didn’t have a car to drive anywhere. Not that we would have had anywhere to go. So reading became a really important thing. We never thought about it as something different; it was just that it was all there was to do once you got home at the end of the day.
RB: So your so-called formative years were full of books.
RB: Did your reading level off when you entered a wider world? When on tour do you read a lot?
JR: Yeah. On tour you have to do stuff to stay busy. Luckily the band I’m in all the guys are all pretty big readers. That’s nice. You don’t come into a place and the TV is instantly on. I love watching TV, but feel like it fractures your brain before you go on stage. We pass books around — we were passing around Neal Stephenson. Neil Gaiman as well — American Gods, which everybody passed around. It’s fun — whatever is getting passed around is really good. I get all sorts of great stuff from Zack [bass player].
RB: Do the people who like your music know you like to read?
RB: Do people send you books?
JR: Yes, all the time. Or after shows, they give me books. I usually make little notes about what I am reading at the time. I’m reading William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways and Robert Penn Warren.
RB: The road book — a quintessentially American story.
JR: Yeah, I agree.
RB: Occasionally, someone revisits de Tocqueville’s itinerary.
JR: And Jonathan Raban travelling the full length of the Mississippi River [Old Glory: A Voyage Down the Mississippi]. Seems like British people like to do that…
RB: I always envisioned travelling the circumference of the U.S.
JR: That’s a great idea. That’d be amazing.
RB: With my dog, Rosie.
JR: Like Travels with Charley.
RB: So you are beginning to be interviewed for the book — are those interviews much different than for your music?
JR: I thought it would be roughly similar. In some ways it is. But I feel like with songs, there are so many other things to talk about. Production choices — all these sorts of things. With a book you are dealing with one kind of long extended idea. Also, you write something and you don’t necessarily know what it means until you’re done. Really, what you were actually thinking about. Or what you think you were thinking about. I like that about records as well, but it is interesting to suddenly be kind of holding myself to account about a longer piece of writing, really wondering what it is.
RB: There is so much that is subjective about it. You may read a book when you are 20 years old and then when you re read it later you have a different view. Which may happen with your own writing– being really pleased.
JR: Yeah, really. That’s magical. Or embarrassing. (Laughs).
RB: You seem very happy with what you do.
JR: Yeah, I am.
RB: So you are encouraged to do more?
JR: Absolutely. I understand song writing in some ways because I have been doing it for 10 or 12 years now. At this point I wanted something new — something that made me nervous or made me feel like I didn’t know what was going on. And I really felt sorta like I was a horse in a field and I look over and see a whole other field. And I want to be over there.
RB: Out of your comfort zone.
JR: Yeah, totally. In so many different ways. I feel with a song, people get a glimpse of a part of what you are thinking and a little bit of your brain. With a novel the vulnerability seems much larger. People can see you for all you might be or potentially how simple you actually are. Which is funny.
RB: I assume you want to get “better” as a novelist/writer?
RB: How would you go about that?
JR: You just gotta keep on doing it. I really do think that showing up is the biggest part. While I put stock in school, I really think that school only teaches you that you don’t know very much. And get used to that. Like knowing the limits of your own abilities is good. I never thought that going to school would make me a better writer; maybe a more aware writer. But I didn’t go to school to write songs and I didn’t feel the necessity to go to school to begin to write a novel. Writing the novel was certainly going to school for me. And I have learned a great deal at least about what I think I want to do better on my next one. It’s funny I was reading this thing that Annie Dillard said — the reason you have writers who have written 12 books is because they have been dissatisfied every time. (Laughs). Which is cool.
RB: Are you dissatisfied after you write a song?
RB: You don’t feel that there is more you can do?
JR: I mean in that way, most of the songs I throw out, not throw out, but I don’t use 85 percent of what I write — cuz, I just don’t want people to see it, you know. And the stuff that’s there, that actually makes it on a record is stuff that I know is good. Maybe people won’t like it, but I know I liked it and I know why. And over time I will still feel happy performing it. I won’t dissociate.
RB: So, have you begun your next fiction?
JR: Yeah, I wrote a fair portion and then decided I wanted to go back and restart. But I have a really good idea. I don’t feel stressed out by it
RB: There is no pressure on you to write fiction?
RB: There must be some for song writing?
JR: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s pressure, but it’s pressure to account for myself. When people buy a book and give you a chance — I see it as they are buying a book to read, but they are really giving me a chance to go and do something else. My job is to write. I love it. I love it. I’m in this great incredible position right now to be able to write and enjoy it and the pressure is to make it good and to make it good the way I feel it should be.
RB: Well, it’s a different pressure than worrying about your kid’s dental bills, or the mortgage
JR: Yeah — right.
RB: What’s your vision or sense of your future? Continuing writing?
JR: Yes, definitely.
JR: (Laughs). I would love to write a movie. And I would love to write another 10 novels. There is a place to put stories now that isn’t just in songs. And that’s really important. Not just because it’s fun but for me right now. It’s really important because I want to continue to feel hungry — really hungry and get a sense — I get a real buzz off of writing.
RB: It’s impressive that apparently you can write anywhere. As far as know, not many writers do that.
JR: Yeah, I guess when I was deep, really having trouble writing I asked Robert Pinsky who I’ve gotten to know. He’s got grandkids, he travels a lot and he’s doing all this stuff and he has a lot of demands on his time. I asked him if he believes in writer’s block? He said that if you ever have an empty stretch of time coming up, fill it. Like with stuff. Fit your poems in, you know. And I really think that’s true. If you are going to be real precious about where you write then you are kind of admitting you are easily swayed by everything. And mostly I just like to put on music that doesn’t have words. And I sit, put on my headphones and I have a much easier time writing prose on the road than I do writing music. Which is nice, it’s nice to feel productive in another way.
RB: Speaking of people you know, how do you come to know [journalist] Thomas Ricks?
JR: In 2006 he was working on Fiasco. And he heard “Girl in the War,” which is a song of mine, and he wrote a section of his book to the record. So he wrote me a note and we met and when I was in Washington D.C. he gave me a tour of The Washington Post, which I was totally geeked out on. It was awesome. And then we have stayed really close friends.
RB: And Jesse Kornbluth is another big fan of yours.
JR: Yeah. You know him?
RB: I know his work. He reviewed your book in the most glowing terms
JR: Really, yeah, yeah.
RB: You must be very active to have these contacts outside the world of music? Are you a pop musician?
JR: I would say so. I am certainly not — it’s amazing how a song can go through the ether to people and find them and if they are interested, it’s easy to find out more. The people that I have met doing this stuff have been though music. Dennis Lehane — he wrote some of his book to a record of mine. That just happens that way. And it’s really cool that they will give me some time to try this.
RB: Have you talked to your writer fans about writing fiction?
JR: I talked to Ricks a bunch about it, yeah. He has a beautiful way of looking at it.
RB: Is he retired from The Post?
JR: Yeah, he’s writing books now and has this defense blog. He is working on a history of American generalship from WWII to the present. It’s a big one.
RB: Is there any way that writing fiction has interfered with writing music?
JR: It’s true that it used to be if I had an idea for a song I would never think about is this idea for a book. But thankfully they are different enough I get so much energy from performing and recording and it’s such a social activity with my gang, my wolf pack of people that I love. I could never give that up. I love writing for the group I am with. And I don’t think I would be satisfied writing — I am very lucky because if I was sitting and just obsessing over [writing] I wouldn’t be as happy as I am when I go and work and play.
RB: You have choices.
JR: That’s it, yeah.
RB: Give me a sense of how much you tour?
JR: It used to be 150 to 175 dates a year. You’d be on the road eight or nine months a year. Some days off in between.
RB: I wonder how cultural information [books, movies, music] impacts anyone who creates things. How does it reach you as you crisscross the country? Do you travel outside the country also?
JR: Yeah, all over the place. All over Europe and Australia. Not too much in Asia although I ‘d love to — it’s great. Basically every day you wake up and you meet new people and find your way around a town. There’s time for reading and you meet people after shows and they give you books. I think that’s what people who are writers do. They assimilate whatever is — all the stuff people are thinking. You get a range of different impulses and you try and write about it.
RB: Lots of visual information that’s almost subliminal.
JR: Definitely. I remember reading Johnny Cash’s biography and him saying that after so many years traveling that he could wake up and know within five miles where he was in the country. And I thought he was full of crap.
JR: But it turned out as time went by at least you know what state you are in. (Laughs).
RB: Who are some of your musical idols, for lack of a better word?
JR: Of course for inventiveness and seeming fearlessness, somebody like Tom Waits has been — I would buy whatever he puts out. I like that he is just trying things. [Bob] Dylan is inescapable. Radiohead, like Tom Waits for their inventiveness and their searching. And there’s people like Alfred Deller–
RB: Early European music–
JR: Yeah. Counter-tenors. Gillian Welch has a new record out who I love. Lucinda Williams. I like Jay-Z. I like a lot of stuff. I like people more and more like Neil Young who have chosen to make music and I can tell how they have chosen to live their life. Which is important to me.
RB: Young strikes me as an authentic renegade.
JR: Yeah and he also has a family and has a good family life.
RB: I am trying to think of who else has stayed on top of their game — Leonard Cohen. He got screwed by his manager. On the other hand that’s how many people wake up after Enron and the like.
JR: I saw him [Cohen] at the Beacon in New York. I never have cried at a show. I am always too busy watching what’s going on. I lost myself totally that day.
RB: He is pretty compelling and poignant. I came to like him later in his career especially after his album Ten New Songs with “That Don’t Make It Junk.”
JR: And “Alexandra Leaving.” That’s an amazing song.
RB: I was glad to see that my musical tastes hadn’t calcified and that I was still open.
JR: That is really cool. It’s interesting that you say that — so many people respond to his earlier stuff and have trouble getting in to his later stuff.
RB: Do you have a title for the next book?
RB: Did Bright’s Passage have a title when you began it?
RB: Like Steve Martin says, You started out with a blank sheet and pen.
JR: That’s how it is with records too. The title is always the last thing to come. It’s the last distillation of whatever you are working on.
RB: Well, thank you very much
JR: Thank you, man. Thanks a lot.
Image courtesy of the author.
The travelogue. Ah, the oft maligned travel novel, thrown onto the burn pile with other not-taken-seriously genres like mystery and thriller. Driven to the edges of respected literature, called unimaginative and easy, dropped first from a library’s collection and left to rot on library sale tables.Yet, it seems like everyone wants in the action. Where did this unfair assessment come from? Is it the easily dated subject matter – an ever-changing world that has a hard time looking constant from one year to the next, let alone for the years that pass while a travelogue sits on the shelf? Is it the fact that nearly every travel novel takes on the same subjects – a jaunty and funny brush with weird foreigners, a coming of age on a long-respected trail, etc. etc?Yes. And yes. A lot of travel literature is dated. And even more is boring and redone. I started reading travel lit by hitting the ones that did it best, big names like Bryson, Theroux and Mayle. I latched on and let the genre take me for a ride. Through reading Bill Bryson, I discovered that I wanted to become a self-made writer. Through reading Paul Theroux, I discovered that I wanted to ride across countries and meet people, if only to document their individual intricacies. Through reading Peter Mayle, I wanted to move to France. That’s all. Just move to France and live in his house.Through all of this, I honed my tastes. I figured out the difference between good and bad travel literature. I stopped reading about one person’s trip around England because, well, I’d already exhausted that location through both Bryson and Theroux. And eventually, I stopped reading it all together, feeling the genre tapped out, unable to get excited about anyone else’s trips.So it was with great pleasure that I returned to the genre this month by turning to one of my favorite dead Nobel Prize winning authors – John Steinbeck, and his Travels with Charley.If there was one thing the book renewed, it was the wanderlust feeling of adventure that a travel novel can bring out. I found that old feeling of vicarious living, meeting and getting to know people from around the country right along with the author, as if acting as a resident intern assigned to proof the pages as they are being written.And these pages, older as they might seem, are far from dated. Good travel literature touches upon more than just the sites and scenes – it frames the human condition at the point of travel. This point – the late 50s in the United States, shortly after the Interstates were designed but far before they stretched from coast to coast – is brilliantly illustrated in Steinbeck’s attempt to find the America he thought he had forgotten. After living in New York, sheltered from his people and as far away from native Salinas as possible, he sought out the real American voice.What he found wasn’t exactly what he expected. That voice had become more disjointed, unknowing of the nation as a whole and entirely critical of the country’s direction. The direction didn’t matter – right thinking people were critical of a perceived leftism and vice versa. Steinbeck found a nation that was becoming increasingly partisan and fast-paced, dropping the old roadside stand out of sight while holding alight the big city atmosphere of Interstate travel.Steinbeck stayed off of the Interstates, preferring the hominess of the Routes and State Highways. In this way, he saw firsthand what his nation was doing. And he did so with the ultimate in companions – a conversation starting poodle named Charley, his best friend and constant shadow.The best parts of Travels with Charley are when Steinbeck and Charley interact. Sure, this is a book about travel – about a nation that’s rapidly evolving from Steinbeck’s past, throwing the easy lazy way out the window for the new fast-living – but it’s above all else a book about a man and his dog. Charley is more than just a poodle – he’s a character that, like many of Steinbeck’s characters, is richly described using ordinary terms. You feel an affinity towards these characters without being threatened. There’s simply no work needed to read Steinbeck. It’s all matter-of-fact, beautiful and elegant, simple in a complex way.Well, I’m gushing and writing like a copywriter again, so I know my time must almost be up. I read Travels with Charley on a camping trip, and the slight parallel between Steinbeck’s situation and mine (we were both camping) created a sort of invisible bond. I felt as if I was traveling – even though I was sitting still, alongside the lake, pouring my heart out into the great outdoors, wishing and growing extremely jealous of everything Steinbeck was describing.I was jealous most of all by the idea that, in leaving your station in life, you can learn more about yourself. Not just about the country, or about your era’s society, or the collective voice of your generation, but about your personal space, about your personal era and your personal voice.Travel literature is the ultimate in literary escape. When you think about it – what else is literature supposed to be?Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May.Corey’s BoMC is going on an indefinite hiatus since he’s busy with a baby on the way. Thanks for contributing to The Millions, Corey, and congrats!