Behind the Books with Rebecca Solnit, Author of The Faraway Nearby

Behind the Books with Rebecca Solnit

In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit uses her ornate mastery of the English language to unpack a paradox. The stories in her new book, ones of apricots and Alzheimer's and ice, come together to dispel the myth of isolation, suggesting that nothing can live independently of everything else. A word, for instance, cannot be defined without other words. A story, likewise, cannot have meaning without the support of connected stories. Solnit's lilting and meditative new collection of stories is your proof of concept; an incredible testament to our shared journey, made vivid by her own backward motion into the memories of her past.

The book, a meta memoir if ever there was one, is rooted in the remembrance of her mother's slow surrender to Alzheimer's. But it allows itself freedoms. She roams and meanders through the arc of her own life, she stargazes and finds inspiration in Mary Shelley, explanations in leprosy, and solace in storytelling. Her mother looms in the background, a night sky behind a constellation of memories. Running along the footer of every page is a linear story, one line per page, about an obscure scientific article entitled "Moths Drink the Tears of Sleeping Birds." The story, nestled within her larger tale, is your hypnotizing shooting star.

Her peripatetic wandering is enchanting stuff, and perhaps unsurprising from an author of such works as Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and A Field Guide to Getting Lost. The Faraway Nearby is simply building upon her earlier interests, playing on familiar themes of wayward walking, this time through the scramble of our psyche. Rebecca Solnit, politically-minded and artistically-fueled, skipped out on high school when the time came, studied a bit in Paris, and then returned to her native state of California to receive both a Bachelor's degree and a Masters in Journalism. She has been an independent writer since 1988. In this installment of Behind the Books, Rebecca tells us about where she draws her energy: the morning slide into work, the fierce principles of George Orwell, the beauty of kilims and Navajo rugs, and finally, her advice to the aspiring writer: "Writing is like playing the guitar. There's no substitute for practice."

Signature: What’s your writing routine? Where, when, and how does it happen?

Rebecca Solnit: I have a sense that people would love it if writers had beautiful enviable routines. I do have an octagonal white tray on which tea, toast, and yogurt -- in white porcelain -- fit so that breakfast is had wherever the sun is pouring in, with a certain amount of leisure but also an imperceptible slide into work, often before the second cup. And what is that work? I basically get up every morning and putter all day until bedtime, unless I’m otherwise engaged, and work and pleasure are not always easily distinguished and sometimes they are the same thing in the best way. Sometimes puttering means endless administration, or travel -- I’m just home after a two-week book tour and a week in Iceland -- or editing, or researching, and sometimes it even means writing. And occasionally work goes amazingly and I am breathless at what has been accomplished, and sometimes I keep lists of what needs to be done and check things off and at least feel productive, but mostly I feel like I’m puttering around.

SIG: What writers have influenced you most?

RS: A great landmark in my life was buying Jorge Luis Borges’s Penguin paperback Labyrinths when I was fifteen. It showed me how literary, how imaginative, how unpredictable short nonfictional prose pieces could be. It opened up the world of writing for me in a definitive way. I had decided to be a writer nine years earlier, and was gradually realizing what genres I was heading toward. The divine Pauline Kael -- from Petaluma, one town north of my hometown -- was still publishing weekly reviews in the New Yorker, and I ate them up. A good review is first of all an essay, and I’ve learned from her and others in that department. Walter Benjamin took that to great heights and depths; his writings were almost always about another work of art, but they were works of art themselves.

Then so many people came along. Orwell’s fierce principles in all his work and his vividness in Homage to Catalonia were huge influences. John Berger demonstrated that you could be deeply immersed in aesthetics and political struggle, that you could have that breadth, and his prose had great precision and beauty; Eduardo Galeano also showed that beautiful writing and passionate engagement could co-exist, even in the same sentence. Virginia Woolf came a little later to show me how subjectivity could be represented, and what a sentence could do and be. Sometimes one book -- Michael Ondaatje’s technically flawless The English Patient, Richard Holmes’s Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage -- demonstrated what prose could be in ways that fired me up. I can’t leave out the writings of the Zapatistas’ Subcomandante Marcos, who wrote about the desperately important politics of this very moment in a language of symbols, animals, poetic images and jokes. And I read a lot of poetry from Pablo Neruda to Gabriella Calvocoressi; that can keep your prose from going flat.

SIG: Your books have covered a variety of your passions, from photography to the simple past and pleasures of walking. What, perhaps, is an interest you have -- quirky, literary, or otherwise -- that you haven’t yet shared in your writing?

RS: There are so many things I take pleasure in that have no direct presence in the writing, though most things sneak in one way or another. Here’s one that hasn't: I take huge pleasure in looking at kilims, patchwork quilts, printed fabrics, Navajo rugs, all the colors and textures and patterns of woven stuffs.

SIG: What book are you currently recommending?

RS: I’m reading David Graeber’s The Democracy Project with great enthusiasm, and I found some riveting material in psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor’s small book On Kindness. I was traveling with a book of Philip Levine poems; their power never subsides. And I just read a great children’s book, The Blue Planet, by my friend Andri Snaer Magnisson; it’s an environmental fable of great wit and grace. Think The Little Prince for anti-capitalists. But at any given point, I’m often reading extremely old stuff -- I just got a two-volume edition of The Spectator from 1726 I’m excited to reread -- and weird stuff for research, like Cortez’s letters to the king of Spain, which is not always recommended.

SIG: To what extent does your writing reflect your own life story?

RS: Well, it’s not always about me -- the Muybridge bio, for example -- but it’s always saturated in my values and interests. That book had my interpretive framework and line of inquiry all over it.

SIG: Read any great biographies or memoirs recently?

RS: I’m hoping to! I keep looking for a good biography. And the time to get in deep in one. The hard thing is that they’re too bulky to carry around. I like to have a nice slim volume in my purse at all times. Mary Gabriel’s biography of Karl Marx and his wife and daughters was a truly great biography, the last one of that stature I remember reading.

SIG: It’s said that people either read to escape or read to remember. Do you fall into one of these groups?

RS: Some novels are to escape; some books are to educate or deepen commitment or help with the inquiry into one’s own life. Books do all kinds of work for me.

SIG: What five writers - dead or alive - would you invite to an imaginary dinner party?

RS: Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf (even though I think she slighted Thoreau), William Wordsworth, Subcomandante Marcos, and it’s always nice to have William Shakespeare over who can make conversation with everyone, though I might ask someone who always knows what to do with the silverware, Isak Dineson, instead of one of these people.

SIG: To the aspiring writer, what advice would you give? What advice helped you become the writer you are today?

RS: Writing is like playing the guitar. There’s no substitute for practice. Guidance and models and goals are good, and you have to listen to really good guitarists/read really good writers and pay attention to how they do it (listening to your exact peers fumble isn’t as helpful), but mainly you have to do it. With passion, for which there’s also no substitute.

SIG: What’s next on your reading list? Writing list?

RS: Well, Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas will be out in November.