"Something Durable and Whole: An Interview with Scott Russell Sanders"
Kenyon Review, Vol. XXII, No. 1 (Winter 2000), pp. 10-24.
Interview conducted by Carolyn Perry and Wayne Zade
KR: In the past 20 years the personal essay has emerged as a prominent genre in American literature, and it can be said that you have been a major contributor to this development. How did you begin writing personal essays?
SRS: When I started writing essays 20 years ago, I didn’t have a name for them. At the time I was working on a novel called Bad Man Ballad. But I got stuck—I couldn’t get the narrator’s voice right. So I decided to take a break from the novel and write something else, which turned out to be a simple account of a walk I had taken the previous weekend while carrying my one-year-old son in a backpack. That piece became "Cloud Crossing" in The Paradise of Bombs. It was my first personal essay, although at the time I probably would have called it a story from life.
KR: How do you think about the "self" that has emerged in your essays? Is it a persona, a created self, or "you"?
SRS: While writing "Cloud Crossing" I felt a great sense of relief, because I could speak in a voice that was much closer to what I thought of as my own; I didn’t have to contrive a narrator as I had to in fiction. So it was tremendously liberating. A few weeks later, I went on to write "Feasting on Mountains," also about a hike in Oregon. Again, I felt exhilarated, because I didn’t have to invent anything, didn’t have to hide anything. I could tell the story directly without camouflage. At the time, I had this naive notion that the self in the personal essay was me—pure, unadorned me—whereas in the novels, the narrator was obviously a construction. As I continued to write stories out of my own life, I soon realized, of course, that the essay narrator is also a construction. The person who speaks from the page is made of words. He doesn’t contain the whole of me, but he’s much closer to who I actually am than any of my fictional narrators.
KR: Has this "self" changed over time?
SRS: Certainly. He’s changed as I’ve grown older, as I’ve learned things about writing and about living, as I’ve collected scars and suffered loss. The son who rode on my back in that first essay is now backpacking around Europe on his own. My daughter whose birth I celebrated in an early essay is now married. I suppose my persona is not only older these days, he’s also less humorous, more earnest, more urgent.
KR: But isn’t this a more giving, a more compassionate persona, too?
SRS: I hope that’s true. My essays are efforts to reach other people, to imagine my way into their hearts. Empathy was there from the beginning, in "Cloud Crossing," which arose from my feelings for this child, who was small and fragile and rapidly changing. This powerful sense of connection drives my writing, which isn’t really about me, but about my relations with others.
KR: How does this sense of self relate to you as a teacher? Do you ever feel yourself taking on the role of teacher in your essays?
SRS: I’ll admit I have a strong didactic streak. When it comes out in my writing, that bothers me. I find the same teacherly impulse in many of the writers whom I admire—in Thoreau, certainly, and in John Muir, George Orwell, Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry. In essays I speak earnestly about matters close to my heart, not because I wish to dictate how my readers should think, but to call up in them an equal passion and earnestness. As a college teacher, I make great demands on my students. I don’t want them to think as I do, but to think for themselves. I want them to explore their own beliefs and delve into their own backgrounds, so that when they act they have a clear sense of why they’re acting. I push my students and my readers to examine their own minds and their own lives. So, yes, there is a parallel between my work as a teacher and my work as a writer.
KR: What about teaching American literature?
SRS: My Ph.D. is in English literature, and my dissertation was on D. H. Lawrence. When I was hired by Indiana University in 1971, they wanted me to teach British modernism. And I did for a few years. But as I was drawn deeper into writing, I also felt drawn into the literature of my own country. Of course I had read plenty of American literature before, but now I became obsessed with it. Emerson, Melville, Whitman, Dickinson, Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, O’Connor. All the great ones. I soon shifted my teaching from English to American literature. I still love the work of Lawrence, Joyce, Hopkins, Yeats. I love many European writers, such as Thomas Mann and Italo Calvino, or anglophone writers like J. M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, V. S. Naipaul. But I have to read them sparingly, because their diction and rhythms and sensibilities are so alien to my own.
KR: To what extent might this sense of didacticism be rooted in childhood experience?
SRS: It comes at least in part from my religious upbringing. I had a very conventional Christian childhood. I was reared in the Methodist church—what I think of as low-temperature Protestantism—and teethed on the King James Bible. I grew up convinced that life is a school and that we’re here to learn something. We’re accountable for our lives. In my writing you can see the biblical references, you can hear the prophetic tones, you can trace the moral demand that we take responsibility for how we live.
KR: Is the fact that you spent some of your childhood in the South connected to this also?
SRS: It might be. My relationship to the South is complicated. My birth in Memphis means I’m a southerner, yet by upbringing I’m a northerner and midwesterner. Also, my father was from Mississippi, and his voice was a daily reminder that I came from a household with a southern heritage, just as my mother’s Chicago accent was a reminder of my Yankee heritage. Every summer of my childhood we went to visit my father’s family in Mississippi and Alabama and South Carolina, so I have a rich lode of memories from southern places. At the same time, while I was growing up, everything I read or saw about the South in the news was ugly: white mobs attacking peaceful black protesters, white crowds taunting black school children, fire hoses and police dogs and red-neck sheriffs and bigoted politicians. My father was an open-minded man, without any racial biases that I could see. But he spoke with an accent a lot like that of the bigots on TV. To judge from television, all of this venom was concentrated in the South, which made me feel ashamed of my own southern roots. I learned later, of course, that the South has no monopoly on racism.
KR: This leads to another question, and that concerns the strong sense of contrast in your writing. You often draw on opposing images, and you seem to be drawn to reconciling the opposites you find in life. Do you agree? And do you think that this sense of contrast is connected to your childhood experience?
SRS: The contrasts and tensions arise from my life—North/South, country and city, militarism and pacifism. Living as a boy in an arsenal in Ohio, I felt a fierce contrast between the fruitfulness and wildness of nature, on the one hand, and the ingenuity and destructiveness of technology, on the other—a tension that I tried to capture in the title essay of The Paradise of Bombs. As I’ve written in "Under the Influence," my father’s alcoholism led to frequent fights between my parents, and I felt torn apart, loyal to both of them, and I also felt as if I were supposed to make peace between them. As a writer I keep seeing these contrasts, these deadly tensions, and maybe I’m still trying to bring the two poles together, to reconcile enemies.
KR: Given your background, particularly your religious upbringing, you were probably taught that the forces of destruction should be, and one day would be obliterated. Yet there is the sense in your writing that you don’t want to eliminate the destructive forces. Is that true?
SRS: Yes. I don’t believe in damnation. I never want to choose sides, to say one is entirely good and the other entirely evil. I don’t think conflict should end with the destruction of one side or the other. When I was growing up, I saw enough of the machinery of war and the war-making mind to be highly skeptical of violence as a way toward peace. I really do want to beat swords into plowshares.
KR: You also seem drawn to the contrast between masculinity and femininity.How do you see yourself wrestling with this contrast in your life and writing?
SRS: I thought very little about gender as a child. I simply accepted what was around me as the way things were. Then when I went to college, as I’ve written in "The Men We Carry in Our Minds," I ran into women who had radically different notions about gender roles than anything I’d ever encountered. They were furious, and they were articulate. Trying to figure out why these women were so angry started me on a long, slow educational process. That process was accelerated through my long courtship of Ruth McClure. Ours was an epistolary romance. Living a thousand miles apart for five years before we got married, we exchanged hundreds of letters. All that while, on paper, I was dealing with a very intelligent, witty, perceptive woman. When our daughter Eva was born, I became even more thoughtful about the fate of women. Here was this brand-new girl. What would be her fate in the world? What barriers would she run into? How would she learn what it means to be female? Once our son Jesse was born, I had a burning personal reason to reflect on how the world defines maleness, as well. After my father’s death, I realized that he had been confined and even tortured by inherited notions of masculinity.
When I first recognized sex discrimination, I thought naively—as I did with racism—that people of good will should be able to talk about it openly and then grow beyond it. It shouldn’t be so hard to begin treating everybody fairly. Why shouldn’t discrimination go away in a few years? Now I realize the problems are more stubborn. We carry a lot of evolutionary baggage, including some deep biases linked to sex. Unless we acknowledge this biological inheritance, we’ll be trapped by it. Males, for example, are saddled with a degree of aggressiveness and a propensity for violence—not because men are evil, but because our male ancestors were selected for those qualities over a very long time. I don’t believe we’re determined by this evolutionary heritage—we’re conscious creatures, and we can change—but we have to recognize what raw material we begin with.
KR: Do you think that notions of gender are connected to the way we view nature?
SRS: In Western culture, women and nature have been closely identified—and identified mainly by males. Women have been associated with the body, men with the mind; women with fertility, men with invention. That formula has been terribly harmful—to men as well as to women and to the earth. It’s been used to exclude women from the full range of work and authority. It’s been used to justify male domination of women and animals and land. But it has also limited men. The mistake is not in claiming that women are close to nature, but in claiming that men are estranged from it.
KR: What do you see as the difference between nature writing and environmental writing?
SRS: The term "environment" preserves the old dichotomy—between us and our surroundings. It sustains the illusion that the human realm is separate from what’s out there. "Nature" is a more comprehensive term, but it, too, is problematic. We use the term "nature" in contrast to culture, as we use "wildness" in contrast to civilization. Most native American languages have no word for nature or wilderness. They have names for trees, animals, stones, but what we call nature is for them simply the world; there is no other place. If one has to have a label, nature writing is preferable to environmental writing. But I would welcome the day when we no longer refer to writing that pays attention to our place in the great order of the universe as if it were some specialized branch of literature. My friend Gary Nabhan suggests that what Thoreau and Aldo Leopold and Barry Lopez and Rachel Carson write should simply be called "literature," and writing that ignores our place in the universe should be called "urban dysfunctional literature." We should reserve special labels for writing that forgets we’re animals, forgets we live on a planet, forgets we share this place with billions of other organisms.
KR: In addition to Thoreau and Wendell Berry, are there other writers with whom you have a special relation?
SRS: The American tradition that nurtures me begins with Thoreau and includes John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and Loren Eiseley. We’re living right now in the midst of a renaissance not only of the personal essay, but also of writing about nature. Although we don’t have any single figure as great as Thoreau, we do have many remarkable talents. Aside from Wendell Berry, I think of Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Robert Finch, Rick Bass, Robert Michael Pyle, Gary Nabhan, Richard Nelson, Edward Hoagland, Ann Zwinger, Kim Stafford. There are many others. Among the poets I think of Mary Oliver, Pattiann Rogers, Alison Deming, Chris Merrill.
KR: Why do you think we are experiencing this "renaissance"?
SRS: I think of two reasons. One is a profound sense of loss. Much of this writing is elegiac. Many of us are moved to write by our sense that the earth is vulnerable, that wildness is endangered, that what we love is perishing. Thoreau and Muir felt something of this a century and more ago, but they were exceptional in their time. Their contemporaries saw nature as invulnerable and inexhaustible. But today, any thoughtful person must see that species are going extinct and forests are falling and land is being gobbled up at an unprecedented rate. The second reason I think of for the renaissance of nature writing is that many of us believe it’s not too late to slow down this erosion of wildness. All is not lost; there is still unspoiled land; the great web of life still holds; nature is resilient. If we change, if we learn to think in new ways and behave more responsibly, we could help restore the garden. I feel that quite strongly, and I suspect that all the writers I named feel it; we wouldn’t be writing books if we didn’t believe we have the potential for change, or that nature has the potential for recovery.
KR: Can you talk about the spiritual implications in nature writing?
SRS: I can’t speak for what others believe. My own feeling is that, however it came about, the Creation is sacred. The natural order of the universe is holy, and its creatures are holy. The health and resilience of the earth is the single most valuable thing on this planet. And we’re only a tiny part of it. We haven’t been here long, and the way things are going we’re not likely to stay here long. But in the meantime, we have an absolute duty to preserve the health and fertility of the web of life. Insofar as this attitude is spiritual, it’s not churchly. It’s at odds with the Puritan view, so dominant in American history, that nature is evil, and with the broadly Judeo-Christian view that nature is raw material for human designs. Although it may not show up in church, the belief in the sacredness of Creation is certainly in the Bible. It’s also in Native American spiritual traditions, as well as in Buddhism, Taoism, and a number of other religions. If what we call nature is only matter in motion, devoid of spirit, devoid of any larger purpose, then why write about it? Unless nature speaks of a deeper, sacred order, then it’s meaningless, and so are we.
KR: In Writing from the Center, you talk about the joy of being "utterly in place," as if there is almost a divine sense of rightness in being where you are supposed to be and doing what you are supposed to do. What’s the source of that feeling?
SRS: I resist the word "divine" here because I don’t believe that as individuals we have some path ordained for us by a higher power. I do believe, however, that there is a way of things, a grain to the universe, which we can discern, however faintly or fleetingly. If we align ourselves with that grain, we can sometimes feel a deep sense of being in the right place and doing the right thing. In my experience, such moments are brief and rare. When they come, however, they’re so powerful that I end up reflecting on them—and often writing about them—long afterwards.
KR: We’re talking about place and settlement, which is definitely a theme in your writing; it is very important in Wilderness Plots and in many of your children’s books. Could you comment about this theme in your work?
SRS: Settlement is a key theme for me, although one I only came to recognize after other people had pointed it out. In Wilderness Plots, in Bad Man Ballad, in several of my children’s books—Aurora Means Dawn, Warm as Wool, A Place Called Freedom— and in my science fiction novel, Terrarium, I’ve written about people coming to a new region, often a wilderness, making a clearing, joining a community, settling in. Staying Put is about how my wife and I did that in our own lives. At the beginning of that book I tell how it felt to see my childhood landscape disappear under the water of a reservoir, and perhaps that displacement—that permanent uprooting—helps account for my interest in settlement. The experience of uprooting is the common American story. We’re all immigrants, more or less recent. We’re all looking for places to settle, to make a home.
KR: How did you arrive at the form of Wilderness Plots?
SRS: I was writing Bad Man Ballad, and in the course of research for that historical novel I kept coming across references to fascinating characters, events, and places on the Ohio frontier. Some of those figures and actions made their way into the novel, but many wouldn’t fit; I didn’t want to abandon them, so I created these tiny tales as a way of preserving them. I usually began with no more than a sentence or two from an old chronicle or history book, and in that fragment I would see something distinctive, some glimmer that made a person or gesture stand out. The tales are quite short—no more than two double-spaced pages—and to tell a whole story in such a small space might sound like a difficult trick. But to me it seemed quite natural, perhaps because I’d loved folk tales and folk songs since childhood.
KR: Could you mention a few other pieces, essays from your earlier books, that helped you find your own way as a writer?
SRS: From my first collection of personal essays, The Paradise of Bombs, the title piece helped me to understand how my childhood on a military arsenal in Ohio had shaped my vision of things. "The Inheritance of Tools" helped me to deal with my father’s death, and to see not merely what I had lost but what a legacy—of tools, skills, and attitudes—I had received. In Secrets of the Universe, I would point to "Under the Influence," about my father’s alcoholism, and "Reasons of the Body"; in Staying Put, perhaps "Wayland" and "Telling the Holy"; and in Writing from the Center, "Buckeye" and "The Common Life": all those essays taught me something essential about my character and my craft. I have to be wrought up about something, and also deeply puzzled about it, before I’m moved to address it in an essay. So in my writing I’m always pushing outward on the boundaries of bewilderment.
KR: But this motive is not related to the confessional impulse, say, in poetry?
SRS: There are a good many personal essays—especially now, with the craze for memoirs—that are too confessional for my taste. I’m not really interested in records of private anxieties, private grievances, private miseries. Confessional writing too often becomes self-indulgent. What I aim to do—as I’ve tried to explain in the introduction to The Paradise of Bombs—is to write about the personal in an impersonal way; to write about my life only insofar as it might help to illuminate the lives of other people. If you lose someone you love, that’s not just your private grief; that’s part of our shared condition. When I write about walking my daughter down the aisle at her wedding, or quarreling with my son on a backpacking trip, I do so not merely because I experienced these things, but because they are representative of what many others go through. I’m wary of confessional writing, in poetry as well as essays. Lowell and Plath and Sexton, for all their skills and accomplishments, don’t draw me back.
KR: And your rejection of the confessional leads back to your sense of community?
SRS: Yes. We shouldn’t make such a big fuss about the individual. Our culture is obsessed with the idiosyncratic and private, perhaps more so than any other culture in history. Americans are all too likely to forget that we belong to communities, to families, to neighborhoods, to places of work, to landscapes. We are social creatures before we are individuals. Insofar as we achieve anything of value, we do so within a web of relationships.
KR: That sense of belonging seems to inform Staying Put. How did that book start?
SRS: In Staying Put the key was " “Settling Down," which opens with Ruth and me sharing dinner with friends on the porch while a tornado bears down on us. That was the first piece of the puzzle I found, and it revealed the pattern for the rest of the book. It helped me to see why I care so much about commitment to place—and to marriage, work, neighbors—while that commitment is under assault in a nation obsessed with mobility and novelty. As soon as I began thinking about that tornado, and about why I refused to go down into the basement, "Settling Down" unfolded for me like a gift essay.
KR: What do you mean by a "gift essay"?
SRS: I mean that every once in a while life thrusts on me some experience that is already shaped, already charged with meaning, and all I have to do is report on it."“Wayland," the last piece in Staying Put, is one example. I’d gone back to visit a crossroads settlement in Ohio where I spent much time as a boy. Over the course of an hour or so, I took a leisurely walk around that crossroads—gazing at an old house, a church, an overgrown field, a sycamore tree where I’d once chased a girl—and then I drove back to Bloomington, about seven hours. All the way home, I kept reliving that walk, and as I did so I realized that several of my primal encounters—with death, with sex, with a gifted teacher, with God—had taken place in the tiny settlement of Wayland. By the time I got out of the car, the essay had taken shape in my mind, like a series of small scenes. That felt like a gift. "Doing Time in the Thirteenth Chair," the last piece in Secrets of the Universe, is another example. I served for a week as an alternate juror in a drug trial— and quite a grumpy juror to begin with, because I didn’t want to spend my school holiday in a courtroom. But I was soon absorbed by the details of the trial; I felt a strong sense of identification with the defendant, who came to seem like my own dark double. All that week I made notes on little yellow pads supplied by the bailiff, so by the time I came home on Friday I had the gist of the essay in hand. Another gift.
KR: In your new book, Hunting for Hope, the impulse to write is related closely to the need to answer questions from your children, particularly your son, who accompanied you on a hiking trip to Colorado. Have you felt such a direct link to a specific audience before in writing your books?
SRS: As I say in the opening chapter, Hunting for Hope was set in motion by challenging questions raised by my son, my daughter, and my students. So they were the first audience I had in mind. Of course I also wished to reach members of my own generation, the parents of these young people, as well as people in the generation before mine, those who’ve passed on the keeping of the world into our hands, as we will eventually pass on responsibility to our children.
KR: Is it typical for you to write with such a strong sense of audience? Were your other books directed at specific individuals?
SRS: I’ve never had as focused a sense of audience in any previous book as in Hunting for Hope. Whenever I write, I carry in mind a number of individuals—including Ruth, who’s always my first reader. When he was alive, I often thought of my father, as I still think of my mother. I think of a few editors. I think of friends whose opinion I respect and whose own writing I admire, and I even try to imagine how my pages might appear to some of the great and noble dead whose work has mattered to me. I often think about my students. And I think about the mythical "common reader" that Virginia Woolf spoke of, the ordinary person who reads without any specialized knowledge but with curiosity and a passion for understanding.
KR: In Hunting for Hope, you frequently draw in the voices of poets, from Blake to Hopkins to Mary Oliver to Gary Snyder; in fact, your use of poetry and poetic language is so strong, you often seem to be blending genres. How would you describe your relationship to Romantic poets like Blake and Hopkins? Do you also feel a connection to the traditions of Japanese poetry, as Snyder and Oliver do?
SRS: The first poets who clarified my relationship to the natural world were Romantics, especially Wordsworth and Coleridge, and that happened early in college. I went on from there to Blake and Hopkins, to Hardy and Lawrence and Yeats, and I’ve carried their examples with me ever since. After I started writing, the poets who spoke to me were those—like Frost and Whitman and William Carlos Williams—who worked in the American grain. I was drawn to Roethke and Jeffers because they brooded on nature. More recently, poets like Mary Oliver, Pattiann Rogers, Alison Deming, Robert Hass, and Gary Snyder have meant the most to me. Snyder, in particular, who brings into our Western context the influence of his training in Zen Buddhism. I don’t know Japanese poetry directly, but only as it’s been refracted through Snyder and Oliver and others. I do read haiku, in a haphazard way. I have a book of haiku on my bedside table right now.
KR: What attracts you to haiku?
SRS: I’m drawn to the clarity and precision. Those qualities are at the opposite pole from the garrulous, effusive, misty Romantic manner. What these traditions have in common, though, is a regard for nature as the sustaining order. Insofar as my own writing—in Hunting for Hope or elsewhere—might be "poetic," it’s not deliberately so. I do value qualities I find in poetry—for instance, the use of imagery and metaphor, not merely as decoration but as a mode of argument. We think through images, through concrete particulars, through the nitty-gritty of stories, as poetry reminds us over and over. I also admire poetry’s economy, and the attention to rhythm. Prose is flatter and looser than poetry, but I still think it can be musical and taut.
KR: Readers of Kenyon Review, in particular, might be interested in a graduate of Kenyon College, who is from Ohio as you are, James Wright. Do you like his poetry?
SRS: I love Wright’s poetry—not only because we share a region, with the Ohio River running through it and fireflies flickering in the meadows and shaggy ponies grazing on long grass. I love him also because of his stance toward the world, the way he carries himself without pity or false pride, his tenderness, his tragic regard for a damaged landscape, and because of the lovely turns of his tongue.
KR: Much of your descriptive writing also seems influenced by photography. Yet you tend to stress the sense of hearing, the recognition of silence. Can you comment on the tension in your work between the visual and the audial? It seems like a positive, creative tension, a notion you seem unlikely to shy away from.
SRS: I’m certainly aware of the tension between speech and silence. After all, the act of writing is the transformation of the world into language. Yet the world is not finally reducible to language. It escapes our nets. There’s a point at the end of "The Force of Moving Water," from Secrets of the Universe, where I’m sitting on the riverbank in Cincinnati telling my children, Eva and Jesse, stories about the Ohio. I want them to carry this great living river in their minds as I carry it in mine. Then after a while, I realize that the best way for my children to appreciate the Ohio is for me to shut up and let them hear the river itself. I’m not saying that language is useless or storytelling is empty; I’m saying that our speech exists in relation to other powers, other beings, other tribes out there in the world. As for the tension between the visual and oral—I don’t feel that so strongly. I try to appeal to all the senses, especially those such as hearing and touch and smell that are often neglected in writing.
KR: In Hunting for Hope, you devote a chapter to your "theology." Why did you decide to include it? What place does it have in the book as a whole?
SRS: I knew from the moment I began work on the book that I would have to write a chapter on my sense of the ultimate context for our actions, the ground of existence. Science gives us an extraordinary picture of the universe as a law-abiding system, but science can’t say much about the ancient questions of how the universe came to be, why it obeys certain laws, how life arose from matter, how consciousness emerged from life, what purpose humans may serve in the universe. In face of these questions, we have three choices. We can ignore them, and just go on about our lives. We can accept wholesale some prefabricated explanation offered by religion or philosophy. Or we can try to figure out as best we can—in light of our own experience and with the benefit of other people’s discoveries—what we actually believe about the ultimate ground of being. For better or worse, I’ve followed that third path.
I have certainly learned from religions, especially from the Judeo-Christian tradition as filtered through the Methodists and Quakers and Benedictines, as well as from Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and a wide array of Native American traditions. In Hunting for Hope, above all in the chapter called "The Way of Things," I’ve tried to combine elements from what Huxley called "the perennial philosophy" with my own direct experience, in an effort to describe where we are, what we’re doing, and what powers we have to contend with in our own depths and in the depths of the universe. The result is far from systematic. It may be vague and homely, but it’s the vision that sustains me.
KR: Storytelling and the need to tell our stories are at the heart of Hope, as well as the focus of your essay"“The Power of Stories" (The Georgia Review, Spring 1997), which you did not include in the book. What is the connection between this essay and Hope?
SRS: I had thought "The Power of Stories" would form a chapter in Hunting for Hope, because I regard storytelling as one of our great medicines, one of our healing powers. But the form the piece took on did not fit the book, so I had to leave it out. Hope is my own personal inventory of the resources we might draw on in our efforts to restore ourselves, our communities, and the earth—resources within us as individuals, within the human legacy of skills and knowledge, within nature, and within the depths of the universe. Storytelling is certainly one of those resources. It’s one of the most durable and widespread of all human arts. Instead of devoting a chapter to stories in Hope, I bound the book together with narratives, including the story about hiking with my son in the Rockies, and those narratives demonstrate my belief in the power of stories.
KR: Did you think of the "Mountain Music" sequence as a series of interludes, as well as the prime narratives of the book?
SRS: I wrote "Mountain Music" to give Hunting for Hope a narrative structure; maybe that’s a holdover from my training in the novel. I also wanted to emphasize the quarrel with my son out of which the book arose, and to show that this search for the means of healing was not an abstract undertaking but an urgent task, driven by love. I also wanted to use the "Mountain Music" sequence to show the changes that took place in Jesse and me as I responded to his challenge and as II began to take stock of my own sources of hope. The first three installments all relate to our backpacking trip in the Rockies. The fourth one occurs a year later, on a hiking trip in the Smoky Mountains. During the intervening year a great deal happened to make our relationship more open, more honest, more joyful. It wasn’t only that Jesse and I had each grown a year older. It was also that I’d been working on this book, and I’d begun to see in a new way. Also I think Jesse had come to realize that what looked like despair in his father was really a bewildering sense of grief over human suffering and over the desolation of the planet.
KR: In the "Mountain Music" pieces, did you have in mind Eliot’s Four Quartets, or a musical form, such as the string quartets of Beethoven, as Eliot did?
SRS: I may have had in mind a musical analogy, and may even have thought about Beethoven’s quartets, which I love. But I didn’t work out the four-part scheme until the book was nearly finished. I worked my way through each narrative section as I came to it in composing the book. I can read the sequence now and see that it’s made of four movements, each one in its own tempo, with its own mood and coloration. But that recognition comes after the fact.
KR: In Hunting for Hope to what extent are you responding to our culture’s obsession with appearance and physical perfection, and to what extent are you describing your deep appreciation for the natural or even hidden beauty of the world?
SRS: The prime impulse was my daughter’s wedding, which is the opening scene in the chapter called "Beauty." While I was looking at Eva’s wedding photos, I was also looking at images from the Hubble Space Telescope, and I realized that both sets of images aroused the same emotions in me. I wondered where those emotions might come from, and whether this correlation between intimate and cosmic beauty was accidental or whether it might point toward some congruence between our minds and the universe. I ended up arguing that what we call beauty—whether found in a person’s face, a mathematical formula, a piece of music, or anywhere else—is an intimation of the harmony between ourselves and the underlying order of things. Beauty is a momentary glimpse of that order, a reconciliation of inner and outer space.
KR: You say at the end of "Beauty" that beauty needs us to recognize it. What do you mean by that?
SRS: We can’t possibly be important to the universe because we eat and drink and procreate, since countless other species do as much. If we have a distinctive role to play—and I emphasize the if—it must have to do with what’s unusual about us, and that, surely, is our use of articulate language. I don’t mean speech alone, although that’s the source of all language, but also music, painting, mathematics, architecture—all the means of expression that we’ve invented. We take the world in through our senses, reflect on it, and give it back in some orderly form. That act of response and expression is just as vital to the gardener or dancer as to the writer or physicist. It’s what distinguishes us as a species, and it may be what justifies our existence.
KR: You write a lot about fathers and sons, and right now you’re responsible not only as a father to your children but as a son to your mother. How does this special circumstance come into play in your writing?
SRS: The aging of our parents—my mother and Ruth’s mother and father—had quite an impact on Hunting for Hope. Ruth and I are in that classic stage of maximum responsibility, with children who still need us and with parents who depend heavily on us. Ruth’s mother suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and so we’ve been watching this good woman literally lose her mind, piece by piece. Ruth’s father has suffered strokes. My own mother, though still hale, had a knee-joint replaced and then struggled through a painful rehabilitation. Of course I’m also aware of my own aging. While I can still do most everything I want to, the time is coming when I won’t be able to portage a canoe with my daughter or backpack in the mountains with my son. So awareness of mortality, the oldest human story, was very much on my mind as I wrote Hunting for Hope. I know it’s easy for old people to slip into depression, not just because they’re more aware of facing death, but because they often feel useless, as though they have nothing left to give that matters to anyone. They’re often keenly aware that the world is in trouble, and they want to help with the healing in the time they have left. While Hunting for Hope began with questions from young people, the book often invokes the elders, who may be a source of wisdom and counsel and inspiration.
KR: In Hunting for Hope, you take on questions and problems that trouble young people in America, but your discussions of city life, perhaps more the center of ethnic diversity and struggle, seems broad or general. Were you concerned with this struggle—a political and economic one—in this book, or do you plan to address it more particularly in the future?
SRS: I know the book doesn’t speak to the daily challenges that young people face in cities, especially in poor neighborhoods. That’s partly because of my ignorance—I’m not a city person—and partly because the problems are so huge and so intractable. I haven’t figured out how to solve poverty, racism, gang violence, wholesale crime, drug addiction, or teenage pregnancy, but it doesn’t look as if anybody else has, either. I don’t address those inner-city problems directly in Hope, not because I’m oblivious to them, but because I don’t think I have anything original or useful to say. I’m trying to work on a more fundamental level, to take an inventory of the spiritual, social, and intellectual resources that all of us may draw on, whether we live in cities or anywhere else.
KR: In some ways this book seems like a recapitulation of themes you addressed in your other books, but perhaps never so urgently. Do you know yet how you’ll follow this book? It seems to have wrapped up a lot for you.
SRS: Whenever I finish a book, I feel a letdown and exhaustion that often verges on depression. Hunting for Hope has left me feeling especially wrung out, because I worked on it for nearly four years, and it explores matters that have preoccupied me for my whole adult life. Yes, I returned to some themes I’d treated before, but I hope in a deeper and more integrated way. I believe I’ve said new things about wildness, about community, about family and simplicity and beauty.
I’m working now on a series of brief essays for a little book in a new series from Milkweed Editions. Each book in this Credo series is supposed to reflect one writer’s guiding experiences and fundamental beliefs. Because I’ve just finished exploring those beliefs at length in Hunting for Hope, I’m trying to tell fresh stories, not to repeat myself.
KR: Are there other types of writing you hope to do?
SRS: Plenty of them. I plan to make more
stories for children. I want to write about resisting the Vietnam War.
I’d like to travel around the country and report on how communities
are working to undo damage, restore battered landscapes, and heal wounds.
I’d like to show how the health of communities is inextricably tied
to the health of places. If you abuse the land, if you cut down all the
trees and pave over the soil, if you crowd people together in tenements,
you will bring on certain pathologies. The evidence is all around us:
violence, cruelty, injustice, addiction, a crazed lashing out or a withering
despair. I might end up producing a book that speaks more directly to
the problems in our cities, a book that links my passion for nature with
my passion for community. I also keep imagining that I’ll return
to fiction, especially a novel. But I’m not gripped by any compelling
vision for a novel right now, and until that happens I’ll stick
with my own quirky, inquisitive brand of nonfiction.
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