The Locus of the Imagination: An Interview with Michael Pearson
by C. A. Gardner
Michael Pearson teaches and directs the M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Old Dominion University. His essays and stories have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Boston Globe, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Washington Post, Journal of American Culture, and Creative Nonfiction, among others. His nonfiction books include Imagined Places: Journeys into Literary America (named one of the notable books of the year by the New York Times Book Review), A Place That's Known, John McPhee (part of Twayne's United States Authors Series), and Dreaming of Columbus: A Boyhood in the Bronx. His most recent book is the novel Shohola Falls (Syracuse University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-8156-0785-7), in which a teenage boy discovers his kinship to the best friend of Mark Twain's youth—the man who was the prototype for Huckleberry Finn. The correspondences between young Tommy Blanks and Thomas Blankenship run deep: dearest to both hearts is the love of a woman of mixed race. As Tommy Blanks crosses the country by rails, following in his ancestor's footsteps, he undergoes a quest for identity and home that echoes the journeys of Huck Finn.
VL: Though you've been best known for literary nonfiction, your most recent book is a novel. Both the frequently autobiographical nature of your nonfiction, and the writing of a novel, would seem to involve as much looking inward as looking outward. What differences in process did you experience? Do you feel that writing a novel has changed you? Did it affect you differently than writing nonfiction?
MP: I loved the experience of writing a novel. Yet, I would say it was a very different experience than writing nonfiction. For me, it was a much deeper experience, though it shouldn't necessarily be. I think when you write a good piece of nonfiction, you should be going deep. But ironically, I found writing this novel a truer experience autobiographically than writing the memoir [Dreaming of Columbus], which is supposed to be the truth of your life. With the novel, Shohola Falls, a lot of things that went on had nothing to do with me. I never met Mark Twain or Thomas Blankenship, the real-life prototype for Huckleberry Finn; I wasn't put in a boys' home for stealing things; I didn't have an interracial romance. Yet somehow that story came much closer to the fire of truth of who Michael Pearson is, what he was experiencing in his inner life, than Dreaming of Columbus. So I guess I'm saying, ironically, that the fiction seems truer to my real life than the memoir, as I step back from them. Of course, everything you write is a stylized truth.
I think writing fiction is very hard, though—that's the other thing. It was a harder process for me to write fiction than non-fiction—when you're writing fiction, the page seems so much whiter. With nonfiction, you have notes, interviews, and source material. Even though I wrote a semi-historical novel, and I tried to be true to the biographical details of Mark Twain and Thomas Blankenship, I still had to make things up. You're groping for things in the dark—you feel like you're in a cave—whereas with nonfiction at least you're out there in the light. And with nonfiction, there are also limits—it's a finite experience. Whereas with fiction, really, anything is possible. Imagining the impossible as a possibility is scary at times. But I love the challenge, and I enjoy the realm of possibility that it puts you in, so I'm doing it again.
VL: In some ways, it seems that Shohola Falls is the novel you've been working up to. The intersection between fact and fiction in your books takes an interesting progression. Imagined Places begins the journey with the exploration of the connection between writers and their landscapes; A Place That's Known approaches location through the lens of personal as well as literary experience; and Dreaming of Columbus takes us deep into a remembered landscape, while reinventing some of the biography in a fictional vein. Shohola Falls seems to come full circle, with sections titled by their locations—New York City, Shohola Falls, and San Francisco—and a narrative that traces the importance of the literary landscape in the protagonist's life. Has this progression from fact to fiction been one that you pursued consciously?
MP: Well, I think I have been working up to it. Now that I'm five books in, it seems as if there's a path I'm following. Looking back on it, I started out very journalistically with Imagined Places. I tried to get close to the subjects with my voice, but I was looking at Faulkner, or Twain, or Steinbeck, and interviewing people, trying to observe. I moved more toward the personal with A Place That's Known. Dreaming of Columbus is a memoir, but it's right on the brink of fiction. Then the novel crosses over that line. So I think everything was leading me toward what you described in that first question—the inward. I moved from the external to the internal, and into the realm where I always felt most comfortable as a reader—fiction.
VL: Shohola Falls brings together a number of motifs that have recurred in previous books: Mark Twain, the Bronx, Shohola Creek, San Francisco, the torments of private school, and the power of true love. Would you mind describing how you decided to weave these ideas together? How did you arrive at the premise—a boy whose life journey begins with arrest for too great a love of reading? A boy who is the direct descendent of the childhood friend of Mark Twain?
MP: I started out wanting to write a novel about things I knew something about. I wanted to write about this kid in the Bronx, and the name Tommy Blanks came to me, and somehow that name connected down the line in the manuscript with Thomas Blankenship. Thomas Blankenship, of course, is the person that Mark Twain said he based the character of Huckleberry Finn upon. That might not be totally true. A lot of literary criticism has suggested otherwise; but it's as good a story as any. There was a real Thomas Blankenship, and the connections started getting made. I thought about things that interested me about Twain: how did he turn from a racist, or someone who used the typical racist locutions of his time in his letters when he was nineteen, to the man who wrote Huckleberry Finn and Pudd'nhead Wilson, a man who sent a young black student through law school? It could have been Libby, his wife; it could have been just the years that changed him. But I decided that there was something else involved—guilt over his lack of courage in a relationship with Martha, a woman of mixed race. Even though he didn't have the courage, he felt the guilt over that. And Twain was a master of assuming guilt; he felt guilty over everything. So I tried to keep to his character. But I decided that the person who was the prototype for Huckleberry Finn might have had the courage to love in those circumstances. That's when these two worlds became possible for me, and started to come out of the shadows. The connection was the family—Blanks trying to find a sense of who he was, and losing his mother, his father. There was a Huck Finn-like story to him. Thomas Blankenship's journals allowed him to connect to the past and learn something from it.
And you know, sometimes it's hard to tell how you arrive at a premise. When I was writing Shohola Falls, I went back and reread Twain, his letters, the biographies. But I was already very familiar with these things. So here are these two worlds, that of nonfiction writer and fiction writer, coming together in a way. I suppose I allowed myself to learn how to become a fiction writer by writing nonfiction. I got closer and closer to the line of fiction. It allowed me to do what any good fiction writer should do work out some of the details. What is this character like, what would this character do, what are their motivations? And I was able to do that quite a bit with Sam Clemens. With Thomas Blankenship, all I knew from the historical record was that his father was a drunk; he lived near Twain in Hannibal; his sisters were probably prostitutes; and he lived an impoverished life. There was really nothing else other than the fact that Twain, when he was an older man, said he knew that Thomas Blankenship had gone off to Montana and become a justice of the peace. But there's no historical verification of that. So I was able to join the worlds, nonfiction and fiction, and that helped me write the book.
VL: What territory do you see yourself exploring for your next book? Will it be fiction or nonfiction?
MP: I'm working on my second novel, Pilgrimage. Before that, I wrote a narrative about my trip around the world. I thought it was going to be a book, but it ended up being a sixty-five-page essay. I've published bits and pieces of it in different places—one in Creative Nonfiction, and four in Portfolio Magazine, which is slowly carrying the series in installments.
As for Pilgrimage, the premise is that this man, who loves his wife deeply, is having some troubles in the marriage. He ends up in an affair with a woman at his job for a couple of months. He's determined a number of times to break it off, and goes one final night with the intention of doing so, but ends up making love with her and staying in her apartment for a while. When he comes home, his wife is asleep; the next morning when he wakes up, his wife is dead of an aneurism. So there he is, with this tremendous guilt. He unravels. He leaves his job as an assistant principal at a high school outside New York and takes off on a pilgrimage in northern Spain—the famous Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. It's a pilgrimage not to find God, but to find a woman he met years ago at Woodstock—Camille. He keeps merging this picture of Camille and his wife, Samantha. He's on the pilgrimage path right now, meeting people. So I've got a totally imagined story. I've got no historical characters. But this guy is totally enamored of Don Quixote, and he carries it, all three pounds of it, in his backpack on this very strange quest—not to find Dulcinea, but to find a woman he met thirty-five years ago, when she was a girl of nineteen. So I just can't seem to get away from the literary. There's this sort of haunting of Quixote and Sancho Panza, as well as the Canterbury Tales, because I've got a whole bunch of characters who will tell their stories along the way to Santiago.
I'm getting a little bit more gutsy—not relying on historical characters or things I can find in research and books. Yet I still went on the Santiago pilgrimage this summer with my wife—who's well, by the way. I felt the need to do that. That's probably the nonfiction writer haunting me. I feel like I have to have those details, I have to be able to smell them and taste them and see them and feel comfortable with them, and not just simply make up what Northern Spain looks like.
VL: In the opening chapter of Shohola Falls, Tommy Blanks says, "I've found in the last few years that some lies are nearer to what's true than most of us ever expect to come…our lies may turn out to be what was true all along." This is a recurring theme throughout the book—that we can shape our understanding of the world through imagination, which seems to be the most heroic thing possible. I find it intriguing that in your previous book, Dreaming of Columbus, fiction also becomes a means of getting closer to the heart of things through fictional portraits of your father.
MP: I think you're absolutely right—in the memoir, I felt this compulsion to fictionalize and then announce it because I wanted to be honest about it. I felt there was no way for me to understand my father without imagining him or speculating or fictionalizing—it's only through imagination that we ever get at the real essence of the truth. I think it's interesting that in the nonfiction I felt the compulsion to fictionalize, and in the fiction I felt the compulsion to be as true to the history and the facts as I could. For instance, when I wrote about Sam Clemens observing his father's autopsy being performed, I was as true to that story as I could be from the biographies and the histories. Of course, I added Thomas Blankenship to the mix, but as I said in the epilogue, he could have been there. We don't know. But when there was something about Twain that we know from the record, I kept to that. So some of what I had him say in his letters to Thomas Blankenship are actual things that he said in letters to William Dean Howells and other people. When I was making it up, I tried to be as true as I could to what I felt was his character.
VL: In your critical study on John McPhee, you explore some of these issues—the differences between fiction and nonfiction, including the appeal of nonfiction for a modern audience that craves both literature and reality—particularly in an era where "much contemporary fiction [has] suggested that reality was not definable." In Dreaming of Columbus, you begin to work with the notion that truth can sometimes be more readily derived from fiction, even within nonfiction. Literary nonfiction can present real people as characters with narrative drive. Sometimes, the intersection between these two genres seems almost mystical—as if there's a thin line between fiction and nonfiction. Where does one draw that line?
MP: Well, McPhee would say when you put one drop of blue ink in the aquifer, the whole aquifer is tainted. With nonfiction, you don't change the truth; you don't change the facts at all. I think the issue here for me is that the line is thin between memoir and fiction—but the line is a hell of a lot thicker between reportage and fiction. When an interviewer puts something scandalous in the subject's mouth, that's where the line is thick, and we've made a big leap over it. But when you're remembering your own past, you do the best you can to be honest to the essence of it and the facts. There's naturally going to be some slippage into scene making, due to bad memory and other reasons. But I think as long as you're true to the experience, and especially true to the facts of other people's experience, you'll be fine. With reportage, when you're an observer standing outside, it's very important to be true to who these people are. Both the reader and the subject have expectations that you're going to be accurate in terms of what they say, what they look like, what they do.
The line is this for me: I'd always rather err on the side of not hurting somebody than getting some beautiful essence and perhaps telling an untruth that hurts someone in the process. I think this is one of the reasons, by the way, that I've drifted into fiction. The thought of writing something about an individual and hurting that person by making a mistake is painful to me. In fiction, you can still hurt people, because no matter who you write about, they think you're writing about them. If you're writing about an old uncle, every old uncle you have is going to think you're writing about him. But I think you're in more treacherous and difficult territory writing profiles of actual people. That's another reason why I like the wider emotional freedom you can get writing fiction.
VL: At times, your focus on place seems to go beyond setting to take on a role akin to character; while characters are so tied to place that in Shohola Falls, Tommy's love, Nada, becomes herself something of a destination—the conclusion of a journey toward self-acceptance and home. Your exploration of place, both in fiction and nonfiction, seems to be a very personal journey, with locations seen through the filters of memory or literature. Does "place" only become meaningful in the context of the people who are influenced by it?
MP: This is all certainly right on—it's not any contrived interest that I have in place. Every one of my books seems to be about place. Imagined Places was an attempt at finding literary home ground. A Place That's Known was an effort to figure out my connection to the Bronx, to places I'd traveled to, to Georgia, to places I've lived. Dreaming of Columbus is literally about the Bronx. So you move from these imagined places to this specific place where I grew up. And then Shohola Falls has the Bronx as a setting, but it also uses what is as close to my home as we have now—that whole area, Yulan, Shohola Falls, and Shohola, Pennsylvania, where we still have a summer place, and my son now lives. I grew up in the Bronx, but from the time when I dated my wife at eighteen, to now, thirty-three years into marriage, we've always gone up there. The Bronx is no longer home; I can't go back there anymore; nobody's left. But there are still people I know up in this area that I've landscaped into Shohola Falls.
Place is incredibly important to me. I think I have a connection to place in the way Willa Cather did. I'm a great admirer of her work, anyway; but I think she felt a passion for the Southwest, New Mexico, and the West, Colorado and Nebraska. Although I'm pretty far removed from my Catholic upbringing, I still have this Christian instinct—this metaphor in Christianity that Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor talked about—that we're wayfarers, that we're homeless. I think it's a religious concept, and it's there in terms of my own psychology—looking for a sense of home, a sense of place. I don't know what all the catalysts are beneath that, but it's definitely there. The novel I'm working on, Pilgrimage, is also about searching for something, looking for home ground.
VL: That was one thing I got from the whole span of your work—that every time you wrote, it seemed you were trying to get closer to something. It seemed as though you were going through a soul quest, and that was why certain images and motifs kept recurring.
MP: I think that's absolutely true. I grew up a Catholic, seeped in Catholicism, dipped in it, soaked in it, baptized over and over. As much as I may have drifted away from going to church, I still have a sense of the presence of the spiritual in the world, and God in the world, and a yearning for a connection to that, the way Melville did. I admire people who are religious. It's not easy for me to be anything but agnostic. But I think it's all about finding calm, finding a sense of peace and contentment. It's interesting because on one level, I've been with the same woman; we've moved around a little bit, but not for many years; and I have three sons and grandchildren. So there is a sense of home in that. But I lost the Bronx, and I've drifted around quite a bit, so there's also a loss of roots. I think a lot of people feel that. I know people who grew up in Dorset, Vermont, who live their lives there and know the old McNamarra Place. We don't have that. We've lost that sense in our world. I'm nostalgic for that.
VL: John McPhee is clearly one of your literary heroes. His approach to creative nonfiction focuses very much on the individuals who give shape to, as well as reflecting, the character of a place—a quality that you've captured in your own nonfiction. Yet in other respects, the way you approach literary nonfiction seems very different. Where McPhee writes about topics that seem as disparate as possible, you've returned to similar places and subjects, bringing the reader on introspective journeys that delve ever deeper into this interior landscape, carefully revealing new layers of meaning. Of all your books, Imagined Places seems to owe the most to McPhee's methods, as you employ interviews with local denizens to reveal the character of the landscape and the impact that it and the writer have on one another. Has John McPhee influenced your approach to nonfiction, and has that changed over time?
MP: It's true that McPhee is one of my literary heroes, for a variety of simple reasons. McPhee is an eloquent writer; he's an incredibly disciplined man; he has a really wonderful, subtle sense of humor; he's a great storyteller, and also somebody who informs. I'm by nature a student; I love to be informed and taught. So he gives us all of that; and if I could be a writer of reportage, I think he'd be my model, my hero. Also, I've become good friends with him over the last couple of years. He has this reputation for being reclusive, but he's actually a very generous spirit, as a writer and as a teacher, a mentor. So I appreciate that. Another thing I appreciate about him: there's a sense of absolute honesty, no fakery about him whatsoever. He strikes me as somebody who has gotten to the point that I want to get to, and that all of us want to get to—a man who has a sense of himself as a human being, as a writer, and as a person. I admire that a great deal.
And I think what you say is true about Imagined Places—there's a lot to that, and to McPhee, and what he did. But if you look at the book carefully enough, I think I'm trying to break out of the traces a little bit, in ways that McPhee generally doesn't. And I give him credit for that. Because in order to get at who McPhee is, you actually have to look at all twenty-three of his books; and then this picture of him starts to rise up out of the mist. You're not going to find it in one book. But I wanted to get at it a little bit faster.
VL: Other than Marguerite Young and John McPhee, are there other teachers or writers who've had a deep and lasting impact on your writing?
MP: Marguerite Young, John McPhee—I've had some great teachers in my life. Henry Sams at Penn State was a true teacher, a scholar of eighteenth-century literature who ended up directing my dissertation on Walker Percy. I give him credit for being open to stepping beyond the boundaries of his discipline. But the mentors in my life are the same mentors that you or anybody has—the people who teach you how to live. My mother was a great mentor to me; and my wife, who has always showed me the power of a sense of humor and a generosity of spirit and how to love; and my kids, about paying attention to other people. In terms of my writing life, there've been all these writers, and I think if anybody ever wants to write, the real workshop is out there in the books. You just have to read them in two different ways, like Twain's two ways of reading the river in Life on the Mississippi. There's something sad about how your reading changes when you become a writer. You're still reading books as a lover of narrative, but you're also reading them as the magician's acolyte. You always want know, "How did he do that? How did she manage that effect?" So you're always lifted out of the experience. I love it when a new book takes me away and I'm just drifting down the river, not looking for the markings as I go along.
VL: Do you have enough time to read now, with all your duties?
MP: You know, it's weird—I still do. Most of what I read though, in all honesty, is for book reviews. It's a duty in the sense that I'm getting paid to do it. But I try to accept reviews only for books that I really want to read—so I'll contact an editor and say, "Cormac McCarthy has a new novel, No Country for Old Men, coming out in July. I'd love to do that." What I really want to do is read it, and I'm going to read it anyway, but this is a way to get paid and to force myself in my old Catholic boy duty to complete my assignments.
VL: Had you been writing any fiction between when you were studying with Marguerite Young and when you started working on your novel?
MP: Yes, I did. I have a bunch of short stories that nobody will ever see. As I said, I've followed a shifting road; yet the road was always the same. It's sort of like going from Leon, in Spain, to Santiago. You go west. You may go southwest for a while, northwest for a while, or on this road that takes you into the mountains, but you're really always going in the same direction. The direction was always toward storytelling, toward narrative. I was looking for what you can get in fiction—ultimately, as close to the human heart as you can in any form. If you're writing journalism, you can only get so close because you have to adhere to certain facts, certain things that you're able to see or hear. Fiction allows you into doors that are locked to other forms.
I started out writing poetry and fiction in college; I continued to write fiction through graduate school, even when I was supposed to be writing scholarly articles; and then I started to write journalism, feature stories and other things, that led to Imagined Places. I think what I was doing was backing up a few paces to look at the landscape—and restart the pilgrimage, in a way. Because of this, when I got to the place where I wanted to be, as a writer of fiction, I was able to do that in the right way. I already had a family and my Ph.D., so I couldn't go back into an M.F.A. program or workshop classes. I had to create my own workshop—which was Imagined Places, A Place That's Known, Dreaming of Columbus. I learned, in a way, by teaching myself—and of course, I was taught by really good writers, not only Marguerite Young, but also William Faulkner, Walker Percy, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, Cormac McCarthy—every writer that I've loved, over my reading life. Because it is a reading life. It's always been a class, and I think one of the benefits that nonfiction allowed me was that it forced me to go out into the world, when I would have rather been upstairs above the garage reading and writing. It forced me to go out and get down "Where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart," as Yeats said. I had to experience things. So I've always been writing fiction, because it's all fiction, finally. Your recollection of the past is a fictionalized one to a certain extent. It doesn't mean that you lie, but it means that you are reimagining, shaping—and all shaping at some level is doing what the novelist does.
VL: In Dreaming of Columbus, one can see your early desire to be a writer, as well as your work toward certification for high school teaching. How did you come to be an English professor? How has it impacted your work?
MP: In all honesty, if I had followed my instinct and my love at nineteen or twenty, I probably would have just been a writer. That comes out in Dreaming of Columbus, and maybe there's something of it in Imagined Places. But I really had two loves when I was twenty. One was books and literature and writing, and probably my instinct was to go to Greenwich Village, which was fairly close to home, and get what amounted to a garret at that time, and write. I probably would have been a lot thinner, because I think it would have been hard to make a life that way. I came from a very middle-class background—my father was a construction worker. My mother would have supported me, but my father would have thought I'd lost my mind.
But I'm not sure if I would have had the courage to do that. My vision of the world was modest. To become a teacher was a pretty big leap in terms of what most people in my family had done. But I also fell in love, and I was going to get married. That wasn't the kind of thing you said to the person you were going to marry—or to her mother and father: "I'm going to live in Greenwich Village and be a writer." They would have worried how we'd feed one another or get an apartment. So that didn't enter my mind. It was wild enough for us to get married and move to California and go to graduate school. I think the academic life, which I love, and teaching, which I love, are the side roads that we talked about before, this pilgrimage road, on which you're heading west anyway. It took me north toward Ph.D. and academia, but it was really northwest—it was always angling in that direction.
Did what I learned for the Ph.D. help me as a writer? "No" would be the honest answer. There weren't a lot of M.F.A. programs around at that time, but that probably would have been the better and more direct course. However, what it did was get me into a profession in which reading and writing and speaking to people about literature and writing are your object. It allowed me to be around like-minded people, and gave me time to learn, which is what you need after school. And I learned a lot about literature and writing after the Ph.D.—a heck of a lot more than I did during it.
If I hadn't gotten married, if I'd gone off to Greenwich Village, who knows what I would have had to write about? You write about the experiences of your life. Also, you're a person who does something in the world—writes, plays music, paints—but you also live. And who's going to give up the life you live? This is the life you want to express yourself about—so it's impossible to separate the two.
But in a sort of peripheral way, teaching in high school and college led me toward what I'm doing now. You write about the life, the experience you have. Tommy Blanks was in the same sort of school and encountered the same sort of teachers that I did. You write about what amounts to the substance of your life—you find the locus of your imagination, in terms of place, and in terms of situation, and you write about it. Now, I'm glad I didn't end up fighting in Vietnam, though I was always thinking I'd have to—but if I had, I'd like to have written something like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.
VL: Since you joined the faculty at ODU, the university has instituted a full-fledged M.F.A. program, upgrading from the previous M.A. in Creative Writing. You've gone on to become the director of the creative writing program. Can you tell us anything about the part you played in that transition, and how the program has grown?
MP: I love the program here. I've been directing it a little bit longer than one man should; it's been eight years now. Scott Cairns was the first director of the M.F.A. Program, and he did a wonderful job; but about two years into it, he left. When the program was handed over to me, we had twelve students and three faculty members. We now have six full-time and one part-time faculty, and anywhere from thirty-five to forty students in the program in any given semester. We also have so many aspects to the program: the Literary Festival, which has grown, and is guided by the Creative Writing Program; the Writers in Community program; the Visiting Writers series, in which we have a visiting writer or two come to work with our students each semester; and a study abroad component. I've worked hard to see a lot of this happen, but I've created a situation in which you really need a full-time administrator. We keep trying to get the upper administration to realize that what we had in 1997 has expanded exponentially to a much more complicated, much more nationally recognized program—in which we have an Oprah Book Club winner, a National Book Award Finalist, and lots of books and publications by our faculty, as well as by our students. The program has taken off; it's ready to move to the next plateau, along with some of the best programs in the country. I think we have some of the best faculty, and some terrific students, and we're ready with better assistantship funding and more assistantships to get some of the best students from around the country.
VL: Just imagining the life that a creative writing professor would lead, it seems it would be very exciting in terms of all the creative energy that's flowing through the department from the faculty and students—
VL: —but I wondered if it was also draining due to the amount of work involved.
MP: It is, and I think that's a constant struggle, not only for a director of the program, but for every creative writing faculty member here. It's the struggle to balance those two worlds—the love of teaching, and of working with other young writers, and the responsibility and the desire to do your own work. We'd be useless if we didn't do our own work—what purpose would we serve for these students if we're just telling them what other writers do? We have to be practicing writers, which of course we want to be anyway; but we have to exist in both worlds. It's also a constant struggle to make the administration understand that there's got to be balance—that we have to give our hearts and souls to our students, but we also need to have the kind of teaching load and release time, like sabbatical leave, that will allow people to concentrate on their work. Sometimes writing a novel doesn't take six months, or a year, or two years. Joseph Heller took twelve years for his second novel. So you need the time, you need the space. But I'm not complaining about it, because it's a reality. We need to fight for our creative existence, but this is a great life. As you say, we're working with beautiful people, beautiful minds—doing interesting stuff, writing poetry, and fiction, and drama, and putting on plays. And we're there to challenge, but we're also there to encourage, so the relationship is really avuncular, or fatherly, or motherly. We want our students to do well. And we take people into this program who have the ability—so if they work hard, we are there for them. We're not looking for a bell curve. We would like to see all of our students accomplish their goals—whether they publish, or end up working in the university, or being editors—whatever those goals are.
VL: Your reverence for books and reading would bring joy to any librarian's heart. However, when I read Shohola Falls, I understood why Tommy, as an avid reader and virtual orphan, would steal from the bookstores; but I was curious about why he felt the need to steal books from the library, when he could borrow them anytime he wanted. Is there something about actually owning the book that is just as important as reading it?
MP: Yes, I think that's it. I don't want to promote stealing from libraries at all. But owning a book is really important to me. I had a house burn down in Vermont twenty years ago now, and all my books went up. I said after that I'd never care about things again—but, of course, you care about them more. I love having the books in my house, and I often reread them. Working on Pilgrimage, I read Don Quixote for the third time; Peace like a River by Leif Enger just came out a couple years ago, but I've already read it three times; I've read Huckleberry Finn more times than I can count. So I like having the books there. It's sort of like having friends around, or knowing that your friends are alive and well. You don't always have to hang out with them, you don't always have to be writing them emails or letters, but you know they're out there. So I feel encouraged and solaced to have these books around me. I think that's part of what I was getting at with that character—he loved them and cherished them; he wanted to keep them nearby.
VL: Basketball has been an important part of your life. Not only was it the focus of your early dreams, but it has also provided an ongoing means of connecting with your children and colleagues. The motif of basketball recurs through your nonfiction as a way of connecting and living in the moment, the sort of kinetic art that is impossible to experience except through doing.
MP: I'm still playing basketball, by the way—it's still an important part of my life. There are eight of us who play together now, a student-faculty intramural team. I play during lunch hour, and a lot of the M.F.A. students come out now. One of our M.F.A. students was on the women's basketball team. So we get a few people to come out, and we have some camaraderie in that sense. And I end up using it as a metaphor for other things—understanding my kids, and playing by certain rules, as we do in literature as well.
VL: Do you know the end of your novel?
MP: You know, in all honesty, I don't. I know what's going to happen in general. I'm pretty certain that he's going to end up coming back from Spain to the Northeast—New York, the Catskills, or Maine. He has to find Camille, but I have no earthly idea what that meeting is going to be. Along the way, the pilgrimage will have a series of stories and conversations, a lá the Canterbury Tales, in which they're learning from one another and experiencing adventures as he heads toward Santiago to find her. I'm telling you the secret—she's not going to be there. But her parents will be, and he'll drift back to the States to encounter her.
I vaguely knew the ending of Shohola Falls, but generally all I have is a sense of where a character's got to get. I think it's good for me; if I knew what was going to happen specifically, I probably wouldn't want to write it. I think it was Toni Morrison who said she wrote her first novel because she wanted to read it. Every writer should write a book for the same reason—or else why write it? Shakespeare, Faulkner, they've done it all. Even though I can't write a new love story, I've got to write a story that I haven't heard yet. I'm curious what happens. So when I go to my desk, I'm frustrated, and hitting my head against it, and saying, "Oh, God, this sounds like nonsense. I don't know what to do." But in a way, it's interesting—and the frustration is part of the fun and the challenge. What will happen? If I knew, it would be dull for me. So I've got to surprise myself, or else the reader won't be surprised.
VL: You've lived in Virginia for about fifteen years. Your books touch on so many different places. I recall two sections that deal with Virginia—one's the opening to Imagined Places, "A Beginning Place," and the other's in A Place That's Known, where you contrast Virginia Beach with LaGrange, Georgia. It seems Virginia is a home base, but I was wondering if it also has an influence on the way you write? Do you have any sense of a difference between the community of Virginia writers as opposed to, say, New York?
MP: I don't know if I have a good answer for that. Yes, Virginia is my home; I've lived in Virginia Beach and in three or four places in Norfolk now. I'm not the first person to say this; but Norfolk, the Hampton Roads area, all feels pretty transient—there's always movement in and out. Yet in the eight years I've directed the program, no writers have left. People have graduated, but our faculty is all the same. We've gained some, but we haven't lost any. So, in the midst of what often feels transient, especially in this military part of Virginia, there seems to be a sense of rootedness and stability. Now the positive side of the flux is that our area feels very cosmopolitan to me. It feels very open to difference—interracial relationships, Woody Allen movies at the Naro—so it seems to be a mixture of points of view and people from different parts of the country and the world.
But the other thing I'd say is that William Faulkner lived in Charlottesville for a while, but he always seemed to be writing about Mississippi. Finally, you write about where the roots have sunk deepest. I think for most of us, the roots have sunk deepest where, in our adolescence or in our childhood, we were able to stay in one place long enough. Oxford is the locus of Faulkner's imagination, Hannibal of Twain's, and Eatonville, Florida, of Hurston's. I seem fixed in New York City and the Bronx and the Catskills, that whole Shohola, Pennsylvania, region. Even in Pilgrimage, where my characters are traveling in Spain, they still started out in the Northeast, and they'll end up back there—back in the locus of my imagination.