June 2013

Walter Biggins


An Interview with Rebecca Solnit

In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit delves into her complicated, contentious relationship with her mother just as her mother is beginning to decline due to Alzheimer's. "Decline," though, is a funny word. Her mother shifts -- in some ways gradually, in many ways suddenly -- into a different person than she was, a woman who's more open and joyful and accepting of her daughter and of herself than she ever was before the illness.

Indeed, The Faraway Nearby shows how we shift shape over time, and in different contexts. All of us change a bit, depending on whom we're talking to, what we're doing, how we're doing it, and where we are. We change over time, to the point that we read our diary entries from twenty years ago and don't recognize ourselves. We don't have a single self but rather several within us, and we don't have a single story of our lives -- whether it's one we tell ourselves, tell others, or others tell about us. To trace this idea, The Faraway Nearby has to be a shape-shifter, too. It moves fluidly from Solnit's mother to her apricot tree, Solnit's cancer scare, a terrible breakup, a trip to Iceland, river-rafting in the Grand Canyon, site-specific conceptual art, and literature ranging from The Arabian Nights and Hans Christian Andersen to Frankenstein and the memoirs of arctic explorers. It changes modes, from art criticism to literary analysis to biographical inquiry.

Yet it's all of a piece. All these seemingly disparate threads come back to Solnit, the people she cares for, and the cultures in which she's interested. All these threads -- these communities of stories, people, and love -- make up life and help us to get through it. To reduce The Faraway Nearby to a memoir is to diminish its considerable power, wit, grace, and precision. (Indeed, Solnit calls it an "anti-memoir.") Solnit refuses to reduce life -- hers, her mother's, or anyone else's -- to a single narrative. She's similarly expansive in this interview, in which she graciously agreed to answer my (longwinded, sometimes off-base) questions.

As with Wanderlust, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and some of your other longform books, you fuse several disciplines in The Faraway Nearby. That being said, it's bound together by memoir. Did you intend to delve so fully into yourself and your relationship with your mother, or did you find your way to that mode as you wrote? Was there a particular mode that guided you as you wrote, that you were conscious of returning to?

The apricots told me what to do and I did it. Seriously, those 100 pounds of apricots appearing, in such a compelling way, connected what subsequently unfolded and catalyzed the book. I knew there was a story there -- not a linear one, a normative memoir, but an occasion to think about several interrelated things and to write again as I had before in A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I missed being that writer -- the one guided by intuitions and allowed to make associative links and leaps and write for pure pleasure -- during the several years I was mostly doing more linear, objective public-spirited stuff. So I was returning to that mode, and to the pleasures of letting ideas and images run away with me, and that other pleasure of making a book.

Largely, this is a book about suffering -- how we bear it, what we learn from it, how we help others through it. Writing, among other things, is an attempt to understand suffering, and thus to empathize. What led you to weave your suffering (cancer scare, demolition of a relationship) with that of your mother's deterioration due to Alzheimer's?

I think of it as a book about empathy, storytelling, and the sense of self we each construct -- including the ways we define ourselves as separate or connected, what we feel or are numb to, the ways the sense of self -- which is often so stable and set in memoirs -- is fluid, expanding and contracting to include or exclude others, changing with time and health or with intentional pursuits, the ways we are forever metamorphosing, wavering, full of mystery even to ourselves. When I write I find out things -- sometimes quite compromising things -- about myself I might not have otherwise, which is a reminder that we don't know ourselves perfectly, let alone others; we're just explorers. And my mother's progression was complex: not all of what fell away on the journey was a loss; she lost bitternesses and anxieties and had a couple of really happy years -- and forgot the narratives about how life was supposed to be and what I was supposed to provide that seemed to be the source of a lot of her long-term wrath at me. It's easy for storytellers to think stories are wonderful, but some stories burden and curse you; some stories you're better without.

Despite bearing so many of the tropes of a recovery memoir, this is emphatically not a self-help book, instead being quite forceful about how we all need help from others just to get through suffering. In my view, its bravest aspect is its resistance to closure, to tidying up loose ends. How intentional was that, and why did you make this choice? Do you think of this book as a memoir, or is it another beast altogether?

That was incredibly intentional, and thank you for noting it. I was delighted that the British edition has The Faraway Nearby's genre, on the back cover, listed as "memoir/anti-memoir" at my request. Memoir has become, at its most predictable, the new nonfictional branch of conventional fiction. There's difficulty. There's overcoming. There's happily ever after. And happily ever after is usually defined as having acquired all the usual goods. There's often a kind of trophy display there that's no gift to a reader. There's also a kind of assurance about the self that doesn't work for me: that the author knows who she herself is, and who others are, and that people are consistent. That works really well for plot-based storytelling, but it doesn't resemble the realities I'm interested in, where the self metamorphoses, contains surprises and inconsistencies and contradictions, and has fluctuant and ambiguous boundaries.

Too, no one's story is complete until the person is dead, and the dead don't write memoirs. There are always surprises ahead, and I'm more interested in life as an ongoing process of making the self and expanding one's understanding than just getting the goods. And completion -- that's an aesthetic thing, the question of what makes a whole work of art, and not how you shut it down at the end.

So I'm interested in how a narrative can be complete, have form and satisfaction, without that sense of tidying it all up or shutting it all down. Because the questions are richer than any answers could be, and letting the questions stay, not be nailed down and shut up by answers is important. You can imagine the protagonist, imagine yourself as a sort of question, or quest, and to say that it's over is to say it's been answered adequately. Toward the end of the book, I wrote, "As I was approaching this chapter, I woke up in the middle of the night and thought something I should have written down at the time. The empty shell of it that washed up on the shores of morning was to the effect that sometimes an extraordinary or huge question comes along and we try to marry it off to a mediocre answer. Essayists too face the temptation of a neat ending, the point when you bring the boat in to shore and tie it to the dock and give up the wide sea. The thread is cut and becomes the ribbon with which everything is tied up, a sealed parcel: the end. It's easy to do, and I've done it again and again, sometimes with a sense of betrayal of the complexity of what came before, and sometimes when I hadn't done it, an editor asked for the giftwrap and ribbon. What if we only wanted openings, the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door and the open sea?" That's what I want. And it's what I want to give.

You note in the acknowledgments, after the narrative, that you finished writing The Faraway Nearby several months before your mother's death. Her passing is not mentioned in the book. Why did you decide not to end the book with this definite closure of a woman's life, or to even address what -- for many readers -- would be the book's natural endpoint? And how much of The Faraway Nearby was revised in the wake of her death?

In a sense I do end it that way. The acknowledgments are the very last words in the book: they're a sort of essay of gratitude about the people in my life and they end with her and her demise. But I wasn't going to change the narrative of the book (which I wrote with no particular sense of when the end was, and when I began writing it wasn't particularly near: she was in excellent physical condition). And it wasn't only a book about my mother or our relationship, though those are some of the threads in the tapestry.

Part of my endeavor to describe a more nebulous, metamorphic, and open self is this one that our stories change all the time and there is no definitive version. At the outset of writing about my mother, I said, "That vast pile of apricots included underripe, ripening, and rotting fruit. The range of stories I can tell about my mother include some of each too.... There are other stories, not yet ripe, that I will see and tell in later years." But the later stories aren't more true or valuable than the interim ones. Or they're part of another era than the one described. They don't belong in this particular book.

In The Faraway Nearby, you consciously resist the urge toward closure. At the same time, many of the book's touchstones and springboards for thought are fairy tales and myths that, while ambiguous to a degree, do have definite stopping points and clear morals. What attracted you to such tales? Why do you think their tropes persist in our lives?

That big pile of apricots brought them to mind. It was both a magical inheritance and a task with a little of the disproportion of fairytale tasks -- spinning a roomful of straw into gold, for example. And then I found it really interesting to see how often the protagonists of fairytales get by not with power or strength in any conventional sense but with alliances between weak, small creatures -- and the protagonist is usually such a creature herself or himself. These alliances are often made by acts of kindness. So it was the idea of the task and the ability created by kindness and alliance rather than a gigantic powerful autonomous self. It suggests our strength lies in our connectedness and that kindness often makes that connection, so kindness -- so often seen as weak -- brings our real power. That's interesting.

Why did you choose the mirrored structure, beginning and returning to the same ideas? I don't think you experienced these emotions and thoughts in such a structured way -- and indeed among the book's many pleasures are its meanderings and seeming digressions. Yet, the mirror's there even with the main narrative and the paralleling essay. (The book begins with "What's your story?" The bottom essay ends with "Who drinks your tears, who has your wings, who hears your story?") Why is this foundation so essential to the book's conception?

The book has a structure, an architecture: you can read it as the interior contained within the exterior chapters, as nesting vessels. The paired chapters return to the subjects opened up the first time around, indirectly. I always loved the Eliot lines: "the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started /And know the place for the first time." So it returns to motifs, continues the inquiry. I had fun with a book that's not "going anywhere" in a hurry, with a Tristram Shandy kind of non-plot non-development: I get invited to go to Iceland at the end of the second chapter; in the eighth I finally land there, but the narrative needs to go through South Asia to continue its inquiry, so the Iceland chapters begin with the ninth.

It also defines the book as a Russian doll: inside the two halves is another doll that also pulls into two halves, inside of which is another... as well as making literal the idea of mirroring. You could also describe the paired chapters as having family resemblances. So the narrative is very free and associative, but the architecture of the book is very formal; it was fun letting those coexist.

One of the models was the Arabian Nights and other books in which the narrative pauses while someone tells a story, until you have a story within a story within a story -- Frankenstein is technically an Arctic explorer recounting what he heard from a scientist recounting what he heard from his creation. Conrad's books often have that structure. And why it belonged here is because we don't live our whole lives in our own skin. We live through stories and for a little while we're someone else. Those other stories feed our lives and guide them; we learn through stories and they become part of us.

In real life you know what's you and what's listening to a friend or reading about Job or Katness Everdeen or Elizabeth Bennett, but in a film like The Saragossa Manuscript or a book like Heart of Darkness, the layers of narration are not so distinct: it's all made of the same stuff. The stories I retold, of Che Guevara among the leprosy colonies, of the Arctic survivor whose story was told so many ways, were stories that really helped me think through the things I wanted and needed to think through, so I lived through those stories; they are part of my story, both in the sense of my life story and the story that is this book. Really powerful stories become part of us, and just as we're always breathing in particles of others' bodies, so we're always imaginatively taking in others. This is another way that we are interfused and the boundaries of the self become blurry.

Certain segments -- the trip to Iceland, the exploration of Elín Hansdóttir's Path, Guevara's journey toward and away from empathy, the morals and conception of Shelley's Frankenstein -- feel like self-contained essays. Was this always conceived of as a longform narrative, or did the threads tie themselves together in the writing process? What does the longform allow you to do that, for instance, the parallel essay running along the book's bottom does not? Do your writing methods change when crafting this or A Paradise Built in Hell, as opposed to the discrete essays in As Eve Said to the Serpent and Storming the Gates of Paradise?

Those latter books collect essays written for very disparate occasions on various topics. This book was conceived as a whole, and I hope it is a whole. The chapters carry forward ideas, but some of them are also fairly self-contained.

The Faraway Nearby and A Field Guide seem flipsides of each other. In the former, you're open about your lostness and find yourself through connections to other, to networks of love and compassion. In A Field Guide, you're largely concerned with the necessity of getting lost, of stripping away the baggage of yourself -- in short, all the stuff that you find yourself needing in The Faraway Nearby. How conscious were you of this connection?

I think of myself maybe as wandering, or exploring, in both books. Getting lost in Field Guide is really about going beyond what you know, about taking risks, and about coming to terms with loss. They're very much connected in the kinds of writing they are -- and Field Guide is also formally adventurous, with the four "Blue of Distance" chapters interleaving the longer, heavier chapters -- and in being more personal. They navigate by hunch and rhyme and resemblance rather than didactic explanation.

Finally, this is the first book of yours that I've read that hasn't mentioned Thoreau, not once. Any reason why not?

I just published an essay on Thoreau in Orion, where I got to the bottom of the charges that his mother did his laundry, so Henry David is not feeling neglected. But he'll be back.